Big East Remains King of the Conference Tourneys – College Basketball Musings

Twenty-six years at Madison Square Garden, the primetime spot on ESPN all weekend, along with the deepest group of teams and coaching stars galore – Calhoun, Boeheim, Thompson III, Pitino, Brey, Huggins – the Big East remains the class of Conference Tournaments.

Thursday started with Villanova’s slim tourney chances going up in flames to top-seed Georgetown. The Hoyas, unbeaten as a top seed in conference tournament play, dominated the game start to finish, despite Roy Hibbert’s foul trouble limiting him to only 14 minutes and no points. That’s right, the Hoya big man posted as many rebounds as turnovers (4) and a goose egg in the scoring column, yet G’town still won by 19. Jesse Sapp led a 3-point barrage, combining with Dajuan Summers and Jonathan Wallace for 14 of Georgetown’s 17 treys in route to a blowout of Villanova.

UConn faced a similar predicament in the back-end of the afternoon doubleheader, a disappointing performance from a talented big man, but did not leave unscathed. Hasheem Thabeet struggled all afternoon, finishing with 6 points and 6 rebounds. Unfortunately the fourth seed Huskies faced a tougher match – West Virginia – received less help from the supporting cast, and struggled defensively. West Virginia’s Joe Alexander led the Mountaineer charge out of the half to extend the lead to double digits. If anyone still had doubts, Bob Huggins soldiers quieted the bubble skeptics cinching a tourney berth with the upset win.

Sticking with struggling big men, Marquette frustrated Notre Dame star and Big East Player of the Year Luke Harongody all game in the nightcap. Outside of a brief spurt early in the second half, Marquette threw double-teams and physical play at the 6’8″ 251 lb star, holding to 13 points, seven below his average. The Irish survived the first half with a six point lead, but the luck of the Irish (insert corny joke) ended in the second half when the Golden Eagle guard attack took over the game on both ends. Jerel NcNeal and little-used reserve Maurice Acker buried big jump shots to extend the Marquette lead out to ten, extending the ND zone out, opening up the inside for drives and mid-range jumpers. Marquette plays a tough, grind it out brand of basketball. Thursday night, they proved that a good shooting night (51% FG) combined with the hustle are a dangerous combination. On the other end, Notre Dame’s potent offense hits you both ways, inside and outside, Friday they both went dry. The Eagles bottled up Harongody, while the team struggled shooting, 43% FG and 38% behind the arc. More than percentages, the Irish shot selection was bad at times after Marquette opened up the lead. They rushed shots on a few trips, taking the first available shot instead of the best. Live by the 3, die by the 3. Neither team will be a top tourney seed, but both teams can play with anyone if things break right.

Pitt and Louisville squared off in a battle that needed an extra period to complete the semi-final match-ups.  With Lavance Fields back at full strength, the Panthers will enter March Madness a dangerous under the radar team. How many teams survive losing two starters as well as Pitt? Dayton fell apart. Louisville almost lost their season, before rallying in a big way after getting healthy. Credit Jamie Dixon and the Panthers for holding the ship together until Fields returned, knowing Cook would not return. Sam Young owned this game in every way. 21 points, 12 rebounds, right in the middle of every big play down the stretch. It was a great game to watch, the Cardinal did not bring their “A” game but battled to stay in it, getting a big effort from Earl Clark while Padgett and Caracter had sub-par offensive games. Pitino really wanted this game, you could see it on his face, but Pitt’s players wanted it more than his. Louisville went into last weekends showdown with G’Town the hottest team in the league, two straight losses later, some may question them a little. I flash back to the NCAA tournament last season, ending with a loss to Texas A&M in Round Two. Edgar Sosa looked bound for stardom. Its not news that he’s struggling, but in close games where they need a big basket, a point guard presence to control the game and make a play, I still wonder what happened to Sosa, who took a nose dive this season.

No upsets in Round One, three of four lower seeds win in Round Two, no shockers though since the conference has unmatched depth and all the lower seeds will play on next week. Despite Georgetown’s win, if the big guys – Hibbert, Thabeet, and Harongody – play this poorly in the tournament, against a good team, its good riddance. They don’t need to score 20+ points, but be a presence, draw the double teams, hit the boards. The trio struggled mightily Thursday, Georgetown survived thanks to the hot outside shooting that eluded ND and UConn, plus they drew the weakest opponent. Next weekend, they won’t be so luck. Watch out for Pitt and Marquette, they can knock off most teams in the country on a given day with the tough style of play and talent they bring. Similarly, they can lose on a given day just as easy. Buckle up for the semi’s.

Bubble talk left the Big East tournament after Villanova bowed out, but it permeated around the country yesterday. A rough day for many teams on the brink, here’ s a rundown of what caught my eye yesterday:

  • Florida needed a big run in the SEC. Instead they threw up a clunker, blown out by a very mediocre Alabama team. Hello NIT.
  • My favorite bubble conference, the A-10, took some interesting twists yesterday. The most likely second team in, UMass, dropped a close game to Charlotte, leaving the Minutemen in limbo. Meanwhile, St. Joe’s collected took care of business for the second straight day after stumbling to the finish line, and second-seeded Temple continued its late season surge. Throw in the rollercoaster Dayton Flyers falling to Xavier and the picture looks more scrambled than ever. If Temple advances past Charlotte they deserve serious consideration, while St. Joe’s, despite two losses against UMass, should get a look ahead of the Minutemen. Both the Hawks and Owls have better SOS  and better Top 50 records than UMass. St. Joe’s can eliminate all questions with a win over Xavier, and one of them can shut the world up with the automatic bid.
  • Similar to Florida, another perennial recent NCAA team, Maryland found itself wlaking on egg shells before yesterday then broke all the eggs, dropping a must-win game to BC in the ACC Tourney. Slim hopes gone. Miami looks like the 4th ACC team in.
  • Not much intrigue in the Big 12, Baylor should be safely in despite a double OT loss to Colorado. Baylor must lead the country in minutes played this year with all these overtime matches. Texas A&M put bubble questions to rest with a solid win, something too many other teams failed to do on Thursday.
  • What’s in the water in Memphis? Conference USA self-destructed, UAB and Houston both dropping games to 100+ RPI opponents, not hard to find in C-USA. A far cry of the pre-Big East migration, a one bid conference.
  • Finally, my second favorite conference to debate, the Pac-10. All three bubble teams lost, Arizona State on yet another controversial West Coast call, Oregon, and Arizona. With seemingly every bubble team losing, I put all three Pac-10 teams in, but if you want the order – Arizona, Oregon, ASU. On the top of the conference UCLA answered the bell after two tight games, Stanford looked impressive, and USC really might sneak up on teams next week.
  • After a week of agony watching bid vultures knock off South Alabama and take the WCC, bubble teams that are on the sideline took deep breaths yesterday after the competition took a step backwards. Suddenly, being idle looks good.

What to watch Friday:

  • Ohio State plays in what many widely believe is an elimination game against the same Michigan St. team they beat last week. Izzo’s team, a major disappointment thus far,  will certainly make a better showing. Imagine, the Big 10 only three bids. Possible.
  • Temple and St. Joe’s can both play themselves in with wins today. If St. Joe’s wins, one team will leave no questions unanswered with the auto bid in play.
  • Kentucky can eliminate any doubt with a win over Georgia – very advisable.
  • Watch out for the sleepers who can still vulture an automatic bid. C-USA gets two cracks at Memphis, Southern Miss today, and the UTEP-Tulsa winner tomorrow. If any of the three knock out Memphis that’s another bid off the table. Same out West, Utah and San Diego State still linger. After today, an ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, or SEC may stick around to scare the VCU’s, South Alabama’s, and Arizona schools of the world this weekend. We’ll wait another day on them.
  • Games that interest me the most for positioning – Pitt-Marquette, a heavyweight battle at MSG, and the SoCal showdown between USC and UCLA.
  • Always entertaining, the Patriot League final  pits Colgate at American.
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