By Laurence Holmes–
As expected the Big East got 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament. The record-setting number is as much of a product of the toughness of the league, as it is a show of the weakness of the entire field. Working as DePaul’s color analyst, I’ve seen all of these teams in person (some twice). Here’s my scouting report and what I think you need to know before you fill out your bracket.
Pittsburgh (27-5): The Panthers are strong physical and experienced. Jamie Dixon is a phenomenal coach, but has had problems winning big games in the tourney. Their toughness personifies the conference. They defend the basket very well with Gary McGhee and will change and block shots.
Player to watch: Ashton Gibbs. He’s a dynamic scorer. He can handle the ball and can get his shot off whenever he wants. He’s the type of player that can get hot and carry a team. He has incredible range and shot almost 50% from behind the arc.
Weakness: Depth. Pitt has a short rotation and can sometimes have problems scoring. If Brad Wannamaker can balance scoring and keep doubles and traps off of Gibbs, considering the draw in the East, Pitt can go a very long way.
Notre Dame (26-6): The Irish are a veteran team with a ton of balance. Their starting 5 all average double digits and have a tremendous amount of experience. They won’t be overwhelmed with the moment and have plenty of options. Ben Hansbrough had such an impact that he is mentioned in the conversation for player of the year. Playing in Chicago is a tremendous advantage for Mike Brey’s team.
Player to watch: Tim Abromaitis. Hansbrough has been the catalyst for this team, but he’s going to need a wing-man in the tourney. Abromaitis has the scoring capability to keep the pressure off Hansbrough. Abromaitis slumped midway through the Big East season, but has found a rhythm.
Weakness: Ball screens and traps. Louisville exposed ND a bit in the Big East tourney. They stayed after Hansbrough and got him out of his game. If you have an athletic team and can get a lead, Notre Dame could have trouble fighting their way back into it. Their offense is very deliberate and if you speed them up you can force Hansbrough into mistakes.
Louisville (25-9): Rick Pitino’s crew has fought injuries all year long. At times, Pitino has publicly questioned his team’s physical toughness. The Cardinals have shown glimpses of being special. I like the overall balance of their starting 5. Kyle Kuric is a streaky, dangerous player. He feeds on emotion. Preston Knowles and Terrence Jennings have been here before.
Player to watch: Peyton Siva. Siva is a fantastic PG. He’s a facilitator. I saw him control a game against DePaul without really trying to score. He didn’t make any baskets in that game, but had 10 assists with only 1 turnover. He’s fast with the ball and makes good decisions.
Weakness: Depth at PG and size in the paint. If you can get Siva in foul trouble, the drop-off is tremendous. Louisville is a bit small. They’re a team of athletes, but no real big bodies. Assuming they advance, they could have problems with Vanderbilt in the 2nd RD.
Syracuse (26-7): Every college team has a zone package, but Syracuse has perfected the 2-3. They recruit long-arm athletes at the top of the zone that make passing lanes disappear. This year’s Orange have a lot of balance and have a bunch of guys who can finish in transition. They also have size coming off the bench with super-frosh, Fab Melo. They have experience at the guard spot and can play inside-out or outside-in.
Player to watch: Rick Jackson. In Syracuse, they call him “Mr. Double-Double”. If anything does bust the zone, he cleans it up. He’s an intimidating shot blocker and a great rebounder. Offensively, he shoots almost 60% from the floor. He’s smart, tenacious and a born leader.
Weakness: Shooting and Free Throw Shooting. Syracuse has had a tendency this year to go into scoring slumps. While they have a great collection of players, they don’t have a special one. Scoop Jardine can get hot and they may need that in later rounds. Syracuse only shoots 66% from the line. As great of a player as Rick Jackson is, he should be a target late in games to foul. He actually shoots a much higher percent from the field than he does from the line (51%).
UCONN (26-9): The Huskies made an impressive run through the Big East Tournament behind National Player of the Year candidate, Kemba Walker. Walker was a guy, who always could drive the basket. He took the summer to improve his jumper and has turned into one of the best scorers in the country. They’ve got some size with Charles Okwandu and Alex Oriaki to clean the boards.
Player to watch: Kemba Walker. He can play on auto-pilot and drop 20 on ya. If he gets motivated, he can kill your tournament dreams. Other than Jimmer Fredette, he is best pure scorer in this tourney.
Weakness: Youth. Some people call them: “Kemba and the kids”. There isn’t a lot of experience on this club and they rely on freshmen Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier to play a big role. The big run in the Big East tourney may help lessen the jitters. They can be turnover prone, but I think Napier could be a breakout star in this year’s tournament.
St. John’s (21-11): I wasn’t surprised at the run that St. John’s made. Norm Roberts had put together a very talented team that lacked direction. That’s why he was fired. Steve Lavin walked into a great situation and has made the most of it. They have athletes who can really score.
Player to watch: Dwight Hardy. This guy is a beast. He can take you off the dribble or shoot from outside. I love to watch him in transition.
Weakness: Injury and MSG. D.J. Kennedy tore his ACL during the Big East tourney. He will be missed. St. John’s has done some amazing things this year, but most of them have been at the Garden. How will they handle playing away from Manhattan? Gonzaga could be a dangerous matchup, but if they advance, I’d love to see them go against Jimmer in the 2nd RD.
Georgetown (21-10): The Hoyas have been a bit of an enigma. After losing Greg Monroe in the draft, the offensive focus shifted to Austin Freeman. PG Chris Wright makes them go, but he broke his left hand back at the end of February and the Hoyas have struggled ever since. They lost every game after the injury. He will be back for the tournament. The Hoyas play fantastic defense and a slow-down Princeton offense.
Player to watch: Austin Freeman. He can bomb it from outside, but he’s pretty good off the ball fake. He may be my favorite player in the conference. Watch him work…
Weakness: Injury and scoring. Getting Wright back now is difficult. How long will it take him to get reacclimated to the game? Whether it’s USC or VCU, Georgetown could be in trouble in the first round.
Cincinnati (25-8): The Bearcats played a very soft non-coference schedule, but they romped through it going 12-0. Most fans, even in the Big East, don’t know how they finished in the top 8 in the best conference in America. They have size and physical toughness.
Player to watch: Yancy Gates. Gates is really talented. With 7-footer, Ibrahima Thomas, they make for an intimidating front line. The problem is that sometimes, it seems as if Gates’ heart isn’t into it. He was suspended by Mick Cronin for not being a good teammate in games and in practice. When he wants to be, Gates is a game-changer. If motivated, he could be like Syracuse’s Rick Jackson. If not,the Bearcats could be an easy out.
Weakness: Pressure. Cincy loves to press and trap and usually teams that do that, don’t like it when it’s done to them. Chicago’s own, Dion Dixon (Crane), will have to make good decisions. Missouri is the perfect type of opponent to upset Cincy.
West Virginia (20-11): The Mountaineers are an interesting team. Joe Mazzula has had a long hard road with a ton of injuries since he got to Morgantown. He was the darling of the 2008 tournament. Yeah, he’s been there since 2006. West Virginia mirrors their Head Coach, Bob Huggins. They’re tough and like to intimidate. They defend hard and hit the glass. They just might not have enough talent to back up their swagger.
Player to watch: Casey Mitchell. He spends a lot of time in Huggins’ doghouse. Mitchell has ridiculous game and range, but sometimes looks like he’s coasting. He’s the type of player that could become a star in the tournament or break Mountaineer fans’ hearts. Also look for Deniz Kilicli. He played on the Turkish National Team with Bulls big man, Omer Asik. They call him the “Turkish Bull”.
Weakness: Consistent scoring. West Virginia has depth in the backcourt with “Truck” Bryant and Mazzula, but both guys are struggle to get their own shot. If Mitchell gets hot, they can advance. If they draw Clemson in the 1st RD, they could be in some real trouble.
Villanova (21-11): The Wildcats limped into the NCAA tournament. They lost 6 of their last 8 games. Their 2 wins in that stretch were by a combined 5 points vs. Seton Hall and DePaul. The Blue Demons stretched Villanova out to overtime.
Player to watch: Corey Fisher. He’s a playground legend in New York. Fisher can take over a game. He’s strong, has a quick first step and is not afraid of contact.
Weakness: Dependence on Fisher and lack of size. Corey Stokes is a good player too, but if the Wildcats wanna advance, Fisher has to be extraordinary. Villanova forward Mouphtaou Yarou, has been banged up. There isn’t a lot of size or depth behind him. George Mason is a fascinating 1st RD matchup. Jay Wright will have his hands full prepping.
Marquette (20-14): The Golden Eagles are the lowest seed from the Big East (11). They play a fun wide open style and have some guys who can really score. Jimmy Butler is a wonderful player, but needs some help.
Player to watch: Darius Johnson-Odom. Johnson-Odom has been privately and publicly by Head Coach Buzz Williams. I still don’t think we’ve seen his best game. He has range and a great stroke.
Weakness: Defense and coaching. Marquette can really score, but they struggle to get stops. If they can play better, especially in half-court, they could make some noise. Williams has struggled to get consistent effort from his team although overall he’s had good years, he needs a tourney win to keep Golden Eagles fans happy. At times Marquette looks sloppy and undisciplined.