The following is a roundup of what has caught my eye in the first half of the Big East slate.
The Contenders What other conference can claim to have three legit national championship contenders? The Big Ten might have more top 25-caliber teams, but the Big East has Connecticut, Villanova, and West Virginia. While these three schools have played their way to the top of the Big East, none has done it by dominating the competition. Connecticut clearly has a lot of room to get better, while Villanova and West Virginia play at dramatically fluctuating levels, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis. The latter two teams are quite perimeter-heavy, and both have been pushed to the brink by several conference wannabes. This speaks highly of the Big Easts overall quality of play and depth.
It should be an absolute blast to watch these three teams duke it out for the conference title. We find out a lot about Connecticut when the Huskies travel to Villanova (2/13) and West Virginia (2/18) in the same week. The Mountaineers are entering a truly brutal stretch, playing at Pitt, Georgetown, and Seton Hall before the showdown with Connecticut. Villanova has it a bit easier, but still must travel to Connecticut in late February. This is all before the Big East Tournament. The team that comes out on top in the Big East will undoubtedly enter March as the most battle-tested squad in the nation.
Former C-USA teams struggle Ive gushed about how the new Big East is a success, but the reality is that the conference newcomers arent really holding their own. Louisville has been a major disappointment, and the new additions have almost certainly watered down the Big East this season. Only Marquette has an above .500 record, while Louisville, DePaul, and South Florida are a combined 3-20. Cincinnati is heading in the wrong direction, and the schedule is about to get nasty for the Golden Eagles. While there are major injury issues at play here, just take a look at the records of the 11 holdover schools. Even Saint Johns and Seton Hall are currently holding their own. Talk about no off nights!
Bad Luck of the Irish? While Notre Dame has been in a position to make the NCAA Tournament before fading down the stretch the past two seasons, the Irish are taking their heartache on a game by game basis this year. Their seven losses have come by a total of 23 points, and the setbacks seem to be getting more improbable by the game. Chris Quinn is quickly becoming this years Darius Washingon, having led the Fighting Irish on numerous monumental comebacks only to come up short at the horn every time. This past week saw the Irish claw back against Villanova only to fall on a Kyle Lowry tip in at the buzzer, as well as a heartbreaker at West Virginia where Quinn again led a late rally, only to miss a contested runner at the buzzer. The difference between the top of the conference and 1-7 Notre Dame is really that slim. The Irish have an easier schedule the rest of the way, but the inability to close out games has already cost them an NCAA Tournament berth.
I doubt this is any consolation to Mike Brey, but Quinn really does deserve to make First Team All-Big East for his ability to run the show and hit clutch shots. If only Brey had handed the reigns to the offense over to Quinn two seasons ago instead of letting Chris Thomas dominate the ball
Dont Count out Pitt Talk of a big three in the Big East may sell the Panthers a bit short. Pittsburgh crept up on a lot of people, but not many knew how good Aaron Gray and Sam Young were going to be. Jamie Dixons crew took Connecticut to the brink in Storrs, and shouldnt be penalized for the upset loss at Saint Johns, which was helped along with a major dose of homecourt officiating. This team is legitimately 10 deep, and has that gritty feel of those Ben Howland teams that might have been missing a bit during Dixons first two seasons at the helm. Dates at Georgetown and against West Virginia should give us a good idea if there really is a gap between the top three and number four.
High-Profile Programs Disappoint While there is more than enough competition at the top, just imagine how good this league would be if Louisville and Syracuse were playing up to expectations. Rick Pitinos club was never going to be as good as the preseason Top 10 billing said they were, but losing Taquan Dean was the final straw here. The Cardinals have played better since Deans return, but there are still young players in lots of important places. That seems to be the issue for Jim Boeheim as well, even though the Syracuse roster appears to have plenty of upperclassman experience at first glance. However, none of the juniors played important roles before this season, and Gerry McNamara continues to force his own offense way too much. There is no way a team as talented as Syracuse should need a buzzer beating 3-pointer from Terrence Roberts to beat Rutgers at the Carrier Dome.
Hoyas Back on the Map Georgetowns upset win over Duke caught everybody a little off guard. I watched this team plod up and down the court behind the efforts of lane-clogger Roy Hibbert early in the season, and couldnt believe my eyes as Georgetown stuck with Duke step for step in a legitimate footrace. John Thompson III obviously had the horses all along, but I dont think many coaches could have prepared their team well enough for such a dramatic shift in play style. Thompsons decision to go away from Hibbert in order to get Jeff Green and Brandon Bowman more space caught the Blue Devils completely off guard, even if Georgetown did need to shoot every bit of 61% to take down the number one team in the land. The Hoyas will have plenty of chances to prove they belong in the upper echelon of the conference, as games against Pitt, West Virginia, and Villanova loom.
Rudy Gay No, Gay hasnt broken out as a sophomore like everybody expected him to. Nonetheless, he continues to show flashes of why he is still almost a mortal lock to go in the top 5. Gay has contracted a bit of what I will call Kevin Garnetts disease, something that has been causing "tall" prospects to fall in love with the outside jumper, and marginalize their height advantage. Gay has fallen in love with his jumper, which is outstanding for a 69 kid but just mediocre for a true shooting guard, the position he is apparently trying to grow into.
When Rudy Gay plays to his strengths, which means attacking the lane, playing near the basket, and flying down the court on the fast break, he looks every bit the #1 pick he was billed as heading into the season. Im not suggesting that he turn himself into a PF, just that he ought to pattern his game more after Shawn Marion as opposed to Tracy McGrady. Gay has started to pull it together in recent games, and it doesnt take too many scintillating performances for a player with Gays physical gifts to get the scouts back on board.
Dominic James Youve all heard about Steve Novaks breakout 41 point performance, and Marquettes shocking upset win over Connecticut. Do you know the real reason for the resurgence of both Novak and Marquette? That would be freshman point guard sensation Dominic James, a powder keg of strength, explosiveness, and highlight play ability. Despite checking in at just 511, James above the rim aerial assaults will delight crowds for years to come He gets to the lane with ease, and makes everybody around him (Novak) better. Expect Dominic James to win Big East Freshman of the Year in a landslide. It is always tough for sub-60 PGs in the NBA, but you would think that if any diminutive floor general ever had a chance in the league, James would.
Aaron Gray We first became aware of Aaron Gray from his spot duty last season, noticing the pretty jump hook and the bulky frame. The rest of the country eventually learned his name as well, as Gray has lost some weight, improved his conditioning, and has become an immediate difference maker for Jamie Dixon now that Chris Taft is gone. While Gray still had a lot to prove after dominating smaller competition in the non-conference, his numbers have actually gone up in Big East play. Gray still has a lot to work on. He is mediocre as an athlete, doesnt have the best hands in the world, and is a downright poor finisher around the basket. Nonetheless, you wont find many 7-footers that can utilize their body like Gray can. He gets great position for rebounds and easy looks around the basket, and you arent going to move him once hes where he wants to be. For this reason alone, he has a long NBA career ahead of him. Aaron Grays stock has now risen to the point where he is expected to declare for the 2006 NBA Draft, that is, at least according to people who are close to him. .
Kyle Lowry Randy Foye has climbed into the first round of 2006 mock drafts, and rightfully so. Nonetheless, I cant shake the feeling that he isnt even the best draft prospect in Villanovas backcourt. That honor might just go to human pinball Kyle Lowry, the true engine behind Villanovas up-tempo backcourt machine. Lowry is absolutely electric in the open court, and an absolute terror in pressure defense schemes. There are few guards at the college level that have the right to feel comfortable putting the ball on the floor while being checked by Lowry. Life is certainly easier for him with Foye and Allen Ray taking up most of the oppositions attention, but Kyle Lowry should explode into full-out stardom once Jay Wrights senior stars have graduated.
Mike Gansey Gansey seems to be all the rage of late, as people have slowly realized that his heroic performance against Wake Forest in the second round of last years Tourney wasnt a fluke. In fact, Gansey has displayed that blend of court awareness, slashing ability, and unreal outside shooting touch on an almost nightly basis in 2006. His release is as quick as you will ever find, and many are starting to wonder just how much separates Gansey from J.J. Redick.
One would think a team that spreads the floor like Phoenix could really use a player like Gansey, but his success at the next level is far from guaranteed. He thrives in West Virginias unique system, but Kevin Pittsnogle looked like a fish out of water last summer away from that structure. Could this be a Steve Spurrier quarterback scenario? I dont know if this is the case or not, but Gansey will get a chance in Chicago to prove that he can hit the longball in any type of situation.
Terrence Roberts Roberts has long been a personal favorite of mine. At 69, hes got a solid frame and nothing short of spectacular athleticism. Roberts is actually quite skilled, capable of hitting face up jumpers and scoring on numerous mid-range post moves. Unfortunately, you might not realize it unless you really focus in on his game over the course of several games. Roberts has a sour approach to the game, often getting involved in jawing matches with the opposition, rarely becoming involved physically, and disappearing for long stretches. When he does get the ball, he often makes poor decisions and gives up on plays way too easily. It is only after one of his patented breakaway dunks that we get to see the energized, assertive Terrence Roberts. Roberts has one more season to figure it out, but he would have to do a complete 180 to find himself in the first round in 2007.
Jeff Green Greens numbers might not impress at the moment, but dont let that fool you into think hes not a legitimate draft prospect. Green looked more like a mobile, Anthony Mason-type PF as a freshman, but shed some weight over the summer and has overhauled his game with a perimeter emphasis in mind. He has an excellent body and great instincts for the position, though it isnt clear if he will ever have the lateral quickness to play the SF position full time. Green has added range on his jumper, and has really picked up the pace since John Thompson III took the reigns off of Georgetowns offensive attack. Green is by no means a sure thing, and will probably need to play all four years in order to fully develop his perimeter skill set. Keep an eye on him over the next two seasons.
Talented Freshman Class In addition to five new programs, the Big East also received quite a talent infusion from a standout class of freshmen. We already mentioned Dominic James, but there are several other big time prospects to keep an eye on. DePauls Wilson Chandler might top the list when it comes to pure talent, but recent locker room issues force us to take a wait and see approach to his future. Syracuses most consistent performer in recent weeks has been Eric Devendorf, who appears capable of playing the type of game that Gerry McNamara attempts to but cant pull off. The freshman still has to prove himself as a point guard, but is an accomplished slasher, has a beautiful shooting stroke, and has nice size for the position. If you like sleek, perimeter-oriented big men, look no further than Villanova. They have two in freshmen Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark. Rutgers JR Inman also fits in that mold. Terrence Williams is still learning how to play the game at Louisville, but is going to show up on highlight reels for years to come. Im not sure quite what to make of Pittsburghs Sam Young, except that he is going to be one dominant Big East player.