College Basketball handicapping: Big East Tournament Preview
by Robert Ferringo - 3/8/2010
There is no conventional way to break down the absolutely mammoth Big East Tournament, which begins at noon on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in New York. So instead of parsing through sleepers, favorites, dark horses, and permutations of matchups I will simply take a look at each of the 16 teams headed to NYC and discuss their prospects and motivations.
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No. 1 Syracuse – The Orange are the deserving champions of the Big East and have essentially locked up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Their motivation would be to win a few games and guarantee that top seed. Also, after an embarrassing performance in the second half at Louisville last Saturday I would expect the Orange to have a little edge to them. Syracuse owns Madison Square Garden and always plays its best ball there so I wouldn’t be stunned to see them sweep the three games and add another title to their resume. However, that may almost work against them. Syracuse doesn’t want to tax itself too much with a grueling tournament championship. This team has goals beyond the Big East and because they only have a seven-man rotation they need fresh bodies for next week.
No. 2 Pittsburgh – The Panthers really stole this No. 2 seed from West Virginia and Villanova by virtue of tiebreakers. They will play the winner of Seton Hall/Providence and Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. They’ve played all three within the last month, beating Seton Hall and Providence while getting trounced in South Bend. The Panthers have quietly had a fantastic year and have won seven of their last eight games. This team has been an excellent road dog this year (7-1 against the spread in their last eight) but has been iffy as a road favorite (1-3 ATS in L4). They split with West Virginia, their potential semifinal opponent, and Pittsburgh is another team that’s done well in MSG over the last few years. This team is a definite dark horse.
No. 3 West Virginia – The Mountaineers are still very much in the running for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if they can run the table in New York. They have played one of the five most difficult schedules in the country and have marquee nonconfernece wins over Ohio State, Texas A&M and Mississippi to go with a solid Big East resume. They would face either Cincinnati/Rutgers or Louisville in the semifinals. And if they could beat Louisville, Pittsburgh and then whoever is left in the title game that could give their resume the boost it needs to get on the top line. More than likely they will settle with a No. 2 or a No. 3 seed.
No. 4 Villanova – The Wildcats were the preseason favorites but really stumbled down the stretch to slide to a No. 4 seed. After losing only one game before Feb. 6 the Wildcats have bumbled their way to a 4-5 mark down the stretch and are playing themselves down the NCAA seeding ladder. However, a run at MSG would give them a ton of momentum heading into the Big Dance. And Villanova has the depth where three games in three nights may not bother them as much as a team like Syracuse. But to win this tourney they will have to earn it. They would get either Connecticut/St. John’s or Marquette before a likely date with Syracuse in the semis.
No. 5 Marquette – The Golden Eagles, like Pittsburgh, have played amazingly well this year when you consider what they lost from last season. They took their lumps from a daunting early schedule but have gone 9-2 down the stretch to gain some momentum. This team is 0-5 against the top four seeds in the Big East but those Losses came by an average of just 3.6 points. The Eagles have to play on the second day and will face either Connecticut or St. John’s. They beat both teams on the road by a mere two points apiece and I would expect another scrum in the quarters.
No. 6 Louisville – Perhaps no team in the Big East benefited from the unbalanced schedule as much as the Cardinals. And the reality is that if you take away their two wins over Syracuse (which are pretty damn impressive) then this team went 8-7 in its last 15 games with its best wins coming over Connecticut, the No. 12 seed in this tourney. The Cardinals will have to get back up from the high of their blowout win over SU to close Freedom Hall. They are just 3-5 in their last eight road games and were bombed by both St. John’s and Marquette.
No. 7 Notre Dame – Right now the Irish are the hottest team in the Big East and have been getting it done without Luke Harangody. Big Luke is back and will be coming off the bench, giving them another weapon. More good news for the Irish: they face either Seton Hall or Providence in the quarters. Neither of those teams play any defense – much like the Irish – so they have a great opportunity to punch their ticket into the Big Dance with a big win and then a competitive showing against Pittsburgh (a soft No. 2 seed in this tournament). The Irish hammered Providence at home back in December but lost a tight, 90-87, decision to Seton Hall just last week. And as good as the Irish have played recently the question is whether or not the magic will carry over to New York. I would be very wary of getting behind this team.
No. 8 Georgetown – You wanna talk about the best No. 8 seed in any conference tournament: look no further than the Hoyas. Georgetown was just a three-point loss to Marquette in early January away from being No. 5 in this tournament. Instead they will take on the winner between South Florida and DePaul. A game against the Bulls would be a revenge game for the Hoyas from a stunning home loss on Feb. 3. That game was a quintessentially letdown/look ahead spot after Georgetown routed Duke and right before they routed Villanova, though. A win sets up a third meeting with archrival Syracuse, a team that has owned the Hoyas recently. Georgetown only goes about six deep with their regular rotation so I doubt that this group will have enough stamina to hold up for more than two games.
No. 9 South Florida – The Bulls actually enter this tournament with legit bubble NCAA Tournament aspirations. They are a solid 8-4 in their last 12 games, with wins over Pitt, Georgetown and Connecticut, and this team is one of the last six or seven being considered for an at-large bid. They will face a DePaul team that they just played in Chicago last week. And this will be just USF’s second Big East Tournament game ever. Last year their stay in New York was short as they suffered a 14-point loss to Seton Hall. But there is no doubt that Dominique Jones and Co. want to extend that. If they can beat DePaul again and beat Georgetown again that would give them a crack at Syracuse and a legit shot at the tournament. But there are a lot of ‘ifs’ in that statement and my gut is telling me that they will come up short. (However, if Gus Gilchrist hadn’t been hurt all year this team would have been dancing.)
No. 10 Seton Hall – The Pirates are definitely on the list of teams that no one wants to play right now. This group played an absolutely brutal Big East schedule and was competitive against every top team they faced. When all is said and done it’s likely that 13 of their 30 regular season games – nearly half – will have come against NCAA Tournament teams. They have a rematch game with Providence on Tuesday. These teams just met in Rhode Island with Seton Hall scoring a convincing 12-point victory. Can they do it again? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that The Hall is a team loaded with upperclassmen taking their final shot at a postseason crown. I expect them to play with abandon. Seton Hall is 9-4 ATS against Providence, but just 7-19 ATS in neutral site games.
No. 11 Cincinnati – The Bearcats are really one of the Big East’s biggest disappointments. And their trouble all comes down to one fairly simple fact: they can’t shoot. Cincinnati has played a diesel schedule and has been very competitive. But the reality is that they are just 2-7 in their last nine games with the wins coming over Connecticut and DePaul. Not good. But much like Seton Hall, Cincinnati’s schedule this year has just been a nightmare and about 15 of their 30 games were against likely tournament teams. Lance Stephenson is a New York hero and will be on his home turf. If he can raise his play don’t be surprised if the freshman could carry this group to a couple upsets. Cincy is just 6-20 ATS in its last 26 Big East games.
No. 12 Connecticut – The Huskies are as schizophrenic of a team as there is in the nation. They can beat West Virginia, Villanova and Texas and go toe-to-toe with Duke and Kentucky. But they also have dumped three straight to Louisville, Notre Dame and South Florida. They get St. John’s in the first round and this is definitely not a gimme game. The Johnnies played the Huskies tough in Storrs before a late push helped UConn pull away. After that Connecticut would still likely be in must-win territory in a rematch with Marquette, a team that beat them, 70-68, in Storrs this year. It’s a tough road. And the Huskies are either going to play their way into the Big Dance by Wednesday night or they will have played their way from the Final Four to the NIT. Connecticut is 8-17 ATS in neutral site games.
No. 13 St. John’s – The Red Storm are playing on one of their home courts but that’s given them little edge over the past several Big East Tournaments. (That is, the tourneys that they have even made.) They had all kinds of problems with Connecticut’s size in their lone meeting this year and that isn’t a problem that goes away. St. John’s is a team that likes to get everything going toward the basket. But that walks them right into all of the Huskies shot blockers. I definitely think that the Red Storm has the moxie to be a spoiler in this tournament, but I don’t know how much money I’m willing to risk on it actually happening.
No. 14 Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights are really just playing out the string and most likely will be happy when their season is mercifully ended. Injuries and issues have really sabotaged what was supposed to be a step forward season for Rutgers basketball. And while they are a respectable 5-5 in their last 10 games they suffered a brutal nine-game losing streak through January and barely have a pulse here. The favorite is 4-0 ATS in the last four meetings with the Bearcats. And Rutgers won’t be favored, although they are on a nice 7-3 ATS run.
No. 15 Providence – The Friars have lost 10 straight and 12 of 13 games heading into New York. They have played a murderer’s row down the stretch (their last 13 games have come against teams either in the NCAA Tournament field or right there on the bubble). The Friars actually have some talent but the problem is that they make terrible decisions and they are one of the worst defensive teams in the nation. They allow opponents to shoot 52 percent from the field inside the three-point line. That is atrocious. And they can’t go anywhere until they learn to get a stop. I expect a very competitive game with Seton Hall and the underdog in that series is 7-3 ATS. But a win there is about the best that PU has to hope for this week.
No. 16 DePaul – On the surface, DePaul’s 1-18 collapse after a 7-4 start is simply the inevitable by-product of an in-season coaching change, a host of injuries, and really substandard talent in an amazing conference. But when you look deeper, this Blue Demons team has played pretty well over the last month of the season. I’m not kidding. They are on a solid 9-4 ATS run and were destroying numbers during a 9-1 ATS rush in conference play. Granted, they were catching about 15 points per game during that stretch. But still, they were cashing. This team plays hard and won’t roll over against South Florida. The Demons successfully knocked Cincinnati off the bubble last year, scoring their first Big East win of the year after a 17-game losing streak. Don’t be stunned if they have some magic in their first game against the Bulls.
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