- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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How good has the Big East been this season? Well, as of now, 11 of its 16 teams are projected to make the NCAA tournament, according to ESPN Bracketology -- shattering the record for most teams from one conference in the Big Dance.
But before we start dancing, all 16 squads will be in New York this week, treating us to what should be one of the most competitive conference tournaments college basketball has seen in some time.
Fifteen games in five days at Madison Square Garden -- sounds delicious, doesn't it? (Click here for the full schedule.) As for who will ultimately prevail -- well, let's take a look.
Pittsburgh (27-4, 15-3): The Panthers will arrive in the Big Apple as the favorites, having won the regular-season title outright. This is familiar territory for Jamie Dixon & Co. -- since the 2000-01 season, Pitt has won six total Big East championships (four regular-season, two tournament), the most of any school. Leading scorer Ashton Gibbs (16.4 ppg) hails from nearby Scotch Plains, N.J., and the 6-foot-2 junior dropped 26 on St. John's at the Garden last month. Key stat: Pitt is the second-best rebounding team in the country margin-wise, outboarding opponents by 11.0 per game.
Notre Dame (25-5, 14-4): The Fighting Irish were picked to finish seventh in the preseason and shocked many by ending up as the runners-up to Pittsburgh. Notre Dame comes in red-hot, having won four straight and 11 of 12. Senior guard Ben Hansbrough (18.5 ppg) was the only unanimous selection to the All-Big East first team. Key stat: Notre Dame is fourth in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, averaging 16.7 assists and just 10.9 turnovers per game.
Louisville (23-8, 12-6): The Cardinals were picked in the preseason to finish eighth in the Big East and had injury problems all season long, but Rick Pitino somehow guided them to a tie for third. Senior guard Preston Knowles leads the team in scoring, averaging 14.5 points, including almost three treys per game. But leading rebounder Rakeem Buckles is out the rest of the way after tearing his ACL on Feb. 27. Key stat: Louisville loves to shoot the 3 -- the Cardinals are ninth in the country in makes per game (8.8) and 10th in attempts (24.0).
Syracuse (25-6, 12-6): The Orange started the season 18-0 but then hit a rough patch, losing four straight in January, and then back-to-back games in February. But Jim Boeheim seems to have righted the ship at the right time, as the Cuse have won their past five. Four players average double figures, led by junior forward Kris Joseph (14.2 ppg). Rick Jackson averages a double-double (13.1 ppg, 10.7 rpg) -- he's 10th in the country in rebounds per game. Key stat: Syracuse is eighth in the nation in defensive field goal percentage (39.1) and second in blocked shots (6.7), utilizing its famed 2-3 zone.
St. John's (20-10, 12-6): The four teams above all have double byes into the quarterfinals, meaning they only have to win three games to take the Big East title. St. John's will have to win four -- but it's more than capable, especially considering that it's playing on its home floor. The Red Storm beat Pitt and Notre Dame at MSG earlier this season. They also got pounded at MSG by Syracuse, and on the road by Louisville and Notre Dame -- but all three of those L's came in a four-game stretch in early January. Key stat: The Johnnies are 10th in the nation in turnover margin, averaging 4.1 fewer giveaways per game than their opponents. Dwight Hardy (17.9 ppg) is not only the team's leading scorer, but also its primary ball handler -- and despite having the rock in his hands much of the time, he averages only 2.1 turnovers.
West Virginia (20-10, 11-7): The Mountaineers are playing well, winners of three in a row and four of five -- including wins over UConn and Louisville to finish off the regular season. Bob Huggins has some veterans who played key roles in his team's run to the Final Four a season ago, including junior forward Kevin Jones (13.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg). If West Virginia -- the No. 6 seed -- can get past the Marquette-Providence winner Wednesday, it will face No. 3 seed Louisville, whom it just beat Saturday, and lost to by a single point on the road Jan. 26. Key stat: West Virginia is No. 6 in the country in defending the 3-point shot, allowing opponents to shoot just 28.8 percent from beyond the arc -- no wonder the Mountaineers have played well against Louisville.
Connecticut (21-9, 9-9): Winning five games in five days? The chances are remote in this tournament. But we saw junior guard Kemba Walker (23.1 ppg) put this team on his back early in the season, scoring 29 or more points in five of the Huskies' first six games. Perhaps he can do it again? Does the name Gerry McNamara ring a bell? If not, go Google the 2006 Big East tournament. Key stat: UConn, the No. 9 seed, is 25th in the country in field goal defense (39.9) and eighth in blocked shots (5.8).
Seton Hall (13-17, 7-11): With more than half the league practically in the field of 68 already, there aren't many teams that truly have something to play for this week, other than NCAA tournament seeding. No. 12 seed Seton Hall, on the other hand, must win the Big East tourney to keep playing, and could make its season with a win or two. The Pirates closed the regular season with victories over St. John's and Marquette, and put a scare into several other Top 25 opponents along the way. The way the bracket sets up, Seton Hall's road to the semifinals is Rutgers, St. John's and Syracuse -- three teams the Pirates have already beaten. Key stat: Senior guard Jeremy Hazell (19.4 ppg) finished his regular-season career with 201 3-point field goals in conference games, a Big East record.
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Cincinnati (24-7, 11-7): The Bearcats opened the season 15-0, but against a pretty weak nonconference schedule. Mick Cronin's club did finish strong, winning five of its last six games. But of the four teams that received double byes, the only one Cincinnati owns a win over is Louisville -- so it's hard to see the Bearcats potentially beating three of them in three days to take the Big East crown. Key stat: Cincinnati is allowing opponents to score just 58.2 points per game -- that's fifth-best in the country. The Bearcats score 69.0 points per game, led by junior forward Yancy Gates (11.3 ppg) and junior guard Dion Dixon (11.2).
Georgetown (21-9, 10-8): The Hoyas won eight straight from Jan. 15 through Feb. 13, but lost four of their last five -- including their final three games, two of which were against Cincinnati. Starting point guard and second-leading scorer Chris Wright (13.1 ppg, 5.4 apg) missed the final two contests after breaking a bone in his left (non-shooting) hand. Wright had surgery, and coach John Thompson III said afterward that he expects Wright back before the end of the season -- but the Big East tournament will likely come too soon for his return. Key stat: Georgetown is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country -- ninth in field goal percentage (48.0) and 29th in assists (15.4 per game). But that changes with Wright out.
Villanova (21-10, 9-9): Jay Wright's Wildcats sputtered down the stretch, losing their final four games and six of their last eight. Remarkably, Villanova was ranked No. 19 in the country in both polls just last week, but is the No. 10 seed in Big East tourney -- the Wildcats were picked to finish second in the conference in the preseason. Second-leading scorer and 3-point marksman Corey Stokes (14.9 ppg) missed three games in February with a nagging turf toe injury and missed the regular-season finale against Pitt with a sore hamstring. Key stat: Leading scorer Corey Fisher (15.5 ppg) really lost his way in those four losses to end the regular season -- he did have 22 points in a loss to Notre Dame, but in the other three games he had just 17 points combined, including just two in the team's loss to St. John's.
Marquette (18-13, 9-9): The Golden Eagles are the one squad among the 11 teams that finished .500 or better that may need to win their first-round game in order to secure their NCAA tournament bid. So look for the No. 11 seed to bring the intensity versus No. 14 seed Providence on Tuesday night. Still, can't see this Marquette squad winning more than a couple of games, let alone five in five days. Key stat: Marquette does have a dynamic scoring duo of senior forward Jimmy Butler (16.2 ppg) and junior guard Darius Johnson-Odom (15.9 ppg).
Rutgers (14-16, 5-13): Mike Rice has done a nice job in his first season in Piscataway, getting the most out of a depleted Scarlet Knights roster. A win over New Jersey rival Seton Hall on Tuesday afternoon in the teams' third meeting of the season (they split the first two) would mean a ton. And then Rutgers would play St. John's -- the Scarlet Knights lost a heartbreaker, 58-56, at Carnesecca Arena on Feb. 2. Key stat: Jonathan Mitchell is the only Scarlet Knight averaging in double figures, at 14.2 points per game -- his last-second four-point play led to Rutgers' only win over a ranked opponent this season, versus Villanova on Feb. 9.
Providence (15-16, 4-14): The Friars have no shot at winning this thing, but they're still worth watching as long as they're involved because of one man: Marshon Brooks. The 6-5 senior was the leading scorer in the conference (24.8 ppg) and is the second-leading scorer in the country, behind BYU's Jimmer Fredette. Brooks poured in an astonishing 52 points in a one-point loss to Notre Dame on Feb. 23. Key stat: Brooks set the Big East record for points in a season with 468 in 18 conference games -- the previous record was 462, by UConn's Donyell Marshall in 1994.
South Florida (9-22, 3-15): Stan Heath's club beat DePaul twice, and Providence -- that's it, in terms of conference play. The Bulls lost eight of their last nine, although they did lead both Pitt and St. John's at halftime in their final two contests of the regular season. They ended up losing both games by 16, however. Key stat: South Florida has size -- leading scorer Augustus Gilchrist (13.2 ppg) is 6-10, and forwards Jarrid Famous (6-11) and Ron Anderson Jr. (6-8) play heavy minutes as well. But the Bulls are one of the worst teams in Division I in both turnovers per game (15.4) and turnover margin (minus-4.9).
DePaul (7-23, 1-17): As if being the No. 16 seed wasn't bad enough, the Blue Demons will be without leading scorer Cleveland Melvin, who is out the rest of the way with a sprained thumb. Without Melvin, the only unanimous selection to the Big East All-Rookie team, first-year coach Oliver Purnell will be depending on fellow freshman Brandon Young, the team's second-leading scorer (12.4 ppg) and leading assist man (3.7 apg). Key stat: What's the one Big East team DePaul actually beat this season? Providence -- the Blue Demons won 79-76 on the road Feb. 17. But it's doubtful they'll pick up a win in New York.
This year's Big East tournament should be the most competitive in a long time.