Plenty of intrigue at Big East tournament

Originally Published: March 6, 2012
By Jeff Borzello | ESPN.com

Were it not for the hard feelings among the administrations, you'd have to expect all of the Big East players to gather at center court and sing "Kumbaya" this week.

Because this is it -- the end of the Big East tournament as we know it. Thanks to the heft of the all-mighty dollar, this time next year, West Virginia will be gone. In two seasons' time, everyone -- save for the Jamaican bobsled team -- will be in (although no one has said this expansion thing is over so don't count it out).

And in its final iteration, the Big East looks to be little more than a coronation for the team that tends to turn Madison Square Garden into its own field of Orange. Syracuse rolls to New York with more league wins than any team in conference history and as the first team in the Big East to complete the regular season dropping just one game overall.

Of course, looks can be deceiving. If the Big East tournament has taught us anything it is to expect the unexpected:

Five-games-in-five-nights champion? Check. Six overtimes? Got it. Allen Iverson versus Ray Allen and Victor Page is your MVP? Yep. It happened. Walter Berry blocks Pearl Washington in a title game? Been there.

So why should the final season of this 16-team setup be different?

Here are some things to look out for in the Big East tournament:


Top Three Storylines

Can Syracuse finish the deal? Or at least this part of it?

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Mark Konezny/US PresswireJim Boeheim and Syracuse finished a historic Big East season with just one loss.

This is what happens when you play so well during the regular season: The bar is set somewhere in a redwood treetop. The Orange have zero wiggle room. Anything less than a Big East tournament title will be considered a disappointment.

Only one team in Big East tournament history has arrived in New York with just one conference loss: In 1985, Chris Mullin and St. John's finished 15-1 in the regular season.

The Johnnies lost by 12 to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the title game.

Will UConn get its act together?

The Huskies remain talented enough to win the Big East and make the NCAA tournament interesting, but if UConn has proved anything this season it is that talent alone can't win you games or trophies.

Squarely on the bubble, Connecticut doesn't have to win the tournament to get in, but surely it can't stumble in its first game after finishing in 8-10 in league play, right?

The big question: Do the Huskies have it in them? The Huskies have a winnable game on Tuesday against DePaul, but then it gets interesting with West Virginia looming on Wednesday and a possible quarterfinal showdown with Syracuse.

Who gets into the NCAA tournament?

A year ago, the Big East turned the NCAA tournament into its own invitational, earning a record 11 bids.

This season it's anything but clear-cut. The league could still go as high as 10 but plenty of bubble-sitters will have to play their way in via wins in New York.

Who's got work to do? Connecticut tops the list, followed by Seton Hall, South Florida and West Virginia. Cincinnati sure looks tourney-worthy and should be fine, but its RPI is so low that it might want to avoid losing its first game just in case.

Making things even more interesting, the league is wide open enough that, if you remove Syracuse from the equation, virtually anyone can beat anyone.


Five players to watch

[+] EnlargeDarius Johnson-Odom
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDarius Johnson-Odom can score in bunches for Marquette.

Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette: The Golden Eagles' terrific guard is the "one" of the one-two punch with Jae Crowder. Along with being a terrific scorer and assist man, he is as tough as nails.

Kevin Jones, West Virginia: The league's leading scorer and rebounder is a one-man wrecking crew for the Mountaineers. If West Virginia is going to mount a charge in the tournament, Jones will lead it.

Andre Drummond, Connecticut: If the Huskies are going to figure things out, Drummond has to play well. In every game. The talented freshman has been frustratingly inconsistent but if he can put it together, maybe UConn can, too.

Moe Harkless, St. Johns: If you want to see the future of the league, watch Harkless. The talents of the Red Storm freshman -- and his compatriot, D'Angelo Harrison -- have been lost in the upheaval of this St. John's season, but Harkless is the real deal.

Kris Joseph, Syracuse: It's almost impossible to pick one person to watch from the balanced Orange roster, but pressed to choose, choose Joseph. When the senior is at his best, Syracuse is even better. And since this is his last go-around in New York, don't be surprised if Joseph is at his best.


Hottest team: Hmmm ... tough pick here. Eh, let's go with the team that's lost just once all season. Syracuse is as blistering as its orange uniforms, rolling into the Big East tournament on the heels of the most accomplished regular season in league history. Just one Fab Melo-less game at Notre Dame is all that stands in the way of Cuse and perfection. Honorable mention: Marquette. Rock solid all season, the Golden Eagles ride the wave of a 14-4 Big East finish, including an absolute drubbing of Georgetown, to New York.

Coldest team: The more things promise to change, the more they stay the same. DePaul, which showed early life in the nonconference season, limps into New York, having lost nine of its final 10. The Blue Demons have won but three Big East games. Dishonorable mention: Villanova. The Wildcats have dropped eight of their last 10.

Sleeper pick -- Or as we like to call this category, UConn 2012: The only real candidate on Tuesday to be UConn Part II is UConn. Otherwise, is it possible that, say, Pitt could play like vintage Pitt or a young St. John's team could play with reckless abandon? Absolutely. But not likely.

So to find the sleeper, you've got to look a day ahead, to Wednesday, when West Virginia embarks on its last Big East tournament. With Jones and Darryl Bryant, the Mountaineers have two high-caliber players who make the team go. If they get hot, WVU could have the last laugh on the Big East.

Potential upset victim -- Seton Hall against Providence: The Pirates are skidding into the Big East tournament. What once looked like a promising season has skidded to an 8-10 finish in the league, including a potentially bubble-popping loss to DePaul to finish the regular season. The Pirates are more than capable of winning a few here -- they've showed flashes of terrific offense -- but are woefully inconsistent. Providence has struggled all season but has proved to be a tough out, too.

Best first-round matchup: None of these is pretty but forced to pick, watch Connecticut against DePaul. Why? Because the Huskies should be desperate and the Blue Demons have nothing to lose. Those two opposing forces could make for an interesting game, especially if Cleveland Melvin gets hot for DePaul.

Best potential quarterfinal -- Notre Dame versus South Florida: The Bulls backed themselves out of a double bye by losing to West Virginia and put themselves firmly on the bubble. Beating either Villanova or Rutgers on Wednesday will do little to move the needle for the selection committee. To prove its worth, South Florida is going to have to beat somebody with some heft. Notre Dame helps. USF leads the league in scoring defense and in 3-point field goal defense. The Irish need to hit 3s to win. Something has to give.

Pick: The team that started under a cloud of controversy -- the Bernie Fine scandal -- now finishes in the same way -- facing accusations that players in the past competed despite repeated failed drug tests. But Syracuse this season has proven as resilient as it is talented. That won't change now. The Orange win it.

Jeff Borzello | email

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