Commentary

This Big East tourney is one to savor

Syracuse is the clear favorite, but is there another UConn-like run in the cards?

Updated: March 6, 2012, 7:58 AM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

The annual college basketball circus known as the Big East tournament gets under way Tuesday, celebrating its 30th anniversary at Madison Square Garden.

Enjoy it while you can, folks, because it'll never be quite like this again.

West Virginia departs for the Big 12 after this season. And once Syracuse and Pittsburgh complete their moves to the ACC, this tourney will really look and feel different.

But don't dwell on that for too long right now. We've got a lot to look forward to in the next five days.

Here's a breakdown of this year's 16-team field.


THE FAVORITE

SYRACUSE (30-1, 17-1): The Orange are the overwhelming favorites to take home the trophy this year. The regular-season champs, ranked No. 2 in the country, had just one slip-up this season -- a 67-58 loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 21 (and they were missing starting center Fab Melo, the Big East defensive player of the year). Syracuse is the first Big East team to complete a regular season with just one loss.

Key Player: Syracuse has a very balanced offensive team, but keep your eye on Dion Waiters (11.9 points per game), second on the squad in scoring despite coming off the bench. The 6-foot-4 sophomore guard struggled with his shot some down the stretch, but when he's going, the Orange are virtually impossible to beat.

Key Stat: Syracuse is second in the country in turnover margin (plus-6.3), second in blocked shots (7.3 bpg) and third in steals (9.7 spg) -- no wonder it's 30-1.


THE OTHER CONTENDERS

MARQUETTE (25-6, 14-4): The Golden Eagles, who finished with their most conference wins since joining the Big East, gave Syracuse a good game Jan. 7 at the Carrier Dome, losing 73-66. From that point on, they won 13 of their final 15 games. They would love another crack at the Orange and are capable of beating them.

Key Player: Can't choose just one, because Marquette had two of the six members of the All-Big East first team. Six-foot-two senior guard Darius Johnson-Odom (18.3 ppg) and 6-6 senior forward Jae Crowder (17.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg) are wily veterans capable of putting on a great show at MSG.

Key Stat: Marquette is sixth in the country in assists per game (17) -- the Golden Eagles know how to handle the ball.

•••

GEORGETOWN (22-7, 12-6): The Hoyas finished tied for fourth but lost the tiebreaker to Cincinnati and received only a single bye. They are capable of winning four games in four days, anyway. Georgetown would play Syracuse in the semifinals. The Hoyas gave the Orange all they could handle Feb. 8 at the Carrier Dome, losing 64-61 in overtime.

Key Player: Hollis Thompson is Georgetown's second-leading scorer (13 ppg), but when he heats up from the perimeter, the Hoyas can beat just about anybody. The 6-8 junior is shooting 45.8 percent from beyond the 3-point arc -- the best mark in the conference.

Key Stat: Defense is the biggest reason for Georgetown's success this season. The Hoyas are 16th in the country in scoring defense (59 ppg), 16th in field goal defense (38.8 percent) and fourth in 3-point field goal defense (27.8 percent).

•••

CINCINNATI (22-9, 12-6): We'll give the Bearcats an outside chance of winning this week, since they have a double bye. This is the most conference wins, and highest finish, Cincinnati has had in the Big East. The Bearcats also gave Syracuse a decent game and have won seven of their past nine.

Key Player: Sean Kilpatrick, a White Plains, N.Y., native, made a big leap in his sophomore season. The 6-4 shooting guard averaged a team-high 14.6 points per game, and will be fired up to play in front of family and friends.

Key Stat: Cincinnati is another strong defensive team -- 34th in the country in scoring defense (61 ppg). But the Bearcats aren't very good at the other end -- 243rd in field goal percentage (42.1) and 291st at the foul line (64.7 percent) out of 338 Division I schools ranked by the NCAA.


THE SLEEPERS

WEST VIRGINIA (19-12, 9-9): The Mountaineers have had a disappointing season by their standards. But with two senior stars who both hail from the Big Apple (see below), they're capable of making some magic happen at the Garden this week. They would play Syracuse in the quarterfinals -- West Virginia lost 63-61 on Jan. 28 at the Carrier Dome, a game that included a blown goaltending call in the final seconds that could have changed the outcome.

Key Player: Six-foot-eight forward Kevin Jones -- from Mount Vernon, N.Y. -- led the Big East in both scoring (20 ppg) and rebounding (11.2 rpg) this season, and is the favorite to win Big East player of the year honors. And 6-2 guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant, from Brooklyn, is averaging 17.1 points per game.

Key Stat: West Virginia is 19th in the country in rebound margin (plus-6.5) but just 268th in 3-point field goal percentage (30.7) and 246th in free throw percentage (66.7).

•••

CONNECTICUT (18-12, 8-10): The Huskies are the No. 9 seed, just as they were a year ago -- and we all know what happened then. But this team does not have Kemba Walker and has been a huge disappointment considering it was the preseason co-favorite, along with Syracuse. Nevertheless, UConn has a lot of talent and tournament experience, and with coach Jim Calhoun back on the sidelines, another Big East run is possible. A West Virginia-UConn 8/9 matchup Wednesday would be a lot of fun.

Key Player: As a freshman, Jeremy Lamb, along with Walker, made a name for himself in last year's Big East tourney, scoring in double figures in all five games, including the go-ahead bucket in the final minute of the title tilt. This year the 6-5 sophomore was named first-team All-Big East, after averaging 17.6 points per game. He'll have to come up huge for the Huskies to win multiple games this week.

Key Stat: UConn is fourth in the country in blocked shots (6.7 bpg) and 15th in field goal defense (38.7). But the Huskies, like the Mountaineers, struggle from beyond the arc and at the foul line -- coming in at 236th in 3-point field goal percentage (32.4) and 232nd in free throw percentage (67.4).

•••

RUTGERS (14-17, 6-12): Relax, everybody -- we're not saying the Scarlet Knights are capable of winning this tournament. But they're definitely capable of winning a couple of games. Rutgers has won two of its past three, with victories over local rivals Seton Hall and St. John's. It also owns two top-10 wins over Florida and UConn in late December and early January, lost at Georgetown by two, and gave Syracuse a good game two weeks ago.

Key Player: Six-foot-six junior forward Dane Miller is the best player Rutgers has -- except he's too unselfish. A Big East All-Rookie selection two years ago, Miller's scoring average dropped to 7.9 points per game this season, a career low. But he has been more aggressive of late, both shooting the ball and on the glass. He's a game changer when he's more assertive.

Key Stat: Coach Mike Rice preaches aggressiveness on defense, and the Scarlet Knights are 33rd in the country in steals (8.2 spg). But Rutgers does not shoot the ball well from the perimeter (33.1 percent from 3, 212th in country) and turns the ball over with frequency (14.8 per game, 265th in country).

•••

PITTSBURGH (16-15, 5-13): The Panthers aren't winning this tournament, either -- but they could rise to the occasion and pull a couple of upsets. Pitt was picked to finish fourth in the league this season, but the campaign fell apart starting with a stunning Dec. 23 home loss to Wagner, followed by seven straight defeats to start Big East play. The Panthers did rally for four straight wins in late January and early February, including a 12-point victory over Georgetown. But then they lost five in a row and equaled their worst conference record since joining the Big East in 1982.

Key Player: Ashton Gibbs, the preseason Big East player of the year, had to settle for an honorable mention nod in the postseason awards announced Sunday. But the 6-2 senior from Scotch Plains, N.J., still averaged 15.4 points per game and is capable of a big performance.

Key Stat: Pitt is one of the better rebounding teams in the country, ranked sixth in rebound margin (plus-7.7). But the defense hasn't been up to snuff -- the Panthers are 241st in field goal defense (44.6 percent) and 307th in steals (5 spg).


THANKS FOR PLAYING

NOTRE DAME (21-10, 13-5): Mike Brey probably will win Big East coach of the year -- and deservedly so. The Fighting Irish were picked to finish ninth and then lost their best player (Tim Abromaitis) to a season-ending injury in November, yet Brey guided them to a wonderful third-place finish. But we just have a hard time seeing Notre Dame beating Marquette in the semis and/or Syracuse again in the final. The Irish have lost two of their past three, and don't have nearly the star power or experience of the Orange and Golden Eagles.

Key Player: Notre Dame has a trio of guys with almost the exact same scoring average leading the team -- 6-9 junior forward Jack Cooley (12.5 ppg), 6-5 sophomore guard Jerian Grant (12.5 ppg) and 6-1 sophomore guard Eric Atkins (12.4 ppg). Cooley, just named the Big East's most improved player, shoots 62.1 percent from the field. The other two are threats from the perimeter.

Key Stat: Notre Dame is third best in the country in turnovers, giving the ball away just 10 times per game. The Irish have a number of guys who can knock down a trey, but as a team, they're shooting only 33.1 percent from beyond the arc (215th in country).

•••

SOUTH FLORIDA (19-12, 12-6): The Bulls have been another pleasant surprise -- picked to finish 14th and instead landing in a tie for fourth. USF drops to the No. 6 seed because of tiebreakers, but that's still its highest finish in the Big East. However, the Bulls are 1-5 against top-25 opponents; even with a first-round bye, it's tough to see them hoisting the trophy Saturday night.

Key Player: Remarkably, South Florida does not have a single player averaging in double figures in scoring. Seven players are between 6.7 and 9.9 points per game. The leader is 6-10 senior Augustus Gilchrist, but his field goal percentage (39.7) is poor for a big man.

Key Stat: The Bulls get it done on the defensive end. They're eighth in the country in scoring defense (57.2 ppg) and set a Big East record by allowing only 56.9 points per game in league play. But on offense, they're 319th in scoring (59.5 ppg), 307th in 3-point field goals per game (4.6) and 305th in turnover margin (minus-2.5).

•••

LOUISVILLE (22-9, 10-8): The Cardinals were picked to finish third in the Big East this season but ended up in seventh place. Louisville beat Vanderbilt by two in overtime in early December, when the Commodores were still in the top 25, but has gone 0-5 against ranked opponents since. And the Cardinals dropped three of four to end the regular season.

Key Player: Six-foot sophomore guard Russ Smith, from Briarwood, N.Y., is Louisville's second-leading scorer (11.9 ppg) -- but he does it off the bench and gets just 21.6 minutes per game. If Smith is on the floor, odds are he'll be putting up shots with great frequency, and when he gets on a roll, he's really fun to watch.

Key Stat: Louisville's pressure defense has been effective, as usual -- ranked fifth in the country in field goal defense (37.9 percent) and seventh in steals (9.2 spg). But the Cardinals don't shoot the ball very well -- 213th in field goal percentage (42.6), 261st in 3-point percentage (31) and 205th in free throw percentage (68.2).

•••

SETON HALL (19-11, 8-10): When the Pirates blew out Georgetown on Feb. 21, it appeared they had all but locked up their first NCAA bid since 2006. But back-to-back losses to Rutgers and DePaul (by 28 points) to close out the regular season have Seton Hall very much on the bubble heading into this tournament. The Pirates must beat Providence on Tuesday and might need to beat Louisville on Wednesday to secure a spot in the field of 68.

Key Player: Six-foot senior point guard Jordan Theodore (16 ppg, 6.7 apg), who was named to the All-Big East second team, is the engine that makes this team go. The Pirates are 9-1 when Theodore scores at least 18 points and 10-10 when he fails to reach that mark (from ESPN Stats & Info).

Key Stat: The Pirates are 14th in the country in steals (8.6 spg). But they are prone to shooting slumps and make just 66.2 percent of their attempts from the foul line (261st in country).

•••

ST. JOHN'S (13-18, 6-12): It's been a long, strange trip of a season for the Red Storm, who have just six players -- five freshmen and a junior college transfer, all in their first year of Division I ball. Plus, coach Steve Lavin has missed all but four games, recovering from prostate cancer surgery. After going 0-for-10 against top-25 opponents, St. John's finally broke through with a win over ranked Notre Dame two weeks ago. But the Red Storm finished the regular season with losses to Pittsburgh and Rutgers.

Key Player: St. John's depends heavily on its top two freshmen, D'Angelo Harrison and Moe Harkless, both of whom are prime candidates for the Big East rookie of the year award. The sharpshooting 6-3 Harrison is the seventh-leading scorer in the conference, at 17 points per game. Harkless, a 6-8 Queens native, is averaging 15 points and 8.6 rebounds per contest. Harrison and Harkless were the top two freshman scorers in the conference.

Key Stat: The Red Storm are 45th in the country in steals (8 spg) but 328th in 3-point field goals per game (4.1) and 292nd in rebound margin (minus-3.8).

•••

VILLANOVA (12-18, 5-13): With no seniors on the squad, Villanova was picked to finish eighth in the conference but plummeted to the No. 14 seed -- its lowest ever. The Wildcats lost five of six to begin Big East play and have again lost five of six heading into this week's tournament. Barring a miracle finish, this will be coach Jay Wright's worst season, record-wise, since taking over the program in 2001.

Key Player: Six-foot-two junior guard Maalik Wayns was named second-team All-Big East, after averaging 17.5 points and 4.6 assists per game. Wayns will have to light it up at the Garden for Villanova to make any noise.

Key Stat: On the bright side, Villanova is one of the best foul-shooting teams in the country -- 75.8 percent, ranking it 17th. But the Wildcats shoot the ball just 41.3 percent from the field (271st in country) and give up 71.8 points per game (284th) -- not a good combination.

•••

PROVIDENCE (15-16, 4-14): The Friars' Ed Cooley was the lone new coach in the Big East this season, and things did not go as well as he had hoped the first time around. Providence opened up 11-2 against a relatively weak nonconference schedule. But then the Friars were waxed by St. John's 91-67 to start the conference campaign and lost eight of their first nine Big East contests. Providence has won two of its past three, versus DePaul and UConn.

Key Player: Six-foot-2 junior guard Vincent Council -- a Brooklyn native -- was named to the All-Big East third team. Council is averaging 16.2 points and 7.5 assists per game. He's the league leader in assists and minutes played (38.7 per game).

Key Stat: Providence is 16th in the country in blocked shots (5.3 bpg) but 279th in steals (5.4 spg) and 284th in 3-point field goals per game (5).

•••

DEPAUL (12-18, 3-15): The Blue Demons won two more Big East games than they did a season ago but still finished in the cellar of the conference. DePaul was mired in a nine-game losing streak down the homestretch, but then finished off the regular season with that stunning 86-58 win over Seton Hall. The Blue Demons also beat Rutgers at the RAC in late January and Pittsburgh at home in early January.

Key Player: DePaul has a very good sophomore combo in 6-8 forward Cleveland Melvin (17.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and 6-3 guard Brandon Young (14.8 ppg, 4.9 apg). Melvin was an honorable mention All-Big East selection.

Key Stat: The Blue Demons are 40th in the country in scoring (74.4 ppg). But they are awful defensively -- 326th in scoring defense (76.6 ppg), 330th in field goal percentage defense (48) and 332nd in rebound margin (minus-6.7 per game).

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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