The biggest news emerging from the Big East has been the demise of the Big East -- specifically, that the seven Catholic schools are breaking away to form a new league. But on the court, Louisville has been as good as expected, Syracuse is probably better than expected and nobody should be surprised if the Cards and Orange make the Final Four.
Either could win a national title.
Here's our Big East Reset ...
Ineligible for postseason: Connecticut
Most memorable moment to date: Louisville's Rick Pitino entered the season winless against John Calipari since his friend-turned-rival took over at Kentucky. But that changed this last weekend. Pitino's Cardinals hosted Calipari's Wildcats, jumped to a big lead, overcame foul trouble and held on for an 80-77 win that kept Louisville ranked in the top five and kept Kentucky unranked in the top 25 (and one), for now.
Storyline you were too busy to notice: Michael Carter-Williams hasn't been featured on a big stage much because Syracuse has played only one ranked opponent, and that was San Diego State in the opener. But the sophomore point guard is having a remarkable season in which he's averaging 11.8 points, 9.9 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 steals per game. That's good enough for second in the nation in assists and fourth in steals.
Coach feeling the heat: Rutgers is 9-2 (against a pitiful schedule), and that's OK. But the games have been overshadowed by the fact that Mike Rice was forced to miss three of them and pay a $50,000 fine for inappropriate language and behavior toward players in practice. That Rutgers would discipline a coach in this way suggests Rice is on so-called thin ice in Piscataway. A stack of losses in January, February and March combined with additional off-the-court issues could have him in trouble after just three seasons.
Player who needs to step up: Mouphtaou Yarou has forever been an interesting prospect widely considered to be "just a year away" from breaking through. But he's never really broken through; that's why he's senior at Villanova. And he's a senior at Villanova who is now averaging just 7.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, which represent the worst numbers since his freshman season.
Team better than its record: Marquette is 9-3. But two of the losses are to Florida and Butler, and both happened before Todd Mayo became academically eligible. So don't be surprised if Buzz Williams gets things headed in the right direction and puts Marquette back in the Field of 68.
Team not as good as its record: Seton Hall's 11-2 record is the result of a schedule rated 327th at KenPom.com. The Pirates probably won't win more than seven or eight Big East games, even though they won 11 of their 13 non-league games.
Three must-see games:
- Louisville at Georgetown on Jan. 26
- Syracuse at Pittsburgh on Feb. 2
- Louisville at Syracuse on March 2
Player of the Year favorite: Russ Smith has gone from one of the nation's most frustrating players to one of the nation's best. The Louisville guard is averaging 19.8 points per game and shooting a career-high percentage from the field. A conference title probably brings him the league's POY award.
Freshman of the Year favorite: Ryan Arcidiacono has created some buzz at Villanova, but he's only shooting 33.0 percent from the field for a middle-of-the-pack Big East team. So how good is that, really? I'll go with Pittsburgh's Steven Adams here. He's averaging 7.3 points and 6.2 rebounds in 21.4 minutes per game. That's not great. But he's a relevant player on a relevant team, and that's good enough in this league in this season.
Probable all-league team: Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse), Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Russ Smith (Louisville), Otto Porter (Georgetown), Jack Cooley (Notre Dame)
Ranking the teams from first to worst ...
- Louisville: The Cards were the preseason favorite, and they've done nothing to move me away from that prediction. They're 12-1 with a lone loss to top-ranked Duke in their first game without Gorgui Dieng. Now Dieng is back from that wrist injury, and Russ Smith has been superb. This is a Final Four-caliber team with true national title aspirations.
- Syracuse: Michael Carter-Williams has emerged as a star who makes life easier for all of his teammates, and his length is ideal for Jim Boeheim's zone defense. I wasn't sure in the preseason whether the Orange could really be better after losing Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine and Fab Melo. But now I'm sure they are.
- Georgetown: John Thompson III has a pair of pro forwards in Otto Porter and Greg Whittington, each of whom is enjoying a breakthrough season. Porter is averaging 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds. Whittington is averaging 12.5 points and 7.4 rebounds. Both are 6-foot-8, athletic and among the reasons the Hoyas are one of the nation's best defensive teams.
- Cincinnati: The Bearcats are lacking on the interior, proof being how a 6-foot-4 guard is their leading rebounder. But that same 6-foot-4 guard (Sean Kilpatrick) has some star qualities about him, and he's good enough to get Cincinnati about 12 Big East wins and another trip to the NCAA tournament.
- Pittsburgh: Jamie Dixon had a very un-Jamie-Dixon-like season last season, but the Panthers are back, relevant again and set to make the Field of 68 for the ninth time in 10 seasons -- although Monday's loss at home to Cincinnati wasn't this team's best moment.
- Connecticut: The school should've given Kevin Ollie a long-term deal from the start. But better late than never, right? The first-year coach got his five-year deal over the weekend, then beat Washington. He has found a way to motivate his players even though they can't compete in the postseason and provided hope in a hopeless situation.
- Notre Dame: Jack Cooley is averaging a career-best 15.2 points and 11.3 rebounds while shooting 64.0 percent from the field and being the kind of leader Mike Brey isn't shy about praising. He's terrific. So while Notre Dame might be a little less talented than some Big East teams, its experienced roster and efficient offense will be enough to win enough to get the Irish into the Field of 68.
- Marquette: The Golden Eagles are 9-3 even though Todd Mayo has played just two games. Granted, there are a lot of things that must be fixed for what is Buzz Wiliams' worst offensive team since replacing Tom Crean in 2008. But it would be unwise to rule out a fifth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance just yet.
- Villanova: Jay Wright is terrific and has been that for Villanova, which is why the Wildcats' drop in the Big East is a little surprising. Barring something unexpected, Villanova will not have a winning record in the Big East for the third straight season -- although this current five-game winning streak featuring a victory over Saint Joseph's provides some optimism.
- Seton Hall: This is where there starts to be a clear divide between league members. Seton Hall might be the "best of the rest," I guess. But the Pirates' best win to date is probably over Stony Brook, and that's important to remember.
- South Florida: USF has eight wins, but only one (George Mason) is notable. The good news is that the neck injury that Anthony Collins suffered in that win over George Mason isn't serious. The bad news is that two of USF's first three Big East games are against Louisville and Syracuse.
- St. John's: The Red Storm are awful defensively and not very good offensively. They're missing Moe Harkless and Mike Dunlap a little more than most anticipated.
- Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights aren't the worst team in the Big East, but they are the league's worst defensive team. They don't produce turnovers, they give up too many offensive rebounds and they're letting opponents shoot nearly 47 percent from inside the arc. All of those things will be problems in Big East play.
- Providence: Injuries and academics ripped the hope out of Providence's season before it even got started. Ricardo Ledo isn't eligible. Kris Dunn has played only two games. So Ed Cooley is gonna need another year to make the Friars competitive.
- DePaul: Oliver Purnell knew he was taking a tough job when he took the DePaul job, and, well, at least he's getting paid well. The Blue Demons have won nine games against a terrible schedule. They'll probably finish last in the Big East for the fifth straight season. That new Catholic League can't get here soon enough.