February 06, 2009

Big East Power Poll - First Half Edition

Since we're essentially one-half of the way through another exciting season of Big East hoops, I figured it was time for a power poll. I'm not going straight off conference standings. Just off my gut and what I've seen so far. Football is all over, and it's time for America to start focusing on college basketball again.

So here goes:

16) DePaul - 8-15 (0-10)

Rough times at DePaul these days. They have a legitimate shot to go 0-18 in the league this year. Has anyone ever done that?? The only winable games I see on that schedule are St. Johns and Seton Hall at home. They are far from a lock to win either one, especially if the team has packed it in on Jerry Wainwright.

Sounds like DePaul's AD is saying that Wainwright is going to be back next year (the dreaded vote of confidence!), but is that really the smart thing to do?? He's not recruiting all that poorly, but it seems like that program is falling apart. I'm not privy to any info about DePaul, but it seems like things are really bottoming out at DePaul.

Here's Wainwright's quote on Andy Katz's blog about his team:

If there is a team or program that Wainwright wants to model, it's Pitt. He said the Panthers have the right approach: hold onto players for four years, and if lucky, get a local talent that shines. Pitt did that when DeJuan Blair stayed home in Pittsburgh. "We just need that one Chicago guy,'' Wainwright said. "We're doing everything right in order to win.''

I get what he's trying to say here, but he's making it sound like Pitt made their program by landing DeJuan Blair. Cmon, Pitt was a very very strong program for years before DeJuan Blair came on board. Blair wasn't just showing loyalty to Pitt or his hometown. He was going to Pitt because they are a winning program. DePaul isn't "one guy" away from being Pitt or even someone like Providence for that matter.

Here's another quote from Wainwright:

"I take umbrage to anybody who would say we're a disgrace as a program," Wainwright said in response before the Rutgers loss. "Are we where we need to be as a basketball team? Absolutely not. We need to get better. But [the players] have a great attitude and have come together."

But Jerry, you're freaking 0-9 in your league!! You sound like Ty Willingham and Gregg Robinson. Stop "taking umbrage" and start winning games.

Seems like a mess. It's never made any sense to me how DePaul can't put out a competitive program. You would think they could load up on Chicago kids alone and have a solid team.

15) Rutgers - 10-13 (1-9)

Rutgers barely sneaks out the 15th spot on our power poll after that thrilling win over DePaul last week to get their first Big East win of the year.

Rutgers has lost home games to the following schools this year:

St. Bonaventure

Binghamton!! The alma mater of Mr. Tony Kornheiser. And Rutgers lost to the fighting Bearcats of Binghamton (I had to look that up) by 10. Their fans booed them off the court. Good times!

Needless to say, the Fred Hill era is not off to a very good start. One name of note: Greg Echinique. I seem to recall him from ND's recruiting days of yore. Looks like he is averaging around 10 points a game these days for the Scarlet Knights.

One final Rutgers note: Their football program is not going away any time soon. They just pulled in a good recruiting class this year, and it seems like they are opening up some pipelines down in Florida. If Miami continues to flounder, I think Schiano could make some further inroads down there in recruting. And I still believe that Miami would be smart to throw the kitchen sink at Schiano someday to get him down there if/when Randy Shannon doesn't pan out.

14) South Florida - 7-14 (2-7)

Death, taxes, and the South Florida Bulls bringing up the rear in the Big East! You can all but guarantee that they are finishing in the bottom 3 every single year. I bet the Sun Dome has been "rocking" all winter to the tune of 3,500 fans a game.

But don't fret South Florida fans! The Big East is inviting all 16 teams to the Big East Tournament this year! USF is the only league member never to qualify for the conference tournament. So they finally get to make their trip to Madison Square Garden this year. Good for them.

Plus. there's always football. Another top 20ish recruiting class for USF. If they can keep stockpiling the talent down there, they are going to be a force in the Big East.

One other note on USF. Former Ohio State point guard Anthony Crater transferred there earlier in the year after bailing on Thad Matta because he wasn't "furthering his goal of leaving for the NBA after three years" (ok, that's not a direct quote, but it was basically implied). He was recently busted for marijuana possession down in Tampa. I expect his mug shot to be plastered on the front page of every paper in Britain and for a bunch of smug newspaper columnists to take shots at him. Oh wait, I forgot that he's black and wears cornrows and doesn't have the "wholesome, boy next door" look. Anyway, not a good start to the Anthony Crater era in Tampa. He was a big loss for the Buckeyes from a roster standpoint, but it will probably turn out to be a blessing in disguise since he seems like a bad dude. Matta is going to have to find another point guard in the next couple classes to make up for it though.

13) St. Johns - 12-10 (3-7)

I was a little torn here between St. Johns and Seton Hall, but the Hall are a little bit better than the Johnnies this year. St. Johns is going nowhere. I feel like Norm Roberts has been there for about 10 years, and yet they can't seem to get anything going.

But hey, they get to "host" the Big East Tournament this year, so they got that going for them. Speaking of the Big East Tournament, how is this new format going to work?? It seems incredibly complicated now that we have all 16 teams. Here is my understanding of how it is going to work:

Day One:

Teams 9-16 are paired up in 4 games

Day Two:

The winners of the 9-16 games play the 5-8 teams to determine the quarterfinals

Day Three:

Quarterfinals - The 1-4 teams are playing their first games

Day Four:


Day Five:


This bad boy is starting on Tuesday! It is suddenly a 5 day extravaganza. I absolutely love it as a fan, but could you imagine being the #9 team in this tournament?? The #9 team in the Big East is probably going to be a pretty good team, but they will have to beat the #16 team, the #8 team, the #1 team, the #4/5 team, and then the #2 team to win the Big East Tournament. That is NUTS. Five games. The bottom line is that it is going to be a huge advantage to have a #1-4 seed in this thing, and the difference between #8 and #9 is substantial.

12) Seton Hall - 12-9 (3-6)

Seton Hall is off to a slow start in the league, but if there is anyone in this "bottom five" group that could make push to the middle down the stretch, it is Seton Hall. They are really not that bad of a team. I was moderately impressed by them when they played against ND. They aren't an NCAA team or anything, but certainly better than your typical conference bottomfeeder. Hazell and Harvey are pretty good guards, and they actually had a couple big men who could do some things. Their schedule is much lighter down the stretch, so I could see them making a late push to get to 6-7 wins or something like that.

Seton Hall is a perfect example of why I firmly believe that the Big East as it stands today is not going to last for too long. It is just too big and difficult to handle 16 teams. When you have a pretty good team like Seton Hall struggling to even get to 6 wins in the league, aren't they eventually going to put their hands up and say "we can't handle the losing every year. we're out"?? It must be killing attendance at places like DePaul and Seton Hall when you are trotting out teams that are 1-8 in the league or whatever. At some point, these schools are going to want to do something different I would imagine. Maybe not. Maybe the money in the Big East is worth it.

Here's what I would do if I was the Atlantic 10 Conference. I would make a strong push to try to peel off a couple of these floundering Big East programs like Seton Hall and St. Johns and maybe even Providence (although they have righted the ship a bit). Wouldn't a school like Seton Hall probably be a borderline at-large team coming out of the A-10?? I feel like they would have a new shot of life in that league. If they were sitting at 7-2 in the A-10 right now with a big game coming up against Xavier or something like that, wouldn't fans start coming out to games?? I think there's an argument for being the "big fish in a small pond." Xavier has benefited from being the king of the A-10 instead of some also-ran in a league like the Big East. There is a lot of pride in the winning tradition at Xavier, and the players inherit that legacy when they join the school. They want to live up to the reputation of Xavier basketball. A school like Seton Hall could develop something like that in the A-10. They could really benefit from a change in scenery.

The A-10 is a pretty good league, but they have too many bottomfeeders. If they booted some of the stiffs out of that league like St. Bonnies and Fordham and maybe even LaSalle to the MAAC or the America East or one of those leagues and brought in St. Johns and Seton Hall, wouldn't that be a pretty good league?? You'd have Xavier, Dayton, St. Joes, St. Louis, UMass, Seton Hall, St. Johns, Rhode Island, Temple, etc. Not bad.

11) Notre Dame - 12-9 (3-7)

I have Notre Dame #11 in this poll, and I’m not even completely convinced that we deserve to be that “high.” Is there any compelling evidence out there that we are even better than the Seton Halls/St. Johns teams of the world?? We’re 1-1 against those two and have the same conference record. I would not be surprised if we sink further into the standings as the season goes along.

This season has been horrible in every way. We are the worst defensive team in the league, and our offense has become easy to shut down. The blueprint to beat this team has been out there for months, and we still haven’t adjusted to it at all. When the only way you can beat people is to outshoot them and teams are taking away your best shooter, you are not going to be a very good team. Brey has done a poor job this year of adjusting to the game plan that has been used against us all year, and he did an even poorer job of developing a plan for this team in the offseason. We needed a blueprint to stay fresh, and Brey has let this team go stale with the same personnel and the same formula that we have used for years.

I am still a Mike Brey supporter, and I’m not advocating that we fire him or even that we start thinking about firing him. Brey is a good coach. He did a real nice job with this team in 06-07 and 07-08, and I think he will have other good seasons with this program as long as he is here. The baseline for Mike Brey has generally been “winning record in the Big East” and “dynamic scoring team,” and he has been to the NCAAs five times in eight years. We can certainly do a lot worse than Mike Brey, and the risk we would take by looking for someone else is that we end up with a worse coach who runs the program into the ground. Brey has built a foundation for success at ND.

But if this program wants to get to the next level and be a consistent NCAA team and the type of program that is capable of making a run in the BET and the NCAAs, he is going to have to make some adjustments to his program.

1) DRT – Defense. Rebounding. Toughess. Brey is a good offensive coach. Maybe even a great one. There is no denying that. When the ND offense is clicking, it can be a thing of beauty.

But if you want to be a great basketball team, you have to be able to lock teams down on the defensive end. You are not always going to be on fire from three. If you can keep the other team from scoring, you always have a chance to win a game even when you are not shooting well. That’s what teams like Michigan State and Pitt do every year.

Year in and year out, we are one of the softest defensive teams in the country. While I think recruiting is a factor, Brey has also been guilty of not focusing enough on defense in practice. I read a great post on NDNation the other day about Tom Izzo’s practices and how he often spends days working on defensive stance and positioning and how to block out on the glass. They do intense drills that focus solely on beating your man up and blocking him out on the boards. They do this for several days in a row. It’s not some coincidence that MSU is always one of the best defense and rebounding teams in the country every year. Does anyone think that Brey emphasizes these same things with his players?? I would doubt it.

I am tired of the argument that ND would suffer offensively if we focused more on defense. What a load of nonsense. The two things are not mutually exclusive. You can play great defense AND play great offense. Louisville plays great defense. UConn plays great defense. Michigan State plays great defense. All of those teams are capable of scoring and beating you offensively as well, and all of those teams will probably make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament.

If I was Brey, I would be tattooing DRT on every player’s arm in the offseason. When they get up in the morning and hop in the shower, they see that “DRT” and start thinking about their defensive stance. We should be make it a goal to be a top 30 defense next year, to win the rebounding battle 75% of the time, and to be the toughest team we can be. You can’t be any of those things if you don’t focus on it. Brey needs to change that.

And for the rest of this season, I think Brey should mandate that you play defense or you sit the bench. If you can’t guard your man, you don’t play. There should be no more free rides where someone can coast for 35 minutes because he is trying to “save his legs.” Go hard for 20 minutes and play defense, and we’ll get a fresh body in there when you get tired. Brey should be giving big minutes to Scott and Nash and Peoples for the rest of the year.

2) Recruiting – While defense is a mentality that can be corrected RIGHT NOW, the other issue with this program has been sporadic recruiting. I’m not going to say that Brey is a poor recruiter because he does seem to have a good eye for “undervalued” players like Tory Jackson and Russell Carter and Harangody and others. Brey recruits guys who fit his system, and he has found a lot of gems.

But at some point, he has to find a way to get some more athleticism on this roster. When was the last time we had a big time athlete on this roster?? Russell Carter?? Humphrey?? There are too many 6’7” white guys who have come through this program in recent years (I sometimes forget that Joe Harden was also once on this roster and would probably be clogging up more roster space if he was still around). If was Swarbrick, I would put Brey on a "one white" per recruiting class quota system.

I know the standard argument about recruiting has been that Brey can’t recruit “athletic” guys without better facilities or commitment from the athletic department, but I have a hard time believing that he couldn’t get one athlete in here per year. If Charlie Weis can bring in a guy like Te’o in from Hawaii, Mike Brey can get one city kid from Chicago or New York to play basketball at Notre Dame. And if it really is the administration that is holding him back from recruiting more athletes, then Brey should threaten to resign. Swarbrick needs to do what he can this offseason to give Brey what he needs (looser admission standards, better locker room, practice facilities, etc). If Brey still can't get better players, then maybe we need to move on.

I don't even care if we get the 5 star guys since most of them leave after 1-2 years and can be program killers (see Thad Matta's recruiting classes). I want Brey to pull in a few Wes Matthews or Jerel McNeal types. Maybe they have a couple arm tattoos and aren't scholar athletes, but those guys aren't bad kids. McNeal spoke after the ND game, and he seemed like a decent guy. I think both those guys were 3/4 star types, but they are athletic!!

Xavier gets a lot of these types of guys as well. Athletic AFRICAN-AMERICAN players who maybe aren't rocket scientists but are good kids overall who want to graduate. We can't be trotting out Hilleslands and Ayers and all these MAC players to go with Gody. Hillesland was the 3rd best player on his HIGH SCHOOL TEAM in Toledo. His high school teammates, Brian Roberts and BJ Raymond, are both stars in the A-10. Why can't we get those guys instead of getting Hillesland??

Anyway, this season has been a disaster for ND basketball, and I think we are going to be back on the brink as a program headed into next year. We are going to have a bunch of new faces next year, so maybe we sneak up on people again. But at some point, I would like ND to react well to being the “hunted” team. We haven’t done that yet under Brey.

10) Cincinnati - 15-8 (5-5)

I was tempted to put UC just above Georgetown since they beat them already this year, but I'm not quite sure how I feel about this Bearcats team just yet. I'll admit that I was ready to pull the plug on the Bearcats and maybe even the Mick Cronin era as recently as three weeks ago after a blowout loss to Marquette and a home loss to Providence. It appeared to be deja vu all over again for UC after they got off to an 0-3 start in the Big East.

But they are actually showing some signs of life lately. They beat Georgetown, they had a nice win at St. Johns, they beat ND, and they have been pretty competitive lately. At 15-8 with some decent OOC wins over UNLV and Mississippi State and a 5-5 record in the Big East, they are a legitimate NCAA bubble team right now. And I think they have a reasonable chance to win 9 games in the Big East this year. Considering where this program was at when Mick took over (they had 1 scholarship player in his first year), I think he's done a good job in year three to get them towards the middle of the pack and likely in the postseason in some capacity.

UC has some young guns to build around with Deonta Vaughn and freshman big man, Yancey Gates and some other talented newcomers. They have a point guard named Cashmere Wright who tore an ACL in the preseason but could be a good player next year. They are still a flawed team that gets extremely sloppy at times, but they can also look good when things are clicking.

Is 9-9 in the Big East going to get UC into the dance?? I’d say that they probably wouldn’t make it, and that’s partially because they have been off the radar for most of the year. Their RPI is a middling 57, and they don’t really have any major statement wins. I think UC is going to have to win that home game later this month against Louisville and then also get to 9-9 and maybe even win a BET game to feel good about its chances to go to the NCAAs.

Mick is basically playing with house money in this season, but I do think that there will be some pressure on him to get this team to the NCAA Tournament next year. They have every player on the team back, and the Big East will probably not be as strong next year. There's really no reason why they shouldn't be able to do it. UC has a strong basketball tradition, and it's probably time for Mick Cronin to make his move. I'm not sure if he can ever be the guy to get UC back to an elite level like they were at under Huggins in the 90s, but I think he is capable of making them a respectable program again.

I mentioned earlier that teams can sometimes benefit from being the "alpha dog" in a conference. Cincinnati is the perfect example of that. As great as the Big East has been for the UC football program in giving them some legitimacy, it has been equally disastrous for the basketball program. They went from the kings of the C-USA and the pride of the league and the city to also-rans in the Big East. And it has KILLED attendance. An absolute bloodbath. They went from selling out the Shoemaker Center for almost every game to drawing around 6,500 fans a night these days. YIKES. They were like rock stars in the 90s, and now they can't even sell out any of the home games even though the competition is much tougher these days. They even resorted to hosting the ND game Wednesday night at the downtown US Bank Arena instead of on campus to try to lure in some downtown business people. It is getting desperate in Clifton these days for the marketing department.

The shadow of Bob Huggins continues to loom large over this program, and a lot of people still haven't gotten over it. I understand the loyalty to Bob Huggins (heck, I'm one of his most loyal supporters), but get over it already. He's been gone for 4 years now. The 90s at UC under Huggins was probably the best thing to happen to Cincinnati sports (pro or college) in a 20 year span, and I enjoyed it as much as anyone. But all good things come to an end. By staying away from the games, UC "fans" are only hurting the program in the long run. The sooner they come to terms with the Huggins thing, the sooner this program can heal and start to come together again.

9) Georgetown - 12-8 (4-6)

I have the Hoyas at 9th in this poll, and you could easily make an argument that they should be lower than that. What has happened to Georgetown in the last month?? Five straight losses and four straight Big East losses before a win over Rutgers. They are in big trouble. I haven't watched them lately, so I'm curious what has happened to that team. I watched them against UConn earlier in the year and thought they had a legitimate chance to win the Big East this year. They've fallen apart.

I know Georgetown is really young, but they are in a bit of a roster bind from what I can tell. Summers and Monroe could be early entry guys (both are projected lottery picks right now), so they could be in even more trouble next year.

They have a number of games coming up with the Cincys and DePauls of the world, but they haven't even been reliable in beating those teams so far. The Hoyas are going to have to find a way to get to 9-9 to get in the big dance if you ask me. I don't think the Big East is going to get a 9th/10th team in the dance if they are sitting at 8-10 or something like that. To Georgetown's credit, they've beaten Memphis, UConn, and Syracuse, so they have some big wins for their overall profile. But those losses to Cincy and Seton Hall are eyesores.

Big game on Saturday between Cincy and Georgetown. If Gtown loses that one, go ahead and pencil them into the NIT (and probably go ahead and put UC on the good side of the bubble for now).

8) Providence - 14-8 (6-4)

I think this spot is a little generous for Providence, but I can't argue with their results so far. They are sitting pretty right now at 6-4 in the league and really just have to hold serve at home and against the weak sisters to get to 10 wins in the league. Then again, they are entering a little bit of a dangerous stretch, so they better make sure they take care of business if they want to bet an NCAA at-large bid.

Keno Davis probably has to be in the running for the coach of the year award in the Big East. Bloodlines! Anybody who learned at the knee of Dr. Tom Davis is an asset to the Big East Conference. He has five seniors playing big minutes on his roster this year, so we'll have to see what he does when he is effectively starting over next year before getting a feel on whether or not he is going to resurrect the Friars' basketball program. Geoff McDermott is in about his 12th year at Providence, so I'm assuming he doesn't have any more eligibility left.

I love the Big East, but one bad thing about the league that is a little bogus is the insanely unbalanced schedules. If you look at Providence's schedule and compare it to ND's or Gtown's, there is no comparison. ND has twofers with UConn, Louisville, and St. Johns. Providence has them with Cincy, Nova, and Rutgers. And Providence has fewer completely unwinnable road games (ie at Pitt, Cuse, LVille, UConn. Marquette).

Credit to Providence for doing what they've done so far, but I think their conference record would be looking a lot more like ND's if they were playing a tougher league schedule. And I don't want to sound like a whiner because I am WELL AWARE that ND has played easier Big East schedules the last couple years. It works in cycles. We are paying the price this year for our success though.

7) West Virginia - 15-7 (4-5)

Here's where it starts getting a little tricky, and I think the next few weeks are really going to tell us a lot about these next few teams. I watched West Virginia destroy Ohio State about a month ago and thought they looked like a top 15 team, but they've sort of been up and down in Big East play. They've looked like world beaters at times, but also have looked bad as well. Not sure what the second half of the season is going to say about them. WVU is a pretty young team, so there's still a possibility that this team gets a lot more consistent in the second half of the year. They could easily play themselves into a 6-7 seed and just as easily play themselves right out of the tournament.

Question for any West Virginia fans that might check on this blog. What are your expectations for the Bob Huggins era?? Are you planning on him taking you to the next level as a Big East title contender and Final Four contender?? Or are you just hoping for a continuation of the good years of the John Beilein era?? I'm just curious to know. I feel like a lot of WVU fans have expectations that Huggins is going to recruit at an elite level and take that program to new heights, but I just don't see it. I love Huggs, but his recruiting cache dried up considerably in his latter days at UC. He can still get good players and will probably get some of the good in-state kids, but I don't see him reeling in a bunch of McDonald's All-Americans. Anyway, I hope WVU fans don't view Huggins as some sort of disappointment if he doesn't go to the Final Four in Morgantown. Huggs is a good coach, but his ceiling is probably about what Beilein did there (which is a testament to Beilein).

6) Syracuse - 18-5 (6-4)

I know Syracuse is "only" sitting at 6-4 in the Big East right now, but I am a believer in this team. If there was one team out of this upper middle class of the Big East who could really make a run in the NCAAs, I think it's Syracuse.

Look at all the talent on this roster!!

Stud point guard with Jonny Flynn
Stud low post scorer with Arinze Onuaku
Stud wing man with Paul Harris
Solid role players with Devendorf, Rautins, Rick Jackson, Ongenaet

Isn't that the formula that you need to be a Final Four type team?? A dynamic point guard, 2-3 NBA players, a low post scorer, and a bunch of quality role players around them?? Plus, you have Jim Boeheim in the picture, and the guy has only been to 3 NCAA title games and won one.

The one thing that Syracuse is probably lacking is great defense, but you never know if they might suddenly start clicking defensively down the stretch. Syracuse is one of those teams that could win a couple games in the NCAA tournament and then look out. Of all the teams I've watched in the Big East this year, I think they might have the most overall talent.

Syracuse easily could show up not ready to play in the first round and get eliminated, but I can't ignore their upside. I'll predict that they either win the BET and come into the NCAAs as the "team no one wants to play" (and then probably lose in the first round) or that they lose in the first round of the BET, come in under the radar on a mission, and get red hot in the NCAAs and go to the Elite Eight or something like that.

5) Villanova - 18-4 (6-3)

I have mixed feelings on Jay Wright. He is one of those coaches who is always regarded as one of the top young coaches in the game and always seems to be rumored for the top openings around the country, but I've never been wildly impressed with him. Maybe because he's always been lumped in with Brey as one of those "middle of the pack" coaches in the Big East.

But as we go through their respective careers, Jay Wright is starting to distance himself from Mike Brey. Here are his last five years:

2004-05 Villanova 24-8 - Sweet 16
2005-06 Villanova 28-5 - Elite Eight
2006-07 Villanova 22-11 - NCAA First Round
2007-08 Villanova 22-13 - Sweet 16

That's strong. 3 Sweet 16s in the last four years. And I really like his team this year. I've only watched them twice, but I've been impressed with how they play. They might be the hottest team in the Big East right now. Reynolds is having a 1st team All Big East type year, and Dante Cunningham (in his 10th year) is finally putting it together. They are extremely quick and tough defensively.

When you have guards like Reynolds and Stokes and Fisher and a reliable big man like Cunningham, you can do some real damage in the NCAAs. I definitely think they are capable of a Sweet 16 run.

4) Marquette – 20-2 (9-0)

I guess I should have Marquette a little higher on this list since they are currently leading the Big East, but I don't feel comfortable putting them anywhere in my top three just yet. I've watched every top team in the Big East, and they are a notch below the UConns and Pitts of the world in my opinion. I don't know how Marquette drew this Big East schedule, but they have been exceptionally fortunate so far. They have yet to play Louisville, Pitt, UConn, or Syracuse, and their toughest road game thus far is either Providence or Notre Dame. Not exactly murderer's row. We wil find out more about Marquette when they run through the stretch run of at Georgetown, UConn, at Louisville, at Pitt, and Syracuse.

Don't get me wrong, I love watching this Marquette team play. Those seniors are warriors. McNeal, Matthews, and Dom James have been the heart and soul of Marquette basketball for several years, and I'm glad they are making the most of their senior years.

But if they end up a #2/#3 seed in the NCAAs, wouldn't you probably think about picking them to lose in round two?? I think I would. Their "big man" is 6-6 Lazar Hayward. In other words, they don't have a big man. And while Marquette has stretches where they can get hot from the perimeter, they aren't really a reliable 3 point shooting team. Marquette beats you with defense and by getting the ball to the rack. McNeal and Matthews get to the rim as well as anyone in America. But if they happen to run into an athletic team in round two that can keep those guys out of the lane, aren't they in big trouble?? Every team in the NCAAs is good and also desperate. It's hard to advance in the NCAAs when you don't have balance.

As for Buzz Williams, I'm assuming that he is the frontrunner for the Big East coach of the year award. And obviously if they win the Big East, he is going to win that award. Maybe Buzz is a rising star in the coaching fraternity. But I'm not quite ready to make that a definitive statement just yet. He's coaching a team of 3 seniors and a junior who have all started for 3 years. These guys are basically in autopilot at this point. The real test on Buzz Williams as a long term fit at Marquette will be how well he recruits in the offseason and how he works with a young team next year. From the looks of it, he has a nice recruiting class coming in next year, so that's definitely a good start.

3) Louisville - 17-4 (8-1)

Louisville is another team that I haven't quite made my mind up yet about. On paper, what is there not to like about Louisville?? They have Rick Pitino pacing the sideline, they have quick, athletic guards who hound the ball, they have a do-everthing swingman in Terrence Williams and a versatile power forward in Earl Clark. And they have a stud freshman big man in Samardo Samuels. There are probably 3-4 future NBA players on this roster. ON PAPER, they look like the type of team that could go to the Final Four or even win the whole thing. And their record this year at 17-4 and 8-1 in the league is strong. They've already won at Syracuse and at Villanova and have beaten Pitt.

But below the surface, I'm not quite sold on them yet. Maybe I've just seen them at their worst against UConn and Notre Dame, but it seems like they are not on the same page at all times. Individually, they have loads of talent, but they are also really streaky at times. I don't know, I watched that ND-Louisville game and felt like we were basically even with them. I haven't felt that about our games with UConn or Pitt or even Syracuse. Those games were mismatches. With Louisville, they aren't a great 3 point team, Samuels isn't always consistent, and their defense sort of comes and goes.

Pitino is still a great coach, but he's maybe not quite in his prime any more. Louisville has Final Four talent, but I don't see them getting to that level.

2) Pitt - 20-2 (7-2)

You pretty much knew what you were going to get out of Pitt this year, and they have delivered. Their goal from here on out is to play for seeding. Keep an eye out for that February 16 showdown at UConn and the return matchup on Mar 7 at home. Those two games could be deciding #1 seeds and conference titles.

If Pitt can get a #1 seed, you gotta think that the goal is to get to a Final Four. Not sure if Pitt has ever been to a Final Four before. With all those seniors and DeJuan Blair, this year would be the year to do it. Not sure if they can get there, but they are definitely going to be a major player in the NCAAs.

1) UConn - 21-1 (10-1)

Wow, that crow tastes good! I couldn't have been more wrong about UConn. Not only are they not overrated, I'm not sure that they are getting ENOUGH respect at this point. UConn is bludgeoning people. They just beat Providence by 33 and followed it up with a 17 point win at Louisville. There is no doubt that they are the best team in the Big East this year.

What is the key to UConn?? Well, I'd start with their defense. Their defense is devastating. With Thabeet down low guarding the paint and intimidating anyone who comes into the lane, their perimeter defenders know that they can play tighter defense and take more chances to get steals and deflections. It's a deadly combo, and it seems like UConn gets a ton of fast break points off their defense.

Offensively, my concern about them was that they didn't have a "crunch time scorer," but that concern was certainly overblown. Adrien is a reliable post scorer, Price and Dyson can score from the perimeter, Thabeet gives them some easy put backs, and now they have this Kemba Walker guy maturing every game. As great as Luke Harangody is (he is probably the MOP this year), I think the MVP of the Big East has been Jeff Adrien. He has been the heart and soul of this run for UConn. His stats don’t blow you away, but I think that’s just the nature of that team. It seems like he delivers whenever they need a big bucket or a dagger bucket.

My other concern with UConn was that they weren’t really all on the same page. Too many individual parts. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They are playing great team defense, and it seems like they are on a mission. This group is much more cohesive than the Rudy Gay team that lost to George Mason in the Elite Eight a couple years ago. I gotta hand it to Jim Calhoun.

Anyway, I know Carolina and other ACC fans may disagree, but I think I would pick UConn to win it all if I had to pick someone today. They have every ingredient that you need to be a championship team, and they have that extra gear defensively that I don’t think Carolina has. If UConn and Carolina played, I think UConn could cause enough problems defensively for Hansborough and UNC’s perimeter people to beat them. It would be an incredible game (the ’99 Duke-UConn epic final comes to mind immediately), but I think I’d pick UConn as of today (there is a little Big East bias there admittedly). I hope we get that matchup in the finals.

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