Big East Preview: Who has the Best Shot?
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
It may or may not be the Big East Tournament you've been used to in the past.
This much is certain, however. Big shots will probably fall, no-shots will find a way to win...and the little shots will somehow make a difference for the handful of teams hoping to use this week in New York as a springboard into next week's NCAA Tournament.
You can make the argument that the Big East has often been responsible for putting the "Madness" into the month of March. And even in this new era, one that doesn't include a UConn or a Syracuse but does include a Creighton and a Xavier...there has always been something special about Big East Conference schools convening in New York after a season full of beating each other up, night in and night out up and down the East Coast. During an often-brutal stretch of league games, the big shots always find their mark, no-shots always manage to spring an upset or two...and the little shots that make the difference between winning and losing games are always replayed, analyzed and agonized over.
Expect nothing less this week inside Madison Square Garden.
What's at stake? Plenty - and you can start with the reputation of the Big East overall, which is probably unfair at this stage of development. Forbes reports this week that ticket prices overall are down 11% from last season, as the Garden and member schools work toward enticing their fans to attend by lowering some costs. That's not a bad thing when you're trying to introduce - or re-introduce - a product to a wary audience. But if any of the "old" Big East tradition manages to escape from the Garden rafters, tickets will again become scarce. It's all in the games...if they're good, exciting, compelling...the fans will come.
Villanova won its first regular season championship in more than 30 years. While that is a significant accomplishment, Wildcat fans seem to want to know "can we be a #1 seed in the NCAA's?" Absolutely, they can...if they win the tournament. Fox Sports 1, the league's new TV partner, has to be hoping for a ratings-pleaser final with 'Nova and Dougie McBuckets (Creighton's Doug McDermott) in the finals as the two best teams in the regular season. But wait a minute - didn't the Blue Jays beatdown the Wildcats twice during the year? Be careful what you wish for.
Perhaps the Big East Tournament could be a showcase for National-Player-of-the-Year-to-be McDermott? The Providence Friars would be hard-pressed to disagree with the designation, after the 45-point show he put on last weekend in Omaha. But do the Jays have the type of roster built for three-wins-in-three-nights? Is there enough scoring depth should Doug all of a sudden not find his McBuckets? Sometimes, the Garden has a way of putting the stars in their place, and forcing new stars to come out at night.
And of course, at stake will be the post-season fortune of possibly five conference teams who all played well at times during the season, but for one reason or another couldn't nail down an NCAA at-large berth with consistent play. Xavier, St. John's, Marquette, Georgetown and Providence are all in the mix, and all can reach the promised land...if they win. Some will need to win more than others.
Here's how the possibilities stand for each team, with tournament play beginning Wednesday night in the Big East 1st round. We'll categorize accordingly:
DePaul - Butler - Seton Hall
It sounds a little harsh, but realistically, these teams would need to win four games in four nights. UConn won five games in five nights just three years ago in the 2011 tournament, but they also had a superstar guard in Kemba Walker who willed his team to a title. DePaul, Butler and Seton Hall don't have a Kemba Walker on their rosters...although the Pirates do have a Fuquan Edwin, and he's the type of player that can wreak havoc against an opponent by draining deep threes, and by picking your pocket with steals. The Pirates would be the most likely team to emerge from this group to play on another day.
St. John's - Marquette - Georgetown - Xavier - Providence
By far, this is the biggest group. Five different teams all have potential, all have players that can take over a game, all have resumes that need extra padding for the post-season. All can get hot at the right time, just like Connecticut did, and play their way into the NCAA's as a Big East champ. This is where this year's tournament intrigue lies. Who emerges? St. John's has momentum, winning 10 of 13 to end the BE schedule; they have the de-facto home court advantage playing at the Garden, and a player in D'Angelo Harrison that can get scorching hot. Marquette plays as tough as anyone, and with Devonte Gardner inside and Todd Mayo outside, the Golden Eagles have ability. But they'll probably have to win the whole thing to go dancing next week, after three straight seasons reaching the Sweet 16.
Georgetown has a dynamic backcourt in Markel Starks and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, but that's not the problem with the Hoyas. An inside presence is needed, and this is the rare Hoya team that doesn't have it. Same for Xavier, although not to Georgetown's level. When Matt Stainbrook went down with an MCL knee sprain late in the season, X's hopes might have gone along with him. Semaj Christon is a star, but will he shine bright enough to carry the Musketeers? The same can be said for Providence, and Bryce Cotton. The difference for the Friars, however, comes in the presence of big men Kadeem Batts and Carson Desrosiers. If PC's Iron Five can all contribute in the scoring column, Providence can be in the finals. At the very least, they can win one (or two) to make the NCAA's a reality.
Here are numbers these teams should be concerned with - St. John’s is 1-7 against the RPI’s top 50 teams. Georgetown is 5-6 (with very good non-league wins) and Providence is 2-6. The Hoyas' 8-10 conference mark is a killer, however. SJU probably goes as far as JaKarr Sampson's jump shot will take them. The Friars? Cotton can't take the first half off, and must be aggressive for an entire 40+ minutes. If anyone improves their standing this week, they could be dancing next week.
Villanova - Creighton
Teams that have figured out how to stop McDermott (Providence did it once, and failed miserably last week) usually stop the Blue Jays. Unless you're named Villanova, which couldn't do it either time they faced CU this season. 'Nova needs to hope that complacency sets in for Creighton, if these two meet in the finals. The key here, for the Wildcats or anyone else who faces Creighton, could be stopping the Wraggebombs from falling. Ethan Wragge's prowess from the arc has slipped late in the year. If that trend continues at the Garden, the Jays might not fly as high as they hoped in their first trip to the BET. The Wildcats seem to have the best mix of inside and outside play, with James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono bringing to life memories of VU guard-oriented teams of the past. JayVaughn Pinkston is the key, and if coach Jay Wright can figure out a way to get him rolling one-on-one in the paint, the 'Cats could have that one-seed and a Big East trophy to go along with it.
The Big East won't be judged on the post-season alone, nor should it be. But let's face it - the tournament is a signature event. If you want the national relevance, your players (and teams) have to play well. For a conference that was rated # 3 or #4 in the RPI most of the season (ahead of the ACC, Atlantic-10 and American), behind only the Big 12, Big 10 and Pac-12, it would be a shame if only two or three teams played on into next week's NCAA tournament. But that will be up to the selection committee to decide. They control that show. The teams - the players in New York - they control this show, this week.
That's the way its always been at the Big East Tournament, just like you've been used to seeing in the past.
First round – Wednesday, March 12
Game 1: 7:00 PM #8 Seton Hall vs #9 Butler
Game 2: 9:30 PM #7 Georgetown vs #10 DePaul
Quarterfinals – Thursday, March 13
Game 3: 12 Noon #1 Villanova vs Game 1 Winner
Game 4: 2:30 PM #4 Providence vs #5 St. John's
Game 5: 7:00 PM #2 Creighton vs Game 2 Winner
Game 6: 9:30 PM #3 Xavier vs #6 Marquette
Semifinals – Friday, March 14
Game 7: 7:00 PM Game 3 Winner vs Game 4 Winner
Game 8: 9:30 PM Game 5 Winner vs Game 6 Winner
Championship – Saturday, March 15
Game 9: 8:30 PM Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner
All Games broadcast on Fox Sports 1; Providence games also broadcast on 103.7 FM WEEI, friars.com
Follow JR on Twitter throughout the tournament: @JRBroadcaster