Mid-Year Report: Expect the Unexpected in BIG EAST Hoops

By Dan Hoard
Special to BIGEAST.org

The 1980 US Olympic hockey team beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid.

Average Joe's beat Globo-Gym in DodgeBall.

Rocker Marilyn Manson has dated several Hollywood starlets.

In sports, movies, and life, there are often surprises.

But what in the name of Buster Douglas, Daniel "Karate Kid" Larusso, and Ric Ocasek is going on the BIG EAST this year?

Consider a few results from the first half of the conference season:
  • Providence has one league victory, but it was by 31 points over a Louisville team that has been ranked in the Top 25 all year.
  • USF beat Villanova in its own gym by 17.
  • Rutgers held Pitt to 39 points in a 23-point road victory.
What gives?

"Everybody in our league has good players, and if you don't come to play, you are going to lose," said Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin. "There are no breathers in this league."

"Besides Syracuse, I think everyone else on a game-by-game basis will have some off-nights," said Rutgers coach Mike Rice. "That leads to some head-scratching results."

Coach Rice did not have to exclude Syracuse. The Orange were 20-0 and ranked #1 in the country before losing to a Notre Dame squad that was below .500 in league play at the time.

"Every game is a big game and you have to be prepared every night," said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim.

Last year the BIG EAST sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA tournament including national champion Connecticut. It will be difficult to send as many teams to the tourney this year since the ones near the bottom of the BIG EAST standings keep beating teams near the top.

"I don't think the league is as strong as it was last year, but it's obviously very balanced," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. "I think there's great opportunity for everybody, and besides Syracuse, I think that everybody is beatable."

"Syracuse is certainly an elite team, but we may not be quite as good at the top as we have been," said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. "But I also think that the people who have been on the bottom are substantially better as well. Honestly, there have been some great coaching hires in our league and guys have done a great job of coaching their teams."

"There is a lot of parity," said DePaul coach Oliver Purnell. "The teams that were at the so-called bottom last year have all gotten appreciably better."
Purnell's team is one of those squads that is much improved. Additionally, perennial powers like Pittsburgh and Villanova are trying to rebound after slow starts in league play.

"Villanova is one of the bottom teams in the standings right now and they have a NBA point guard, two other McDonald's All-Americans, and one of the best coaches in America in Jay Wright," said Cronin. "Right now they are under .500 in the BIG EAST. That should tell you how hard it is to win in this league."

Syracuse is certainly a legitimate candidate to give the BIG EAST its second consecutive national champion, but it would be foolish to think that Syracuse is the only candidate. Don't forget that UConn tied for 9th place last year with a 9-9 league record before winning 11 straight games in the postseason.

"Look at UConn and where they were at this point last year," said Purnell. "They were mired in struggles but you saw what happened in the end because they kept getting better and they were steeled by going through that murderer's row of conference play."

"Everyone is getting better," said Wright. "This year, I think you're going to see teams that are a lot better by the end of the year that will make some noise in the tournament."

Syracuse leads the BIG EAST with a 9-1 league record, followed by Marquette at 7-2. The next nine teams in the standings have between three and five losses. So what explains the unpredictability?

"I think we're searching around for reasons why - it's just our league," said Purnell. "It's just a big-time league with a lot of excellent basketball teams beating up on each other."

"The current BIG EAST is the deepest conference in the history of college basketball," said Cronin.

Let's see what the second half of the season brings.