It has been a week of chaos in the strongest conference in college basketball, the Big East. Three of the top four teams, Pittsburgh, Villanova, and Syracuse, have all lost in the first three days of Week 12. Over the next few weeks, I will be giving my power rankings for major conferences and mid-majors in college basketball. The following are my Big East Power Rankings through January 26th:
1. Pittsburgh- The Panthers suffered just their second loss of the season Monday night against Notre Dame. The Panthers stand alone at the top of the Big East with a 7-1 conference record, and also boast wins over Texas, Connecticut, and Syracuse. Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs have been major factors for the Panthers this season, combining for over 27 points per game. Gary McGhee, though lacking offensively, is a force on defense and on the glass, averaging 8 rebounds per game and nearly 3 on the offensive glass. Pitt looks to be a national title contender this season, and hopes to advance to the Final Four for the first time under Head Coach Jamie Dixon.
2. Connecticut- The Huskies are the only team in the top 4 of the Big East that avoided defeat in the early stretch of Week 12. Connecticut fought back from a 5 point deficit on Tuesday night to defeat a pesky Marquette team on the road. UConn has the best player in the country on their team, Kemba Walker (apologies to Jimmer Fredette), and Walker began the season with a flourish. He led the Huskies singlehandedly to victories over Michigan State and Kentucky in the Maui Invitational. At that point, the country realized that Kemba was living up to the hype he garnered during his recruitment. Since that point, Walker’s running mates, including Alex Oriakhi, Jeremy Lamb, and Roscoe Smith have all stepped up to take some pressure off Kemba. The secondary players were huge for UConn in wins over Texas and Villanova. Kemba wasn’t shooting well in either of those games, but the rest of the Huskies kept them in the games, until Kemba hit a game-winning basket in both. This is the recipe for success if UConn hopes to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
3. Villanova- The Wildcats suffered a bad loss last night against the Providence Friars in Rhode Island, 83-68. It appeared to be a combination of Providence playing with confidence after a big win against Louisville and Villanova taking the foot off the proverbial gas pedal. Since January 9th, Villanova has played ranked Cincinnati, ranked Louisville, ACC foe Maryland, top 10 ranked UConn, and top 10 ranked Syracuse. The next game for the Cats is ranked Georgetown. It was the classic example of a hot, underrated team beating a team looking for an easy night, which does not exist in the Big East. Nova now posts a 5-2 conference record, good for second in the Big East, tied with Connecticut and Louisville. In order for Villanova to be successful moving forward, it needs to count on the consistent play of Maalik Wayns and Corey Fisher in the backcourt, with solid contributions from Mouphtaou Yarou and Antonio Pena in the frontcourt.
4. Syracuse- The Orange is in the midst of a three game slide, with losses to Pittsburgh, Villanova, and Seton Hall. The loss at Seton Hall was most surprising, as it was a 22 point demolition by the Pirates. Jeremy Hazell was the major factor for the Pirates in only his 5th game back after suffering a broken wrist and a shot wound which combined to keep him out of the lineup for over two months. I fully expect Syracuse to recover from its rough three game stretch and to again establish itself as a top 10 team. Forwards Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph are consistent scoring and rebounding forwards, and guards Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche can hit from deep at any point. In addition, Scoop Jardine is developing into a phenomenal passer in his junior season.
5. Notre Dame- The Irish team is flying high after a season-defining win over #2 Pittsburgh on the road. Mike Brey is the most underrated coach in the Big East, bar none, and his burn offense is working better than could have been expected. Notre Dame is controlling tempo, working clock, playing strong defense, and giving the ball to playmakers like Ben Hasbrough at the end of the shot clock. The Irish has big wins over Georgetown, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Pittsburgh already this season. My only concern with Notre Dame is that the burn offense can sometimes be a curse as well as a blessing. At times, it is difficult, if not impossible, to stay with a hot shooting team while staying within the Irish offensive set. In Notre Dame’s four losses, the closest loss was to Syracuse, by 12 points. Notre Dame opens itself up to bad losses at times with the offense they run, but also allow themselves to win games they probably should not. It always depends on the night for Notre Dame.
6. Cincinnati- I am a lot higher on the Bearcats that most. In fact, I have them ranked 18th in my College Basketball Top 25, but the team is unranked in the AP Poll. The Bearcats have only three losses this season, at Villanova, at Syracuse, and at Notre Dame. Not too bad. Other than that, Cincinnati has won every game it has played. The team has zero bad losses right now, and while it doesn’t have a top 10 quality win, it has beaten solid opponents such as St. Johns, Xavier, and Oklahoma. Yancy Gates has become a force inside, and Dion Dixon and Rashad Bishop provide excellent guard play on the perimeter. While the jury may still be out on Cincinnati, the fact is that the Bearcats haven’t suffered bad losses, which can not be said of the teams that follow on this list.
7. Georgetown- The Hoyas recently escaped a bad three game skid which included losses to St. Johns, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh. Georgetown’s problem is its lack of consistency. Part of that stems from the Princeton-style offense that it runs under Head Coach John Thompson III. Many times, the offense simply can not get into rhythm, and for an offense that isn’t extremely explosive to begin with, bad shooting and passing nights spell doom for the Hoyas. When the passing is crisp and players like Jason Clark and Austin Freeman are making shots, Georgetown is a top 10 caliber team. However, when the shooting isn’t there, Georgetown isn’t even a ranked-quality team. The Hoyas have quality wins over Missouri and Memphis, and have opportunities in the next week against Villanova and Louisville to notch a big win.
8. Louisville- The Cardinals have an impressive record, but have been escaping unimpressively from recent games. In the game last week against Marquette, Louisville was down by 18 points before Marquette collapsed and allowed the Cardinals to get back into the game and win with hot shooting down the stretch. In addition, Louisville also needed to come back to beat a scrappy West Virginia team last night. Finally, a loss to Providence 5 days ago left a bad taste in their mouth. Peyton Siva and Preston Knowles are great players, and can carry this team with their shooting, but the Cardinals are lacking the big win, aren’t playing their best, and may be a bit overrated at their #19 ranking.
9. Marquette- I just feel bad for the Golden Eagles. Buzz Williams has done a great job with the players he has, and the players have been playing great. Marquette’s 8 losses have been by a combined 36 points, less than 5 points per loss. Marquette has had a lead in 7 of the 8 games it has lost this season, many of which were leads into the second half. Marquette held an 18 point lead over Louisville with 6 minutes to play, but gave the lead back to Louisville and lost in heartbreaking fashion. If Marquette could learn to play late in the game with leads, it could be a top 15 team. Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom are bona fide stars in college basketball right now, and the only thing keeping this team from #4 on my power rankings is the last 5 minutes of their games. But that is the difference between good and great.
10. West Virginia- The Mountaineers were expected to take a big step back this year after the loss of Da’Sean Butler. While the team isn’t a top 10 team like it was last season, Kevin Jones and some other big pieces have stepped up to put West Virginia in the middle of the Big East and into the NCAA tournament projections. Big wins over Georgetown and Purdue highlight their resume. West Virginia will be tested in the next few weeks with Cincinnati, Villanova, and Pittsburgh.
11. St. John’s- The Red Storm started 3-0 in Big East play after a rough non-conference, but have gone 1-5 since the fast conference start. The Red Storm is coached by first year Head Coach Steve Lavin, and the team has 10 seniors. DJ Kennedy and Dwight Hardy have been leaders on the team, and look to revamp interest in college basketball in New York City. The Red Storm needs to do work to make a run towards the NCAA tournament, and it will start with a game against Duke on Sunday, January 30th, in hopes of breaking its 3 game losing streak.
12. Providence- Prior to last Saturday, Providence was 11-8 and was on a 6 game skid. Fast forward to today, and the Friars are 13-8, with two consecutive wins against ranked Louisville and ranked Villanova. Providence is led by Marshon Brooks, who is the team’s do-everything man, the team’s MVP, and the player through whom everything runs for the Friars.
13. Seton Hall- While I understand that the Pirates are 9-12, and the 12-8 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (who beat Seton Hall last Saturday) are lower on this Power Rankings list, hear me out on this one. Jeremy Hazell, the best player Seton Hall has had in years, is only five games back from a broken wrist and a gunshot wound (two separate injuries). It took him some time to get back to the level at which he has played for years. Tuesday night, he reached that level by scoring 28 points and leading the Pirates to a 90-68 win over top 10 ranked Syracuse. Seton Hall is back as a spoiler, the role the team has played quite often and quite well in recent years. Disregard the previous loss to Rutgers, and the previous 2-8 record the team posted in its 10 games prior to Tuesday night, because this team is starting to gel, and Jeremy Hazell is back. Enough said.
14. Rutgers- Mike Rice is doing an admirable job in a tough situation in his first season at Rutgers. However, the team lacks a big win and has bad losses to St. Joe’s and Princeton. A lot of work is necessary moving forward for basketball to become relevant at Rutgers again.
15. South Florida- Stan Heath’s team has grit, if nothing else. The Bulls played Connecticut and Villanova very tight earlier in the season, and both teams had to fight to win their games. South Florida has never been able to compete in its few years in the Big East, and something drastic in recruiting needs to happen for that to change.
16. Depaul- The Blue Demons are consistently the worst team in the Big East, and are the only winless team in conference. Depaul plays South Florida tonight in a chance to escape from sole possession of last place in the conference.
Stay tuned next week for more power rankings!