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The Big East was expected to drop down a few notches this season after being a dominant conference a year ago. However, it was yet another impressive season for the league, producing five top-20 (or so) teams, as well as several other potential NCAA Tournament clubs. There was also an excellent race for first-place, as Syracuse needed to knock off Villanova two Saturdays ago to take control of the conference. Three teams – West Virginia, Villanova and Pittsburgh – tied for second, with Marquette and Louisville following behind them. Georgetown and Notre Dame went 10-8, with Seton Hall and South Florida going 9-9. With all 16 teams heading to Madison Square Garden for the conference tournament, it should be a fun time in New York City.
Favorite: Locked in as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Syracuse also comes into the Big East tournament as the favorite. The Orange were one of the season’s most surprising teams, going from losing to Le Moyne in an exhibition game to a Final Four threat. Their 2-3 zone defense creates problems for opponents due to their size and length, while their offense has plenty of inside-outside balance. Wesley Johnson and Andy Rautins are conference Player of the Year candidates, while Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku are a nice inside tandem. Kris Joseph is one of the best sixth men in the country.
Contenders: With the way it played down the stretch, West Virginia is a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Mountaineers are coming off a dominant performance of Georgetown, followed up by a road win at Villanova. They have excellent size, led by the forward trio of Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones. They struggle with athletic guards who can penetrate to the basket and also don’t have a ton of perimeter playmakers. Darryl Bryant needs to come up big. Villanova struggled down the stretch, losing four of its final six games to drop to 13-5 in the conference. The Wildcats have struggled defensively for much of the season, especially with committing too many fouls. On the positive side, Villanova has one of the best perimeter groups in the country, led by All-American Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Reggie Redding. Pittsburgh was another major surprise this season, and the Panthers are also tough in the Big East Tournament. They are very solid defensively, guarding the perimeter well and also rebounding effectively. Offensively, they crash the offensive glass and get to the free-throw line. Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker are one of the better backcourts in the conference; both are capable of taking over a game and carrying Pitt. Versatile swingmen Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown can also score.
Sleeper: A top-25 team being a sleeper? Well, because of the way Georgetown finished the season, the Hoyas only received a No. 8 seed in the conference tournament. The Hoyas struggled in the second half of conference play, losing four of their last six and six of its last 10 league games. However, they have one of the most effective offenses in the conference and can beat anyone in the country. Greg Monroe and Austin Freeman are a dynamite duo, but Chris Wright needs to be more consistent at the point.
Prediction: The Big East Tournament is always one of the most competitive in the country, due to the nature of the conference and the fact that it’s played under the bright lights at Madison Square Garden. I don’t think Georgetown is consistent enough to make a run from the No. 8 seed, while no other conference teams are good enough to win four games in four days – or five games in five days. Out of the top four, Villanova is struggling lately, and Pittsburgh doesn’t have the offensive weapons to win it. Therefore, I think it’s going to come down to Syracuse and West Virginia. The Mountaineers simply don’t have the guards or penetrators to exploit the Syracuse zone. The Orange will win a conference tournament filled with lots of chalk.
No. 9 USF over No. 16 DePaul
No. 12 Connecticut over No. 13 St. John’s
No. 10 Seton Hall over No. 15 Providence
No. 11 Cincinnati at No. 14 Rutgers
No. 8 Georgetown over No. 9 USF
No. 5 Marquette over No. 12 Connecticut
No. 7 Notre Dame over No. 10 Seton Hall
No. 6 Louisville over No. 11 Cincinnati
No. 1 Syracuse over No. 8 Georgetown
No. 4 Villanova over No. 5 Marquette
No. 2 Pittsburgh over No. 7 Notre Dame
No. 3 West Virginia over No. 6 Louisville
No. 1 Syracuse over No. 4 Villanova
No. 3 West Virginia over No. 2 Pittsburgh
No. 1 Syracuse over No. 3 West Virginia