Get ready for a whole bunch of Big East
Hyperbole is not part of Bob Knight’s game plan when he analyzes college basketball: Use more shot fakes, defend and junk the trash talk.
This is what Knight said about Big East basketball the other night: Winning the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden will be about as difficult as winning the NCAA Tournament.
Get familiar with this story, because it’s going to be written thousands of times between now and mid-March: There will be 11 Big East teams in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Every mathematical formula including Einstein’s confirms this is not an outrageous concept.
Check the RPI. You’ll find nine Big East teams in the Top 30, 10 in the top 40 and a dozen in the top 100.
Don’t trust the RPI? Try Jeff Sagarin’s computer formula. His favored Predictor ratings reflect the same news as Ken Pomeroy’s formula: 11 Big East teams in the Top 35, a dozen in the Top 61.
Here’s a breakdown of what they can accomplish in the NCAA tournament:
Pack your scissors
This team could win it all: Pittsburgh.
As good as the Big East has been, it’s similar to the rest of the nation in this characteristic: It doesn’t have many teams that appear capable of winning six straight.
But Jamie Dixon’s Pittsburgh team belongs on the Championship Caliber list with Ohio State, Kansas, Duke, Texas, San Diego State and others scrapping for No. 1 seeds.
Pitt has three poised seniors, led by Brad Wanamaker, and the league’s best three-point shooter (Ashton Gibbs, 47.3 percent). The Panthers are nearly plus-12 on the boards every night. And they defend like crazy. What’s not to like?
Houston, we have liftoff
Put these teams in the group of 20-25 that could get hot and make the Final Four at Reliant Stadium in Houston: Notre Dame, Louisville, St. John’s and Syracuse.
The Irish start five seniors. Ben Hansbrough has been so consistently clutch that people have stopped asking him about his older brother. People question their size, but don’t forget that Mike Brey’s team ranks in the top 40 in rebounding margin. And the Irish are 7-0 in games decided in overtime or by five points or less.
For the first time in years, Rick Pitino doesn’t have anybody at Louisville that rushes into the locker room to check his spot in a mock draft. Injuries that slowed Louisville in December have created depth for March. Point guard Peyton Siva is always in the lane. If Kyle Kuric and Preston Knowles make threes, look out.
Some laughed at Pitino when he picked St. John’s to win the Big East. They’re not laughing now that the Red Storm enter the last 10 days of league play tied for third, with a 15-point win over Duke on their resume. Dwight Hardy averages 17.3 per game, and coach Steve Lavin says he’s the league’s best player.
The warning sign for St. John’s is pedigree. This program has not played in the NCAA Tournament since 2002.
Jim Boeheim’s Orange appear to have recovered from losing six of eight games by winning three straight. There’s a nice blend of inside (Rick Jackson, fifth in the nation in rebounding) and outside (Scoop Jardine). Another scoring option would help.
Outlook partly cloudy
These could be Sweet 16 teams, but they still have areas of concern: Villanova, Connecticut, Georgetown.
A closer look at Jay Wright’s Villanova team makes you wonder if they are too dependent upon perimeter play to make a three-weekend run. It’s tough to advance shooting less than 45 percent. 'Nova has bad losses to Providence and Rutgers and three of their four league road wins have come at South Florida, Seton Hall and DePaul.
Connecticut has been all over the news this week, but not because the Huskies are inching toward a top seed. No, this program got the official word on its NCAA sanctions.
Yes, UConn is eligible for the 2011 tournament. But, no, they’re no longer playing like the same group that rolled through the Maui Invitational. They lost at home to Marquette Thursday night. Although Kemba Walker has slipped from the lead in the Player of the Year debate, he gives the Huskies a scorer’s chance against anybody.
Georgetown has lost two of three, but that’s not why the Hoyas have moved to the question-mark pile. They’re saying that guard Chris Wright will return from surgery on the middle finger of his left (non-shooting) hand in time for the NCAA Tournament. That’s the wrong guy for John Thompson III to lose at the wrong time of the season.
Squads likely to exit the first weekend: Cincinnati, West Virginia.
It was fashionable to question the credentials of Mick Cronin’s Cincy team – until a week ago. Then, the Bearcats beat Louisville by nine at home and backed it up with road wins at Providence and Georgetown.
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Cronin doesn’t have anybody likely to go off for 25, but the way his team defends there won’t be anybody on your roster likely to go off for 20. The Bearcats are nearly plus-four in turnover margin and average eight steals per game.
West Virginia is another team with something to prove. The Mountaineers have not won back-to-back games since Feb. 2, going 4-6 in games decided in overtime or by five points or less. And there’s not a star in the house. Casey Mitchell averaged 19 in the Mountaineers’ first eight games. He’s averaged 8.6 in five games since returning from a three-game suspension, making scoring an issue for Bob Huggins’ team.
Happy to be there
This team needs to win another game or two to escape the bubble: Marquette.
If there is one Big East team with work to do, it is the Golden Eagles. Thursday's victory over UConn helps, but they are 6-6 over their last dozen games, and just won back-to-back games for the first time since Jan. 5.
Victories over Syracuse, West Virginia and Notre Dame put them in the Top 35 in Sagarin and Pomeroy. If Marquette gets in, Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom give the Golden Eagles a scorer’s chance of delivering an upset.