Well, we're halfway though the conference season and things have been about as predictable as a Russ Smith tongue-waggle. Pitt just recorded their first win eight games into Big East play. South Florida has the third best record in the league. Every week there seems to be at least one dumbfounding upset. The perennial bottom teams are much improved, and many of the usual studs are struggling.
Basically the entire conference can be broken down into two categories: Pleasant Surprises and Disappointments. The one exception may be DePaul. DePaul is bad. We all knew they'd be bad. They're better than they've been the past few seasons, but that's like saying a four-car pile-up is better than a school bus fire.
So let's take a team-by-team look at the first half of the Big East season.
Syracuse- I’m going to start with the team that has proven to be the class of the Big East thus far, the Orangemen of Syracuse. This was a pre-season top ten team, but one that many analysts viewed as a tier below the elite. But three months into the season, the Orange have staked a claim in the conversation of top two or three teams to win the National Title. They were finally handed their first loss of the season by a hot-shooting Notre Dame team, while Syracuse played without their starting center. However, they bounced back with a big win at Cincinnati, and are poised to stay on top (even discounting the inevitable losses to the Cards).
Seton Hall- The Pirates seem to be able to come out of nowhere and steal a big win or two every year. But usually those wins are surrounded by some really bad losses. This season’s team, however, has been able to avoid the letdowns while picking up big wins over West Virginia and Uconn. When Herp Pope isn’t grabbing an early dinner at the Sizzler or being helped across the street by a boy scout, he’s dropping daily double-doubles. Pope, along with Theodore and Edwin, give Seton Hall one of the most potent 1-2-3 punches in the league. They’ve hit a bit a skid lately so it will be interesting to see if this team has mental toughness to overcome some struggles in the second half of conference play.
Rutgers and South Florida- Their stories sound the same, so for the sake of time, let’s look at these two together. Both were expected to be at the bottom of the conference standings, and both have overachieved. Neither of these teams are likely to make the NCAA tourney, and I would not be shocked to see the two of them near the bottom of the league when it’s all said and done. But that doesn’t take away from what they’ve been able to do in the first half of the Big East season.
Georgetown and West Virginia- Here’s another couple of teams that have similar plot lines. Both were expected to be fringe NCAA tournament teams, and both are sitting near the top of the standings and playing very good basketball. If the season were to end today, WV’s Kevin Jones seems like a no-brainer BE POY winner. Georgetown has a solid and consistent core. Hollis Thompson is shooting lights-out from behind the arc, Jason Clark has taken over as team leader, and Henry Sims is like Chris Paul if Chris Paul were 6’11’’ and really slow. Both of these teams have a shot to take down Syracuse in the next few weeks, which would make conference race very interesting.
Marquette and Cincinnati- I’m going to keep grouping teams together because this is getting long and my boss could walk in here at any minute. After getting to the sweet sixteen last year, Marquette has built on that momentum. Buzz Williams always has his guys playing hard and DJO is as consistent as they get. The Golden Eagles currently sit in a tie for second place in the BE. Cincinnati started the year ranked in the top 25 and then took some really bad home losses to Presbyterian and Marshall. Then they had a little tiff with Xavier because they failed to recognize that Xavier had "a whole bunch of gangstas in that locker room." It happens. Since the brawl, the Bearcats are 10-3 with wins over Georgetown and Uconn and have the third best record in the league.
Notre Dame- Big win over Syracuse aside, the Irish are not likely to make the NCAA tournament. But the fact that there’s even a question is impressive. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but when Tim Abromaitis tore his ACL I thought this team would struggle to get five wins in conference play. Why do I ever doubt Mike Brey? He has players that fit their roles and don’t try to do too much, and his system can knock even the best of teams on their heels when the shots are falling. And crew cuts. My God, the crew cuts.
Providence- The last team in the "pleasant surprises" category is the Providence Friars. And yes, I’m sort of cheating. The Friars suck. They have only one win in conference play and they hate defense the way I hate Ke$ha. But I really didn’t want a team that beat the Cardinals by 31 points to be considered a disappointment. So I’m giving them a "pleasant surprise" label based on their unexpected recruiting class coming in next season. Two five-star dudes? Way to go Friars!
Louisville- I’ll go ahead and get this one out of the way because we all know it’s true. I won’t rehash all that’s been said already. I’ll just say this: I’d like to see any other team in the country endure the injuries the Cardinals have had and not have some major struggles. This team appears to be coming together after winning three of their past four. Eight games from now I fully expect to have this team on the pleasant surprises list.
Connecticut- One of the big stories of the off-season was "how will Connecticut adjust to life without Kemba?" Then the Huskies received a late commitment from Andre Drummond and suddenly they were a National Title contender. The talent is undeniable, but after losses to UCF, Rutgers, and Tennessee it’s become obvious that chemistry issue abound on this team. Alex Oriakhi is a prime example. He was an extremely important piece to their championship last season. Now he goes through multiple games as a non-factor. Uconn lacks depth, but there is enough talent that it shouldn’t be a major issue. Jim Calhoun needs to figure out where the problems are stemming from, or this team will bow out early come tournament time.
St. John's- You have to feel bad for the Johnnies. They’re one of the youngest teams in the country, they’ve had to deal with the absence of their coach while Steve Lavin undergoes cancer treatments, and a few freshman who were expected to be major contributors were ruled ineligible by the NCAA before the season started. This team will continue to improve over the next few seasons (Moe Harmless is a stud), but this year can’t be over soon enough for the Red Storm. Oh and as I type this they’re absolutely destroying West Virginia. The Big East, ladies and gentlemen.
Villanova- Jay Wright’s squad has been a bit of an enigma. In fact, the same could be said for the Wildcats in each of these past few seasons. But is Jay Wright worried? You think the guy in $7,800 suit is worried about a couple bad seasons? Come on! This team has talent. They have five players rated as four-star recruits coming out of high school and one five-star player. They rebound well. They’re explosive offensively. The problem is they are very streaky from behind the arc, and they aren’t very good defensively. That’s a pretty deadly combination. I think this team still has a run left in them, but they may have dug themselves too big of a whole to expect a NCAA tournament bid.
Pittsburgh- Which brings us to the train wreck that is the Pittsburgh Panthers. Train wreck or Chernobyl? Let’s stick with train wreck. It’s more American. How have things gotten this bad? Well injuries and defections are partially to blame. But can that account for an eight game losing-streak? Jamie Dixon coached teams generally play smart, half court offense, and tough, hard-nosed defense. This team does neither. Other than rebounding, the Panthers are below average in pretty much every other facet of the game. When they inevitably lose a couple more games, it will be hard for the players not to throw in the towel and start looking forward to next season and a nice clean slate. Whether Ashton Gibbs can believe it or not.