Big East Tournament Preview

March 8, 2010

Wesley Johnson and the Syracuse Orange enter as the favorites

The Big East Tournament kicks off Tuesday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, the World’s Most famous Arena.  Schools finishing with seeds 9 through 16 will all play first round games, while teams 5 through 8 will receive byes to the second round.  The top 4 teams – Syracuse, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Villanova – receive a double-bye to the quarterfinals on Thursday.  The Championship game will take place Saturday night. 

The favorite is undoubtedly the Syracuse Orange, who won the Big East regular season title.  ‘Cuse is looking to capture its sixth Big East Tournament Championship in the school’s history, and is thought of by some as a lock for a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament.  However, I think that spot could be in jeopardy if they drop their opening game and teams like Duke and/or Ohio State win their respective conference tournaments. 

Andy Rautins leads the Orange in assists per game

The Orange are coming off their first road-loss of the season against Louisville on Saturday, but still finished the regular season at 28-3, with a 15-3 mark in the Big East.  Syracuse lost twice to Louisville and also lost to Pittsburgh at home.  They enter the tournament as the third ranked team in the country.
Wesley Johnson has been the catalyst for the Orange this year, as the Iowa State transfer averaged just over 15 points per game during the regular season.  But it has been the play of senior Andy Rautins that has made the ‘Cuse such a dominant team.  Yes, Rautins is a good three-point shooter, but he is an even better passer and has raised his assists per game by two this year.  Sophomore Kris Joseph has also been a tremendous factor this season, and was named Big East 6th man of the year.  This is Syracuse’s tournament to win, as they clearly have the best talent out of all the Big East schools. 
The #2 seed Pitt Panthers weren’t expected to do much this year, but shocked plenty with their 24-7 record.  They also finished 13-5 in conference, despite being picked to finished 9th in the Big East pre-season.  They had a scare at home against Providence last week, but enter the tournament winners of eight of their last nine games.   They will need to win at least one game, but most likely two, to sew up a two or three seed in the NCAA’s. 

Challenging Syracuse and Pittsburgh will be the dangerous West Virginia Mountaineers, who on Saturday stormed back to defeat Villanova on the road.  They have won five of six and enter New York as the 3-seed with a record of 24-6, and 13-5 in the Big East.  WVU has lost in conference to UCONN, Pittsburgh, Villanova, Syracuse, and Notre Dame but hold five wins over ranked opponents this season. 

Villanova appeared set to be a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament a few weeks ago, but the Wildcats have lost five of their last nine games including a heart-breaker to West Virginia this past Saturday.  Defense has been a problem for ‘Nova all season, but it was their offense that sputtered against the Mountaineers.  Villanova has won just one Big East Tournament in school history, coming in 1995. 

Scottie Reynolds is one of the favorites for Big East POY

While some may be worried about the ‘cats and their recent struggles, I believe Villanova just fell victim to the tough part of their schedule.  The Big East Conference is an unmatched grind day in and day out, and I fully expect ‘Nova to rebound and have a strong showing in New York. They will be a dangerous out for any team they face. 

The majority of the remainding field certainly will not be a push-over, and two schools stand out as serious contenders to knock off one of the top four seeds.  Louisville is coming off a victory against Syracuse and definitely already secured an at-large bid.  The Cardinals have been way too inconsistent, however, but I believe they are extremely dangerous in this tournament.  Their roster consists of a bunch of local players who also never pass up the chance to show off in the Garden (despite losing by 30 to St. John’s earlier in the season.) 

Luke Harangody

My other sleeper pick is the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.  I cannot believe some “experts” still consider them a bubble team with regards to the NCAA Tournament.  No school in the conference is playing better than the Irish, who have turned the injury to Luke Harangody into a positive.  After losing in overtime to Louisville, Notre Dame closed with four straight wins, knocking off Pitt, Georgetown, Connecticut and Marquette.  Harangody is back coming off the bench and if the Irish shooters stay hot, Notre Dame can make a serious run for the title. 

The 6-seed Marquette is also a team to keep an eye on, because they play so many close games.  The Golden Eagles closed the regular season winning nine of eleven, and have gone to overtime in each of their last four games.  In addition, thirteen of their games have been decided by four points or less.  When you consistently play close games, you have a chance to either steal a win, or lose to a team you should beat.  Therefore, Marquette is a team that can either go to the Championship game, or lose in their first contest on Wednesday.  Either way, they are a lock, in my opinion, for the NCAA Tournament. 

Georgetown welcomed back Austin Freeman this past Saturday, by embarrassing Cincinnati in their season finale.  Freeman was diagnosed with diabetes last week, and it is imperative for him to be close to 100% for the Hoyas to have a shot in this tournament. Georgetown has been on a slide recently, losing at home to South Florida and on the road against the woeful Rutgers Scarlet Knights.  Nonetheless, the Hoyas are another lock for the NCAA tournament, thanks in part for playing the toughest schedule in the country.  The committee likes those kind of things….

Two teams are currently on the outside looking in, but a strong showing could change that and put those schools back on the bubble and possibly into the NCAA Tournament.  Both South Florida and Seton Hall finished at .500 in the conference, but probably need two wins to even begin thinking about the NCAA’s.  The school with the best case is South Florida, who enters the Big East Tournament with 19 regular season wins, winning their final three games.  The Bulls also have an impressive road victory against G’Town on the resume, as well as a home victory against Pittsburgh. 

South Florida might also possess the best player in this tournament, in Dominque Jones.  Jones is a serious candidate for Big East Player of the Year after averaging 21 points per game with 6 rebounds.  He is projected as a mid first round pick in this years NBA Draft. 

Dominique Jones is 2nd in the conference in scoring

Seton Hall probably has to win three games to be a serious candidate for the Big Dance.  The Pirates finished strong with two must-have road wins against Rutgers and Providence, and the ‘Hall also has a home win against Pitt and a road victory over the Ivy League champs Cornell on their resume.  The problem for Seton Hall is their RPI, which is in the 60’s, and unlike South Florida the Pirates do not have 19 regular season wins.  Seton Hall could be dangerous in the Big East Tournament, however, as Junior Jeremy Hazell is capable of putting up 30 on any given night. 

The next two schools both appear to be on life-support in terms of their play and their chances of an NCAA Tournament bid.  Cincinnati has lost their last three games, and seven of nine.  They enter New York with a record of 16-14, and finished 7-11 in conference.   Freshman stud Lance Stephenson makes them dangerous, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost to Rutgers in their opening game.  Unless Cincy somehow makes it to the tournament finals, they are dead in the water with regards to their NCAA dreams. 

Stanley Robinson was benched last game

UConn is virtually in the same boat as Cincinnati, although the Huskies do have some marquee wins out of conference.  Nevertheless, it sickens me how people still talk about this team as an NCAA bubble squad.  They finished 7-11 in conference and have also lost their last three games.  They have shown no heart, no toughness, and zero qualities of a tournament team.  Kemba Walker is the most overrated player in the conference, and Stanley Robinson has some serious attitude problems.  Jim Calhoun also announced that three players, yet to be named, will be benched for their first-round game against St. John’s. 

Speaking of the Johnnies, what a horrible season it has been!  What was thought of by most as an NCAA team has turned into a bubble-squad for the NIT.  The Red Storm had some nice wins this year – vs. Temple, @ Notre Dame, vs. Louisville – but Norm Roberts has clearly worn out his welcome as his team finished just 6-12 in conference.  St. John’s is dangerous, because the Garden is their home floor and because they are almost always in games.  But anything more than two wins is not going to happen. 

The rest of the field poses zero threat to any of the top teams as Rutgers, Providence, and Depaul will be lucky to win a game.  The Scarlet Knights of Jersey have some talent, but might be the worst coached team in all of America.   Maybe Depaul shocks South Florida, and like I said earlier I wouldn’t be surprised if Rutgers beats Cincinnati, but none of these schools will be playing past Wednesday. 

It’s hard for me to pick against Syracuse in this tournament.  They are the best team in the Big East, and the rise of Andy Rautins and Wesley Johnson have made them into the second best team in America (in my opinion of course) right behind Kansas.   They play a zone, so the only team I can see beating them is Villanova in the semi-finals if Reynolds and the rest of the guards are lights out.  West Virginia does not shoot it well enough for me to put them above the Orange in a possible Championship game, and I think Pittsburgh has played over their head all season. 

So I guess I’ll take the Orange Crush to defeat either West Virginia or Pittsburgh  in the finals.   The entire bracket and schedule can be found below

Enjoy the action…..

5 Players to watch:

*Dominique Jones (South Florida)

*Jeremy Hazell (Seton Hall)

*Scottie Reynolds (Villanova)

*Greg Monroe (Georgetown)

*Da’Sean Butler (West Virginia)

Big East Tournament Schedule/Bracket


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