The most trying conference tournament in college basketball begins Tuesday as the Big East Tournament kicks off at Madison Square Garden.
As Bob Knight stated a couple weeks ago on ESPN, the Big East Tournament is arguably more difficult to win than the NCAA Tournament. This year's tournament, which fields all 16 teams, features two Top 20 teams in the First Round, which puts the ninth through 16th-placed teams against each other.
The big talk this year is that 11 teams are currently, according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi and other experts, locked into the NCAA tournament. The conference has dominated this year. It features the strongest strength of schedule, the highest RPI, currently nine ranked teams and non-conference wins over Duke, Purdue, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Michigan State among other big names.
This year's tournament will be extremely entertaining. It's hard to pick a winner and a lot of talk surrounds the return to relevance of the St. John's Red Storm, who have won by double digits at Madison Square Garden against Duke, Connecticut and Notre Dame and also have home wins over Georgetown and Pittsburgh as well as a late season road win at Villanova. Steve Lavin has that team in contention again.
There are many teams who can win this tournament or at least interesting. Here we will break down the tourney and pick a winner.
The First Round will feature teams 9-16 in the Big East. The top three of those teams, Connecticut, Villanova and Marquette, should all progress to the Second Round with little trouble against respective opponents DePaul, South Florida and Providence.
It is the 12/13 match-up that could prove to be the most challenging. The Battle of New Jersey between Seton Hall and Rutgers will provide an interesting and entertaining first round matchup.
The Pirate's Jeremy Hazell and the Scarlet Knight's Jonathan Mitchell silently continued their consistent careers this year, and both teams were able to frustrate the big boys this season. Rutgers upset Villanova while Seton Hall was able to blow out Syracuse at the Carrier Dome and upset St. John's in Jersey.
The two met twice this season, splitting the games. This game could prove to be the closest game of the First Round. Look for Seton Hall to get through though to take on the Johnnies again.
Connecticut, Villanova and Marquette are all entering the tournament right in the First Round. Should they advance, which they all should, each will be facing an opponent they have defeated this season. UConn knocked off Georgetown, Villanova easily handled Cincinnati, and Marquette held on to beat West Virginia.
With so many good teams in the Big East, some were bound to end up in the First Round. Neither UConn or Villanova has finished strong and Marquette lost to seton Hall in the last game of the season, but all are dangerous.
Had it not been for the unstoppable shooting of Hansbrough-less Notre Dame in the final minutes of Saturday's game, the Huskies would be sitting on a First Round bye at the moment. However, Jim Calhoun's team have a nice potential path to the quarterfinals.
DePaul should be a win, and without Chris Wright, Georgetown are a depleted team who have already lost by eight to the Huskies this year. Connecticut rises to the occasion and at times this year, we have seen glimpse of what freshmen Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith as well as sophomore Jamal Coombs-McDaniels could be after Kemba Walker moves on, if he leaves after graduating in May. If the Huskies role players focus in on the task at hand and play smart basketball, the Huskies can make some noise.
For Villanova, same thing. Will we see the team that came out firing with Corey Fischer and Corey Stokes leading the way, or will we see the team that fell all the way to tenth in the conference at the end of the season? The Wildcats should beat Cincinnati again, as they did by 11 earlier this year. If the Villanova we all expected to see this year is the Villanova we get, the 10-seed Wildcats will be in the quarterfinals.
Marquette can be dangerous, really dangerous. Jimmy Bulter was deservedly honored with an All Big East Honorable Mention and Darius Johnson-Odom earned Second Team. If you allow the Golden Eagles to linger, as UConn and Syracuse did, or you allow them to control the game, as Notre Dame did, they will get you.
As arguably the last Big East team in, they have those three quality wins on their resume as well as narrow single-digit losses to Villanova, Pittsburgh and Louisville. West Virginia needs to be careful and get out of the gates early and keep control, otherwise Marquette will get through.
For the Second Round, I predict Connecticut, St. John's, Villanova, and West Virginia to get through to the quarterfinals.
The St. John's Red Storm are back.
I did not think I would be able to say this for a long time, but Steve Lavin has the Red Storm as a relevant team once again.
In his first season, the new coach has the Johnnies as a lock for the NCAA tournament. It will be their first appearance in nine years. They are also a threat to win their first conference tournament title in 11 years. The Storm won in 2000 over two-time defending champs Connecticut.
This could be the year for the Storm, led by All-Big East First Team star Dwight Hardy, and I expect them to be the only lower seed to win on Thursday in the Quarterfinals.
It would be a battle of the New York schools if St. John's advance to the quarterfinals, where they would take on Syracuse. The Orange are a great team, like most in the conference, but they are certainly the weakest of the top four. St. John's are the most dangerous team that could make the quarterfinals. They have dominated at Madison Square Garden this year with wins we have already discussed. Syracuse won the mid-January battle, but that's not to say St. John's could change that this time around. Its not often you see the top four seeds in the Big East semifinals, and I do not expect that this year.
I am going to go with my gut instincts and say Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Louisville, and St. John's win in the quarterfinals to advance to Friday's semifinals.
Normally, I do not like to pick a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the Championship, but I think this year the way the draw worked, we will see a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game between Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.
St. John's has and will have an incredible run, but I think the amazing physical play of Pittsburgh is going to hurt them. The Panthers tend to overwhelm their opponents and are certainly worthy of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament this year. Look for them to make the Championship in a convincing, though in now way easy, win.
Notre Dame has one great advantage over Louisville, they simply do not miss shots. I was able to watch this team play first hand on Saturday sitting in the UConn Student Section during the Irish's 70-67 win over the Huskies. Ben Hansbrough can hit from anywhere with any amount of defensive pressure. Even when he went out of the game after fouling out with eight minutes left, Tim Abromaitis, a Connecticut native, Carlton Nash, and Tyrone Nash stepped up and were able to halt a Husky comeback before it got too far out of reach.
Louisville has a chance if they can match Notre Dame shot for shot. I thought Peyton Siva deserved to be a Second Team All-Big East, but earned an honorable mention. He is better than an Honorable Mention and will definitely have a say if these two teams meet Friday.
I expect Notre Dame vs. Louisville to be the best game of the tournament. It will not match Syracuse's incredible six overtime win over Connecticut, but it will certainly be a back and forth contest which goes down to the wire and potentially overtime. In the end, I think Hansbrough's incredible shooting upends the Cardinals, leaving No. 1 Pittsburgh to play No. 2 Notre Dame on Saturday night for the championship.
As much as I may personally despise Ben Hansbrough and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, one simply cannot deny Ben is one of the best players in the country and Notre Dame one of the most talented teams.
The senior and potential lottery pick in the NBA will lead the Irish to victory in Saturday's Championship Game over the top-seeded Pittsburgh. It will be the Irish first Big East championship. They have never even been to the Championship Game before.
Notre Dame may not be as big as Pittsburgh, but Tyrone Nash and Carlton Scott are great down low. Abromaitis can step outside and get off a jump shot and of course with Hansbrough running the offense and being capable of scoring from anywhere, the Irish always have the advantage.
Ben's excellent shooting was the reason for Notre Dame's victory in Pittsburgh earlier this year. I do not see any reason for this to not be the case on Saturday.
Any of the 11 teams projected to make the NCAA tournament can surprise and challenge for this trophy, but on Saturday night, I see no reason to doubt that Notre Dame will be cutting down the nets in Madison Square Garden.
Beyond that, depending on how the Big XII, ACC and Big Ten Tournaments pan out, Notre Dame, now No. 4 in the nation, could earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament come Selection Sunday. They certainly deserve it and it is not crazy to now think two Big East teams will be top seeds.
Games in order of when they will be played. Times are Eastern. Winners in BOLD
First Round (Tuesday):
9) Connecticut vs. 16) DePaul at noon.
12) Seton Hall vs. 13) Rutgers at 2 p.m.
10) Villanova vs. 15) South Florida at 7 p.m.
11) Marquette vs. 14) Providence at 9 p.m.
Second Round (Wednesday):
8) Georgetown vs. 9) Connecticut at noon.
5) St. John's vs. 12) Seton Hall at 2 p.m.
7) Cincinnati vs. 10) Villanova at 7 p.m.
6) West Virginia vs. 11) Marquette at 9 p.m.
1) Pittsburgh vs. 9) Connecticut at noon.
4) Syracuse vs. 5) St. John's at 2 p.m.
2) Notre Dame vs. 10) Villanova at 7 p.m.
3) Louisville vs. 6) West Virginia at 9 p.m.
1) Pittsburgh vs. 5) St. John's at 7 p.m.
2) Notre Dame vs. 3) Louisville at 9 p.m.
1) Pittsburgh vs. 2) Notre Dame at 9 p.m.
Peyton Siva, Louisville
Carlton Scott, Notre Dame
Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh
Dwight Hardy, St. John's
Ben Hansbrough, Notre Dame
Most Outstanding Player: Ben Hansbrough, Notre Dame