In what other league can the 12th place team claim to have beaten a team that two different times held the number 1 spot in the AP and Coaches’ Polls? Answer: None. And that is why this Big East Tournament, open to all 16 teams for the first time ever, will be the best conference tournament of them all. How could it not be? There are as many teams in this tournament as there are in the NBA and NHL playoffs. There aren’t even this many teams in the entire MLS! Sure, any team finishing in the bottom half will have to win five games in five days, but if they can’t manage to finish in the top half of a 16-team league in the regular season, shouldn’t it be hard to then win the conference tournament? With that in mind, seven guaranteed “lock” teams, one square bubble team, three teams in desperation mode, and five teams dreaming of the impossible will descend on the World’s Most Famous Arena under the brightest of bright lights for the chance to be crowned champions of the best conference in the country.
Note: All games to be played at Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
1. Louisville (25-5, 16-2) – The Cardinals earned the league’s top spot by only having to play Pitt and UConn once each. They beat the Panthers and lost to the Huskies, both at Freedom Hall, so the jury is still out on whether they can beat either of those two teams at a neutral site. They also got creamed by 33 at Notre Dame, but the good news is they’ll avoid all three of those teams until the finals. Terrance Williams might very well be the most complete player in the league, and he’ll get a shot to show it on the big stage. A finals appearance could go a long way towards earning Louisville a number 1 seed.
2. Pittsburgh (28-3, 15-3) – A very senior laden team, Pitt relies on the trio of Levance Fields, DeJaun Blair, and Sam Young to lead the way, and there might not be a better top three in the game right now. The Panthers earned a season sweep of UConn in the final game of the regular season, setting up a potential three game run of West Virginia (for a third time), UConn (for a third time), and then the finals. As good as this team is, it might be asking a bit much to beat two teams for a third time each, but if anyone can pull it off, a team led by Fields-Blair-Young would certainly be the one to do it.
3. Connecticut (27-3, 15-3) – If not for some inconsistent play from Hasheem Thabeet against Pitt and the injury to Jerome Dyson, this team could be undefeated. The Panthers are the only team to beat UConn in 2009, and the Huskies would love a third crack at them in the semis. They’ll likely have to get past Syracuse in the quarters first, not an easy task considering Jim Boeheim’s success at Madison Square Garden in the past. As far as fan support, UConn-‘Cuse would be the best atmosphere of any game in the tournament, with Syracuse trying to do to UConn what the Huskies would be trying to do to Pitt – avoid dropping 3 games to the same team.
4. Villanova (25-6, 13-5) – If you take the title exactly as it says, then the Most Valuable Player in the Big East this season, without a shadow of a doubt, Scottie Reynolds. There is no more important player to his team than the Nova guard, who despite finishing behind Dante Cunningham in scoring on the team, is absolutely the go-to guy in any big situation. The injury to Marquette’s Dominic James is the primary reason the Cats will get the extra day of rest, and they should have enough to force a meeting with Louisville in the semis Friday night.
5. Marquette (23-8, 12-6) – What was once a potential Final Four team suddenly has the look of a first round out, all because of one injury. Marquette’s season took a drastic turn when James went down, and they come into the Big East tournament losers of four straight. Granted, those losses were to UConn, Louisville, Pitt, and Syracuse, but aren’t those the same teams the Golden Eagles will have to beat at some point to win this thing? Three of their other four losses are also respectable (Nova, Dayton, and Tennessee), but the possibility of facing a nothing-to-lose Georgetown team for their first game has to scare first-year coach Buzz Williams and his troops.
6. Syracuse (23-8, 11-7) – The win over Marquette in the final game gave Syracuse the perfect conference bookends – four wins to start and four wins to end conference play. The issue is the 3-7 mark in between, as well as the 0-5 record against the top four seeds. The Orange have always owned MSG and, consequently, the Big East Tournament, but this is no longer Gerry McNamara, Carmelo Anthony, and Hakeem Warrick. Still, if someone outside the big three is going to make the extended run and steal the auto berth, the ‘Cuse might be as good a pick as any.
7. West Virginia (21-10, 10-8) – And to think where this team would be with Joe Alexander still in school. That aside, the Mountaineers have followed a similar trajectory as Syracuse, beating the bad teams and losing to the top teams, aside from WVU’s thrashing of Nova in Morgantown. Like Marquette, Bob Huggins’ crew could be facing a Notre Dame team operating in do-or-die mode in their first game Wednesday, so just getting to Pitt would be a minor achievement for them, but if and when they get there, don’t be surprised if the Mountaineers stun the Panthers. Despite all of Pitt’s senior experience, winning three rivalry games in one season is a truly difficult task, and with DeSean Butler at the helm, West Virginia is capable of exploding at any time.
8. Providence (18-12, 10-8) – The only bubble in the building will be the one around the Friars, who will need to beat Cincinnati, and most likely Louisville as well, to go dancing. They did beat then-No. 1 Pitt 81-73 in Rhode Island, but that’s where the resume drops off considerably. Wins over Cincinnati twice and also Syracuse in conference will help, as will a nonconference win over in-state rival and fellow bubbler Rhode Island, but there are a lot of negatives to overcome as well. They suffered six double digit losses – 18 to Baylor, 33 to UConn, 27 to WVU, 18 to Louisville, 19 to ND and 17 to Nova to end the season. Providence needs to think semis for a shot at an at-large.
10. Notre Dame
11. Seton Hall
Two teams have a shot to make a run here – Notre Dame and Georgetown. The Irish have a favorable draw with Rutgers, West Virginia, and then UConn, a team with whom Notre Dame stood toe-to-toe for almost 40 minutes. They can hang their hat on a 33-point drubbing of Louisville, but they need at least three wins and more like four or five to erase a 7-game conference losing streak from the committee’s mind. Meanwhile Georgetown has wins over UConn and Nova, but losses to Seton Hall, Cincinnati twice, and the very same St. John’s team they’ll open against. For Hall and Cincy, the object is to win game one, take a good swing at Syracuse and Providence, and maybe break into the quarterfinals on Thursday.
13. St. John’s
14. South Florida
St. John’s will look to duplicate their 59-56 win over Georgetown in overtime in front of the hometown fans and take their own shot at reeling Marquette, and could do it depending on what Hoyas team shows up. South Florida knocked off Marquette with Dominic James back in January and also beat Cincinnati, so upset potential does lurk. The same cannot really be said for either Rutgers or DePaul, especially the winless Blue Demons. Expect Cincinnati to hand DePaul its 19 conference defeat and mercifully end a season Jerry Wainwright and his crew would like to forget.
Analysis: Compelling storyline abound, creating potentially the greatest conference tournament for any conference, ever. With Cincinnati, Georgetown, Seton Hall, and Notre Dame all desperate for victories, Tuesday should hold true to form. Expect Marquette’s slump to continue with a loss to the puzzling Hoyas with Providence, West Virginia, and Syracuse joining them in the quarters. That would create a quarterfinal quartet of Providence-Louisville (Friars needing the bubble win, Cardinals in the hunt for a 1 seed), Georgetown-Villanova (Hoyas trying to make a late run for the auto berth, Cats hoping to play first two rounds in Philly), West Virginia-Pitt (Mountaineers trying to avoid losing 3 to hated rival, Panthers hoping, like UL, for number 1 seed), and Syracuse-UConn (Two 800+ win coaches, both Orange and Huskies playing for seeding in another rivalry game). That would be a good NATIONAL Elite Eight. In this one, though, Georgetown’s run ends, Providence has to sweat out Selection Sunday, West Virginia can’t stop Pitt’s big 3 and UConn loses focus, allowing the Orange to stun the Huskies and advance. The top two seeds then advance from the semis to play Saturday night for the conference championship, with both Pitt and Louisville earning number 1 seeds in the Field of 65.