Big East Battle Royale

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

VILLANOVA/NOTRE DAME THE NEXT BIG BEAST BRAWL

There's never a day to rest in the Big East. Sunday saw #16 Louisville beat #6 Pittsburgh in overtime, and #15Connecticut win a big road game at Cincinnati. Tonight brings #14 Villanova at #9 Notre Dame in another important conference showdown that will influence seeding in the Big East tourney, and possibly the NCAA Tournament too.

We wrap up our look at the major conferences today with margin averages and two-point defensive stats for the Big East. That will end the regular season conference spotlights. But, don't look now, the postseason starts Tuesday with the Horizon League tournament!

Here's a look at our key indicator stats in the best conference in the nation. We start with margin averages, which can be used as virtual Power Ratings this deep into the season because they represent point differentials against very similar schedule strengths.

BIG EAST MARGIN AVERAGES
Pittsburgh: +9.5
Notre Dame: +3.9
Louisville: +3.6
Syracuse: +3.2
Villanova: +3.0
West Virginia: +2.9
Marquette: +2.5
Cincinnati: +1.8
St. John's: +1.3
Connecticut: +1.3
Georgetown: +0.9
Seton Hall: -3.4
Providence: -5.3
Rutgers: -5.3
South Florida: -6.5
DePaul: -13.0

It's amazing how little separates the teams in positive range. Most of them are within a trey of each other, meaning neutral site games at the Big East tourney next week are going to be toss-ups. Note that St. John's is better than this metric would show because they're in significantly better form now than they were in the first couple weeks of league play. And, we are seeing some ebb and flow lately that has some of the 'quality' hunk playing worse than those numbers would suggest (Georgetown and Villanova for example). This is a competitive conference though where teams often blow hot and cold down the stretch, only to see the winds reverse in the postseason.

Let's also remember that West Virginia was just 5-3 in its final eight Big East regular season games last year...before winning the Big East tournament AND making it all the way to the Final Four before losing to eventual champion Duke. You just never know. The Big East is THAT good. One or two of the teams you see listed above may reach the Final four...but it could be ANY of the teams in positive territory right now if they get things rolling.

We move now to two-point defense, the single most important stat in the colleges in our view because it tells you so much about a team, about the head coach, and about the ability to win in playoff style basketball games.

BIG EAST TWO-POINT DEFENSES
Connecticut: 42%
Pittsburgh: 43%
Notre Dame: 43%
Louisville: 44%
Syracuse: 44%
Rutgers: 44%
Georgetown: 45%
Cincinnati: 45%
Villanova: 45%
South Florida: 45%
Seton Hall: 46%
St. John's: 47%
West Virginia: 47%
Marquette: 49%
Providence: 49%
DePaul: 54%

This is a conference that always emphasizes defenses, size, quickness, and athleticism. It's just as much a D-League as the NBA's actual D-League! Well, in terms of the best teams and best players it is. You've read a lot of these by now this season. How many leagues have THAT many teams at 44% or better? How many teams have the vast majority of their full roster at 47% or better? DEFENSE wins championships!

In fairness, this can mean that the Big East doesn't have a lot of great shooters. We'll admit that. And, we've said that in other conferences. This many numbers THIS low is likely a reflection of great defense AND some questionable shooting. When you recruit athletes, you're not always getting delicate shooting touches. Jimmer Fredette grew up in New York but didn't really fit the Big East mold.

Problem areas to us up above would be anyone below 45%. St. John's is a disappointment at 47%, but they're playing better than that lately. Fate probably won't smile on West Virginia two years in a row, particularly with a 47% defense. Marquette is a surprise way down at 49%. You have to shoot great every game to make up for something like that. Tough to do in a tournament format when there's so little margin for error.

We can probably say this fairly safely right now. Whoever does eventually avoid the minefield and sneak through to the later rounds in the Big Dance will be doing that on the shoulders of an intense defense.

BIG EAST BRACKETOLOGY
Projected #1 seed: Pittsburgh
Projected #3 seeds: Notre Dame, Georgetown
Projected #4 seeds: Louisville, Syracuse, Villanova
Projected #5 seed: Connecticut
Projected #6 seed: St. John's, West Virginia
Projected #7 seed: Cincinnati
Projected #10 seed: Marquette

ESPN may have updated by the time you read this. But, so deep into the season, there won't be significant changes. Right now it looks like 11 teams are going to make it. Marquette is fairly safe because it's the 11-12 slots on the ladder that are on the bubble. Everyone else is in the upper half of the brackets.

The Big East will have favorable seed positions. That was true last year though and several disappointed. We're concerned again that the brutal nature of the conference wars wear down too many teams. Ironically, the Big East is set up to play its worst basketball when it needs to play its best.

Among last year's teams who didn't play to their seed:
#1 seed Syracuse lost its Sweet 16 game to #5 seed Butler
#2 seed Villanova lost to #10 St. Mary's after barely surviving #15 Robert Morris
#3 seed Georgetown lost its opener to #14 Ohio
#3 seed Pittsburgh lost its second round game to #6 Xavier
#6 seed Notre Dame lost its opener to #11 Old Dominion
#6 seed Marquette lost its opener to #11 Washington
#9 seed Louisville was crushed by #8 California in a pick-em game

West Virginia was a #2 seed, and the Mountaineers were the only team from a lethal conference to carry the Big East banner successfully. Frankly, it was a pretty humiliating performance for the group as a whole. Villanova and Georgetown in particular had a lot to be embarrassed about.

As fans of defense and rebounding, we love Big East regular season games. As responsible handicappers, we can't forget what happened last year in the Big Dance. It will be very interesting to see if Big East teams learned from last year's debacle.

This Week's Big Games:

Tonight:
Villanova at Notre Dame

Wednesday:
Connecticut at West Virginia on ESPN2
Cincinnati at Marquette

Saturday:
Louisville at West Virginia on ESPN
Georgetown at Cincinnati
Notre Dame at Connecticut on ESPN
Villanova at Pittsburgh on CBS

The Big East tournament starts a week from tomorrow with First Round action at Madison Square Garden.

Monday's schedule is light, so it's VERY likely that JIM HURLEY will have a release for you in tonight's Villanova/Notre Dame game, and the Kansas State/Texas thriller that follows it on ESPN's Big Monday. You can purchase BIG JUICY WINNERS here at the website every day. Or, sign up for the rest of the season to enjoy the most bang for your buck.

Don't forget that MARCH MADNESS officially starts Tuesday with First Round games at school sites in the Horizon tournament. March 1st brings the first postseason action! We'll run our indicator stats for you in that event right here in Tuesday's NOTEBOOK. We'll look at the Missouri Valley and Colonial tournaments in our Thursday report, the West Coast tourney on Friday, and the Sun Belt on Saturday, amidst other college coverage.

Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports. And, sign up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK to MAKE THE MOST of MARCH MADNESS!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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