Notre Dame is the No.1 seed in the Big East Tournament after defeating Connecticut in triple overtime. (photo courtesy of Notre Dame)
Notre Dame is the No.1 seed in the Big East Tournament after defeating Connecticut in triple overtime. (photo courtesy of Notre Dame)

Notre Dame, UConn rule the Big East, and its last tournament as a major conference

March 7, 2013 - 3:56pm

I hate college football.

Greedy college presidents looking for football TV money have eviscerated the Big East, arguably the best basketball conference in the country over the last ten years. Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Miami wandered away in the last decade. Now the seven catholic institutions are seceding together. Rutgers is going to the Big 10 in 2014 (or sooner if they pay an exit fee), Louisville and Notre Dame are off to the ACC.

When “re-alignment” is over, UConn, Cincinnati and South Florida are all that will be left of the conference that has sent eight teams to the women’s NCAA Tournament the last two years. Nobody knows what that conference will be called. No one is quite sure what additional teams will be added and no one knows yet which conference will get the Big East automatic bid to the tournament. I’ll leave explanation of all the machinations still pending to the football writers.

The only positive I can find in all this change is that Notre Dame and UConn will no longer play each other four times each year. Notre Dame has owned Connecticut for the last two seasons, and knocked Connecticut out of the Final Four in both 2011 and 2012. (Why they were on the same side of the bracket for the past two years is in explainable by the NCAA committee.) No basketball team should have to play another four times a year. Do I bet that Geno and Muffett will find a way to play a non-conference game each season? Yes. Could they meet in the tournament? It’s likely. But they will never play for the Big East Championship again. They will never have an in-season matchup that decides the regular season Big East title again.

Despite the football mess, this year we still have the real Big East, but with two clearly dominant teams.  How closely matched are the Notre Dame and Connecticut squads? The first meeting was a 73-72 Notre Dame victory. The season finale went to three overtimes, with Notre Dame prevailing 96-87.

So, here’s the deal as we enter the Big East tournament: UConn or Notre Dame will win it. Notre Dame owned UConn last year too, but the Huskies won the Big East Tournament Championship. Maybe that will happen again, though my bets are on Skylar Diggins, Kayla McBride, and Muffet McGraw.

To understand the chasm between ND-UConn and the next tier of teams one need only look at South Florida’s two victories a week ago. The Bulls defeated nationally ranked Syracuse on Wednesday, and then nationally ranked Louisville on Saturday. This past Saturday, Connecticut stomped USF 73-56. Only three teams have come within 20 points of UConn - St.John’s (6 points), Louisville (15) and Rutgers (20), the Huskies have won ten of their conference games 30 points or more. Notre Dame has not been quite as dominant in points, but only Connecticut (73-72, 96-87) and USF (75-71 OT) have come close to defeating the Irish. The two top seeds look like this.

Notre Dame (16-0; 28-1) No. 1 seed, bye to quarterfinals

Skylar Diggins’ offensive statistics are not eye-popping. Her .433 field goal percentage is third best on the team, and she shoots a good but not overwhelming .345 from outside the arc. But Diggins just wins games. She is the undeniable leader of her team. She makes everyone around her better. She plays her best when she is most needed. She is a great defender. She is also a great point guard: she averages six assists and has an 1.9/1 assist/turnover ratio.

Jewell Loyd, certain to be BE Freshman of the Year, has been the surprise of the year, contributing quickness, defense and scoring in equal measures. Kayla McBride is the second leading scorer, and the player the other team seems to lose track of all too often. Center Natalie Achonwa has solidified the interior and is probably the most improved player in the conference. The most telling stat for conference play: the Irish have made nearly twice the free throws of their conference opponents (280/144). The team shoots 79.4% from the stripe, just barely second in the nation to Utah State.

Notre Dame is likely to win the tournament, simply because they close out games better than UConn. They are guaranteed a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Connecticut (14-2; 27-3) No 2. seed, bye to quarterfinals

Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stephanie Dolson have been on fire the last month. Lewis is shooting over 50% from beyond the arc, and has averaged 19.2 points since February 2. Dolson leads the nation in field goal percentage (60.1%), and has averaged 16 points per game in that same period. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, third-leading scorer freshman Breanna Stewart has suffered from a crisis of confidence during that same period, playing poorly against good teams, while beating up on crummy ones like Seton Hall and Pitt.  Bria Hartley has been ordinary instead of an All-American, and is averaging single figure scoring.  Even worse, she has not been the leader the Huskies need in tight games. In the losses to Baylor and to Notre Dame, late game turnovers cost the Huskies chances at victory. Kelly Faris has been Miss Everything for UConn this season, often taking up the scoring slack as others fade. She joined Maya Moore last week as the second Husky with 1000 points, 750 rebounds, 500 assists, and 250 steals. Good company.

Connecticut will need to win the Big East Tournament if they are to extend their streak of nineteen years with a regular season or conference championship.

Because a meeting between Notre Dame and Connecticut in the tournament final is all but inevitable, let’s look at the keys to victory.

The secret to beating UConn

• Stop the Huskies from getting fast break baskets, even if you must abandon the offensive boards.

• Make UConn shoot threes.

• Drive into the teeth of the outstanding Connecticut defense, draw fouls and makes free throws.

The formula is not hard to understand. It’s just that most teams cannot do it. Notre Dame, however, has it down, and the Irish have beaten the Huskies six times in the last two years.  In fact, Muffett McGraw is the only coach EVER to have defeated UConn six out of seven times.

The secret to beating Notre Dame

•  Have Brittney Griner on your team.

•  Keep Notre Dame off the foul line. The Irish are masters at getting to the line, and they do it by relentlessly driving into the lane. Then they make those free shots. Good defense and quick feet are the key.

• Hit a bunch of threes. Historically UConn losses are tied to sub-par outside shooting.

•  Feed Stephanie Dolson the ball. Connecticut’s center has had big games against Notre Dame throughout her career, and she is a better offensive force than Natalie Achonwa is a defender. An added bonus to going early and often to Dolson is the chance to get Achonwa in foul trouble.

• Get to the free throw line.  For some reason, the Huskies don’t draw a lot of fouls, possibly because they rarely drive the lane.

• Stop turning the ball over. Thirty-four turnovers gave the Irish twenty-eight more shots than the Huskies took.  

Having said all this, these teams are so evenly matched this year that the first game was won by a point, and the second went to triple overtime. A third great game, just eight days from Monday’s epic season finale, is in store in the Big East final.

The Other Contenders (for 3rd place)

Syracuse (11-5; 23-6) No. 3 seed, bye to quarterfinals

Three seniors have led Syracuse to the upper half of the Big East, a national ranking, and a certain NCAA berth, probably as a 7 or 8 seed. The star is center Kayla Alexander, averaging over 17 points and nearly nine rebounds per game, while shooting over .500.  Guard Carmen Tyson-Thomas and wing Elashier Hall provide double-digit support.

Syracuse has no bad losses on the season, and no signature wins. As a team, the Orange rebound well, but turn it over too often. They have no reliable outside shooting.

Louisville (11-5; 23-7) No. 4 seed, bye to quarterfinals

It is certainly time to give some props to Louisville coach Jeff Walz. Each year he seems to lose several talented players to injuries, leaving him with a star or two and some untested bench players. Each year, the Cardinals are competitive nationally. Louisville enters the BE tournament ranked 13/15 nationally, and should secure a four or five seed in the NCAAs.

Junior point guard Shoni Schimmel is the engine that runs the team. She is sometimes flamboyant, sometimes out of control, but she is a pressure performer. Although the team’s leading scorer, she makes less than 40% of her shots.  Sara Hammond provides the inside game for the Cardinals, but this team shares the floor among nine players averaging over fifteen minutes. Fresh bodies provide a swarming defense that grabs 11.6 steals a game, and boasts a +5.62 turnover margin, second only to Connecticut.

Louisville has a two-round bye, and should advance to face Notre Dame in the semi-finals.

St. John’s (11-5; 17-11) No. 5 seed, first round bye

The Red Storm played Connecticut on February 2 and had a chance to win (losing 71-65). They followed that game with six straight victories. This week they lost by ten to a very poor Seton Hall team. Go figure. Though they sit fourth in the conference, they are a bubble team for the NCAA tournament with just 17 wins. They need two victories at least next weekend.

St. John’s wins with team speed and excellent defense. They lose because they often can’t score. Seniors Shenneika Smith and Nadirah McKennith are the players to watch. Smith leads her team with sixteen points and seven boards a game, but shoots just .372 while taking almost 30% of her team’s shots. McKennith dished out 147 assists this season, and is the other double-digit scorer. Junior guard Briana Brown is the only three-point shooter. St. John’s could be a spoiler in the tournament, with a defense that can disrupt any team.

Villanova (9-7; 20-9) No. 6 seed, first round bye

Predicted by everyone except Full Court to finish at the bottom of the league, Villanova enters the Big East Tournament as the six seed, but may be seeded higher in the NCAAs, based on a solid RPI (29) and strength of schedule (30). Senior forward Laura Sweeney closes out her outstanding career as the team leader and four-year star. The rest is a team effort, with ten players logging seventeen or more minutes. The historical Villanova formula relies on limiting possessions and turnovers, scoring just enough points, and shooting a lot of threes. This year, the threes have not been a mainstay, as only two players shoot better than 35% from beyond the arc. The Wildcats score in the fifties or sixties, and win or lose by a few possessions.

Villanova has no signature wins, and a bad loss at 3-13 Providence. They have lost six of ten, but ended with two victories, a gutsy triple overtime win at Syracuse (77-75) and a senior night drubbing of Providence. The likely quarterfinal matchup with Syracuse should be among the best early round games of the tournament.

Without Anna Martin, DePaul has struggled this season. (Photo by Steve Woltmann)

DePaul (9-7; 20-10) No. 7 seed, first round bye

DePaul is holding it together after the loss of leading scorer Anna Martin to injury ten games ago. They are just 5-5 since. Katherine Harry is the soul of this team, is a versatile 6-3 post that leads the league in rebounding (11.1rpg) and has a nice mid-range offensive touch. Forward Brittney Hrnko is now the leading scorer, but she shoots a miserable .340 from the field. Forward Jasmine Penny shoots a far better .557 (third in the league), but has taken 140 fewer shots than Hrnko.

DePaul has never played much defense, and Coach Doug Bruno believes in taking the first open shot on each possession. DePaul should make the NCAAs, probably as an 11 seed, if add another win to their record before losing in the semi-finals.

South Florida (9-7; 20-9) No. 8 seed, first round bye

USF is rarely in basketball discussions, yet among these second-tier teams, the Bulls may have the best wins of the group. They split two games with Louisville, losing by just three, and then winning the rematch by eleven. They beat Syracuse, and took Notre Dame to overtime before losing. Twins Andrea and Andrell Smith are the highlight reel for this team, averaging 16.6 and 13.6 points per game. Team rebounding is their strength, with a +5 on the season. But the Bulls turn the ball over too much, and shoot poorly as a team. 

South Florida needs a good run in the tournament if they hope to be the eighth Big East team in the NCAAs. Their tough wins make that a possibility. They are 57 in RPI and 71 in SOS. With automatic berths taking a large number of lower seeds, those numbers probably push them off the bubble in the wrong direction. If the Bulls end up in the WNIT, they could win it. The Bulls play Rutgers in the second round.

Rutgers (7-9; 16-13) No. 9 seed, first round bye

C.Vivian Stringer may have 900 wins and a deserved place in the Hall of Fame, but she has not been able to keep Rutgers competitive for several years now. This season, the team has been mediocre, even with regular contributions from senior Monique Oliver. The Scarlet Knights play South Florida in the second round of this odd fifteen-team league. They will probably be a WNIT team.

Bringing up the rear

Very little needs to be said about these bottom teams. By default some will win on Saturday but that only delays the inevitable by a day.  

Marquette (7-9; 15-14)

Junior center Katherine Plouffe averages team leading 13 points and 7.5 rebounds.

Georgetown (5-11; 10-19)

The league will miss Georgetown’s Sugar Rodgers, once again the league scoring leader on a team that rarely helps her out. 

Seton Hall (5-11; 10-19)

The good news for Seton Hall – the foolishness in Uncasville, Connecticut has taken away Coach Anne Donovan, so they have a chance next year. In three years at Seton Hall, Donovan’s record is 7-41. Making this her best year. Maybe she should stay.

Providence (2-14; 7-22)

Both Providence victories were in overtime. They actually beat Villanova 65-60 in January. If it’s close they can win, but it’s rarely been close this season.

Pittsburgh (0-16; 9-20)

Wow! Zero for two seasons. Thirty-nine consecutive conference losses, forty come Saturday. That losing streak coincides with graduation of the last players who Shea Ralph recruited. In Ralph’s last three of five seasons (with the juniors she recruited) Pittsburgh won 22 games or more each year. Ralph leaves and the team slides into oblivion. Could anything be better proof that Pittsburgh’s brief success under Agnus Beranato was mostly because she used to have Ralph recruiting and coaching for her?

Big East Tournament, XL Center, Hartford, CT

First round – Friday March 8
Game 1: No. 12 Seton Hall vs. No. 13 Cincinnati, 4 p.m.
Game 2: No. 10 Marquette vs. No. 15 Pittsburgh, 6 p.m.
Game 3: No. 11 Georgetown vs. No. 14 Providence, 8 p.m.

Second round – Saturday March 9
Game 4: No. 5 St. John’s vs. Seton Hall/Cincinnati-winner, noon TV- Big East Network
Game 5: No. 8 South Florida vs. No. 9 Rutgers, 2 p.m. TV- Big East Network
Game 6: No. 7 DePaul vs. Marquette/Pittsburgh-winner, 6 p.m. TV- Big East Network
Game 7: No. 6 Villanova vs. Georgetown/Providence-winner, 8 p.m. TV- Big East Network

Quarterfinals – Sunday March 10
Game 8: No. 4 Louisville vs. Game 4 winner, noon TV-ESPNU
Game 9: No. 1 Notre Dame vs. Game 5 winner 2 p.m. TV-ESPNU
Game 10: No. 2 UConn vs. Game 6 winner, 6 p.m. TV- Big East Network
Game 11: No. 3 Syracuse vs. Game 7 winner, 8 p.m. TV-ESPNU

Semifinals – Monday March 11
Game 12: Game 8 winner vs Game 9, 6 p.m. TV-ESPNU
Game 13: Game 10 winner vs Game 11, 8 p.m. TV-ESPNU

Championship – Tuesday March 12
Game 12 winner vs Game 13 winner, 7 p.m. TV-ESPN