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March 8, 2011
Strength in Numbers
Big East Tournament

by John Gasaway

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2011 Big East Tournament
March 8-12
Madison Square Garden, New York
Bracket (pdf)

Log5 odds by Ken Pomeroy

Seed                   Rd1    Qtrs   Semis   Final   Champ
 1 Pitt                100     100    72.9    44.3    29.4
 4 Syracuse            100     100    57.8    27.5    15.9
 3 Louisville          100     100    59.0    31.0    13.3
 2 Notre Dame          100     100    55.5    29.3    12.5
 5 St. John's          100    78.5    37.7    17.2     9.6
 7 Cincinnati          100    60.8    28.8    14.5     5.8
 6 West Virginia       100    63.5    28.4    13.5     5.1
10 Villanova          85.6    37.5    15.5     6.8     2.4
 8 Georgetown          100    52.8    14.3     5.3     2.2
 9 Connecticut        92.8    46.6    12.7     4.7     2.0
11 Marquette          76.4    32.1    11.9     4.7     1.5
12 Seton Hall         63.7    15.7     3.6     0.8     0.2
13 Rutgers            36.3     5.7     0.8     0.1     0.02
14 Providence         23.6     4.3     0.7     0.1     0.01
15 South Florida      14.4     1.7     0.2     0.02    0.002
16 DePaul              7.2     0.5     0.01    0.0007  0.00004

With no fewer than 11 Big East teams currently projected to make the NCAA tournament, it's safe to say the 2011 Big East tournament marks the largest gathering of at-large teams ever seen at one of these events. Look at it this way. There'll be 15 games played at Madison Square Garden between Tuesday afternoon and Saturday night. And unless DePaul, South Florida, Providence, Rutgers, and Seton Hall start springing upsets left and right, there's a good chance that only one of those 15 games (Seton Hall vs. Rutgers, Tuesday at 2 ET) will feature two opponents who are not going to the NCAA tournament.

Indeed it's a mark of just how deep the conference was this season that even a team like Connecticut that's playing in the opening round on Tuesday is on-track for a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament according to Joe Lunardi's latest projection. This field is nothing if not stacked. You'll hear a lot of hyperbole about just how stacked, of course, but one thing is most certainly true. Given that top seeds like Pittsburgh and Notre Dame receive byes that place them in the quarterfinals, the first one or two opponents the Panthers and the Fighting Irish face in the Big East tournament are likely to be much tougher than the first couple teams they see in the NCAA tournament.

Who's going to stagger through all that quality competition and emerge victorious? Here are my five favorites to hoist the trophy Saturday night at the Garden.

1. Pitt (27-4, 15-3)
It's no mark against the other 15 teams to label Jamie Dixon's top-seeded team as the clear favorite in the Big East tournament. Over the course of 18 conference games the Panthers proved they were the best team in the league, going 15-3 and outscoring the rest of the Big East by 0.15 points per possession. One thing that sets Pitt apart from the rest of its very competitive league is that this is easily the Big East's most balanced team. Relative to the conference average the Panthers are almost exactly as good on offense as they are on defense. That doesn't mean Ashton Gibbs and company are invincible, of course. Notre Dame, St. John's, and Louisville proved otherwise. But it probably does help explain why those three losses came by a total of just nine points. In their first game Pitt will most likely play either Georgetown or Connecticut, both of whom lost four of their last five regular season games. And while either the Hoyas or the Huskies would most certainly qualify as a remarkably tough opponent for a top seed to face in the quarterfinals of their conference tournament, it is true that both teams appear to be struggling. In particular Georgetown has looked lost on offense late in the year, scoring just 0.81 points per trip over their last three games after losing senior Chris Wright to a broken left hand. The bracket thus gives Pitt a pretty good chance of reaching the semis.

2. Syracuse (25-6, 12-6)
Since the Orangemen dropped four straight games in the middle of the Big East season, they seem to have recovered nicely. Jim Boeheim's team closed on a 6-2 run, and over those eight games they outscored their conference opponents by 0.16 points per possession. Once again this season Syracuse is excelling at scoring points inside the arc, where they're the Big East's most accurate team. Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, and Kris Joseph function as co-equals on offense, with each player accounting for 22 or 23 percent of the shots during his minutes. And if one of the trio dares to miss a shot, Rick Jackson's often there for the put-back. Syracuse is the No. 4 seed, so if Boeheim's men make it past their quarterfinal (against either St. John's, Seton Hall, or Rutgers) they'll most likely run into Pitt in the semifinals. I guess by listing the Panthers and the Orangemen as 1-2 here, I'm putting my faith on this half of the bracket.

3. Notre Dame (25-5, 14-4)
If you've been reading along this season you know my thoughts on the Irish. For so many years Mike Brey has had an outstanding offense. Now, at long last, he has a defense that's at least presentable. That makes ND a very good team. This qualifies as the Big East's best offense, an honor that the Fighting Irish wrested away from Pitt over the back half of the conference season. For the year Notre Dame is scoring 1.13 points per trip in conference play, thanks in large part to 40 percent three-point shooting. Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis are not only accurate from the perimeter, each player also has the mentality of a leading scorer. All true enough, but make no mistake: this bracket does no favors for the No. 2-seed Irish, who will likely play either Cincinnati or Villanova in the quarterfinals. That's some pretty stiff opposition to face merely for the chance to get to the semis.

4. St. John's (20-10, 12-6)
Under first-year head coach Steve Lavin, the Red Storm has clearly improved in 2010-11. But whether they've improved as much as commonly believed is open to question. Right now I'm seeing the Johnnies projected as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, which is some pretty heady territory for a team that outscored the Big East by just 0.02 points per possession this season. Don't get me wrong, Lavin has a tough defense here and Dwight Hardy can play for my team any day. But in Big East play St. John's hit just 32 percent of their threes and didn't compete on the offensive glass. In other words SJU is better than they've been in years -- and the next step in that continued improvement will be better offense. So why am I including the No. 5-seed Red Storm on my list of Big East tournament favorites? Well, for one thing they'll be playing on their home floor. (Ask Duke about facing the Johnnies in the Garden.) And remember that unique Big East tournament game with no NCAA tournament teams, the one between Seton Hall and Rutgers? St. John's gets the winner of that game. Yes, I know the Pirates just beat St. John's last week. That was in Jersey. I'll take Lavin's team in the rematch in the Big Apple.

5. Louisville (23-8, 12-6)
You have to take your hat off to Rick Pitino. Few coaches nationally achieve better results on defense year in and year out than does the somewhat well-known coach at Louisville. And while the Cardinals didn't live up to that reputation last year, in 2011 they have returned to those defensive roots with a vengeance. I'm not exactly sure why no one's talking about this -- are there just too many teams in this here league? -- but the D that Louisville's been playing late in the year has been unbelievable. Over their last five games the Cards allowed opponents just 0.86 points per possession. To be sure, this team will never be confused for a vintage Tom Izzo squad on the glass -- defensive rebounding is not Louisville's strong suit. But when you force your last five opponents to commit turnovers on 25 percent of their possessions and hold those same opponents to 40 percent shooting on their twos and 23 percent shooting on their threes, you can afford to be normal at rebounding. If only sophomore Rakeem Buckles hadn't been lost for the year with that torn ACL, I'd push No. 3-seed Louisville even higher on this list.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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