What, Who, When
The Big East Tournament begins Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in New York, and, after 16 rounds, wraps up sometime after the NCAA Tournament has ended. Okay, that is a lie. It ends on Saturday.
This 16-team tournament does not follow the typical four-round, no-byes tournament. The top four teams receive a double-bye into Thursday's quarterfinals, while teams No. 5-8 receive a bye to Wednesday's second round. Tuesday's first-round action whittles the field from 16 teams to your standard 12-team bracket, therefore giving the bottom eight teams quite a bit of work to do to win the conference's automatic bid. Of course, that didn't stop UConn from pulling off that feat just last year.
Tuesday: No. 9 Connecticut vs. No. 16 DePaul, No. 12 St. John's vs. No. 13 Pittsburgh, No. 10 Seton Hall vs. No. 15 Providence, No. 11 Rutgers vs. No. 14 Villanova.
Wednesday: No. 8 West Virginia vs. UConn/DePaul, No. 5 Georgetown vs. St. John's/Pittsburgh, No. 7 Louisville vs. Seton Hall/Providence, No. 6 South Florida vs. Rutgers/Villanova.
Thursday: No. 1 Syracuse vs. WVU/UConn/DePaul, No. 4 Cincinnati vs. Georgetown/St. John's/Pittsburgh, No. 2 Marquette vs. Louisville/The Hall/Providence, No. 3 Notre Dame vs. USF/Rutgers/Nova.
Who The Numbers Like
Syracuse. According to Ken Pomeroy's projections, the Orange have a 39.5 percent chance of winning the tournament, better than the next two most likely teams (Marquette and Georgetown) combined. It is not difficult to see why. Syracuse is undefeated in 2011-12 when fielding its entire lineup; their lone loss came when center Fab Melo was suspended. They are not exactly playing dominant basketball -- eight of their last 10 wins have come by 10 points or less -- but 30-1 is 30-1, and at sixth, they are the only Big East team ranked in Pomeroy's Top 12.
Who The Eyeballs Like
Marquette. Syracuse is obviously a rather safe pick, but the Golden Eagles have won 13 of 15; five of their last six wins have come by at least 13 points. Since losing four of six in late-December and early-January, Buzz Williams' squad has been, at worst, nearly as good as Syracuse. And with The Cuse dealing with another potential distraction, this could possibly give Marquette the nod. And, of course, one should not forget Notre Dame. The third seed fell off a bit in the last week or so; the Irish lost at St. John's (by three) and Georgetown (by 18) and barely held off Providence at home, but they are not that far removed from a fantastic nine-game win streak.
Cincinnati. Mick Cronin's Bearcats are in a wonderful position -- they are hot (7-2 in their last nine), they secured the fourth double-bye, and absolutely nobody is talking about them. Poll most basketball fans, and they would probably guess that either Georgetown, Louisville or West Virginia was the four-seed, not Cincinnati. Cincy plays a decidedly non-stereotypical Big East style this year -- they don't foul, and they don't draw fouls -- but it is quite obviously working for them. Plus, their draw is solid: they went 3-1 against their possible Thursday opponents, knocking off Georgetown on the road, splitting with St. John's and taking out Pittsburgh on the road as well. If Syracuse is in any way distracted by this week's Yahoo! revelations, the Bearcats could pretty easily find themselves in Saturday's final.
Best Possible Title Game
Syracuse vs. Notre Dame. If for no other reason than to see if the Orange can get revenge for the single blemish on their otherwise perfect slate.
Who Might/Will Get In Anyway
It might be easier to talk about who won't get in, but here goes.
Syracuse. At 30-1, Jim Boeheim's Orange are comfortably situated for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, even if they were to lose to DePaul on Thursday.
Georgetown and Marquette. Both of these teams received 3-seeds in Chris Dobbertean's latest Bracketology column. Marquette might have a chance to break the glass ceiling into the neighborhood of 2-seeds with a good showing this week, though considering how the tournament committee tends to overreact to success in the Big East Tournament, so does Georgetown. Hell, so does Pittsburgh. (Just kidding.)
Notre Dame and Louisville. Both received 6-seeds from Dobbertean. The Irish have cooled off, and a loss to either South Florida, Rutgers or Villanova on Thursday could put them in slight danger of falling to a seven, but it is unlikely. Louisville, meanwhile, needs to perform well this week just to remember what performing well feels like. Rick Pitino's 22-9 Cardinals have lose four of six, and both wins in that span (overtime over DePaul, a three-point home win over Pittsburgh) were rather lackluster.
Cincinnati, West Virginia and Connecticut. Cincinnati may have secured a double-bye, but that might not help them avoid the dreaded 7-10 territory in the NCAAs. All three of these teams, actually, point to something interesting about the Big East this season: the depth is there, as always, but the conference is lacking a bit when it comes to elite play. The 3-seed in the Big East Tournament is projected as just a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament, while the 4-seed is projected as a nine.
Seton Hall and South Florida. Unless UConn loses to DePaul, the Big East comfortably has eight teams in the Field of 68 right now. Another two still have some work to do. Dobbertean currently has both Seton Hall and South Florida on the right side of the bubble's cutoff point (Seton Hall is the last team to get in and avoid the First Four, while USF is in the First Four), but if The Hall were to lose to Providence, that might eliminate them. USF, meanwhile, will play the winner of Rutgers-Villanova, and while they went 2-0 versus those teams in 2011-12, they will need to be 3-0 Wednesday night to avoid some serious sweating on Selection Sunday.
Players To Watch
Scoop Jardine, Syracuse. The Orange are a wonderfully balanced team -- only one player (Kris Joseph) averages over 11 points per game, and only one other (Dion Walters) averages over 9.5; meanwhile, five average between 6.6 and 9.4 points. Of all the players on the roster, then, the point guard, Jardine, is probably the most important. Jardine has had a fascinating season, scoring when needed (21 points on 8-for-9 shooting versus UConn on Feb. 11, 17 points at Rutgers on Feb. 19) and occasionally fading into the woodwork. In two games versus Louisville, for instance, Jardine laid a goose egg, scoring zero points on 0-for-12 shooting. He managed eight assists and six rebounds in those games, however, and The Cuse still won them both. When he is hot, nobody can touch Syracuse -- he hit double-digit scoring seven times in conference play, and SU won those seven games by an average of 12.6 points. If he's cold, of course, Syracuse still wins, though in much more mortal fashion.
Jae Crowder, Marquette. The No. 10 player on Ken Pomeroy's national player of the year list ($), Crowder is efficient, incredibly well-rounded, and despite being a unanimous first-team all-conference selection, not necessarily a household name. At just 6-foot-6, he averages 7.9 rebounds, 2.4 steals, 2.1 assists and 1.0 blocks per game. That alone would make him a wonderful role player; throw in 17.6 points per game on efficient shooting (62 percent on two-pointers, 36 percent on three-pointers, 74 percent on free throws), and, well, you've got a player-of-the-year candidate.
Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati. The Bearcats ended up with solid offensive numbers because of fantastic ball control and offensive rebounding, but they were not necessarily a strong shooting team. When Kilpatrick isn't hitting, they are a downright poor shooting team. He is the only Cincinnati player to hit at least 50 percent of his two-pointers and at least 36 percent of his three-pointers this season, and if Cincy is truly going to serve as a tourney dark horse, he will need to make sure they are not relying solely on second-chance points for success.
Chris Smith, Louisville. For the season, the 6-foot-2 senior was the Cardinals' most efficient offensive player, avoiding turnovers and making 40 percent of his three-pointers. But in UL's recent slide, he has mostly disappeared. The Cardinals have lost four of six, and Smith has hit just eight of 30 three-pointers (27 percent) in that span; overall, he has shot just 5-for-23 and scored 19 points in his last four games. If he can find his range, the Cardinals have a nicely balanced offense. Without him, however, the only serious deep thread is Kyle Kuric. Louisville's defense has been outstanding this season, but the offense has let them down.
Jerian Grant, Notre Dame. The Irish won nine games in a row to completely turn around their season, and Grant was the primary reason why. The offense began to run through him, and he was producing; he averaged 13.8 points on rather streaky shooting during the streak. In the last three games, however, he has scored just 20 points on 6-for-31 shooting. That isn't going to get the job done. As Grant goes, so go the Irish.