It’s Championship Week in college basketball, otherwise known as the week of tournaments before THE Tournament. And honestly, it seems this year people only really care about two conference tourneys: the Big East and the Big 12 … and maybe the ACC based on history and hype.
Yesterday I previewed the Pac-10 as a tune-up, but now it’s onto the real heavyweights. First up: the Big East. With five teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and up to six players projected to go in the first round of this year’s NBA Draft, it’s the deepest and perhaps most talented conference in the country. The Big East Tournament has provided some of the most memorable moments in college basketball over the last 15 years, from the Allen Iverson/Ray Allen shootout to the six-overtime epic between Syracuse and UConn. What’s in store this year?
5 THINGS TO WATCH FOR DURING THE BIG EAST TOURNAMENT
1. Can Syracuse live up to the pressure of a No. 1 seed?
Shortly after taking over the top spot in the national ranking last week, the Orange were beaten convincingly at Louisville, one of the Big Dance bubble teams. Jim Boeheim‘s squad (28-3) has all the elements of a Final Four favorite — experience, defense, depth, shooters, big men, a solid backcourt, and versatility — but they have to prove the crown of expectations doesn’t weigh too heavy on their heads. Junior Wesley Johnson and seniors Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku comprise and talented and tough Big Three, but they’re potentially looking at three rivalry games in three days at a neutral site against three Top-25 teams.
2. Lance Stephenson’s Homecoming Party
For all the hype he got in high school — I heard this one magazine even said he could be an NBA star at 17 years old — this is the biggest stage on which “Born Ready” has performed. The Cincinnati freshman has played at Madison Square Garden numerous times before in city championship games and prep showcases, but this is the first time Stephenson (12.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg) has been under the bright lights with this much on the line: Forget the Bearcats (16-14) slim chances of running the table and earning an NCAA berth, this week will play a big factor in determining whether Lance goes pro or not. The last time he played at MSG, a predatory St. John’s crowd gave the hometown kid an earful and watched him commit a backbreaking turnover in a Cincy loss. But having followed Lance over the past four years, I know he tends to play big in the biggest games.
3. Which version of Georgetown’s backcourt will show up?
You can’t watch a Hoyas game without getting an earful of announcers fawning over Greg Monroe. (I love G’town, and even I have to admit it bleeds into mancrush territory too often.) But this team is only going as far as its guards can take them. Juniors Chris Wright (14.2 ppg, 4.0 apg, 1.7 spg) and Austin Freeman (17.2 ppg) have been at their best in Georgetown’s biggest wins: Freeman scored 33 to beat UConn, 25 to beat Villanova, 20 to beat Duke, and 29 to beat Louisville; while Wright put up 27 points in a win over Pitt, and 21 against Duke. Subsequently, the backcourt (mostly Wright) has struggled in many of Georgetown’s losses. Wright is an explosive scoring PG who — for better or worse — has some T.J. Ford in his game. Freeman was diagnosed with diabetes last week, and while he responded with a 24-point effort against Cincinnati, his health could become an issue as the Hoyas face a potentially grueling tournament schedule.
4. Senior Night
For every Big East team teetering on the Bracketology bubble, there are a pair of seniors who can seize the day and play themselves into the Tournament this week: UConn has Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson; Louisville has Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith; Marquette has Lazar Hayward and Maurice Acker; and Notre Dame has Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson. As for the at-large locks, there are a handful of seniors that will have a strong say in which team leaves MSG with the conference title: Scottie Reynolds at Villanova, Da’Sean Butler at West Virginia, and Rautins and Onuaku at Syracuse.
5. Herb Pope vs. Jamine Peterson
Also known as the most intriguing matchup you won’t hear anything about. Overshadowed in the star-studded Big East, Seton Hall’s Herb Pope (11.2 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 2.0 bpg) and Providence’s Jamine Peterson (19.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg), both sophomore forwards, have quietly been two of the most productive players in the conference. They’ll square off when the Pirates and Friars meet at 7 p.m. EST tonight. Pope and Peterson are unique talents with unique backgrounds: Pope was a high school All-American whose fast track to the NBA was derailed when he got shot four times in March ’07, and is now playing his first year at Seton Hall after transferring from New Mexico State. Peterson is a late bloomer who sat out last year as a non-injury redshirt. At 6-8, Pope is more of a classic power forward; the 6-6 Peterson is an undersized four (a natural three) with enough strength and athleticism to make up for his lack of height. Providence’s run-and-gun system allows Peterson to feast on transition buckets and putback dunks, while Seton Hall’s system calls for Pope to get the rock inside in the rare occasions when Jeremy Hazell isn’t jacking up shots. Providence probably has the worst defense in the country and they play small. If they’re going to snap their 10-game losing streak, Peterson has to help contain Pope in the paint.
Check out there other Big East stories:
– Villanova’s Antonio Pena finally making a name for himself
– College Basketball’s Top 10 Future NBA All-Stars
– Brandon Triche is taking Syracuse to the National Championship