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Men’s Basketball: First place up for grabs at top of Big East pack

Chris Khorey | Tuesday, February 26, 2008

After a murky beginning, the teams of the Big East are beginning to separate as the conference tourney draws near.

Most of the league has three games remaining, while some teams, like the Irish, have four. The top 12 teams in the 16-squad conference make the Big East tournament two weeks from now in New York, with the top four teams getting a bye.

Three teams – Georgetown, Louisville, and Notre Dame – are tied at the top in the loss column with three losses apiece, while Connecticut and Marquette loom beyond with four and five losses respectively.

Behind those top squads, several teams are trying desperately to get a few more wins to solidify their places in the NCAA Tournament.

The Big Three

The Hoyas and Cardinals are tied at the top of the league at 12-3, with the Irish close on their heels at 11-3. All three are in good position to earn a bye in the first round of the conference tournament, but the main goal for these three is to win the regular season conference championship.

Georgetown started the conference season hot, winning nine of its first 10 league games. Recently, however, the Hoyas have faltered, losing to Louisville and Syracuse.

Over the next two weeks, Georgetown has two more major tests – a visit to Milwaukee to play Marquette and a rematch with Louisville in Washington. The Hoyas finish up with a game against bottom-feeder St. John’s.

Louisville might have the toughest road through the final stretch of the season. It faces Georgetown and a home match-up with the Irish. The Cardinals will also play a home game against Villanova, which will be fighting for its NCAA Tournament life.

Despite having to play the Cardinals on Thursday, Notre Dame might have the easiest schedule of the three. After taking on Louisville, the Irish play DePaul, St. John’s and South Florida, none of who have a winning record in conference play.

The conference championship can be shared between two or more teams, but only one can claim the No. 1 seed in New York.

Head-to-head record is the first tie-breaker, which Georgetown holds over Notre Dame. The winner of Notre Dame’s game with Louisville would hold the tie-breaker between those two and Louisville holds the tie-breaker over Georgetown.

The second tie-breaker is record against common conference opponents, in order from best team to worst.

Chasing a bye

Until a 66-62 loss to Villanova Saturday, Connecticut (10-4) was one of the teams focusing on the conference title. But because of that loss and Marquette’s wins over Rutgers and Villanova, the Huskies find themselves just one game ahead in the loss column of the 11-5 Golden Eagles for the final bye in the Big East tournament.

Connecticut has a pretty easy road ahead of it. Its only away games are at Rutgers and Providence, and they finish the season with slumping Cincinnati. West Virginia may provide a test, but that game is at home.

Marquette is almost the exact opposite of the Huskies. It has a huge game with Georgetown and has to travel to Syracuse on the last weekend of the season for what will probably be a must-win game for the Orange.

They also step out of conference to play Florida Gulf Coast, a team the Golden Eagles figure to rout, but by playing an extra game they run the risk of injuries and fatigue.

On the bubble

The top five teams in the Big East are all considered locks for the NCAA Tournament, but right behind them is another group that is fighting for the final two or three spots the conference will earn in the Big Dance.

West Virginia (8-6) has been up and down all season, and it needs to finish on a high note to get a bid. A win over Connecticut would do wonders for the Mountaineers, and a win in their rivalry match-up with Pittsburgh on March 3 would both help their resume and hurt the Panthers. They also have games against DePaul and Saint John’s.

For its part, Pittsburgh missed two huge opportunities for resume-building wins this weekend by losing to Notre Dame and Louisville. The Panthers started the season 11-0, including a win over Duke, but have been bitten by the injury bug and are just 7-7 in the Big East. Like the Mountaineers, the Panthers are looking forward to March 3. The rest of their games in conference – against Cincinnati, Syracuse, West Virginia, and DePaul – provides a chance for the Panthers to get back in the Tournament.

Villanova added a major resume-building win Saturday against Connecticut but fell short to Marquette Monday. The Wildcats (7-8) were ranked for much of the early season but fell by the wayside with a five-game losing streak in late January. They get another shot at a big win on March 2 against Louisville.

Syracuse (7-8) is on life-support for a bid. The Orange have a big win over Georgetown, but have lost four of their last five. They still have big games left against Pittsburgh and Marquette.

Cincinnati sits at 8-6 in conference play and will probably beat out some of the above teams for Big East tournament seeding. However, the Bearcats had an ugly non-conference experience and are only 13-13 overall. They have a chance to play spoiler against Pittsburgh Wednesday and when they visit Connecticut in their regular season finale.

Hoping to get to New York

The top 10 teams in the conference all feel comfortable about their prospective trips to Madison Square Garden (although if Syracuse falls apart, it could be left out). However, there is a logjam in slots 10-14 and only two of those teams can get to the conference tournament.

If the season ended today, Seton Hall (6-8) and DePaul (5-9) would be in, but hot on their heels are St. John’s (4-10) and Providence (4-11).

South Florida (2-12) and Rutgers (2-13) need monumental collapses by the teams in front of them to make the conference tournament and are just hoping to stay out of the Big East cellar.