- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tuesday to Saturday, Madison Square Garden, New York

PLAYER TO WATCH

DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh

Though preseason Big East player of the year ballots were split between Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody and Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet, Blair has unquestionably been the league’s most dominant force this season, leading the conference in rebounding (12.4) and blossoming into a scoring presence (15.6 points). With his unmatched will to win and bullish frame, no player in the league is more capable of strapping a team on his back and carrying it to the title.

BEST BET



Pittsburgh

The Panthers have the league’s ultimate combination of heart, experience and grit in the trio of senior point guard Levance Fields, senior swingman Sam Young and sophomore center DeJuan Blair. Fields leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.09). The muscular Young leads the Panthers in scoring (18.8) with his slash-and-splash style. And Blair displays confidence and work ethic inside. The Panthers aren’t the most talented team in the Big East, but they are easily the toughest.

DARK HORSE

Louisville

It seems strange to call the regular-season champion an outsider, but Louisville has underachieved in the Big East tournament in each season since joining the league. After a series of early exits in New York, the Cardinals finally feature the combination of talent and experience to challenge for the Big East crown. Coach Rick Pitino’s backcourt by committee doesn’t bode well for the NCAAs, but his frontcourt troika of Earl Clark (13.6 points, 8.8 rebounds), Terrence Williams (12.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists) and Samardo Samuels gives Louisville a chance in a league defined by arguably the nation’s top three front lines (see Pittsburgh and Connecticut).

MOST TO GAIN

Providence

Despite finishing with a 10-8 record in what most consider the toughest league in the nation, the Friars are still on the NCAA tournament bubble according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. The seven other Big East teams with 10 or more league victories are all NCAA locks, but Providence’s suspect profile (low RPI, weak strength of schedule and lack of marquee wins) means the Friars can ill-afford a one-day trip to New York. Wednesday’s second-round game against the Cincinnati/DePaul winner is likely an NCAA/NIT decider. Nobody else has so much riding on an early game.

WHO’S HOT?

Syracuse

Though Louisville boasts the league’s longest winning streak (seven games), the Orange arrive in New York having won four straight to dismiss all NCAA tournament bubble talk. Sophomore point man Jonny Flynn, who has averaged 17.3 points and 7.8 assists during the run, may deserve consideration for conference player of the year honors. Syracuse leads the league in scoring behind the perimeter trio of Flynn and snipers Eric Devendorf (15.2 points) and Andy Rautins (10.3 points).

WHO’S NOT?

Marquette

Since losing senior point guard Dominic James to a season-ending broken leg in a 93-82 loss to Connecticut on Feb. 25, the once league-leading Golden Eagles are 0-4. Frankly, the Nos. 12/13 game in the bracket affords the opportunity for the ultimate dark-horse run; both flagging Marquette and Villanova were fundamentally flawed teams (no size or true post presence) even before the injury to James.

- Barker Davis

SCHEDULE

First round

Tuesday

(9) Cincinnati (18-13, 8-10) vs. (16) DePaul (8-23, 0-18), noon

(12) Georgetown (16-13, 7-11) vs. (13) St. John’s (15-16, 6-12), 2 p.m.

(10) Notre Dame (17-13, 8-10) vs. (15) Rutgers (11-20, 2-16), 7 p.m.

(11) Seton Hall (16-14, 7-11) vs. (14) South Florida (9-21, 4-14), 9 p.m.

Second round

Wednesday

(8) Providence (18-12, 10-8) vs. Cincinnati/DePaul, noon, ESPN

(5) Marquette (23-8, 12-6) vs. Georgetown/St. John’s, 2 p.m., ESPN

(7) West Virginia (21-10, 10-8) vs. Notre Dame/Rutgers, 7 p.m., ESPN

(6) Syracuse (23-8, 11-7) vs. Seton Hall/South Florida, 9 p.m., ESPN

Quarterfinals

Thursday

(1) Louisville (25-5, 16-2) vs. first second-round winner, noon, ESPN

(4) Villanova (25-6, 13-5) vs. second second-round winner, 2 p.m., ESPN

(2) Pittsburgh (28-3, 15-3) vs. third second-round winner, 7 p.m., ESPN

(3) Connecticut (27-3, 15-3) vs. fourth second-round winner, 9 p.m., ESPN

Semifinals

Friday

First two quarterfinal winners, 7 p.m., ESPN

Last two quarterfinal winners, 9 p.m., ESPN

Final

Saturday

Semifinal winners, 9 p.m., ESPN

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