Just think, you'll wake up Tuesday morning and it will be March, the great sports month of the year. In just under two weeks CBS will have its annual Sunday "Selection Show", which announces when, who and where each of the 68 qualifying teams will be playing its first-round games. After the show is over, you'll print out the bracket and fill in your Final Four squads. A few days later, you'll flop into your Lay-Z-Boy and watch as the madness unfolds. It's great stuff, but wouldn't you like to know which teams are contenders to make it there? Well, I am lucky enough to follow the Big East Conference and now each team's ins-and-outs. So, without further delay here are your Top 5 Big East Basketball Final Four contenders.
5) St. John's Red Storm (19-9, 11-5 Big East): It is amazing what a good head coach (Steve Lavin) and a top-notch play-maker can do for a program. Under Lavin, St. John's has defeated more top-15 teams (six) than any other men's Division I program this season. Currently, the Red Storm have won six straight Big East contests, their longest streak during league play since 1999-'00, and are ranked No. 15 in both college basketball polls (released Monday).
However, if the Johnnies are going to make a run to the Final Four it will be because of senior guard Dwight Hardy, a three-time winner of the Big East Player Of The Week award and the league's fourth-best scorer (17.9 ppg). The 6-foot-2 guard, who reminds me a lot of former Texas A&M clutch performer Acie Law (2003-07), has been ridiculous during St. John's current seven-game run (21.6 ppg, including two career-best performances of 33 and 34 points), which has the Johnnies in a position to earn a double-bye in the upcoming 16-team Big East Tournament, March 8-12.
Will it take more than Hardy for the Red Storm to make miracle-like run to Houston? Yes, but ask any Big East foe who they don't want to play right now and the answer will be: St. John's. In the nation's best conference that's a good enough reason to jump on the Red Storm bandwagon all the way to Texas.
4) Syracuse Orange (24-6, 11-6): It's been a roller coaster-like ride for Syracuse in 2010-11, but head coach Jim Boeheim, who's in the midst of his 35th campaign at SU, did what he does best and righted a wandering ship. The Orange (ranked No. 11 in both polls) had lost six of eight games at one point, but now are on a four-game winning streak and in contention for a double-bye in the Big East Tournament.
Like St. John's, the key to the Orange's success will be the play of one player: Senior forward Rick Jackson. Jackson (13.1 ppg and 10.8 rpg) has been SU's most consistent player all year. Jackson, who's very quick and agile for a 6-foot-9 big-man, has a conference-best 17 double-doubles this season. Whenever Jackson gets into foul trouble, the SU faithful put on their arm-chair seat belts because they know things are going to get bumpy.
The aspect that will propel the Orange to their first Final Four since the 2003 National Title run will be the effectiveness of the 2-3 zone defense. If the SU players are doing what coach Boeheim tells them to do, Syracuse is extremely tough to score against, especially for non-conference opponents who rarely see a defense like SU's. A tough defense can lead to multiple wins, a formula perfect for a long-run in the NCAA Tournament.
3) Georgetown (21-8, 10-7): Not many teams in the nation can string together an eight-game winning streak in the nation's toughest conference. From mid-January til early-February, that's what the Hoyas did. During that span Georgetown, which is currently ranked No. 17 in both polls, beat St. John's, Syracuse, Villanova Wildcats, Louisville Cardinals and Marquette Golden Eagles (all NCAA-quality teams). Yes, I understand that the Hoyas are hitting a last-season snag (they have lost three of their last four contests), but Georgetown has been here before.
The Hoyas began league play 1-3, but responded with their impressive eight-game run. What does that show me? That adversity doesn't scare Georgetown and head coach John Thompson III. When the chips are down, this team doesn't look for excuses and powers through the tough times. This is a huge quality to have come March.
Yes, the Hoyas will more than likely opening the tournament without their second-best scorer senior guard Chris Wright, who broke his non-shooting hand in a 58-56 loss to the Cincinnati Bearcats, Feb. 23. Wright is a veteran presence that will be needed for a Final Four voyage. Luckily for Georgetown fans, their team still has senior guard Austin Freeman, the league's fifth-best scorer (17.7 ppg), and enough talent to get past the first week without Wright. If Wright can come back healthy and can contribute, the Hoyas have all the pieces to make it to Reliant Stadium.
2) Louisville (22-7, 11-5): Sunday afternoon re-established something I've known all year, the Cardinals are the most dangerous squad in the Big East. Louisville (No. 11 in both polls), which downed the conference's top-team, Pittsburgh Panthers, 62-59 in overtime Sunday, have two things going for them heading into the postseason: 1) A good offense (75.5 ppg) that moves the ball extremely well (17.4 apg -- ranks seventh in the country); and 2) a presser defense that creates turnovers (9.5 steals per game -- fourth in the nation).
Led by senior Preston Knowles (14.3 ppg) and junior Kyle Kuric (9.8 ppg), Louisville has been able to down multiple top-tear squads (Pitt, UConn, Syracuse and St. John's) with their potent 3-point shooting offense. It's important not to forget sophomore guard Peyton Siva, who averages 10.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and leads the conference in steals (2.2).
The question is can the Cardinals survive without sophomore forward Rakeem Buckles, who suffered a season-ending knee injury Sunday (they did beat Pitt without him), and will their 3-point offense cool off? To me, I don't bet against a head coach like Rick Pitino, who has eight Elite 8 and four Final Four appearances on his resume. If you want to that's fine, but history speaks for itself.
1) Pittsburgh (25-4, 13-3): All season long, the Panthers (ranked No. 4 in the AP poll and No. 5 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll) have been the class of the nation's best conference. With that characteristic alone it's tough to not use a pen (not a pencil) to ink Pitt to the Final Four. By far, Pittsburgh is the leagues most balanced team -- out of 16 teams in the league, Pitt is ranked in the top-5 in nine different statically categories (scoring offense, scoring defense, scoring margin, field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense, 3-point percentage, rebound margin, assists, assist-turnover ratio).
Two of Pitt's three conference loses came on the road (St. John's and Louisville), but they did earn victories at Georgetown and Villanova; and defeated the Texas Longhorns in non-conference play. The Panthers can beat any team from the inside (senior center Gary McGhee and forward Gilbert Brown are very physical) or from the outside (guards junior Ashton Gibbs and senior Brad Wannamaker can do everything).
The thing that going to push Pittsburgh over the edge is experience. Out of the six players who log 20-plus minutes per game, only one (sophomore Travon Woodall) is not a junior or senior. In 2009, this group of veteran players witnessed an Elite 8 loss to Villanova, 78-76. They're going to be very hungry to win two extra games and play for a national title.