Monday, March 7, 2011

Tourney Primer: Big East (Day 1)

There are 32 conferences in Division 1 basketball, and all of them (except the Ivies) have a season-ending tournament that sets the automatic berth into the Big Dance. For the majority of these conferences, that tournament is the shining moment of the season, a chance to play on national television in the biggest college basketball tournament in the country. No 16th seed has ever beaten a 1-seed, and the schools from conferences like the Southwestern Athletic and Big West win their tournaments with the hope that they can pull off an upset for the ages.

Not all conferences, however, are created equal--and, so follows, not all conference tournaments are created equal. There's only one, for instance, that features 16 teams playing over 5 days (March 8-12) in the most famous court in basketball, Madison Square Garden. There's only one conference that's going to send double-digit teams to March Madness, one conference that's easily been the deepest in the country all year. Its teams have scored wins over Texas, Maryland, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Gonzaga...the list goes on. If you haven't figured it out by now, that conference is the Big East. Hit the jump for the first part of my Big East Tournament preview:

The Big East Tournament has it's 9th-16th teams play each other on Tuesday, the first day of the tournament. The winners of those games go on to face the 5th-8th seeds on Wednesday, and then finally the top 4 seeds join the fray on Thursday. This ranking is based on how likely I think it is that each team advances, for teams that play on Day 1:

16. DePaul--the Blue Demons clearly improved under head coach Oliver Purnell in his first season in Chicago, winning their first Big East road game since 2008, 79-76 at Providence. In addition, they played both Villanova and WVU extremely close at home, even taking the Wildcats to overtime. That being said, even with Big East Rookie of the Year Cleveland Melvin, DePaul is still not quite ready to compete with even the mediocre teams in the conference.

15. South Florida--I honestly have less to say about USF than I do about DePaul. The interesting thing about South Florida's first-round matchup is that they play against struggling Villanova. Even if they pull off one upset, however, the Bulls would have to face red-hot Cincinnati and their talented forward, Yancy Gates. Stan Heath's having a tough time down in Florida, falling further behind in recruiting to the rest of the conference and the talent being brought in.

14. Rutgers-- Another great coaching job in the conference, this time by former Robert Morris head coach Mike Rice. Rice, a former assistant at Pittsburgh, brought some of that toughness to the Scarlet Knights this season, beating Villanova at home and putting a huge scare into the Panthers, losing only by 3. Not only that, they took Syracuse to OT in the Carrier Dome, certainly not an easy feat. Unfortunately, the Scarlet Knights lack the game-breaking player it would take to win even one game, and Seton Hall has Jeremy Hazell. Give the Knights one more year, though, and they could earn a bye.

13. Villanova-- Remember, these rankings are how likely I think this team is to win the Big East Tournament, and anybody who's watched Nova over their last few games has to wonder how lucky this team is to have a resume strong enough for March Madness. Their only two wins in their last 8 games were an OT win at DePaul and a 3-point win at Seton Hall--not exactly inspiring performances. Nova will still most likely beat the Bulls, but an upset is possible.

12. Providence-- The common case of a not-so-great team with one very great scorer. Marshon Brooks averages 24.8 points per game for the Friars, and had a ridiculous 52-point outburst against Notre Dame--yet they still managed to lose. Brooks, however, is the reason I slot PC above Villanova, because I believe he has the ability to take over the Marquette matchup and give Providence a first-round victory. Unfortunately, he would then have to face West Virginia and their guards are much tougher on the perimeter, and I don't think Brooks has enough magic in him to win two games on his own--and even if he does, the rest of that team doesn't.

10b. Seton Hall-- The Pirates are an interesting squad, because they've actually been playing fairly good basketball as of late. They finished their regular season with home wins over St. John's and Marquette, which isn't a bad pair of wins no matter the venue. The Pirates have four players averaging in double figures, led by Jeremy Hazell (19.4 points per game), and also play close by in Newark, NJ. What's important about those wins is that if Seton Hall gets by Rutgers, which they should with their experience and frontcourt, their second round matchup comes against...St. John's. Following St. John's, the Pirates would have Syracuse, who they happened to beat by 22 ON THE ROAD. It would be an unlikely run, sure, but crazier things have happened.

10a. Marquette--Marquette's had a tough year to judge, in that they haven't actually lost any "bad" games. Their worst loss, according to, was on the road at Seton Hall, who are ranked 54th in his rankings. They do, however, have a number of good wins--at UConn, West Virginia and Notre Dame at home, plus another home victory over Syracuse and an equalizer against Seton Hall. Marquette gets the sliiiight edge over Seton Hall based on their lack of bad losses, but with SHU playing so close to home, this really is too close to call.

9. Connecticut--The clear-cut favorite out of these "bottom 8," the Huskies were still a top-25 team even after finishing in the bottom half of their own conference. As impressive a player as Marshon Brooks is, he's no Kemba Walker--one of the main candidates for national player of the year, he willed this team of sophomores and freshman to victories over Texas, Cincinnati, Kentucky, Michigan State, and Georgetown. That last one is the most important, because Georgetown is UConn's opponent should they dispatch of DePaul. The Hoyas are without Chris Wright, so it is very likely that UConn will find themselves playing the early game on Thursday against the top-seeded Pittsburgh Panthers.

Check back tomorrow night to prep for Day 2!! Georgetown, Cincinnati, St. John's, and West Virginia all join the fray.

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