Commentary

Day 1: What happened to the Big East?

Originally Published: March 18, 2010
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Ohio had no shot to beat Georgetown. Robert Morris had no shot to beat Villanova.

Why would you think otherwise?

Georgetown was a Da'Sean Butler jumper away from winning the Big East tournament title over West Virginia. The Hoyas have wins over a pair of No. 1 seeds (Syracuse and Duke) on their résumé.

What does Ohio have? Well, the Bobcats finished with a losing record in the MAC and were the ninth seed in the conference tournament, so they had to go to Ball State and win in overtime in a first-round league tourney game to even get to the real deal in Cleveland, where the Bobcats had to knock off league favorites Kent State and Akron.

Meanwhile, Robert Morris did win the Northeast Conference with a road win at Quinnipiac in the tournament title game (the two schools tied for the conference's best regular-season record). But this is the NEC, where guaranteed, one-way games against high-majors are the norm.

[+] EnlargeDeVaughn Washington
Elsa/Getty ImagesDeVaughn Washington and Ohio dispatched the Hoyas with shocking ease Thursday.

Yet there were the MAC and the NEC, going toe-to-toe with a pair of Big East powers in the Providence, R.I., subregional -- Ohio beat third-seeded Georgetown 97-83 and Robert Morris led second-seeded Villanova for most of the game before falling 73-70 in OT.

Who saw that coming?

"It's not crazy to think that," said Ohio freshman D.J. Cooper of the pregame projection made by many of us so-called experts about the Bobcats' chances. "We understand where ya'll coming from. We needed something to motivate us. It put a chip on our shoulder.

"We want to see if there is a major difference with the Big East," Cooper said. "We always see them playing at Madison Square Garden with the big announcers. We know we had nothing to lose. But we know how we prepare to play other people. I know Chris Wright [of Georgetown] is a little taller and has more weight than me, but sometimes you just get overlooked."

Let's be clear here. There are a number of reasons why Georgetown lost to Ohio in stunning fashion Thursday. The Hoyas had their worst defensive effort of the year, allowing open looks for the Bobcats all night. But Ohio still had to have the skill to knock down the shots, and it did in converting 13-of-23 3s.

Villanova did finally beat RMU, but only after star guard Scottie Reynolds finally made a 3-pointer and continued to get to the free-throw line.

Let's face it: It was a dreadful day for the Big East, the conference most consider to be the nation's best. Granted, the league's two losses in the 6-seed vs. 11-seed games weren't all that shocking. Old Dominion, which defeated 6-seed Notre Dame, won this season at Georgetown and claimed an undervalued Colonial Athletic Association championship (regular season and tournament). Washington, which upset 6-seed Marquette, won the Pac-10 tournament and was one of the more talented teams out West despite a season of underachievement. Nevertheless, for the Big East, 1-3 is 1-3.

But let's deal with the common denominator here in Providence. Ohio coach John Groce said you've got to have quality guards to pull off these upsets. Both Robert Morris and Ohio had point guards who were clearly under-recruited. RMU freshman Karon Abraham was the best guard on the court for most of the game, finishing with 23 points and at least five rainbow 3s that were the equalizers and put the pressure on Villanova.

Meanwhile, Ohio's Cooper came from Chicago, playing behind Cal's Jerome Randle earlier in his high school career. Groce said he noticed Cooper when he first got the job and went to watch a big man at the Peach Jam summer tournament in Augusta, Ga. Groce called back to his staff to say he found the point guard who could run his up-tempo offense with the ability to change speeds.

Cooper finished with 23 points. Georgetown's Wright scored 28, but his backcourt mate, Austin Freeman, scored only nine. So Cooper was able to stay on equal footing with the Big East elite. Cooper said his slight frame might have been the difference.

And to pull off such an upset, you also need someone like guard Armon Bassett. Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that every player on a roster like Ohio's has never had a run at a higher level. Bassett was at Indiana under Kelvin Sampson before he was essentially booted out for reportedly failing drug tests. He then went to UAB for roughly nine months before landing at Ohio, where he had been in touch with Groce, who knew his past and was able to give him a fresh start.

"He brought some of this on himself," Groce said. "I've known him since he was 13 years old. I've known his mother. I was able to sift through all of this and gave an opportunity to turn the corner."

Bassett missed the first three games of the season after transferring (Ohio is on the quarter system). He averaged 29 points in the MAC tournament to help lead the Bobcats to the automatic berth.

"He didn't come into his own until the last three weeks," Groce said.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Cooper and Armon Bassett
AP Photo/Winslow Townson D.J. Cooper (left, 23 pts) and Armon Bassett (32 pts) combined for 55 points against the Hoyas.

"I had a rocky start and it took a while for me to get up to speed," Bassett said. "I had to go to a place and to play for a coach who understood me. Coach Groce recruited me [prior to Indiana]. They know me. I need to play for a coach like that in my last stop. I'm a different person."

This Ohio team has been through quite a lot. Tommy Freeman's mother passed away prior to the season. Steven Coleman, who the staff says might be the Bobcats' best shooter, broke his right (shooting) hand 10 games into the season (he was averaging 40 percent on 3s and putting up 11 points a game). Marquis Horne left the team. Jay Kinney was let go. Minor suspensions were handed out to Bassett and DeVaughn Washington during the season for violating team rules.

"We've had some tough times," said Freeman, who made three 3s against Georgetown. "We just kept getting one big play after another. Armon put this team on his shoulders during the MAC championship. We think it's hard for teams to prepare for our multiple weapons."

Georgetown coach John Thompson III gave full credit to Ohio's offense. He said every time the Hoyas tried to slow the Bobcats down, they came back.

"It was difficult to watch," Thompson III said. "It's disappointing. We're a team with no seniors. That's no excuse. This will be a different group next year and a better group next year."

That's assuming Greg Monroe returns for his junior season, which is hardly a given -- despite his postgame assurance that he'll be back.

"I give credit to that backcourt," Thompson said. "They were poised and had the ability to make the right decisions. They took advantage of what was in front of them."

The Big East can avenge its poor Day 1 performance with wins on Friday by top-seeded Syracuse (West), ninth-seeded Louisville (South), third-seeded Pitt (West) and second-seeded West Virginia (East).

But for one day, the Big East was exposed by teams that were hungrier, a bit feistier and loaded with players who genuinely feel they can compete on a neutral court.

Groce said to remember that it's one game, not a best-of-seven. And that is the beauty of the NCAA tournament -- and always has been.

One game. One result. One team goes home. One team moves on.

What an event.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com