Monday, March 7, 2011
Big East primer: Will Irish eyes smile?
By Dana O'Neil
The question always seems to surface this time of year.
Which is harder to do: win the NCAA tournament or the Big East tournament?
Sometimes such blasphemy is silly if not downright insulting to the rigors of the Big Dance. This year? Well
Those who know a thing or two about these things (present company excluded) believe strongly that on Selection Sunday a record 11 Big East teams will hear their names called.
And as the 16-team convention begins at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, it's hard to argue such insanely improbable logic. Aside from Marquette, who among those top 11 teams isn't a throw-away-the-key lock?
The catch here is that winning the Big East is not necessarily a good indicator of NCAA success.
In fact, the two almost seem mutually exclusive.
The double-dip has occurred only three times -- by Connecticut in 1999 and 2004 and Georgetown in 1984. Otherwise, since UConn's run in 1999, only two Big East champions (West Virginia last year and Georgetown in 2007) have even made it to the Final Four. On the flip side, in that same 12-year span, five champs have taken a curtain call in the first weekend.
So consider the following paragraph either a blessing or a curse.
My pick: Irish eyes smile a little early as Notre Dame wins the Big East tournament and South Bend becomes a basketball town. Touchdown Jesus is reconsidered. His raised arms clearly indicate a made 3-pointer. He will be Trey Jesus from now on (at least for this month).
No. 1 Pittsburgh
On Broadway: The preseason favorite has led the conference wire-to-wire. Now the Panthers say to their peers, "Catch Me If You Can."
Why to watch: No one plays New York quite like the Pitt. The Panthers have reached the Big East tournament final in seven of the past 10 years and are 19-7 in New York since 2001.
Who to watch: Brad Wanamaker. The senior isn't the leading scorer, but he's the glue guy, the one who does a little bit of everything for Pittsburgh. He scores (11.9 points), rebounds (5.3), dishes out passes (5.2 assists) and sets the nasty defensive tone (1.5 steals).
What's at stake: A No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. In this topsy-turvy season, just how the selection committee will go is about as unpredictable as the weather, but if the Panthers can leave New York with the Big East crown, it's impossible to imagine they won't be rewarded with a top seed.
Prediction: The Panthers muddy the selection committee's job even further by failing to find their outside shot against Syracuse's zone and lose in the tournament semifinals.
No. 2 Notre Dame
On Broadway: The hot-shooting Fighting Irish have a starring role in "The Assassins."
Why to watch: The Irish enter New York as the league's hottest team, having won 11 of their final 12, and are a dark horse for a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
Who to watch: Ben Hansbrough. It's easy to say the reason to watch Hansbrough is because he's Notre Dame's leading scorer and a sharpshooter extreme. It's more than that. Hansbrough is this team's heart, soul and personality. He's one of those guys you hate if you play against and love if he's on your side, an unabashed showboating trash-talker. And we love him for it.
What's at stake: Since joining the league in 1995, Notre Dame has never played for a Big East tournament title, much less won one. That ties Rutgers for the longest drought in the conference.
Prediction: Big East tournament champions. See above.
No. 3 Louisville
On Broadway: Picked to finish eighth and instead landing at third, the Cardinals are the Big East "Cinderella."
Why to watch: Since the first game of the season, when Louisville beat Butler, everyone has been waiting for the shoe to drop for the Cards. Except it hasn't. With essentially no starters back -- Jared Swopshire has been sidelined all year with a groin injury -- the Cards won 23 games.
Who to watch: Kyle Kuric. The junior has been good all season but never more than in the final month of the season. Since the beginning of February -- a span of nine games -- Kuric is averaging 17.1 points, shooting 55 percent from the floor and 49 percent from beyond the arc.
What's at stake: The Cardinals' have been playing with house money all season, but this is a team with a razor-thin margin for error (as the endgame disaster against West Virginia proved) and need wins here to keep their confidence for the NCAA tournament.
Prediction: Louisville gets a rematch of West Virginia in the quarterfinals and gets shot by the musket again. The Mountaineers pulls off another win versus the Ville.
No. 4 Syracuse
On Broadway: Rick Jackson and Scoop Jardine have played together since the sixth grade. Perfect leads for "Blood Brothers."
Why to watch: So while no one was paying much attention, the Orange have quietly gotten their act together. Syracuse won its final five and seven of its last nine to earn the No. 4 seed in the Big East tournament.
Who to watch: Jackson. The long arm of the law at the back of Syracuse's zone, the senior this season has emerged as an all-around star. While his teammates' productivity has wavered and waffled at times, Jackson has been remarkably consistent, averaging 13 points and 10 boards for the Orange.
What's at stake: Despite the excitement the Orange have brought to New York -- six overtimes, anyone? -- Syracuse hasn't won a conference tournament title since the improbable run of Gerry McNamara in 2006. A deep run here could dramatically improve the Cuse's NCAA tournament seed as well.
Prediction: The Orange's zone vs. Notre Dame's shooters? Yeah, unfair matchup. Jim Boeheim goes man-to-man. The Orange get confused and lose in the title game.
No. 5 St. John's
On Broadway: The resurgence of the Red Storm has brought a "Spring Awakening" to basketball in the Big Apple.
Why to watch: The Red Storm have been one of the best stories in the nation all season, their rebirth welcomed by basketball-starved New Yorkers. St. John's narrowly missed out on a double-bye but should play to a raucous home crowd on Wednesday.
Who to watch: Dwight Hardy. The senior has been unstoppable since late January, averaging 23.9 ppg since the win over Duke and topping the 30-point mark three times. Stuck on so many irrelevant St. John's teams, Hardy is practically willing the Red Storm to relevance.
What's at stake: Next year was supposed to be the start of the resurgence for the Red Storm, with a hot recruiting class coming to town. But now that St. John's has New York's attention, it doesn't want to lose it.
Prediction: In the New York State showdown against Syracuse, the Red Storm eventually succumb. But it takes five overtimes.
No. 6 West Virginia
On Broadway: As the ever-demanding Bob Huggins tells his players, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change."
Why to watch: A year ago, the Mountaineers rode a three-game win streak to a Big East tournament title and ultimately to the Final Four. Guess what? West Virginia heads to New York City this year riding a three-game winning streak once again.
Who to watch: Kevin Jones. It's not a coincidence that the Mountaineers started to play their best basketball -- beating two ranked teams in their last three games -- when Jones started to play his best basketball. The junior has the ability to dominate the box score and did, averaging 17.3 points and 12.3 boards.
What's at stake: West Virginia put any unease about its NCAA hopes to bed when it ousted Louisville in the regular-season finale. As the defending tourney champs, though, there is still plenty of reason to want to represent.
Prediction: The Mountaineers officially have the Cardinals' number and pull off the win in the quarters, but in the semis, the Irish exact revenge for their one loss in the last 12 games.
No. 7 Cincinnati
On Broadway: Thanks to Mick Cronin's tough love, Yancy Gates "Ain't Misbehavin'" and the Bearcats are winning.
Why to watch: The Bearcats played their way into the NCAA field with a strong finish, winning five of their last six. They enter the Big East with their best seed (seventh) since joining the league six years ago.
Who to watch: Gates. Rather than snub his nose at Cronin's discipline, Gates took it to heart and became a better player. He's averaging 14 points and 8.2 rebounds during the Bearcats' strong finish.
What's at stake: The Bearcats haven't had a lot of luck in New York. Last season marked the first time Cincinnati won a Big East tournament game (the Bearcats actually won two) since joining the league. For a team establishing itself late, this is about better NCAA seeding and confidence.
Prediction: The Bearcats get Corey-ed in the quarters by a Villanova team that suddenly discovers it actually has talent.
No. 8 Georgetown
On Broadway: There's only one storyline right now that matters to the Hoyas. As Chris Wright would say, "It's All About Me."
Why to watch: The currently skidding Hoyas (losers of their last three) were once the hottest team in the Big East, winners of eight in a row. If Wright (wrist) can return before Georgetown is eliminated, the Hoyas could rediscover that mojo.
Who to watch: Jason Clark. Without Wright, Clark is the leading scorer in the Big East tournament among active players (97 points in eight games). The Hoyas need production from him, and so far, he hasn't been providing it. Clark scored just 16 points combined in the two games Wright missed.
What's at stake: If Wright can't play, this will be something of a mulligan -- the committee will consider the losses came without him -- but certainly the Hoyas could use a confidence boost that, if necessary, they can win without their point guard.
Prediction: Kemba Walker sees blood and pulls off the victory to eliminate the Hoyas on Wednesday.* (* Presuming Chris Wright can't play.)
No. 9 Connecticut
On Broadway: With five freshmen in the rotation, the Huskies could serve as understudies in "Babes in Arms."
Why to watch: General opinion is that the once red-hot Huskies have hit a wall. The same team that opened the season 10-0 finished 4-7 and lost four of its final five. Can Walker get UConn to regroup?
Who to watch: Walker. If you have to ask, you probably aren't terribly interested in this tournament. Walker averages 23.1 points per game. No one else on the roster is even in double figures. He averages 37 minutes per game. No one else tops 30. And when the game is on the line, the ball will be in his hands. He's a do-not-take-your-eyes-off-him player.
What's at stake: Connecticut has not fared well in the Big East tournament lately, leaving New York without winning a game in each of the past five years. It's the third-longest losing streak in tourney history.
Prediction: The skidding Huskies receive the perfect medicine, an easy rout of DePaul on Tuesday. That renews UConn's confidence and the Huskies beat Georgetown, but can't get by Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals.
No. 10 Villanova
On Broadway: Perfectly coiffed and impeccably groomed even throughout his team's late-season nosedive, Jay Wright will wow them in "Hairspray."
Why to watch: Like Forrest Gump said, you never know what you're going to get. Will the Wildcats actually play like the talent on their roster would indicate they can? Or will they continue to be a disjointed train wreck on an end-of-season slide?
Who to watch: Corey Fisher. During the team's current four-game losing streak, Fisher is 15-of-57 from the field (26.3 percent). That can't continue if the Wildcats expect to snap out of it.
What's at stake: Seeding, certainly. Villanova needs to give the selection committee some reason to believe it deserves a decent seed, but beyond that, the Wildcats need to start believing they are a good team again. This is a good place to figure that out.
Prediction: Nova finally gets off the schneid, beating Cincinnati to advance to the quarterfinals on Thursday, where they face Notre Dame. Unable to sleep on Wednesday night due to visions of drained 3s dancing in their heads, the Cats succumb to the Irish again Thursday.
No. 11 Marquette
On Broadway: Should the Golden Eagles advance, chances are it will be because "The (Jimmy) Butler Did It."
Why to watch: Marquette has been an under-the-radar tough out all season.
Who to watch: Jimmy Butler. The senior has scored in double figures in every Big East game this season and ranks fifth in scoring in the Big East tournament among active players. He's got 64 points in five games.
What's at stake: The Golden Eagles are the closest thing to a bubble team the Big East has. The loss to Seton Hall in the regular-season finale did not help Marquette's cause at all. Joe Lunardi has them in, but the Golden Eagles' RPI is a bubblicious 67. They need to win here to make Selection Sunday tolerable.
Prediction: The Eagles' win against Providence prompts coach Buzz Williams to break out into song. His players are rendered deaf by the assault and lose to West Virginia.
No. 12 Seton Hall
On Broadway: Suspensions, dismissals and gun charges. Kevin Willard is the perfect man to take the stage in "Barnum."
Why to watch: Nobody wants to play the Pirates right now. Once a dysfunctional family, Seton Hall now has found order in its chaos, upsetting St. John's and Marquette to finish the season.
Who to watch: Jeremy Hazell. He is making up for lost time. A broken wrist followed by a terrifying mugging/shooting held the senior out of 13 games. Since his return, the scorer is averaging 18.4 points per game.
What's at stake: This has not been the easiest of first years for Willard, but somehow the Pirates have managed to make some chicken salad here late. Keeping the momentum going would bode well for the Hall.
Prediction: Beating their hated rival Rutgers saps so much energy out of the short-handed Pirates, they fail to beat St. John's on Wednesday.
No. 13 Rutgers
On Broadway: What else for New Jersey's state university
Why to watch: Rutgers-Seton Hall is a fierce, if understated, rivalry and they meet in the first round Tuesday.
Who to watch: Gil Biruta. The freshman forward has come on toward the end of the season, averaging 13.2 points in the Knights' final six games.
What's at stake: Pride mostly. The Scarlet Knights welcome a good recruiting class next year, so the future looks bright. It would be nice if the present was a little better. Rutgers has lost nine of its last 11.
Prediction: The relatively young Knights can't handle the Hall and exit early. In a mascot head-to-head, however, the Knight prevails over the Pirate.
No. 14 Providence
On Broadway: He shoots, he scores
and scores. Marshon Brooks is "Show Boat."
Why to watch: Of all the bottom-of-the-league teams, Providence probably has the best shot to put a scare in some people. The Friars played Georgetown, Cincinnati and Notre Dame close down the stretch. And it's also the last go-round for Brooks.
Who to watch: Brooks. He averages 24.8. That's a career night for most people. He's scored in double figures all season and only Louisville (12 points) and West Virginia (13) have been able to slightly contain him during Big East play.
What's at stake: The jury is split on Keno Davis' job security. Winning a game here would certainly help.
Prediction: Brooks scores 53 points. The Friars lose to Marquette, 67-53.
No. 15 South Florida
On Broadway: Jarrid Famous (6-foot-11) and Gus Gilchrist (6-10) make the Bulls' roster "Big."
Why to watch: USF has the ability to at least make things interesting for a sliding Villanova team Tuesday.
Who to watch: Gilchrist. There hasn't been much to cheer about for the Bulls this season, but Gilchrist has been a bright spot. The junior big man has been solid all season -- averaging 13 points -- but especially good lately. Over South Florida's last five games, he's averaging 19 points.
What's at stake: Maybe Stan Heath's job. The coach certainly is feeling the heat after yet another disappointing run by USF.
Prediction: The Bulls make Villanova fans uncomfortable for a half, but eventually retire to South Florida with the retirees.
No. 16 DePaul
On Broadway: The 1-17 Blue Demons, once again at the bottom of the league standings, are chronically "Les Miserables."
Why to watch: Because you never know. Two years ago, DePaul failed to win a regular-season Big East game. And then promptly beat Cincinnati in the first round of the Big East tournament.
Who to watch: Brandon Young. Without freshman Cleveland Melvin (thumb), Young has become the go-to guy for DePaul. It's a lot to ask of a freshman at his Big East tournament debut, but it will be up to Young to shoulder the load.
What's at stake: An extra night in New York. Improbable wouldn't be an accurate way to describe a Blue Demons run here. Impossible is more like it. But in his first year in this thing, Oliver Purnell will grab any positives he can and a win in the Big East tournament would be a huge positive in a trying season.
Prediction: DePaul loses to Connecticut at noon Tuesday, begging the question: If a Big East team loses before most of the teams are even in New York, was it really there?
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.