Big East Quarterfinals Primer
Previewing today’s games at The Garden.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
No. 1 Pitt – No. 9 Connecticut: How fresh are the legs of the fighting Kembas after playing two consecutive days? Neither of those games was in much doubt, so one could argue those were stress-free minutes. But they are minutes nonetheless, and against a fresh Pitt squad that is fueled by pure man-strength and physicality, fatigue could become a bigger factor than people realize. These are young college athletes, so I don’t want to over-emphasize the tired-legs theory here, but don’t be surprised to see the Panthers begin to punish the Huskies inside and on second-chance points as the game progresses (outside of the inconsistent Alex Oriakhi, UConn doesn’t rebound all that well to begin with). Pitt manhandled Connecticut in both teams’ Big East opener a few months ago. I don’t expect as dominant a performance from Jamie Dixon’s team, but the result will probably be similar.
Prediction: Pitt 78 – Connecticut 68
No. 4 Syracuse – No. 5 St. John’s: So it’s the tournament quarterfinals, and we have arguably the most anticipated match-up of the event (too bad the game starts at 2 p.m.). Who owns MSG more? In recent history, most would say Syracuse. Alums and fans displaced from central New York and residing in the New York Metropolitan Area have been filling the Garden for years. By no means am I even close to being an Orange supporter, but watching Cuse in Manhattan just looks right (it could be the orange-dominated MSG court design that fits and makes Boeheim’s boys feel at home). This year, though, St. John’s has finally discovered what a huge home-court advantage the Garden can be when the New York City fans are in your corner. The Red Storm has beaten five ranked opponents at home this season, and only fallen to one team all season in Manhattan. Of course, that team is Syracuse. The Orange is entering the tournament scorching hot, already comfortable in the environment, and carrying the mental edge of being the only team to beat St. John’s on the Garden floor. Plus, the Johnnies struggled with Rutgers last night, needing some outrageous help from the zebras to escape the final few seconds with a win. In the end, I think the Syracuse bigs will be too much for St John’s undersized frontline.
Prediction: Syracuse 70 – St. John’s 63
No. 2 Notre Dame – No. 7 Cincinnati: Is it a coincidence that Notre Dame is en fuego and has earned some No. 1 seed talk since I profiled their success last month? Maybe. Does Notre Dame have the easiest road to the tournament final and a legit claim to that 1 seed if they make it? Yes and Yes. You have to figure a Big East tournament championship would earn the Irish a top seed on Sunday, but, depending on results in the Big 10, Big 12 and ACC tourneys, a second-place finish might do the trick also. Getting there is the hard part, but Notre Dame’s path is relatively easy (or as easy as it’s going to get in the Big East). Mike Brey has to deal with Cincinnati, which got a break when South Florida continued Villanova’s late season misery, and the winner of Louisville/Marquette. As for tonight’s contest, the Bearcats are playing their best basketball right now, and I can see them hanging around the entire game. But Ben Hansbrough wills this team to win, even in games they probably don’t deserve to. So in a tight game, I give the edge to the Irish.
Prediction: Notre Dame 66 – Cincinnati 62
No. 3 Louisville – No. 11 Marquette: If I’m going to pick one upset in the quarters, this is it. My only concern is that, after winning two games and being ceremoniously lifted off of the bubble and into the bracket by every website and prognosticator, Marquette will get big-headed and mail this one in. But if Marquette stays motivated and continues to fight the way it has all season, I can see them posing serious problems for Louisville. And Buzz Williams has plenty of ammunition with which to keep his squad driven: it was less than two months ago that Marquette blew an 18-point lead with less than six minutes to play at Louisville in a 71-70 loss to the Cardinals. Darius Johnson-Odom and Jimmy Butler are the Golden Eagle studs, but it’s up to the playmakers like Dwight Buycks and Junior Cadougan to keep Marquette in this game. If its ballhandlers can navigate Rick Pitino’s pressure defense with poise and without wetting themselves, Marquette has an outstanding shot at winning this game.
Prediction: Marquette 80 – Louisville 72
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.