- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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Big East play has begun. Let's take another crack at ranking this mega-conference:
1. Syracuse: Like Otto, their citrus-infused mascot, the Orange keep on rolling. Syracuse was supposed to get a challenge from Seton Hall. The Orange won by 26. DePaul is better this season, which meant only a 19-point loss to the top team in the country. The next circle-the-date challenge comes on Jan. 7, when Syracuse hosts Marquette.
2. Georgetown: The Hoyas mastered the art of survive and advance against Providence, shooting an abysmal 30 percent for the game yet coming away with the win. Georgetown will need to find its touch soon with a rough run of games -- against Marquette, at West Virginia and against Cincinnati.
3. Connecticut: The Huskies have weathered their first two games without coach Jim Calhoun, who is serving his mandated NCAA suspension. UConn hasn’t been pretty -- the Huskies needed every one of Jeremy Lamb’s 23 points to beat South Florida and squandered much of a 23-point lead against St. John’s -- but pretty doesn’t matter in the Big East.
4. Marquette: Weird week for the Golden Eagles, who played horribly against Vanderbilt but rebounded in league play against Villanova. The simple secret to Marquette’s success seems to be Darius Johnson-Odom. When he plays well, as he did against the Wildcats, so does Marquette.
5. Louisville: The Cardinals were handed a double-whammy, with back-to-back games (and losses) to conference rival Georgetown and in-state rival Kentucky. Louisville’s defense took a night off against the Hoyas but came to life in the slugfest against the Wildcats. This remains a team with limitations, but one that can count on its pressure defense to keep it alive in conference play.
6. Cincinnati: The Bearcats’ guard-fueled offense continues to pay huge dividends for Mick Cronin. Since the brawl housecleaned his lineup, Cronin has gone with four guards. He’s got six consecutive wins to show for it. Yancy Gates is due back on Wednesday against Notre Dame.
7. Notre Dame: In the midst of a week-long break, the Irish at least have a nice game to linger over. Notre Dame’s offense caught fire against Pitt, hitting 18 of 25 from the floor in the second half, to score the upset in the the league opener.
8. Seton Hall: Seton Hall is part of a glut of Big East teams that is hard to separate, mixing in with Cincinnati, West Virginia and Pittsburgh. The Hall may not be quite ready for the top of the pack -- not if the 26-point loss to Syracuse is any indication -- but the Pirates earned themselves a little space from the pack with a decisive win against West Virginia.
9. West Virginia: The Mountaineers, a team with seven freshmen on the roster, are going to be something of an enigma this season. The same team that couldn’t miss against Villanova struggled to score against Seton Hall’s zone.
10. Pittsburgh: The Oakland Zoo has been tamed. Pitt, which once lost at home about as often as the solstice, dropped its third at the Zoo this season and second in eight days. The Panthers have now skidded to their third loss in a row.
11. DePaul: The Blue Demons are better but there is a big distance between better and competitive with the top of the Big East. How improved DePaul is can’t be defined by its 19-point loss to Syracuse. The Demons’ next two games, however, could be more telling. DePaul hosts Pittsburgh, a team that’s been on the ropes already this season, and travels to face a reeling Villanova team.
12. St. John’s: The tough sledding continues for a young Red Storm team that is trying to get through Big East games without its head coach. There are good signs -- Moe Harkless has the ability to take over a game, as he did with 32 against Providence -- but there is still plenty of work to be done.
13. Villanova: The Wildcats are like a car stuck in mud -- the wheels are spinning, but they aren’t getting anywhere. A close game dissolved in to a 14-point loss against West Virginia and a late rally proved too late against Marquette. Villanova, a young team in both age and experience, has lost seven of its past 10.
14. South Florida: A decent week for the Bulls to open conference play -- they gave UConn all it could handle and topped Rutgers. But South Florida has to get more offense out of Augustus Gilchrist going forward. He’s getting touches, but shooting only 36 percent from the floor.
15. Rutgers: Mike Rice’s fears came true. Minutes after the Scarlet Knights improbably upset Florida in double overtime, Rice said his only concern was South Florida. Sure enough, Rutgers, which played so well against the Gators, started sluggishly and paid for it with a loss to the Bulls on Sunday.
16. Providence: The Friars are what they are -- young and limited. They simply aren’t ready to win Big East games, even when they try to make them as ugly as possible, as they did in a competitive loss against Georgetown.