NEW YORK — “The last one that really counts.”
That's the sentiment many fans will share when discussing this year’s Big East Tournament. Last week Dan Wetzel wrote a great column about the history and future of the tournament, and he’s right about the main point: next year there will be a single-elimination bracket in Madison Square Garden with a lot of good teams and it will be called the Big East Tournament...but it’s going to be a very different field after this weekend.
If you haven’t followed the twisting soap opera that is conference realignment, we may be safe to say things have settled. Next year the “Catholic 7” - which consists of Georgetown, St. John’s, Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence and Villanova - is breaking away, adding some teams (likely Butler and Xavier, to start) and taking the Big East name and Garden tournament locale with them. Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Louisville are going to the ACC. Rutgers is going to the Big Ten. The Big East teams left behind (UConn, Cincinnati, South Florida) will add a menagerie of new schools to their conference with a yet-to-be-announced name. (Louisville and Rutgers are both tethered to the neo-Conference USA for one more season due to football scheduling.)
With all of that transition, this is the last chance for many of these teams to attain March glory in the World’s Most Famous Arena. The following is a list of the programs that have played in the tournament final the last ten years, along with the number of times they’ve appeared:
West Virginia 2
Other than Georgetown, not a single member of the “Catholic 7" has made it to the championship game over the last decade. The revised Big East tournament will eventually establish itself as worthy of the New York City setting, but there is a ton of history being lost at the conclusion of this year’s event. (Seriously: So much history.) You can see why these next few days matter: Persevere, and it’s sort of like you’re the eternal Big East champion. The banner, bragging rights, trophy and automatic bid are all going to be that much sweeter.
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They’ve been playing for the Big East title at Madison Square Garden for three memorable decades (Chris Mullin and St. John’s knocked off Boston College in 1983, if you were curious), and while the future of the hallowed hoops institution is confusing, we shouldn’t let that uncertainty ruin the present. The old band is getting together for one final show, and we’d be foolish not to enjoy every minute of it.
For those unfamiliar with how the next few days are set up, here’s a quick primer. We started with fourteen team after subtracting West Virginia (now playing in the Big XII) and UConn (ineligible for postseason play) from last year’s field. Last night Seton Hall and Rutgers were victorious, so they’re in action today along with the teams seeded five through ten. (Here’s the full schedule.)
We’ll discuss Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette and Pittsburgh tomorrow when they enter into the elimination chamber. Today, let’s look at the slate of eight teams facing off in the World’s Most Famous Arena:
(All stats referenced come from Ken Pomeroy’s amazing site.)
(8) Providence vs. (9) Cincinnati - 12:00pm
What’s at stake: If Cincinnati could just skip playing this game, they’d probably be safely in the field (most projections currently have them in as a double-digit seed). But if they lose this afternoon, they’d be 21-11 and losers of seven of their last ten. They’ll still probably get in, but there might be some sweating involved. For Providence, an inspired rally over the second half of the season was tripped up by two overtime losses to the Huskies, leaving them in need of at least two wins (today and tomorrow versus Georgetown) to even get back into the bracket conversation.
What to expect: Not the prettiest of games. When these two teams squared off February 6th, Providence won 54-50 in an ugly game marred by some rather atrocious three-point shooting (combined 5-for-30). That wasn’t an aberration, as neither team is great from distance, although that doesn’t stop the Bearcats from taking a bunch of them. The key here will be on the boards, where Cincinnati excels and Providence struggles. If the Friars can stop the Bearcats from getting second chance points off their bricked treys, they’ll have a great chance at playing in tomorrow matinee’s. Providence big man Kadeem Batts was the high scorer in the first meeting, going for 25 points and getting to the line 12 times.
(5) Syracuse vs. (12) Seton Hall - 2:30pm (approximately)
What’s at stake: The Orange are safely in the big dance no matter what happens, but they’d probably like to build some positive momentum after a rough end to the season, where they lost four of their last five. Plus Jim Boeheim has coached in every single Big East Tournament that has ever been played, and I doubt he wants to say goodbye just yet. For Seton Hall, the only way they’re going dancing is with an automatic bid, so they’ll need to tack four more wins onto their overtime victory last night. This is also the last Big East meeting between two of the original members from 1979, so there are some forever bragging rights involved.
What to expect: Not a lot of scoring. Last night Seton Hall put up 37 points in regulation, and needed a late run to even get that high (they ended up with a 46-42 win). In Syracuse’s last game, they could only muster 39 against Georgetown, although it’s important to note that the Hoyas sport one of the finest defenses in the country. Seton Hall may be the cure for what ails Syracuse: They are among the worst in the country at getting shots blocked and allowing steals, so if the 2-3 zone is working, it could fuel the Orange running game. When these two teams met last month, Seton Hall held a nine-point first half lead and hung around most of the game, so there’s hope, but they’ll need to play considerably better than they did against South Florida.
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(7) Villanova vs. (10) St. John’s - 7:00pm
What’s at stake: Villanova is in a similar position to Cincinnati: If they didn’t have to play this game, they’d probably be a sure bet to hear their name called on Sunday on the merits of their four great home wins over Syracuse, Louisville, Marquette and Georgetown. If they lose this game and a couple of the automatic bids get stolen? Could be a nerve-wracking selection show. For St. John’s, they have to win this thing to go dancing after a brutal finish where they lost seven of their last nine. You could maybe make the case that just getting to Saturday night might be enough, but I’m not sure it would hold up to cross-examination.
What to expect: The only meeting of the season between the Wildcats and Red Storm came all the way back on January 2nd, the Big East opener for both teams. Villanova prevailed 98-86 in overtime, but it’s hard to take much from that game because D’Angelo Harrison scored 36 for the Johnnies. Harrison is out following a March 1 suspension and won’t be participating in this or any other tournament.
As far as tonight’s game, look for a relatively fast-paced affair, as both teams are among the more up-tempo in the Big East. Two factors that might be key: Villanova is the best in the country at getting to the charity stripe, while St. John’s generally doesn’t foul a lot. If the Wildcats are shooting a lot of free throws, that’s a very good sign for them. Steve Lavin’s crew might be able to spring the upset if they can generate some turnovers, as Villanova can get sloppy with the ball. If the Johnnies can get out into transition and get the crowd behind them, they might be able to advance to face Louisville.
(6) Notre Dame vs. (11) Rutgers - 9:30pm (approximately)
What’s at stake: For Rutgers, it’s pretty simple: If they don’t win this game, they’re done playing for the season, as they’ll fall to 15-16 and fail to qualify for any of the postseason tournaments. Notre Dame will be in the bracket Sunday evening no matter what happens here, but Mike Brey’s squad is striving to get over the Garden hump after losing in the semifinals the last three years. The Irish have never played in the Big East title game, and with their move to the ACC officially coming next season, this is their last shot.
What to expect: It’s really hard to say with the schizophrenic nature of the Irish. When these two teams played back in January, a controversial charge call halted a furious Rutgers comeback, with Notre Dame prevailing 69-66. Since then the Scarlet Knights lost star guard Eli Carter and two wins over Garden State rival Seton Hall were the only thing saving them from riding a thirteen-game losing streak into last night’s victory. It is impossible to predict the Irish. They are terrible on the road, except when they’re not (winning at Pitt after trailing by 16 in the first half). They are really good at home, except when they’re not (blowout loss to Georgetown, loss to UConn). If the bad Irish defense shows up and the Scarlet Knights shoot the ball like they did last night, we could easily have an upset in the nightcap.
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