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Conference Reset: Big East again loaded with tourney-worthy teams

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Blogger
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UConn gets plenty from Lamb but Louisville needs Smith to be consistent. (Getty/US Presswire)  
UConn gets plenty from Lamb but Louisville needs Smith to be consistent. (Getty/US Presswire)    

When compared to last season, the Big East might look down this year. It's not going to be in the mix for 10 or 11 NCAA tournament bids, and the bottom of the league is not very strong. With that said, don't underestimate the conference too much; it has at least three legitimate top 10 teams and six teams who should receive top-four seeds in the NCAA tournament.

Syracuse enters conference play as the favorite because of its No. 1 ranking, but that's a tenuous spot at best. Louisville and Connecticut are right there, and three or four teams also have the pieces to make a run. For the Big East this season, it's quality over quantity.

Maximum Teams Capable of Making the NCAAs (and we're very serious about this): Syracuse, Louisville, Connecticut, Georgetown, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Seton Hall, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Villanova.

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The League's Most Memorable Moment So Far: Georgetown's Hollis Thompson hit a 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left to beat Alabama 57-55 in early December. It let everyone know Georgetown is for real, despite the losing Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Julian Vaughn.

The Storyline You Were Too Busy to Notice: Seton Hall is rolling right now. The only loss the Pirates have is to Northwestern, by seven points. They've beaten VCU, Saint Joseph's and Dayton -- no one spectacular, but nothing to frown upon. Herb Pope is a legitimate All-American candidate, and Kevin Willard has Seton Hall on the upswing.

Coach Feeling the Heat: Coming off a 10-23 season in which South Florida only won three games, Stan Heath needed some success. The Bulls are just 7-6 heading into conference play.

Still Unproven: Louisville. I'm still not sure anyone has a good read on the Cardinals. They're 12-0, but they've eked out a few wins against lesser teams and still are not completely healthy. We'll see against Georgetown and Kentucky.

Player of the Year and All-League Team: Herb Pope, Seton Hall (POY); Kevin Jones, West Virginia; Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut; Jae Crowder, Marquette; Dion Waiters, Syracuse.

What I Loved: The development of Henry Sims. The Georgetown big man has shown promise in the past, but now he's putting it together consistently. One of the best all-around big men in the league.

What I Hated: Whatever Villanova is doing. The Wildcats' best win is over La Salle, and they've lost every other meaningful game so far. Jay Wright's troops have plenty of issues, starting with point guard play and continuing with their lack of inside options.

Here's how the Big East currently stacks up.

1. Syracuse

What's Gone Quite Right: The Orange are the No. 1 team in the country for several reasons. They're defending at a high level, getting balanced offensive production and even won their only road game.

New Year's Resolution: Keep focused on the court. The Bernie Fine allegations and fallout have distracted some from seeing how good Syracuse is, but the Orange have been able to keep their focus on winning.

MVP: Dion Waiters. The Orange don't have a true superstar, but Waiters has been key in the big wins. He comes off the bench, providing a huge asset at both ends of the floor. He's always around the ball late in games.

Step Your Game Up: Fab Melo. The Orange don't need Melo to be a double-double guy every night, but they do need some consistency down low. If he can stay out of foul trouble and provide a presence down low, 'Cuse will be even better.

2. Louisville

What's Gone Quite Right: Despite some struggles, the Cardinals are 12-0 heading into games against Georgetown and Kentucky. They are one of the best defensive teams in the country and have found scoring late in contests.

New Year's Resolution: Stay healthy. The Cardinals have been bit by the injury bug more than anyone else in the country, but they are getting healthier and should have Wayne Blackshear back soon. When healthy, this team is tough.

MVP: Gorgui Dieng. The Cardinals have a ton of solid perimeter players, from Peyton Siva to Russ Smith. But Dieng has been a pleasant surprise down low, leading the Big East in blocks and ranking third in rebounding.

Step Your Game Up: Chris Smith. He is second on the team in scoring, but it's been inconsistent production. In the past four games, he's shooting 9-for-28 from the field. They need more from him on a regular basis.

3. Connecticut

What's Gone Quite Right: The Huskies might have the best backcourt tandem in the country in Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb, with Ryan Boatright providing a boost. Andre Drummond is coming on strong heading into league play.

New Year's Resolution: Play 40 minutes. Connecticut has gotten out to big first-half leads in many games, but its second-half performances have been inconsistent. That trend could catch up to UConn in conference play.

MVP: Jeremy Lamb. The sophomore has developed into one of the best scoring guards in the country. He's improved his shooting and is a dependable go-to scorer. Lamb has also been an asset on the defensive end of the floor.

Step Your Game Up: Alex Oriakhi. With the addition of Drummond, Oriakhi knew he wouldn't get the same opportunities this year. But he's struggled mightily, grabbing 10 rebounds just once and scoring in double figures three times.

4. Marquette

What's Gone Quite Right: The Golden Eagles stumbled against LSU, but their win at Wisconsin is one of the most impressive this season. Buzz Williams has quality depth, and Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder are playing well.

New Year's Resolution: Box out on the defensive end. Crowder is sometimes the only big man on the court, but the Eagles are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country. Forcing tough shots is only half the battle.

MVP: Jae Crowder. He's been one of the toughest matchup problems in the country. He can score around the rim or along the perimeter. Crowder also hit the winning 3-pointer from the corner to beat Washington in New York.

Step Your Game Up: Junior Cadougan. There are plenty of scorers on this team, so Cadougan needs to facilitate the half-court offense effectively. In the loss to LSU, he had just one assist in 30 minutes and shot 3-for-10 from the field.

5. Georgetown

What's Gone Quite Right: The Hoyas have been the surprise of the league. They lost Chris Wright and Austin Freeman, but several veterans have stepped up. Moreover, freshman Otto Porter has been a consistent all-around contributor.

New Year's Resolution: Avoid the Big East swoon. This is the fifth consecutive season Georgetown has started the season with a 10-1 record. But in each of the last three, the Hoyas have finished with at least 11 losses.

MVP: Henry Sims. His improvement from last season is impressive. He's been an effective inside scorer, a capable rebounder and the best passer and shot-blocker on the team. Sims just needs to keep it up vs. conference foes.

Step Your Game Up: Nate Lubick. The sophomore forward isn't a scorer, but averaging just 2.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in his last five games isn't getting it done. As an integral part of the team's inside depth going forward, Lubick needs to step it up.

6. Pittsburgh

What's Gone Quite Right: The Panthers have been one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, not missing a beat when starter Travon Woodall went down with an injury. Ashton Gibbs has been one of the best guards in the Big East.

New Year's Resolution: Play Pitt defense. The Panthers aren't guarding like they have in the past, allowing teams too many open shots, especially inside the arc. They gave up 86 points to Long Beach State, and also lost to Wagner.

MVP: Ashton Gibbs. The senior guard is the team's leading scorer, and is also rebounding and distributing fairly well. On the other hand, his shooting numbers are way down, as he has taken on a bigger role offensively.

Step Your Game Up: Dante Taylor. Gibbs and Woodall will be fine in the backcourt, and Pitt has plenty of solid role players. Taylor needs to be a factor down low, but he's been too up-and-down on the offensive end.

7. West Virginia

What's Gone Quite Right: No one knew what to expect of the Mountaineers, who had so many newcomers coming into the season. But with Kevin Jones and Darryl Bryant leading the way, West Virginia is on the upswing heading into league play.

New Year's Resolution: Continue winning close games. The Mountaineers are this season's Kardiac Kids. They have already had three overtime games, including a double-overtime classic against Kansas State. It seems like a trend.

MVP: Kevin Jones. Jones has been one of the most productive players in the country, averaging 20.4 points and 11.5 rebounds. He's been a legitimate go-to guy and seems to be stepping his game up even more recently.

Step Your Game Up: Jabarie Hinds. The freshman played well against Baylor, but he's not doing that enough. Prior to that game, Hinds was averaging just 2.6 points and 2.8 assists in his last five contests.

8. Seton Hall

What's Gone Quite Right: Kevin Willard has done a tremendous job in getting the Pirates out to an 11-1 start. Herb Pope might be the best player in the Big East this season, and Jordan Theodore has been an effective playmaker.

New Year's Resolution: Develop some depth. The Pirates have only six players averaging more than eight minutes per game, with Pope, Theodore and Fuquan Edwin all playing at least 33 minutes. They can't afford injuries or foul trouble.

MVP: Herb Pope. He's not only the MVP of this team, he's the MVP of the conference. He's been absolutely dominant all season, averaging 21.4 points and 11.5 rebounds. If you remember, Pope was in a coma less than two years ago.

Step Your Game Up: Jordan Theodore. Theodore needs to shoot better from the field in order to keep defenses honest. Going 11-for-18 vs. Longwood was a great start.

9. Cincinnati

What's Gone Quite Right: Since Yancy Gates was suspended, Mick Cronin has gone to a small-ball lineup -- and it's working. The Bearcats have averaged 99 points in their last three games, with the new up-tempo offense.

New Year's Resolution: Don't sucker-punch or stomp on heads. Personnel-wise, the Bearcats are an NCAA tournament team. But they all have to be on the court. Gates only misses one Big East game, so there are no more excuses.

MVP: Sean Kilpatrick. The sophomore has taken a solid step forward in his second season, becoming one of the best shooters in the conference. He leads the team in scoring and has been underrated on the defensive end.

Step Your Game Up: Yancy Gates. He has the physical tools to be one of the more dominant players in the league, but he hasn't taken very kindly to his role as a leader. Gates also needs to be a consistent factor throughout Big East play.

10. Villanova

What's Gone Quite Right: Maalik Wayns has been one of the more productive guards in the league and Mouphtaou Yarou is looking much improved from last season. Freshman Darrun Hilliard has been a nice surprise.

New Year's Resolution: Do the opposite. The past two years, Villanova has faltered badly down the stretch. This year, the Wildcats need to make a run in Big East play. They have some pieces, but can Jay Wright turn it around?

MVP: Maalik Wayns. He's not a pure point guard and is more comfortable creating shots for himself than others, but he might be the only player on the team who can consistently take defenders off the dribble. He needs to shoulder the load.

Step Your Game Up: Dominic Cheek. The junior was expected to become a consistent second option for the Wildcats, but he's been too inconsistent. He's shooting less than 30 percent from beyond the arc and has disappeared for stretches.

11. Notre Dame

What's Gone Quite Right: The loss of Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending injury was tough, but the Irish have the guards to compete. Eric Atkins has stepped up at the point, while Jerian Grant has been very productive in the backcourt.

New Year's Resolution: Defend the arc. The Irish are fairly efficient offensively, but the same can't be said for their defense. Teams are shooting nearly 37 percent from the 3-point line and are barely seeing any pressure on the perimeter.

MVP: Jerian Grant. Eric Atkins is leading the team in scoring, but Grant has provided a huge boost. The redshirt freshman is knocking down perimeter shots, rebounding, defending, and he leads the team in assists.

Step Your Game Up: Scott Martin. In Abromaitis' place, Martin needed to step up offensively and on the boards. That hasn't happened. He's averaging 5.4 points and four rebounds in his last five games, and that's not enough.

12. Providence

What's Gone Quite Right: Ed Cooley has this team on the right track. The Friars have a productive leading quartet in Vincent Council, Gerard Coleman, Bryce Cotton and LaDontae Henton. They're 11-2 heading into Big East play.

New Year's Resolution: Don't get tired. All four of the aforementioned players are playing at least 34 minutes per game; can that last in conference play? The Friars don't have a ton of depth, but Kadeem Batts' return will help.

MVP: Vincent Council. The sophomore point guard is one of the most underrated players in the league, scoring 17.1 points and dishing out seven assists per game. He's also an iron man, ranking ninth in the country in minutes per game.

Step Your Game Up: Kadeem Batts. He was suspended for the first semester, but he made an immediate impact upon his return. Batts needs to continue to do that; the Friars can't afford any lackadaisical effort from him.

13. Rutgers

What's Gone Quite Right: Mike Rice has a very young team, but they're getting experienced quickly. The deep Scarlet Knights are hustling at both ends, and could get even better with the return of Kadeem Jack from injury.

New Year's Resolution: Start closing out games. Four of the Scarlet Knights' five losses have come by single digits. Rutgers has proven it can hang with nearly anyone, but the lack of experience and too many turnovers have hurt.

MVP: Gilvydas Biruta. The Lithuanian has been somewhat inconsistent, but his ability to rebound and score around the basket have been key. He's also playing well lately, averaging 13.3 points and six boards in his last three games.

Step Your Game Up: Dane Miller. His performance against Monmouth in mid-December (13 points, 11 boards, seven blocks) had fans salivating. However, he followed that up with a goose egg against Stony Brook, fouling out in 27 minutes.

14. DePaul

What's Gone Quite Right: The Blue Demons have quietly won five in a row, and their up-tempo style is fun to watch. Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young comprise a high-scoring duo, and DePaul is forcing turnovers at a high rate.

New Year's Resolution: Break the cycle. DePaul has won at total of two Big East games in the past three seasons, but it should surpass that number this year. The Blue Demons have some quality pieces, and they've been in every game.

MVP: Brandon Young. Melvin gets most of the pub, but Young is just as productive and far more efficient. He's also playing his best right now, averaging 18 points and 5.6 assists in his last four games.

Step Your Game Up: Moses Morgan. For a guy who is using up a lot of possessions, Morgan needs to be more efficient. He's had his moments this season, but he's also 6-for-25 in the three losses. That's a bad sign.

15. South Florida

What's Gone Quite Right: The Bulls looked to turn the corner with an impressive 15-point win over Cleveland State, as the midseason arrival of Jawanza Poland brought optimism. USF has also improved defensively.

New Year's Resolution: Better shot selection. Nearly one-third of South Florida's shots are taken from behind the arc, yet the Bulls only shoot 30 percent from behind the line. The Bulls have some solid frontcourt pieces; they need to use them.

MVP: Augustus Gilchrist. His scoring and shooting numbers are down from last season, but he's still the team's top inside player and best interior defender. Gilchrist needs to be a lot more efficient once he gets the ball inside.

Step Your Game Up: Victor Rudd. The Arizona State transfer is 15-for-51 in his last seven games, yet he insists on taking ill-advised shots every night. He also needs to get more involved on the glass; 12 boards in December doesn't cut it.

16. St. John's

What's Gone Quite Right: Despite having personnel issues, including not having head coach Steve Lavin back full-time, the Red Storm are still scrapping for 40 minutes every game. Moe Harkless and D'Angelo Harrison have been impressive.

New Year's Resolution: Get through the season. The Red Storm are building for the future. They have six newcomers and one sophomore on the roster, and Lavin is not back yet. The future looks promising; conference play does not.

MVP: Moe Harkless. He's one of the most productive all-around freshmen in the country. He's making an impact at both ends of the floor and also has taken on a leadership role for the young Red Storm. Harkless is a future matchup nightmare.

Step Your Game Up: Phil Greene. With Nuri Lindsey transferring, the Red Storm need more scoring punch on the wing. Greene looks good in stretches, but he has struggled in December. He's 12-for-39 this month, 1-for-12 from 3-point range.

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