Big East prepares for season full of upsets
Was there ever really a favorite for the Big East regular-season title?
Clearly, this race is wide open, and tabbing any team ahead of the others may have been highly premature.
Get used to two months of unexpected results just like the season opener Monday night in Hartford, Conn., where Georgetown led from start to finish against No. 2 UConn. The reason is that nothing will go as planned when the projected top 12 teams in this league get together, regardless of venue.
"There are going to be many wacky nights like this," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said by phone Monday night. "Get used to it."
Boeheim, like many of his Big East coaching brethren, was watching Georgetown strike first by beating previously undefeated Connecticut handily, 74-63, a game that started out with the Hoyas jumping out in front 18-3.
But just when it seems cool to anoint the Hoyas as a favorite with, say, currently undefeated Pitt, Georgetown coach John Thompson III offered this dose of reality by phone from the XL Center on Monday night: "We've got to forget about this game because of what's laying in front of you. We can't be too excited. We can't relax. We can't dwell on this win because of who we have on Saturday."
"This is nothing new to me," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said by phone Monday of the supposed road upset on the first night of the season. "This conference has always been so good from top to bottom."
After hosting the Panthers, the Hoyas go to Notre Dame, host Providence and Syracuse, go to Duke for an escape from the Big East (yikes!) and then host West Virginia, before going on a three-game road trip to Seton Hall, Cincinnati and Marquette.
That just gets Georgetown through January.
"This league is brutal," Thompson III said. "It's just one game [over Connecticut]. I don't think big picture. Clearly, beating a terrific team on the road in the first game is a very, very big win and hopefully it means something. But at the same time we've got to move on."
Boeheim said what he learned -- what everyone was educated on about Georgetown on Monday -- was that "they're way better than people thought. They might not have been ready early in the year for Tennessee [a Hoyas' loss in the Old Spice Classic in November]. They're a little bit young, but not as young as everyone thought."
That's because sophomore Chris Wright was on the roster last season but was limited to 16 games due to injuries. Sophomore Austin Freeman has a season under his belt and is expected to be a vital part of the backcourt. Junior DaJuan Summers was an integral rotation player last season, and so too was senior Jessie Sapp. Oh, and the Hoyas added Greg Monroe, arguably the best passing freshman big man in the country. But in the top five, Monroe is the only one who didn't play a minute last season.
Wright and Monroe scored 16 points each and combined for six assists (four for Monroe), while Summers scored 18 and Freeman added 13. Sapp contributed with five boards.
"This group believes in each other," Thompson III said. "We want to win. We expect to win. We have a very unselfish group at both ends of the floor."
As for Monroe, Thompson III said the game comes easy to him, and for the first time, he played with foul problems (three for most of the second half) and it didn't faze him.
Thompson III said the Hoyas are much better than they were at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. During that tournament, the Hoyas weren't clicking as smoothly as they were Monday. That's to be expected. But even though Georgetown didn't win the tournament, no team in that field matured over three days as much as the Hoyas.
Gonzaga stayed consistently good during the three days. But Georgetown climbed. The Hoyas struggled to beat Wichita State in the opener, got outrun by Tennessee in the semifinal and then absolutely crushed Maryland for third place.
As for the strong start Monday against UConn, it was hardly predictable. But the Huskies missed shots and the Hoyas were on fire from 3-point range (4-of-5 to start the game). As Thompson III said, Georgetown was effective at both ends of the court and was able to get into its rhythm early.
UConn never had the lead and was unable to match its comeback against Gonzaga in Seattle on Dec. 20, when the Huskies rallied from a double-digit deficit for a thrilling overtime win.
UConn is in a hole, at least for a game, after losing serve at home. The Huskies will now have to grab a road win from one of the elite, as the Hoyas just did.
"That's a big win, there's no question about it," Boeheim said of Georgetown. "But what I think this does show is that it's going to be more difficult than anybody imagined to get through this year. It's shocking almost how good these teams are. So much will depend on the schedule as to who wins this thing."
The first punch goes to Georgetown. But by next week, the Hoyas could either be in a strong position with a 3-0 start after wins over UConn, Pitt and at Notre Dame, or could be sitting at 1-2 and scratching and clawing with everybody else.
And if that happens to Georgetown, or to any of the other top teams -- win a big game, lose a few others -- then how the NCAA tournament selection committee handles the seeding, as well as the selections out of this league, will be a story to watch come March.
"It's going to be difficult for us to get a high seed out of our conference," Dixon said. "We're just going to beat each other up. There's no question in my mind, that's what is going to happen."
It already has -- on the first night.Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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