What In The World Is Going On In The Big East?
This conference, beyond Syracuse, is in a state of chaos brought on by underwhelming performances by the projected top teams coupled with a small number of pleasant surprises by those thought to finish among the dregs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. Just three seasons ago, the Big East yielded three one-seeds in the Big Dance, and two years ago, 11 teams received bids. In the admittedly still-young conference season, the Orange is the only team without a loss in league play, and they own two of the 12 wins by road teams in 33 games.
Traditional powers are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory, as are the surprise teams who haven’t stumbled as badly out of the gate. Seton Hall is legitimately competitive (unless you vote in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll, apparently), but to give you an idea of how crazy the Big East is, try this on for size: South Florida currently leads the following teams in the standings:
But would anyone say the Bulls are all that good? It’s as if the Big East is in a massive 15-car pileup. At least that’s the impression I have, as within the last week, some of the most head-scratching outcomes since the Big East expanded have come to pass:
- Pittsburgh lost to DePaul
- Villanova lost at home South Florida
- Connecticut lost to Rutgers (following a loss to The Hall)
- Louisville lost at home to a bland Notre Dame team
- Georgetown, on a roll for the vast majority of the season, dropped a home game to Cincinnati
The latest display of mediocrity came Tuesday night, when Louisville was blindsided by the Friars in Providence to give the Cardinals their second-worst loss in league play since joining the conference in 2005. Louisville was played absolutely horrific basketball on both ends of the court against a team that had started league play 0-4 and, for all intents and purposes, has no bench. Credit is due to Providence for being prepared, as they went on a 30-8 run, but at the same time, hitting 60% of your threes isn’t exactly a sustainable model for success, even if the league is down.
Beyond Syracuse and probably Seton Hall, there’s no doubting the existence of parity, as long as no one mistakes it for depth or irrefutably superior quality. In fairness, it’s too early to rule out a resurgence by Connecticut, but recent comments by Shabazz Napier about the mental state of the team can’t be very encouraging to those who normally do their best to prop the league up on an annual basis. While I, along with several others, were willing to give Pitt and Jamie Dixon the benefit of the doubt, the Panthers’ defense hasn’t improved and they now find themselves winless and in last place. West Virginia looks the part of a typical good Big East team, now that their blowout loss to Seton Hall doesn’t look so disastrous in light of the Pirates’ success. The Hoyas will hang around as well, and cases can be made for predicting any of about seven different teams to finish second.
As you can probably draw the conclusion, however, all of this is terrific news for Syracuse, which is like the motorcycle that can weave around that 15-car pileup with barely a care. Through no fault of their own, the Orange appear to have caught a break from the scheduling fates. While I won’t imply that any game against a non-ranked team on the road is nothing to worry about, as others have suggested, this is not The Gauntlet (TM) from 2009 that, over the course of five weeks, pit Syracuse against four teams who would go on to comprise half of the Elite Eight.
Despite the weak showing by most of the conference, a couple more contenders could surface, though there’s no denying that the road to the Big East title is going through Syracuse. As much as I’d like to, we can’t just call the whole thing over and fast forward to March, nor can we assume that SU will run through conference play unscathed. The schedule is backloaded with four February games against Louisville and Connecticut, who could have their respective issues straightened out. As the tired cliche goes, that’s why they play the games. However, from a bird’s-eye view, the skies seem to be parting very quickly.