Commentary

Big East has depth, the element of surprise this season

Originally Published: January 29, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (tickets for Monday's game between 0-21 New Jersey Institute of Technology (1) and 4-20 Longwood (2) sold separately -- and cheaply):

Wild, Wild East


When the Big East (3) supersized itself three years ago, it promoted itself as the best basketball league in the land. That's hard to back up with one Final Four team and no national titles in two full seasons. But here in Year 3, the conference can stake indisputable claim to the least predictable league in the land.

There were eight games involving Big East teams over the weekend. Underdogs won half of them and covered the spread in three of the others. Syracuse's seven-point victory over Providence -- secured by a 15-8 closing burst -- was the only time a favorite lived up to Las Vegas' pregame expectations.

Weekends like that are why the Big East in basketball is starting to resemble the SEC in football: There are no soft spots on the 18-game schedule. Anything can happen on a given night, and it already has.

Tom Crean
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesTom Crean's Marquette team has stumbled on the road this season because there "are no weak links" in the Big East.

"It's the toughest league in the history of college basketball," said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin (4), whose Bearcats are competitive a year ahead of schedule. "You may say the Pac-10 is a better league. Well, our league is definitely deeper. It's a death struggle every game."

Said Marquette's Tom Crean (5): "When there are no weak links in the league, you can't have any weak links on your team. When certain conferences have two, three, four teams getting a lot of attention, they're probably good and deserving of it. But it also means the teams at the bottom of the league probably aren't very good. We don't have that."

Rutgers looked like a potential patsy after an 0-6 league start. So what have the Scarlet Knights done since then? Beaten two ranked teams (Villanova and Pittsburgh) by double digits. Rutgers outscored Nova 16-2 to start the game and outscored Pitt 39-17 to finish the game -- the latter on the road.

Even the team that has established itself alone in first place is hardly bulletproof. Georgetown is 6-1 in Big East play, but half of those wins are by a total of six points and required an extraordinary escape. Against Connecticut, the Hoyas needed a 3-pointer by 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert with six seconds left to win by three. Against Syracuse, a Jonny Flynn 3 just lipped out at the buzzer of overtime. And Saturday against West Virginia, the Hoyas needed a Patrick Ewing Jr. shot block at the rim at the buzzer to win by one.

"They're winning, and that experience of winning close games has got to help them," Crean said. "But the games have been so close, it's going to give everyone else confidence they can beat them."

Between the top and bottom, there are 11 teams with either three or four league losses.

"It's going to be a jumbled mess at the end in the middle," Cronin said. "But there are a lot of teams good enough to go in [the NCAA Tournament] -- maybe 12. The question is whether we'll ever get nine or 10 in."

That day may be March 16, 2008 ... Selection Sunday. In Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology, eight Big East teams are in and two are among the first four out.

So how will the Selection Committee decide who is the best of those huddled masses yearning to dance? Good question -- especially without a full home-and-home schedule. The Minutes eyeballs what the top 13 teams in league play have accomplished thus far:

Georgetown (6)
Record: 16-2, 6-1 Big East
RPI: 9
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 41
Loved 'em when: The Hoyas drilled Notre Dame by 19 points on Jan. 19.
Doubted 'em when: They had to pull out two home games by a total of five points.
Bottom line: Size, shot selection and ability to control pace makes the Hoyas the team to beat.

Notre Dame (7)
Record: 14-4, 4-2 Big East
RPI: 41
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 43
Loved 'em when: The Irish finally won a road game, at Villanova on Saturday.
Doubted 'em when: They were housed at Marquette by 26 on Jan. 12.
Bottom line: The Fighting Irish have played a tough schedule to get this far, and it eases up a bit from here on out. If they can sharpen up defensively and get tougher on the road, they'll be in the hunt the whole way.

Louisville (8)
Record: 15-6, 5-3 Big East
RPI: 36
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 84
Loved 'em when: The Cardinals got healthy in January and blew out West Virginia and Marquette.
Doubted 'em when: They opened Big East play with a loss at home to Cincinnati.
Bottom line: The Cardinals were expected to contend for the league title, and with three league losses by a total of 13 points, they've had chances to win every league game. The question is whether they have the basketball IQ to execute in close-game situations.

Connecticut (9)
Record: 15-5, 5-3 Big East
RPI: 23
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 59
Loved 'em when: Right now, riding a four-game winning streak that includes three victories over RPI top 40 opposition.
Doubted 'em when: The Huskies lost at home to Providence.
Bottom line: UConn is starting to flex its muscles now, winning two big games in three days without leading scorer Jerome Dyson. The Huskies are emerging as Georgetown's biggest threat.

Pittsburgh (10)
Record: 16-4, 4-3 Big East
RPI: 18
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 95
Loved 'em when: The Panthers handed Georgetown its only league loss.
Doubted 'em when: They were smoked at home by Rutgers.
Bottom line: The Panthers circled the wagons and responded immediately after a rash of injuries hit -- but now it seems to be catching up with them. With eight top 50 RPI opponents left, it will be difficult for an undermanned team to stay in the race.

Marquette (11)
Record: 14-4, 4-3 Big East
RPI: 20
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 50
Loved 'em when: The Golden Eagles have played at home (4-0 in league play).
Doubted 'em when: They've played on the road (0-3 in league play, with all the losses by double digits).
Bottom line: The Golden Eagles need to summon some inside strength and production to contend in a league that's never weak in the paint.

Bob Huggins
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesBob Huggins has added some grit to the Mountaineer defense.
West Virginia (12)
Record: 15-5, 4-3 Big East
RPI: 32
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 60
Loved 'em when: The Mountaineers have scored in the 60s (4-0 in league games).
Doubted 'em when: They've scored in the 50s (0-3).
Bottom line: This is a mature team that values the ball and has improved its defense under Bob Huggins. With only three RPI top 50 opponents left, the hardest part of the league schedule is behind the Mountaineers now. They could be the Big East's biggest surprise when all is said and done.

Seton Hall (13)
Record: 14-6, 4-3 Big East
RPI: 51
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 54
Loved 'em when: Right now, riding a current four-game winning streak.
Doubted 'em when: The Pirates opened league play 0-3.
Bottom line: The Hall is hot right now and has a chance to keep rolling at Rutgers on Wednesday. If the Pirates defend their new home court and snare a couple of road wins, they'll finish in the upper division. And nobody saw that coming.

DePaul (14)
Record: 9-10, 4-3 Big East
RPI: 118
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 73
Loved 'em when: The Blue Demons rebounded from a 2-7 overall start by winning three of their first four Big East games.
Doubted 'em when: They head into a remaining schedule that includes only one game in which the Blue Demons should definitely be favored (home against South Florida on Feb. 9).
Bottom line: If freshmen Mac Koshwal and Dar Tucker (combining to average 24.8 points and 13.4 rebounds) avoid hitting the rookie wall, DePaul will continue to be tough to beat. But the Demons won't win many easily, either.

Syracuse (15)
Record: 14-7, 4-4 Big East
RPI: 40
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 84
Loved 'em when: The Orange took Georgetown to the wire on the road.
Doubted 'em when: They lost by 20 to West Virginia.
Bottom line: The young Orange don't own enough quality victories to impress the committee. They'll get plenty of chances to change that in a rugged final month.

Cincinnati (16)
Record: 9-11, 4-4 Big East
RPI: 112
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 53
Loved 'em when: The Bearcats played close games (4-2 in Big East games decided by single digits).
Doubted 'em when: They were 5-7 heading into conference play.
Bottom line: Athletic and tenacious, the Bearcats should be in almost every game the rest of the way, but they might not have the offensive firepower to win half of them.

Providence (17)
Record: 12-7, 3-4 Big East
RPI: 50
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 77
Loved 'em when: The Friars shocked Connecticut on the road by a dozen.
Doubted 'em when: They lost at home to Seton Hall by a baker's dozen.
Bottom line: The Friars are scrappy but don't look solid enough defensively to be around for the long haul.

Villanova (18)
Record: 13-5, 3-4 Big East
RPI: 61
Average RPI of league opponents to date: 87
Loved 'em when: The Wildcats won by 10 at Syracuse.
Doubted 'em when: They followed that Syracuse win with consecutive blowout losses to Notre Dame and Rutgers.
Bottom line: A penchant for slow starts has caught up with Nova. This looks like an NIT team.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Hickson
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDespite the stellar play of freshman J.J. Hickson, the Wolfpack have struggled.

Tobacco Road's dead end


Duke (19) is back to being Duke (17-1, 5-0 ACC, ranked third nationally) after a one-year hiatus as a fairly ordinary program. North Carolina (20) continues to be North Carolina (19-1, 4-1 ACC, ranked fourth), gunning for a second national title in four seasons. Meanwhile, dysfunctional neighbor North Carolina State (21) has maddeningly remained North Carolina State (13-6, 2-3 ACC, unranked).

That was not the preseason forecast. The Wolfpack returned four starters from a team that caught the nation's fancy with a surprising advance to the final of the ACC tournament, and added McDonald's All-American J.J. Hickson to the mix. NC State started the season ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2004.

Losses to New Orleans and East Carolina quickly dispatched the Pack back to the pack. Losing by 23 to Michigan State, 31 to North Carolina and 16 to Clemson didn't help matters. If you're drawing up a list of the nation's most disappointing teams, NC State has to be on it.

The Wolfpack hasn't found a solid replacement for graduated point guard Engin Atsur, and returning postmen Brandon Costner and Ben McCauley have shriveled playing alongside Hickson. Costner's scoring is down from 16.8 points per game to 9.6, his rebounds are down from 7.3 to 5.3, and his shooting percentage dropped from 47.4 to 37.9. McCauley has gone from 14.4 points per game to 5.7, his assists from 3.2 to 1.5, and his shooting percentage plummeted from 58.4 to 41.4.

Since the Pack won their last national title and made their last Final Four in 1983, Duke has been there 10 times and won three titles, while Carolina has made seven Final Fours and won two titles. At this point, it looks like another year of State fans watching their rivals earn all the glory.

Jim Valvano
Win a championship, and look for someone to hug.

Reader Bucket List


Last week, The Minutes came up with its own college basketball "Bucket List": 10 hoops things to do before kicking the bucket. Invitations were extended to readers to kick in their own. The top 10 reader submissions:

•  To sit on the bench of the Minnesota Gophers at Williams Arena (22) to experience a game below floor level.

•  Run onto the exact court from the exact spot Jim Valvano (23) ran onto after the Cardiac Pack upset Houston, and just look for someone to hug.

•  Spend the first weekend of March Madness at the ESPN Studios (24).

•  Shoot warm-ups with the Hoosiers in their striped warm-up pants (25).

•  Try throwing a chair (26) across the floor of Assembly Hall, maybe as part of a halftime contest against Purdue.

•  Take out a student loan to score a ticket to this season's UNC-Duke game at Cameron (27) … and show up, head to toe, in Carolina Blue. Go Heels.

•  Sit down with (ancient Kentucky equipment manager) Bill Keightley (28), 50 hot wings and a case of Falls City. He tells me everything he knows about UK sports, including off-the-record stuff.

•  Watching Billy Donovan (29) sit in a dunk tank, and Roy Williams (30) working out of the full wind-up. (Dates back to hard feelings over Mike Miller's recruitment in the late 1990s.)

•  A 6 a.m. workout with John Chaney, breakfast with Rick Majerus, golf with Jim Boeheim, lunch and film with Ben Howland, practice with Dick Bennett, fishing with Bob Knight, Happy Hour with Jerry Wainwright, dinner with Rick Barnes, a home visit with Bruce Pearl and late night with Bob Huggins.

•  Be on the bench when that 16 seed (31) takes down a 1. It'll happen.

Ashley Judd
The Minutes doesn't want to be the one to have to tell Ashley Judd that Kentucky will be spending its postseason in the NIT, not the NCAA Tournament.
(Special Minutes commendation also to the reader who sent in an entire "Bucket List" of activities with Ashley Judd (32).)

Low-flying objects worth watching


Five things flying below national radar -- but perhaps not for long.

Florida (33): Is it possible for the two-time defending national champions to be underappreciated? Yes. The Baby Gators lead the SEC East at 5-1, with only a two-point loss at Mississippi separating them from unbeaten. The 34-6 opening onslaught against Vanderbilt on Sunday showed how scary Donovan's team can be -- and how soft the Commodores are. Keep an eye on Florida's next two games, at Arkansas (and former Donovan assistant John Pelphrey) on Saturday and at Tennessee on Feb. 5.

Arizona (34): Another Cadillac program that's been keeping an unusually low profile. Zona took its lumps early against a very tough schedule but has won three straight Pac-10 games and risen to No. 7 in the RPI. The Wildcats are facing a big week in Los Angeles, where lavishly gifted point guard Jerryd Bayless can match Pac-10 Freshman of the Year credentials with USC's O.J. Mayo and UCLA's Kevin Love. Bayless made 15 of 23 shots, 11 of 11 free throws and 8 of 12 3-pointers in last week's sweep of Washington and Washington State.

The top of the Sun Belt (35): The league is 15th in conference RPI but has a pair of quality teams in South Alabama and Western Kentucky. The Jaguars are 17-3 and 9-0 in league play, riding a 13-game winning streak under new/old coach Ronnie Arrow. Their three losses are by a total of 11 points, and they're compiling a strong at-large NCAA résumé. Western, led by underrated senior guard Courtney Lee, is 16-5 and 8-1. Its only league loss was by four points to South Alabama in Mobile on Jan. 5. The rematch in Bowling Green is set for Feb. 21.

Jarvis Varnado (36): Mississippi State's stringbean sophomore was anonymous last season, awesome this season -- at least when it comes to blocking shots. According to Ken Pomeroy's numbers, Varnado is blocking 18.7 percent of opponents' 2-point shots, the second-highest percentage in the nation. (Topped only by 7-foot-7 Kenny George of UNC-Asheville.) Varnardo has had three double-digit block games and is a large reason why the Bulldogs are the last unbeaten team in SEC play at 5-0.

UNLV (37): The Rebels lost four starters from a 30-win team that made the Sweet 16. Not a problem for Lon Kruger, one of the very best in the business. His team is back on top of the Mountain West Conference and already has wins over UNLV's closest competitors, BYU and San Diego State. Best sign of all for the Rebels was the fact that lone returning starter and leading scorer Wink Adams shot 5-for-18 in those two games, and they still won.

Mark Turgeon
Win McNamee/Getty ImagesMark Turgeon is looking for some love at Texas A&M.

No Whining Zone


First-year Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon (38) pushed out his pouty lip recently by saying he's in a "no-flipping-win situation" this season in College Station. If he wins, it's because Billy Gillispie left him a great team. If he loses, he's screwing up a good thing.

The Minutes acknowledges that Turgeon understands the situation perfectly, with the notable exception of the fact that nobody wants to hear a millionaire coach voice his insecurities. Your name is on those fat checks, Mark, not Billy's. Cash 'em and keep plugging.

(Gillispie, it should be noted, has landed in a no-flipping-lose situation. Kentucky fans have been quite willing to blame the Wildcats' miserable 9-9 record on Tubby Smith's spotty recruiting, while crediting Gillispie for making strides in SEC play.)

Ownership


In what must be a payback for all those years of Tom Osborne-inflicted beatings, Kansas (39) has made Nebraska its personal chew toy. You might remember that the Jayhawks hung 70 on the Cornhuskers in football, helping ensure the firing of Bill Callahan. But that was kind compared to what KU has done to NU in hoops recently.

On Saturday, Kansas got up 44-15 at halftime on its way to a 35-point rout. Earlier in the month, the Hawks won by 21 in Lincoln. Nebraska led for exactly zero seconds in the two games.

Last season was even worse. Kansas won by 53 in Lawrence and by 20 in Lincoln -- but led 43-16 at halftime of that game. Nebraska did lead 2-0 in the game at Kansas; otherwise it was all KU.

In 2005-06, Kansas won by 42 at home and 21 on the road. You have to go back to 2004-05 to find games decided by fewer than 20 points, and you have to go back to 2003-04 to find a Nebraska victory.

Buzzer Beater


The Minutes normally reserves this space for something good to eat or drink, but there's something else to mention after hearing tragic news regarding one of America's finest sportswriters, the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan (40). News came Monday that Ryan's son, Keith, died in Pakistan, where he was working as a diplomat. Earlier this month, The Minutes had a typically entertaining 30-minute discussion of all things hoops with Ryan in New Orleans at the BCS National Championship Game. Nobody in the business is more passionate than Ryan about basketball -- or whatever sport he happens to be covering at the moment, cross-country skiing included. Today Bob Ryan is at home instead of the Super Bowl, dealing with something far bigger and far sadder. He has our sympathy and prayers.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.