Big East Report Card: Top Eight
Georgetown: My pre-season pick to finish second in the league, the Hoyas ended up as both regular season and conference tournament champions. With two potential pros in the frontcourt in 7’3” center Roy Hibbert and Big East POY Jeff Green, Georgetown was a nightmare for most teams to defend.
Early in the year there were questions about the Hoyas’ perimeter shooting, in general, and the backcourt in particular. However, Jesse Sapp improved considerably from his freshman season to become a legitimate scoring threat, and point guard Jonathan Wallace has developed into one of the most under-rated players in the country.
Furthermore, freshman forward DaJuan Summers was one of the most productive newcomers in the league, and transfer Patrick Ewing, Jr. proved to be a versatile contributor off the bench.
Coach John Thompson lll did an excellent job of putting the pieces together. His efficient zone defense, anchored by Hibbert, and his Princeton-style offense caused opposing coaches nightmares.
The Elite Eight was a reasonable goal for this squad in the pre-season. Having already exceeded that goal with a spot in the Final Four, as well as both conference championships, only a spot in the title game or the national championship itself could raise this team’s grade for the year to an A+.
Present Grade: A
Pittsburgh: The Panthers, who were the consensus pre-season pick to win the conference title, were viewed as a legitimate contender to reach the Final Four. They accomplished neither goal, but they still had a very successful year.
Coach Jamie Dixon’s squad finished the conference season tied for second with a 12-4 record, a game behind Georgetown. But Pitt was not the juggernaut many thought it would be. The Panthers lost twice at home (to Marquette and Louisville), then lost a second time to Marquette in Milwaukee as well as to the Hoyas in D.C. Their second loss to Georgetown in the conference tournament, by 23 points, was definitely embarrassing, but there was no shame in losing to a fine UCLA team in the NCAA Tourney.
Senior center Aaron Gray did not improve much from his junior year; neither did Levon Kendall. Due primarily to injuries, future star-in-waiting Sam Young took a step backward compared to his freshman season. Sophomore point guard Levance Field had some excellent games, but his shot deserted him late in the season.
The Panthers may have been the deepest team in the league, but aside from Gray the roster consisted of a lot of complementary role players. No one stepped up to be a consistent scorer or a surefire “go-to” guy at crunch time.
Either a conference championship or a Final Four berth would have been worth an A. As solid a season as the Panthers had, they fell short of reaching their potential.
Final Grade: A -
Louisville: I had the Cardinals pegged for fourth place in my pre-season crystal ball. Instead, Rick Pitino’s squad tied for second at 12-4. Their loss to Pitt in the semi-finals of the conference tournament was a bit disappointing, especially since they had hammered the Panthers four weeks earlier on Pitt’s home court.
As a sixth seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Cardinals dominated Stanford in the first round then lost to an excellent Texas A & M squad by three, thereby missing a chance to get to the Sweet 16.
After a slow start to the season, the keys to Louisville’s late-season improvement were the belated court time received by Derrick Caracter, who finally made his presence felt, especially on the offensive end of the court, and the development of fellow freshman, Earl Clark. A third frosh, point guard Edgar Sosa, also gained maturity as the year progressed.
Injuries also played a major role in Louisville’s early-season and mid-season struggles as David Padgett, Juan Palacios, and Andre McGee all battled physical problems that limited their court time or their effectiveness.
Given these problems, as well as the on-going soap opera related to Caracter’s status, this was a pretty productive season for the Cardinals.
Final Grade: B+
Notre Dame: Notre Dame was one of two Big East teams that significantly surpassed initial expectations. I picked the Irish to finish 12th and barely slide into the conference tournament. Instead, they finished fourth with a record of 11-5. Coach Mike Brey’s team did benefit from a relatively soft conference schedule, but there’s no denying that they were a much better team than anyone anticipated.
Even the loss of starting point guard Kyle McAlarney didn’t derail Notre Dame’s season as freshman Tory Jackson not only filled in admirably but actually made the Irish a more dangerous team on both ends of the court. Fellow freshman, 6’8” Luke Harangody, had a significant impact as well. No other team in the league, not even UConn with its half dozen Top 100 recruits, had a dynamic frosh duo that could match the productivity of this combination.
Throw in marked improvement by junior forward Rob Kurz and offensive fireworks by seniors Russell Carter and Colin Falls, and the result was a league-leading 75.2 ppg.
Notre Dame ended the season on a sour note with a 10-point loss to an under-rated, under-seeded Winthrop team in the NCAA Tournament. The game prior to that, however, the Irish gave Georgetown a scare in the conference tournament before losing by two.
A first-round win in the NCAA would have raised Notre Dame’s final grade. Still, the Irish have to be pleased with their season.
Final Grade: B+
Syracuse: Coach Jim Boeheim reportedly attributed the Orange’s snub by the NCAA Selection Committee, despite their 10-6 conference record and fifth-place conference finish, to the fact that the Big East has 16 teams. If he really believes that, he’s missing the point.
A more logical possibility is that Syracuse didn’t leave the state of New York throughout the entire non-conference season and had only one away game, against Canisius.
Boeheim also supposedly expressed dismay that two teams – Marquette and Villanova – finished the conference season with the same record (MU) or a worse record (VU), yet still made the tournament. What he failed to mention was that these two teams had the two toughest conference schedules of all teams in the league and that their RPI and SOS rankings were significantly higher than Syracuse’s.
Two of Boeheim’s three senior frontcourt players, Terrance Roberts and Darryl Watkins, were plagued by the same inconsistency that dogged them throughout their college careers. Only Demetris Nichols improved significantly from his junior year.
The bottom line, of course, is that the Orange failed to make the NCAA Tournament, and, while arguments can still be made for or against their inclusion in the Big Dance, the point is that it shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place. Their NIT loss to Clemson before reaching the Big Apple only made the season more disappointing.
Final Grade: B -
Marquette: For the second consecutive years Marquette had a conference record of 10-6, right about where I’d expected. I projected a fifth-place finish for Tom Crean’s crew, which is exactly where they ended up.
For much of the season, Marquette was ranked in the Top 20 and even came close to the Top 10 a couple of times. But the truth is those rankings were overly generous.
While Marquette had three extremely talented sophomore guards - Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wesley Matthews, Jr., - the frontcourt was suspect. Junior Ousmane Barro made significant strides over his previous season but was a non-factor in too many games, while freshman Lazar Hayward progressed during the season but was overmatched at times when defending some of the conference’s taller, more athletic power forwards.
Still, the big blow was the loss of McNeal, the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year, for the post-season. Marquette managed to beat Pittsburgh (for the second time) in the final conference game and defeat a St. John’s team that was without star Lamont Hamilton in the first round of the conference tournament.
Without McNeal, Crean’s team couldn’t defeat Pitt for a third time or pull out a win against Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament. It was a sour ending to a season that had looked considerably more promising a month earlier.
Final Grade: B+
West Virginia: The Mountaineers definitely surpassed my pre-season expectations. I pegged them for 15th in the conference following the loss of five talented seniors a year ago. I never anticipated that players like Joe Alexander and Alex Ruoff would turn out to be quality players themselves.
Alexander’s development allowed senior Frank Young to swing back to the 3, his natural position, rather than the 4, while Darrin Nichols proved to be an extremely effective, efficient point guard. Add significant contributions from freshman reserve Da’Sean Butler, and Coach John Beilein’s squad had a solid nucleus, good enough for a seventh place finish (along with Villanova and DePaul) at 9-7.
The Mountaineers’ weak non-conference schedule kept them out of the NCAA Tournament, but they made it to Madison Square Garden in the NIT, not an insignificant accomplishment. Overall, even the most optimistic West Virginia fans could not have anticipated a winning record in conference play.
Final Grade: B
Villanova: Coach Jay Wright’s squad faced the toughest conference schedule of all Big East teams, which has to be taken into account when assessing the Wildcats’ season. Due primarily to the return of star forward Curtis Sumpter, I figured the Wildcats would finish sixth in the conference despite the loss of Randy Foye, Allan Ray, and Kyle Lowry to the NBA. At the end of the season, Nova was tied for seventh with WVU and DePaul at 9-7, and Sumpter did, in fact, have a terrific season after returning from a year as a medical red-shirt. He was definitely one of the top four or five players in the conference.
Although a great deal was expected of freshman guard Scottie Reynolds, the Big East Freshman of the Year exceeded all reasonable expectations and became a dominating player, especially in the later stages of the season. At times, he was practically unstoppable.
Villanova deserved its trip to the NCAA despite having a worse conference record than Syracuse. A first round win over Kentucky would have raised the Wildcats’ final grade a notch, but even without making it to the second round of the Big Dance Nova had a successful season.
Final Grade: B