Big East not star-studded, but it's stacked
Big East basketball is not overrun with NBA lottery picks this winter. Wesley Johnson and Greg Monroe don’t live here any more. Georgetown guard Austin Freeman, the coaches’ preseason pick for Player of the Year, is likely to hear his name called in the second round.
The best freshmen in America? Don’t look to the Big East for an answer to Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones or Josh Selby. Not one Big East freshman ranks in the top 20 in the league in either scoring or rebounding. Only veterans need apply.
But in a season in which the league was supposed to retreat, the Big East simply persists in delivering rugged, formidable basketball teams.
“Every night, you’re going to play a tough team and it’s going to be a great atmosphere,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
Call the roll:
Five teams parked in the top 10 of the latest Associated Press Top 25. Three more sitting in the Top 25. Eleven teams that believe they can crack the NCAA tournament.
Consider the message delivered by the daily RPI updates. This is no misprint: On Thursday, the RPI computer formula showed Big East teams ranked second, fifth, sixth, seventh, ninth, 14th, 15th and 16th. That’s half the current Sweet Sixteen. No other league has more than two in the RPI top 16.
No wonder that on the eve of Big East play opening, University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino pulled out some poster board and a marker and started making a list of where Big East teams are positioned.
“It’s mind-boggling to me to look at this and see this in what we all thought would be somewhat of a rebuilding year,” Pitino said.
“You can’t dwell on a loss in the Big East,” Louisville point guard Peyton Siva said. “If you dwell on a loss, you’re going to get popped right in the mouth the next game and you’re going to lose.”
Feel free to post your Big East-bashing comments. This is not to say the Big East is flawless, because it isn’t. Nobody is going gaga about the Southeastern Conference, yet Kentucky and Tennessee have hung four defeats on Big East teams, including the Vols’ victories against Pittsburgh and Villanova, teams that expect to contend for the league title. The Big East’s nonleague record against teams in the Top 25 is 10-9.
But in a season in which as many as 20 teams believe they can make a serious push toward the Final Four, the Big East has fewer flaws to overlook than the competition. Big East teams have won nearly 80 percent of their out-of-conference games and 62.5 percent (25-15) against the five other BCS leagues.
The Pac-10 isn’t even the best league in the West. The Mountain West is. The Big 12 lacks the depth to put persistent pressure on Kansas. The East Division of the Southeastern Conference doesn’t get enough love nationally, but the SEC West never turns its attention or resources from football. It’s a basketball embarrassment.
The Big Ten keeps waiting for Michigan State to perform like the top-five team many predicted. Hasn’t happened yet. Purdue keeps delivering, but you wonder if the Boilermakers really have the goods for a three-weekend run in the NCAA tournament without Robbie Hummel.
The Atlantic Coast Conference would be thrilled to put four of its dozen teams in the NCAA tournament. The Big East is projecting to push 10 of its 16 teams into the field.
“The Big East is so hard in the half-court to score baskets,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “You’ve got big, strong bodies and great coaches and teams that know how to defend you. You can’t just rely on making jump shots.”
“You have a lot of veteran teams,” Pitino said. “Villanova is a veteran team. Syracuse has got a lot of players back. Pittsburgh’s got their whole team back.”
Indeed. Those three teams that Pitino identified have separated themselves from the pack as the only unbeatens in conference play.
But Connecticut, picked 10th before the season, has been solid because Kemba Walker has played like the front-runner for national player of the year. Cincinnati has its best team in Cronin’s five seasons. The Bearcats have depth and can defend.
Notre Dame and Louisville can make 3-point shots with anybody. Don’t sleep on Marquette. Georgetown and West Virginia have started slowly in the league, but both have solid computer rankings. Heck, Jeff Sagarin’s computer formula has 11 Big East teams ranked in the national top 50.
“There are a lot of really, really good teams in the Big East,” Pitino said. “But who’s the best? I don’t know. I think it’s going to be who’s standing at the end. It’s really an incredible conference.”