Big East Basketball: Preview and Predictions

Ryan Curi@rcuri1Featured ColumnistDecember 30, 2012

Big East Basketball: Preview and Predictions

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    After being the top dog in college basketball for a number of recent years, before the Big Ten's revival, the future of Big East basketball is in serious jeopardy. Teams like Notre Dame, Syracuse, Louisville, Pitt and Rutgers have already entered into agreements with other conferences in the near future.

    Then the seven non-football playing schools in the league decided it would be in their best interest to leave the Big East as well. Those seven schools are Marquette, Georgetown, Villanova, Seton Hall, Providence, St. John's and DePaul. 

    This leaves only Cincinnati, South Florida and UCONN as current Big East schools that have not opted to leave, as West Virginia has already left as a new member of the Big 12. No longer will the frantic play of Big East basketball be the same, and that's a shame for college basketball.

    The annual Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden in March may be the most exciting series of games each year prior to the NCAA Tournament. Five days of buzzer-beaters, upsets, and makings of great players won't have the same look in the near future.

    This year may be the best that the Big East has to offer for a long time, so let's take a look at some previews and predictions for the upcoming 2012-13 conference campaign. With conference matchups starting next week, there's no better time than now to look ahead.

Providence Will Be Fun to Watch, Regardless of Record

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    The Providence Friars have started their young season with an 8-4 record but have yet to play a ranked opponent. Their four losses have been by a combined nine points but have come against the likes of UMASS, Penn State, Brown and Boston College. 

    While the team currently only scores 69.3 points per night, I believe the fast-paced play of the Big East will make Providence a fun team to watch. The three-headed monster of Bryce Cotton, LaDontae Henton and Kadeem Batts average 22.0, 17.3 and 16.1 points, respectively.

    On Friday night, the Friars welcomed Vincent Council back from injury in what was only his second game all season. Council averaged nearly 16 points and eight assists a year ago. With him in the lineup all season, this Providence team's record could be much better and not have so many close losses.

    No, the Friars will not be an NCAA Tournament team this March, but they could sneak into the NIT. Regardless of their record, though, the fact that they have four legitimate scoring threats will make them a potential upset waiting to happen against even the Big East's bests.

DePaul Will Improve but Is Still a Year Away from Relevancy

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    After a 2-3 start in what looked like another disappointing year from DePaul, the Blue Demons rattled off seven straight wins before dropping one to Loyola (IL) Friday night. During that winning streak, Oliver Purnell's team beat Auburn, as well as blowing out Arizona State on the road.

    Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young are quite the duo, combining for 34 points per night, while maintaining high field goal percentages. Still, the Demons need that third scorer that neither Jamee Crockett or Moses Morgan have been consistently.

    All four of the aforementioned players will be back in Chicago a year from now. None of them have experienced winning during their time at DePaul, and while they'll win more Big East games this year than they did a year ago, an NIT berth is the limit for now.

    Advancing to an NIT this March would go a long way for their confidence a year from now, making the NCAA Tournament seem not so farfetched. After all, everywhere that Purnell has gone to coach, he has turned around the program. Eventually, he'll do the same at DePaul.

Davante Gardner Will Be the League's Top Scoring Reserve

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    After losing Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder from last year's Sweet Sixteen squad, it was a question on who would become Marquette's big time scorers in 2012-13. Thus far, they have gotten a well-balanced attack but have struggled scoring in the half-court game.

    Davante Gardner is averaging 12.5 points off the bench for the Golden Eagles and has scored in double figures in 10 of Marquette's 12 games, nine of which have ended in W's. Gardner also contributes 5.0 rebounds in 20.4 minutes of action.

    Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan, Trent Lockett, Jamil Wilson and Todd Mayo all have the ability to get into double figure scoring on a given night, but other than Blue and Gardner, none have done so regularly. That's why Gardner's minutes will need to increase come Big East play.

    Sure, at 6'8", 290 pounds Gardner is not the most nimble creature. And while center Chris Otule is much better defensively, Gardner will be needed to feed the ball into and use his great body control to score and get to the foul line. Look for continued production from Gardner.

Jamie Dixon Will Win Big East Coach of the Year

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    Last season was by far the toughest of Jamie Dixon's tenure at Pitt. Dixon came to Pittsburgh at the start of the 2003-04 season, one in which Pitt was the Big East champion. The Panthers won another Big East title in 2010-11 and have placed second on three occasions. 

    In fact, the worst a Dixon-coached team at Pitt had finished in the Big East was 10-8 with a seventh-place finish. Prior to 2011-12, all eight of Dixon's teams had advanced to the NCAA Tournament as well. However, last year's squad struggled, despite high expectations, and finished 5-13 in the Big East, good for 13th place.

    Last year's Big East Preseason Player of the Year, Ashton Gibbs, has graduated, but the Panthers haven't missed a beat without him. Their well-balanced attack has guided them to a 12-1 start and 24th place ranking.

    Pitt averages more assists as a team than anyone else in the nation at 19.6, thanks in large part to floor general Tray Woodall. Talib Zanna has been efficient in the post, while freshman Steven Adams and transfer Trey Zeigler have been welcome additions. A top-four Big East finish isn't out of the question for Dixon, and if that occurs he deserves this award.

Jack Cooley Will Win Big East Player of the Year

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    The senior from Glenview, IL, also referred to as Luke Harangody 2.0, has had quite the start to his final season in South Bend. Cooley's 15.2 point and 11.3 rebound averages and nine double-doubles in 13 games make him a serious matchup nightmare every time he steps on the court.

    Most recently, Cooley scored 24 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a win over Niagara in only 25 minutes of PT. He is playing just over 28 minutes per game, though that number could take a slight increase when Big East competition stiffens.

    He's been efficient from the field, shooting 64 percent and also contributing defensively with 1.7 blocked shots. He's managed to stay out of foul trouble, only averaging 2.2 fouls, a tough thing for such a physical big man to do.

    While the Irish likely will not win the Big East, Cooley will be deserving of the league's best player award and will have the stats to back it up. Though there will be plenty of competition, namely Peyton Siva, in my opinion, Cooley's consistently big numbers should be enough.

South Florida Will Sneak in as a Bubble Team Again

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    Heading into conference play a year ago, the South Florida Bulls' NCAA Tournament chances seemed already dead. The team stumbled into league play with a 7-6 record before falling to .500 when defeated by UCONN, the defending national champions. 

    From there, Stan Heath's team got hot. They finished the Big East campaign with a 12-6 record and snuck into the NCAA Tournament at 20-13. The Bulls defeated Cal in the Round of 68, upset fifth-seeded Temple, and then fell to John Groce's Ohio squad by six.

    South Florida won games a year ago strictly by playing relentless defense. Not a single player on the roster averaged in double figure scoring for the Bulls, which is unheard of especially for a team that won as much as they did. Currently, South Florida is 8-3 and looks to have survived a serious injury scare from point guard Anthony Collins, who was taken off on a stretcher in Saturday's contest.

    Collins' 9.6 points and 7.6 assists will be needed for an NCAA Tournament return. Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, Victor Rudd and Jawanza Pollard are each averaging double-figure scoring this season. Another 12-6 Big East record will absolutely get them another berth, though I see them finishing around 10-8 and still sneaking in.

8 Teams Will Make the NCAA Tournament

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    As mentioned in the previous slide, I believe South Florida will once again sweat it out come Selection Sunday but eventually hear its name called. Marquette will also make the NCAA Tournament, even with an unimpressive nonconference showing.

    The six teams that are currently ranked in the Big East will also hear their name called in mid-March. Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Pitt and Georgetown all have what it takes to be part of the 68 team field.

    For prediction purposes, I'll list my projected seeds for each:

    South Florida: 12

    Marquette: 11

    Georgetown: 6

    Cincinnati: 6

    Pittsburgh: 5

    Notre Dame: 4

    Louisville: 2

    Syracuse: 2

UConn Would Have Been NCAA Tournament Bound If Eligible

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    After a 10-2 start to his head coaching career, Kevin Ollie received a five-year deal worth $7 million to coach the Huskies. On Saturday, UConn took on another Huskies squad, Washington, whom they defeated 61-53.

    Connecticut's two defeats on the young season have come against New Mexico and North Carolina State by 10 combined points, nothing to hang their heads over. Their biggest win came on the season's opening night, defeating Michigan State in Germany.

    Though small in stature, the UConn backcourt has come up big thus far. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright are combining 32.3 points and 8.4 assists per night, while also receiving help from Omar Calhoun and DeAndre Daniels.

    While last year's UConn team sorely underachieved, I see this year's squad overachieving, even with nothing to play for. Had the Huskies been eligible to play in the NCAA Tournament in 2013, they'd definitely be doing so. 

Georgetown and Notre Dame Will Disappoint in March Madness

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    The Hoyas have started hot in 2012-13, but I'm not sold on the fact that they can score enough points to be a real contender come March, even after watching them nearly knock off then-top-ranked Indiana in November.

    If Notre Dame has a cold shooting night from the outside or off-game from Jack Cooley, something that has really yet to happen this year, the Fighting Irish are also very vulnerable to becoming an upset victim.

    That's why come March, neither of these teams will advance to the Sweet Sixteen, and to take it a step further, both will lose their first NCAA Tournament contest. The Hoyas have won one NCAA Tournament game since 2008, as has Notre Dame. 

    Both teams will have the strong regular seasons as anticipated but will be disappointments with an early-round upset in March Madness. Agree or disagree all you want, but I'll be looking to pick against these teams when that bracket is released.

No Big East Team Will Make the Final Four

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    Since 2009, the Big East has been represented five times in the Final Four, including the 2011 National Champion Connecticut Huskies. Last year, the Louisville Cardinals got to the season's final weekend before being edged by rival Kentucky.

    2013 will be like 2008 in the sense that no Big East team will make the Final Four. As a Big Ten guy myself, I think there's a better chance of two Big Ten teams making the Final Four than a single Big East team advancing that far.

    Louisville and Syracuse seems to be the only legitimate threats to my argument right now. Louisville has been unimpressive in multiple home games, yesterday against UK and a few weeks back in a near upset against Illinois State.

    Syracuse never seems to leave the state of New York to play anyone but was exposed last Saturday by Khalif Wyatt and Temple. The Big East is definitely going away little by little, but don't expect for it to go out with a bang this March Madness.