- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
- 0 Shares
NEW YORK -- In 1985, the high point in its history, the Big East fielded three teams in the Final Four: Villanova, Georgetown and St. John's. None of those teams qualified for this year's NCAA Tournament -- but three Big East teams that did are legitimate national championship contenders.
Let's begin with the Pittsburgh Panthers (26-4), the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, who captured their first Big East tournament title Saturday night with a convincing 74-56 win over Connecticut. Pittsburgh held the high-flying Huskies to 32-percent shooting in the second half. And their stifling team defense is their biggest asset heading into the Big Dance -- they're tied for fifth in the nation, allowing only 58.8 points per game.
"Some nights your offense is firing on all cylinders, other nights it's not," said Pitt coach Ben Howland. "Your defense and your rebounding are the constants that allow you to win championships."
But Pitt's offense isn't off often -- in fact, they're third in the country in field-goal percentage, shooting an astounding 57.4 percent. Six players average in double figures, all between 10 and 12 points per game -- so if one player struggles on a given night, it's no big deal. For instance, forward Donatas Zavackas was on fire in the first two Big East tournament games, averaging 17.5 ppg. But when he cooled off in the championship contest, fellow forward Jaron Brown, who scored only two points against Boston College in the semis, heated up with 19 points.
The Panthers are also an experienced bunch, starting three seniors and two juniors. And they're hungry. They finally got that elusive Big East championship after appearing in the title game three consecutive years. Now they're equally determined to improve on last year's NCAA performance, when they were ousted in overtime by Kent State in the Sweet 16.
"We want to make history," said point guard Brandin Knight. And they can -- although they could end up facing Kentucky, the hottest team in the country, in the Midwest regional final.
The big question with Pittsburgh? Will it be 100 percent healthy? Knight limped his way through the Big East championship game with a strained tendon in his right ankle. Leading rebounder Chevon Troutman is also recovering from an ankle injury, and missed the Big East quarterfinals. Both showed a lot of guts at Madison Square Garden.
The bottom line is, this team has never been more confident. The Panthers haven't left the top 10 all season; two of their four losses were at Syracuse and Notre Dame by two points apiece; and they've won nine games in a row heading to Boston for a first-round matchup with Wagner and then either Indiana or Alabama in the second round.
Look for Pittsburgh to extend that streak to double digits on the way to Minneapolis, Minn.
As for Connecticut (21-9), the Big East runner-ups? This is a streaky young team, but watch out if the Huskies get hot, like they were for most of the Big East tournament.
Jim Calhoun's teams usually play well in the postseason. UConn does have four freshmen in their rotation, but their upperclassmen have some quality experience after last year's run to the Elite Eight.
"We have no excuse about being young 30 games into the season," said Calhoun. "Youth has nothing to do with anything."
Two seniors who come off the bench, guard Tony Robertson and forward Mike Hayes, provide leadership for this club. And having junior point guard Taliek Brown back after breaking an index finger has stabilized their offense -- he had a terrific Big East tournament.
But the keys are UConn's two star sophomores, Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor. Gordon can kill teams from the perimeter, averaging 19.5 ppg. And Okafor is a monster inside -- averaging 15.5 ppg and 11 rpg. He's also blocking 4.7 shots per game, an average even better than Patrick Ewing's numbers within the Big East.
Losing in the Big East tournament -- a tournament UConn has dominated of late -- could actually motivate the Huskies and help them refocus. And add in the emotional boost they've gotten since Calhoun's successful comeback from prostate cancer, and you've got a very dangerous No. 5 seed in the South.
The team that UConn defeated in the Big East semifinals, Syracuse (24-5), may actually have the best shot of the three to make it to New Orleans. They're a No. 3 seed in the East, playing relatively close to home in Boston and (potentially) Albany. Plus their freshman sensation, Carmelo Anthony, is averaging 22.7 points and 10 boards per game, and is a player who can take over an entire game -- not to mention an entire NCAA Tournament. He's always dreamed of playing in the Big Dance, and this may be his only chance before the NBA comes calling.
While Anthony can handle the rock and shoot the 3, he really emphasized his post game in the Big East tournament -- pounding away on the block, where is he very effective at finishing and getting to the foul line.
But that also invites more double-teams -- which will put more pressure on his teammates. Point guard Gerry McNamara, another freshman, and swingman Kueth Duany can light it up from the perimeter when they're on (both need to shoot better than they did in the Big East tourney). Forward Hakim Warrick can also take advantage of the attention being paid to Anthony by following up Anthony's misses on the offensive boards.
The question mark with the 'Cuse is their youth -- they're even more inexperienced than UConn, starting two freshmen and two sophomores. After their semifinal loss to UConn, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, "This was the first game where our youth really showed. But I think this team will bounce back."
The Big East's fourth and final Dancer, Notre Dame (22-9), is another team that needs to bounce back. They had an amazing run earlier in the season, winning eight in a row from late November to early January -- including three straight victories against Marquette, Maryland and Texas -- all top-10 teams at the time. But the Fighting Irish have lost four of five, including a first-round loss in the Big East tourney to St. John's.
Perhaps the long layoff since that game could help Notre Dame regroup. They still have a lot of talent, especially their outstanding point guard Chris Thomas and sharpshooter Matt Carroll. But it's hard to consider them a Final Four contender, especially as a No. 5 seed in the stacked West region.
Of course, it wasn't all good news for the Big East on Selection Sunday -- Boston College and Seton Hall were arguably two of the biggest snubs by the selection committee. Both had a 10-6 record in conference play.
Seton Hall recovered from a 7-9 start to win nine games in a row at one stage, including a 12-point win over Pitt. The Pirates beat Miami in the first round of the Big East tournament, before succumbing to Connecticut. Boston College also bounced back from a shaky start to win 10 of their final 13. They received a bye and then defeated St. John's in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, after which coach Al Skinner said he believed his team was simply playing for a seed.
In the case of these two teams, it appears the selection committee turned them down because of a lack of "quality" wins. Seton Hall was 2-8 against the field of 65 -- BC was 2-6. While BC did tie for the best record in the East division of the conference, that division was clearly the weaker of the two -- three of the Big East's four NCAA teams came from the West (Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame). And both Seton Hall and BC were blown out late in the year by eventual Big East tourney finalists -- the Pirates lost to Pitt by 32, the Eagles to UConn by 37.
That's not to say that either of those teams didn't deserve a bid. The Big East was stronger this season than many people think. St. John's, which finished 7-9 in the conference, defeated Duke late in the season. The four teams that received bids are battle-tested after the tournament they just went through. Plus they are well-prepared for whatever opponent they will face, after dealing with the vastly different styles played by the likes of Pittsburgh and Connecticut.
"Hopefully we can get three or four of us from the Big East together in New Orleans," Ben Howland said last week, "just like the good old days."
Well, it's not 1985. But watch out for the Big East's big three in 2003.
Kieran Darcy is a writer for ESPN The Magazine and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
6dAndy Katz and David Purdum
5dESPN The Magazine