BIG EAST: Country’s best compete for Big East Championship

Nathan McGann

With the Big East Tournament already underway, it would be foolish not to look ahead and rank the top contenders for the tournament crown. This year’s new format meant that all 16 teams earned an invitation to New York’s Madison Square Garden with the Nos. 1-4 seeds receiving a double-bye and Nos. 5-8 seeds getting a first round bye.

The bottom eight teams will have to play five games in five days to win the title, and in a difficult conference like the Big East, the likelihood of that occurring is slim. So the basement dwellers, a list which includes preseason contenders Notre Dame and Georgetown, will be playing for nothing but pride, while the top-8 vie for postseason glory.

8. Providence Friars

Providence, with the explosive backcourt of veteran guards Weyinmi Efejuku and Sharaud Curry, was this year’s surprise team in the conference, finishing 10-8 with victories over Cincinnati, Syracuse and then-No. 1 Pittsburgh. The Friars boast one of the conference’s better offenses, and with their NCAA Tournament hopes in limbo they certainly want to come out and impress. Unfortunately, inconsistency and problems against the top-tier squads during the regular season leave the Friars as a long shot to win it all.

7. West Virginia Mountaineers

When Bob Huggins’ team plays to its full potential, the Mountaineers are very dangerous. They proved that in home blowout victories over Marquette and Villanova. However, they struggled on the road with only a 3-5 conference record. Despite having one of the best defenses in the conference as well as standout forward Da’Sean Butler, West Virginia is still too young and too inconsistent to make a serious run in the tournament.

6. Syracuse Orange

Syracuse had the entire country talking after an impressive nonconference schedule during which the Orange defeated Florida, Kansas and Memphis on its way to a top-10 ranking. However, Syracuse failed to show the same balanced game once conference play began. Although they feasted on the lower teams in the conference, Syracuse failed to earn a real signature conference victory. Like West Virginia, the Orange are dangerous when they play to their potential, but aside from wins over a reeling Marquette team and the Mountaineers at home, they failed to prove that they can dance with the higher caliber teams.

5. Marquette Golden Eagles

No team was happier to see the regular season come to a close than the Golden Eagles, who lost their last four contests, albeit against the top three seeds and Syracuse. Marquette has not been the same since losing senior guard Dominic James for the remainder of the year to an ankle injury, and its early conference success may have been misleading since its schedule was relatively easy on the front-end. The rest will certainly do them well and they still have an impressive senior backcourt that should make them trouble for any team, but don’t expect Marquette to go too far now that James is watching from the sideline.

4. Villanova Wildcats

The Wildcats’ conference play was nothing short of entertaining. The veteran club showed throughout the year that they could play with both a high octane offense as well as a stifling defense. The team had big-time wins over Pittsburgh, Marquette and Syracuse twice, and if it weren’t for a few missed free-throws against Louisville it could have beaten the Cardinals as well. Villanova avoided the bad-stretch that plagued them last season, and with senior leadership as well as a potent bench, Jay Wright and the Wildcats will be disappointed with anything other than a shot at the championship.

3. Louisville Cardinals

Rick Pitino’s team was crowned Big East regular season champion after a road victory against West Virginia, but things would have been a little different if Connecticut and Pittsburgh had not played each other twice. In any case, the Cardinals finished with only two conference losses against Connecticut and Notre Dame, and they have a strong frontcourt led by forwards Terrence Williams and Samardo Samuels. Plus, Pitino’s impact as a head coach cannot be taken lightly; he almost always has his teams ready to play in the posteason. Look for Louisville to make a serious run at the title.

2. Connecticut Huskies

UConn has been one of the best teams in the country all year thanks to the explosiveness of senior guard A.J. Price, the defensive prowess of center Hasheem Thabeet and the balanced attack of forward Jeff Adrien. The Huskies did suffer a major blow when guard Jerome Dyson was lost for the season, but they didn’t seem to let the setback affect them. After losing to Georgetown in the conference opener, it seemed no team would be able to take down the Huskies, but Pittsburgh felt otherwise. Connecticut would be the favorite to win the conference tournament if they had shown they could defeat the Panthers, but until they do hat, the Huskies will sit at No. 2.

1. Pittsburgh Panthers

The Panthers were ranked No. 1 nationally twice over the course of the year and suffered only one bad conference loss, 81-73, on the road at Providence. Their other two losses were at Louisville and at Villanova. Every coach, player and fan understands that Pittsburgh goes only as far as Co-Big East Player of the Year DeJuan Blair goes. In each of the team’s three losses, Blair was forced to sit early and often with foul trouble. By beating Connecticut twice, the Panthers have proven that they deserve to hoist the tournament trophy, but they will do so if and only if Blair can stay on the floor.