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Friday, December 9, 2011
Conference Power Rankings: Big East

By Dana O'Neil

Here's my attempt at ranking the Big East teams one month into the season:

1. Syracuse: Amid distractions and the dismissal of their associate head coach, the Orange have done nothing to undermine their top-five national ranking. Syracuse won its first seven games by an average of 26 points and then survived a slugfest against Florida. SU's defense has been particularly strong, while its offense is a little less reliable.

2. Marquette: Buzz Williams’ chronically underappreciated Golden Eagles ought to get their due soon. They’re undefeated, with notches against in-state rival Wisconsin and a good Washington team in New York. Darius Johnson-Odom is good enough to make the early short list for Big East Player of the Year.

3. Louisville: For those who thought Rick Pitino did a masterful job last season, we give you the first month of 2011-12. Pitino has had to hodgepodge together a team amid a myriad of injuries and has yet to lose a game. Louisville has quality wins against a good Long Beach State team and Vanderbilt, and, with everyone finally getting healthy, should only get better as the schedule gets tougher.

4. Connecticut: Rare is the season when beating Harvard signals that UConn is starting to find its way, but the Crimson is that good. Thursday night’s win doesn’t answer all the questions, but certainly for a Huskies team still trying to add new parts -- and satisfy old ones in the form of Alex Oriakhi -- it's a good step. Connecticut is good and will be better as the season progresses, but as the loss to UCF and the near-loss to Florida State prove, there will be growing pains.

5. Georgetown: The Hoyas count as a pleasant surprise in the Big East. After losing Chris Wright and Austin Freeman, no one knew quite what to expect. But Jason Clark has stepped into the leadership role in the backcourt, Hollis Thompson and the emerging Henry Sims have solidified the frontcourt, and Georgetown is 7-1 with quality wins against Memphis and Alabama and only a close loss to Kansas.

6. Pittsburgh: The Panthers will be tough to honestly judge for the next month as they play without Trevon Woodall. That sort of fits right in with Pitt anyway. This is a good team, but one that is a bit confounding. The loss to Long Beach State at the Pete ranks as the biggest head-scratcher, but there's also a sense that Pitt hasn’t quite found its groove just yet.

7. West Virginia: Bob Huggins’ work in progress is starting to progress. The Mountaineers took it on the chin against Mississippi State, but rebounded with a mighty impressive double-overtime win against a previously unbeaten Kansas State team in front of thousands of purple people in Wichita. Who this team is now and who it will be come March will likely be decidedly different.

8. Seton Hall: Herb Pope is playing out of his mind -- averaging an impressive double-double of 21.4 points and 11 boards -- and the Pirates are enjoying the benefits. Seton Hall has not played a murderers' row, for sure, but has won its winnable games with authority. Their lone loss, to Northwestern, isn’t diabolical.

9. Cincinnati: This perplexing Bearcats team could provide answers quickly. Cincinnati plays at Xavier on Saturday. In the meantime, we have only a confusing résumé to go by, which is why the Bearcats are in the middle of the pack. This is a talented and veteran team, so how to explain home losses to Presbyterian and Marshall? Yes, the Thundering Herd is a good team, but Cincy ought to be better.

10. Providence: No one will confuse the Friars’ 7-2 record for a sign of a Top 25 team in the making -- this team has feasted on winnable games early. But there’s no point in knocking that approach either. Ed Cooley is trying to change the culture at PC and in order to do that, he’s first got to change the confidence. Reality will come in the form of Georgetown and Syracuse in back-to-back games to end 2011 and start 2012.

11. Villanova: Jay Wright keeps tinkering and hasn’t found the right combination yet. There is talent on the Wildcats’ roster, but it’s not working together or working well. A team many thought would make the finals at the 76 Classic instead dropped games to Saint Louis and Santa Clara. The Wildcats are going to have to get smarter and better fast to be competitive in the conference.

12. Notre Dame: The Irish’s power rankings ought to come with an asterisk. Without Tim Abromaitis, this isn’t the same team. But as coaches like to say, you can only play the hand you’re dealt, and right now the Irish can’t even bluff well. Notre Dame has lost badly to the two ranked opponents it's faced (Missouri by 29 and Gonzaga by 20). In order to survive, Mike Brey may have to pull out the walk-the-ball-up-the-court method he used after Luke Harangody was injured.

13. DePaul: The Blue Demons’ struggles don’t appear to be easing anytime soon. DePaul played well in losses to its two toughest early opponents -- Minnesota and Ole Miss -- but almosts don’t count in basketball. There is still much work for Oliver Purnell to do and little time to do it in. DePaul kicks off the Big East season against Syracuse and Pitt.

14. St. John’s: Credit the Red Storm for playing a tough schedule. Unfortunately, right now the young team has nothing to show for it. St. John’s has lost to the three ranked teams it’s faced, but what is more damning is that it lost to Northeastern and Detroit as well. Steve Lavin is still recovering from cancer surgery, and Nurideen Lindsey just decided to transfer out. Not a fun season so far for the Johnnies.

15. South Florida: Times remain tough for Stan Heath in Tampa, where the promise of talent has never delivered victories. The Bulls this season are 5-4, but don’t let the record fool you. USF’s losses are either to bad teams (Penn State) or really bad losses to good teams -- a 23-point beating from VCU followed by a 28-point blowout to Kansas. The pressure is on Heath right now.

16. Rutgers: There are more questions than answers right now for the Scarlet Knights, who have lost four of their past five, including two in a row to LSU and Princeton. Most troubling, Rutgers hasn’t broken the 60-point mark in any of those games and is averaging just 66 points on the season.