Sports

Picking Splinters: How the Hoyas, Big East Faltered

This is ugly.

Here we are just one weekend into the NCAA tournament and my bracket is mutilated beyond all recognition. I haven’t seen this many red X’s since my organic chemistry final.

While Ali (Farokhmanesh) may have struck the knockout blow by leading Northern Iowa over Kansas, the biggest bracket-busting culprit was the Big East. Villanova, Marquette and Pitt to the Sweet 16? Not so much. Georgetown to the Elite Eight? Ugh. My one consolation was picking Old Dominion over Notre Dame, so I was able to look smart for at least the first half hour of the tournament.

The premature losses cost me a quarter of my Sweet 16 teams, but more importantly it’s meant that I’ve been faced with the same question roughly 4,652 times since Sunday (yes, I’ve been counting): What the heck happened to the Big East?

The answer I’ve come up with: Given the regular season, nothing unusual.

Listen, I know that the perception coming into the tournament was that the Big East was the nation’s toughest conference. And I know that it seems logical that teams that are tested (and succeed) in a tough conference should outperform those in weaker conferences when matched head to head (as it did last year). But if there’s one thing this tournament has taught us (in addition to the proper spelling of Ali Farokhmanesh – the silent “h” represents the way he silenced Kansas fans) it’s that games need to be taken on a case by case basis.

Start with Marquette.

Sure the Pac-10 was down this year and the Golden Eagles entered the tournament on an 11-3 tear through the Big East. What’s not to like? Well, look closer and you’ll see that of those 11 teams Marquette beat in the stretch run, just two of them qualified for the NCAA Tournament – Louisville and Villanova. And while Washington had some disappointing losses this season, the Huskies were still the second-best team in the Pac-10, if not the best. Was the result surprising? A two-point loss at the buzzer is hardly a clear sign of superiority and the biggest difference between the two teams was their seeding. Play this game at the start of the season and I doubt anyone even thinks of it as an upset. If anything, they’d give a young Marquette team credit for hanging tough against a Huskies squad that was picked to dominate the Pac-10 prior to the season.

Villanova has lacked an inside game all season long. As soon as the Wildcats were matched up against Omar Samhan and St. Mary’s they were in trouble. ‘Nova’s Big East opponents exploited the ‘Cats lack of a big man to trip them up five times in seven games down the stretch. Frankly, Villanova was overseeded at No. 2, having lost to every tournament-caliber team it played since Feb. 8.

Look at the final box score and you’ll see Villanova’s bugaboo from the regular season bit them again in the tournament: fouls. The hack-tastic ‘Cats couldn’t guard anyone this year without fouling. St. Mary’s was no different. A 20-26 performance from the line by St. Mary’s and ‘Nova’s flaw finally proved fatal.

The most shocking loss, by far, from the Big East was Georgetown’s. Forget the seeding. Ohio had a losing record in its own conference.  Meanwhile Georgetown was clicking on all cylinders after a run to the Big East tournament final.

If Georgetown has proved anything this season though, it’s that the bottom can drop out at any time. And in the first round of the NCAA’s, the trap door swung wide open. In its losses to Old Dominion, Marquette, Rutgers and South Florida this season, three different factors cost GU: 3-point shooting, lax defense and turnovers. Last Thursday all three converged to kill the Hoyas.

Georgetown allowed Ohio to shoot 19-32 inside the arc, despite a solid size advantage. It gave up 13 3-pointers, and coughed up the basketball 18 teams. That’s the perfect storm right there. And it capsized a Georgetown ship that seemed unsinkable. Now we know it was the Titanic.

Each of these losses is explainable, and logical, when you look at them one at a time. What was shocking was that it happened to so many Big East teams so quickly. Anyone suggesting, however, that the Big East was somehow a sham is way off base. It’s just that, for four days, six teams fell flat for 40 minutes. And in the NCAA tournament, that’s all it takes.