Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Big East Conference Tournament Preview

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Going into the season, the Big East was expected to be the best conference of all time, with up to 10 or 11 teams capable of reaching the NCAA Tournament. However, as one could have predicted, the teams beat up on each other and the conference is likely going to get just seven bids come Selection Sunday. The race for the title was outstanding, though, as it came down to the final weekend. When Pittsburgh beat Connecticut and Louisville knocked off West Virginia, Louisville took the top spot, followed by Pitt and then UConn. Villanova finished fourth, receiving the last two-round bye. Teams five through eight received one bye.

Favorite: Despite finishing second to Louisville, I think you have to put Pittsburgh as the favorite heading into New York City. First, the Panthers basically own the Big East Tournament, seemingly reaching the finals every year. Secondly, Pitt beat Connecticut twice and is playing excellent basketball. DeJuan Blair is a monster on the inside and Sam Young is tough to guard. Levance Fields is one of the more underappreciated point guards in the country.

Contenders: Connecticut hasn’t been the same since losing Jerome Dyson to season-ending knee surgery. However, the Huskies still have the weapons necessary to win the title come early April. Hasheem Thabeet is a force in the middle defensively, and he is coming along at the other end. Jeff Adrien is a double-double lock every night out, and A.J. Price can put the Huskies on his back. Freshman Kemba Walker could be the x-factor. Louisville won the regular-season title and could make a run at No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a championship in New York. The Cardinals have plenty of talent, led by Terrence Williams, who has become an all-around star this year. Earl Clark is a match-up nightmare for opponents, and Samardo Samuels is tough down low. Jerry Smith knocks down shots from the perimeter. The only question with this team is consistency at the point guard spot.

Sleeper: Despite the fact that they are pretty much out of the running for an at-large bid, I still wouldn’t want to face Notre Dame in the conference tournament. The Fighting Irish have plenty of offensive firepower, led by Luke Harangody, one of the most productive players in the country. Tory Jackson is a very solid all-around point guard, and Kyle McAlarney is lights-out from beyond the arc once he gets going.

Prediction: With all 16 teams playing in the conference tournament this season, it should be a fantastic five days in New York City. There are plenty of questions to be answered, but I think only three teams have a legit shot to win it: Louisville, Pitt and UConn. Villanova doesn’t have the inside presence, Marquette is struggling and Syracuse and West Virginia are inconsistent away from home. In the end, I think that Pittsburgh is playing the best basketball of anyone in the country right now, and will win the automatic bid, knocking off Connecticut for a third time this year in the semifinals and then taking down Louisville in the championship game.

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