Without question, the Big East is the deepest, most talented basketball conference in the country. Here are a few of the major story lines that should unfold this week at Madison Square Garden:
Ten Big East teams won at least 18 games and finished .500 or better in conference play while beating nationally ranked teams, but only the top six seeds seem assured of NCAA berths. Assuming South Florida (19-11, 9-9) and Seton Hall (18-11, 9-9) win their first-round games, the USF-Georgetown game and the SHU-Notre Dame game in the second round might well determine who gets off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament. Bobby Gonzalez's Pirates defeated the Irish (21-10, 10-8) earlier this season, and a 2-0 mark against them would help big-time. The same holds true for the Bulls, who are the surprise team in the Big East and previously defeated the Hoyas (20-9, 10-8).
The 1-2 punch
Although the Big East dominated the national rankings much of this season, only Syracuse (28-3, 15-3) made it all the way to the No. 1 spot before losing the regular-season finale at Louisville, and Villanova (24-6, 13-5) climbed as high as No. 2 at 20-1 before going 4-5 down the stretch. No. 3 Syracuse most likely will get a No. 1 regional seed in the NCAAs no matter what it does in the Big East Tournament, but No. 10 Villanova is looking at a third seed unless it wins the tournament. Orange coach Jim Boeheim has said he might rest star Wesley Johnson, who has a hand injury, if it hasn't improved by game time Thursday.
Mountaineers or Metromen?
At the preseason news conference, UConn coach Jim Calhoun predicted Bob Huggins' West Virginia team might be the one to beat in the Big East by season's end. Sure enough, the No. 7 Mountaineers (24-6, 13-5) have won 11 of their past 14 games, including an overtime win at Villanova and a heavyweight bout with No. 5 Ohio State of the Big Ten. Huggins' team should be as comfortable as anyone at the Garden, considering all five starters are from the metropolitan area. Da'Sean Butler is from Newark, and Wellington Smith is from Summit, N.J. Devin Ebanks (Long Island City), Kevin Jones (Mount Vernon) and Darryl Bryant (Brooklyn) are from east of the Hudson River.
these guys?This was supposed to be a down year for No. 16 Pitt (24-7, 13-5), which lost in the NCAA's Elite Eight last season, but the Panthers' no-name roster nonetheless has managed to knock off Syracuse, Villanova and West Virginia while playing a rugged brand of ball. Guard Ashton Gibbs made All-Big East second team, but guard Brad Wanamaker epitomizes Pitt's toughness with his ability to go inside. Marquette (20-10, 11-7) and Louisville (20-11, 11-7) are unranked but seeded higher in the Big East than No. 22 Georgetown. The Golden Eagles have second-team All-Big East forward Lazar Hayward, and Cardinals forward Samardo Samuels made the third team. But swing man Jimmy Butler has made key shots for Marquette, and Louisville forward Jared Swopshire makes little plays that add up.
Double bye might go bye-byeThis is only the second season of tournament play with the double-bye system that rewards the top four teams with a pass to the quarters and the next four with a bye to the second round. That means the bottom eight would have to win five straight games in five days to win the title, an impossible obstacle course.
But the top seeds don't necessarily welcome all the down time. The league's coaches voted for all 16 teams to play first-round games with the top four seeds playing the first day and getting a day off the second day. It might happen next season.