Big East hits Pitts

February 26, 2002 7:15 AM
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There was a time when the Big East was the dominant conference in college basketball. Not this year.

With players like Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, as well as coaches like John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca and Rollie Massimino, the league flourished in the mid 1980s.

The Big East tradition lasted well into the 90s led by coaches like Jim Boeheim and PJ Carlesimo and a new crop of terrific players. But the times have changed, and the Big East seems to have become something of a mid-major conference this season. Big East teams are just 14-35 straight-up against ranked opponents and there doesn’t seem to be one team capable of making a Final Four run.

The top teams, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Miami and Connecticut are all solid squads, but all have some sort of weakness that makes them vulnerable. A couple of the league’s preseason favorites, Boston College and Georgetown, have each had disappointing seasons, while St. John’s, Notre Dame and Rutgers all sit precariously on the tournament bubble due to shaky play against league competition.

Without question, the most pleasant surprise in the Big East this season has been Pittsburgh. The Panthers look like they will win the conference’s Western Division title and were ranked as one of the Top 10 teams in the nation at the time of this writing. Few expected the Panthers to be this good. They have a very young team and get significant minutes from just one senior.

Pitt has great floor leadership in junior point guard Brandin Knight, the leading scorer and assist-man. Knight is the Panthers’ third-leading rebounder, despite standing just six feet tall. Pittsburgh plays tenacious defense, allowing just under 60 points per game, but hasn’t really been challenged this season. The Panthers played one of the easiest non-conference schedules of any Big East team, with their only impressive win coming against Ohio State.

Syracuse began the season with nine straight wins, including the prestigious Preseason NIT title. Since then, Syracuse is a modest 11-7, including two losses to Pitt. The Orangemen have the best shooter in the Big East in swingman Preston Shumpert and a fine compliment to him in shooting guard DeShaun Williams, but they don’t have enough quality on the rest of their roster to compete with one of the elite teams in the country.

In the East, Connecticut seems to have regained its position as the division-heavyweight. The Huskies have played a difficult schedule and that has made them a battle-tested team as the post-season draws nearer. UConn is one of the hotter teams in the conference and in sophomore forward Caron Butler has one of the few true superstars in the league.

Another potential star is freshman center Emeka Okafor, who has made a tremendous difference. Okafor is UConn’s leading rebounder and shot-blocker along with possessing a nice touch around the basket. The Huskies may be the most talented team in the conference, but with a young backcourt, they still have a lot to prove.

Miami has stumbled a bit recently, but has been ranked among the Top 15 teams in country for most of the season. The Hurricanes, like Syracuse, got out of the gate quickly. Miami bolted to a 14-0 start against a decent schedule, but stands 7-5 SU in their last 12 games. As usual, the Hurricanes are not a very good shooting team, but they have more depth than they’ve had in the past and continue to be one of the better defensive teams in the conference.

Two teams that were certainly expected to compete for their respective divisions this season were Boston College and Georgetown. Both had great seasons last year, and most thought each had enough back to at least equal last season’s success, but that hasn’t been the case.

Boston College is the defending league champ and with the return of Troy Bell, last year’s Big East Player of the Year, had to assume another great season was just around the corner. Instead, the Eagles have been hindered by their off-season losses up front and probably won’t get an invite to the Big Dance unless they win the Big East Tournament.

Georgetown also probably needs to win the conference tournament to get into the NCAAs. That may be an even bigger shocker, because few teams in the Big East have as many good players as the Hoyas. Rather than an asset, though, their depth has been something of a liability, as the Hoyas have had problems getting comfortable with each other on the court.

Notre Dame, St. Johns and Rutgers, also deserve some consideration from the Selection Committee. Notre Dame should have no problem getting an invite with a strong finish. The Irish are solidly over .500 in the league, and could still get 20 wins on their resume, which would make them virtually impossible to ignore.

St. Johns has come on strong in recent weeks. With a solid non-conference slate behind them, the Red Storm could find a spot in the Tournament. Rutgers, on the other hand, needs some help. The Scarlet Knights are just over .500 in the league and haven’t beaten anyone of note outside of the Big East. They will likely have to win a game or two in the Big East Tournament to garner more than momentary consideration.

Odds are none of these teams mentioned above will be playing for the National Championship in the first week of April. But, virtually the entire league will play some sort of postseason game next month.