The Big East Middle: Marquette, ND, Louisville, Georgetown

The Big East’s powerful middle class has two of its members on ESPN tonight when Notre Dame visits Georgetown (7 PM ET). The Irish and Hoyas are part of a four-team group, including Marquette and Louisville, that may have been overshadowed by Syracuse in the regular season, but all four are threats to cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden next week and perhaps even to go dancing in New Orleans when the Final Four starts on March 31. Today, TheSportsNotebook looks at all four.

We’ll start with Marquette, because they’re playing the best of the four and also because they’ve gotten a feature in TheSportsNotebook already. You can read the specifics about the lineup here. The basics haven’t really changed, as this is a team that’s very perimeter-oriented with Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, who combine for 35 ppg. What you can add to that original commentary is that the Golden Eagles have won 12 of 13, are projected for a #3 NCAA seed by’s bracketologist Joe Lunardi and close the season with tough games at Cincinnati and home against Georgetown.  Here’s a brief look at MU’s three compatriots in the Big East middle…

Notre Dame (20-9, 12-4, projected #5 seed): The Irish had won nine straight in conference play before falling asleep at St. John’s this past weekend. As you can tell by the record and relatively low seeding, Mike Brey’s team struggled in December. It included losses to solid NCAA teams in Gonzaga and Indiana, to powerhouses in Missouri, to eyebrow-raisers like Maryland and Georgia. So is the turnaround a sign that perhaps the Big East is overrated or that Notre Dame just came together in time for league play. At least in this case, the whole jelling thing makes more sense.

With an early injury to forward Tim Abromaitis, the team’s best player, Brey had to not only recast his lineup but focus on younger players. The backcourt is built on three sophomores, Jerian Grant, Eric Atkins and Alex Dragicevich. They may be young, but Grant and Atkins both score and distribute, meaning it’s time to press the Irish and at 6’7” Dragicevich can create his own matchup problems for opposing guards. There’s no true center in the lineup, but Jack Cooley is averaging 12 points/9 rebounds, while Scott Martin chips in a 9/6 line. I have my doubts if this team can make a really big run in New York or the NCAA because they don’t have someone who can light it up with treys and they lack a post presence. But Brey has already done a fantastic coaching job heading into the final week’s games with Georgetown and Marquette.

Georgetown (21-6, 11-5, projected #3 seed): I’m still smarting from picking Georgetown to win the 2010 NCAA title in my bracket and watching them lose by 14 to Ohio in the first round. Then the Hoyas took an early exit last year on Virginia Commonwealth’s magic ride. This year’s Georgetown team has beaten Marquette and Louisville and played both Syracuse and Kansas very tough, suggesting they can match up with most anybody.

The depth is not great, but 6’10” Henry Sims can own the post, Hollis Thompson scores and rebounds down low, and freshman forward Otto Porter can’t be overlooked around the glass. Then in the backcourt you have senior leader Jason Clark who pops in 15 ppg. Like Notre Dame though, the Hoyas have no one who can open it up from long-range.

Louisville (22-7, 10-6): Rick Pitino’s team has been an enigma all year, starting off with a top five ranking that always seemed a little out of line. They started Big East play poorly, going 2-4 and mixing in a non-conference loss to Kentucky. The most inexplicable of those defeats was a 31-point loss at Providence. Since then, Pitino has steadied the ship and won eight of ten. Even if none of those wins have come against the league’s upper-crust, you can’t get eight wins in the Big East without beating at least a few teams who can play. Louisville won at West Virginia, split with Seton Hall and perhaps most impressively, only lost by one to Syracuse at home. I’d still like to see a lot more from this team before putting too much hope in them come March, and this week’s games against a South Florida team both desperate and hot, along with a return trip to Syracuse give Pitino the chance to get some momentum going into MSG.

The lineup itself is very backcourt-oriented. 6’11” sophomore Gorgui Deng is the only true post player in the top six. When Deng gets rebounding help from 6’6” freshman Chase Behanan, the Cards can at least have a chance against bigger lineups. The guards fit into neat roles. Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith are both senior leaders, with Kuric scoring 13 ppg and Smith being a good three-point shooter. Peyton Siva is the playmaker, with six assists per game and Russ Smith scores 12 ppg.

There’s a lot more going on in the Big East. The NCAA pushes of South Florida, Cincinnati, Seton Hall, West Virginia and UConn are going to get the media attention and understandably so. But don’t overlook the middle class, the forgotten teams who are both safely in the NCAA and safely out of the conference title picture. They may not be in a race this week, but they’ll be big factors starting next week.