The 2013 Big East Tournament is still a little less than two weeks away, but for certain teams languishing on the proverbial bubble, the journey to Madison Square Garden has already begun.
It's become almost a yearly tradition that the Big East puts the most teams into the field of 68. That will ultimately come to an end with the conference's mass exodus looming, but the 2013 season has been yet another reminder of the rich basketball tradition on the East Coast.
Despite the Big Ten dominating much of the season atop the Associated Press poll, ESPN's Joe Lunardi still has the Big East getting the most representatives in March. But with a few teams lingering squarely on the bubble, that could change overnight. The conference tournament season is a yearly tidal wave of surprise outcomes, some of which come at the expense of previously deserving teams.
That means, at least for bubble teams, the pre-tournament phase is arguably as important as the festivities in Madison Square Garden themselves. With that in mind, here is a breakdown of a few Big East squads to watch prior to the opening tip on March 12.
Cincinnati Bearcats (19-9, RPI: 50)
If we were having this conversation prior to February, it would involve how high of a seed the Bearcats would get come Selection Sunday. After building some confidence versus a lackluster non-conference schedule, Cincinnati walked into conference play, won five of its first eight games and seemingly cemented itself into the field of 68.
And then the wheels fell completely off for Mick Cronin's squad. Almost completely stifled on the offensive end, Cincinnati went 2-5 in the month of February, including critical losses to Providence and Connecticut. The Bearcats are now a No. 9 seed, per ESPN's Joe Lunardi, and have a resume that includes a 3-7 record against teams inside the RPI Top 50.
The problem, as it has been all season, is on offense. The Bearcats rank 254th in effective field goal percentage, per Ken Pomeroy, and knock down a paltry 64.5 percent of their free throws. Among their four top scorers, only one is shooting over 42 percent and leading points man Sean Kilpatrick has seen his effectiveness crater of late. He shot just 35.3 percent for the month of February, including an abhorrent rate from beyond the arc, but never took fewer than 12 field goals in any contest.
One could say the Bearcats are predicated on defense, and that's true. They rank among the nation's best defenses in terms of both shot percentage and overall efficiency. But that doesn't help when your team has a fundamental inability to make a shot outside of the restricted area.
Cincinnati has two very winnable games, at home versus Cincinnati and South Florida, remaining on its schedule and a road tilt against Louisville. With their recent trends pointing downward, the Bearcats cannot afford to walk into Madison Square Garden having gone 1-2 in those contests.
If they do, a deep conference tournament run may be the only way to save their trip to the Big Dance.
Villanova Wildcats (18-11, RPI: 55)
Though a 5-3 record in February puts Villanova in a solid position heading onto the home stretch, Jay Wright should get used to the following phrase: Last four in. The Wildcats have been off and on that teetering precipice for Lunardi a good deal of the season and seem very likely to stay there for the time being.
That means an appearance in the first round could be in the works. That isn't what Jay Wright had in mind during the preseason, but his team's inconsistencies have put them in an untenable situation.
Wins over Louisville, Syracuse and Marquette are good enough to make the Wildcats look like they can beat anyone in the country. That being said, losses against Columbia and LaSalle early in the season and Seton Hall on Monday have been the never-ending source of frustration in the metro Philadelphia area.
What's more, an 18-point road loss versus Cincinnati would likely put Villanova behind its in-conference rival if the committee was given the choice between the schools.
Depending on the ultimate results of the games, Villanova will have the opportunity to cement its place in the field down the stretch. Two games against ranked opponents remain, and if the Wildcats are able to defeat No. 7 Georgetown in their season finale, it would be hard to keep a team with three wins versus top-10 competition out.
That being said, two losses and Villanova will be six-feet deep heading into the Big East Tournament. With the way this season has gone, it's hard to discount either result.
St. John's Red Storm (16-11, RPI: 61)
It's hard to count them out, but the Red Storm's next three results will ultimately decide the outcome of their season (barring a conference tournament championship). They are currently fifth on the "out" list for Lunardi, meaning there is work to be done before even reaching actual bubble consideration.
Luckily, the schedule plays in St. John's favor—as long as the Storm win. If St. John's is able to play through the rest of its regular season schedule undefeated—it hits the road versus Providence and Notre Dame before a home finale against Marquette—then break out a Sharpie and write the Red Storm into the tournament. Notre Dame and Marquette are both Top 25 opponents, and Providence has become the bane of every Big East team's existence down the stretch.
Executing that win-out plan is a whole different animal. St. John's is just 4-5 on the road this season and has yet to beat a team ranked inside the RPI Top 25. The Red Storm are projected by Ken Pomeroy to have no better than a 34 percent chance of winning any of their final three games, and their recent drubbings at the hands of Pittsburgh, Louisville and Syracuse certainly don't bode well.
Those recent losses (and St. John's struggles in February as a whole) speak to the team's lack of growth offensively. The Johnnies, like many of their Big East brethren, rank well below the median in effective field goal percentage and are abhorrent beyond the arc. St. John's does do a nice job at avoiding turnovers, ranking 12th in the nation in turnover rate.
To expect this particular bunch to come away with season-defining victories is unrealistic. They will likely go 1-2 and need a deep run, if not a tournament championship, to make the Big Dance. With a strong drove of New Yorkers at their side, though, it's hard to discount that happening in any season.