Stewart Mandel’s SI.com piece on the Big East’s recent tournament struggles has stirred discussion around the conference. Mandel argued that despite its reputation and insane number of tourney teams, the conference hasn’t had the success to match the hype. While it is often compared to the SEC in football as the standard by which all other conferences are measured, Mandel points out the comparison isn’t even close.
“Critics note the Big East note has not produced a national champion since Connecticut in 2004, yet seems to enjoy a national reputation on par with (if not exceeding) the SEC in football. That league has won its sport’s past five crowns.”
In that time, both the ACC and SEC have won more hoops championships. The ACC had Duke last year and UNC’s two titles. The SEC has Florida’s back-to-back wins.
Despite the lack of championships, I don’t think that you can seriously make a case that any other conference has had nearly as many solid teams as the Big East since ’05. The last conference to challenge was the ACC in the early to mid-2000’s, when Duke had guys like Williams, Battier, Reddick, and Duhon; UNC had Felton, McCants and May; Maryland went on a title run with Juan Dixon and Steve Blake and a handful of other teams had NBA talent as well (Chris Bosh and Jarret Jack at Georgia Tech, Chris Paul at Wake, etc).
Since then, the rest of the ACC has fallen off while the Big East has only gotten deeper and stronger. That strength has simply not come from the teams at the top. Duke and UNC have spent significantly more time at #1 than all the Big East teams combined. This season the Big East is poised to put 11 teams in the tournament, yet never having a team sit atop the polls.
Interestingly, Mandel tosses in a nugget that can go right over your head if you’re not paying attention. After dismissing Pitt as the conference favorite to make a Final Four run due to Jamie Dixon’s past failures come March, Mandel says Syracuse could be the Big East’s best shot to get to Houston. Wait, what?!
“Perhaps the conference’s best hope is a team many gave up on a month ago: Syracuse. The Orange are Pomeroy’s second-highest-rated Big East team (11th), equally efficient on offense (15th) and defense (17th). But they’re also incredibly streaky, starting 18-0 before losing six of their next eight, then ending the year on a five-game win streak.”
The season has now come full circle, as the consensus among media and fans who have followed the team daily has returned to preseason expectations: Syracuse is a Sweet 16-calibur team. But does this mean the Orange is the best candidate from the best conference to make the Final Four?
First the argument for Syracuse. Brandon Triche has been playing the best ball of his college career down the stretch, averaging 13 per game over the last 5 – including 9 against DePaul in just 20 minutes because Syracuse was up by infinity. Kris Joseph could turn it on in the tournament and get back to the 15+ ppg he was averaging before he bumped his head against Cincinnati. Scoop has even been behaving himself lately, with 15 assists to only one turnover in his last two games.
Rick will still be Rick. CJ Fair is putting up monster numbers when he plays. Hell, Fab had 10 points against DePaul (You say they couldn’t beat a JV team? Ok, we’ll pump the breaks on Melo).
Still, that’s a lot of things that have to go right, plus getting meaningful minutes from the unreliable James Southerland, for Syracuse to even smell the Elite 8. For SU to make a deep run, the path will likely go through either Duke, Ohio State, or Kansas. The tournament is unpredictable and the #1 seed in the Orange’s bracket could get beat early, but that still means SU has to beat the team that beat Goliath. Ask Kansas State how that went last year after Butler beat the ‘Cuse.
Those three elite teams I mentioned shoot a combined shade under 40% from three (not good for a matchup against the zone). Duke is the worst from long range of the three, but you think Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, Seth Curry, and Andre Dawkins wouldn’t welcome a chance to go bombs away over the 2-3?
The stars would have to align for Syracuse to make the Final Four, but maybe Mandel is right and the other Big East teams that we thought had a shot, actually don’t?
Pitt: Jamie Dixon’s never gotten there, and he’s had some great teams. This year’s Panthers squad doesn’t have enough. They’re top-heavy. If Gibbs or Wannamaker is off where is the production coming from? They could prove a lot by winning the Big East tourney, but two losses in their last five is no fluke.
Louisville: Clearly they have Syracuse’s number, but what about the rest of the country? The Cards non-conference resume wasn’t impressive. Their biggest weakness? Just 107th in the nation in rebounding. That doesn’t work come tournament time. They’ve got the firepower, but I put their chances below the Orange.
Notre Dame: Now we’re talking. Yes, Mike Brey’s teams have struggled in past tourneys, but those were led by Luke Harongody. ‘Gody was a tremendous college player, but you’re not going to the Final Four on his back. This year, Ben Hansbrough can absolutely fill it. He’s an uber-efficient offensive player and the Irish plays such a unique style, it’ll be difficult for unfamiliar teams to prepare for. While I don’t think the Domers are a Final Four team, they have the best shot to rep the conference in Houston.
The Orange chances are better than you might think relative to the rest of the conference. It’s easy to feel good about where this team is now, but that’s relative to expectations. I think they’ll reach their Sweet 16 potential. Based on matchups though, who knows what will happen. They don’t call it March Madness for nothing.
Posted: Craig Hoffman