NEW YORK — Now it's getting serious.
There were only two Big East bubble teams coming into this week, and when Cincinnati and Villanova won yesterday in the Garden, they essentially assured their NCAA berths. All eight teams remaining in the bracket know they're going to hear their name called on Selection Sunday, leaving us with a pretty entertaining scenario: an octet of squads very, very familiar with one another who all have the single remaining goal of three consecutive wins and the Big East crown.
Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette and Pittsburgh will be playing their first games of the postseason, coming off the double-byes they earned with a top four regular season finish. Since the double-bye format was instituted in 2009, those top four seeds are just 9-7 in the quarterfinals, so history says we should expect at least one upset. Considering yesterday’s games were mostly devoid of drama, it seems reasonable to expect some fun today.
(1) Georgetown vs. (9) Cincinnati – 12:00pm
The Hoyas checked a lot of boxes off this season, some of them admirable and some not so much. Consider:
- Started league play 0-2.
- Lost to a South Florida team that only won two other conference games all season.
- Ran off an eleven-game win streak.
- Swept both games against archrival Syracuse in their final Big East regular season meetings.
- Won a share of the conference title.
It all starts with Otto Porter, the do-everything forward who leads the Hoyas in scoring and rebounding, shoots 44% from three and just won Big East Player of the Year. The Hoyas have one of the country’s best defenses and a glowing freshman, sixth man D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, a top recruit who brings a scoring punch off the bench.
As well as Porter and his teammates have been playing, it’s hard to imagine that the Bearcats will be very intimidated. When these two met back in February, it was a tie game with six minutes left before Georgetown pulled away. Many of the principal members of this Cincinnati team made it all the way to the tournament final last year, so they won’t be intimidated by the lights of the Garden.
If Cincy is to pull off the upsets, they are going to have to shoot better than they did in their first meeting (4-for-24 from three) and dominate the Hoyas on the boards, which is one area of relative weakness for John Thompson III’s team. I’m skeptical about the Bearcat offense, but if they can contain Porter and ugly this up, they have a chance to steal it late.
(4) Pittsburgh vs. (5) Syracuse – 2:30pm (approximately)
The Panthers flew under the radar all season, barely ranked and with few national plaudits thrown their way but absolutely beloved by the computers. First they locked down the double-bye and now they get a team they’ve had considerable success against, as Jamie Dixon has taken six of the last seven from Jim Boeheim.
Pittsburgh utilizes a very balanced attack played at a crawling pace, but it has been effective. They are among the best in the country at shooting threes, offensive rebounding, not turning the ball over and assist rate. Their defense is perhaps even more polished, anchored by the twin towers of Talib Zanna and Steve Adams. Pitt is one of the few teams in the country with the overall size to go against the seemingly never-ending length of the Orange, and if the threes are falling, they have the ability to go over, around and through the famous 2-3 zone.
But perhaps their performance against Seton Hall was what it took to shake Syracuse out of their late-season funk. Michael Carter-Williams was brilliant, dishing out 14 assists. James Southerland found his range, knocking down a half dozen treys. This will be Boeheim’s zone vs. Dixon’s man-to-man, and may the best defense advance.
(2) Louisville vs. (7) Villanova – 7:00pm
Rick Pitino’s Cardinals are starting to peak at the absolutely perfect time, turning up the jets a little earlier than last year. Guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva took their game to another level last March when they arrived at the Garden, shrugging off a rough ending to the regular season to drive Louisville to a Big East Tournament title and Final Four berth. They’ve both had their problems this season, with Siva disappearing for stretches and Smith making some very questionable decisions, but they’re starting to roll. In their last eleven games, the Cardinals have one loss, the five-overtime thriller in South Bend they had multiple opportunities to win.
The Wildcats won the only meeting between these two teams this season, catching the Cardinals three days after they lost their number one ranking at home in a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Cuse. Smith had a terrible game in Philly, going 2-for-13, while Villanova spread out the scoring with four players in double figures. Villanova earned the upset on the merits of their long-range shooting, knocking down seven of their fifteen attempts.
A fun matchup to watch will be the battle inside between Big East Defensive Player of the Year Gorgui Dieng and Mouphtaou Yarou, the Nova big man who dominated St. John’s last night. Pitino has a cadre of multi-talented forwards to choose from, but no one to really replicate what Dieng can do guarding the rim, save for perhaps freshman Montrezl Harrell. Another big factor will be whether Nova can finally hold onto the ball. They had nineteen turnovers against Louisville in their first matchup and coughed it up seventeen times last night against St. John’s.
(3) Marquette vs. (6) Notre Dame – 9:30pm (approximately)
A round of applause for Buzz Williams, who took a team that lost stars Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom to the professional ranks and proceeded to rally them to a share of the Big East regular season title. The Golden Eagles are incredibly fun to watch, using a deep lineup adept at sharing the ball and attacking the paint. They also feature one of the most entertaining sixth men in the league, 6’8”, 290-pound Davante Gardner. They’re not great at shooting threes, but they don’t take many in their quest to attack to the rim.
When these two teams played a few weekends ago, the Irish had no answer inside (Marquette center Chris Otule was perfect from the field) or outside (the Eagles were a tidy 5-of-11 from three). To Notre Dame’s credit, they battled back and ended up only falling by eight, which is somewhat admirable when you consider that they were without the services of Jack Cooley (scoreless in limited minutes with the flu) and playing in an extremely hostile environment (the Golden Eagles are currently riding a 25-game home winning streak).
Predicting Notre Dame games is folly, as they’re incapable of being consistent even for a half, let alone over the course of a tournament. Last night against Rutgers it looked like the Irish were going to run away with it, only to find themselves in a dogfight the entire second half. If Pat Connaughton (six threes against the Scarlet Knights) can stay hot and Mike Brey’s team can improve at finishing inside (a problem that’s plagued them all season), they might have a shot, but this Marquette team is playing some very good basketball and will be an incredibly difficult out.