The Big East has eight teams in the NCAA Tournament, five of which are seeded No. 3 or better. That means the conference faces high expectations. However, if the regular season taught us nothing else, teams’ post-season success will depend entirely on match ups. For some of the Big East teams, the match ups don’t look favorable for a Final Four run. For others, winning any games might be a challenge.
Syracuse Orange (Overall: 28-4, Big East: 15-3)
No. 1 seed, West Region
The Orange enter the NCAA Tournament as a favorite to contend for the national championship. But they will need to overcome some adversity to work their way through the West Region, even though they are a No. 1 seed. Syracuse will play at least the first weekend without senior Arinze Onuaku, who injured a quad in the Orange’s Big East Tournament loss to Georgetown. The Orange primarily use a seven-man rotation, so the loss of Onuaku makes them dangerously thin against No. 16 Vermont and either No. 8 Gonzaga or No. 9 Florida State.
Despite Onuaku’s loss, Syracuse should be able to get through the first weekend of action, though likely with more difficulty than originally anticipated. Syracuse’s offense will continue to roll along as one of the most efficient offenses in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics. Guards Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins fuel the No. 9 offense in the country. Both are tall guards — at 6-7, Johnson is more of a swingman — and present match up problems for opponents. They each shoot better than 39 percent from three-point range and combine to average 27.7 points per game.
However, Syracuse is not unbeatable, as Louisville proved twice this season. The Orange give up a lot of offensive rebounds because they play the 2-3 zone nearly exclusively. That scheme makes it more difficult to box out opponents. And offensively, Syracuse has a bad habit of turning the ball over.
Syracuse won’t meet a team until at least the Sweet 16 that can take advantage of those weaknesses. And that team is No. 13-seed Murray State, which would be overmatched offensively. However, if Onuaku remains out and the Racers find a way to get past No. 4-seed Vanderbilt and Butler/UTEP, Murray State has an excellent chance to shock the Orange.
Most likely, Syracuse will reach the Elite Eight, where the Orange’s run through the tournament will come to an abrupt halt. Three likely opponents — No. 2-seed Kansas State, No. 3-seed Pittsburgh and No. 7-seed BYU — all have the type of profile that would give the Orange fits.
Kansas State can rebound well and plays a fast-paced, intense game that would prevent Syracuse from stalling the Wildcats’ offense. Pittsburgh already has one win against the Orange this season. And BYU shoots 43 percent from three-point range and plays at one of the fastest paces in the country. The Cougars will try to beat Syracuse’s defense down the floor to prevent the Orange from setting up the 2-3 zone. And if they have to play in the half court, the Cougars can shoot over the zone.
West Virginia Mountaineers (Overall: 27-6, Big East 13-5)
No. 2 seed, East Region
The Mountaineers are one of the trendy picks to reach the Final Four as a No. 2 seed. And why not? West Virginia has five wins against teams seeded No. 1-3. The Mountaineers already have proven that they can beat anybody.
The key to West Virginia’s success is methodical offense, stout defense and better effort than their opponents’. A trio of players averages at least 11 points and six rebounds per game, led by senior Da’Sean Butler’s 17.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Butler proved in the Big East Tournament that he is a clutch player who can hit game-winning shots when needed. And West Virginia might need those services once or twice if West Virginia wants to reach the Final Four.
West Virginia’s weakness is flat-out ugly shooting. The Mountaineers shoot 48.8 percent from inside the arc, 33.6 percent from three-point range, and 69.6 percent from the free throw line. And West Virginia’s defense allows opponents to put up nearly identical numbers. The difference is that West Virginia is second-best in the country at collecting offensive rebounds, and the Mountaineers are among the top third in grabbing defensive rebounds. All of West Virginia’s starters are at least 6-7, except point guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant.
West Virginia should have no troubles against its first two opponents. In the Sweet 16, No. 3-seed New Mexico could present problems. The Lobos are No. 5 in the country at gathering defensive rebounds, and they shoot well from three-point range. New Mexico also doesn’t commit turnovers. If West Virginia faces New Mexico, they’ll lose. But the Mountaineers look like they might catch a break thanks to a tough second-round draw for the Lobos, and West Virginia should make it to the Elite Eight.
In the Elite Eight, West Virginia will either step up its offensive game or lose to No. 4-seed Wisconsin, which has the talent and offensive skills to get past tough defenses like Temple and Kentucky. The Badgers play as slow as West Virginia does and are more efficient on offense. That spells trouble for a team that doesn’t shoot well. Because Wisconsin isn’t concerned about setting up fast breaks, the entire team crashes the boards, which would neutralize West Virginia’s strength. Somewhat counterintuitively, the Mountaineers want the top seed, Kentucky, to reach the Elite Eight because that would present a much easier match up. But it’s not going to happen.
Villanova Wildcats (Overall: 24-7, Big East: 13-5)
No. 2 seed, South Region
Villanova is in trouble. The No. 2 seed in the South Region started the season 20-1 before losing six of its final 10 games. Three of the four wins came against teams that aren’t playing in the NCAA Tournament. Opponents started to figure out that the Wildcats’ defense is vulnerable to attacking offenses. Villanova is one of the most foul-prone teams in the tournament.
Villanova’s defensive liability will likely rear its head sooner rather than later because No. 7-seed Richmond and No. 10-seed Saint Mary’s will have match up advantages that will lead to an upset. The Wildcats have one of the most efficient offenses in the country, which will keep them in the game. And senior Scottie Reynolds is one of the most clutch players in the country, shooting better than 54 percent from the field and 39 percent from three-point range. But Richmond and Saint Mary’s have the height to frustrate Villanova’s outside shooters. And both teams shoot free throws well, which will likely be the deciding factor in a major second-round upset.
Pittsburgh Panthers (Overall: 24-8, Big East: 13-5)
No. 3 seed, West Region
For the Panthers, the West Region’s No. 3 seed, success will come slowly — literally. The Panthers average only 62 possessions per game, one of the slowest tempos in the country. After bleeding some of the clock, the Panthers are usually efficient on offense, even though they don’t shoot particularly well inside or outside the arc.
The team’s most critical player is sophomore Ashton Gibbs, who leads the team with 15.8 points per game. He is the team’s lone three-point threat, and he makes 40.2 percent of his three-point attempts. Joining Gibbs in the backcourt, Jermaine Dixon and Brad Wannamaker are a pair of seasoned guards who can help Pitt control the pace.
To beat Pittsburgh, an opponent needs to put pressure on a sometimes stagnant offense, force a faster tempo, deny second-chance points by grabbing rebounds, and play solid interior defense. That’s a lot to ask of an opponent, but the Panthers might face a few teams that meet that profile, starting with No. 6-seed Xavier in the second round. The Panthers find a way past the Musketeers before falling to No. 2-seed Kansas State or No. 7-seed BYU in the Sweet 16.
Georgetown Hoyas (Overall: 23-10, Big East: 10-8)
No. 3 seed, Midwest Region
The Hoyas are one of the more dangerous teams in the tournament, as they proved at Madison Square Garden when they beat Syracuse and Marquette before losing to West Virginia in the Big East championship game. But Georgetown is the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region. Although the Hoyas have the offense to hang with top-seeded Kansas, they don’t have a good enough defense. And Georgetown turns the ball a little too often to seriously threaten Kansas. Of course, that would assume the Hoyas can get past No. 2-seed Wisconsin.
Georgetown excels at finding good shots, thanks to sophomore center Greg Monroe. The big man looks like a surefire top five lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft, and Hoya fans hope he can help deliver a deep NCAA Tournament run before moving to the pros. With Monroe as the centerpiece of the offense, Georgetown shoots 54.6 percent inside the arc. Led by newly diagnosed diabetic Austin Freeman, Georgetown’s perimeter players shoot 38.8 percent from three-point range.
Despite the presence of Monroe on defense, the Hoyas aren’t great at stopping opponents. That likely won’t be a problem until Georgetown reaches Ohio State in the Sweet 16. Led by Evan Turner, the Buckeyes have the offensive efficiency needed to hang with Georgetown. And because Ohio State forces a significant number of turnovers, Georgetown’s tournament run will unravel in St. Louis.
Marquette Golden Eagles (Overall: 22-11, Big East 11-7)
No. 6 seed, East Region
It’s hard to tell whether Marquette will win more than a game or two — or any — in the tournament. But it is almost certain that the No. 6 seed in the East Region will be involved in some great finishes.
In four out of five of Marquette’s final regular-season games, the Golden Eagles had to work overtime, winning three of them. The Golden Eagles played 16 games in which the final margin was five points or less. That’s nearly half the team’s games. However, Marquette won only half those tight games.
For the most part, Marquette doesn’t beat itself, committing the fifth-fewest turnovers in the country. With a guard-oriented lineup, the Golden Eagles rely heavily on three-point shooting. But they’re good at it, hitting 40.6 percent from three-point range. As often happens to guard-heavy teams, Marquette struggles to get rebounds.
That could pose an immediate problem against No. 11-seed Washington. The Huskies are hot as winners of seven consecutive games. And they are good at rebounding. Washington crashes the offensive glass, often successfully. In addition, the Huskies don’t commit many turnovers. Washington has a more balanced offensive and defensive attack than Marquette, and if the Huskies can control the pace, they’ll upset Marquette.
Despite a strong season, Marquette will fall to a Washington team that has an experienced starting cast that will dictate the pace.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Overall: 23-11, Big East: 10-8)
No. 6 seed, South Region
Notre Dame stormed through the final weeks of the regular season, much of that without Luke Harangody, to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. Their run impressed the selection committee, which rewarded the Fighting Irish with a No. 6 seed in the South Region. Frankly, that’s too good of a seed for this team, despite victories against Pittsburgh (twice), Georgetown and Marquette in the past three weeks.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s first-round opponent, No. 11-seed Old Dominion, is probably better than that seeding. This match up could easily be a No. 8 seed vs. No. 9 seed, which would be considered a toss up. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Old Dominion has an excellent shot to beat the heavily imbalanced Irish. Notre Dame has the No. 4 offense in efficiency but the No. 140 defense. That defensive ranking has improved since Harangody’s injury and subsequent reduced role. But the team’s offense has also leveled off a little, too.
For its part, Old Dominion has the No. 16 defense and No. 72 offense. That’s not great balance, but it’s better than Notre Dame. Plus Old Dominion has a tall lineup anchored by senior center Gerald Lee, who should cause fits for the Fighting Irish. Old Dominion leads Division I in offensive rebounding, which should continue against Notre Dame. The Irish like to mix a health dose of zone coverage into their defensive sets.
These teams might not combine for 100 points, but look for the Monarchs to end Notre Dame’s impressive late-season surge.
Louisville Cardinals (Overall: 20-12, Big East: 11-7)
No. 9 seed, South Region
Louisville is a more balanced version of its first-round opponent, No. 9-seed California. The Cardinals, who are the No. 8 seed in the South Region, have a fairly efficient offense and a middle-of-the-road defense. In comparison, Cal’s offense is No. 4 in efficiency, but its defense is No. 81. For Louisville to get past California and cause problems for top-seeded Duke, the Cardinals need to channel the energy they played with against Syracuse, which Louisville beat twice this season.
For the Cardinals to take care of California, sophomore Samardo Samuels needs to use his superior size to create a mismatch. Samuels averages 15.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game for the Cardinals. WIth his size, he can force California to collapse its defense, opening opportunities for Edgar Sosa and Louisville’s outside shooters. That formula delivered huge wins against Syracuse.
The Cardinals will use that game plan to success against Cal, but it won’t be enough against Duke. Although Louisville might frustrate Duke at times, the Blue Devils have too much talent to fall to an inconsistent Louisville team.