January 19, 2006

Big East Report

Since we’re starting to get into the meat of the Big East season, I thought I’d try to make some sense of this superconference with some quick thoughts on all sixteen teams in the league.

First, a couple thoughts on the new conference.

1. One thing I absolutely love about the new league is all the games on tv. You can turn on the tv literally any night of the week, and there is a Big East game on the dial. Connecticut-Syracuse, Pitt-DePaul, Louisville-St. Johns. Great stuff. Since there are so many teams in the league and the C-USA has been rendered to a mid-major at best, the Big East is getting tons of air time this year. Plus, Ohioans like myself have been getting more ESPN full court Big East games on the local stations. As a diehard Big East fan who likes to follow all the teams in the conference, I’m pretty much watching all of these games. Hands down the best new feature about the league is the extended tv coverage if you ask me. The more Bill Raftery I have in my life, the merrier.

2. The competition is phenomenal. Every night there are upsets, near upsets, and defining games. The middle of the league changes on a nightly basis. The stretch run in the Big East is going to be incredible with so many teams battling for NCAA births, and some teams even fighting just to get into the Big East tournament at the Garden.

3. The trouble with this league is that it seems highly unlikely that it will last past the five year agreement. You can already sense the rumblings, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see teams start griping about wanting out of the league by next year. Too many teams, too many egos, unbalanced scheduling. There are some decent teams in this league that are going to be pretty freaking depressed when they find themselves in 13th place in the standings. Every school in the league (other than South Florida) has decent tradition, and you gotta imagine that fans of Seton Hall and Providence are going to reach the point where they want to throw their hands in the air and get out. I don’t know if the league is doomed, but it feels like it might be. How can I embrace a league that we don’t know will exist in five years?

One other thing regarding Notre Dame. Listen, I understand the complaints about Mike Brey from ND fans. Even though I'm a Brey supporter, I'm not oblivious to the problems of recent ND teams. Believe me, I get it. The defense STINKS. The big men are soft. The team is unathletic, and hasn’t really shown that “play like your hair is on fire” attitude.

The last couple weeks have led to a lot of questioning of Brey and the state of the program. Every win gets the fanbase excited and feeling like the program is headed in the right direction. Every loss has fans questioning the program and especially Brey.

My two cents on this. Can we just wait and see how the season plays out before we start making these sweeping generalizations about the program? Why do we have to judge the entire season and the program after every win and every loss? It's a long season with ups and downs throughout. Did we get off to a slow start? Yes. Has this team performed poorly in big games this year? Yes of course. Still, hasn’t every Brey ND team gone through this type of malaise at some point in the season before rebounding with some big wins? Last year, everyone had written ND off before we responded with big home wins over BC and Connecticut. Bottom line, Brey has been the head coach at ND for five years, and has finished with no worse than a 9-7 record in the league in any of those years (only coach in the league to do that the last five years by the way). Until I see this team out of the hunt for an NCAA bid, I’m going to hold out hope that the season can be a successful one.

I know fans are starving for a tournament team and getting impatient, but I’m willing to wait and see how this season turns out before making a conclusion about the program. There are plenty of big games left on the schedule, and ND has a lot of chances to make some noise in the Big East. If ND steals a win at Marquette and comes back home to beat Georgetown, that 0-3 start will be a distant memory.

Ok, on to my rankings of the Big East teams:

1. Connecticut

Hands down the most talented team in the Big East, and definitely in the conversation for the most talented team in the nation. I’ve had a chance to watch their last three games (G’Town, Cincy, Syracuse), and they’ve been impressive. Armstrong, Gay, Rashad Anderson, Marcus Williams, Boone. They have size, point guard play, a talented wingman, and perimeter shooters. And oh by the way, they have Jim Calhoun. 2 NCAA titles for UConn in the last seven years. No reason to think they won’t be in the hunt for a third title this year. This team is still a little flaky at times, but Calhoun always seems to find a way to get his team rolling at the end of the season. I fully expect them to be playing in Indianapolis this March.

2. Villanova

If I had to pick my favorite team to watch this year, it’s Villanova. I love watching Foye and Ray. I actually think Nova will run into some trouble spots in the Big East because of all the physical play and size in the league, but I think they’ll be a real tough out in the NCAA tournament.

One other interesting ND parallel at work here. Jay Wright. Very successful at a small east coast school, hired by a Big East team, had some rough periods before putting it together the last couple years. Sound familiar? Did Wright suddenly become a better coach the last couple years? I suppose it’s possible, but I think Foye, Raye, Lowry, and Nardi have had a little say in Nova’s success lately. Talent matters. When a coach has great players, he suddenly can look a lot better than he did a couple years ago.

3. West Virginia

The man, the myth, the legend. Kevin Pittsnogle. The hillbilly hero. I have a lot of respect for West Virginia's decision to play some tough out of conference opponents. They will benefit from that down the road. There's another program in the Big East that I would like to see playing that type of nonconference schedule, and I'm pretty sure you know who that is.

Talk about a magical year for West Virginia sports. Elite Eight run for the hoops team, Sugar Bowl champions, great start for the 2005-06 team. There hasn’t been this much excitement for Mountaineer sports since Major Harris roamed the streets of Morgantown!

One other note about Pittsnogle. From Wikipedia Encyclopedia's profile of Pittsnogle:

"Kevin Pittsnogle inspired the verb "Pittsnogled" (past tense) deriving from the observable facts and events that led to Pittsnogle going from reserve center to cult hero in the space of a few frantic weeks leading up to the 2005 NCAA Elite Eight. His former high school basketball team manager, Justin Turner, defines the term as this: "When you're closely guarded and a man is in your face with his hand up and you shoot a 25-footer and you nail it in their face — then they have officially been Pittsnogled."


4. Pittsburgh

Laugh all you want about their style of play. They might win ugly, but all Pitt does is win. If you watch them closely, they do a lot of the little things on the defensive end and on the glass that good teams do. They challenge every pass into the lane and on the perimeter. They come to play every night. They know their roles. They get a ton of second chance opportunities on the glass. They score in transition. Are they pretty? No, but they aren’t a fluke either. Pitt probably doesn’t have the talent to make a deep NCAA run, but I don’t see how you can complain about a 25-5 type season if you’re a Pitt fan.

Maybe I should put Pittsburgh ahead of West Virginia, but I’ll give the Mountaineers the edge based on the big win at Nova.

5. Syracuse

Kind of a Jekyll and Hyde team. Maybe they don’t have the transcendent Coleman/Owens/Wallace/Anthony player that Boeheim always seems to get, but let’s not kid ourselves. Syracuse still has talent. Lots of size plus McNamara and Devendorf in the backcourt. Wouldn’t be surprised to see them playing in the Sweet 16, but also wouldn’t bat an eye if they went out in the first round. Feels like a 5/6 seed type team, but nothing more than that. Devendorf will be a serious thorn in ND’s side for the next four years.

6. Louisville

This is the first spot where the league really drops off. Seems like there are five safe bet tournament locks in the Big East followed by a bunch of incomplete teams. I gotta admit that I’ve been way off this year about Louisville. I actually had them as a sleeper Final Four team, but Palacios has been terrible and Dean’s been banged up. Not sure if too many people will agree with Louisville at #6. They’ve been terrible in the league so far, and really haven’t done anything to show they are a good team at any point this year.

Why do I have them at #6? One reason. Rick Pitino. Having watched the guy for all those years at UK and now at U of L, I have as much respect for Pitino’s coaching abilities as I do for any coach in America. I don’t want to jump off the bandwagon and then watch Pitino turn this ship around, so I’m sticking by Louisville’s side for now.

7. Georgetown

To be honest, I didn’t think much of Georgetown until last weekend. I thought they were way overrated last year, and pretty much wrote them off before this season. Seemed like there was a concerted effort last year by the media to promote JTIII before he had actually proven himself as a coach.

After watching UConn-Gtown game last weekend, I’m starting to change my tune about the Hoyas this year. I like their toughness, and they have some serious size. That game had an old school 80s Big East type feeling, and Gtown was right there until the end of that game. Gtown will be a matchup problem for ND next week. They don’t shoot the ball well from the outside (have they ever?), but the guards are quick and get to the bucket.

It’s great to have the Hoyas relevant again. They look like they have some good young talent with more on the way (including Doc Rivers’ son, Jeremiah Rivers). JTIII turned out to be a good hire after all. Only needs to add one thing to his look.

8. Rutgers

The RAC Attack. Maybe the most inexplicable phenomenon in the Big East. Rutgers is about as mediocre as it gets in the Big East, but as soon as they walk into the RAC, Rutgers turns into 1990 UNLV. It’s incredible. Seems like it happens every year. They could be 3-17 playing Duke at home, and I wouldn’t even bat an eye if Rutgers won the game.

Strange team. Seems like they’ll fade, but Quincy Douby is a legit stud.

9. Cincinnati

As the four readers who actually read this blog already know, I grew up a diehard UC Bearcats fan. Although I’m now living it up in Columbus and have even adopted Ohio State as my hometown hoops team, I still follow the UC program closely and have watched a good chunk of their games this year.

Two things:

1. The current team. UC has had a real nice start considering all the turmoil in the program, but they’ve reached a critical point in the season. Injuries/transfers have piled up, and they are pretty much running on fumes at this point. A walk-on football player played extended minutes the other night against Syracuse. Ronald Allen, big man from an NAIA school in New Orleans who was displaced following Hurrican Katrina, is the 7th man. UC has only two guys taller than 6’6” on the entire roster right now. You gotta wonder if this team can stay afloat. Eric Hicks is solid, James White has become a stud this year, and Devan Downey is going to be a monster at UC (if he doesn’t transfer), but after that, UC has next to nothing in the tank. Andy Kennedy has done a real nice job, and the team plays hard, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see UC fade in the second half of the season.

2. The future. There’s been a strong push among UC fans to try to get Andy Kennedy hired as the permanent head coach at UC. The logic is that AK would provide stability, and that Downey will stick around if Kennedy is still there. I agree that he’s done a nice job, but I’m not so sure I agree with this move. The general trendline for interim coaches (other than Jamie Dixon) is downward following initial success. Happened with Lavin. Happened with Ellerbe. Happened with Mike Davis. They win initially with the talent that they inherit, the school decides to hire the coach on a permanent basis, and then the program flounders when the recruits stop coming in. It makes more sense to hire someone who has taken the reins of a program and shown that he can build it from the ground up. Andy Kennedy hasn’t proven he can do that. Remember, this is the same Andy Kennedy who got turned down for the Louisiana-Lafayette job last year. I’m not sure I’d be handing him the keys to the UC program just yet.

10. Marquette

No real commentary on Marquette. I ranked them one spot ahead of ND for now simply based on the fact that they have better wins than the Irish at this point. Marquette has beaten UConn and DePaul (on the road). If the Irish win at Marquette on Friday night, I’ll gladly adjust these rankings.

11. Notre Dame

I hate putting ND at 11th in the Big East because I think we’re a better team than that, but we haven’t really proven that we deserve a better spot yet. All hope is not lost because we have been competitive in every loss, but it would have been nice to come out on top in a couple of those losses. Turn that Pitt double OT loss into a win, and we’d be in pretty good shape.

For the record, if we beat Marquette and Georgetown, I feel totally comfortable moving us all the way up to #7 (if not #6).

12. St. Johns

Another program that I would like to see rebound and become relevant again. I’ll support any team featuring Anthony Mason, Jr. Couldn’t the Johnnies work this ex-Knicks’ sons angle? Are there any young Starks or Oakley children out there ready for hoops?

The talent has been upgraded, but they still have a ways to go. Could be a team to watch in the future.

13. DePaul

DePaul is horrible, and getting worse. Home losses to Rutgers, Bradley, Bucknell, and Marquette. Blowout loss at Cincy and freaking Old Dominion. Now Wilson Chandler is injured. They might contend for last place in the Big East.

Why am I ragging on DePaul so much? BECAUSE WE LOST TO THESE CLOWNS! Inexcusable. That loss is going to look worse and worse for ND when DePaul finishes up at like 11-19.

14. Seton Hall

Another bad team playing in an NBA arena with no fan enthusiasm. Seems like Louis Orr’s days are numbered at Seton Hall. Interesting rumor regarding the replacement. There has been a lot of rumbling that P.J. Carlesimo is interested in coming back to Seton Hall. I have no idea how true this rumor is, but I would love to see PJ come back to college hoops. I gotta think it will be hard for PJ to ever get another NBA head coach job following the Sprewell incident, so college might be his best option.

15. Providence

Another one of those proud 80s programs that has completely fallen apart of late. Whatever happened to God Shammgod? Is he still in the NBA? Was he ever in the NBA? Can the Friars squeeze another year of eligibility for the Lord?

16. South Florida

Can we just make them a “football only” school in the Big East? About the only intriguing note about South Florida are all the rumors about Bob Huggins taking over that program next year. Personally, I think Huggins would be a steal for South Florida. Most of his recruiting in recent years has been in the south. He can bring in a bunch of athletic types, he’ll have virtually no academic standards, and he’ll be motivated to stick it to all the other squads in the Big East. If anyone could hold their own in the Big East at South Florida, it’s Bob Huggins.


Doug said...

One other note. UC-Xavier Crosstown Shootout tonight on ESPN at 9 pm. If you live in Ohio (or if you live near a Skyline), do yourself a favor and pick up a 3-way before you head home to watch the Shootout. It will make the game watching experience that much more enjoyable.

Go Cats! Go Muskies! I know people love to make a big deal out of the "rivalry," but I admittedly root for both programs. I don't know how you can't if you're a native Cincinnatian. Even though I root for UC, the Shootout is the one game of the year that I don't really mind who wins. It usually means more to Xavier (big opportunity for them to get a quality nonconference win), so I'm comfortable with any outcome.

Matt said...

Great analysis. I know you still have faith in Louisville, but i'm about to write them off after that st. johns loss. Article in the louisville papers was pretty pessismistic, and they are going to have to pull off some big time upsets just to get to .500 in the league. Are they capable? Sure, but it's gonna have to be a major turnaround.

Seeing Georgetown and Rutgers at 7 and 8 just shows how open the back end of the conference is. No way that either of those teams should be better than ND. Best case scenario i see ND getting up to that six seed. Might need to get there given our miserable Big East tourney track record to have a shot at the NCAA's.

Jeremy said...

Ask and Ye Shall Receive...

Firstly, a few comments on your excellent rundown Douglas...

1. Your third point about the league already crumbling is spot on. The rumblings are out there, and getting louder by the day. I can't figure out whether this is a good or bad thing. The "superconference" is a great idea on many levels, but very poor on many others. The unbalanced schedule is a nightmare. I don't know any good way to solve this, since the league can't very well boot out some of the bottom feeders, especially when several of them (SHU, SJU) are perennial BE league members. Hopefully Tranghese and the boys find a way to work this out.

2. I'll concur with your UCONN analysis, and add that I really thought they had a legitimate shot at winning the title LAST year. I was all ready to anoint Marcus Williams as the second coming of Kenny Anderson (I couldn't think of another great collegiate left-handed PG on the fly, sorry). But now he's starting to exhibit serious head-case symptoms, which are never good for a PG to have (see: Chris Thomas). Calhoun's a great coach though, and I also fully expect to see them right there in March.

3. I also love Villanova's style of play, though I agree that when it comes down to it, they're going to need to get more from the big boys, and Jason Frasor hasn't made it through an entire collegiate season yet, so... But guard play wins you NCAA titles, and there isn't a better combo out there than Foye and Ray. I'll address your Jay Wright comments below, though you did a pretty good job of summing up my feelings on the matter.

4. I'm not going to laugh at Pitt's style of play at all. It's ugly as hell, but it damn sure wins games in the BE, and usually guarantees them at least a Sweet 16 run in the tourney every year. That's success that any program can be jealous about, no matter how pretty the product is.

5. I agree with your placement of Louisville, and your statements about them being a "darkhorse" this year. Personally, I felt they would be better without Garcia, but injuries have really hit them hard. It doesn't help that the best (or at least most productive) player right now is David Padgett, whose game can be best described as "Anti-Patino." Has Ricky given significant minutes and touches to a tall, plodding white guy since he left Providence? But, based purely on their talent, you have to keep them this high, because they'll probably go 9-7 in the league on the talent alone, and if they get healthy, I'm terrified of them.

6. JTIII has an interesting decision in front of him in the next few years. Right now, he's running a sort of "Pitt-lite" style of play in the conference, since G'Town hasn't had a legitimate outside threat/fill-'em up-scorer since Victor Page (the ugliest man alive!!). He's recruiting good talent in there, so the question is whether he tries to let these runs run up and down the court and outscore people, or does he sit back and bore you to death with good defense, good rebounding and lots of fouls? Personally, I think he'd be better off in the long-run to stick to the Pitt model, since God knows its worked well for them lately.

7. And now to the crux of the comment, everyone's favorite wearer of the Mock Turtleneck. I know you're expecting a fuming attack on the man, but I must admit I'm beginning to mellow on him. I'm not sure whether that's because I'm come to understand exactly what to expect out of him and his teams (and therefore can't get disappointed when the same shortcomings reaer their ugly heads) or because the man whose office is across the street at the Gug has made me so damn happy.

Brey is basically fighting a battle with one hand tied behind his back. The Joyce Center was built in the '70s and hasn't been renovated since. Almost every major college basketball program with which ND competes for recruits every year has facilities that have been built in the last 10-15 years (or have been significantly upgraded). It must be damn near impossible to get people to come to ND when they can visit places like the Breslin Center and see how the other half lives. I'm not sure that even if Brey got the needed facilities he would be able to attract recruits that would cover up his deficiencies as a game coach, but at least we would see. The question is whether he'll be fired or leaves before he gets a chance to prove that fact. I'm betting that he won't, since he seems like a great guy who really "gets" ND, which would cancel out any chance of leaving, and I don't think that the administration would fire him, since they probably wouldn't be able to find a big-name coach (or maybe even a smaller name) to come in and succeed with what they would have to work with.

As far as this team goes, I really don't know what to think about them. Chris Quinn is definitely going to be one of the most underrated players in ND history. I think he's absolutely spectacular. He does absolutely everything for this team, and will be sorely, sorely missed next year. Frankly, I have no idea who is going to score for ND next year, and since Brey can't seem to coach defense, we could be in for a long ride unless the youngsters step it up quickly. Which leads me to the question of what should Brey do with this team? I agree Doug that Brey teams have historically been sluggish starting out and have managed to score some big wins at some point to salvage, or even make the season. I don't have the schedule in front of me, but I know the next 5-6 games are very difficult, and therefore very crucial. If ND comes out of that stretch 0-6, 1-5 I think Brey should seriously think about playing a rotation of Quinn, Carter (the only player other than Quinn who would even dress for UCONN/Cuse/Nova, maybe even Pitt) and some mixture of youngsters.

Your Jay Wright comparison is somewhat apt. I know some people on NDNation have mentioned that the last two years. Wright has been able to recruit quite a bit of talent to Nova, and they are probably covering up some of Wright's coaching deficiencies right now. Your point is very clear, and the two are very similar, except for the fact that Brey can't get the Ray's, Foye's, Sumpter's of the world. As far as WVU goes, there is no way that you can tell me with a straight face that that team has more talent than ND. This might just be a dream run for them that will peter out once Pittsnogle et al leave Morgantown, but it has certainly shown that Beilein is a very good coach. He does more with less almost as well as that guy down in Lubbock.