Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Previewing the Madness: The Big East

There is only one thing you need to know about the 2011 Big East Tournament -- UConn and Villanova, who have both spent time in the top ten this season -- will be playing on the first day of the tournament.

Think about that for a second.

Two teams that were at one point considered two of the ten best teams in the country could not even secure a top eight seed in their conference. While UConn may have been overrated due to the ridiculous start Kemba Walker had and Villanova has had an epic collapse down the stretch of the season, the fact that those two will have to win five games in five days to take home the Big East Tournament title should tell you the kind of depth this league has.

The ironic part, however, is that while there is an unprecedented amount of "good" in the Big East, there isn't all that much "great". Pitt and Notre Dame certified themselves as the top two teams in the league, but they are the kind of powerhouse that you expect to see at the top of the Big East. This isn't the Pitt, UConn, and Louisville teams of 2009.

Where: Madison Square Garden

When: March 8th-12th

Final: March 12th, 9:00 pm, ESPN

Favorite: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Yup, I'm going with it. Let me explain, because I do have a convincing argument. The Irish have won 11 of their last 12 games. Ben Hansbrough, who should win the Big East player of the year award in the voters get it right, has been playing the best basketball of his career of late. Tim Abromaitis has refound his shooting stroke. This team is loaded with experienced basketball players that create all kinds of matchup problems with their versatility. Throw in the fact that this group owns Pitt of late -- they've won three in a row against the Panthers using their Burn Offense -- and the Irish are my pick to win it all.

  • Other Contenders: The list of contenders for the Big East title is long. There is regular season champion Pitt, although the Panthers are playing short handed right now. Back up big man Talib Zanna broke his thumb and is still out of the lineup. He's the Panthers best offensive rebounder, and for a team that thrives on cleaning up the offensive glass, this loss is much more significant than you think. The Panthers have as many losses without Zanna as they did with him in the lineup.

    There are a number of other teams capable of winning this thing. Syracuse is a tough team to beat at the Garden, and when Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph are playing well, the Orange are a very good team. Louisville is the streakiest team in conference. They press and they shoot a lot of threes, and when the threes are dropping and they are forcing turnovers, the Cardinals are a tough team to beat.
Sleeper: St. John's Red Storm

Its weird calling a team that is ranked as high as the Johnnies are a sleeper, but they are the fifth seed in the Big East, so I'll allow it. The Red Storm struggled early in the season, but they have really come together down the stretch as Dwight Hardy has become one of the best scorers in the league. But the biggest reason St. John's has a shot at winning this thing? They are a much better team at home, and their home court just so happens to be Madison Square Garden.

  • Deeper Sleepers: West Virginia is really coming together late in the season Joe Mazzulla and Kevin Jones are finally hitting their stride late in the season, while they have three legitimate scoring threats -- Deniz Kilicli, Casey Mitchell, Truck Bryant -- that are all capable of going for 20 points. Also keep an eye on Cincinnati. The Bearcats have come on late in the season and played their way off the bubble and into a potential six seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Players to Watch:
  • Jeremy Hazell, Seton Hall: Hazell has been through more this season than is fair. He broke his wrist early in the season, got shot on christmas day, and has had to deal with arguably the most dysfunctional basketball program in the country. That said, he can score with the best of them. When he gets hot, he is fun to watch.
  • Marshon Brooks, Providence: Brooks leads the league in scoring. He's gone for 43 points and 52 points this season. Need I say more?
  • Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette: DJO is one of my favorite players in the conference to watch. The Kanye West lookalike is a lefty that just knows how to score. He's got range well beyond the three point line and dunks as hard as anyone in the country.

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