Way back in the halcyon days of Storming the Court (okay, 3 months ago) I wrote a Big East preview looking at the coming season. While much of what I said was flat out wrong (see Louisville being the second best team and Pitt being a disappointment), the underlying premise has been borne out so far in conference play: the bloated Big East has a middle of 6-7 teams that appear to be exactly the same. Each has their strengths, and each has major flaws which makes for a wide open race for fourth in the league, and for a nailbiting Selection Sunday for quite a few teams. After the jump, I dissect the morass which is the middle of the Big East.
Louisville was predicted by most to be a Final Four contender in the preseason. Of course, that was before the loss of two starting forwards and the continued troubles of Derrick Caracter sent Louisville to a shocking four non-conference losses and a loss to Cincinatti. However things have started to look up for the Cardinals as they have finally gotten healthy and won 7 of their last 8. For all of its faults, Louisville is still an extremely talented team who plays stingy (top-15 in the country ) defense every night.
Fatal Flaw: Free Throws. Stay with me here: Louisville’s offense is predicated on its big men, who should get to the line quite a bit. Surprisingly, they are only averaging about 20 free throws per game, good for 170th in the country. A powerhouse frontcourt team should be getting to the line at a much higher clip. This might be a subtle sign of problems to come.
West Virginia is another brawny Big East team that can bang with the best of them. Bob Huggins has done a great job in Morgantown after taking over for the Michigan-bound John Beilen. Huggins has coached a Mountaineers team which has flown under the radar somewhat after playing a relatively soft non-conference schedule. Despite not having a prototypical star player, West Virginia has been unbelievably efficient on both offensive and defense, ranking in the top 10 in the nation in both categories.
Fatal Flaw: Playing on the road. All four of West Virginia’s losses have come away from the comfortable confines of Morgantown. In each of these games, the Mountaineers’ field goal percentage has gone down, and their turnovers have gone up. West Virginia must learn to win away from home in order to separate itself in this muddled Big East.
Notre Dame: Quick, name the team with the longest home winning streak in college basketball. You probably guessed from the heading that it is indeed Notre Dame. The Fightin’ Irish haven’t lost at home in over 20 games, and have been shooting the lights out from beyond the arc. As of today, Notre Dame is an NCAA tournament team.
Fatal Flaw: Depth. Notre Dame plays an 8-man rotation, but even that figure is misleading. Two of the first three players off the bench are forwards. In fact, beyond Kyle McAlarney and Torey Jackson, Notre Dame has almost no guards. In a Big East that is renowned for physical play, foul trouble might spell doom for the Fightin’ Irish.
Villanova is yet another mystifying Big East team that has more question marks than answers so far this season. Jay Wright’s four-guard offense has worked fairly well this year, but Villanova seems to be prone to the killer “what the hell” losses. They have dropped gimme games to Depaul and Cincinnati already in the Big East. Villanova has what other teams would kill for in great point guard play from Scottie Reynolds, but they haven’t been able to blow teams out so far this year, which could come back to bite them in Big East play.
Fatal Flaw: Defense. The Wildcats are one of the worst defensive teams in the Big East, giving up over 52 percent in adjusted field goal percentage (where 3 pointers made count 1.5 times to correspond with their point value), which is 273rd in the country (h/t Kenpom.com).
Syracuse is perhaps the most exciting team to watch in the Big East. They are unbelievably athletic and love to run, but that style has been seriously hampered by injuries, especially to Even Dievendorf. Despite only having 7 scholarship players left, Syracuse can still run and shoot teams out of the gym, and will be a dangerous out if (big if) they can survive Big East play and make the tournament.
Fatal Flaw: Turnovers. I bet you thought I would say defense, didn’t you? While Syracuse’s defense is still a problem, what is more troubling is the turnovers. Syracuse is turning the ball over 16 times a game this season, which is about 5 too many. When the Cuse starts turning the ball over, they have to play faster and more frenetically, and thus give up more transition buckets off of missed shots. The turnovers start a vicious cycle that hurts Syracuse’s already suspect defense.
Connecticut rounds out our band of merry enigmas in the middle of the Big East. UConn didn’t play anyone in their non-conference schedule after losing to Memphis in the Preseason NIT, and thus rolled into Big East play with at least a modicum of confidence. And then promptly went 2-2 in their first four games, which I guess is what I should have expected them to do in this year’s Big East. The Huskies’ offense has improved quite a bit this year, and Hasheem Thabeet has finally begun to get his feet under him, while Jeff Adrien has been a solid inside player.
Fatal Flaw: They can’t win a close game. Three of their four losses have come by less than 6 points, and in a league such as the Big East with so many evenly matched teams, that is not a good flaw to have. Connecticut better learn how to win close games if it wants to avoid another year of watching March Madness from home.