By John Celestand Special to BIGEAST.org
Nobody can clearly explain what it feels like to ride that freight elevator to the locker rooms where so many legends have done battle. Not many can give a precise description of what it's like to play under those lights as the crowd sits in the dimly lit background. It's virtually impossible to truly explain what it's like to walk into that tunnel after a last-second win, or the painful walk of agony after losing a game in which you've exhausted every ounce of your soul. I was lucky enough to experience it when I played for Villanova in the late nineties. It happens at Madison Square Garden, the BIG EAST Championship.
The Syracuse Orange have been light years ahead of all the others in the conference this season. With so many great Syracuse teams over the years I would hesitate to say that this may be Jim Boeheim's best team ever. But on the other hand, if someone else were to say it, in no way would I be questioning their sanity. The Orange, from top to bottom, may be the deepest and most talented team in the country. Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters are phenomenal guards. Waiters may be the most explosive of them all and he comes off the bench. Kris Joseph maybe the most unheralded leading scorer on a team that the conference has ever seen. What says it all? If you simply take Syracuse's bench of James Southerland, Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair, Baye Keita and Michael Carter-Williams, I believe they still beat the majority of the conference in a 40-minute game. Oh, and they have a center named Fab Melo. By far, they are the most talented team in the BIG EAST, but as we have seen so many times before, talent doesn't always win this tournament. Sometimes it just sheer will. You may want to text Kemba Walker about that.
Marquette is the toughest team in the conference. This is the only team that I can ever remember in all my years covering the Big East that has two legitimate Player of the Year candidates on one team. Darius Johnson-Odom is the strongest guard in the conference. With a chiseled frame and the ability to score in the paint and from the perimeter, he is a definite pro prospect. Jae Crowder is as reliable as they come. He's a no-nonsense forward who has legitimized himself as a top five player in this conference. Buzz Williams has always done a great job. This may be his finest work.
Notre Dame, South Florida and Georgetown embody the unpredictability of the BIG EAST. The Fighting Irish, picked 9th in the preseason poll, were left for dead when their best player Tim Abromaitis tore his ACL, sidelining him for the year. How could they compete? Jack Cooley may be its most improved player. Sophomore Jerian Grant has really stepped up and Eric Atkins gained valuable experience last year as a freshman. The Bulls, picked 14th, are the biggest team in the conference with a front line of the 6-8 Ron Anderson Jr., the 6-10 Augustus Gilchrist and the 6-7 Victor Rudd Jr. They lead the league in scoring defense while not having one player averaging 10 points per game. Anthony Collins has been a surprise at the PG position playing beyond his years as a freshman. Coach Stan Heath has to be mentioned for Coach of the Year honors in the conference. Speaking of Coach of the Year, John Thompson III is not far behind. What a remarkable job he has done with the Georgetown Hoyas who were picked 10th in the preseason polls. With the departure of Austin Freeman and Chris Wright, there was no way I or anybody for that matter thought Georgetown could be a factor in the conference. Jason Clark has been a reliable guard. Hollis Thompson was always talented, but who knew Henry Simms would become the offensive threat that he has? The Georgetown offense is refreshing to watch. In this day of the dribble happy guard, clear-outs and constant pick-and-roll, the way the Hoyas move the ball, cut to the basket and control the tempo is the blueprint of how the game is supposed to be played.
Sometimes I do a double take when I look at the records of Pittsburgh, Villanova and the defending national champion UConn Huskies, teams that have all been at the top of the conference for many years now. Losing Tray Woodall for a while didn't help the Panthers, but even with him, they still seemed to lack that toughness on defense they've had in the past. Villanova has always dominated with their scrappy defense and the ability of their guards to get to the rim. Malik Wayns is still one of the toughest covers in the league, but Nova lacks the surplus of playmakers that they've had in the past. The UConn Huskies have the pieces to be successful. Jeremy Lamb is as talented offensively as anyone in the league, Shabazz Napier is a talented point guard and Andre Drummond was heralded as one of the best freshmen in the country. But, all that is what we call in hoops "on paper". The eight-game loss of their leader Jim Calhoun and chemistry problems have plagued this team all year long.
I wouldn't want to face any of the New York Metropolitan area teams in the BIG EAST tourney. St. John's plays at home in the Garden. Although their record is nothing to shout about, the fact that they have even been able to compete is remarkable when you take into account that their head coach, Steve Lavin has not been on the sideline almost the entire year and they have basically played with six guys, five of them freshman. Seton Hall has been more up than down, but Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore are battle-tested seniors. Pope is one of the most remarkable rebounders in the conference and Theodore is a streaky point guard who can explode. I think Rutgers is the most unpredictable team in the league. They've beaten the likes of Florida, UConn and Notre Dame while losing to Princeton, DePaul and Providence. For Mike Rice and the young squad from Piscataway, you never know who will show up.
I group Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia together. They are teams that have talent to win the entire conference, but sometimes they get in their own way. Cincinnati is the most balanced team in the league, unafraid to shoot the 3-point shot, but they've lost to Rutgers and St. John's. Louisville is again a tough defensive team, leading the Big East in field goal percentage defense, but offensively I'm not sure about their ability to score in a halfcourt game, when the other team does not turn the ball over. West Virginia has Kevin Jones, who has led the BIG EAST in scoring and rebounding all year. He has to be one of the favorites for Player of the Year. Daryl "Truck" Bryant is capable of explosive scoring and has played well at the end of the regular season. The problem with the Mountaineers had been on the defensive end where they've struggled to stop teams.
Yet, you could argue that all of this means nothing. The stats, the hype, what players have done this season, all background information. Under the lights, on the stage of Madison Square Garden is where it all counts. It wouldn't surprise me if Syracuse were to hoist the championship trophy. Just like it wouldn't surprise me if some team from the middle of the pack won it all and we all wonder how on earth they managed it.
Madison Square Garden should install seat belts in every seat. Every year the BIG EAST Championship takes us all for a wild ride. We love it though, don't we? Every year we all return for more.