We preview and predict how the Big East Tournament will shake out in Mike Brey and company's last shot at Saturday night's final in the Garden.
Notre Dame’s Path to the Big East Championship:
Second round vs. 11 Rutgers (Wed., 9pm ET, ESPN2)
Quarter-finals vs. 3 Marquette (Thu., 9pm ET, ESPN)
Semi-finals vs. 2 Louisville/7 Nova/10 SJU (Fri., 9pm ET, ESPN)
Championship vs. 1 Georgetown/4 Pitt/5 Syracuse/8 Providence/9 Cincy - (Sat., 8:30pm ET, ESPN)
I won’t go crazy trying to project out to semi-final and final matchups – there are just too many possibilities that, based on the history of this tournament, wouldn’t be entirely unexpected. But we do know that ND will play Rutgers tonight and, with a win, would move onto play Marquette on Thursday night.
I hope you don’t mind staying up late the next few nights, as the Irish have drawn the latest time slot for every game as far as they advance. That kicks off tonight against Rutgers. I wrote early last week how key it was for the Irish to at least get the six seed so they get one of the play-in teams for their first game. Rutgers, as a result of their victory last night against DePaul, is that play-in team.
The Scarlet Knights have won only 6 league games this season, but one of their closest losses was a 3-point loss at Notre Dame back in January. The Irish looked to have that one comfortably but didn’t close strong and gave the Scarlet Knights a chance to crawl back into it. Led by guards Eli Carter and Myles Mack, the Irish backcourt will have their hands full slowing those two down. Notre Dame is a heavy favorite in this one, but it’s far from a lock. If the Irish drop this one, it would be a disappointing end to their Big East membership, and they may be looking at a 9 or 10 seed for the NCAA tournament.
If the Irish get by Rutgers (and that is very much an if), they will be met by a Marquette squad that beat them easily in Wisconsin just a week and a half ago. Still, this may be the best possible match up for the Irish in this round, as Notre Dame matches up to the Golden Eagles’ defense better than the other top seeds and will have their best chance to find a rhythm that has been elusive at times this season. However, the super-efficient Marquette offense, led by Vander Blue, is going to be tough for any team to limit. The Irish will likely need to win the turnover battle (ND holds the advantage here) and keep Marquette off the offensive boards (they are best in the conference) in order to get revenge for the regular season loss.
If Notre Dame does get the small upset, they will likely face Louisville yet again in the semi-final, but it wouldn’t be a complete shock if Villanova or St. John’s upset the Cardinals. Regardless, I’ve already said too much by previewing a Marquette game that the Irish are far from guaranteed to get to, let alone projecting the semi-finals. Either way, we will have more tomorrow to recap tonight’s game and hopefully preview the next round against Marquette.
5 Players to watch:
Michael Carter-Williams – Syracuse – PG
2nd Team All-Big East. Carter-Williams has been inconsistent down the stretch, which has mirrored Syracuse’s unexpected struggles. Many thought he would be further along in his development by now, as he isn’t a good shooter yet, but he can take over games just with his handle and passing abilities. This tournament is typically dominated by guard play, and Carter-Williams has the potential to be the most dominant guard at the MSG this weekend.
Bryce Cotton – Providence – PG
1st Team All-Big East and leading scorer in the conference. If there is anyone in the bottom half of the bracket who you should watch, Cotton is the guy. He showed midway through conference season that he can carry his team to compete with anyone, at least for a few games. Well, this tourney is only a few games, and Cotton could carry Providence far if he turns in the memorable performances that he is capable of.
1st and 3rd Team All-Big East, respectively. The Cardinals are a hot Final Four pick this season, and for good reason. Dieng may be the best pro prospect in the country as a terror in the post defensively with a sweet mid-range jumper on offense to complement. Siva was last year’s darling at MSG averaging 14 points and 6 assists in the tournament, before leading Louisville to the Final Four. The spotlight is on these two, but there is no reason to think they can’t shine.
Jerian Grant – Notre Dame – SG
2nd Team All-Big East. Grant is a bit of an enigma, but at his best is one of the most diverse scorers in the league. He is mega-streaky, and a cold Grant could mean a very early exit for the Irish, but if he gets hot, no one defender in the league can stop him. He commands so much attention on offense; I don’t even think Irish fans appreciate what he does for his teammates on offense just with his skill set. A star may be born this weekend, and Grant is a decent bet to be the guy.
Otto Porter – Georgetown – SF
Big East Player of the Year. Porter can score from anywhere on the floor and is often asked to for the Hoyas. His length and smarts cause problems defensively for 2s, 3s, and 4s, even if he doesn’t have elite quickness or bulk. As with any college player, though, he can be streaky, and he has been red hot during Georgetown’s run the last month or so. If he cools off at all, the Hoyas may be in major trouble, as he is crucial to their slow-paced offense.
OFD Staff Predictions:
Final: Georgetown over Louisville - I think this tourney will give Otto Porter another opportunity to prove himself as one of the best, if not the best, players in the country. I don't think there's a team out there that can limit his effectiveness along the perimeter and I think that'll show throughout the week.
Most Outstanding Player: Otto Porter - I think he's the best player in the country. People say McLemore is the better NBA prospect, but I think Porter is gonna be a Luol Deng-esque player (even if his frame is more like that of Tayshaun Prince's) in the league and considering how scouts don't like the top of the lottery all that much, a Luol Deng type of player might be as good as it gets.
Biggest Upset: I don't think there will be any upsets in the tourney this year once we get to Wednesday and beyond but if I had to pick one I'll pick Seton Hall over Syracuse for the same reasons JoeSchu mentions.
Sleeper Team: 'Nova – We’ve seen them beat the cream of the crop - when they WERE the cream of the crop and actually playing well. Could they beat Louisville again? Probably not, but it's not like they haven't done it before.
How Will ND Do?: ND will squeak by Marquette then fall to Louisville because there's no way the MSG rims will be kind two nights in a row.
ND’s Key to Win It All: Long-range shooting – If Connaughton and Biedscheid are hitting from beyond the arc that will determine the W/L for the team. Some other factors include Jack Cooley's fouls, which Garrick Sherman shows up, Jerian Grant's shooting and whether Tom Knight is hitting those 18 foot jumpers from the baseline. ND doesn't need every one of those things to click to win a game or two but to make it to Saturday, they probably need all of it to work out in their favor and that hasn't happened yet this season.
Final: Pitt over Louisville – Pitt is incredibly balanced and ranked right up there with the ‘Ville and Georgetown in some of their advanced metrics. Because of my upset pick, I like Pitt to come out of the top half of the bracket, and then I just took Pitt because Louisville is a boring pick. Might as well flip a coin, though.
MOP: Tray Woodall – It’s a guard’s world this time of year, and Woodall is one of the best in the conference. I really like Pitt to do well, and unlike Louisville who has both Russ Smith and Peyton Siva to lead them, Pittsburgh needs Woodall in order to make it to Saturday night. I think he will be the star of the show this weekend.
Biggest Upset: Cincinnati over Georgetown – I know, I know, this violates my prediction of Georgetown winning this tourney two weeks ago in 5WF. They have given no reason why they shouldn’t win since then, but Cincy is a freakin’ tough team to play. They rebound extremely well, they have plenty of guys who can carry them for stretches, and they played the Hoyas really close a couple weeks ago. They play a LOT of close games and have good advanced statistics, too, so I like them to upset Georgetown. So go ahead and bet the house on Providence over Cincy, now.
Sleeper Team: Cincinnati – Need I say more?
How Will ND Do?: I wanted to but couldn’t pick them over Marquette in a mild upset AND Louisville in a major upset. It’s too unlikely. But Marquette is my favorite match up of the top 4 (despite the recent game in Milwaukee), especially if they regress back to their normal shooting. Louisville…sigh. Gotta beat them one of these years, right? ND still owes them from the semis from two years ago when the Cardinals had no business coming back and winning. I’m hopeful, but I’ll say ND loses yet again in the semis to Louisville, which will make it 3 semi-final losses in a row to Louisville and four in a row overall.
ND’s Key to Win It All: Perimeter Defense - Rutgers, Marquette, Louisville are all led by their guard play, so Atkins and Grant have to limit the opponent backcourt’s control over the game as much as possible. It’s just seems like that’s the nature of the Big East tournament over the years.
Final: Louisville over Syracuse – Their first two games were hard fought and came down to the last minute, so why not one more?
MOP: Peyton Siva – Just like last year, the Cardinals and their point guard find their March groove in NYC.
Biggest Upset: Providence over Georgetown – more on this in the next category...
Sleeper Team: Providence – I would not be surprised if the Friars lost their first game to Cincinnati, but if they can get to the Thursday matinee against the Hoyas, weird stuff happens in that game. This is a long shot, but that's what we are going for, right?
How will ND do?: Beat Rutgers by five, lose to Marquette by six.
ND's Key to Win It All: Wing shooting – I think we know what we are getting from Atkins and Grant, and I think we know what we are getting from the front court. The big X factor? How Biedscheid and Connaughton shoot the long ball, something they've both struggled with for stretches all season.
Final: Louisville over Georgetown – If Louisville can make shots, they're a Final 4 team. They have plenty of length and athleticism to play with any of the BigTen teams. I know it is cliche to have the favorites in the final, but those 2 seem to have separated from the pack in a big way.
MOP: Jerian Grant – It is time for me to get all homer-y. He's struggled lately, but perhaps the MSG lights fire him up and he finds his stroke. They'd need to get to Saturday for this to be true.
Biggest Upset: Seton Hall over Syracuse – This is a big reach, but the Orange looked like they were sleepwalking through that Georgetown game (which they should have been fired up for). Perhaps the hangover persists. They haven't beaten a ranked team since they put on a clinic vs. the Irish on 2/4. If the Hall pick up some confidence by drubbing USF Tuesday night, it could get interesting.
Sleeper Team: Notre Dame – In order for my MOP to be true, my sleeper must be true (and vice versa). If Grant finds his stroke and can mix attacking the rim with some 3's, that is only going to fuel this team. The confidence tends to bleed from him in to the other guys and they look to make plays for each other. If Cam and Pat see a few go through the rim, they could get warm, and then we finally have the inside out game to be able to shoot people out of zones, then pound them with pick & roll and Cooley on the post. If we can't shoot people out of a packed in 2-3 or 2-1-2, it is tough to get Cooley the touches and run the kind of motion that we need.
How Will ND Do & ND’s Key to Win It All: The cheerleader in me wants to see ND play on Saturday just once to close out this chapter in ND basketball history. As I said above, it all hinges on shooting. We know Atkins is going to be steady, and Cooley will hit the boards hard all day. After that, it is a crap shoot. If ND has guys knocking it down, suddenly things get very interesting. However, we keep shooting around the 40% mark, it'll be a painful exit to Marquette.