- Eamonn Brennan, College Basketball Reporter
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With college football officially behind us and conference play just beginning to heat up, what better time to catch you up on the power-six conference picture? This week, your humble ESPN.com writers are doing just that. ESPN Insider’s Doug Gottlieb kicked off the festivities yesterday with some Big Ten rankings. Today, we continue with a look at the Big East, arguably the country’s best league and one that features a handful of potential Final Four squads and 11 plausible NCAA tournament teams. In other words, it’s just another season in the Big East.
1. Syracuse Orange
The No. 1 spot in the Big East is an ongoing dispute, and since these rankings are supposed to be more projection than appraisal, Pittsburgh could just as easily be listed here. But it’s hard to argue with what Syracuse has done thus far, not to mention where it can go from here. Jim Boeheim’s team is as athletic as any in the country. It uses his trademark 2-3 zone as well as any of his teams in recent seasons. The Orange force opponents into bad shots without fouling frequently because they’re so long and so athletic that they cover more of the court than any 2-3 zone ever should. (If you haven’t seen it in action yet, you’re missing out. At its best, this defense is a thing of beauty.) If Syracuse has a flaw, it’s outside shooting; it shoots just 33.9 percent from the field. But this team is so tough elsewhere that so-so mark barely matters.
2. Pittsburgh Panthers
Jamie Dixon’s teams have long been characterized by their toughness, their defense, and their rebounding. This year, only two of those things are true. The Panthers aren’t an elite defensive team -- they rank in the mid-50s in defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy -- and they don’t force their opponents into turnovers the way you’d expect from a team with Pitt’s defensive reputation. The good news? Pittsburgh is currently the best offensive team in the country. The Panthers aren’t creating offense through high-flying, up-tempo acrobatics. Instead, perhaps counter-intuitively, they’re grinding it out. The Panthers shoot well from inside the arc and beyond it, and they grab more of their available offensive rebounds than any team in the nation. Is this team better than Syracuse? That remains to be seen. But for now, it’s clear the Panthers are one of this very deep league’s few true contenders.
3. Villanova Wildcats
With the exception of their loss to Tennessee in Madison Square Garden and home wins over Temple and Cincinnati, the Wildcats haven’t exactly been tested often. In other words, you can forgive those that want to see more from the Wildcats before ‘Nova gets the same level of love as Pittsburgh and Syracuse. That’s probably fair. But for now, here’s what we know: Jay Wright’s team is talented, balanced, and good (but not great) on both sides of the ball. It features a coterie of players that can hurt you on the perimeter (Maalik Wayns, Corey Fisher, and Corey Stokes). And, for the first time since forward Dante Cunningham graduated in 2009, the Wildcats have interior presence, too (Mouphtaou Yarou, Antonio Pena).
4. Connecticut Huskies
For a while there, it was fair to doubt the Huskies. Unranked to start the season, UConn shot to a top-five ranking after Kemba Walker’s brilliant run through a tough Maui Invitational field, but UConn began league play with two road losses and a near-loss in overtime at home to South Florida. Was this Connecticut team, a team with one great player and a handful of questionable supporting players, good enough to hang around in the Big East? Lately, that seems to be the case. Walker’s supporting cast stole the show in an impressive road win at Texas Saturday, and forward Alex Oriakhi appears to be back in Maui-esque form after a brief slump into irrelevance. If Oriakhi, Shabazz Napier, and Roscoe Smith can keep improving, well, that Kemba guy can do the rest. And UConn can be just as tough as their November results indicated.
5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Apparently, the Irish are this good without Luke Harangody. Notre Dame surged to a six-game win streak without their injured star last season, a stretch that salvaged a disappointing start and landed them in the NCAA tournament. This year, much of that team is back, but Harangody is gone, and guess what? The Irish didn’t miss a beat. If anything, as they’ve proved in wins over Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Connecticut and St. John’s, they’re even better.
6. Georgetown Hoyas
It’s not quite time to jump off the Georgetown bandwagon just yet. Yes, the Hoyas have lost three of their last four, but this is the same team that easily handled one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country before Big East play kicked up, and when Austin Freeman, Jason Clark and Chris Wright are on from outside, the Hoyas are good enough to beat anyone in the country.
7. Louisville Cardinals
The Cardinals get the nod over Marquette at No. 7 thanks in large part to their impressive adjusted efficiency stats. Check ‘em: According to Pomeroy, Louisville has the No. 13 offense and the No. 25 defense in the nation. If you’re surprised, don’t feel bad. Louisville’s best two wins have come over Butler and UNLV at home, and the Cardinals have dropped home contests to Drexel and Kentucky, which certainly hasn’t helped Louisville’s national profile. Still, this appears to be an underrated team, and one -- with its up-tempo offense and pressing defense -- that should give Big East foes plenty of challenges this season.
8. Marquette Golden Eagles
This is where the league gets unwieldy. (As if it wasn’t already.) What do I mean by that? At this point in the season, there are at least three or four teams you could call the eighth-best in the Big East. But I’ll give the spot to Marquette, and here’s why: The Golden Eagles are a great offensive team. The Eagles are accurate from the field, rarely turn the ball over and grab many more offensive rebounds than any team with its lack of interior depth should. If you’re not convinced, consider Marquette’s blowout win over Notre Dame this week. Or take a look at the games the Eagles have lost -- to Duke, Gonzaga, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh -- by an average margin of 4.4 points. This is a better team than its win-loss record indicates, and if its conference opponents don’t realize it yet, they soon will.
9. Cincinnati Bearcats
This requires a leap of faith. Or, if you prefer, a wild guess. After all, we still don’t know how good the Bearcats can be. What we do know is that, thanks partly to a giant cupcake of a nonconference schedule, the Bearcats won their first 15 games of the season before losing at Villanova Sunday. What does that tell us? Not all that much, really. But Cincinnati deserves credit for its efficiency; it didn’t just squeak by those incompetent nonconference foes, after all. If the Bearcats keep up their tough defense, there’s no reason to expect them to make this pick look totally dumb. (I hope so, anyway.)
10. St. John’s Red Storm
Before you freak out, SJU fans, yes, it’s possible for St. John’s to be the 10th-best team in the Big East by the end of the season and also an NCAA tournament team. Still, if you think I’m selling the Red Storm a little short here, you might be right. Steve Lavin’s team is experienced -- with 10 seniors on the roster, perhaps the most experienced in the country -- and it’s off to an impressive 3-1 start in Big East play to date.
11. West Virginia Mountaineers
The Mountaineers have not had the best start to their season. They haven’t looked anything like last year’s Final Four squad. Bob Huggins has been uncomfortable in his windbreakers. This is all true. But if we know anything about Huggy Bear’s ability to bring teams around, we can expect the Mountaineers to improve as the season goes along. The nexus of that improvement needs to be on the defensive end, where opponents are basically having their way with the Mountaineers thus far this season.
12. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
This is where the Big East gets less unwieldy. From here on out, everyone is either rebuilding or just plain bad, and oftentimes both. That’s the case for first-year Rutgers coach Mike Rice, who deserves credit for his overmatched team’s effort to date.
13. Providence Friars
Embattled Friars coach Keno Davis needed a positive start to the season. He got it: Providence started the year 11-2, a helpful little boost for a program besieged by a host of ugly personnel problems this offseason. The bad news? Big East play is here, and the Friars are already 0-4 in four league games.
14. Seton Hall Pirates
You have to feel a bit for first-year Friars coach Kevin Willard. Willard inherited a nice talent base in guard Jeremy Hazell, forward Herb Pope, and wingman Jeff Robinson when he took over this offseason, but the Pirates have yet to live up to even the modest expectations foisted upon them before the season. Worse yet, guard Jeremy Hazell -- Seton Hall’s best offensive player, bar none -- was the victim of an attempted robbery on Christmas Day. Hazell was shot by the robbers as he attempted to make his escape, and that injury seems likely to sideline him for the rest of the season. Hazell’s potential return would be a huge boon to Seton Hall’s woeful offense, but in the big picture, it might not matter much. This team is stuck in a holding pattern for now. And next year, the real rebuilding begins.
15. USF Bulls
With star guard Dominique Jones gone, USF finds itself in a race to the bottom with recent wooden spoon winner DePaul. The Bulls nearly pulled off an overtime win at UConn last week, but don’t be fooled: By nearly every metric available (including the good old eye test) this is a truly bad major-conference team.
16. DePaul Blue Demons
Speaking of “truly bad major-conference” teams, well, yeah. DePaul is in the first year of what will likely be a long and arduous rebuild under first-year coach Oliver Purnell. The good news is that DePaul, which has had little to cheer about in recent seasons, has gotten solid contributions from freshman Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young, players who are likely to be cornerstones as Purnell seeks to add much-needed talent in the coming years.
With college football officially behind us and conference play just beginning to heat up, what better time to catch you up on the power-six conference picture?