Big East ShootAround: Supersized league faces supersized tournament

Updated: August 4, 2008

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Syracuse's four-game run to the 2006 Big East tourney title was quite remarkable.

Who's afraid of the big, bad tourney?

In 2006, Syracuse rewrote the Big East record books, becoming the first team in the league's history to win four games in four days and capture the conference tournament.

The Orange, riding the crest of Gerry McNamara's magic, were rightly lauded as a team of survivors. Winning back-to-back-to-back-to-back games in a league stuffed to the gills with talent, is only slightly less difficult than forcibly eating questionable bugs to earn $1 million from a television show.

And now Syracuse -- and Pitt, which replicated the Big East tourney feat last season -- are nothing more than a bunch of slugs. Four games in four days?

Puh-lease. Like a game of hopscotch.

Welcome to 2009, where the Big East tournament will be the biggest beast in basketball, a five-day hoopfest where the equivalent of one region of the NCAA tournament bracket (16 teams in all) will vie for the conference's tournament crown.

Member schools' university presidents voted this year to include all Big East schools in the conference tournament, ending a three-season run (that coincided with the league's expansion) that left four teams out of the March mix in New York.

"It gives everybody a chance to compete, and that's what everybody wants," said Rutgers coach Fred Hill, whose team didn't make it to New York last season. "If you haven't had the best season, there's a light at the end of the season to salvage your season."

But putting together this gargantuan enterprise doesn't come without misgivings, including concerns from the commissioner who has shepherded the league for 18 years. Mike Tranghese has steered the Big East through every sort of bump and potential pitfall, including the expansion to 16 teams that everyone argued was unwieldy. Now set to retire at the end of the season, Tranghese isn't sold on this latest Big East wrinkle.

It won't have the same significance. It can't.

--Mike Tranghese, Big East commissioner

For four days, the Big East tournament is on par with the hottest Broadway show as one of the toughest tickets to get a hold of in New York City. The building is rarely empty and never quiet, a raucous atmosphere from the first tip at noon on Wednesday until the championship game on Saturday night.

Tranghese worries that schools at the bottom of the league barrel won't bring the same fan numbers on Tuesday night and more, that other schools' fans -- particularly those from the top four seeds who don't play until Thursday -- will use Tuesday as nothing more than a travel day and not scoop up the tickets.

"How do we get them into the building on Tuesday?" said Tranghese, who voted against expanding to 16 teams. "We usually sell them in packets. That's our challenge, to put people in the stands on Tuesday, to create an environment."

There's also the notion that by inviting everyone, the regular season becomes about as exciting as T-ball, where there are no losers. Two years ago, Notre Dame hosted DePaul in the regular-season finale, with each team teetering at 5-10 in the league. Winner goes to New York; loser to the sofas. In front of a packed Joyce Center, the game came down to the last shot, with Draelon Burns' missed 3-pointer signaling the end for the Blue Demons and a new beginning for the Irish.

Will that same end-of-the-season fury be created, Tranghese wonders, if the only thing at stake is an 11-seed in the tournament versus a 14?

"It won't have the same significance," he said. "It can't."

Of course, with NCAA tournament bids on the line, there are far more pressing concerns to teams and coaches than empty seats. The Big East jammed eight teams into this year's NCAA tournament bracket, the most of any conference in the country.

Early indications this season are that the league could make a legitimate argument for nine squads (Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Villanova and West Virginia).

What happens if one of those teams is knocked off by the 15th- or 16th-place team in the league?

Or more likely, what if the 10th-place team sitting decidedly on the bubble when the tournament opens, loses to the winner of a Tuesday game?

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for and can be reached at

In a twist of cruel irony, could the league weaken its NCAA tournament status with its own postseason?

"Yeah, it could hurt you; you could lose," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose eighth-place Big East team played its way into the NCAA tourney with a first-round win over Syracuse in New York last season. "There are a lot of potential negatives but so what? We can't be afraid of games."

Five things to watch in '08-09

Can Keno Davis do a Drake at Providence?
Keno Davis knows the knock on Providence by heart -- you can't win there, not with Syracuse and Connecticut breathing down your recruiting neck, not with subpar facilities, not with a Catholic non-football budget in the world of power basketball.

He knows it because he's living it now and because he lived it before; just insert the word Drake for Providence.

"All we heard was how strong the [Missouri] Valley was, how we were lucky to be in the conversation with Creighton and Southern Illinois," said Davis, tabbed to replace Tim Welsh in April. "I don't think we're in that situation at Providence. There are some doubters, I know, but the people around here -- the administration, everyone -- they want a strong academic college and successful athletic programs. Hopefully I can benefit from being in the right place at the right time."

Davis, the easy choice for coach of the year honors last season, certainly knows the formula well. At Drake he used seasoned veterans to turn the Valley on its ear and make the previously unknown school the story of the year. At Providence he has an entire roster returning, including injured point guard Sharaud Curry.

Davis isn't kidding himself. He knows the Big East isn't the Valley and turning around Providence, in a jammed, top-heavy league, will be a lot more work than it was to turn around Drake. The Friars haven't been a factor since 2004, the last time they made the NCAA tournament. They haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 1997.

"These guys are very open and excited about their senior year," Davis said. "Sometimes with players, it takes until their senior years for them to understand how to motivate themselves. That's what I have now. We have seniors, but they don't think anything is guaranteed. No one feels like it's their turn. They want to work and they want to win.''

Will A.J. Price return to form?
Just how vital the Connecticut point guard is to the Huskies was made painfully obvious during the NCAA tournament. Price tore his ACL minutes into UConn's first-round game against 13th-seeded San Diego, and the Huskies promptly exited the tournament. Now the Huskies' top 10 ranking seems to hinge on Price's health.

Price, who has endured more than Job in his collegiate career, is on track for a September return, but the question is whether he'll be the same guard this year as he was before the injury. By March, Price was averaging 14.5 points and 5.8 assists per game, the kind of numbers Jim Calhoun expected when he first recruited the point guard out of Amityville, N.Y.

The good news for Price is that he has some help so he doesn't have to rush. Rookie Kemba Walker, who starred for the Under-18 team, is a more than capable temporary replacement and could, in the long run, allow Price to slide over to his more natural 2-guard spot. Price shot 37 percent from beyond the arc last season, and the combination of the two guards together might be even more powerful than Price all by himself.

Can a team climb out of the Big East basement?
Yes, but not overnight. Fred Hill sat on the bench when Villanova, never a Big East basement dweller, brought in a top recruiting class in Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser. Everyone expected instant results. Those Wildcats took two trips to the NIT before reaching the NCAA tournament as juniors and the Elite Eight in their final season.

Hill, now the Rutgers head coach, believes there's a lesson to be learned there, and it's not necessarily a popular one: Patience is rewarded in the Big East. Other leagues can enjoy one-hit wonders, teams that come from nowhere to sudden success. Not so, Hill said, in a league that boasts some of greatest basketball traditions in the country, benches filled with Hall of Fame coaches and recruiting that is every bit as competitive as the games on the court.

"It's very difficult to climb the ladder,'' Hill said. "Everyone in this league has great players. If you have a great recruiting class, so does everyone else. That just puts you on a level playing field. What you have to do is have back-to-back classes and let them grow together and develop. It's very hard to win with freshmen in this league. Even Carmelo Anthony was surrounded by great players."

Hill, who knows fans that have been waiting since 1991 for a Rutgers NCAA tournament bid are itchy, believes he's close to making that sort of turnaround in New Jersey. He has savvy veterans (J.R. Inman) and talented rookies (McDonald's All-American Mike Rosario), but he also knows that a great year for his program still could equate to nothing better than an 11th-place finish.

"Eleventh place, 10th place, that could be a very good year for us," Hill said. "Believe me, no one wants to accelerate the process more than a coach. I would love to turn things around overnight, but in this conference it's impossible."

Will Luke Harangody repeat as Big East Player of the Year?
It's gonna be tough. Harangody deservedly earned the honors over preseason favorite Roy Hibbert last season. Harangody's numbers -- 23.3 points and 11.3 rebounds in conference play -- not only were ridiculously impressive, but what Harangody meant to the Irish's success couldn't be measured.

Luke Harangody

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Can Luke Harangody continue to thrive despite facing a season of double-teams?

But you can bet the double-teams Harangody saw by midseason last season will come in a steady stream this season. His production on occasion, suffered by the extra attention, and he can ill afford to get frustrated this season, not with a loaded Notre Dame team that returns everyone but Rob Kurz.

Harangody also will have more competition for Big East Player of the Year this season, what with a bevy of talented players bypassing the NBA for another year in college -- Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet, Syracuse's Jonny Flynn, Louisville's Terrence Williams and Earl Clark and Marquette's Jerel McNeal -- all could give Harangody a run for the honors.

If Harangody is looking for inspiration, he need only head over to the Irish's trophy case. The last player to win back-to-back top honors in the conference was Notre Dame's Troy Murphy, who was named player of the year in 2000 and 2001.

Will the Big East top its own record with nine teams in the NCAA tournament?
The tournament was Big East top heavy last season, with eight teams earning bids and three making it to the Sweet 16.

That could be chump change. Granted, judging teams by their preseason rosters is as flimsy as the paper the rosters are printed on, but it's still easy to make an argument for nine NCAA-worthy teams (and even nine preseason Top 25 worthy teams) without breaking a sweat: Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Villanova and West Virginia.

What separates the Big East is that unlike a lot of leagues, the conference wasn't decimated by a mass exodus to the NBA. Thabeet came back to UConn; Williams and Clark remained at Louisville; Harangody is back with Notre Dame; McNeal, Dominic James and Wesley Matthews will suit up for Marquette again; West Virginia might have lost Joe Alexander, but added Devin Ebanks; Georgetown mixes Greg Monroe in with Austin Freeman; Villanova has its entire roster back; and Syracuse, despite losing Donte Greene, still can count on Jonny Flynn.

When the league first expanded to 16 teams, coaches fretted they'd be punished for their size, losing spots on the NCAA tournament bracket. Turns out, bigger can be better.

If I were commish …

There is no indication that the league is going to dissolve into two fractions: the football schools and non-Division I football schools. Everything seems good right now with the league and the decision to move to 16 teams in the Big East tournament. But there are a few things to tinker with in terms of scheduling.

Currently, each team plays every Big East team once and three teams twice. There should be a computer-driven (i.e. random) way to select the three repeat opponents. That way, there can be no incorrect guessing about which teams will be better than others, and there can be no complaining about the inequity of scheduling the best Big East teams as repeat opponents.

2007-08 Big East Standings

Overall record Big East record
Georgetown* 27-5 15-3
Louisville* 24-8 14-4
Notre Dame* 24-7 14-4
Connecticut* 24-8 13-
West Virginia* 24-10 11-7
Marquette* 24-9 11-7
Pitt* 26-9 10-8
Villanova* 20-12 9-9
Syracuse^ 19-13 9-9
Cincinnati 13-18 8-10
Seton Hall 17-15 7-11
Providence 15-16 6-12
DePaul 11-19 6-12
St. John's 11-19 5-13
South Florida 12-19 3-15
Rutgers 11-20 3-15
*NCAA tournament
^NIT berth

For all the Big East news and notes, check out the league page.


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2008-09 Team Capsules

Big East
The Bearcats were a surprising success story last season, posting six more conference wins than the year before. Deonta Vaughn proved to be a great scorer, putting up 30 against a Pitt team not exactly known for giving up tons of points. Vaughn finally should get some help this season. Mick Cronin adds transfer Mike Williams from Texas and a talented freshman class, but Cincinnati has to learn how to win over the course of a season. The Bearcats crashed and burned their way to seven consecutive losses at the end of the season.

Everyone is talking about Hasheem Thabeet's return to Storrs and A.J. Price's knee, but the real key to the Huskies is Jeff Adrien. The senior deservedly earned All-Big East first-team honors for the Huskies after he led the league in double-doubles (17). He's the perfect inside partner for Thabeet. Assuming Price, who proved his value after blowing out his knee against San Diego in the NCAA tournament, is OK, UConn appears poised to right last season's early exodus from both the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

No matter how good the young talent is, it's impossible to win if you can't keep the opposing team from scoring, and DePaul simply could not. Opponents shot better than 45 percent against the Blue Demons and averaged nearly 76 points a game. That's not going to get it done in the Big East and to no surprise, DePaul watched the Big East tournament from home. If they can learn to play better defense, the Demons have some players. Mac Koshwal averaged 10.7 ppg and 8.4 rpg, and Dar Tucker put up 13.6 ppg despite averaging only 23.6 minutes as a sub.

It's DaJuan Summers' turn. Is he ready? With Roy Hibbert and Patrick Ewing Jr. gone, this team now belongs to Summers. And with the way John Thompson III likes to run his offense through the paint, Summers' play will be crucial. Fortunately he won't have to go it entirely alone. Austin Freeman was terrific in his rookie season and former McDonald's All-American Chris Wright should improve now that he's healthy. There's also the matter of a nice little addition in the form of Greg Monroe. The power forward is the 20th-ranked player coming out of high school.

It's hard not to love a team loaded with the talent that the Cardinals have coming back -- Terrence Williams, Earl Clark and Edgar Sosa -- and coming in (Samardo Samuels), but don't discount the loss of David Padgett. Rick Pitino ran his offense through Padgett, whose keen decision-making helped find the talented players on the wings. And he was the solid head on the shoulders that this team of chronic misbehavers sorely needed. Getting Derrick Caracter back will be good if he gets in shape, but it would be a disaster if he becomes the suspended distraction he's been for most of his career.

Tom Crean might not be universally loved by the fan base in Milwaukee, but former assistant Buzz Williams has to like the man. Crean left Williams a loaded team that should contend for Big East honors. By season's end, Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James were as tough a backcourt as you could find in the country. McNeal was arguably one of the best players in the conference by season's end. Just how much better the Golden Eagles can get will depend a lot on whether James can get out of the injury-plagued funk that ailed him last season. He wasn't bad by any means, but he was nowhere near as good as he was two years earlier when he took the league's top rookie trophy.

Notre DameNotre Dame
Yet another team that is hard not to like as a preseason favorite, the Irish return the surprise (but deserving) Big East Player of the Year in Luke Harangody, 3-point shooter extreme Kyle McAlarney and improving point guard Tory Jackson. Keeping Jackson, who slumped some midseason, on track will be key for a team that took a somewhat disappointing second-round exit from the NCAA tournament.

It's hard not to envision the Panthers as a top five team nationally. Overwhelmed by injuries all season, Pittsburgh rolled to an improbable Big East tournament title on the emerging stardom of Sam Young. Unassuming off the court, he was a beast on it and his decision to return to campus should have been greeted with hosannas and hallelujahs. Mix in a healthy Levance Fields, powerful DeJuan Blair and the Panthers' trademark nasty defense, and you have to give them the slightest of edges to win the league.

Just how healthy Sharaud Curry is could determine the Friars' future. Curry missed nearly all of last season with a broken foot, and his absence was painfully obvious. The Friars limped to a 12th-place finish in the league, looking nothing better than wayward in the backcourt. Now with Dwain Williams gone, Curry's even more vital. Despite a roster filled with returning players, the Friars have no one else on the roster with much experience at the point.

Fred Hill is bringing the talent to New Jersey. Now it's time to see what he can do with it. A good recruiting class coupled with a nucleus of young returning players (including all-rookie guard Corey Chandler) should help pull the Scarlet Knights out of the Big East basement. Paramount among Hill's duties, though, is managing J.R. Inman. The most talented player on Rutgers, but also the most disruptive. Despite leading the team in scoring and rebounding, he lost his starting job for a time and with new blood coming in. Hill will need to somehow keep Inman happy without upsetting the balance with the rest of his roster.

St. John'sSt. John's
The seat is burning beneath Norm Roberts. Losses, compounded with disinterest and empty seats at the Garden are putting heavy pressure on the coach to produce this season. Anthony Mason Jr. hindered much of the year with an ankle injury, averaged a solid 15.7 ppg in conference play, but needs to become a force in his final season. More of the pressure, though, lies with the development of key sophomores such as Malik Boothe (3.0 ppg) and Rob Thomas, who struggled to recover from a knee injury.

SHUSeton Hall
Jeremy Hazell and Eugene Harvey should provide plenty of scoring punch for the Pirates, but Harvey needs to be a better ballhandler if Seton Hall wants to survive. Inconsistent at the point, Harvey contributed to the Pirates' late-season skid. The return of Paul Gause, who missed a bulk of the season with injuries, should help, but perhaps the most important thing for Seton Hall is to make sure its coach's season goes smoothly. Bobby Gonzalez will be suspended for the first conference game after a postgame run-in with Rutgers' coach Fred Hill last season, and Gonzalez's fiery temperament has made him the subject of intense speculation about his job security and relationship with his athletic director.

USFSouth Florida
One piece of paper will have a lot to say about the Bulls' success. If Gus Gilcrhist's appeal is heard and the freshman is granted immediate eligibility, South Florida suddenly has an inside game to make up for the graduation of Kentrell Gransberry. If the NCAA nixes the appeal, Dominique Jones is going to be one busy dude. The guard scored 30 in back-to-back games last year, the first rookie in the league to do that since Allen Iverson. He'll get some help from Georgia transfer, Mike Mercer, but it will be Jones' show all the way.

Jim Boeheim has a nice problem. Fabulous rookie point guard Jonny Flynn is back, but so are guards Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins, who both missed the last season with knee injuries. Making the rotation work will be Boeheim's trickiest problem, but not his only one. As talented as that trio is, replacing Donte Greene, who made the jump to the NBA, will be equally tough. Boeheim will need Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson to be more productive to help ease the scoring void left by Greene's departure. Still this figures to be a team to get the Orange out of the NIT bracket.

The last team into last season's NCAA tournament, the Wildcats legitimized their selection with a run to the Sweet 16. Everyone is back, including 2006-07 Rookie of the Year Scottie Reynolds. Corey Stokes needs to continue to score as he did last season, and Corey Fisher has to improve as a ballhandler, but Villanova will be picked high. An unforgivable conference schedule -- the Cats have Syracuse, Providence and Marquette twice and have to go to West Virginia, Notre Dame and Connecticut -- won't make it easy.

WVUWest Virginia
Bob Huggins nearly made it to the Elite Eight last season with players who he didn't recruit and who weren't accustomed to his style. Scary to imagine what he can do with a full offseason and some of his own recruits. Losing Joe Alexander is a huge blow, but the Mountaineers proved they could win when he didn't have his A game when they beat Duke in the second round despite Alexander's struggles. Saying goodbye to Darris Nichols is equally tough, but Joe Mazzulla proved to be a more than capable replacement. And the real intrigue will be rookie Devin Ebanks, a late pickup from the Kelvin Sampson-Indiana ruins, who should battle Georgetown's Monroe for rookie of the year honors.

Big East's Best

By Jay Bilas

Jay Bilas counts down the best teams in the Big East:

1. Connecticut: Jim Calhoun always has built toward title-contending teams, and this season, the bulk of the roster that made the NCAA tournament returns, with the addition of a great prospect, Kemba Walker.

2. Louisville: Rick Pitino loses David Padgett, but Terrence Williams and Earl Clark are ready to take off.

3. Pittsburgh: Jamie Dixon returns a star with a chip on his shoulder in Sam Young, an undersized interior stud in DeJuan Blair and one of the top point guards in the country in Levance Fields.

4. Notre Dame: Luke Harangody returns as player of the year, and Mike Brey has really good guard play with Kyle McAlarney and Tory Jackson.

5. Marquette: Few have guards as good as Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wesley Matthews, and Lazar Hayward is ready for the next step.

6. Villanova: Jay Wright's young guards should be more grown up, and the Wildcats should be a Top 25 team.

7. Syracuse: Jim Boeheim will get Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf back from torn ACLs to team with point guard Jonny Flynn, and that will be the difference between NIT and NCAA.

8. West Virginia: Bob Huggins will have this team competitive in the Big East, which will get the Mountaineers into the postseason.

9. Georgetown: While others will focus on what the Hoyas don't have, this is an NCAA tournament team.

10. Providence: Keno Davis inherits a very good crop of players, and if the Friars stay healthy, this can be an NCAA tournament team.

11. Seton Hall: The Pirates will be better this season than last, but that may not be enough to gain entry into the NCAA tournament.

12. Cincinnati: Mick Cronin made the Bearcats into fighters, and Deonta Vaughn should help Cincy take another step forward.

13. St. John's: The Red Storm can show improvement this season, but still not move up in the Big East standings.

14. DePaul: Mac Koshwal has to take over, and DePaul has to learn how to win … fast.

15. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights won only three league games last season, but showed some flashes by beating Villanova, Pitt and Seton Hall.

16. South Florida: Dominique Jones is one of the best unknowns in the Big East, but that won't be enough.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Luke Harangody, Notre Dame, Junior 20.4
Sam Young, Pittsburgh, Senior 18.1
Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati, Junior 17.3
Dominique Jones, South Florida, Sophomore 17.1
Scottie Reynolds, Villanova, Junior 15.9

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Luke Harangody, Notre Dame, Junior 10.6
Jeff Adrien, UConn, Senior 9.2
DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh, Sophomore 9.1
Mac Koshwal, DePaul, Sophomore 8.4
Paul Harris, Syracuse, Junior 8.2

Top Returning Assist Leaders

Player APG
Tory Jackson, Notre Dame, Junior 5.9
A.J. Price, UConn, Senior 5.8
Jonny Flynn, Syracuse, Sophomore 5.3
Eugene Harvey, Seton Hall, Junior 4.9
Geoff McDermott, Providence, Senior 4.9

Final Shot

• The Big East powerhouses are all over's Prestige Rankings. Three teams -- Connecticut (6), Syracuse (9) and Georgetown (10) -- made the Top 10. Recent additions Louisville (16) and Cincinnati (19) also made the Top 25. Villanova (31), St. John's (36) and Pitt (44) made the Top 50. And the Big East's average ranking made it the No. 1 conference. Prestige Rankings

• Will the Big East Conference set a record with nine teams in the 2009 NCAA tournament? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.