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Men’s Basketball: Big East race heats up

Pat Leonard | Friday, February 24, 2006

When Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese expanded the conference from 12 to 16 teams prior to this season, he envisioned parity down the stretch within the nation’s largest conference.

But he couldn’t have seen this coming.

The Big East tournament begins in fewer than two weeks on March 8. Twelve teams will make the tournament, and right now, nine are all but in.

Villanova (12-1), Connecticut (11-2), Pittsburgh (9-4), West Virginia (9-4), Georgetown (9-5) and Marquette (8-5) are guaranteed births, respectively. Seton Hall (7-6), Syracuse (7-6) and Cincinnati (7-7) could slide in a worst-case scenario, but their schedules are not daunting enough to encourage possible fallout.

So that leaves the Big East with six teams competing for its final three spots.

South Florida cannot qualify, being 0-13 with just three remaining games.

But Louisville, Providence, St. John’s, Rutgers, Notre Dame and DePaul all have feasible chances of qualifying for the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been a league where so much attention has been paid [to] the bottom seven [teams] the last week of the season,” Irish coach Mike Brey said Monday.

There hasn’t. Here’s the attention:

In control … sort of

Notre Dame needs wins, and that’s up to them. It doesn’t get much simpler. The Irish are in control of their own, hanging destiny.

They are No. 14 in the Big East heading into Saturday’s home game against Marquette. The current seed would make them ineligible for the conference tournament if the regular season ended today.

But it doesn’t, and if Notre Dame (4-9) can win at least two of its final three regular season games, it could be in good shape.

The magic number is seven. Most likely, any team that finishes with seven or more wins will make the tournament. The Irish play Marquette (home) Saturday, Providence (away) Wednesday and DePaul (home) on March 4. To reach the magic number, the Irish would have to win out.

But winning only two still could slide Notre Dame past competing teams with brutal remaining schedules.

Louisville and Providence sit ahead of Notre Dame at No. 10 and 11. Both teams are 5-8 in the conference with three games to go, and the Cardinals win a tiebreaker with the Friars because they beat them, 72-67, on Jan. 2. But each team has arguably its most difficult schedule stretch remaining.

Louisville must face West Virginia, Marquette and Connecticut to close its inaugural Big East season. Providence must go on the road at Pittsburgh and Marquette and sandwich a home game with Notre Dame.

And that’s only the beginning. Though the Cardinals and Friars are ahead of Notre Dame and could win their big games to remain there, Rutgers has a comparable record (5-9) and a more promising future.

The Scarlet Knights (No. 13 Big East) face winless South Florida on Sunday and then finish their regular season against St. John’s March 5. The Johnnies are one spot ahead of Rutgers by tiebreaker because of a 54-51 victory on Feb. 15, but the next meeting of these two teams could bump one in and eliminate the other.

Rutgers has the edge there, since St. John’s also has a date with Villanova Wednesday.

And that leaves DePaul, which is 3-10 with remaining games against Seton Hall (Saturday), Syracuse (Thursday) and Notre Dame (March 4). With that schedule, the only way the Blue Demons could catch the Irish is by beating them head-to-head, which they already did once, 73-67, on Jan. 7.

But DePaul is in trouble with fewer wins than Notre Dame and a tough schedule. Louisville is playing well but running smack into a brick wall of opponents at the worst possible time. And St. John’s and Providence both have daunting tasks in their remaining games.

That leaves Rutgers and Notre Dame. The first has the easiest upcoming games of all seven teams and five wins. The second has four wins but less imposing games ahead.

So does that mean since Notre Dame has won three of its last four, nearly defeated Connecticut and has a better remaining schedule, that the Irish will make the Big East tournament?

No, but it does mean they have complete control of their own destiny. Four and five wins won’t get them in. Six could. Seven would.

“This is gonna get interesting,” Brey said Monday of the furious race for 10 through 12.

There’s no doubt about it.