The best conference tournament in all of college basketball begins a five-day whirlwind on Tuesday in the world's most famous arena.
Besides the fact the Big East Championship (yes, the tournament is called the Big East Championship, not tournament) usually provides for some of the most dramatic runs (see Syracuse 2005, Syracuse 2006, Pittsburgh 2008), this year's field runs all 16 teams deep from a conference argued by many to be the best collection of elite teams in the history of the game.
Two teams that, at different points in the regular season, peaked into the top 10 in the country—Georgetown and Notre Dame—will play on the first day of the tournament.
The Hoyas and Irish will need to win an unfathomable five games in five days with the potential to play two or even all three of the conference's potential NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds (Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Connecticut) along the way.
I'll be heading to MSG representing Bleacher Report and CBS Sportsline for all five days of the tournament. Depending on my assignments, I'll try to provide a preview for each round of the Big East Championship, using input from coaches and players during postgame media opportunities.
The first round will pit the bottom eight teams in the league against each other with the four winners facing the fifth- through eighth-place teams.
(9) Cincinnati vs. (16) DePaul
About 10 days ago, the Bearcats looked like one or two more wins could clinch an at-large berth, but after a tumultuous finish, losing five of six games, Cincinnati needs to reach the Championship Game to even have a prayer of making the NCAA Tournament.
Freshman Yancy Gates is one of the least talked about first year players in the country, despite his solid 10.8 points per game average and six plus rebounds he grabs. Gates is quickly looking like a more composed low post presence as he dominated a very strong West Virginia team recently.
DePaul doesn't have a pulse. It's as simple as that. Anyone who says the Big East is the best conference from top to bottom clearly hasn't watched the Blue Demons. Jerry Wainwright is on the hot seat after DePaul went winless in conference play.
The former Conference USA power has some nice parts. Dar Tucker is one of the best scorers in the league, Mac Koshwal is a tank under the basket, and Will Walker has a nice touch from deep.
But the Demons don't have a talented point guard or anyone who averages more than six points a game outside of their top three.
The Bearcats are playing pretty awfully, but it is hard to imagine the Blue Demons making their fans anything but blue in the opening game of the Big East Championship.
When these two teams met early in Big East play, Cincinnati went into Chicago and left with a four point victory. The 'Cats led by as many as 15 and stud scorer Deonta Vaughn led the way with 18 points.
The opening round game for Cincinnati will act as a chance for Mick Cronin's Bearcats to get back on track before facing a very experienced Providence team in the second round of the Championship.
My pick: Cincinnati 68, DePaul 53
Georgetown vs. St. John's
The Hoyas still had a shot to go dancing with enough Big East Championship wins after knocking off Villanova in GU's 16th Big East game. But then the pretty hapless Red Storm came along and, instead of playing the role of cirrus clouds with a cherise hue, St. John's actually stewed up a Red Storm and mildly gusted Georgetown away.
Georgetown is still ranked as one of the 25 most efficient teams in the country according to Ken Pomeroy. But G'Town lacks depth, defense, and leadership. Seniors Jessie Sapp and junior DaJuan Summers haven't provided defense or become the senior leaders of a young Hoya team.
In the Big East, a lack of defense and leadership means that a 7-11 conference record is completely understandable.
Georgetown must win at least four games to get into ear shot of an at-large bid. Unfortunately for the Hoyas, four wins in four days used to result in an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. With the new format, four wins in four days earns a tired, dilapidated team a date with one of the three best teams in country.
The Hoyas will get a Johnnies team that is very young but picking up steam. After winning just three of their first 13 conference games, the Red Storm have notched victories in three of their last five games.
St. John's is very athletic and will go after a team defensively. Norm Robert's team doesn't have a lot of really big bodies in the post, but an array of wing players that can finish.
On their home court, the Johnnies will have the advantage being the hotter team as well as the comfort of home cooking, and they will advance to the second round to take on a struggling Marquette team.
My pick: St. John's 64, Georgetown 62
Notre Dame at Rutgers
The Irish are in a similar position to the Hoyas. Both teams needed at least one more regular season win to be in at-large contention but, like the Hoyas, the Irish couldn't deliver, blowing an opportunity in a close game against UConn and getting hammered at home against Villanova.
The combination of Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlareny is good enough for the Irish to reel off several consecutive victories in the Big East Championship. Notre Dame has the best shot to actually garner five wins in five days, albeit it's a really awful chance (don't be going to Vegas looking to make enough money to pay off those three overdue mortgage payments).
The Irish fell so quickly in the Big East because of a lack of defensive intensity. Notre Dame deserves a plaque for finishing behind every single Division I team in forcing turnovers. That's right, a Big East team is the absolute worst in the country in creating turnovers. On just 14.4 percent of its defensive possessions, ND forces an opposition's miscue.
Rutgers sits at 2-16 in the conference with its only wins over DePaul and South Florida. Ouch. Fred Hill's Scarlet Knights do have hope down the road with a bevy of stud freshman and sophomores. A win in New York City could go a long way to helping Hill recruit in a very fertile ground for future stars.
The first time around, Rutgers gave Notre Dame a run for its money at the Joyce Center in South Bend. The Scarlet Knights actually led at the half by eight but eventually withered down the stretch, surrendering their lead and succumbing by five points. Luke Harangody had one of his worst performances against Rutgers, scoring 20 points on seven of 25 shooting.
RU center Hamady N'Diaye is a big reason for shutting down Harangody. He will be the key once again on Tuesday in order to stop 'Gody and the Irish. There should be a decent Rutgers crowd on hand to support the Scarlet Knights, but Notre Dame will still have the edge on the third game of day one.
West Virginia will be waiting in the wings for the winner.
My pick: Notre Dame 78, Rutgers 65
Seton Hall vs. South Florida
It's been an interesting season for the Pirates. A 9-3 non-conference mark got the Hall in bubble consideration, but then a six game losing streak to open league play put a quick damper on that. A five-game winning streak suddenly had the Pirates talking Tournament again, if they could finish 9-9 in the Big East.
Unfortunately for them, SHU then lost five of its final seven Big East games and enter the Championship as the No. 11 seed.
Bobby Gonzalez essentially plays just six guys, so Seton Hall won't be a threat to go deep in the conference tournament, but has the talent to knock off the Bulls as well as give the Orange a fright in the second round if the Pirates get hot from the field.
Seton Hall can be very explosive on the offensive end of the floor when the Pirates slow things down. Typically, the faster the tempo, the lower the offensive rating for the Hall. South Florida's style of play will play right into the hands of Seton Hall.
USF plays one of the slowest brands of basketball in the country, which will allow SHU to operate its offense as well as conserve energy for a potential second round contest against Syracuse. The Bulls will try to beat the Pirates with defense because they are fairly anemic with the ball.
South Florida puts up Big Ten-ish scoring totals, struggling to break the 50-point barrier on any give night.
Seton Hall took the only meeting between the two teams fairly easily. As long as SHU doesn't wear down against South Florida's above-average defense, the Pirates will be survive to wage war a second day in the Big Apple.
My pick: Seton Hall 77, South Florida 60
All-Big East Tournament First-Round Performers
PG Mike Rosario, Rutgers
The Scarlet Knight floor general is Rutgers' first McDonald's All-American. He can score in bunches but tends to make freshman mistakes in terms of shot selection. The freshman is good enough to carry Rutgers to a victory in the tournament.
SG Jeremy Hazell, Seton Hall
A bona fide scorer, Hazell has the punch to also carry the Hall to not just one victory, but multiple wins in the tournament. His 22.6 ppg scoring average ranks near the top of the conference, and this is as a sophomore. His point per shot ratio is up from 1.24 to 1.31 in just two years, and he could be a Big East star in the making.
SG/SF Dominique Jones, South Florida
Another pure scorer, the 6'5'' Dominique Jones has no trouble creating his own shot on a team that struggles to put points on the scoreboard. He's got numerous three-point outbursts on his resume already and with USF relying on him to score, he could explode for another against Seton Hall.
PF DaJuan Summers, Georgetown
Despite not playing a lot of defense this year, Summers is still one of the biggest impact players that will be competing on day one. Summers can hit an outside shot, but he can also get to the hoop as well as finish after grabbing an offensive board.
C Luke Harangody, Notre Dame
Last year's Big East Player of the Year would deserve the honor once again if the Irish had a pulse in league play. 'Gody recorded a god-like 23.1 ppg and 12.1 rebounds per game. He's the only player in the entire country who ranks in the top ten in the country in both scoring and rebounding.
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