If you can win the Big East you can win anything. That was the attitude of the 11 NCAA tournament qualifiers of the Big East that headed into the conference tournament (Mar. 8-12).
Much of the buzz in New York was about the officiating. Three Big East officials excused themselves from duty and questions were raised about officials' workload. The question moving forward is whether the excused officials will work the NCAA tournament and then what role will the officials play in deciding the games in the Big Dance (another side note that came up during the tourney was players slipping on advertising stickers like the orange Reese's sticker shown in the picture)
UConn needed five wins in five nights to win the Big East tournament; a daunting task to say the least. They pulled it out and head into the 68-team NCAA field with most impressive tournament-winning experience.
Besides the Wildcats and the other big guys like Pitt, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Louisville, I've singled out Marquette and Cincinnati as teams to look out for in the NCAA tourney.
Jay Bilas has inspired me to list each team's Sagarin rating along with their RPI. Bilas is an infamous opponent of using a team's RPI to predict tournament success and says it should never be used. I decided to order the teams in terms of their Sagarin rating in honor of him.
Here's a look at each Big East team headed to the 2011 NCAA tournament.
Marquette Golden Eagles
Record: 20-14 (9-9 Big East)
NCAA Seed: No. 11
Marquette coach Buzz Williams is a good, honest players' coach. The 38-year-old Texan coached under Billy Gillespie at Texas A&M. He likes his team in the first 10 seconds of a possession meaning he doesn’t like his half-court offense as much as his team in transition.
They’re in the top 15 in field-goal percentage but their offense is really triggered by their defense. Buzz Williams emphasized playing with toughness, energy, passion and execution this time of year and specifically execution within that passion.
Jimmy Butler, the Golden Eagles senior swingman from Texas and 6'11" center Chris Otule are players to watch.
This is Coach Williams' third consecutive tournament and sixth consecutive for Marquette. I expect them to be a tough team to handle as a No. 11 seed. They play No. 6 seed Xavier which is a tough draw for them. They will likely have to play Syracuse in the next round if they do win.
Record: 21-11 (9-9 Big East)
NCAA Seed: No. 9
Jay Wright, in his ninth season with Villanova, owns a .740 winning percentage and is 12-6 in the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats scoring average decreased the last seven games of the season. Their last four losses were all to ranked opponents so they weren't bad losses but losses nonetheless. Add in their first-round loss to USF in the Big East tournament and Villanova is headed into the NCAA tourney reeling. The game against USF was close but neither team played very well down the stretch. Villanova's press looked good but it was doomed by a bad pass late.
The Wildcats are still a dangerous No. 9 seed and I expect them to beat No. 8 seed George Mason in the first round. I don't see them going much farther than that though. They would play Ohio State in the next round.
St. John's Red Storm
Record: 21-11 (12-6 Big East)
NCAA Seed: No. 6
DJ Kennedy acts as a point forward for the Red Storm. He excels offensively and defensively; he can rebound and push the ball. Unfortunately, Kennedy suffered a college career-ending injury in the Big East tournament.
Steve Lavin is a fun coach to watch, who wears his emotions on his sleeve. He has been to 13 consecutive tournaments as an assistant and now a head coach. Coach Lavin knows the importance of not wearing a team down late in the year. He utilizes more mental stuff like walk-throughs, goal sessions and film study. The last thing you want to do as a coach is overwork the players when they have to play in back-to-back-tournament conditions.
All-Big East senior guard Dwight Hardy dropped an inbounds pass late against Rutgers that would have sealed the game. The end of that Rutgers game was weird. The referees basically just stopped officiating the game and walked off the court.
The Red Storm employ a full-court zone, pressure defense. Coach Lavin credits the Red Storm's success to guys taking lesser roles this year. Some of those guys will have to step up and take on a greater role with Kennedy out.They were a team that I singled out before the injury as a team poised to make noise in the tournament. Now, I'm not sure if they make it out of the first weekend.
They get a pretty decent draw against No. 11 seed Gonzaga but they will have to play No. 3 seed BYU in the next round if they advance. I don't think they'll get past BYU.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Record: 20-11 (11-7 Big East)
NCAA Seed: No. 5
The Mountaineers beat five ranked teams during the regular season and entered the Big East tournament hot. This is Bob Huggins' fourth consecutive 20-win season and West Virginia's seventh straight overall. They reached the Final Four last year.
Casey Mitchell is their leading scorer at 14.4 points off the bench. They defend and rebound very well. Marquette coach Buzz Williams said that the Mountaineers play as hard as any team in the country. They are a difficult team to score against.
Kevin Jones is their Big East honorable mention forward. They have a reputation for not hitting shots. They shoot 33 percent from three-point range but they only give up 29 percent to their opponents.
They play a first round game against the winner of UAB and Clemson. I think West Virgina will advance past Kentucky into the sweet sixteen but lose to Ohio State.
Record: 21-10 (10-8 Big East)
NCAA Seed: No. 6
Chris Wright, who has been out of action with a hand injury since Feb. 25, is expected to play in the tournament. They have definitely missed having him in the lineup.
The urge for the Hoyas is to get the ball to All-Big East guard Austin Freeman whether they are winning or losing. Positive things usually happen when he has the ball.
John Thompson III said he has a confident team. If Chris Wright is fully healthy, Georgetown is a different team.
They'll play the winner of the USC - VCU play-in game. I expect them to advance into the Sweet 16 past Purdue but lose to Notre Dame.
Record: 25-8 (11-7 Big East)
NCAA Seed: No. 6
Head coach Mick Cronin has increased his team's win total each year for five consecutive years. Charles Yancey has come on strong after being suspended for one game on Feb. 5.
The Bearcats are one of the best defenses in the Big East, yet they don't have to practice it. They are deep with guys like Dion Dixon at guard but not as deep at PG. Guard Sean Kilpatrick gives them double digits off the bench. They won’t get beat on the front line, as it's one of the best in the country. Just from watching their press conference I can tell the players and coaches are on the same page.
They feel they’re the most disrespected 25-win team in the country and they play with a big chip on their shoulder. I expect them to use the Big East tournament frustration of their blowout loss to Notre Dame to fuel them to a run in the NCAA tournament.
Cincinnati received a No. 6 seed and play No. 11 seed Missouri. They get a tough draw because they have to play UConn the next round. I don't think they'll get past UConn.
Record: 26-9 (9-9 Big East)
NCAA Seed: No. 3
Over 19,370 people packed Madison Square Garden to see Kemba Walker. UConn won the Big East championship despite Walker's late foul against Louisville. The Huskies beat five Big East teams in five days (four of them ranked) to win their seventh conference title.
Kemba Walker put his team on his shoulders and carried them to a championship. He scored 130 points in five days. Late in games, Walker doesn't need a screener. He can make his own shot and is virtually unstoppable one-on-one.
Jim Calhoun is frustrated with his team's struggles in rebounding. Especially when Kemba Walker leads the team in rebounding. He says he’s never seen anything like it and he’s in his 25th season with UConn.
UConn heads into the NCAA tournament undoubtedly one of the hottest teams with the most impressive tournament winning experience. They are a No. 3 seed and play No. 14 seed Bucknell in the first game. I think UConn will advance to the Final Four going through San Diego State and Duke to get there.
Record: 25-9 (12-6 Big East)
NCAA Seed: No. 4
Coach Pitino described his team as a team that has to play hard, play close and execute down the stretch to win. He doesn’t think they’re good enough to blow anybody out.
They were picked to finish eighth in the conference and they entered the Big East tournament with a No. 3 seed. Rick Pitino said he would be proud to have 11 teams from the Big East going to the NCAA tournament. Pitino emphasized that winning the NCAA tournament won’t be any harder than winning the Big East.
While they are capable of getting to the Final Four, I'd rather have a team that is capable of getting ahead of somebody and stepping on their throat than a team that has to win close games.
I'm excusing any team that lost to UConn, especially Louisville in the Big East championship game. They are a No. 4 seed playing No. 14 seed Morehead State in the first round. I expect the Cardinals to advance to the Sweet 16 beating Vanderbilt but losing to Kansas.
Record: 26-7 (12-6 Big East)
NCAA Seed: No. 3
Jim Boeheim was defensive about his record against the top Big East coaches. Donna Ditota, a local writer for The Post-Standard, wrote about his less-than-stellar head-to-head record against guys like Rick Pitino, Jay Wright and Pitt’s Jamie Dixon and he took it personal. I thought that to be unusual for a guy with 850-plus victories with no sign of retirement.
They showed great execution late to beat St. John's in the Big East tournament. Kris Joseph is their leading scorer at 14 PPG. Fab Melo, who wins the national name championship, has been a pleasant surprise for the Orange. He came to Syracuse with unbelievable hype as a blue-chip 7'0" recruit from Brazil. He thought he would be a one-and-done player, but struggled his first year. He has shown much improvement this year.
Syracuse gets a No. 3 seed and a game versus Indiana State. Ultimately I think Syracuse will get upset by No. 6 Xavier in the second round.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Record: 26-6 (14-4 Big East)
NCAA Seed: No. 2
Coach Mike Brey is the Big East Coach of the Year. Ben Hansbrough is the Big East Player of the Year.
Notre Dame won the Old Spice Classic in Orlando so he feels confident heading into a tournament-play situation. Notre Dame beat Georgia, California and Wisconsin to win that tournament.
Coach Brey talked about preparation this time of the year being more about getting better as a team than who you play. They'll be excited to play somebody besides a Big East team once NCAA tournament action begins. They have all the pieces for a Final Four run.
I expect them to cruise into the Final Four beating Florida State, Georgetown, and upsetting Kansas to get there.
Record: 27-5 (15-3 Big East)
NCAA Seed: No. 1
Pittsburgh is the Big East regular-season champion. It was the fourth overall (third outright) crown for the Panthers. Junior guard Ashton Gibbs was selected All-Big East and Gilbert Brown is a fifth-year senior.
Their early exit shouldn't come as a shock. The Panthers are 0-2 in the Big East tourney when having the double bye. A consistent and tough team, they excel in execution, focusing on screening and movement without the ball.
The loss against UConn was just a case of running into a hotter team. Pitt made plays late but it was beat by a last-second Kemba Walker shot. Pitt is still a very good team.
Pittsburgh is the lone No. 1 seed from the Big East. They'll have to beat Butler and Kansas State to make it to the Elite Eight. There, I think they lose to No. 2 seed Florida.