Too Strong For Its Own Good?

  • By John Antonik
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  • January 31, 2011 02:59 PM
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – You know you’ve got a pretty special league when the defending national champion and the best team in another power conference (Duke) goes on the road and loses by 15 to a team (St. John’s) currently 11th in the conference standings with a 4-5 record.

So, just how special is this Big East?

Oliver Purnell, assigned the task of rebuilding DePaul’s one proud basketball tradition after spending the last seven years at Clemson, said last week that he has never seen anything like what his team has to face on a nightly basis in the Big East.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “The Big East may be the strongest conference I’ve ever been a part of in terms of a given year - maybe the strongest ever.”

USF’s Stan Heath, another coach trying to keep his team out of the cellar, believes the number of Big East teams picked for the NCAA tournament will determine whether or not the league is actually too strong for its own good.

“We have 16 teams and if at the end of the year we have 10 teams in the NCAA tournament then I don’t think it’s too good for its own good because you’re looking at over 50 or 60% of your teams getting in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “Normally you want about a 50% clip but if we can eclipse that then I think we’re OK.”

The problem, according to Heath, is if the Big East beats each other up and it ends up costing the conference NCAA bids at the end of the year.

“If all of a sudden we’re beating each other up left and right and we’re down to seven teams or six teams then that’s not good,” he said. “I think the only thing we have to be careful of is the seeding situation. Sometimes you have a team that should be a 1 seed or a 2 seed, but because of the strength of the league and how good the teams are at the bottom that could beat you, does that take away from a team getting seeded a litter higher? That may affect how deep they can go in the tournament.”

Villanova was one of those top-tier teams that got knocked off by a lower-tiered team last week when Providence beat the Wildcats. It is difficult to come up with another basketball conference in the country where the last place team can beat the first place team rather handily, which is what happened at the time when Providence knocked off Villanova 83-68.

“It was a surprise but not to anyone in this league,” said Wright. “Everyone in the league knows if you come up here and play Providence and they hit 3s like they did and play like they did, they can beat anyone in the league (the Friars also own a win over 15th-ranked Louisville). I love that about the Big East, personally.”

As of Monday, the Big East is now 6-1 against top-10-rated opponents outside of league play after St. John’s defeated then-third-ranked Duke on Sunday. Connecticut, which is now 5-3 in the Big East with losses to Louisville, Pitt and Notre Dame, owns two of those top-10 wins while Georgetown, Syracuse and West Virginia have the other three.

And, at about the midpoint of the season, the home team has won just 62.9% of the games in Big East play so far this year. Four of the five games played last Saturday were won by the road team. One of those road teams, fourth-ranked Pitt, had to hold on for a 65-62 win over 12th-place Rutgers.

“What you have to do in this league is just look at it one game at a time,” said Wright. “It’s really a challenge. You can’t separate the Providence game from the Georgetown game, meaning one can’t be more important than the other. You have to get wins wherever you can get them in this league.

“The other thing about this league is you always have an opportunity to redeem yourself,” Wright noted. “If you had a couple bad games you’re going to play a nationally ranked team, so if you play a good game you have a chance to beat a nationally ranked team. You always have an opportunity to get big wins and that’s a positive.”

Such is the case for West Virginia, now 14-6 after last Saturday’s 66-55 win at Cincinnati. Seven of the Mountaineers’ remaining 10 regular season games are against ranked teams. Veteran coach Bob Huggins nearly pulled off a big upset at 15th-ranked Louisville last week with only eight scholarship players available.

“I really mean this, there are a lot of great coaches in this game and Bob Huggins is a part of the great coaches,” said Louisville’s Rick Pitino. “Very few coaches – and don’t take this the wrong way about talent, because they have good talent even with the guys remaining – but take West Virginia out of the equation and Bob Huggins can coach seven guys named Harry and be competitive. That is not this team, this team is good, but you can give him anybody and he can coach and they’re always going to be in the game.”

Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, another one of those great coaches in the Big East, is trying to steer his team through a four-game losing streak that has dropped the Orange down to a tie for seventh in the league standings. Two weeks ago, Syracuse was ranked third in the country and was one of the last undefeated teams left.

“You know that everybody in this league can play,” said Boeheim. “There’s no easy game. It’s just part of the league. It’s what you’re in. It’s what you do. If you’re an offensive lineman in football you know the other guy is coming at you and he’s going to hit you hard. Our league is like that. It’s going to be a battle every night and you just have to be prepared for it.”

Pitino believes mental preparation is just as important as physical preparation.

“You spend a lot of time really watching film and trying to figure out what you’re going to do against your opponent and make sure your players understand personnel on the other team,” Pitino said.

Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin said his thought process really starts in August and September as to how he prepares his team for what they will face in February and March in conference play.

“As a coach, what I’ve learned is you have to be careful what you do to your team in October, November and December,” he explained. “If you expect them to grind through this Big East and have them fresh at the end of the year, you have to be careful what you do to them in practice, workouts, and the way you make your schedule.”

This week, you can look at the schedule and just about pick any day and there is an interesting matchup with national implications to pay attention to, starting with Monday night’s Louisville-Georgetown game. On Wednesday, it’s Syracuse-Connecticut or Marquette-Villanova, and then on Saturday it’s West Virginia-Villanova or Cincinnati-Pittsburgh to keep an eye on.

The Big East has 14 teams in this week’s RPI top 100, meaning 14 out of the 16 teams in the league still have a shot at an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament with a month remaining in the regular season. That’s pretty remarkable.

“Anyone who makes the tournament out of this league should be a high seed just because of the strength of the conference,” said Purnell. “The number of good teams is incredible.”

It will be interesting to see if the NCAA tournament selection committee is in agreement with Purnell come March.