Posted on: March 8, 2012 1:55 am
Edited on: March 8, 2012 11:48 am

Big East Thursday lookahead

South Florida's tournament chances couldn't have possibly been helped with how it won over Villanova, right? The Bulls got yet another Big East win -- their 13th now, by the way -- yet plenty stil see USF as a team with more to prove. Stan Heath's team faced the easiest schedule in the Big East. Things shook out their way, but credit to Heath for actually getting his team to a one-day bye and not slipping up in the opening game.

I think the Bulls are in. They've compiled enough and had so many good players missing from the early parts of their schedule, I think to judge the team on what it's done when it's been completely healthy means USF is not only in, but just skirts out of the First Four and will have its first tournament game next Thursday or Friday.

Now, let's look at what Thursday has to offer in the World's Most Famous Arena.

Syracuse (1) vs. Connecticut (9). The day's most anticipated game if the first one, as 30-1 Syracuse gets its first Big East tournament game against Connecticut. It's the 14th meeting between programs in Manhattan; Syracuse leads the series 7-6. The intrigue behind this game has almost nothing to do with the basketball to be played. UConn's ensured itself of an at-large bid after coming back and beating West Virginia in overtime Wednesday. Syracuse is locked into a No. 1 seed and will play in the East Regional, even if it loses this game by 74 points.

The interest around this game, of course, is the coaches. Boe and Cal. Jim Calhoun's had a week of appreciation for his team and his feelings on this season. He's a fighter, but there's a tenderness coming through that's not typical of the man. Calhoun coaches this inconsistent team, chasing as many more wins possible this season knowing that 2012-13 could bring an academic-related NCAA tournament ban.

Jim Boeheim, on the other hand, walks into a situation where he'll be asked about why there have been problems with his program's drug-testing and if the team has looked the other way on positive tests. The Boeheim press conference around 2:20 on Thursday afternoon will be must-watch. Boeheim and Calhoun are the biggest of rivals in college basketball, but they also respect each other a tremendous amount. I wonder if they've shared a phone call leading up to this.

Cincinnati (4) vs. Georgetown (5). Like the first game of the day, this doesn't have much gravity to it. Both teams are easily in the tournament, and the loser of this one won't get shaken in the seed list overall, most likely. Cincinnati's probably in the 8/9 game right now, and if it loses to the Hoyas, it's going to stay there. Georgetown has potential to crack a top-four seed if it plays to Saturday, so that's what it's fighting for.

Marquette (2) vs. Louisville (7). The Cardinals fell in last year's Big East tournament to Marquette, but that was when Marquette was the shaky 11 seed needing one more really nice win to get into the NCAAs. It ended up 81-56, Golden Eagles Cardinals. (Sorry for the error, folks.) Buzz Williams' team made its way to the Sweet 16. This year, MU is clearly superior to Louisville, which uglied the world to its way to a win over Seton Hall Wednesday night. Both teams can do good for their seeding here, but obviously Louisville stands more to gain. This is the second meeting between these two this season. Marquette won the first, 74-63, on Jan. 16.

Notre Dame (3) vs. South Florida (6). We addressed the South Florida hideousness up top. So here's a thought. How many people will be in Madison Square Garden by halftime of this game? USF doesn't travel well, and Notre Dame's sidewalk alumni aren't potent in New York City. You combine that with the fact neither of these teams has a star, both need two games to get to 80 points, and this could be another late-night leper colony of a basketball game. Please, get us to the mid-60s, we beg you. The temperature will be that in Manhattan, at least.

-- Matt Norlander

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 7, 2012 12:27 pm
Edited on: March 7, 2012 12:41 pm

Wednesday Big East lookahead

Wednesday feels the like real start of the Big East tournament. Before the league went to allowing 16 teams into the field a few years ago, the league championship always began on Wednesday. Now the better teams are playing and subsequently the matchups are more enticing/watchable. After a brutal Tuesday that featured four blowouts, here's what Wednesday's table setting looks like.


Connecticut (8) vs. West Virgina (9): Who needs it more? Since the Huskies have been inconsistent and unable to win three games in a row in 2012, Wednesday's game presents that opportunity. Many believe UConn's sputtered its way into the NCAAs regardless, but this victory would lock it up. And if that happened, how do we evaluate WVU? The Mountaineers don't have a lot of good wins on their schedule. If they lost here, are they in trouble? When you look at WVU, you see the microcosm of this year's Big East. Decent team, but nothing too amazing, and overall you're left questioning just how legitimate it is.

Georgetown (5) vs. Pittsburgh (13): Anyone else thinking Pittsburgh takes this? Georgetown's a good team, a sturdy team, but also a very beatable team. The Hoyas have been under the radar for most of the year after getting in that massive brawl in China last August. If the Hoyas win, you might see another story or two about that crop up and how it "brought the team closer together." Could be true, but playing in March has little residual effect from something in August, right? Pitt looked very good Tuesday night in its no-bones-about-it win over St. John's. Wouldn't it be so Big East tournament-like if the Panthers not only won this game, but made a run to the semis? I could see it happening.

Louisville (7) vs. Seton Hall (10): The 7 p.m. Wednesday night tip has a lot of drama behind it. Rick Pitino was Kevin Willard's mentor/boss for a decade. Now Willard and his team needs a clinching win over Louisville to ensure itself of a bid. Getting it in this spot will be tough -- but maybe not as tough as it seems, purely from a basketball standpoint. The Pirates' Jordan Theodore is the best guard on the floor, and Louisville has dropped three of its past five. Earlier this season, the Cardinals beat the Pirates, 60-51.

South Florida (6) vs. Villanova (14): Now this is interesting if you consider: What if South Florida loses? It won 12 Big East games, but it did it against the statistically weakest schedule in the league. It lacks a lot of good wins. If it loses its first Big East tournament game? We'll have a very interesting test case on our hands. No Big East team with 12 wins has ever been left out of the NCAAs. And even though Villanova is down this season, I still trust Jay Wright's team to handle itself and give full effort at this time of the year.

-- Matt Norlander
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 4, 2012 1:28 pm

What-to-know tourney previews: Big East

I've never hid the fact I hate that the Big East invites all 16 teams to its tournament. But this year, it's hard to argue against two of the first-day games that will carry significant weight. The reason why this let-them-all-in strategy works for the Big East is because the league is now putting more than eight teams into the NCAAs with regularity, and with that you've got bubble teams fighting for a few more wins from the get-go. That fighting begins on Tuesday in opening-round action, as the bottom eight teams are paired against each other. So my discontent over putting the worst of the worst -- the 13, 14, 15 and 16 seeds into the tournament -- in negated by the fact that UConn AND Seton Hall could very well have their seasons end if they lose on Tuesday. If conference were worse off and only had its top eight teams chasing NCAA bids, Tuesday would be a waste of a day.

The tournament itself is always a time, and it was arguably at its peak last season, when UConn did the genuinely unpredictable. This year's five-day party will be noteworthy for the fact that it's the last iteration of the Big East tournament as we've come to know the league for the past seven seasons. West Virginia's bolting to the Big 12 after this season. We should get one more year of Syracuse and Pittsburgh playing in MSG in March, but then they'll be off to the ACC. Will UConn one day also leave this league? Who knows. But we're clearing phasing out of an identity the Big East has been proud to market for so long.

Let's hope this year's tournament can come close to touching some of the great ones from the past 30. We'll be giving you look-aheads to every round through the week. For now, let's examine the set-in-stone matchups.

South Florida is in the unusual position of not having to play on the tournament's first day. (US Presswire)

Connecticut (9) vs. DePaul (16).
Doesn't this look familiar? UConn has to love it. Last year, when the Huskies became the first team to win a conference tournament by sweeping five games in five days, they started their run against DePaul. UConn got a close home win on Senior Day over Pittsburgh, giving the Huskies their first of what needs to be three straight winsto ensure an at-large berth. Jim Calhoun is back with the team. We'll see what happens; New York is always an adventure for this team. As for the Blue Demons, they're feeling good after mollywhopping the Pirates 86-58 Saturday night. Will DePaul take that and threaten UConn, or have we seen the last big effort out of Oliver Purnell's team this year?

St. John's (12) vs. Pittsburgh (13). It's October. You and me, we're in nice, comfortable fleece jackets. We're talking at lunch about the upcoming season of college basketball. I muse to you that St. John's will be seeded higher than Pittsburgh in the 2012 Big East tournament bracket. You laugh at me and walk away. I try to tell you I can see the future, but you're already out of sight. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh goes on to have an unthinkably sub-par season.

Seton Hall (10) vs. Providence (15).  The Pirates have been the preeminent enigma in a conference filled the them. What I think is certain -- SHU can't lose this game and get into the NCAAs. Seton Hall, 19-11 overall and 8-10 in the Big East, has wins over West Virginia, UConn, Georgetown, VCU and Dayton. That's a five-card hand that a lot of other teams can't hold. The problem is the back-to-back losses heading into the BET -- Rutgers and DePaul -- are as bad as any bubble team right now, too. Dodge Providence and you're probably in, Hall.

Rutgers (11) vs. Villanova (14). I'll be at Madison Square Garden all day on Tuesday, covering for the site. This one's going to be a toughie. I wonder if the arena will be one-fifth filled by 10 p.m. It's pretty unbelievable that any Jay Wright team could be seeded so low, by the way. The Wildcats have had a year to forget, but with Maalik Wayns, a junior guard who's one of the 10 most talented Big East players, winning two games wouldn't shock me one bit. 'Nova can do it. Will they be the surprise team in this year's bracket? Rutgers just fell at home to Villanova on Thursday, 77-71.

-- Matt Norlander
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 13, 2011 1:05 am
Edited on: March 13, 2011 12:33 pm

With 2011 Big East title, UConn makes history

NEW YORK — I’m fairly certain it’s tougher to win five games in five days than to beat a team three times in one season.

Doesn’t much matter what got it through five games in five days, though, or how tough it is. When it’s over, and you’ve done it, then you’ve done it. Ninth-seeded Connecticut made history Saturday night, defeating No. 3 Louisville, 69-66, to earn their seventh Big East tournament championship and, most likely, a three seed in the NCAA tournament.

So how impressive is what UConn just did? Well, if you want to measure this in terms of conversational and referential shelf life, I can promise you: people will talk about the Huskies winning five games in five days for decades. It’s as impressive an accomplishment as any player or team has ever done in this or any other conference tournament before.

The only-can-happen-in-the-Big-East nature of the achievement adds to its legacy and likelihood that it won’t be duplicated any time soon — especially if the conference gets rid of the double-bye. (And let’s hope that does happen. As good as this was, no team should be forced to play Tuesday through Saturday to earn a trophy.)

Once he settled into his chair at the postgame press conference, Huskies coach Jim Calhoun wasted no time in reflecting on the moment, the week, all it led up to and said what it meant to him.

“In 1990, couple years after I came to UConn, we were fortunate enough to have a terrific team and won a Big East championship back to back — that sounds so nice — against Syracuse and Georgetown,” Calhoun said. “That was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had in any kind of Big East play. This ranks right there with that. …. What these kids have accomplished during this week has been as moving for me as anything I can possibly think of.”

Afterward, the man of the hour, week, month and season in the Nutmeg State, Kemba Walker, he had an admission to make. Something he needed to get off his chest.

“Now that the tournament’s over I can definitely tell you that I was tired,” he said. “With about two minutes left I was gassed.”

They all were. Even the media was. Five days is just too many. Calhoun said, by the third day, it was a routine, the kind that there average Joe who works a 9-to-5 slugs out. It’s not that he and his guys didn’t want to play — it’s that it felt like a job that needed to get accomplished. As his team won more games, Calhoun heard the volume turned up about how no one had ever won five in five.

“It kind of gave you a feeling like it wasn’t going to happen,” Calhoun said.

The 68-year-old coach only brought four suits to New York. He doubled up Saturday night by wearing the same threads he donned when Walker gave the tournament its most memorable moment, that buzzer-beating, ankle-breaking jumper against Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals.

“The significant in college basketball … will hit me, because I’m a great historian about the game. I love the game,” Calhoun said.  “I’m caught up on the emotion in what happened here,” Calhoun said. “I think the past four days, and tonight, to show the kind of grit that we had.”

Is it a bit insufferable that I’m waxing so poetic about this accomplishment? If you’re scoffing at the Connecticut love, then I implore you to consider that UConn is such a big deal because it outshined the tremendous, tight play in the Big East tournament (seven of the 15 games were decided by three or less, or went into overtime) and the team is one of the premier talking points in what many are now calling one of the greatest weeks of conference-tournament play in college basketball history.

And this is a team that wasn’t thought to be NCAA-caliber five months ago. And one that was doubted a few weeks ago, when it lost four of its last five games to finish its season.

And the best thing about this for the Huskies — despite all that physical wear and tear, they got their gait back. As they were in the beginning of the season, Connecticut is a feared team considered among the best in college basketball. Whatever it does in the tournament is gravy, really. Yeah, a first-round loss would be an upset, but years from now, all anyone’s going to talk about is the Big East title run.

Anything short of a Final Four won’t overshadow what happened in Manhattan this week. But now, after all the players and coaches have gotten their rest, the mindset has to shift.

“I will tell you this much, and I guess because of me coming up in a different sort of way, underdog is not as difficult as front-runner,” Calhoun said. “In the NCAA tournament we’ll be the favorite again. We’ve got to handle that — not that I’m worried — I’m just saying, I thought this week we were able to get the kids — it’s always my desire — to get a little chip on our shoulder.”

Maybe Connecticut loses in the first round Thursday or Friday. (The Selection Committee would be wise to let this team rest until Friday.) Maybe they make a run to the Sweet. Or the Final Four. No matter what happens, though, this team will be remembered, largely, for its unprecedented Big East run. Short of an NCAA title, it doesn’t get more prestigious than that.

Posted by Matt Norlander

Photo: AP

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Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 12, 2011 2:18 pm
Edited on: March 12, 2011 2:19 pm

UConn-Louisville all about the backcourts

When UConn forward Alex Oriakhi got up from the postgame presser Friday night, he let out an “oh, man. Oh, shoot” as a moved his sore body from the podium to the hallway, where another 20 minutes of interviews awaited him.

He was achy, and he admitted it.

There’s a concern for Connecticut about the repercussions of playing five games in five days. Not in terms of playing for the Big East title, which it will do Saturday night at 9 p.m., but for the long-term effects of the NCAA tournament.

There’s no precedence for a five-games-in-five-days run. So, going forward, as good as this is, if Connecticut loses in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, this gauntlet will be blamed — right or wrong — as much as anything else. That’s the distraction (?) Connecticut has to deal with.

Its opponent, Louisville, has no such side chatter. A team that’s not exactly rife with future NBA players has continued to win and make Rick Pitino look like one of the smartest coaches in the game. Some have said this is Pitino’s best coaching job. Pitino himself stated after Louisville’s win over Cincinnati Thursday night that he hasn’t had this much fun with a group since 1987, when he coached Providence to the Final Four.

Saturday night in Madison Square Garden, we’ll be treated to the first Big East title game to feature teams who have multiple national titles. And both teams are certainly steaming heading into this. You’ve got UConn with its four-game winning streak and all that mojo Kemba Walker brings; and Louisville charges in after it overcame its largest halftime deficit this season in its win over Notre Dame Friday night.

Some think this is a pretty unpredictable Big East final, and in a way, yes, but think about it: Connecticut is undefeated, 7-0, in tournament-format games so far this season. So, from that perspective, the Huskies’ appearance isn’t all that shocking. And Louisville hasn’t looked bad all that much this season. Both teams will be seeded fifth or better in the tournament. This isn’t a couple of lightweights, not by any means.

The guard matchup should be fantastic, as Preston Knowles and Peyton Siva (right) will line up against Walker and Shabazz Napier. The game will most definitely be won or lost on the play of the boys in the backcourt, it seems.

A final thought to leave you with. Will we get one more overtime game? If that happens, it will be a Big East tournament record. Enough of them have already been broken this year — what’s one more?

Posted by Matt Norlander

Photo: AP

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Category: NCAAB
Tags: BIGE
Posted on: March 10, 2011 8:59 pm

Syracuse's win sets up terrific Friday night tilt

NEW YORK — The Big East couldn’t have a better matchup.

Unless it was for the conference championship.

But Syracuse vs. Connecticut in a Friday night semifinal will have to suffice. After the Orange held off St. John’s in Thursday afternoon’s late tilt, winning 79-73, it set up what’s sure to be the most anticipated game around the country Friday.

After all, this is Syracuse vs. UConn, the neo super rivalry in the Big East. Most notably, it’s the first meeting between the two teams in Big East tournament play since that six-overtime game two years ago made every sports writer and editor in New York City work until 4 in the morning.

The dream draw came to fruition after the afternoon started with Kemba Walker banging home a game-winning shot against Pittsburgh. Syracuse was waiting in the tunnel when Walker hit the shot that knocked Pitt out. The Orange’s Scoop Jardine said when he heard the crowd erupt, he knew Walker was the one who took the shot.

The Orange has to avoid presenting Walker with a similar scenario around 9 p.m. Friday night. There’ s a very good chance it won’t come to that. Outside of the weak odds a game comes down to the final shot, consider: In the teams’ only other meeting this season, on Feb. 2, Syracuse won at Connecticut, 66-58. It was arguably Walker’s worst game of the season. In fact, there’s not much to argue: his eight points were the lowest total for Walker this season, and the only time he didn’t reach double digits.

“You always learn from a game, whether your win or lose,” Syracuse’s Kris Joseph said. “I know they learned some things and they’ll make sure they don’t make the same mistakes. What we’re going to do is make sure we play Kemba the same way we did.”

Boeheim considers that result an outlier on Connecticut’s season.

“I don’t take anything out of the [last] Connecticut game,” Boeheim said. “I don’t think they played well, Kemba had probably his worst night of the year, and we know that won’t happen tomorrow night.”

A story line many members of the media discussed inside Madison Square Garden was the fatigue issue. Syracuse will be playing its second game of the tournament, while UConn’s gearing up for its fourth. Usually, that fourth day is when the legs get caught. But Boeheim will be primarily worried with Walker, and he doesn’t expect him to be slowed one bit.

“They’re a team that can do that,” Boeheim said. “Kemba Walker can play eight nights in a row, and they play a lot of guys and I don’t see that being a factor tomorrow night at all. I mean, the year we won four games we were playing six guys and it was a factor.”

If you’re hoping for a coda to the 2009 game, you’re certainly not alone. Once players starting taking questions in the locker room, postgame, the overtime questions and resets on one of the most epic games in Big East history were flying. Let the record show: no one wants to play 70 minutes of basketball again.

“Hopefully not,” Joseph said. Let’s get it done in regulation. … I mean, one overtime would be all right — but not six.”

Even if it only goes to one overtime, the matchup will have exceeded the billing. It’s Syracuse and UConn on a Friday night in March at Madison Square Garden. The fan bases will flood the area surrounding 4 Pennsylvania Plaza and get the city whirring with excitement well before tip-off.

Posted by Matt Norlander

Photo: AP

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Posted on: March 10, 2011 10:30 am

Does the Big East take it up a notch today?

It was another drama-filled Wednesday in Manhattan. Connecticut rather quietly sent Georgetown home in the noontime tip, but then Rutgers-St. John's provided fodder that could last throughout the rest of the week, as an officiating snafu at the end of the game cost Rutgers a chance to move into Thursday's quarterfinals.

Cincinnati, with its 87-61 dispatch of South Florida, made everyone look again at just how bad Villanova has become. And the nightcap featured Marquette effectively locking up an NCAA tournament bid, sending West Virginia home with a 67-61 loss.

So what about Thursday? Conference tournament storylines rise up and fade out quickly, so let's look forward. Can the impending games possibly ramp and vamp up the drama even more? It would appear so. Here are the four matchups, and some nougat-filled commentary to set the table for what's arguably the best day of Championship Week.

Pittsburgh (1) vs. Connecticut (9). None of Thursday's games are do-or-die, but Pittsburgh could very easily lose its grip on a one seed if it lost to UConn in the noon game at the Garden. The Huskies will probably be content if they are competitive, yet lose. At this point, a five seed is secured for Jim Calhoun's team. A win over Pitt? Yeah, a four is definitely possible. The Panthers always, always show up in the Big East tourney, though, so beware.

Syracuse (4) vs. St. John's (5).
The Big East's two teams who like to proclaim they are New York's Basketball Team. Johnnies coach Steve Lavin said yesterday he believes the city is big enough to accommodate both fanbases. The Garden should be packed for this. A reminder: Syracuse hasn't been its best as of late. It's been good, but nowhere near the team it was in November and December ... when it was playing weaker competition. This is only brought up because Georgetown and West Virginia have also struggled a bit as of late, and look what happened to those teams yesterday.

Notre Dame (2) vs. Cincinnati (7). The Irish need to win the Big East tournament to get a one seed. Cincinnati is probably the best team it could face in the first round in an effort to do so. The Bearcats are a bit nondescript, but their primary guy, Yancy Gates, could find some trouble in playing against the burn offense of the Irish. Expect a slug-it-out type of game.

Louisville (3) vs. Marquette (11). The question in this one: Will Rick Pitino force Marquette to run? The Golden Eagles are playing their third game in three days, and the Cardinals are not averse to pushing it. If that doesn't happen, perhaps some zone offense will be tossed at Marquette. This is the most intriguing matchup of the day, mainly because Marquette only lost by one, at home, to Louisville in mid-January. Cardinals are a hard to figure, in terms of seed, right now. A loss here, and where do you put them? One last thing. Let's see how focused MU is now that it's locked up a bid. It swears the motivation hasn't changed. Body language will determine that around 9:45 Thursday night.

Posted by Matt Norlander

Photo: AP

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 10, 2011 10:30 am
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