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January 23, 2008

SCS.comAfter a few weeks of conference play, things are starting to take shape in most conferences. While uncertainty still exists, the top of each conference seems to be firmly set. Kansas is the frontrunner for the Big 12 crown and North Carolina will fight Duke for the ACC. In the Big 10, Wisconsin has joined Indiana and Michigan State as the elite teams in the conference, and Tennessee is clearly the class of the SEC. And in the Pac-10, it’s UCLA and Washington State at the head of the league.

But what about the Big East? Most would argue Georgetown is by far the top team in the conference, but what exactly have the Hoyas done to deserve that recognition? Memphis and Pittsburgh, the two ranked teams on Georgetown’s schedule, both beat John Thompson’s team, and although both games were on the road, it shows the Hoyas are not yet a dominant team.

Georgetown’s lack of dominance is the reason I am hesitant to anoint the Big East crown to the Hoyas at this point. If I had to pick a team to win the conference title right now, I’d go with Georgetown, but it does not seem the Hoyas are much of a step up from the rest of the conference. A more middle-of-the-pack team in Connecticut nearly came into their house and stole a win (they needed Roy Hibbert of all people to bail them out). Then, Syracuse went a step further on the Hoyas’ home court, taking them to overtime before eventually losing. This may just mean the conference’s parity is at an all time high, and to be honest barely beating the Huskies and the Orange is nothing to be ashamed of. But right now, coupling the two close calls with the two losses, the Hoyas look like they will definitely have some competition at the top of the conference.

So Georgetown is a favorite, but not the favorite. Who’s in line to challenge the Hoyas? With every team besides Georgetown already having at least two conference losses, the options are plentiful. Pittsburgh stands out probably more than any other team. The Panthers have somehow battled seriously injury problems to keep winning, after losing Mike Cook and Levance Fields. At full strength, Pitt took out Duke at Madison Square Garden, but after losing Cook, the Panthers found themselves on the wrong side of a blowout against Dayton. A week later, it was a road loss to Villanova without both Cook and Fields, and Pittsburgh seemed to be in real trouble.

But after Pittsburgh convincingly beat Georgetown last week, the Panthers have proven their injuries will not stop them from competing for the Big East title. However, the monster that is the Big East has hit Pittsburgh as well, as it has dropped two league games already to Villanova and Cincinnati. Like Georgetown, Jamie Dixon’s team has shown signs of a truly elite team, along with signs that show his team may not be ready to capture the Big East title.

Villanova and Marquette are the two other top 25 teams in the Big East, and both can also be grouped with Georgetown and Pittsburgh. The Wildcats are trending up lately, having won three of four games, while the Golden Eagles have now dropped two straight games. Marquette’s latest funk is alarming, especially when considering its last two road losses to Louisville and Connecticut are by a combined 46 points. Villanova’s two Big East losses came on the road as well, to DePaul and Cincinnati, but the Wildcats just picked up a huge win against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on Saturday. But again, both Villanova and Marquette have dropped some surprising games, like Georgetown and Pittsburgh have also done.

If you hadn’t noticed, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Villanova, and Marquette have all followed a very similar trend. They simply can’t win on the road. The four squads have a combined eight Big East losses, and every single one of those eight losses have come on the road. That’s how hard it is to win on the road in the Big East this season. But why is this? It’s always been hard for any team in any conference to pick up road victories within the league. But this year, the Big East takes it to another level.

These road woes are for a variety of reasons, the first being the incredible depth of the conference. Besides St. John’s, Rutgers, and South Florida, every team in the league will provide a test every single night. Seton Hall is currently in 13th place, and the Pirates played Marquette and Pitt pretty tough and even just beat Louisville this weekend. Besides the league’s depth, we’ve already explored the weakening of the top of the conference. The four top 25 teams in this conference do not form a dominant top tier, and any of these teams can be beaten by basically any other team in the league.

With Big East road games proving to be a road block for the conference’s top tier, there are several other darkhorse teams looking to jump into the top of the conference. And with the lack of dominance from the top four, who knows what could happen? It’s looking like a real possibility that someone could leap from the middle of the conference and seriously compete for not only one of those top spots, but actually the Big East regular season title. And it could be anybody.

Let’s start first with the surprise of the conference, the Cincinnati Bearcats. After losing to Belmont and Bowling Green in November and entering league play with a 5-7 record, nobody thought much of Mick Cronin’s team. But the rebuilding process has been cut short, as the Bearcats seem to be beating everybody in the Big East these days. First, it was a road win at Freedom Hall against Louisville, but the success continued with wins over Syracuse, Villanova, and Pittsburgh. At 4-2 in the conference, Cincy is currently tied for second. Despite the hot start, a spot among the conference’s elite still seems like a long shot. Give some credit to Cronin for such a fantastic turnaround this season, but ultimately this team will probably fall back to earth soon.

At the complete opposite end from Cincy is Louisville, who has been the disappointment of the conference. A recent four game winning streak seemed to have the Cardinals on the right track, but Rick Pitino’s team lost on the road to Seton Hall on Saturday, which put an end to the streak. This was a team expected to seriously compete for the league title, and there is still a chance it could happen. The Cardinals’ next four games are very winnable, and it is possible Louisville could be 7-2 heading into a game against Marquette. With injuries and off the court problems no longer an issue like they were earlier in the year, look for Louisville to make a real push in the Big East down the stretch.

But there’s more than just Cincy and Louisville that can challenge the top of the conference. West Virginia, Notre Dame, and Providence are all 3-2 in the conference, and even DePaul holds a mark of 4-2. The Blue Demons will probably not be much of a factor, however, and I would not expect them to win more than 8 conference games at best. West Virginia and Notre Dame are still in the mix, and while both teams are mired in the middle of the conference currently, either one could separate from the pack. Providence has capitalized on weak foes during its three game winning streak, and while the Friars could very well be an NCAA tournament team, that’s the ceiling for them.

That leaves us with three other teams not yet mentioned - Connecticut, Syracuse, and Seton Hall. Group these three teams in with the rest of the pack as some potential darkhorse teams. UConn is a team to keep an eye on, having taken Georgetown to the wire and also destroying Marquette. Syracuse and Seton Hall are toward the bottom of the pack, but the possibility remains of a Big East run.

So we’ve determined exactly one thing throughout this entire column, which is that absolutely nothing has been determined in the Big East. It’s completely wide open. Georgetown could do as expected and win the whole thing, or Pittsburgh, Villanova, or Marquette could snatch it. There would be no surprises if any of those four teams won the Big East this season. But to be honest, would you be that shocked if Louisville, Connecticut, or Notre Dame won the conference either? Or Cincinnati? Or Syracuse? Or Seton Hall? Or Providence or West Virginia? Barely anything separates these “pack” teams in the monstrous Big East, and barely anything separates the supposed elite teams from the pack.

We’re in for one heck of a Big East season. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, but one thing is for sure - it is going to be the most interesting conference in all of college basketball.

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