When the final buzzer sounded at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence Saturday night, another wild regular season in the Big East came to an end. The last game of the season didn’t feature two of the league’s elite teams, but there might not be anyone better than Providence College and Seton Hall to give you an idea of just how difficult the conference was this year.
If not for DePaul, the Friars would have finished at the bottom of the Big East. They ended the season having allowed more points-per-game than any team in league history. But they were also the sixth highest scoring team in America, which meant that even for a team that went 4-14 in conference play, they weren’t exactly a pushover. A poor shooting night against Providence and it would feel like you were playing Syracuse or Villanova.
Seton Hall is what Providence wishes it could be. The Pirates finished just outside the top ten nationally in scoring, played a little bit better defense, were slightly deeper and probably caught a few more breaks than the Friars this season. Bobby Gonzalez’s team finished .500 in league play and put itself on the NCAA Tournament bubble by beating all the teams worse than them and very few of the ones better than them. They were the most average team in the most exceptional league in the country.
So if a team who finished in 15th place in the conference could beat you on any given night and a 9-9 team featured the league’s third leading scorer (Jeremy Hazell) and top rebounder (Herb Pope), the teams at the top of the conference must be tailor-made for deep runs in next week’s NCAA Tournament, right?
The answer might not be as clear as it seems. Yes, Syracuse, the regular season champion, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Villanova all have the talent to reach the Final Four. But after playing 18 games plus a conference tournament in a league where you rarely ever get a night off, the question is, will anyone have anything left in the tank?
Hours before Seton Hall defeated Providence, the top ranked Orange lost to Louisville for the second time this season. The loss wasn’t all that surprising considering it was senior day for the Cardinals and the last game ever at Freedom Hall. Syracuse also had very little left to play for. They were already guaranteed the top seed in the Big East Tournament and most pundits have penciled them in as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
None of that stopped Wesley Johnson from playing 38 minutes in the game. The Orange’s best player was among the league’s leaders in minutes played this season despite concerns about a leg injury he suffered against Providence in earl y February. After his minutes were limited in that game and the one that followed, Johnson played at least 36 minutes in each of his team’s final seven games.
The reason for his overuse was simple: Five of those games were against teams likely heading to the NCAA Tournament; another was against UConn, one of Syracuse’s biggest rivals; and the other one was probably the final home game of his career assuming he declares for the NBA Draft after the season.
Johnson isn’t the only player in the Big East who could see the wear and tear of such a treacherous regular season take its toll at the worst possible time. The league saw more players average at least 34 minutes per game than any other conference in the country this season.
The concern will only get worse at the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden this week. Barring a major upset, it is conceivable that any team who survives until Thursday’s quarterfinals will be safe on Selection Sunday. That means winning the Big East Championship will take beating three tournament-bound teams in three days. It has the chance to be one of the most exciting and competitive tournaments in league history, but at what cost?
Making it to Saturday could leave teams running on empty come the NCAA tournament.