Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Big East Blowout
By Ben Valentine

Well it’s mid February. That can only mean one thing… it’s almost time for college basketball to make its annual run to the forefront of even the casual sportsfan’s mind with dreams of March Madness. One of the big questions heading into the final days of the regular season and conference tournaments is how many teams the Big East will get in to the big dance.

It was a question that was on everyone’s mind when the Big East expanded to its monster proportions this season, with the additions of DePaul, Marquette, Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida. Would the depth of the conference hurt or help it? Well today I venture into the world or predictions as I take a glimpse at what the future lies in store for my favorite college basketball conference. Who’s in, who’s out, you know, the usual stuff you’ve seen since October but didn’t bother to start paying attention to until now. And to start, we’ll go with the easy ones:

Invitations In the Mail- UConn, Villanova, Pittsburgh

Locked in Because: All three teams have 20 wins in a major conference. They could all lose out and still make it easily. Oh yeah and UConn (23-2) and Nova (20-2) are probably the best two teams in the country. That probably has something to do with it too.

Shining up their best shoes- West Virginia, Marquette, Georgetown, Syracuse

West Virginia Mountaineers (18-7)

Reason they look good:
They’ve been in the top 25 for a while. They’re 9-3 in conference. They’ve got wins against Marquette, Villanova and Cincinnati along with two victories over Georgetown. They also have out of conference wins against UCLA and Oklahoma. So that’s seven wins against teams that could well be heading to the big dance.

But Don’t Lock It Up Yet: They’re not at 20 wins yet. They don’t have an easy schedule, on the road for Syracuse and Cincinnati and home for Louisville and Pitt. Now, they probably could get in right now, with their very strong strength of schedule, but losing all but one of their remaining games (Big East Tourney included) would look poor.

Verdict: I’m going to be stuck debating if I’m should pencil the Mountaineers for being upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Marquette Golden Eagles: (18-8)

Reason they look good:
They’re one of only two teams to beat UConn this year… and they absolutely trashed them, 94-79. At 18 wins, that’s probably good enough to get them in. To top it off, they just defeated Georgetown and Pittsburgh in their last two. To finish up they’ve got to head to Louisville and South Bend before coming home to face bottom feeder Providence. They should get to 19 before the Big East tourney and could pick another win up there.

But Don’t Lock it Up Yet: A loss to Rutgers shows that Marquette can have its off nights. Road games are never easy and they’ve got two of them; against a desperate Louisville team and a Notre Dame team that is a lot better than people think. So 20 wins is no certainty.

Verdict: Marquette ends up a 10 seed. A hot Big East tournament could do wonders for their placement though.

Georgetown Hoyas (17-6)

Reason They Look Good:
A win over Duke. Duke! That’s like worth five victories over UConn, especially in the world of Dick Vitale. They’re currently 8-4 in the top conference in the sport. They’ve got a home game against Rutgers which should get them to 18, and a road game against South Florida to get them to 19, along with Nova on the road and Syracuse at home. 19 with that Duke win is probably good enough anyway but they’ll get three shots at 20. Oh and they have an RPI of 26.

Don’t Lock It Up Yet: Any slip up against Rutgers or South Florida could erase a lot of the Duke memory. That’s really about it though.

Verdict: If you’re in the top 25 this late in the year, you’re a virtual lock. It would take a monumental collapse for them not to make it.

Syracuse Orange: (18-8)

Reason they look good:
They look pretty good to get to 19 wins having DePaul on their schedule. They feature a tough threesome in addition, at Georgetown and home for West Virginia and Villanova. But a win against any of those three would also probably be enough to get them in. Remember too, they are Syracuse. Never discount the reputation of a big time program and a big time coach in Jim Boeheim. (Hey it’s the Tar Heels’ only hope this year) Currently they rank 28th in RPI.

But Don’t Lock it Up Yet: Syracuse has been inconsistent all year and could lose out. If that happens, with a lack of impressive wins on their schedule, it will be hard for them to sneak in with 18.

Verdict: I don’t see them losing out. And even if all three of the good teams beat them and they only manage a win over DePaul, they still have the Big East tournament to get that 20th win. They’re not good, but the win total and rep will carry them through.

Feeling Good, Though No One Notices: Cincinnati Bearcats (18-9)

Why they might dance:
Win total and reputation. They only have three games left to get to 19, and they are against Nova, and West Virginia at home with Seton Hall on the road in between. But a win in any would put them in good shape. Two wins makes them locks. Their RPI is currently 32.

Why they could sit: They could easily lose out. Nova and West Virginia are much better and a road game is never easy, especially against a similar team in Seton Hall. 18 wins and losing out won’t cut it, even with their reputation.

Verdict: Tough out. While they look great win total wise right now, I’m not sure they can win another game. One victory is all it will take though, especially if it came against Nova, West Virginia or a good team in the Big East tournament.

Bubbling Worse Than A Bad Diet Pepsi Commercial: Seton Hall (16-8)

Why they should be nervous:
The Hall seemed in poised position to go dancing after a win over Georgetown. Then on Saturday they got trashed at home by Notre Dame. Again, Notre Dame is better than people give them credit for, but due to their record the loss will look bad for the Pirates. Their only impressive win outside of the Georgetown game is NC State, and without their rep, they’ll need to get to at least 19 wins, probably 20.

Why they have a shot: Their schedule the rest of the way is favorable. Even though they face both St. John’s and DePaul on the road, they are St. John’s and DePaul. That could get them to 18 wins with three chances to get to 19. They also have an RPI rating of 34, which is better than Marquette and George Washington.

Verdict: They have a slightly better track record than Louisville, but haven’t done enough to impress. In a deep conference, with competitors like Cincinnati, Georgetown and Lousiville with better reputations, it’s hard to see the Hall getting in short of 20 wins. And I don’t think they’ll get there. The Notre Dame loss is the back breaker.

Hey Remember People Thought They Were Cool: Louisville Cardinals (16-9)

Why they’re in deep trouble:
16 Wins, middle of February. Losses to teams in conference who now have one or two more victories than them already. Brutal final games. May not make conference tournament. The Big East already has a ton of teams with better credentials. Need I say more?

But why they’re still around: They’re Louisville and they have 16 wins. If they can get to 19, considering where they were at the start of the year and the injury to Taquan Dean, they’d probably get in. The chances aren’t stellar, and they’d need a win in the Big East tournament. If they don’t make that, you can kiss them goodbye.

Verdict: Surprise, they’ll get in. Why? While their win total isn’t pretty, they have rep on their side and a marquee player and coach. They should beat DePaul at home to get to 17 wins and then a win over West Virginia, UConn or Marquette probably will be enough to get them in. Do you see the selection committee turning down Rick Pitino with 18 or 19 wins? Despite how poor they’ve been this year, I don’t see it happening.

So my prediction is for, at the very least, eight Big East teams to make it. It may seem outlandish, but all of the teams mentioned here have a good number of wins and strong RPI ratings, much higher than their counterparts from other conferences like the ACC. If anything I expect the number to have a better chance of going up than going down.

But we shall see. It is only February after all. The Madness has yet to begin.

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