We’ve got an interesting coincidence in the world of sports tonight. The feature event is the big Monday Night Football battle between New England and Carolina (8:30 PM ET, ESPN), with the Patriots looking to extend their lead in the AFC East and the Panthers hoping to keep pace with the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.
But this isn’t the only area where the fan bases of Boston and Charlotte will clash–in hockey, the Bruins are playing the Hurricane. Both the football and hockey games are on Tobacco Road. All that’s left is for the Celtics to pay a visit to the Bobcats…but that won’t happen until next Monday.
With this backdrop, TheSportsNotebook is going to keep with the cross-sports theme and take a look at the race for that most coveted of honors–most successful sports fan base–and see how the 2013 race is progressing. It’s particularly relevant in this context, because it all might come down to the ultimate fate of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Every February, after the Super Bowl is complete, TheSportsNotebook picks the fan base that had the most to cheer for in the sports year that starts with the NCAA Tournament and ends with the Super Bowl. Last year, San Francisco sports was a runaway winner, with the Giants winning the World Series, and the 49ers falling just a play short of winning the Super Bowl. Those wins coupled with Stanford’s run to the Rose Bowl and a nice showing from the San Jose Sharks in the NHL.
The 2013 season has been mostly controlled by the Louisville sports market. Rick Pitino’s basketball programset the tone with a national title to become the first official champion of ’13. The Louisville baseball team made the College World Series. The two nearest NBA cities–Indiana and Memphis–each made the conference finals. The nearest baseball team is Cincinnati, and they made the playoffs.
Louisville is also the Triple-A affiliate for the St. Louis Cardinals, who reached the World Series. And though it’s not officially part of the 2013 sports year, the Louisville football team beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl in early January and has only lost one game so far this season.
The sports fans of Louisville have enjoyed both depth of success, as well the ecstasy of winning a championship, thanks to Pitino’s team. They were poised to run away with this award come February, but in the aftermath of the baseball season, the city of Boston isn’t ready to give up quite so easily.
What if the Patriots win the Super Bowl? Then, Boston sports has two major sports titles, and a third team making the championship round. While college sports are barely relevant in Hub culture, Boston College has enjoyed a comeback season in the gridiron and got themselves bowl-eligible last week. If the Eagles could win their final two games, get to 8-4 and go to a decent bowl game, it would further strengthen the city’s case.
Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any question that New England must win the Super Bowl–not simply make it–for this to become a serious debate. No matter what happens in college football, Louisville is going to have more depth to their success than Boston, and the only way for the Hub to turn this into an argument is if they get two titles to one for the Louisville market.
The oddsmakers say it’s a 10-1 chance that Belichick and Brady hoist their fourth Lombardi Trophy this February in New York. It suggests that in the world of sports fan bases, Louisville remains the favorite for the 2013 title, but not to count out Boston sports just yet.
Big East basketball has gotten more than its share of news lately, as the league’s seven Catholic universities have decided to leave the league and protect themselves from greed-driven, football-driven realignment. For now, on the basketball floor, we still have another unwieldy 16-team conference race to look forward to, and the Big East has six teams in the Top 25, with three in the Top 10. The conference got a signature win today when Louisville beat Kentucky. With Big East games beginning on New Year’s night, let’s break down the conference landscape.
THE ELITE THREE
Louisville, Cincinnati and Syracuse are the trio of teams ranked in the Top 10. The Cards and Orange have been there all year after last March, when Louisville made the Final Four and Syracuse came within a game of doing so. So that’s where our overview will begin.
Louisville: Rick Pitino’s team got exactly what it needed in the return of center Gorgui Dieng today. Now they have an anchor in the post to support a team whose primary talent is in the backcourt and on the wings. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith can both distribute and score from the guard spots, with Siva doing a little more of the former and Smith more of the latter. Chase Behanan and Wayne Blackshear kick in quality help from the wings and Pitino is working Luke Hancock into the rotation.
Size is the issue, as the guards are smallish, and there’s not even a pure power forward, much less a center…at least until Dieng returned from his wrist injury. The Cards are still thin up front, but at least they have someone.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats have risen to #8 in the polls, but don’t be deceived into thinking they’ve done anything incredibly impressive. The best win is over Xavier, while Cincy lost at home to New Mexico on Thursday. The Lobos have a good team, but a top-level Big East team should win that game at home.
Though I’m skeptical of Cincinnati as a Top 10 team, I can still see optimism for the coming conference schedule. The backcourt has been a strength here in recent years and this season is now different, with Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright and Jaquon Parker. There’s not a lot of need for scoring from the frontcourt, but the Bearcats do need rebounding. Hence, Justin Jackson will be a key part of any success this team enjoys.
And a note to forward Titus Rubles—when you’re shooting .048% from three-point range, stop shooting the trey! Note that’s not 48 percent with a decimal, that’s less than half a percent! And he shoots an average of more than one a game! Okay, I’ll cool with the exclamation points. But to sound like Stephen A. Smith and talk like the players are listening to me, Titus please stop shooting that shot when you keep laying bricks.
Syracuse: Jim Boeheim has never loaded up on tough December competition, so even though this year’s fare was light, the fact Boeheim played San Diego State and Temple—and got a split—constitutes a positive bear of a schedule by the Orange’s usual standards.
Michael Carter-Williams is one of the great playmakers in the country, with 6’6” size and averaging ten assists a game. It seems like two-guard Brandon Triche has been around forever and the senior is averaging 15 ppg. C.J. Fair and James Southerland are tough forwards who score and rebound, while Rakeem Christmas also goes to the glass. If we want to pick a nit, there’s not a ton of depth here and Syracuse could use a pure three-point shooter to loosen defenses up, but Boeheim has everything he needs to make a run at another Big East title.
THE BEST TEAM
I’m not going to waste a lot of time talking about Notre Dame, because I discussed them last week in a brief look at national title contenders. I think the Irish are the best team in the Big East with a brilliant backcourt of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, while Jack Cooley is a beast on the boards, averaging 11 per game and also scoring 15 ppg.
The one thing Notre Dame hasn’t done is back up the rhetoric I’m spouting. They’ve only got one loss, but it was to St. Joe’s, who’s been a disappointment. The Irish have nice wins over BYU and Kentucky, but tougher tests are ahead. Now’s the time to prove their an elite team in more than one sport this academic year.
Pitt and Georgetown weren’t up to their customary expectations a year ago, but both are nationally ranked and each has a legitimate chance to move into the top three in this league.
Pitt: The Panthers have been at their best when they’re physical, and this team has all the markings of being cut in that mold. Talib Zanna is averaging seven rebounds a game, and he’s joined by a seven-foot freshman from New Zealand in Steve Adams, averaging six boards a game. If Adams keeps growing and toughening up, Pitt is going to be tough to handle. The backcourt is in good shape with freshman playmaker James Robinson and quality shooters Tray Woodall and Lamar Patterson.
Georgetown: When it comes to size, Pitt has nothing on Georgetown. In an era of college basketball where a lot of teams are like Louisville—stacked on the perimeter and just looking for one guy down low, Georgetown is the reverse. John Thompson III can run waves of power forward/center types, starting with sophomores Greg Whittington and Otto Porter, and including junior Nate Lubick. The burden falls on 6’1” sophomore guard Markel Starks to keep the offense flowing and defenses loosened up. Starks, along with backcourt mate Jabril Trawick each have nice shooting touches and should do well enough to keep this team winning games.
LOOKING TO DANCE
This group includes UConn, with new coach Kevin Ollie, a consistent NCAA program in Marquette, along with South Florida, Rutgers and Seton Hall.
UConn: The Huskies started the year strong with their win against Michigan State over in Germany. Ollie, just inked to a contract extension after taking over from the legendary Jim Calhoun, has a good backcourt in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, but rebounding is a problem. UConn needs sophomore DeAndre Daniels and/or junior Tyler Olander to hit the glass or they’ll be overwhelmed in this physical league.
Marquette: MU has gone to the Sweet 16 two straight years, and even in a rebuilding year has had a respectable non-conference run. The Golden Eagles have beaten Wisconsin and only lost by a point to Butler, though a defeat to UW-Green Bay was disappointing. They have a good playmaker in Junior Cadougan, a playmaker in Vander Blue, and an inside player in Davante Gardner. If the complementary pieces come through—starting with Jamil Wilson and his outside shot—Marquette will be back in the Dance.
Seton Hall: Fuquan Edwin is one of the most exciting players in the conference, averaging 18 points/6 rebounds per game and shooting over 50 percent from both the perimeter and behind the arc. The Pirates also have a lot of depth, with the key supporting pieces being forwards Eugene Teague and Brandon Mobley. They’ll need sophomore Aaron Crosby to grow as a playmaker and make all the pieces function in harmony.
Rutgers: There’s an exciting backcourt here with Eli Carter and Myles Mack, who can each shoot the lights out. But Carter and Mack are both woefully undersized and ill-suited to defend guards who even go as tall as 6’4”. Dane Miller and Wally Judge are respectable rebounders, and the Scarlet Knights will be competitive, but this is not an NCAA team—and even though they’re 9-2, they lost to Ole Miss and have no wins worthy of bragging about.
South Florida: The Bulls made a strong run to the NCAA a year ago, though rekindling the flame has been a challenge, with early losses to Central Florida, Western Michigan and Oklahoma State. I suppose that wouldn’t be bad if this were football and assessing USF’s ability to compete in the Big East, but it’s a little more ominous in hoops. But I haven’t written them off yet—Toarylyn Fitzpatrick is a talented forward who can rebound inside and shoot the trey outside, while Victor Rudd can get after it on the glass. Anthony Collins and Jawanza Poland comprise a functionable, if not great, backcourt. There’s at least enough here to competitive in the league again.
It was just 2009 that Villanova made the Final Four and one year later they were a national contender all year before an early NCAA exit. St. John’s looked on the upswing after Steve Lavin returned them to the NCAA Tournament. But both teams struggled last year and this year doesn’t look a lot better. Villanova lost to Columbia by eighteen points, one of four losses. St. John’s has also lost four times, never a good sign for a team going into Big East play. The good news is that at least the losing is being done with underclassmen who have an upside. Keep a special eye on Red Storm guard D’Angelo Harrison, averaging 21 ppg in non-conference games.
IS THERE ANY HOPE?
That’s the question in Providence and DePaul, two schools without any recent track record of success, and four losses. Providence lost to Brown yesterday and DePaul dropped a game to Gardner-Webb in November, so the easy answer is this question is no.
In the case of DePaul, the easy answer is the correct one, because while Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin are great talents, there is nowhere enough quality depth to compete in the Big East. Providence might have a little bit of hope—they have a versatile point guard in Kadeem Batts who can score and dish, along with a good forward in sophomore LaDontae Henderson, who’s knocking down 18 a game. Then you mix in the best of them all in Bryce Cotton, who’s averaging 22 ppg. If the Friars find some rebounding, maybe they can get those pieces to mesh as the season wears on.
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.
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 ESPN.com’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.