Big East Sleeper Teams

by Chris Mackinder | March 7th, 2006

West Virginia’s 2005 Big East Tournament was magical. Which Big East team will feel the same magic in 2006? That is the big question heading into Madison Square Garden for the Big East Conference Tournament.Last season, West Virginia struggled through the season and had an 18-9 overall record and an 8-8 mark in conference play. The Mountaineers hadn’t gotten much recognition, and, for the most part, they didn’t deserve it. They didn’t have marquee wins. They didn’t play a brutal schedule. They were just a middle-of-the-road team in one of the “BCS” conferences.

That all changed in the Big East Tournament. The Mountaineers drew the No. 8 seed and were slated to play No. 9 Providence in the first round. West Virginia routed the Friars, 82-59, keeping at-large hopes alive. Then, with the winner of the 8-9 game facing the Big East’s top seed, the Mountaineers had a date with Boston College. The Eagles, you may remember, started the season 20-0 before slumping down the stretch. West Virginia kept the Eagles slumping, handing them a 78-72 loss – also playing a role in BC getting a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament – and moved on to the Big East Tournament semifinals.

There the Mountaineers, now full of confidence, faced fourth-seeded Villanova. The game came down to the wire but the magic continued for West Virginia in a 78-76 win. In the championship game, the conference tourney run ended with a 68-59 loss to third-seeded Syracuse. But three wins in the conference tournament coupled with a spot in the tournament finals garnered 21-10 West Virginia a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Not bad for a team that had nearly booked its NIT tickets before the final weekend.

West Virginia didn’t feel the sting of the Syracuse loss too long. The Mountaineers beat 10th-seeded Creighton in the first round and then knocked off Final Four favorite Wake Forest in the second round. They overwhelmed Texas Tech in the Sweet 16 and led Louisville by 20 points in the second half with a spot in the Final Four on the line. Despite blowing the lead and eventually falling in overtime, West Virginia’s magical run was talked about for the remainder of the tournament and carried into this season.

That brings us back to Wednesday, which is the first round of the 2006 Big East Tournament. There are three teams that could be the 2006 version of the 2005 Mountaineers: Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame.

Syracuse had been “in” the NCAA Tournament for most of the season, starting 15-2, feasting on its traditionally pathetic nonconference schedule. But the Orange finished the conference season 7-9 and in ninth place. While two wins are what Syracuse needs to get back in the Field of 65, not many people are expecting Gerry McNamara & Co. to beat eighth-seeded Cincinnati, let alone top-seeded UConn – the opponent for the 8-9 game winner. The most likely destination for the Orange is the NIT.

Louisville, which started the season No. 7 in the AP poll and No. 8 in the ESPN/USA Today Poll (hard to believe isn’t it), feasted on nobodies and lost to all the big boys. The result is a current 18-11 record, 6-10 in the Big East, and the No. 11 seed in the conference tournament. The Cardinals’ biggest wins – Cincinnati and Marquette – are nice, but not breathtaking. All the other tough games (Kentucky, UConn [twice], Villanova [twice], West Virginia and Pittsburgh) were all losses.

A lot is being attributed to Louisville’s injury problems. But it seems to be, and coach Rick Pitino has said, it’s more. He said he team isn’t that talented and it would struggle this year. Well, he was right, but this is his chance to work some magic. With a winnable first round game against Pittsburgh – a team it lost to 61-57 during the year – the Cardinals have a decent chance to get to the tourney quarterfinals. There, Louisville would meet third-seeded West Virginia – a team struggling as of late and a team Louisville doesn’t fear (see 2005 Elite Eight contest). Two wins and a close call against Villanova in the tourney semifinals could get Louisville the conference’s ninth bid. But expect Louisville’s bubble to burst.

That leaves us with Notre Dame – “the best 15-12 team in the country” according to many experts. Notre Dame’s 10 conference losses have come by 35 points. That includes a 100-97 double OT loss to Pitt, a 67-65 loss to Marquette, a 85-82 double OT loss to Georgetown, a 72-70 loss to Villanova, a 71-70 loss to West Virginia, a 89-86 OT loss to Louisville and a 75-74 OT loss to UConn.

“When you’ve been in the business as long as I have, you see a little bit of everything,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “This is pretty weird though… This is survival of the fittest in a brutal league.”

Don’t forget, Notre Dame won at Alabama and beat CAA bubble team Hofstra by 19 earlier in the year. The problem lies in the fact the Irish haven’t beaten anyone solid in the Big East. But the Irish’s first goal was making the Big East Tournament and Notre Dame’s done that. Granted, the Irish nabbed the 12th and final seed in the league tourney. But now that its there, Notre Dame feels it can make a run. And it can.

“I consider us to be a great team,” Quinn said. “I feel confident taking this team up against anybody.”

He gets the chance Wednesday. Notre Dame’s first round game is against fifth-seeded Georgetown, a team that has struggled down the stretch. A win there would give the Irish a second round game against fourth-seeded Marquette. While the Golden Eagles are surging and looking at a nice NCAA Tournament seed, there is no reason the Irish can’t eke out a victory in the third meeting this year. After that, Notre Dame would most likely face top-seeded UConn in the semifinals. A win in that game and not only would Notre Dame get a spot in the tourney finals, the Irish might have done enough to earn an NCAA bid. It doesn’t look likely that Notre Dame can dig deep enough to win three games – against three NCAA Tournament-bound teams – in three days. But, the same was said about West Virginia last year and we all know what happened.

If the Irish win two games and give UConn a run in the semifinals, Notre Dame will get serious consideration for an at-large bid. If the Irish beat the Huskies, they’re in the Field of 65.

If the selection committee’s job is to find the best 34 at-large teams, a 17- or 18-win Notre Dame squad that’s hot at the right time should be included. Now the Irish will try and make it happen.

West Virginia’s 2005 run:
First round: No. 8 West Virginia 82, No. 9 Providence 59
Quarterfinals: West Virginia 78, No. 1 Boston College 72
Semifinals: West Virginia 78, No. 4 Villanova 76
Finals: No. 3 Syracuse 68, West Virginia 59

Notre Dame’s possible 2006 run:
First round: No. 12 Notre Dame vs. No. 5 Georgetown
Quarterfinals: Notre Dame vs. No. 4 Marquette
Semifinals: Notre Dame vs. No. 1 Connecticut
Finals: Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Villanova

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