Big East Conference Tournament: Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Other Possible Champs
The Big East tournament is unlike any other.
Because of the ultra, ultra, ultra competitiveness of the conference's teams, the Big East tournament's descent on Madison Square Garden every year is a mini-NCAA tournament on its own. Currently the league boasts seven of the top 22 ranked teams in the nation and 10 teams have reached the 20-win mark already.
The SEC has five, the Pac-10 has three, the ACC has four, the Big 12 has five, the Big Ten has three and the Mountain West has four.
The Big East has twice as many 20-win teams as any other major conference. Current projections have the conference sending a record 11 teams into the field of 68 at this year's NCAA tournament, good for better than 16 percent of the entire field.
With so many national title contenders in this conference alone, the Big East tournament offers fans an early chance to see these titans clash before the Big Dance even starts.
Several teams have a shot at taking the Big East, which makes the field wide open. Because of the top-heaviness of the league, upsets are rampant and high seeds don't always win. Here's the tournament seeds of each Big East champs for the last five years: four, one, seven, one, nine.
Three of the last five years, a fourth seed or lower has won the Big East tournament, which makes this tournament the most fun of them all to watch.
With so many strong teams contending this year, it's hard to know which ones are for real and which ones will fold.
Here are the five true threats to run the table at the Garden this weekend.
5. West Virginia Mountaineers
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Last year's Big East tournament champions will have to overcome long odds to defend their title this year.
West Virginia will play from the sixth seed, which means that the Mountaineers will play Marquette or Providence, then Louisville. Of the top four seeds, I think Louisville is the most beatable, which bodes well for the upset-minded Mountaineers.
This team does not have as impressive of a record as some of its rivals, but some of that can be credited to the second strongest schedule in the NCAA. This means that West Virginia is probably a better team than their overall and conference records suggest.
WVU knows what it takes to survive the war of attrition that is the Big East tourney, where your reward for winning a tough game one night is facing a better team the next night.
This team always seems to peak near this time of year, having made four Sweet Sixteen appearances in the last six tournaments and two Elite Eights in that span.
Odds to win the Big East: 15 to 1.
4. Syracuse Orange
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Syracuse really earned its bacon down the stretch by winning the last five Big East games and seven of the last nine. The Orange finished with consecutive road wins at Villanova and Georgetown before throttling DePaul.
Jim Boeheim's squad has been a team of runs this year. The Orange rattled off 18-straight wins to start the season before losing four straight in conference and winning five in a row to finish.
The fourth-place finish in the Big East is deceiving because the Orange played one of the easier slates in the league. The only team in the top half of the conference standings that they had to play twice was Georgetown, which finished eighth.
Syracuse doesn't play until the third day, when they will most likely be met by fifth-seeded St. John's. If they survive the Red Storm on their home court at the Garden, they'll be treated to a semifinal match with top-seeded Pitt.
The chances of Syracuse getting through the weekend are better than most of the conference, but still not great.
Odds to win the Big East: 10 to 1
3. Georgetown Hoyas
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The Hoyas stumbled to the Big East finish line, having lost three in a row and four of five. However, the skid at the end may be a product of playing the nation's toughest schedule. A 21-9 record for a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Big East was still respectable the last time I checked.
Georgetown has history on its side in this event. If you were told that a team had been to the Big East tournament final three of the last four years and then you were asked to name the team, chances are that Georgetown wouldn't be one of your top three choices.
In fact, Georgetown has been to the final three of the last four years, winning in 2007 and finishing runner-up in 2008 and 2010. That tells the story of a team and coach (John Thompson III) that knows how to win a string of very tough games on consecutive days.
Last year, Georgetown made the final from the eight seed after knocking off top-seeded Syracuse. Could history repeat itself this year?
Odds to win the Big East: 8 to 1
2. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
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The Irish have stormed onto the Big East scene this year and currently reside in the top five. Aside from a failed week in January that saw blowout losses at St. John's and Marquette, Notre Dame has taken care of its business completely.
Winners of 11 out of 12, the Irish are the Big East's hottest team and boast wins at Pitt, versus UConn (twice), Louisville, Villanova, Georgetown and Cincinnati. In fact, against the top eight other teams in the league, Notre Dame gathered an incredible 7-3 record.
As the tournament's No. 2 seed, Notre Dame's biggest roadblock to a Saturday night showdown is Louisville, which the Irish narrowly escaped at home in overtime.
The Irish certainly won't be lacking in confidence because they've beaten all the top competitors aside from Syracuse, which resides on the other half of the bracket.
Notre Dame looks as ready and equipped as any team in the league to leave the Garden as Big East champion. With a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance within reach, they won't be lacking in motivation.
Odds to win the Big East: 4 to 1
1. Pittsburgh Panthers
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The Panthers took the regular season title by finishing an impressive 15-3. They've been at the top of the league and national polls all year long, and they look the part of a contender as much as anyone in the country.
Jamie Dixon's team is the favorite to win the Big East championship, but not by much—Notre Dame is right on Pitt's heels.
The Irish indeed are a threat to Pitt, having handed them one of their three league losses, a 56-51 shocker at home.
One of the other losses that Pitt sustained was to Louisville on the road. The good news for Pitt is that Louisville and Notre Dame would play each other before potentially reaching the Panthers in the final.
Pitt should have no significant worry this weekend, so long as it keeps an eye out for upset bids and takes care of its business as the top seed.
Odds to win the Big East: 3 to 1