Big East Basketball Tournament 2011: What's Left to Prove Before the Big Dance?
Every team remaining in the Big East Tournament has all but secured an NCAA bid, including 11th-seeded Marquette who upset the sixth seed West Virginia 67-61 last night. But just making it into the NCAA Tournament has never been the goal for most of these teams. They want to win it all.
It may be the strongest conference in the country, but these teams are far from perfect.
With three days and seven games left in the Big East Tournament, here's a look at what each Big East team still has to prove before Selection Sunday.
Pittsburgh Panthers: Who Wants the Ball?
The regular season champions had just three losses during conference play and all of them were to ranked teams, by a combined nine points. Suffice to say, there's little debate that the Pittsburgh Panthers are the best team in the conference.
But how come they've never been in the discussion for best team in the country?
They're sixth in the nation in rebounding (40.3/game), third in assists (17.5/game) and 27th in field goal percentage (.472) despite playing in the the toughest conference in the country. They're incredibly balanced with six different players earning at least 20 minutes a game and nine players with at least 10.
Yet the one thing they lack is a true offensive leader.
Ashton Gibbs and Bran Wanamaker are two of the best guards in the country, but neither has the dynamics of a game-changer. Gary McGhee is an impressive force inside, but his poor free-throw shooting (48.9 percent) makes him a liability.
Pittsburgh will be in a tight game eventually, so the question is who will get the ball when the game is on the line? And can they deliver?
Connecticut Huskies: Kemba and Who?
The Huskies backed their way into the Big East Tournament losing four of their last five conference games before throttling DePaul (97-71) and Georgetown (79-62) in the first two rounds of the tournament. Connecticut is not in any serious danger of losing its NCAA bid, but they were only 5-7 against ranked teams during the regular season.
Unlike Pittsburgh, the Huskies are not a particularly balanced team. The talent is there, but this is Kemba Walker's team. He plays 37.3 minutes a game (second on the team is Alex Oriakhi with 29.3 mpg) and he's easily the leading scorer at 23.4 points per game (Jeremy Lamb is second with 10.0). In five of UConn's nine losses, Walker scored 20 points or less.
If Notre Dame, Louisville (twice), Syracuse and St. John's found a way to stop him, then so will another team. The Huskies need a reliable second option to shoulder the scoring load when Walker is being double-teamed.
Lamb is the best candidate and is actually shooting better from the floor (46.8 percent) than Walker (43.3 percent). But the lanky guard-forward is just a freshman and might not be ready for the big stage. Without him the Huskies are merely a one-man show, and those don't tend to last very long in the NCAA tournament.
St. John's Red Storm: Are They for Real?
The Johnnies shocked the basketball world and maybe even themselves when they knocked off a top-seeded Duke team back in January. They've followed up that performance by beating three more ranked teams in Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Villanova and will soon be making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002.
But are they a legitimate threat to make some noise in March?
Dwight Hardy is the real deal at point guard (34.0 MPG 17.9 PPG 44.5% FG). But after that the team is barren of top-end talent. There's a reason St. John's is 284th in the country in rebounding (32.6/game), and it's not for a lack of effort. It's a simple lack of size.
The starting center, Justin Brownlee, is just 6'7" and 219 pounds. Sean Evans (6'9") and Dele Coker (6'11") both offer some size off the bench, but they don't offer enough other qualities to warrant consistent playing time. With no presence on the offensive glass, the Red Storm are going to have to rely on their outside shooting to get by bigger opponents.
St. John's has five players shooting at least 30.0 percent from beyond the arc, so it's certainly possible. But aren't they due for a cold shooting night one of these days?
Syracuse Orange: Who's in the Middle?
The Orange have rebounded nicely from a rough patch during the regular season and go into the NCAA tournament having won five straight. Syracuse has one of its deepest rosters in years, with four different players scoring in double figures and an additional four players seeing regular action off the bench.
The Orange also have the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in Rick Jackson, who is a double-double machine.
There's a lot to like with this team, but even though they're scoring 73.5 points a game, their offense still has a major hole. Who's the center?
Superstar recruit Fab Melo started off the season manning the middle, but it didn't take long for coach Jim Boeheim to realize that Melo was too raw and too slow for the college game and promptly benched him. Fellow rookie Baye Moussa Keita took over midseason and showed good length and instincts in the Syracuse 2-3 zone but was hopeless offensively.
Melo had a career game last time out against DePaul with 10 points and six rebounds, but the 7-footer may have just been too much for the Blue Demons to handle. Keita's still the starter, but a hand injury suffered about a month ago limits him offensively.
Syracuse needs one of these two big men to step up if they want to make a deep run into the NCAA yournament. They don't need to score much, but they need to be competent enough on both ends of the floor to help keep Jackson fresh and out of foul trouble.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Are They Deep Enough?
Ben Hansborough is the Big East Player of the Year and one of the most unstoppable scorers in the nation. His partner in crime, Tim Abromaitis, can more than hold his own and is the second leading scorer for the conference's most potent offensive team. Both players are shooting above 40.0 percent from three, and an additional three players consistently knock down at least a third of their three-point attempts (618 in total).
But are the Fighting Irish really deep enough to make a run at the whole thing?
The offense (75.5 points a game) is there. The defense is finally there with the Fighting Irish holding opponents under 60 points an impressive 10 times this season. But are the starting five of Hansborough, Abromaitis, Carleton Scott, Tyone Nash and Scott Martin going to have enough gas to keep playing late into the NCAA tournament?
Each of those players is playing right around 30 minutes a game with Hansborough and Abromaitis on the court for roughly 35. The only players on the bench who offer any sort of relief are Eric Atkins (25.9 MPG) and Jack Cooley (10.4 MPG).
A single injury and all of a sudden coach Mike Brey has 200 minutes to distribute between just six players. A couple of early round blowouts would help keep the main players fresh, but considering Notre Dame's recent history in the tournament, I don't think Brey will be taking any chances.
Cincinnati Bearcats: Can They Score?
The Bearcats secured their rightful spot in the NCAA tournament by beating Georgetown twice late in the season and pummeling a hapless USF team, 87-61, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. So even if they lose to Notre Dame today, they should still be in good shape for a 10-seed or higher.
But Cincinnati will have to prove that they can at least stay in the same building as the high-scoring Fighting Irish if they want to be taken seriously in the Big Dance.
The Bearcats average just 69.6 points per game (151st in the country) and are shooting a paltry 43.9 percent from the floor (155th in the country). They've been held to under 60 points 10 times this season, and though their defense has been good enough to keep them in most games, they'll need to find their stroke sooner or later to hang with some of the country's sharpshooting teams.
Yancy Gates (11.7 PPG) is the team's leading scorer, but the 6'9" forward gets most of his points on putbacks. Dion Dixon (11.5 PPG) and Sean Kilpatrick (10.0 PPG) are the only other two players who score in double figures, but neither is a particularly good three-point shooter.
Someone on the Cincinnati roster (Rashad Bishop?) has to step up and knock down some shots if this team wants to make a run.
Marquette Golden Eagles: Hot Streak or the Real Deal?
The Golden Eagles were a bubble team for most of the season before winning three of their last five games and advancing to the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament with wins over Providence (87-66) and West Virginia (67-61). Marquette will likely meet its maker in Louisville tonight, but the overall resume should be impressive enough to get them that March Madness ticket.
But what will they do once they get there?
This is a team that wins by putting points on the board (76.7 a game to be exact) and have two electric scorers in Jimmy Butler (16.0 PPG) and Darius Johnson-Odom (16.0 PPG). Marquette shoots a sizzling 47.3 percent from the floor (24th in the country) and are also lethal from the perimeter with a 35.7 percentage. But one of these days they're going to have to figure out how to stop the other team from scoring.
Marquette's "big" problem is a lack of size. The tallest player on the roster is 6'11" Chris Otule, but he's on the court for only 17.2 minutes a night. The next three biggest players (Davante Gardner, Erik Williams, Joseph Fulce) all see the court for less than 10 minutes.
With no inside presence, the Golden Eagles have to rely on their perimeter defense. But those seven steals a game don't look so good against the team's 12 turnovers a game. Marquette has to be pretty much perfect to even make it to the Sweet 16.
A Final Four appearance would be miraculous, and a national championship would be the shock of the century.
Louisville Cardinals: Can They Replace Leading Rebounder Rakeem Buckles?
The Cardinals have one of the best defenses in the country, limiting opponents to 40 percent shooting from the field and just 23 percent shooting from three. Louisville forced its past five opponents to commit turnovers on 25 percent of their possessions, an astounding mark for any team, let alone one playing in the Big East.
But that defense took a bit hit when it lost sophomore Rakeem Buckles for the year with a torn ACL.
Buckles, a 6'7", 200-pound forward, was pulling down 6.1 boards a game and was one of the team's best outside shooters knocking down 42.3 percent of his three-point attempts. The offense runs through a quartet of guards (Preston Knowles, Peyton Siva, Chris Smith, Kyle Kuric), but having a big man who can stretch the floor and crash the glass was an invaluable asset.
The Cardinals still have some size with 6'9" Terrence Jennings and 6'10" Gorgui Deng, but neither is much of a shooter. In fact, neither has even attempted a three-point field goal this season and are averaging just 5.3 and 4.4 rebounds a game respectively.
A team with any kind of size should have no trouble pounding the ball down low, meaning the Cardinals are going to have to get sizzling hot from beyond the arc to keep pace. They have the bodies to do it, but how long will the three's keep going down? Two more games? Three? One off night and it's back to Kentucky.