Notre Dame basketball is off to their best start in Mike Brey’s 15-year tenure as head coach. Monday night’s 71-70 road win in North Carolina moved the Irish to 15-1 overall and 3-0 in the ACC. With another big game against Virginia coming up Saturday night and then Duke coming to South Bend at the end of January, now is the time to ask whether this Notre Dame team is ready to compete with the big boys of the ACC.
The start is impressive, but issues regarding toughness linger. I should stress that I don’t refer to mental toughness or effort, but “basketball toughness” issues that pertain to defense and rebounding. Notre Dame ranks 161st in the country in defensive efficiency (a stat that adjusts for tempo, so teams that play at a quick pace with a high volume of possessions aren’t penalized). They play a four-guard offense that has an obvious effect on their ability to hit the boards.
Zach Auguste, the 6’10” junior that’s Notre Dame’s sole inside player does an admirable job, averaging 15 points/6 rebounds per game. But that’s not nearly enough to be a really good rebounding team. Notre Dame averages 35 rebounds per game. Duke, Virginia and Louisville, the Power Trio of the ACC this season, all average more. The defensive ranking is even more problematic, because two of the ACC’s best—Virginia and Louisville—are elite teams on the defensive end, each ranking in the top five. Duke is pretty good, ranking 17th. Notre Dame is nowhere in the ballpark.
And to make matters worse, the Irish schedule strength is 344th in the nation—only seven teams in the country have played a lower grade of competition. Thus, Notre Dame has had problems rebounding and defending against a soft schedule. Shouldn’t we be concerned about what happens when the competition level increases?
Perhaps, it’s certainly a red flag to keep an eye on. But before this turns into a requiem for Notre Dame’s ACC title chances, let’s consider the following…
*They beat Michigan State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, a 79-78 overtime win at home. The Spartans are justifiably the poster child for Big Ten toughness and Notre Dame was able to win.
*In the first three ACC games—against Florida State, Georgia Tech and North Carolina—the Irish held their conference opposition to 41% or less from the floor. None of the three are great teams, but all—particularly Carolina—are pretty good, and that’s a strong defensive outing. Well-coached teams improve, especially on defense. Brey is a good coach and it’s very likely his team is getting better in this area.
At the end of the day, Notre Dame isn’t going to defend or rebound its way to a conference championship or even into serious contention for one. But if they do those things “well enough” there will be a chance for the Irish to shoot their way to one.
The four guards all shoot the ball exceptionally well, and they have the range from three-point land. Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton are each seniors and combine for 31 ppg. Grant is the one least likely to hit a trey, but he distributes the ball and shoots 51 percent from the floor. Connaughton doesn’t have the height, but he averages eight rebounds a game. Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vastuna each hit 40 percent or better from behind the arc, the benchmark of a lights-out three-point shooter.
Will the Irish win the ACC title? Probably not. Duke and Virginia are both unbeaten and Louisville only has one loss. I suspect Notre Dame is the likeliest of those teams to lose a game they shouldn’t because shots just don’t fall on a certain night. But this is a Notre Dame team that appears to be getting better and has a chance to hang with the Blue Devils, Cavs and Cards into late February and early March in this conference race.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
Digger Phelps enjoyed a long and successful career as the Notre Dame basketball coach and today he’s a fixture on ESPN’s Gameday coverage with Rece Davis and Jay Bilas. Phelps was the architect behind several big wins, including ending UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in the John Wooden era. But only once did Phelps ever reach the Final Four, and that was 1978.
The 1978 Notre Dame basketball team had good balance throughout the lineup. Dave Bratton averaged 14 points/7 rebounds, and Don Williams chipped in quality offensive help. Kelly Tripucka was a talented freshman at small forward. Phelps had a couple players who could bang inside with Bruce Flowers and Bill Laimbeer, the latter one day to be an integral part of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons NBA championship teams in 1989-90, and one of the dirtiest players in basketball.
Notre Dame knocked off UCLA twice in close games, but lost a one-point crusher to Indiana and in overtime to fellow Midwest Jesuit independent DePaul. The Irish came up with a big win over defending national champion Marquette near the end of a season that saw them stay in the Top 10 all year and get as high as #2.
The NCAA Tournament was not seeded at this time, but Notre Dame—ranked sixth nationally—might as well have been considered the #2 seed in the Midwest bracket. DePaul was ranked third in the nation and the highest-ranked team in the regional.
Laimbeer led a balanced attack in the first round against the Houston Cougars, getting 20 points/9 rebounds and being one of five players in double figures, en route to a 100-77 win. The NCAA field was only 32 teams at this time, so the win ended the first weekend of play and sent Notre Dame to the regionals at Lawrence, KS.
Notre Dame met Utah in the round of 16 and pulled away in the second half to a 69-56 win behind 20 points from Tripucka. The other game of the night was the thriller—DePaul and Louisville went two overtimes before the Blue Demons won 90-89. It set up a battle of archrivals for a trip to the Final Four, but would DePaul have any gas left in the tank?
The answer was no. The Irish dominated the boards, with Tripucka and Laimbeer keying a decisive rebounding edge and the game was anticlimactic, as Notre Dame cruised to an 84-64 win. They were on their way to St. Louis for the 1978 Final Four.
Duke was the nation’s Cinderella story at the ’78 Final Four (and more than anything that tells just how long ago this was). The Blue Devils had gone from being one of the worst teams in the ACC to a national contender in the matter of a year and had three great college players in Gene Banks, Jim Spanarkel and Mike Gminski.
Notre Dame’s stars, Tripucka and Laimbeer played well and after trailing by fourteen at the half, turned it into a game down the stretch, but Duke held off Notre Dame and won 90-86. The Blue Devils would have the tables turned on them two nights later, making a noble rally at Kentucky before losing the NCAA final.
At the time, it seemed the stars were aligned for Digger Phelps and Notre Dame to continue making a big mark on college basketball and to return to this stage. It never happened. The Irish never again even reached a regional final, much less the Final Four. The life of independents continued to get harder and finally Phelps’ time just ran out.
But few have worked the sideline with as much flair and color as Digger did. The mid-to-late 1970s were high point, never more so then he led to the 1978 Notre Dame basketball team to what remains the school’s only Final Four appearance.
The power conference tournaments start to warm up tonight, with preliminary games in the Big East and Mountain West Conferences. The action picks up tomorrow and hits full stride by Friday when the best team in each league will have played at least one game. In today’s college basketball coverage, our question is going to be a philosophical one—what do these games actually mean?
Conference tournaments are stuck there in between the long, drawn-out battles of the regular season and the prestige-laden intensity of the NCAA Tournament. The media focus on those events focuses on two extremes—the first would be the teams that need wins to play their way into the field of 68. The second would be the elite teams and speculating on what they need to do to secure a #1 seed. There’s a third group of teams that gets overlooked though, and it’s ones that really need to win a championship of some kind to justify their season.
Well, maybe “justify” is too harsh a term. But I’m thinking about teams that had the talent to win a regular season titleand didn’t. They’ve had years good enough to be safely in the NCAA Tournament, but at this point they’ve haven’t done anything to earn hanging a banner or getting rings. And unless they make the Final Four—obviously a pretty tall order—then the conference tournament is the last chance. TheSportsNotebook will run through each of the eight major conferences and identify the team(s) who should be feeling a little extra heat to make it all the way and cut down the nets by this weekend.
Big East: Notre Dame—I put the onus on the Irish over Syracuse for the simple reason that I think Notre Dame has more talent and therefore should have higher expectations. Mike Brey’s team should have been in the mix for a Big East championship—they certainly have more talent than tri-champion Marquette, probably more than Georgetown and arguably more than Louisville. All three of those squads got championship hardware. Notre Dame needs to redeem itself this week in Madison Square Garden.
ACC:N.C. State—The easy answer here is Duke, to show that Miami’s regular season title was just about Ryan Kelly being injured. But Duke has ascended to a level where only the Final Four is seen as a success—I don’t think that’s fair or rational, but it’s the way it is. And N.C. State has been a serious disappointment. With 22 wins, they’ll make the NCAA Tournament, but the Wolfpack have the inside-outside balance that they should have been the team to take advantage of the Kelly injury and run to an ACC crown. At the very least, they can come out of the #5 seed, beat Virginia in the quarters, knock off Miami in the semis and set up a battle with Duke in the Sunday final.
Big Ten: Michigan—The Wolverines were within some missed free throws and an agonizingly close tip-in of sharing the conference title with Indiana. They had previously played themselves out of Big Ten supremacy by losing at Penn State and dropping a crazy game at Wisconsin because of a buzzer-beating halfcourt heave to force overtime. Michigan was a top-five team at the start of the year and been in the national conversation all year, but they’re sitting on the 5-seed in their own conference tournament. How about this for revenge—beat Penn State, Wisconsin and presumably Indiana in succession, and get to the final. With your revenge in hand, seal the deal with a tournament title.
SEC: No one—Okay, it’s a cop-out, but Florida was the heavy favorite to win this conference and they did. I suppose it would be nice for Missouri to step up and show what they can do with a healthy Laurence Bowers at the forward position. But the Tigers had a lot of personnel to replace and it’s no fairer to place this burden on them then it would to do so for Wisconsin in the Big Ten. No, the SEC is a tournament that fits the mainstream media narrative—there’s four bubble teams (Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss) that need wins and given the softness of this league, it wouldn’t surprise me to see someone play their way in from completely off the grid. Think Georgia in the 8-hole, with recent wins over Tennessee and Kentucky to build momentum.
Big 12: No one—Cop Out II. But what do you do when Kansas is a heavy favorite and gets a piece of the regular season title. Kansas State already feels great because they shared the crown. And no one else is so good that a tournament crown is necessary for vindication. This is actually the feel-good tournament of the year—only Baylor really has any pressure on them to advance.
Pac-12: Arizona—The folks in Oregon might protest, given the way the Ducks blew the regular season title to UCLA down the stretch. But Arizona has the horses to be a real national title contender and so far they have won nothing. The Wildcats absolutely have to win this event or they’re on the hook to be the disappointment of the season nationally, obviously pending the NCAA Tournament.
Atlantic 10: Butler/Virginia Commonwealth—These two teams were the powers-that-be and as such, the most disappointed at the way St. Louis angled in and took the conference championship. The pressure to cut down the nets at the Barclays Center is equal on both teams, but Butler has more pressure to at least have a generic good showing. The Bulldogs have slumped to a 5-seed and have to win four times in four days.
Mountain West: UNLV—The Rebels would be the choice here regardless of tournament venue—they were supposed to compete for the MWC title, but got started too late and let New Mexico run away. But the fact this tourney is in Las Vegas only heightens the pressure on UNLV to take their strong late-season play and produce a crown.
I don’t think winning a conference tournament is as significant of an accomplishment as winning the regular season. I certainly don’t put it in the ballpark with making the Final Four. But surely winning your league’s postseason event counts for something and the teams discussed here today all should have done something by now and have another chance.
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.
Indiana has fallen from its #1 perch atop the national rankings after Saturday’s overtime loss to Butler. In an early look at the top contenders in the Big Ten, I opined that the Hoosiers were overrated, as were the other highly regarded teams in the league, including Michigan. While I obviously stand by that view with IU, and also with Michigan, it has occurred to me that I’m running what amounts to a negative campaign, simply critiquing the teams at the top while offering no constructive alternative of my own. Today we’ll address that imbalance with a few college basketball title contenders I’m sold on.
On balance, I don’t consider this is a great year in college basketball, even by the increasingly watered-down standards we see with the early entries to the NBA. But even in comparison to last year I don’t see anyone as good as Kentucky, nor as good as Final Four teams Ohio State and Kansas, nor a healthy North Carolina, who might have won it all had Kendall Marshall not broken his wrist. But somebody has to be #1, and to be favorites to reach the Georgia Dome in April for the Final Four. There are three teams I like quite a bit right now and that’s Duke, Arizona & Notre Dame. Here’s why…
Duke: The Blue Devils are a rarely good bet in Las Vegas, as even when they’re good, the national popularity the team has means it’s tough to get decent odds on a futures wager, or a manageable point spread on a game-to-game basis. But if you want to throw gambling implications out the window, and just ask who has the basketball team, Duke was the correct choice to succeed Indiana as the #1 team in the nation.
From a short-term perspective, the Dookies have beaten Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State and then thrashed a pretty decent Temple team, so I’m not sure who else deserves to be at the top of the polls. But the long-term perspective is more important and Duke is getting a big year from center Mason Plumlee, with 19 points/11 rebounds.
This has always been the hinge on which Duke’s ultimate success swings. We’ve always counted on Mike Kryzyzewski to produce good backcourts and efficient teams. Whether the Blue Devils have been able to live up to the hype has depended on whether they have a quality big man, particularly when it comes to rebounding. When Duke won the 2010 NCAA title, they had Brian Zoubek, who didn’t score, but consistently grabbed double-digit rebounds. With Plumlee, the scoring is icing on the cake. The 11 rebounds a game are what make Duke a dangerous team, and they’ve got their traditional strength around the perimeter.
If you ever wanted to bet Duke to win a title, do it now, while the odds are a reasonable 7-1. That number’s going to drop as the tournament gets closer.
Arizona: Sean Miller’s team got a big 65-64 win over Florida on Saturday night, but that’s not what excites me. In fact, you can argue that needing a miracle rally in the closing minute to win on your home floor argues against your standing as a national contender. If the NCAA Tournament started today, I’d probably agree with you, but I love what the Wildcats have on the perimeter, with Nick Johnson and Mark Lyons, and Solomon Hill is a tremendous player on the wing. That’s a combination of experience, athleticism and outside shooting that make Arizona a threat to beat anyone.
The Wildcats then have the upside in 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski. If the freshman develops as the season wears on, Arizona will be a team with no weaknesses, and their current 12-1 odds to win it all will look like a steal. To top it off, Sean Miller is a coach you can count on in big situations.
Notre Dame: I simply can’t understand why this team is slipping under the radar. At 9-1, they’re only ranked 22nd in the country and the difficulty of the Big East schedule is going to prevent them from rising high in the polls. This is going to be a team that probably moves into the NCAA Tournament as a #4 seed, maybe even a 5, but will be extremely tough to knockout.
The Irish have a well-balanced team, starting with a great backcourt of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant. They both score and they both distribute, making Notre Dame a tough team to apply pressure too. ND is tough inside with Jack Cooley and Scott Martin both hitting the boards with a vengeance, and Cooley scoring 15 ppg.
It’s not a perfect team to be sure—Cooley’s the tallest player at 6’9”, so that could be a problem, in making the Irish too dependent on the perimeter game. But they have experience and quality at every position. And they are 60-1 to win the national championship. If I were at the Bellagio, be assured I’m not leaving without that ticket in my hand. Imagine the odds in August if you would have parlayed Notre Dame’s national championship numbers in both football and basketball. I do believe it can be a clean sweep in South Bend, something only Florida in 2006 has accomplished.
We’re a couple weeks out from the beginning of conference play, which to me is when college basketball gets serious. The first week in January—actually starting Monday, December 31, is when full league schedules start in the Big Ten, Pac-12 & Big East. Then on the weekend, ACC & Big 12 games pick up. As we move into the following week, the conference slates of the SEC, Mountain West and Atlantic 10 will kick off. So far, TheSportsNotebook has just looked at the contenders in each conference, but we’ll have an in-depth preview of all eight conferences before their league action begins.
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.