Tuesday , Mar , 07 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

2006 Big East Conference Tournament Preview

The Sports Network

By Gregg Xenakes, College Basketball Staff Writer

FACTS & STATS: Site: Madison Square Garden (19,763) — New York, New York.
Dates: March 8-11. Television: ESPN and ESPN2. Annual: 27th. Defending
Champion: Syracuse.

OUTLOOK: Not even the powerhouse ACC can make the claim this season as the top
conference in the nation, as the Big East boasts five nationally-ranked
programs in the running for the title of the 27th annual Big East Conference
Tournament which tips off Wednesday night at famed Madison Square Garden in
New York City.

As of Monday’s rankings the top two programs in the nation reside in the Big
East in top-ranked UConn and an unwavering Villanova squad that has overcome
early adversity and teamed that with some ingenuity to place second in the
country. Both teams tied for the Big East regular season title.

While there’s a lot of good news surrounding the top schools in the Big East,
the bad news is that there won’t be any outrageous upsets in this mammoth 16-
team league, because only the top 12 have made this event. Regular
participants Providence and St. John’s were among the squads left out, as were
newcomers DePaul and South Florida, with the latter having won just a single
game in 16 conference tries this year.

UConn (27-2, 14-2), which was stunned by an upstart Marquette squad that is
also new to the Big East this year, beat a total of seven ranked schools this
year, with the only other setback coming against Villanova back on February 13
in Philadelphia (69-64), in front of the largest crowd ever to witness a
college basketball game in the Keystone State. The Huskies, who began the year
under some scrutiny with regards to player suspensions and such, have five
players scoring in double figures at the moment, with Rudy Gay posting 15.4
ppg and 6.6 rpg. Josh Boone, who has been in and out of coach Calhoun’s dog
house this year, adds 10.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, while Marcus
Williams has returned to the squad to offer up 10.4 ppg and an astounding 8.4
apg as well.

Connecticut, along with the other top three seeds in the conference will get
byes through the opening round on Wednesday and won’t be in action until
Thursday. In the case of the Huskies, a team that is tied with Georgetown for
the most tournament titles with six and last won in 2004, they’ll be preparing
for the winner of the Syracuse/Cincinnati matchup.

Ninth-seeded Syracuse (19-11, 7-9) lost the last three games of the regular
season and also suffered through another four-game slide in January which
showed the rest of the league that the Orange didn’t have to be feared.
Obviously, schools could have figured that out just weeks into the 2005-06
campaign when Syracuse fell to Bucknell and then beat Manhattan by a mere five
points. As one of the players to watch for the Orange this year, Gerry
McNamara turned out to be the top scorer with 16.4 ppg and was also leading
with close to six assists per game. As many times as he excited a crowd
with a pass or a crucial three-point basket, he also came up with some
shockingly poor efforts from someone who made the All-Big East First
Team.

On the other side is eighth-seeded Cincinnati (19-11, 8-8), which came over
from Conference USA and was immediately in the spotlight in the new league
because it was no longer being directed by the infamous Bob Huggins, who
was forced out due to off-the-court issues. The Bearcats played no fewer than
eight teams that were ranked and, unfortunately for the squad, it wasn’t until
the season finale versus West Virginia that they managed to pull out their
first win over a high-profile program. For a team in flux to say the least,
Cincy looked pretty good this season with Eric Hicks being the main man in the
middle with his 14.2 ppg and 9.3 rpg. Devan Downey made his first season with
the Bearcats a memorable one as well, with 12.3 ppg and a team-best 4.1 apg.

With the prospect of getting the tough-minded Villanova Wildcats in the
quarters, 10th-seeded Rutgers tips off play against seventh-seeded Seton Hall
in the opening round. The Scarlet Knights (17-12, 7-9), winners of two in a
row to close out the regular season, had a very rough patch in the middle of
the conference schedule with six losses in seven tries, beating only
nationally-ranked Louisville during that span. However, no matter how bad it
got for the Knights, they always had the showmanship of one Quincy Douby to
look forward to, as Douby was the league’s top scorer by far with 25.1 ppg.
The Pirates, who finished second to last in the Big East in field goal
shooting at 41.8 percent, also placed last in blocked shots with less than
three per game. The Hall (18-10, 9-7) was spanked by top-ranked Duke in just
the second game of the year in a 93-40 outing, but there were more games down
the line in which the team failed to reach 50 points, although the Pirates did
close out the regular season with a 65-61 triumph over nationally-ranked
Pittsburgh on the road.

The Wildcats (24-3, 14-2) were expected to do well this year with some
seasoned veterans that took the squad far into the NCAA Tournament last year,
but the moment that Curtis Sumpter went down with yet another knee injury, it
was assumed that ‘Nova would have to wait until next year to make a
significant move. However, without batting an eye head coach Jay Wright
decided to try something a bit innovative in today’s college game, choosing to
run with a four-guard offense and force opponents to adapt to them rather than
vice-versa. The approach not only worked, it made Wright look like the Wizard
of the Main Line as he got Randy Foye to finish second in the league in
scoring (20.2 ppg) and got Allan Ray right in there behind him with 19.1 ppg.
Villanova was third in the league in scoring (75.8 ppg) and fifth in scoring
defense (64.0 ppg) and became a clutch squad down the stretch, as the team
placed second in the Big East at the charity stripe as well (.748).

The one team that really took it on the chin this season in the Big East was
12th-seeded Notre Dame, which catches fifth-seeded Georgetown in the opening
round. Game after game the Fighting Irish were being seen as the team that
just couldn’t close out potential wins. Notre Dame (15-12, 6-10) was
constantly being looked at as the little team that ‘almost could’ because the
squad lost a total of 10 games by six points or less. The Irish were second to
last in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 74.7 ppg, but thanks to
having the top three-point shooting unit at 40.1 percent, they made every game
an adventure. A 44.4 percent shooter beyond the arc, Chris Quinn led the way
for the squad with 18.1 ppg and 6.2 apg. The Hoyas (19-8, 10-6) didn’t have a
single shining star on the roster this year, instead opting to go with a
collection of performers that mixed youth with experience. Georgetown had the
rare pleasure of keeping the same starting five for the entire season, with
the trio of Roy Hibbert, Jeff Green and Brandon Bowman combining for more than
34 ppg and 17 rpg.

Waiting in the wings for the aforementioned matchup is fourth-seeded Marquette
(20-9, 10-6), a team that managed to rebound from an early loss to Winthrop in
just the second game of the season to strike some fear into the rest of the
Big East, the team’s new stomping ground after dominating Conference USA for
awhile. The first sighting of the Golden Eagles was when they trounced UConn
at home by a score of 94-79, and with victories over both Georgetown and
Pittsburgh down the stretch, Marquette raised more than just a few eyebrows.
Steve Novak was dynamite from three-point range at 45.6 percent and shot a
ridiculous 97.3 percent at the charity stripe, leading to his team-high 17.4
ppg. The senior probably thought he was going to be out on an island all by
himself this season, but a couple of freshmen came on to save the day as
Dominic James and Jerel McNeal accounted for 15.3 and 11.1 ppg, respectively,
as all three players started every game.

The fourth and final opening round game in the Big East Tournament matches a
disappointing 11th-seeded Louisville unit with a somewhat slumping sixth-
seeded Pittsburgh group. The Cardinals (18-11, 6-10) were the one new team to
the league that was supposed to give the incumbents a run for their money, but
instead Louisville and coach Rick Pitino struggled with five setbacks during
one six-game stretch. The Cardinals last won back-to-back games in early
January, and that’s only because they scheduled a powerhouse program like
UC-Davis at home. The squad tried to make good in the final game of the season
but still fell to UConn on the road by four points. So, while the potential
for an upset or two by Louisville is always looming, there needs to be more
than just Taquan Dean (16.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.7 apg) trying to pull the right
strings.

On Monday, the Panthers (21-6, 10-6) found out just how much their losing two
straight and three of the last four games of the campaign would hurt them as
they dropped from eighth in the national rankings all the way down to 15th in
the country. Pittsburgh, which was third in the conference in scoring defense
at 63.5 ppg, nearly ran the table at home before Seton Hall stunned the bunch
at the Peterson Events Center in the finale. The Panthers placed second in the
league in rebounding offense with close to 39 boards per game, and was also
second in assists with more than 17 per game, so it is clear that this team is
not to be overlooked just because it may have lost some focus near the end.

One of the most surprising teams is third-seeded West Virginia. Last year the
Mountaineers (20-9, 11-5) made headlines with their gritty play in the NCAA
Tournament, which almost led to the departure of Kevin Pittsnogle who felt he
was ready for the NBA. Once cooler heads prevailed, the big man realized he
could use a little more seasoning and returned to Morgantown to make WVU a
national power. However, the squad took some tough hits early on with losses
to Texas, Kentucky and LSU in three straight outings, which meant they had to
work their way back into the national consciousness, which they did with a 12-
game win streak. One of the several turning points for the Mountaineers this
year came in their road loss to Pittsburgh in the hardwood version of the
backyard brawl in early February. In that contest, it wasn’t so much that WVU
fell by four points, it was more knowing that it could have easily gone in
favor of the Mountaineers had Pittsnogle not been held scoreless on 12 shot
attempts. He finished with just two rebounds and four turnovers, which meant
he had a lot more work to do. Pittsnogle (19.4 ppg) can certainly score, but
the heart and soul of this unit is Mike Gansey (17.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg).

With respect to the history of this tournament, the Orange took the trophy
last season with a 68-59 win over WVU, claiming the program’s fourth title
which is second to the six championships claimed by Georgetown and UConn.
Seton Hall has two titles, but the most recent came in 1993, while Villanova
and Pittsburgh are the only other active participants this year with at least
one championship to their credit.

As far as a prediction is concerned, the chances of a team playing in the
opening round making it all the way to Saturday’s championship is slim, which
is why the smart money has got to go with the top-ranked team in the country.
However, if the Mountaineers can figure out a way for Pittsnogle to find an
even balance between looming outside the three-point line and making an impact
in the paint, WVU could have something to say about the Huskies taking home
the hardware.

Sports Network Predicted Champion: Connecticut