For the first time in the history of the expanded Big East all sixteen teams will take part in the conference tournament, which should make for a wild five days inside The World’s Most Famous Arena. Tuesday’s four contests involve the bottom eight teams in the standings, with Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Georgetown looking to salvage any hope of an NCAA berth with a deep run here. Wednesday has the four winners taking on seeds five through eight with the focus being eight-seed Providence. Presented a good opportunity to cement their case on Thursday the Friars lost at Villanova, putting themselves squarely on the bubble. Keno Davis’ team may need two wins in New York to punch their ticket, especially if the unthinkable should happen on Tuesday (that would be DePaul upsetting Cincinnati).
Conventional wisdom has seven teams firmly in the NCAA Tournament; but for the teams either on the bubble or hoping to climb back into consideration how do you judge a run in this tournament? Should the Bearcats, Irish or Hoyas win two games that would only get them to the quarterfinal round, so judging the argument of “we won two games in New York” may be a tricky one for the folks in the room making the at-large selections. The top four seeds (Louisville, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Villanova) don’t take the floor until Thursday, with the Huskies likely being the one team out of those first three with work to do in regards to landing on that top seed line.
Yes they’ve got an outstanding road/neutral record (their lone defeat was at Pitt), but how could they possibly jump the regular season champ (Louisville) and/or a team that beat them twice (Pittsburgh) without a stellar performance at The Garden? Add to this the fact that UConn hasn’t won a Big East Tournament game since 2004 and there may be a little pressure on this seasoned team. The Panthers and Cardinals look to be in decent shape for a one-seed provided they avoid any serious injuries (a la Kenyon Martin in the 2000 Conference USA Tournament) and don’t get blown out in their quarterfinal, while Villanova with a tournament title could make an argument for a two.
All in all this should be a very exciting week at Madison Square Garden, especially for fans of the USF Bulls. Stan Heath’s program will be making its first ever appearance in the Big East Tournament, closing out Tuesday’s program in a matchup with Seton Hall. The Pirates, along with St. John’s, are hoping that a decent run here could sew up an NIT berth. As for Rutgers and DePaul…it may be time to put the balls away for the year after Tuesday’s action. All games on Tuesday can be seen for free at www.bigeast.tv, with ever game from Wednesday on televised by ESPN.
#9 Cincinnati vs. #16 DePaul, Noon
Regular season meeting: Cincinnati 59-55 (January 17th at DePaul)
After a win over St. John’s on February 11th Mick Cronin’s Bearcats had fought their way back into the at-large discussion. But it was all downhill from there for Cincinnati, who lost five of their final six games to end the regular season. Of course when three of those games are against Pitt, Louisville and Syracuse a stumble can be excused if not expected. But the final nail (unless they make a serious run this week) in the coffin was an eleven-point loss at USF last Tuesday. What followed was an overtime loss at the hands of Seton Hall Saturday, so the question is just how much does Cincinnati have in their tank?
Guard Deonta Vaughn (15.3 ppg, 4.7 apg) is one of the best in the Big East, and big men Yancy Gates and Steve Toyloy have been productive in the first run through the Big East. But the Bearcats have struggled offensively this season, ranking thirteenth in the conference in field goal percentage and eighth in three-point percentage. Add to this a turnover margin that ranks fifteenth and those numbers should be enough to understand what’s gone wrong in the Queen City. But hope springs eternal and with a team that hasn’t won a conference game all year on the menu for Tuesday Cincinnati should end their skid.
The Blue Demons have struggled on both ends this season, not shooting well while failing to defend at a consistent level. DePaul ranks last in field goal percentage defense and fifteenth in three-point percentage defense, and the offensive numbers aren’t much better. The trio of Will Walker, Mac Koshwal (12.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg) and Dar Tucker (18.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg) can be dangerous when allowed to stick around but the overall youth of this team has been a killer all year. When you can’t defend or rebound at the Big East level you get found out early and often, especially when you can’t make up for it offensively. Look for the Bearcats to fight off a Blue Demon team desperate to pick up one conference win.
#12 Georgetown vs. #13 St. John’s, 2 PM
Regular season meetings: St. John’s 59-56 (OT) (March 3rd at St. John’s)
The Hoyas looked to have things rolling in the right direction at the beginning of 2009, with wins over Memphis and Connecticut already to their credit. But the overall youth of this team began to show, resulting in a five-game losing streak that put them squarely on the bubble. Unable to recover in time to save their at-large hopes, John Thompson III’s team will look to avenge their loss to the Red Storm last Tuesday and look to revive their postseason lives in the process.
The one guy that Georgetown will need to get going is junior swingman DaJaun Summers (13.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg), whose slump coincided with the beginning of the team’s decline. Having a versatile big man like Greg Monroe is nice, but when Summers plays well the entire team plays well. Facing them is a young St. John’s team that won two straight before falling at Notre Dame on Friday, and the Red Storm have the right amount of fight necessary if you’re to pull off an upset this time of the year. Paris Horne has been off and on in recent games but there are other options when it comes to scoring, led by swingman D.J. Kennedy and forward Justin Burrell.
They aren’t the best team in the league on either end of the floor but they make up for it with their effort. This is one team that could make a move up in the standings due to roster turnovers for other league schools next season. Expect this game to be every bit as competitive as their first meeting, with the Hoyas pulling out the close victory.
#10 Notre Dame vs. #15 Rutgers, 7 PM
Regular season meeting: Notre Dame 70-65 (February 25th at Notre Dame)
The Scarlet Knights may have beaten USF on Saturday, but they may be in some trouble in this matchup. The Fighting Irish have struggled primarily due to the fact that no one outside of Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson have been consistent weapons. Kyle McAlarney, one of the nation’s best outside shooters when allowed to get good looks, struggles to create his own offense and hasn’t shot well in conference play. But role players have stepped up of late for head coach Mike Brey, most notably swingman Ryan Ayers and forward Tyrone Nash. Neither has set the world on fire but both have the ability to make plays that separate teams at the end of games.
Notre Dame, despite their disappointing regular season, has some stability within their ranks. The same can’t be said for Rutgers, with head coach Fred Hill tinkering with his rotation amidst rumors of Corey Chandler leaving the program. Leading scorer Mike Rosario played just eleven minutes on Saturday, which was an interesting development given the strategy throughout conference play. Rosario was essentially allowed to, as the team’s lone double-digit scorer, to fire away from just about anywhere on the floor. Anthony Farmer and J.R. Inman have seen an increase in minutes, but this looks to be a team in disarray. That’s not a good thing heading into a game of this magnitude, so look for their season to end at the hands of the Irish.
#11 Seton Hall vs. #14 USF, 9 PM
Regular season meeting: Seton Hall 75-60 (February 25th at Seton Hall)
Two of the conference’s best scoring guards will be on display in the nightcap, with USF’s Dominique Jones (18.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.8 apg) facing Seton Hall’s Jeremy Hazell (22.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg). The problem for the Bulls is that outside of Jones they lack the guard play needed to match the Pirates, and they don’t shoot particularly well either (last in field goal percentage, fifteenth in three-point percentage). In the first meeting the Bulls won the battle on the boards 36-22, but turning the ball over eighteen times resulted in a 75-60 Pirate victory. USF knows what’s coming in regards to the pressure that Bobby Gonzalez’s team places on opponents; whether or not they can handle it this time around will be the deciding factor.
If they can stay close to even in turnover margin the Bulls can take advantage of their interior depth. Maryland transfer Augustus Gilchrist has looked more comfortable by the game in his first run through the Big East, and he’s got help from Alex Rivas Sanchez. That’s not much but it could be enough against a Seton Hall team that has one consistent big man: redshirt junior John Garcia. The wild card: Seton Hall forward Robert “Stix” Mitchell, who scored seventeen points and racked up five steals in that first meeting. He’s severely undersized as a “power” forward (6-6, 180) but his effort and speed makes him a tough matchup on the other end. Look for Stix to be the difference in a close Pirate win.