Big East Tourney Preview: Seeing Red
We think Louisville will take home the Big East crown once again.
by Peter Walsh
When: March 12-16
Where: Madison Square Garden, NYC
One of the most competitive conferences in the country finished the regular season with a power struggle at the top. Georgetown, Marquette and Louisville all finished with 14-4 conference records and are c0-regular season champs, setting up what should be a great week of hoops at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
Sadly, this will also be the last week of Big East hoops as we know it. With Syracuse, Louisville and Pitt moving to the ACC and DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova forming the “new” Big East, 34 years of basketball history will be thrown to the wayside in favor of dollar signs. With so much competition at the top, this has the makings of being the best conference tournament of the postseason—and rightfully so, as the conference deserves to go out on top. With a potential No. 1 seed in the Big Dance hanging in the balance, a few bubble teams looking to boost their credentials, and nostalgia running at a premium, all eyes will be on the Big East this week.
Georgetown (24-5, 14-4) — The Hoyas have surprised fans and voters this season and their success can be directly linked to the play of sophomore forward Otto Porter. OP will be named Big East Player of the Year and is in the running for National Player of the Year thanks to his incredible play over the latter half of the season. On February 23, Porter scored 33 points, grabbed 5 boards, and swiped 5 steals in 40 minutes in front of the biggest crowd ever amassed at the Carrier Dome to nearly single-handedly snap ‘Cuse’s 38-game home winning streak. He followed that up with 22 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and the game-winner in the second overtime at UConn. Three days later, he dropped 28 points and grabbed 8 boards in a 13-point dub over Rutgers. As great as Porter has been, G’Town isn’t a one-man show. Junior guard Markel Starks has been playing the best basketball of his Hoya career and freshman D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera has been a big time contributor in the backcourt. The Hoyas wear teams down with a Princeton offense that coach John Thompson III inherited from his father and lock teams down with a defense that currently ranks seventh in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy.
The Hoyas have been without 6-8 forward Greg Whittington, who was second on the team in points and rebounds prior to becoming declared academically ineligible for the season. While the Hoyas have actually been playing better without him, his absence could hurt if Porter is shut down and the Hoyas struggle offensively. Their chances of getting a No. 1 seed took a serious hit after last week’s loss to Villanova, but they will still be in the running for a top seed if they take home the Big East crown.
Marquette (23-7, 14-4 ) — Year in and year out Marquette head coach Buzz Williams does a fantastic job and his program is a model of consistency. Despite their winning ways, Marquette always seems to fly under the radar until postseason play. Marquette doesn’t have one player who can take over a game; instead they rely on precise execution and outhustling their opponent to get victories. The Golden Eagles have quietly taken down both Syracuse and Notre Dame to catapult up the polls while earning a double-bye in the Big East Tournament. Marquette finished the season 16-0 at home, which is great, but seven road losses doesn’t bode well for them as they head to the Garden—where they haven’t advanced past the quarterfinals since 2010—for this week’s slate. Close calls against Rutgers and St. John’s to close the season could be a sign of things to come.
Louisville (26-5, 14-4) — The Cardinals have been up and down this season but seem to have found their groove at the righttime. After losing to Notre Dame in an epic 5-OT contest back in February, Louisville won seven straight, including revenge wins over Syracuse at the Carrier Dome and the Irish on Saturday. The Cardinal are a dangerous team heading into postseason play and have to be mentioned amongst the contenders to reach the Final Four. With Russ Smith and Peyton Siva causing havoc in the backcourt, Gorgui Dieng protecting the paint and Chase Benahan working the wing, Rick Pitino’s team often presses the entire length of the court and currently rank first in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy.
The Cardinals thrive when their talented backcourt play with consistency. Unfortunately, with Russ Smith and Siva, consistency is never guaranteed. Both have the ability to take over a game on both ends of the floor but can also get ahead of themselves and kill their team with poor decisions and turnovers. If the Cardinal guards can play within themselves and remain in control, Louisville has a chance to advance through the Big East Tourney and beyond. Much like Georgetown, Louisville can realistically obtain a number one seed if they take home the Big East crown.
Syracuse (23-8, 11-7) — The Orange stumbled to the finish line of the regular season, but it’d be foolish to count ‘Cuse out. After starting off conference play red hot with back-to-back wins over then-No. 1 Louisville and then-No. 21 Cincinnati. That momentum quickly stalled and ‘Cuse ended the season with four straight losses to conference foes Georgetown (twice), Marquette and Louisville. ‘Cuse looked lifeless against G’Town on Saturday but a few wins this week and Boeheim’s squad may be reinvigorated heading into the Big Dance.
Senior Brandon Triche has been playing poorly as of late and it’s had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team. Since his 29-point outburst against Seton Hall on February 16, Triche has reached double-digit scoring just twice, and has shot 26-54 from the field and 2-18 from three. Since that win over the Pirates, the Orange have gone 1-4 and were held to 46 and 39 points against Georgetown and 53 against Louisville (they averaged 73.2 per). Despite their recent shortcomings, the Orange are still more than capable of advancing through the Big East Tournament. Sophomore point guard Mike Carter-Williams is one of the top floor generals in the nation, forward CJ Fair leads the team in both points and rebounds, senior forward James Southerland can change a game with his three-point shooting and Rakeem Christmas is an athletic center. The talent is there and Orange fans always travel well to the the Garden so the they will have a homecourt advantage if they advance to the weekend.
Notre Dame (23-8, 11-7) — The Irish aren’t the sexy pick and are probably one of the most boring teams to watch in NCAA basketball, but coach Mike Brey gets the most out of his players and they are definitely a threat heading into this week. The Irish use a balanced attack on offense and do a good job of working the ball inside-out to get high percentage shots—evidenced by their assist numbers (17.5, good enough for third in the nation) and field goal percentage (47.3 percent, 24th). The Irish do find trouble when they are matched up against more athletic teams and have trouble keeping up in a fast-paced contest. If they can play their game and slow things down, Notre Dame has a chance to make a run…then get bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tourney.
Villanova (19-12, 10-8) — Nova has been wildly inconsistent this season but have also shown flashes of brilliance, most recently with a home win over Georgetown that probably solidified their spot in the NCAA Tournament. The ‘Cats also took down then No. 5 Louisville and then No.3 Syracuse in back-to-back games and then No. 17 Marquette a few weeks later (all three were also won in Philly). Villanova has played poorly away from home this season but are more than capable of stringing a few wins together to boost their resume.
Players to Watch:
Otto Porter, So. F, Georgetown — Read this.
Michael Carter-Williams, So. G, Syracuse — Carter-Williams’ game has platueued after bursting on to the scene early in the season. Still, MCW is a 6-6 point guard and possesses one of the more unique individaul skillsets in the Big East. The sophomore has come up huge for the Orange in some big games and his team will need him to return to his early season form to give ‘Cuse a shot at winning this thing.
Russ Smith, Jr. G and Peyton Siva, Sr. G, Louisville — The two Louisville guards can suffocate you from end to end on defense and blow right by you to the hoop when they have the ball in their hands. Smith or “Russdiculous” as coach Rick Pitino dubbed him, is one of the most entertaining players in the country. At 6-1, 165 lbs, he makes up for his height deficiencies with slick moves and an explosive first step. He is averaging 18.4 points per game and isn’t afraid to take the big shot—or any shot, for that matter. Siva, who would have liked to have a more consistent senior year, is averaging 5.9 assists per game and brings veteran leadership. The two ball-hawking guards average a combined 4.1 steals per game and have the ability to take an opposing backcourt completely out of the game. Both were part of last season’s Final Four team and Siva was named last year’s Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player; these two know how to get it done in March.
Ryan Arcidiacono, Fr. G, Villanova — Arcidiacono, a 6-3, 195 pound guard, has been inconsistent all season. But when he’s on, he is one of of the more prolific scorers in the Big East. He dropped 32 earlier this season against St.John’s, 23 against DePaul, 25 against UConn and 23 against Pitt in an overtime loss. Arch has come up big when his team needs him most and when he is playing well, the rest of the team follows suit. With the ‘Cats looking to get a few wins, the freshman will have a chance to make himself a household name.
Sean Kilpatrick, Jr. G, Cincinnati — A dynamic scorer, Kilpatrick leads the Bearcats with 17.5 points per game and is second on the team in rebounds with 5.3 per. Though he has been in a shooting slump as of late—shooting over 40 percent just twice in the last five games—Kilpatrick can explode for 20-plus on any given night. While he can use his 6-4, 221-pound frame to get to the rack at will, the White Plains HS (NY) graduate tends to rely on the three too much—he’s shot 10 or more threes in eight different games this year. If he plays more like the way he did to start the year than end it, Cincy has a shot at making some noise this week and make it to the conference final for the second straight year.
Other Notables – Gorgui Dieng, Jr. C Lousiville, Jakarr Sampson, Fr. F, St.John’s, Bryce Cotton, Jr. G, Providence, Eric Atkins, Jr. G, Notre Dame.
Louisville — The Cards are the hot team coming in and have the talent and know-how to take home the crown for the second straight year. Russ Smith will be named MVP and the Cards steal a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.