If the Big East Tournament were a United States metropolis, it would be Atlanta. The five-day, 16-team, 15-game goliath sprawls across Championship Week from noon on Tuesday until almost midnight on Saturday, giving nary a breath to the other conferences tournaments trying to grab a bit of air in the league's stifling wake.
It's really the perfect setup for ultimate exposure. When the Big East Tournament starts on Tuesday, the only real competition for media attention is the Horizon, Sun Belt and Summit finals (unless you fancy some Atlantic 10 pre-quarters). By Friday and Saturday, when the other big leagues are giving fans their first tastes of quality games, the Big East trumps them with matchups of top teams in its semis and final. The Big East finally relents on Sunday for a few hours, but then comes the selection show, in which Big East teams are likely to make up at least an eighth of the field. The conference may not end up owning the NCAA Tournament, but it has property rights to most of this seven-day period of college hoops gluttony.
With an unrivaled media footprint -- especially now that either ESPN2 or ESPNU is carrying the games on Second Division Day (Tuesday) -- what can college hoops fans expect from the Garden this week?
The first thing that pops out when looking at the Big East Tournament bracket is how strong the top half is. I'd argue that Syracuse, Villanova, Marquette and Georgetown are four of the best six teams in the conference, but they will meet each other in the quarterfinals if the seeds hold. Also, St. John's is playing in its home arena and is a strong No. 13 seed, and Connecticut -- while in a tailspin -- still outscored its opponents in conference play and enters the Big East Tournament ninth in the league in efficiency margin. The potential Marquette-Villanova quarterfinal, which would be a rematch of last year's thriller, has my mouth watering.
The strength of the top half of the bracket means that West Virginia should be heavy favorites to get through the bottom half. The Mountaineers' defense has been sharp since it couldn't keep from fouling in the loss to Connecticut on Feb. 22, and the offense has been consistently strong until a weak effort at Villanova on Saturday. The trick is that West Virginia has been bracketed with teams that have given it trouble this season. The quarterfinal matchup will probably be with a Louisville team that had WVU dead to rights in Morgantown before a late Cards collapse mixed with questionable officiating combined to create a West Virginia win. Bob Huggins' team has lost to its two most likely semifinal opponents -- Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. The No. 10 seed, Seton Hall, is the other possible semifinal opponent, and the Pirates took West Virginia to overtime before losing.
Connecticut: Jim Calhoun benched seniors Stanley Robinson, Gavin Edwards and Jerome Dyson for almost the entirety of the second half of UConn's loss to South Florida on Saturday, and he insists that the five who finished the USF game will be the five starters in Tuesday's second game against St. John's. With the uncertainty about what that lineup might bring for an entire game, it's hard to call Connecticut all that dangerous. At the same time, how often does a team outscore its opponents and yet grab the No. 12 seed in its conference tournament? Connecticut enters the tournament in need of three wins to make the NCAAs. That's probably a stretch, but it's not hard to envision UConn defeating St. John's, knocking off a Marquette team it lost to on a buzzer-beater earlier this season and testing a Villanova team it defeated on the road just a few weeks ago. UConn's lack of depth makes winning on back-to-back days or three straight days a more difficult task.
Seton Hall: This tournament does not set up well for a team playing the first day making it very far, and indeed all four Day 1 winners lost on Day 2 last season. But, if there is a team playing Tuesday that has a real shot to get all the way to the semis, it's probably Seton Hall. To get to Friday, Bobby Gonzalez's squad would have to defeat three teams it's already beaten. First up is a Providence team that the Pirates handled in Rhode Island on Saturday. Then comes Notre Dame, which Seton Hall defeated by three in the game where Luke Harangody was injured. Should SHU defeat Notre Dame, it would have to feel comfortable that its NCAA Tournament ticket was punched. It could play free and loose against No. 2 Pittsburgh. Seton Hall defeated Pittsburgh by three in January despite getting next to nothing from Jeremy Hazell.
Georgetown: The last sleeper is a team that gets Tuesday off, but Georgetown has a team of a quality seldom found at a No. 8 seed. And, yes, the Hoyas lost at home to likely Wednesday opponent USF and lost twice to quarterfinal opponent Syracuse, but the Hoyas are good enough to win both games even if the matchups don't necessarily favor them. With Austin Freeman's condition diagnosed and addressed, the Hoyas played a dominant second half against Cincinnati on Saturday. This is also a team that won at Pitt and defeated Villanova and Duke. If Georgetown were the No. 7 seed, I'd like it to get to the semis, but Notre Dame's overtime win at Marquette puts GU in the brutal top half. With potential matchups against Pittsburgh and West Virginia -- two teams they've already beaten -- perhaps the Irish are the better sleeper bet after all.
Vulnerable high seeds
I won't dwell on this, because I made oblique reference to it in the section above. As well as Pittsburgh has played this season, the Panthers are not the second-best team in this tournament. I guess that's me daring them to prove me wrong, and with wins over Syracuse, West Virginia, Villanova and Marquette, I suppose Pitt already has done so. At the same time, Pittsburgh has shown vulnerability on both ends of the floor, and I'd expect those to be exposed at some points this week and perhaps early. Notre Dame is equal parts sleeper and vulnerable. With a likely Wednesday matchup against Seton Hall, the Irish can't relish the idea of chasing around Hazell and Jordan Theodore while Herb Pope wreaks havoc inside. The Irish may be the team seeded 5-8 with both the best chance of advancing to the semis and losing in its first game.
Time for Some Bubbly
Here's what the Big East's bubble teams need to do to get in:
Marquette: The Golden Eagles are almost certainly in the field with their 11-7 conference record, but a home loss to Notre Dame on Saturday combined with a loss to St. John's or UConn on Wednesday would make my heart pitter-patter at 6 p.m. on Sunday if I were an MU fan. Barring an injury to Lazar Hayward or Jimmy Butler and a loss on Wednesday, Marquette should be fine, but it would be best to win on Wednesday just for anxiety's sake.
Notre Dame: The Irish are right with Marquette in my at-large model, but UND is generally a seed or two behind Marquette in the Bracket Matrix. That leads me to believe that Notre Dame is in want of a win on Wednesday. The Irish may not need to win, but they would be putting their fate in the hands of the committee if they lose to Seton Hall or Providence on Wednesday.
Seton Hall: I have the Pirates among the last four out in my latest projection. This means that Seton Hall will surely have to defeat Providence and Notre Dame to have a chance at dancing. I would suggest that those two wins would be enough. I'm quite certain the Pirates would make my final field should they win their first two games, but that doesn't mean they couldn't be snubbed by the committee.
South Florida: The Bulls beat Seton Hall head-to-head -- at home in overtime -- and have one extra top-25 win, so it's reasonable for some people to put USF ahead of the Pirates. Seton Hall, though, played a tougher conference schedule (fifth toughest compared to USF's 15th toughest in the RPI) and the Pirates don't have a single loss to a team outside the top 100. Either way, the Bulls are unlikely to be compared directly to SHU if they win twice in the Big East Tournament. That would require a win over a Georgetown team that USF defeated on Feb. 3. Duplicating that feat should punch Stan Heath's team's ticket.
Connecticut: Must win three. Simple as that. Anything less won't be enough. Ken Pomeroy has UConn at 1-in-10 to do just that, and 10 percent is about right for the Huskies' NCAA Tournament odds.
Cincinnati: Pray for rain? I suppose if the Bearcats reach the Big East Tournament final, they will be strongly considered and might get in. Let's stick to reality, though.
Day 1 Previews
No. 16 DePaul vs. No. 9 USF; noon ET, ESPN2: These teams played last Tuesday as well, with USF winning an unimpressive 63-59 final. Demons fans may not have noticed -- and judging by the attendance, you haven't -- but DePaul has actually played a lot of close games down the stretch, climbing past Rutgers and out of the cellar in efficiency margin (thank Pittsburgh for its 29-point blowout win over RU on Saturday). Nine of its last 10 losses are by single digits, including to Louisville and Syracuse. USF ranks just 13th in efficiency margin, making this a more even game than the seeds might imply. Still, USF needs to win to have a shot at the NCAA Tournament, and I don't expect a similar performance by the Bulls that we saw by Cincinnati in a similar spot last season.
No. 13 St. John's vs. No. 12 Connecticut; 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Red Storm played Georgetown in a comparable situation in last year's Big East Tournament. The Hoyas came in as disappointments but with perhaps faint hopes of achieving an NCAA Tournament bid with a long run in the Garden. St. John's was generally overlooked, but the Red Storm played well and defeated the Hoyas. A reproduction of that event would not surprise me. With two good defenses and poor offenses, this figures to be the lowest-scoring game of the tournament if it plays to form. UConn won by 16 in Hartford on Jan. 20.
No. 15 Providence vs. No. 10 Seton Hall; 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU: The Friars followed up its near-miss at Pittsburgh with a clunker in their home finale against these same Pirates. For once, the defense wasn't the primary problem -- not to imply that PC's defense was good on Saturday. Worse was the offense, which shot just 42.3 percent eFG and committed turnovers on one quarter of its possessions. The latter has rarely been a problem this season. If the Friars can clean up the turnovers and get Greedy Peterson more involved -- the double-double machine had just six points and four rebounds before fouling out -- PC could pull off a crushing upset. The bad matchup for PC -- and this isn't new -- is on defense, where Seton Hall doesn't turn the ball over. Forcing turnovers is the primary way that PC gets stops, and without that out, the Friars' only option is to pray for missed shots. Teams don't generally miss layups.
No. 14 Rutgers vs. No. 11 Cincinnati;9:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU: If St. John's or Providence were in Rutgers' spot, I'd really like the bigger seed, but Rutgers is just really bad. I guess it's a testament to Fred Hill's coaching that RU won five league games despite being outscored by 16 points per 100 possessions, but it's also a sign that the Scarlet Knights are some combination of inconsistent and pretty awful. The 15th-ranked offense and defense in the Big East plays a Cincinnati team that again enters MSG with a lost look about it. The Bearcats had tough defeats to Marquette, West Virginia and Villanova before leading at the half at Georgetown. The second half was an embarrassment, though, with UC being outscored 45-21. UC could have used a more consistent senior season from Deonta Vaughn.
Forecast of trepidation
West Virginia and Syracuse are the best teams in the Big East and the most likely to make the final. In the last two years, we've seen the top seed play a mid-seed in the final, but this feels more like a chalk year. Syracuse has the tougher route to the final, which means the Orange will likely enter the final a bit more weary, but the 2-3 zone is an equalizer for SU's fatigue. I say West Virginia settles for too many 3-pointers, and Syracuse takes home the title by 6-8 points.
Coverage this week
I'll be at all five night sessions of the Big East Tournament, doing my best to provide incisive analysis for my favorite conference tournament. Check back here for nightly pieces leading up to Selection Sunday and the final Bracket Junkie.