Big East experiences early tournament success

Brendan Bianowicz

By Brendan Bianowicz


The college basketball season is now in full swing as many of the preseason tournaments are over. While many teams have justifed their early expectations, others have looked unimpressive despite the preseason hype.

No. 4 UNC, No. 2 Michigan State lose

With losses in the first month of the season, last year’s basketball championship finalists look to bounce back after unexpected and embarrassing defeats.

After last season’s national championship, the Tar Heels lost the core of their team. Seven players either graduated or declared for the NBA draft in their junior season including: ACC all-time leading scorer Tyler Hansbrough, Final Four MVP Wayne Ellington, ACC Player of the Year Ty Lawson, ACC All-Defensive Team member Danny Green and senior captain Bobby Frasor. Despite losing nearly their entire championship team, UNC was still ranked fourth in the preseason ESPN/USA Today Poll. With high expectations and a team lacking experience, an upset was in order for one of the highest profile teams in the nation.

After cruising through the early rounds of the 2K Sports Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, the Tar Heels faced their first real test of the season. Underrated Syracuse had lost their best player, Jonny Flynn, to the NBA. Last year’s role players, Arinze Onuaku and Andy Rautins, provided toughness, efficiency and a sturdy foundation, allowing scoring-threat Wesley Johnson to take advantage of his new-found offensive freedom. During his 25 point, eight-rebound performance against UNC, Johnson was akin to former Orange standout Donte’ Green. Syracuse looked very impressive during the 87-71 victory, but even though Syracuse was underrated, more should be expected of a top-five team.

Just like UNC, Michigan State is a team coming down from its Final Four success but, unlike UNC, MSU returns everyone but senior center Goran Suton, resulting in a team with both Final Four experience and youth. In fact, the only starter that the Spartans will be graduating at the end of this season is senior guard Raymar Morgan. All signs point to a return to the Final Four for Michigan State, but, speaking to the unpredictability of college basketball, nothing ever goes as planned.

An early season tournament was to blame for yet another high-ranking upset. In the semifinal of the Legends Classic, Michigan State looked flat for the entire game, but still managed to be within a 3-pointer of sending the game into overtime. After attempting two shots within the final minute, MSU didn’t make either and had to settle for the consolation game instead of the championship. Florida was jubilant, but all that came of the game for Michigan State was more questions. Are they really as good as advertised? Can Kalin Lucas take over games when his supporting cast doesn’t support him? The answers: yes and yes. Nothing’s worse than a talented team who is undefeated and views winning as a certainty. If a team is tested and prepared for the NCAA tournament, it usually means they have experienced disappointment along the way and can come back from a loss or two. Just view this loss as the Spartans rubbing the sleep from their eyes.

Big East teams grind out early wins

The frontrunners for the Big East title, Villanova and West Virginia, opened the season showing a lot of potential, although looking somewhat shaky. Against Texas A&M, West Virginia lacked energy and appeared more like they were playing in an early season intra-squad scrimmage than in a tournament semifinal. Despite missing shots and playing soft inside, the Mountaineers were still within striking distance throughout the game. Luckily, shortly after halftime, they realized where they were. The No. 8 team in the nation played back up to expectations and began pulling away from the Aggies on the backs of star forwards Devin Ebanks and Da’Sean Butler. When they are running on all cylinders, the Mountaineers are as dangerous as any team in the country. It all depends on when they want to play to full potential, much like another Big East favorite.

Villanova has top-five talent this season, but their No. 2 ranked recruiting class of Maalik Wayns, Dominic Cheek, Mouphtaou Yarou and Isaiah Armwood needs some more experience to figure out the college game and work out a few kinks. In their first few games, Villanova has looked extremely powerful, possessing a low-post game that hasn’t existed in recent years and having an unreal ability to shoot the three. Inside players Antonio Peña and Maurice Sutton have looked especially good, improving greatly from last season and helping to fill in for the departed Dante Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson. However, the Wildcats’ bevy of talent has still experienced a few scares in the early going. Against George Mason, Villanova had to play catch-up throughout the game, winning on a 3-pointer from Armwood with 13.3 seconds remaining. After looking to be in control during their next game against 18th-ranked Dayton, leading by 18 at one point, ‘Nova surrendered its lead and had to grind out a six-point win. But despite these early season trials, the Wildcats still remain undefeated and No. 3 in the nation.

The Big East remains strong despite predictions that it would be a down year. Three teams: Villanova, West Virginia and Syracuse are in the Top 10 and undefeated at the week’s end, but all that could change with Sunday night’s ’76 Classic championship game.

After defeating Seattle, Oregon and No. 16 Minnesota, the Portland Pilots failed to knock off the No. 8 Mountaineers to solidify their non-conference résumé.