Big East Bubble Teams

In a league as deep and challenging as the Big East, it was reasonable to assume that for some of the league’s better teams, making the NCAA tournament would be no easy task.

But few expected those teams to include Georgetown and Notre Dame, both ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25. No. 25 Georgetown has the likely Big East freshman of the year in Greg Monroe, while No. 24 Notre Dame is led by the conference’s likely player of the year, Luke Harangody.

Still, both teams find themselves in a fair amount of trouble, given their recent losses. At 3-5 in conference play, with at least a .500 record likely needed for admission, both the Hoyas and the Fighting Irish have an uphill battle.

For Notre Dame, the problem is two-fold. Most of their struggles come from an inability to stop anyone defensively. The Irish allow teams to shoot 43 percent from the field, and 33 percent from three-point range. They don’t turn the ball over much, but they don’t force many turnovers either, negating that advantage. Against the best teams, that means Notre Dame needs Harangody to score in bunches, and his teammates to follow suit, just to keep up.

But over the past four games, all against ranked teams, Harangody’s teammates simply haven’t been up to the task. Even Notre Dame’s unparalleled three-point shooting—at a ridiculous 40 percent for the year—has been around 30 percent over the past two games.

While losses at No. 7 Louisville and at No. 15 Syracuse, followed by back-to-back defeats at home to No. 2 Connecticut and No. 8 Marquette, are all excusable, the Irish have to put some wins on the board to be around for the NCAA tournament. Right now Notre Dame’s only quality wins are over No. 12 Texas and a sinking Georgetown team—and that is balanced out by an ugly loss to St. John’s.

If a 9-9 conference record is the minimum standard for tournament admission, Notre Dame will need to run the table in winnable games at Cincinnati and hosting South Florida, Rutgers and St. John’s. But that only gets them to seven wins. To get to 9-9, Notre Dame will need two victories in games at West Virginia and Providence, both tough, or from Top 25 opponents Pitt, Connecticut, Louisville and No. 21 Villanova. The first two are top-five teams Notre Dame faces on the road, the second two are playing as well as anyone in the conference.

Still, Notre Dame’s problems appear to pale in comparison to Georgetown’s. The Hoyas had faced down what promised to be the most challenging part of their schedule, starting 3-2 in the league with wins over Providence, Syracuse and Connecticut. But in their past three games, losses at home to West Virginia then at Seton Hall and Cincinnati, Georgetown has played as poorly as at any time during Coach John Thompson III’s tenure.

Despite a total inability to rebound the basketball, Georgetown had been succeeding on the strength of strong shooting and tremendous defense. But over the past three games, both of these strengths have become weaknesses.

On the defensive end, Georgetown had allowed teams to shoot just 38.1 percent prior to the last three games. These included some of the best offensive teams in the country, including Connecticut, Duke and Notre Dame. But Cincinnati, Seton Hall and West Virginia have combined to shoot nearly 46 percent—despite all three residing among the bottom six in the conference in accuracy.

Georgetown’s offense has been a mirror image of that turnaround. A team that had been shooting just under 49 percent from the field has managed to shoot a shade above 37 percent in the last three games. The Hoyas have been even worse from three-point range—a miserable 18.1 percent.

For the Hoyas, more than with most teams, their offense sets up their defense. With no rebounding to speak of, more missed shots lead to more transition opportunities for their opponents—by far the easiest way to score against a first-rate half-court defense.

And an added problem for Georgetown is the ankle injury suffered by Dajuan Summers in Wednesday night’s game. Summers is Georgetown’s best and most experienced player, but on a conference call Thursday, John Thompson III said Summers is doubtful for Georgetown’s next game. If Summers misses any significant time, a team without much depth would get even thinner.

One thing Georgetown does have in its favor is its remaining schedule. Five games should be considered extremely winnable: home games against Rutgers, Cincinnati and DePaul, along with road trips to South Florida and St. John’s. Should Georgetown win all five, only one victory over their remaining ranked opponents—Syracuse, Louisville, Villanova, and two against Marquette—would get the Hoyas to 9-9. Considering the team has already notched quality wins against Syracuse, Connecticut, and out-of-conference Memphis, that should be enough for an NCAA bid.

It isn’t clear right now, however, if Georgetown can count on a victory against anyone.

 

WEEKLY RESET–Games to watch

Saturday, January 31

Notre Dame at Pitt, Georgetown at Marquette

The struggling Irish and Hoyas can cure a lot of ills with wins here. The key to Notre Dame-Pitt is the matchup of Luke Harangody and Pitt’s DeJuan Blair—a battle of the league’s two best rebounders by far. For Georgetown, scoring on the interior is key, even if their three-point shooting returns—the guard-heavy Eagles simply don’t defend the inside well, and this could be Greg Monroe’s coming-out party.

Monday, February 2

Connecticut at Louisville

This meeting of the two finest defensive teams in the Big East—Connecticut allows 38.3 percent shooting, Louisville allows 38.4 percent—promises to be a low-scoring affair if Louisville has its way. The Cardinals are undefeated in conference play, but are outclassed by Connecticut on the offensive end. The scary part about Connecticut is that the Huskies are 19-1—but they’ve yet to get consistent offense out of guard A. J. Price or center Hasheem Thabeet, and freshman point guard Kemba Walker has only recently cut down on his turnovers (three in his last 53 minutes on the court). In other words: they are ranked second in the country, and they have room to grow.

Wednesday, February 4

West Virginia at Syracuse, Notre Dame at Cincinnati

A reality check for both West Virginia and Cincinnati—both teams have four wins in the Big East, but the only win of any significance for both teams is: Georgetown. A reality check for the Hoyas, too—should both teams win, it makes their recent slide more palatable. Doesn’t account for that loss to Seton Hall, though.