NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — The Big East could have as many as 11 teams tourney-bound come Selection Sunday. Couple that with St. John’s resurgence, and no wonder there’s an extra buzz for this year’s Big East Tournament.
The No. 21 UConn Huskies kick-start the event at 12:00 p.m. Tuesday with a matchup against last-place DePaul at Madison Square Garden, but the real story is what’s happening with MSG’s home team.
The Red Storm (20-10, 12-6) finished in a three-way tie for third place in the Big East. The best they managed over the first three seasons was a 17-16 overall mark as juniors and a 6-12 league record as sophomores and juniors.
The compiling of a 44-53 mark entering their senior season cost coach Norm Roberts his job. Enter Steve Lavin, the former UCLA coach who was an ESPN analyst for the last seven years.
After a rough start, the Red Storm responded in a way that captured New York City’s attention for the first time since their last 20-win season in 2002-03, a year after their last NCAA tournament appearance.
“This season, the ‘Journey with the Johnnies’ in our inaugural season as staff, was really a pleasure, an honor, a privilege just to participate in it, to experience the breakthrough and thrill at the success at a very high level,” Lavin said. “Twenty wins is always a nice benchmark. To finish third in the Big East when it’s the best conference in America and possibly the best season in the history of the conference.
“This is all so unusual because it was the first time as far we know that a school had 10 seniors. The mathematical improbability is staggering. We’re talking unicorns and Haley’s Comet.”
The Red Storm finished in a tie for third place with Louisville and Syracuse. Through the three-team tiebreaker, St. John’s will be the fifth seed and will get a bye into the second round on Wednesday, facing the winner of the first-round game between Seton Hall and Rutgers.
Connecticut (21-9) finished in a three-way tie for ninth place with a 9-9 mark in the powerful conference, meaning it will play in the first game of the five-day tournament.
The Huskies have won the tournament six times, most recently in 2004. Since that triumph, they are 1-6 in the event and lost 73-51 to St. John’s last season.
Connecticut is 5-1 all-time against DePaul (7-23), including an 82-62 road win Jan. 15 behind 31 points from Kemba Walker. The Blue Demons went 1-17 in Big East play for the second straight season after their historic 0-18 mark in 2008-09.
Making matters worse for DePaul, it is playing without Cleveland Melvin, out for the season with a sprained left thumb. Melvin, the lone unanimous pick to the Big East all-rookie team, led the Blue Demons with 14.3 points per game.
UConn will have its star on the court in Walker, a Bronx native who will likely be playing in his final games in MSG as a college player.
Walker, one of the leading candidates for Big East player of the year honors, took part in senior day ceremonies Saturday during a 70-67 loss to then-No. 8 Notre Dame. He’s scheduled to graduate this summer and will walk in May at commencement, but the junior guard has not yet said whether he will leave school.
He turned in his second-best scoring effort with 34 points, making all 10 free throws.
“Kemba was unstoppable today,” coach Jim Calhoun said. “He was just unstoppable. That’s the best he’s gotten to the rim in a long, long time.”
UConn has been outrebounded in its last three games, allowing the Fighting Irish a 32-27 edge.
“That there were so many opportunities for us, guys looking at the ball and not getting rebounds, greatly hurt us,” Calhoun said. “It’s only getting worse for us right now.”
The Huskies have dropped four of five overall, leaving Calhoun one win shy of 300 in Big East play, including the conference tournament.
“It ends up being a new season for you,” he said. “You’ve seen it in the Big East tournament and you’ve seen it in the NCAA tournament. Teams get a little bit going, get on a roll, feel good about themselves, good things happen and the next thing you know, they are going on. A couple of our guys hope they can get some new life, to be honest with you.”
DePaul has actually won a Big East tournament game more recently than Connecticut, an upset of Cincinnati in 2009 following the 0-18 conference campaign. The Blue Demons are 1-3 all-time in tournament play.
It’s hard to envision DePaul being competitive after Saturday’s 107-59 loss at then-No. 12 Syracuse. The Blue Demons became the only Big East team in the last 15 seasons to allow an opponent to shoot over 70 percent, as the Orange finished at 71.4.
“They came out and played with a lot of spirit, a lot of energy,” first-year coach Oliver Purnell said. “They made shots and got away from us early.”
The winner will face No. 22 Georgetown on Wednesday.
Also in action on Monday:
2:00 p.m. — Rutgers vs. Seton Hall
7:00 p.m. — South Florida vs. Villanova
9:00 p.m. — Providence vs. Marquette
Are the Red Storm a lock to win the Big East Tourney? Let us know in the comments below…
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