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Big East Tourney Preview
by Al McMordie - 03/07/2006
This year's Big East tournament is unique because of so many new additions to the conference this season. The Big East has always been stocked with talented teams, but newcomers include Louisville, Cincinnati, and Marquette making this almost a super-conference. When the newcomers met on the football field last fall it was one thing, but the conference has clearly bulked up to impress on the hardwood. And March is the time to step up and impress!
The team to beat is still mighty Connecticut. Jim Calhoun has a powerful frontcourt under the glass in 6-9 sophomore Rudy Gay, 6-10 junior Josh Boone and 6-11 senior Hilton Armstrong. Add to the mix seniors Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown, and junior point guard Marcus Williams, and UConn has one deep and dynamite line up. UConn led the Big East in rebounds and blocks, with over 9 per contest. And they set a conference record recently with 19 blocks in one game!
Keep in mind that UConn can beat teams in a variety of ways -- running the break (81 ppg), or playing a halfcourt, low post game. The Huskies are an impressive 8-2 straight up, 7-3 against the spread on the road. This is important as the Big East tournament takes place in Madison Square Garden this week. UConn is also battle-tested, having beaten LSU, Arizona, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Syracuse, Louisville, and Pitt.
A team that hopes to give UConn a run is Pitt. The Panthers play solid defense, and feature veteran point guard Carl Krauser and a huge frontcourt of their own behind 7-foot Aaron Gray and 6-9 Levon Kendall. Gray leads the Big East in rebounds. They impressed me a lot when they lost by just 4 points, 80-76, at UConn (covering as a +9 dog). However, they come into the tourney in a slump, losing three of their final four games. Last Friday, they lost at home 65-61 to Seton Hall as an 11-point favorite, which ended their 16-game home winning streak. Pitt's late-season slump dropped the Panthers to the No. 6 seed in the Big East tournament. And they were in position to secure the No. 4 spot but also lost to rival West Virginia last week.
The most interesting team is Villanova, an undersized team that wins by pushing the ball up the court behind a trio of electric guards of Randy Foye, senior Allan Ray and junior Mike Nardi. Villanova's most impressive win this year came at home against UConn (then ranked #1), as the Wildcats stormed from behind to win 69-64. But the Huskies got some revenge in the rematch 10 days ago. Villanova leads the Big East in three-point shooting, but don't ignore the fact that they also play strong defense, allowing just 63 ppg.
The long shot that has the best chance of surprising might be West Virginia. The Mountaineers can step back and nail unblockable three-pointers from its one-two punch in 7-foot Kevin Pittsnogle and guard Mike Gansey. The Mountaineers also average almost 10 steals per game. However, ever since that win at UCLA, West Virginia is a less-than-impressive 6-6 straight up and 4-8 against the spread, which included a 3-game losing streak. The only consolation is to go back and look at their last 13 games: Every one has been close! During that run, their biggest win was 8 points and the biggest loss was by 7. Expect the unexpected as March tournament play gets underway, but the one thing you will see plenty of is some great basketball, especially in the Big East. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.