In case you’ve been hibernating through this winter, there’s a rumor making its way around the college basketball world that the Big East is loaded.
A simple check of the AP Poll and the Coaches' Poll reveals nine teams (Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Syracuse, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Marquette, Villanova, Louisville, and West Virginia) currently residing in the Top 25.
To demonstrate the depth of the league, only four of the 16 teams remain unbeaten in conference play. Syracuse and Marquette occupy the top of the standings at 4-0, while Pittsburgh and Louisville are each 2-0.
So which of the Big East heavyweights will successfully navigate its way through the minefield that is league play to claim the conference title?
The answer to that question is about as clear as when the economy will recover.
But one team that has to be considered among the favorites is the Syracuse Orange.
Jim Boeheim’s bunch is off to a 16-1 start with conference wins over Seton Hall, South Florida, DePaul, and Rutgers, and out-of-conference wins over Florida, Kansas (in Kansas City), and at Memphis.
Before breaking down how the Orange can conquer the Big East, let’s take a look at the teams standing in their way.
Any team that has A.J. Price, Hasheem Thabeet, Jeff Adrien, Jerome Dyson, and Kemba Walker on its roster has to be considered a favorite no matter which conference they play in. The Huskies are solid in all aspects of the game, and Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun gives them an advantage over most teams in the coaching department.
While the Hoyas don’t have a particularly deep bench, a team can do a lot worse than having a nucleus of Jessie Sapp, Austin Freeman, DaJuan Summers, Greg Monroe, and Chris Wright. Monroe has been lived up to the hype as one of the most sought-after freshmen in the nation.
The Hoyas play their usual stingy defense under a coach named John Thompson (stop me if you’ve heard that one before), and John III, unlike his father, toughens up his team with an aggressive non-conference schedule year after year.
Coach Rick Pitino is looking for his second Final Four trip since returning to the Bluegrass State (much to the chagrin of Kentucky fans). This team just might accomplish the feat. The frontcourt of Earl Clark, Terrence Williams, and man-child freshman Samardo Samuels is one of the most athletic in the nation.
The Cardinals love to pressure other teams and convert turnovers into easy baskets. Louisville has been a disappointment so far this season, and the problem can be traced to lack of steady point guard play. For Pitino’s team to make a run, PG Edgar Sosa needs to play like he did in the win over Kentucky.
Any talk about the Golden Eagles starts and ends with their superb three-guard lineup of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wes Matthews. Those three players alone ensure that Marquette has a chance to win every game they play.
The team can score (over 80 ppg)—that’s not the problem. Size is, although junior Lazar Hayward (16 ppg and 8.5 rpg) does a good job inside and on the glass.
No luck of the Irish needed in South Bend. Mike Brey’s team is just plain good. You want inside scoring and muscle? Luke Harangody is your man. You like guard play? Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney form one of the best backcourts in the country. Love three-pointers? As a team N.D. shoots them at 41 percent, fifth-best in the nation.
The only question for the Irish is whether they can play tough enough defense to beat the top teams in the league. Also, an early loss to St. John's has set them behind the rest of the pack.
No team in the conference takes defense as seriously as the Panthers. They truly grasp the notion that defense is played for 40 minutes. Levance Fields is one of the best floor generals in all of college hoops, and DeJuan Blair is a monster in the paint. Consider that the sophomore averages almost as many rebounds (12.5) as he does points (14.2).
Then there’s Sam Young, one of the most challenging players in the league to guard. Bring your lunch pail when you play Pittsburgh.
Like Marquette, the Wildcats have great guards in Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher. Reynolds and Corey Stokes are both deadly from three, so zoning this team is not a wise decision.
Down low, they have senior Dante Cunningham (17.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg) to do the heavy lifting. With Jay Wright calling Xs and Os, Villanova certainly won’t be out-coached too often.
Despite taking it on the chin against Marquette (75-53) in their most recent game, Bob Huggins has himself a good foundation in Morgantown. He has one spectacular freshman in Devin Ebanks and two solid frosh in Kevin Jones and Daryl Bryant.
Senior Alex Ruoff and juniors Da’Sean Butler and Joe Mazzulla provide leadership for this young team. West Virginia is probably one star player away from really contending, but the Mountaineers certainly will have a say in the conference race.
Judging by the list of contenders, winning the Big East will be a daunting task for any team in the conference.
So, what will it take for Syracuse to scale that mountain? Let’s take a look.
Syracuse has Jonny Flynn
The other teams don’t. Without a doubt, Flynn is the engine that drives the car for Syracuse. While basketball is still a big man’s game on the professional level, in college though, nothing is more important than strong point guard play.
Flynn (16.4 ppg, 5.5 apg) leads his team in scoring and assists, and his play this season has catapulted him into the discussion of best point guard in the country. He can nail threes and make free throws.
But perhaps his best attribute is his leadership. His teammates feed off of him, and he isn’t afraid to take big shots and make big plays. Just ask Mike Rosario. Good things happen for the Orange when the ball is in Flynn’s hands.
Syracuse can score the basketball in a variety of ways. Flynn, Eric Devendorf, and Paul Harris can all drive to the hoop at will. Devendorf and Andy Rautins can drain threes with ease, while Flynn has shown an ability to make clutch three-pointers.
Scoring in the paint falls to Arinze Onuaku. The junior big man is built like he’s cut from a piece of granite. Combine his impressive physique with a field goal percentage of 71 percent (yes, you read that correctly), and good things happen when Onuaku gets the ball down low.
Harris, who possesses a Herculean build of his own, can use his tremendous strength to back his man into the post and score at will.
Paul Harris keeps being Paul Harris
There’s a reason Harris is often referred to as “Do It All Paul.” That’s because he does.
In addition to his ability to drive to the goal and score from the box, Harris has also improved his mid-range jump shot. So when teams, like Rutgers did on Saturday, leave him unguarded from 15 feet, Harris makes them pay.
His strength and athleticism also make him ideal for man-to-man defense when Boeheim chooses to employ that tactic.
And at 71 percent, Harris can be trusted to make critical free throws.
Versatility on Defense
For quite some time now, the 2-3 zone has been the staple of Syracuse’s defense. This season though, with a much deeper and much more athletic team, Boeheim has played significantly more man-to-man.
During games in which they’ve trailed, the Orange has unveiled an aggressive and highly effective full-court press.
With the different types of offense and skill sets they’ll encounter in conference play, such versatility will serve them well.
Every team in the Big East plays three teams twice and every other team once. Syracuse has home-and-aways with Georgetown, Villanova, and Rutgers. So that means they only play UConn, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Louisville once. UConn and Pittsburgh are both strong, physical teams that have caused the Orange trouble over the years.
Notre Dame has the three-point shooting skill to wreak havoc on the Orange’s 2-3 zone, and Freedom Hall, combined with the pace the Cardinals prefer to play, makes Louisville one of the most difficult venues in the conference to grab a road win.
The only drawback of playing those four teams once is the emphasis to win becomes that much greater.
One of the reasons Syracuse landed in the NIT as opposed to the NCAA Tourney last season was due to a lack of punch from beyond the arc. Heading into the season, that was not the plan, but when both Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf are sitting on the sidelines with torn ACLs, well, plans change.
Both players are back at full strength this year. Their ability to drain threes has multiple, positive effects on the offense besides the fact that three points are worth more than two points.
Teams can’t be so quick to double Onuaku if they know there is a price to pay for leaving an open shooter.
Secondly, just the mere threat of those two players creates better spacing on offense, thus allowing dribble penetration by Flynn, Harris, and Devendorf.
Lastly, other teams will think twice about playing a zone defense against the Orange.
Cut down on turnovers
Unfortunately, Syracuse has been a turnover machine this season. That absolutely must change. Give a team like Rutgers or Seton Hall extra possessions, and it’s possible to still win. Give UConn or Pittsburgh those same extra possessions, and you can start the bus at halftime.
No team, no matter how talented they are, can expect to win games if they turn the ball over at a high rate.
The Orange average around 16 turnovers per game. In their victory at Rutgers this past Saturday, they only had eight of them, including none for Jonny Flynn.
Decreasing their turnovers is one of the keys for Syracuse to make a run at the Big East title.
For sure, this team has it. In four games this season (Kansas, Cornell, Virginia, and Memphis), Syracuse has trailed by double figures. They stormed back to win all four times.
The Big East is far too difficult to assume that at some point during conference play they won’t be trailing by double figures again. Recalling prior games where they overcame such deficits will give them that confidence to do it again.
The race for the Big East title is shaping up to be a mentally taxing and physically grueling test. Whoever is the last team standing will no doubt have earned their crown.
Will that team be Syracuse? At this point it is too early to say. But don’t bet against the Orange.