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Monday, December 13, 2010
Observations from the week that was

By Eamonn Brennan

1. Tennessee is the best team in the Big East. OK, so things don't exactly work that way. But the undefeated Volunteers are now owners of two separate road/neutral-site wins over Villanova and Pittsburgh, the top two presumed Big East title contenders to begin the season. If Tennessee belonged to the Big East, and not the SEC, we'd be calling Bruce Pearl's team the new conference favorite. Instead, we have this: Tennessee is the hands-down SEC East favorite and a top-five team until further notice. And Pearl -- despite the varied issues that will continue to plague this season, and his career, until the NCAA rules on his decision to initially mislead investigators about the infamous barbecue with recruits -- deserves an endless amount of credit for his team's performance. No team in the country has two more impressive victories under its belt, and no team seems to consistently overachieve under difficult circumstances quite like Pearl's Vols.

2. St. John's will have to wait another year. Given the senior-laden lineup Steve Lavin inherited in his first season at St. John's, some hoped the Red Storm would get to the NCAA tournament a year or two ahead of schedule. That was, to say the least, optimistic. Lavin's team lost to St. Bonaventure 67-66 at Carnesecca Arena on Tuesday and followed that performance with an 84-81 loss at Fordham on Saturday night, a game in which St. John's blew a 21-point lead in the final 16 minutes. Lavin has a fantastic recruiting class on the way, and it shouldn't be long before the Johnnies are competing with the elite in the Big East. But it's probably time to revert back to a more realistic NCAA tournament timeline.

3. The A-10’s vital signs are improving. The Atlantic 10 was supposed to be tough again this season, but the conference’s collective performance in the early going had been, well, less than impressive. Temple struggled against major-conference foes; Xavier fell to Miami (Ohio) and scuffled quite a bit against lesser opponents; Richmond took a bad loss to Iona; and Dayton scored 34 points against Cincinnati immediately before losing to East Tennessee State. The league needed a good week, and finally, it got one. Temple beat Georgetown; Xavier held off Butler; Richmond got wins over Arizona State and VCU; and even Dayton, the most disappointing of the prospective A-10 contenders thus far, showed positive signs in a three-point loss at Old Dominion on Saturday. The A-10 might not be as good as it was last season -- without Xavier among the nation’s elite, the feat will be hard to accomplish -- but it managed to stop its downward trajectory this week.

4. Gonzaga’s schedule is taking its toll. The Zags deserve credit for their play-anyone-anywhere scheduling strategy. If every name program scheduled like Gonzaga, Butler and Michigan State, college hoops in November and December would be infinitely more entertaining. But credit or not, the Bulldogs’ brutal nonconference schedule has already backfired in a big way. After nine games, Gonzaga is 4-5, with losses to San Diego State, Kansas State, Illinois, Washington State and, as of Saturday, Notre Dame. Things don’t get easier anytime soon: Gonzaga has games with Baylor, Xavier, Oklahoma State and Wake Forest before the WCC season begins, and there’s still that Feb. 5 date with Memphis to contend with down the line. That’s also good news, because Gonzaga has some proving to do if it wants any chance of landing an at-large bid come March. Failing a few key wins -- upsetting Baylor on Saturday would be a start -- the Bulldogs’ path to the tournament will almost certainly travel through the WCC tournament title game.

5. Texas A&M is quietly building a solid tournament résumé. The Aggies lost three seniors from last season’s team, and much of the preseason talk about A&M was premised on the idea that Mark Turgeon’s team was in for a down year. We should have known better. Turgeon has another solid team on his hands, a 9-1 squad that can already lay claim to at least two quality wins. The first came against Temple in the Old Spice Classic on Nov. 28. The second came Saturday, when A&M outlasted Washington 63-62 at home. The Aggies don’t have another major nonconference challenge before the start of Big 12 play, so it’s entirely likely Turgeon’s team will enter the conference season at 13-1.