Few college basketball tournaments can claim the same type of history that the Big East tournament has. It first took place at Providence’s own Civic Center in 1980, but every year since 1983, it has taken place in early March in Madison Square Garden, one of the most historic locations in all of American sports. It is the longest running college basketball tournament at any one site in college basketball, at 27 years.
This year the tournament should provide a new chapter in this event’s storied past. In fact, this year the Big East is considered by many to be the most competitive conference in the country. Let’s start by looking at the top seeds in the bracket. With a 15-3 record in conference play, the Syracuse Orange are likely to receive a number one seed in the NCAA tournament next week. They were the clear top performer over the course of the Big East season, and they have to be the favorite in this tournament.
There are quite a few other contenders, though. West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Villanova all finished the Big East regular season with 13-5 records and are looking to improve their NCAA seeding with championship performances in this tournament. West Virginia has looked especially strong as of late, with victories over ranked opponents Villanova and Georgetown. These three teams, along with the aforementioned Syracuse Orange will receive automatic bids to the quarterfinals of the tournament. They have the luxury of watching what will assuredly be an exciting first few rounds of play without feeling any pressure themselves.
Four other teams received byes through the first round but will have to play their way into the quarterfinals. Those teams are the 5th-seeded Marquette Golden Eagles, 6th-seeded Louisville Cardinals, 7th-seeded Notre Dame Fightin’ Irish, and the 8th-seeded Georgetown Hoyas. While these four teams may not be favorites in this tournament, it would not be too big a surprise to see them make runs to the finals. Notre Dame has been especially hot as of late. They were once consider a long shot to make the NCAA tournament, but with a string of four consecutive victories against solid Big East opponents, they will likely have a bid in their hands on selection Sunday.
The remaining eight teams in the Big East are by no means pushovers, but any run past the quarterfinals for them would be a surprise. The first round games match up 9-seed South Florida against 16-seed Depaul, 10-seed Seton Hall against 15-seed Providence, 11-seed Cincinnati against 14-seed Rutgers, and 12-seed UConn against 13-seed St. John’s.
To me, the most exciting game of those four is that between the Seton Hall Pirates and PC. They played in a recent game at the Dunkin Donuts Center, and PC was simply out-classed. However, I think that the Friars will be looking for revenge in this game. Additionally, Seton Hall feels a great deal of pressure to put together a deep tournament run and perhaps salvage a last-ditch chance to gain a berth in the big dance.
Another team to watch is UConn. Though they are seeded 12th, they are likely a more legitimate threat than seeds nine through eleven. Their 7-11 record in Big East play is pretty abysmal, but recent victories over stalwarts West Virginia and Villanova have proven that they can play with anybody in this league. Plus, in their only encounter with St. John’s this year, they walked away with a 16-point victory. Without further ado, I will give you my players to watch in the Big East tournament, and I will make some educated guesses about the end result.
Players to watch:
- Luke Harangody, Notre Dame
There’s no doubt about it – when the Fighting Irish play, all offense goes through Mr. Harangody. When he’s on fire, the team does well. He came back from injury against Marquette and provided a much-needed lift in a 63-60 OT victory on Marquette’s home floor. If he gets in an offensive rhythm, Notre Dame could be a threat to make a deep run.
- Jamine Peterson, PC
This tournament could be Peterson’s coming-out party. His Big East foes know just how strong a player he is, but the national audience is not yet exposed to his sometimes eye-popping athletic abilities. If Peterson performs well against Seton Hall and leads the Friars to a second round encounter with Notre Dame, he could join the discussion of next year’s best all-around Big East players.
- Scottie Reynolds, Villanova
Reynolds has already established himself as one of the nation’s best clutch players and truly great all-around players. His shooting prowess is nothing short of amazing, as he makes at least one of those “Did that actually just go in?” shots a game. Like Harangody, when Reynolds is feeling his shot, the Wildcats tend to do good things.
- Austin Freeman, Georgetown
The Hoyas have put together a solid team this year, and there are many players that deserve credit for that. Greg Monroe, in my opinion, is the only one who has received enough attention. It seems that ESPN loves to cover big guys like Monroe, but they often forget about incredibly skilled guards like Freeman. Freeman is one of the best shooters in the league, with a 47.9% three-point percentage, and he is leading the Hoyas in scoring despite the presence of stars like Monroe and Chris Wright.
- Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette
DJO, as fans like to call him, was seen as a surprise by many basketball fans this season. This is his first year in Division One basketball, as he spent a year at Hutchinson community college. However, DJO has division one game. He has proven that by shooting 47.5% from the three-point line and helping Marquette become arguably the biggest surprise of the Big East season. If it weren’t for conference player of the year contender Wesley Johnson of Syracuse, he might be considered Newcomer of the Year in the conference.
- (9) South Florida vs. (16) Depaul
Depaul has only put one victory on the board the entire Big East conference season. I don’t see that changing. USF
- (10) Seton Hall vs. (15) Providence
The Friars may have put together a less than stellar 4-14 mark in Big East play, but I think that Jamine Peterson steps up his game and puts together an upset victory for PC. Providence
- (11) Cincinnati vs. (14) Rutgers
Cincinnati may no longer be in bubble discussions for the NCAA tournament, but I think that they put together a win against a sub-par Rutgers squad. Cincy
- (12) UConn vs. (13) St. John’s
It’s amazing that a team with as much talent as UConn is the 12th seed in this tournament. Look for them to win, but it will be a closer game than many think as St. John’s has the ability to keep games close. UConn
- (5) Marquette vs. (12) UConn
This is one of the toughest games to call in the tournament. Both of these teams have a great deal to play for. MU may not be on the bubble, but they don’t want to make the selection committee’s decision difficult. Plus, they want to improve their seeding as much as possible. UConn, on the other hand, needs this win if they are to maintain any tournament hopes. In a down-to-the-wire game, I think Marquette walks away with another close victory to add to their three recent overtime wins. MU
- (6) Louisville vs. (11) Cincinnati
Cincinnati does not have the firepower to stay in a game with Louisville. Louisville also is the defending champion of this tournament, and they know how to win under pressure. Louisville
- (7) Notre Dame vs. (15) Providence
I was ambitious picking PC in an upset over Seton Hall, but I think their run ends here. Notre Dame is riding a hot streak, and the return of Luke Harangody is a development that will be vital to their postseason success. ND
- (8) Georgetown vs. (9) South Florida
Georgetown finished the game in relatively poor fashion with double-digit losses to Notre Dame and South Florida before salvaging a win against Cincinnati. A win against South Florida would go a long way towards receiving a good seed in the NCAAs. USF has been a major positive surprise in the Big East this season. They had been a bottom-feeder since their inclusion in the league, but this year they put together a .500 record. I think they duplicate their win from earlier this season at Georgetown, with star Dominique Jones putting together a big night, in what many will consider a big upset for the Bulls. USF
- (1) Syracuse vs. (9) USF
Syracuse is one of the most purely talented teams in the country. They have firepower at virtually every position, plus the names of their players (Arinze…Scoop…need I say more?) are fantastic. Cuse
- (2) Pittsburgh vs. (7) Notre Dame
Pittsburgh’s roster is not exactly loaded with experience, but Coach Jamie Dixon always finds a way to get his team ready around this time of year. Notre Dame’s hot streak ends here. Pitt
- (3) West Virginia vs. (6) Louisville
On some nights, the West Virginia Mountaineers look like one of the top teams in the country. On others, like their startling double-digit loss to UConn in late February, they do not look like a title contender. This game could go either way, but I’m betting that Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks combine to put together a winning effort for the Mountaineers. WVU
- (4) Villanova vs. (5) Marquette
In a re-match of one of last year’s most memorable Big East Tournament games, these two teams will put together another barn-burner. Whether or not Marquette’s Lazar Hayward can get into a shooting rhythm will largely dictate the result, but I think the guard play of Villanova will be too much for the Golden Eagles. Nova
- (1) Syracuse vs. (4) Villanova
These two teams will provide a compelling match-up that will make an enormous difference with regard to tournament seeding for the Wildcats. I feel that the Orange’s lack of postseason experience may hurt them, and I feel that Villanova will find a way to come out on top. Nova
- (2) Pittsburgh vs. (3) West Virginia
The coaching match-up between Pitt’s Jamie Dixon and WVU’s Bob Huggins is compelling. Both of these teams finished 13-5 in Big East play. The result will most likely come down to whether West Virginia finds their shooting touch. Mostly because of my random gut feeling, as there is little else to separate the two teams, I’m taking the Mountaineers. WVU
- (4) Villanova vs. (3) West Virginia
In my mind, these are the two most enjoyable teams to watch in the Big East. They each have a variety of scorers that can make game-changing plays. The guard play of Scottie Reynolds for Villanova versus the forward play of Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks will be a classic battle of small vs. tall. When all’s said and done, I think that the Villanova Wildcats walk away with the Big East Championship title, and perhaps a number two seed in the NCAA tournament as well. Nova