Big East basketball will get the TV spotlight over the next couple days in a series of games against the SEC, as they play their conference challenge. Since the Big East is one of the leagues we haven’t done a November check-in on, now looks like as good a time as any to touch base with the conference elite. And what I find interesting is that what might see the same phenomena on the basketball court that we’ve seen on the gridiron, and its Notre Dame significantly outperforming expectations. I’m not sure when the Fighting Irish became an under-the-radar school, but it certainly happened in football and all indications are that we might see the same in basketball.
Notre Dame is unranked right now, with their only defeat an overtime loss to a good St. Joe’s team. Head coach Mike Brey brings back all five starters and has two freshmen who can make a big impact in need areas. We’ll start in the backcourt, where Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant are both double-digit scorers, and both are adept at handling playmaking responsibilities. Grant, at 6’6” provides matchup edges against smaller lineups. Then you bring in freshman Cameron Biedscheid, an extremely talented 6’7” swingman who takes matchup advantages to a new level.
The frontcourt is well-balanced throughout, returning Pat Connaughton, Scott Martin and Jack Cooley. The latter is the best of the group, but all three can chip in on offense and go to the glass. If there’s a weakness, it’s that Cooley, at 6’9”, is the tallest of the group, meaning there’s no true post player. But that isn’t the same problem in college basketball that might have been 10-15 years ago. And even if it is, its possible 6’10” freshman Zach Auguste can fill the void.
Brey’s team is off to a 6-1 start and has a win over BYU. On Thursday night they step into the spotlight with a matchup against Kentucky and then play Purdue in the middle of December. I’m not sure why this team is completely off the grid, because when I look at this lineup I see a team that can absolutely compete for a Big East championships and that means you at least need to be in the conversation when it comes to the Final Four.
The two teams that aren’t having any problems getting national respect are Louisville and Syracuse. The Cardinals, fresh off their Big East tournament title and ensuing Final Four run, are ranked fifth in the nation, with only a close loss to Duke blotting their record. Syracuse won the Big East regular season crown a year ago and reached the regional finals in the NCAA Tournament despite the suspension of center Fab Melo. The Orange have knocked off #20 San Diego State. Here’s a quick look at each contender…
Louisville: Rick Pitino has a quick backcourt that can play defense, handle the ball and push it up and down the floor, with Peyton Siva running the show and Russ Smith as his running mate. The swingman position is a little bit of a question mark, but Pitino loves sophomore forward Wayne Blackshear, and junior Luke Hancock, eligible to play this year after transferring in from George Mason. The Cards’ problem at the perimeter is going to be size—Siva and Smith are only 6’0” and if you play them at the same time, you’re at a disadvantage going against teams with bigger guards, such as the ones we just looked at for Notre Dame.
Chane Behanan is a quality forward, who averaged 10 points/8 rebounds per game last year, although at 6’6” he’s forced to play the power forward role, which further contributes to Louisville’s height issues. None of this will matter if Gorgui Deng plays well—the 6’11” junior can control the post with his rebounding and defensive ability and allow the other four players to play to their size. But Deng is now going to miss 4-6 weeks with a wrist injury, meaning he’s out for the Kentucky game on December 29 and the early part of the Big East schedule. Pitino’s a smart enough coach to turn this to his long-term advantage and get his smallish team used to playing without the big man. But Louisville ultimately needs Deng in the lineup to compete on a national scale.
Syracuse: Jim Boeheim has to replace Melo, an excellent defender and shotblocker and when he was in the lineup last year, Syracuse never lost. They also lose Dion Waiters, the Big East Sixth Man of the Year, who got starters’ minutes off the bench and went fourth overall in the NBA draft. There’s uncertainty with this team, but also a lot of promise.
The promise starts with Michael Carter-Williams, whose play at the point guard spot excited the ‘Cuse coaches in a limited role last year. The 6’6” sophomore can potentially do it all. Similar improvements can be undertaken by forwards C.J. Fair and Rakeem Christmas, who did well enough to tease last year. This time around they need to be big contributors. And freshman center DaJuan Coleman likely won’t score much, but the 6’9” post player can gobble up rebounds, something the Syracuse zone defense creates a lot of. Two-guard Brandon Triche is the veteran presence in this lineup, good for a steady 10 ppg.
Syracuse looks to continue its development with a Friday night visit to Arkansas. The rest of the December schedule is the usual pastry menu Boeheim cooks up, “highlighted” by games with rebuilding Long Beach State and Temple, both at home.
This is a deep conference, and before league play starts up around the first of the year, we’ll go deeper into ranked contenders like Cincinnati and Georgetown, along with Pitt, UConn, Marquette and the rest of the conference. But if you’re looking to just skim off the top, Louisville and Syracuse are the teams getting the respect, with Notre Dame an extremely underrated contender that I like to win this conference championship.