Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tourney Primer: Big East (Day 2)

When the Big East Tournament expanded from the top 12 teams in the league to the entire 16-team conference, there were worries that making teams play 5 games in 5 days would wear them out for the NCAA tournament. There were worries that a team seeded 9th would lose to the 16th seed on day one, giving it a potential deadly loss in terms of it's NCAA bubble. Well, because of the depth of the Big East this season, with 11 teams likely to make the Dance, both of those scenarios could come true this year--and one of them just might have yesterday. Villanova only won two squeakers over the bottom of the Big East in their last 8 regular season games, then blew a 16-point halftime lead and lost to South Florida yesterday. 'Nova still probably has a resume good enough to make the NCAAs, but they might find themselves playing on that First Tuesday. As for the rest of the Big East Tournament, there are 8 teams playing today, 6 of whom have any sort of realistic shot at a title run. If Rutgers or South Florida wins this tournament, I'll just consider my career as a sports journalist today we'll concentrate on those squads making the Big Dance. I'm still sort of figuring this whole blogging thing out, so just to be clear--this isn't really ranking these teams by how GOOD they are, it's ranking them by how likely they are to move on/win a few more games. That's why I have to keep redoing the rankings every day. Anyways, hit the jump and enjoy!

12 + 11: South Florida and Rutgers--I know I said I wouldn't review them, but I'm including them here because they play today. Also, it would look weird if I started my countdown at #10 since 12 teams are left. I'm weird, so sue me. Let's move on to the teams that matter.

10. Georgetown--The surest bet in my mind to lose today, the Hoyas still have an incredibly solid resume, even after losing 4 of their last 5 regular-season games. The NCAA committee takes into account player injuries, and the loss of guard Chris Wright has been a huge one for GU. Georgetown lost to Cincinnati and Syracuse at home while Wright was out, but had quality wins @ Villanova, @ Syracuse, as well as home wins over Marquette and Louisville. Unfortunately, Wright still won't be available for today's game, and with the way UConn rolled over DePaul yesterday, they were able to get a lot of players in and should be fairly well-rested for today. Georgetown goes down in a close one, but hopes to get Wright back by next week and make some noise in the Big Dance.

9. Cincinnati--One of the bigger surprises of the Big East season after losing Lance Stephenson and Deonta Vaughn from a mediocre squad last year, the Bearcats used an easy 13-0 non-con to beef up their win total to 24, while scoring wins over Georgetown (twice!), @ Marquette, @ St. John's, and vs. Louisville to convince the selection committee they're a legitimate top-30 team. Unfortunately, even with the easiest matchup of any of the teams here, they have to face Notre Dame after an assumed win over the USF Bulls. As hot as Cinci was to finish the season, winning 5 of their last 6, there was scarcely a team in the country hotter than the Fighting Irish. Cinci's had a good season, and a favorable draw in the NCAAs could see them win a game (mayyybe two), but I don't think their Big East tourney run will last past the quarterfinals.

8. West Virginia-- Last year's tournament champions, the Mountaineers aren't quite the same team as they were with De'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks. However, they do have forward Kevin Jones, and it'll take a great combination of Jae Crowder and Jimmy Butler on Marquette's point to hold Jones down. If Jones doesn't have a big game, the Mountaineers need to pin their hopes on Turkish big man Deniz Kilicli, a foul-prone big man with a nice jump hook and the capability of putting up huge numbers if he can stay in the game. However, WVU is playing desperate Marquette, and I don't think their backcourt of Joe Mazzulla and Casey Mitchell would be able to handle the press of Louisville anyways, at least not away from home (they beat Louisville by 2 points just last week). Back-to-back Big East championships is incredibly tough, and the Mountaineers just don't have it this year.

7. Connecticut--Players like to say they want to play against another team when their star player is healthy, so they can feel like it's a fair match. I'm sure UConn will be saying it's a shame that Georgetown doesn't have Chris Wright, but inside I'm just as sure those feelings are quite different. UConn hadn't won a Big East Tournament game since 2005, but proved that's just old history by pounding DePaul yesterday by 26. If they keep it going against Georgetown, they'd face a Pitt squad that hasn't won a Big East Tournament game since their 4-wins-in-4-days title run back in 2008. I don't think Kemba Walker can carry this team to a tournament title, but another two wins isn't completely out of the question.

6. Marquette--Yes, the 11 seed. The same team that lost to Seton Hall by 13 just last week, the team whose best non-conference win was over Bucknell. This might seem crazy, but every year there's one team that makes a run through the tournament and earns themselves a spot in the Big Dance without needing to win the whole thing. Marquette came in knowing they were pretty close to the bubble, and I think they showed that fire when they jumped out to an early lead against Providence and cruised to a 21-point victory in the first round. Now facing WVU, a team that doesn't have the toughness it displayed in last year's Big East Tournament championship, the Golden Eagles have a good matchup to move on against #14 Louisville. The 'Ville, who's looked like a national championship contender on their home court, could be in trouble if they have to face a rolling Marquette squad. Today's game is key, and I'm sure coach Buzz Williams knows it.

5. St John's--The only other obvious choice on this list, the Johnnies not only have the quality wins to prove they can beat the top teams in the conference--they've proven they can do it on their home court, which just happens to be Madison Square Garden. Now, obviously the Big East Tournament is different than a St. John's home game, with fans from all 16 schools hanging around to soak in the action, especially as the competition really heats up. However, that doesn't change the fact that this is New York, and SJU is at home, which will certainly give them confidence as they happened to beat teams like Pitt, UConn, Duke, and Notre Dame. Now, they did lose to Syracuse on this court--by 17--but looking at the other matchups, I still believe that St. John's has the best chance to make a run. A win against Syracuse could really put the Johnnies on a top-4 line in the NCAA tournament, which was unthinkable at the beginning of the season.

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