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Men’s Basketball Analysis: View from the bottom

Fran Tolan | Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Notre Dame basically has a giant fork sticking out of its back, but at least the rest of the Big East race is shaking out to be a good one. Marquette’s consecutive losses to South Florida and Villanova make the Golden Eagles’ Feb. 25 matchup with Connecticut even more critical. Louisville, meanwhile, has just one loss, putting the Cardinals in a virtual tie for first place with the Huskies. (More good news for Notre Dame: it gets to play Louisville this Thursday.) As Marquette, Pittsburgh and Villanova battle it out for the final all-important top-four conference tournament seeds, a slew of other squads will compete for spots in the top-eight.Here’s a look at how the race looks – starting at the bottom, of course, because that’s where Notre Dame finds itself now.

Might as well be in the Mountain West: Notre Dame (12-10, 3-7), South Florida (8-15, 3-8), St. John’s (12-11, 3-8), Rutgers (10-14, 1-10), DePaul (8-16, 0-12)At the beginning of the season, nobody would have guessed the Irish would be in this category. But against every top-tier opponent, the team has looked like a mid-major: no confidence, bad decisions, lack of poise.On the bright side, Notre Dame still gets to play three of its fellow bottom-dwellers. However, South Florida knocked off previously-unbeaten Marquette this weekend. (Don’t look up at the 10th floor of the Hesburgh Library, because everyone with tickets to Sunday’s ND-USF game is about to jump.)

Even Stevens: No. 22 Syracuse (18-6, 6-5), Cincinnati (16-8, 6-5), Providence (15-9, 7-5), West Virginia (16-8, 5-6), Seton Hall (13-9, 5-6), Georgetown (13-9, 4-7)Of these six teams, none actually has a .500 record. Still, I just saw the Seinfeld episode where everything always evens out for Jerry and thought “Even Stevens” would be a good name for the group.Each of these teams covets a spot in the top eight and a subsequent bye on the Tuesday of the Big East tournament. But only three of the six will be seeded that high. The others will play on the first day against the dregs of the conference (plus Notre Dame, most likely). Look for Georgetown to make a late push for a top-eight spot. They’re not nearly as bad as they’ve been playing. (Sound familiar?) Plus, the Hoyas still get to face South Florida, St. John’s and DePaul and will take on Marquette and Louisville at home.Meanwhile, Cincinnati has been improving steadily as Syracuse and Providence come back to earth. Sweet-shooting Deonta Vaughn and the Bearcats could be good for an upset or two at the conference tourney in New York.

The Starting Five: No. 1 Connecticut (22-1, 10-1), No. 5 Louisville (18-4, 9-1), No. 4 Pittsburgh (22-2, 9-2), No. 10 Marquette (20-4, 9-2), No. 13 Villanova (20-4, 8-3)At this point, the top four of this group look like they should each get a top-three seed in the Big Dance. On Thursday, Notre Dame gets a chance at a legitimate big win against Louisville. But it won’t be easy for forward Luke Harangody to rebound against the Cardinals’ frontcourt of Earl Clark, Terrence Williams and Samardo Samuels, which is playing its best basketball of the year.The Irish still have to play Villanova and at Connecticut – a game that looks increasingly daunting. In the days leading up to the Huskies game, it should be fun to hear all about Hasheem Thabeet’s Big East player-of-the-year candidacy even though DeJuan Blair, Jerel McNeal, and even Harangody have been consistently outplaying him. The amount of attention Thabeet is getting is kind of like how the Super Bowl gets so much more publicity than the Kentucky Derby and Wrestlemania, both of which are greater sports spectacles.Villanova convincingly beat Marquette Tuesday and put itself in good position for a top-four slot. The Wildcats are sitting especially pretty considering Marquette’s daunting remaining schedule. The Golden Eagles still have to play Connecticut and Syracuse at home and Louisville and Pittsburgh on the road. Their schedule is similar to Notre Dame’s, only the exact opposite. Look for the Golden Eagles to drop several more contests before they head to Madison Square Garden.As the Irish look ahead to matchups against Louisville, South Florida and West Virginia, the next week will likely make or break Notre Dame’s NCAA Tournament hopes. One thing is certain, though: the Irish better start winning. Because remember, you need a winning record even to get to the NIT.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not neccessarily those of The Observer.Contact Fran?Tolan at [email protected]