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:
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.