Big East wide open

The 2001-02 college basketball regular season began and will conclude with three Big East teams in the top 25 poll. However, the Big East has had a roller coaster of a season, as three new teams have arisen as the conference leaders, and the so-called favorites are now battling for their post-season lives.

Top 25 teams, Pittsburgh (23-4, 13-3), Miami (23-6, 10-6), and Connecticut (21-6, 13-3), are a lock for the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame (20-9, 10-6) and St. Johns (19-10, 9-7) appear to have also landed down spots for the postseason. Despite Sunday’s loss at Villanova, the Johnnies probably secured its spot in the NCAA Tournament by beating Notre Dame last week to improve its record against top 50 RPI teams to 6-5.

Not one of these teams was ranked entering the season.

The Big East’s defending champions, Boston College (19-10, 8-8), beat Syracuse (20-10, 9-7) on Sunday. As a result, both teams are on the bubble and must go deep in the Big East tournament to secure bids. Both teams, along with Georgetown (18-10, 9-7) began the season ranked and have all dropped out. Georgetown must win the Big East tournament to secure a spot in the NCAA tourney.

After Notre Dame handed Miami an embarrassing 90-77 loss on Feb. 23 at the Miami Arena, the Hurricanes rebounded with two straight victories over Providence and Virginia Tech to finish the regular season. As the No. 2 seed out of the East, Miami has a first round buy and will play the winner of Syracuse and Seton Hall. The ‘Canes have not faced either team this year. It is vital for Miami to fare well in the tournament to increase its seed in the NCAAs.

“I have to say how proud I am of this team and what it has done this season in a very tough conference,” UM coach Perry Clark said. “But that said, we have to put it behind us. Our focus now is the Big East Tournament and the NCAAs.”

Pittsburgh (No. 8 ESPN/USA Today Coach’s Poll, No. 10 AP) has emerged as the team to beat in the Big East Tournament. Junior guard Brandin Knight, who averages 15.6 points, five rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game, leads the Panthers. Knight appears to be the frontrunner for Big East Player of the Year. The Panthers are riding a seven game winning streak entering the tournament, and will play the winner of Boston College and Rutgers.

Connecticut (No. 23 ESPN/USA Today Coach’s Poll) has also won its last seven contests, and are making a case for Caron Butler to win the Player of the Year. Butler averages 19.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. The Huskies have a dominating presence on the blocks, in 6-9 freshman Emeka Okafor. Okafor leads the nation in blocks, with 4.4 per game and also pulls down nine boards a contest. UConn is on the rise and will play the winner of Georgetown and Villanova.

Star freshman point guard Chris Thomas and senior forward Ryan Humphrey lead an underrated Notre Dame Squad. Thomas averages 16 points and 7.5 assists, while Humphrey averages a double-double with 18.9 points and 10.6 rebounds a contest. Thomas lit up the Hurricanes on Feb. 23 with 32 points and 12 assists. When Thomas complements Humphrey’s down low presence, the Fighting Irish are tough to beat. Notre Dame will face the winner of St. Johns and Providence.

As always, the Big East Tournament is up for grabs. The conference definetely will have five teams playing in the Big Dance, with a strong possibility with a sixth invitee. The Big East had an extremely successful and surprising regular season, and has strong hopes of continuing its success in the NCAA tournament.