With a lot of talent leaving the Big East, a lot of people felt the conference would be in a down year. However, it currently has the best record of any power-6 conference and has a great shot at putting 7+ teams in the NCAA tournament.
Now that the season-opening tourneys are over, a lot of questions are left to be answered. Is ‘Nova the best team in the conference? How good is Cincinnati? Will Luke Harangody be the difference-maker for Notre Dame? Whatever the answers may be, this will be yet another exciting year for Big East basketball.
1. Connecticut needs to take more 3’s
We all know the characteristics of a typical Jim Calhoun squad: big, physical, good rebounders and shot-blockers. This team is no different, and it’s hurt them early on. Despite the solid inside presence, UConn has zero outside presence. So far they’ve taken less 3-pointers than any team in the Big East. This weakness killed them in the NIT Tip-Off against Duke, as the Huskies went 0-4 from beyond the arc, and against Kentucky where they went 1-6. Duke played them tough inside because they didn’t need to bother guarding the perimeter, won the rebounding battle, and cruised to a 9-point win. Taking shots outside will stretch the defense and create opportunities to score inside. This means they’ll need Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker to step up outside. Inside scoring can go a long way, but for this team to make a deep run in the NCAA tourney they’ll need to create a balanced attack.
2. Syracuse is off to a red-hot start
Wow, that exhibition loss to D-II LeMoyne seems like a distant memory, doesn’t it? Despite losing a lot of talent in the offseason, the Orange have picked up right where they left off, and look to be in mid-season form. ‘Cuse has a nice mix of returning stars in Arinze Onuaku, Andy Rautins, and Rick Jackson, but also has several rising stars in Wesley Johnson, Brandon Triche, and Scoop Jardine. This team has had the toughest start of anyone in the Big East and has definitely answered the call, with dominating wins over Cal and North Carolina in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, and an impressive win over Florida in Tampa Bay. Syracuse is absolutely shooting lights out and is forcing a ton of turnovers in the form of blocks and steals (13 steals against UF). Villanova may have the most hype right now with their stellar guard play, but look to Syracuse as a second favorite to win the Big East this year.
3. Darius Johnson-Odom is the critical piece for Marquette
After losing their star trio of guards in Jerel McNeal, Wes Matthews, and Dominic James, Marquette has taken a step back in the Big East. On top of that, incoming freshman point guard Junior Cadougan and 4/5 spot Chris Otule are both injured for the rest of the season, leaving the Golden Eagles with a depleted and small staff. Despite the adversity, Marquette has surprised a few people in knocking off both Xavier and Michigan in the Old Spice Classic. The two top scorers on the team are 2-guard Jimmy Butler and wing man Lazar Hayward, but if the Golden Eagles are to have any success this year, they’ll need a third scorer they can rely on. So far that scorer seems to be Darius Johnson-Odom, the juco transfer from Hutchinson Community College. The 6’2 southpaw is scoring 12 ppg and shooting an impressive 50% from beyond the arc. But he’s not just a long-range jumper, Johnson-Odom can slice to the basket as well. The NIT is a likely scenario for Marquette this year, but any chance at an at-large berth to the NCAA rests on this kid’s shoulders.
4. Cincinnati is the most improved team this year
Football isn’t the only sport that should be buzzing on Cincy’s campus right now. Slowly but surely, Mick Cronin has rebuilt the program at Cincinnati, and this year it shows. The Bearcats have made an early statement this year by taking down two ranked teams in Vanderbilt and Maryland in the Maui Invitational, and only losing by 2 points to a solid Zags team in the championship. What’s improved the most for this team is rebounding and defense. Cincy is averaging 7 more rpg than last year and has a defensive efficiency of 12 points less per every 100 possessions. As expected, the most productive addition to this squad is freshman forward Lance Stephenson with 11 and 6 per game. The main weakness for this team is 3-point shooting which is under 30%. While the mid-range shots have slightly improved for the Bearcats, a few more threes will go a long way to keep this team in contention in conference play.
5. Luke Harangody needs to become a better passer
Wait, the preseason All-American that every analyst drools over needs to improve? How can that be? Let’s take a quick look at last year. The stats don’t lie, Harangody was a one-man wrecking crew, with 23 ppg, 12 boards per game, and an 80% average from the charity strip. Despite his production, where did that get the Irish? A disappointing 8-10 record in conference play and a trip to the Not Invited Tournament. So how does this season fare? It doesn’t look much different. Right now, Harangody has 25 ppg and 10.3 rpg, both are more than double the next highest scorer (Tim Abromaitis) and rebounder (Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott are both tied with 4.3rpg). While there’s still plenty of season to play out, last year Harangody’s assist/turnover ratio was 1.1 and it’s currently 0.91. Every opponent knows the ball’s going to Harangody for the majority of the game, so if Luke can keep the other team on their heels by becoming a better distributor on perimeter plays and back-door cuts, this team could have a chance at something better than the NIT this year.