This was supposed to be a Big East preview, but it felt dirty leaving out Louisville, UConn and Cincinnati who left to live with their estanged parent in the highly-publicized, long drwn-out hoops divorce.
Only UConn was an original member of Dave Gavitt’s hoops paradise, but they still represent the essence of its original goal. So much has changed that I'd be remiss if I didn't at least give these two conferences a joint preview. The least that the Big East and American Conference commissioners could do is schedule a challenge series between the two conferences.
After all, it was their affluenza that killed the Big East. Presidents and athletic directors were so enamored with the prospect of more revenue from football and allowed the reverberations to rip apart a stong basketball familty. In our Westen consumer society, affluenza is a relatively new psychological concept that describes the condition of excess opulence and the resulting effects on our spending habits, debt, anxiety and waste in the pursuit of more. The Big East was a victim, but let's take out time out to remember both the old and the new in the AmeriCon and Big Least.
Picked to finish fourth in the “Big East” preseason coaches poll, Villanova is the sneakiest team in the nation. Their win over Kansas on Nov. 29 seems like eons and light years ago. The Wildcats been solid offensively and stingy defensively but the fireworks are subdued for a team that crept up to No. 3 in the nation without a signature win on their resume in the New Year.
The Wildcats are most known nationally for their losses to Creighton by a combined 49 points. In the first matchup, Creighton shattered a Big East record for three-pointers made and in the rematch, Doug McDermott shut down the Player of the Year race by scoring what seemed like roughly a quarter of his 3,011 career points. Upon further inspection, it was merely a season-high 39 points. Those humbling losses don’t inspire too much confidence though they still appear at No. 3 in the national rankings because their only other loss was to ex-Big East member Syracuse on Dec. 28.
Creighton is the epitome of an anti-Big East squad that sacrifices any semblance of physical post defense for perimeter bliss. In the literal sense, 6-7 Ethan Wragge is the fulcrum of Creighton frontcourt. Yet, he’s attempted 201 of his 208 field goal attempts this season from outside—the three-point arc.
If Creighton wins out, a two or three seed is in sight, however, the perception of their finesse style of play in addition to consecutive losses against Georgetown and Xavier last week has precluded them from being considered in No. 1 seed conversations.
Tucked away the Big East’s peripherals is Xavier, which will gain an at-large bid regardless of the outcome, but could stand to stomp their feet and make a little noise. It’s easy to clump Creighton’s losses to Xavier and Georgetown together, but Xavier matches up nicely with Creighton’s vulnerability. Sadly Xavier center Matt Stainbrook will be out for the immediate future and doubtful moving forward.
Villanova can’t punish Creighton for its doughy middle because they lack interior scoring. Despite center Daniel Ochefu’s size, the Wildcats relied heavily on the trey this season as the nation’s sixth-most active three-point shooting team.
Beating Creighton on a bad shooting night for the Bluejays was a start for Georgetown, but the Hoyas still need more people if they hope to mount a serious bid for the NCAA tournament. They’ll need outside help and another win over Creighton in the semifinals. Minus Josh Smith and Greg Whittington, it’s a tall task to hope that the Committee accepts the 14-loss Hoyas as presently constituted if they don't win out.
The St. Johns Red Storm are stuck on the bubble alongside Providence. If there was anybody that could go on a tear ala lil' Gerry McNamara in 2008 tear it's Bryce Cotton, who has had to dominate the rock while knowing when to push the ball, dish or score all season long. Of course, Cotton wlll be facing another guard that could douse himself in diesel fuel, then light a match for three days over the course of the Big East Tournament.
PREDICTION: Creighton beats a team not named Villanova in the conference championship game.
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
Louisville is essentially spending the night on the American Athletic Conference’s couch while the furniture from their mansion is being moved into their new palatial estate inside the ACC's luxurious neighborhood. In the meantime, Louisville is eating up all your groceries, Rick Pitino won’t shave between losses and his binge shaving is clogging the sink up with his facial hair once a month.
That’s not the only thing Louisville is clogging up. The Cardinals defense has been restricting the breathing room of opposing offenses this season without Gorgui Dieng diverting traffic from the post. In their regular season finale, the Louisville defense held UConn to 18 points in the first half. The defense is still formidable, but the offense has improved exponentially in the three years since their 2012 Final Four when they ranked 182nd in points per possession to 23rd last season. In their first season in the AAC, Louisville is fourth in points per possession and 12th in points per game.
Chris Jones and the evolution of Russdiculous to just plain Russ has mitigated the loss of Peyton Siva. The Cardinals leapt from 46th in assist-turnover-ratio during their championship campaign to second and have maintained their defensive press’ penchant for producing turnovers. Not only are they considered heavy favorites for the conference title outside the spotlight, but the Cardinals are national championship sleeper agents as well.
Aside from that forgettable moment, Kevin Ollie has the UConn Huskies thriving in the wilderness of a whole new world. Three national titles in 15 years and a pipeline to the Big Apple wasn’t enough to convince the powers-that-be to make room for them into an equity conference. Financially they’ll be disadvantaged in the long-term, but at least Kevin Ollie has the 24-7 UConn back near the 25 win mark with no pressure heading into the tournament.
Senior point guard Shabazz Napier was arguably the most productive point guard in the nation averaging 17.8 points, six boards and 5.2 assists per game in 34 minutes a night. Three years ago, Napier was plugged into the lineup as Kemba Walker’s replacement and has shared a natural proclivity for draining gym-rattling, crowd-pleasing, opponent razing buckets without batting an eye.
The Cincinnati Bearcats and their bear hugging defense shared the AAC regular season title with Louisville and will be the No. 1 seed thanks to a coin flip. Cincy came 2.2 seconds away from winning the conference outright, before Russ Smith’s buzzer-beating jumper on Feb. 22, but aren’t the favorites. The Bearcats are used to playing spoiler. Like Villanova, they were picked to finish fourth in the preseason coaches poll.
Mick Cronin and Xavier head coach Chris Mack are spitting images of one another, but Cincinnati’s defense is its calling card. The Bearcats are a top-20 team in field goal defense and are fourth in points allowed per game.
Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs defied expectations more than any team in the entire conference, however, that was a byproduct of defending their home court where they won 16 of 17. Which brings us to the Memphis Tigers, who will be playing a series of home games inside the FedEx Forum. It didn’t help against UConn or Louisville, but now that they’ve beaten a few Top 25 teams this season, there’s no better place for Josh Pastner to get a little momentum going than on his home floor.
Prediction: Louisville’s Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and Montrezl Harrell prove to be too much for Cincinnati.
Presumably, if Louisville handles its business and Villanova can interfere with McDermott’s three-point missile guiding system and Ethan Wragge’s bombs, the Selection Committee may have to take a cross-conference perspective to peek at which of these two teams is more deserving of that final No. 1 seed.
Record vs. RPI Top 25: 1-3
Record vs. RPI Top 50: 5-3
Last 12 Games: 11-1
Strength of Schedule: 45
Record vs. RPI Top 25: 1-3
Record vs. RPI Top 50: 6-5
Last 12 Games: 10-2
Strength of Schedule: 92
Now, let’s toss in a third team.
Record vs. RPI Top 25: 6-3
Record vs. RPI Top 50: 2-1
Last 12 Games: 9-3
Strength of Schedule: 14
Team A = Villanova
Team B = Louisville
Team = Creighton
Villanova is ranked No. 3 in the nation while Louisville is ranked No. 5. However, based on these blind resume's Creighton may have just as much of a case as the ex-Big East pledges. Of course the two losses at the end of the season did put them at an aesthetic disadvantage with their sixth loss. The conference championship showings may ultimately decide which team voters feel like had the best season between Louisville and Villanova. Posthumously, the old Big East's still alive.