College Basketball's Early Conference Review: Big East

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As conference play begins in a few weeks, here's where the Big East stands so far

<p> Louisville and Syracuse retain their top spots atop the Big East, but programs like Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Georgetown may be closing the gap.</p>

Aside from the turmoil caused by conference realignment, the Big East has continued some familiar trends: Syracuse continues to be among the national elite with a bench player taking his turn in the spotlight, Louisville continues to be a defensive pest, and Georgetown is at its best when no one expects big things out of the Hoyas.

But the league has its share of surprises, such as Cincinnati’s ascent and a flop of a season for Florida State.

For most college basketball teams, players are preparing for finals. For those of us watching the sport, we’re preparing for midterms, so to speak.

As the non-conference seasons start to wrap up and league play to begin around the new year, Athlon is looking back and looking ahead at each conference.

EARLY SEASON CONFERENCE CATCHUP: BIG EAST
Other leagues: ACC | Big 12

Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams

Surprise team: Georgetown.
The Hoyas aren’t the most fun team to watch -- the 37-36 win over Tennessee on Nov. 30 was one of the ugliest games of the year so far -- but they’ve settled as one of the top teams in the Big East. Since an overtime loss to Indiana on Nov. 20, Georgetown has held four of the last five opponents to 50 or fewer points. The stat-sheet stuffing Otto Porter has delivered as one of the breakout players in the Big East.

Disappointing team: USF.
USF didn’t need great offense to reach the NCAA Tournament last season. Now that vulnerability is catching up with the Bulls. USF failed to score 60 points in its three losses to UCF, Western Michigan and Oklahoma State. The Bulls lead the Big East in scoring defense, but turnovers and interior play have been their doom.

Where did he come from? Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse.
The sophomore Carter-Williams didn’t come from obscurity. He was a McDonald’s All-American, after all. At 10.4 assists per gme, he’s been an assist machine on part with North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall last season. Unlike Marshall, Carter-Williams is scoring in double figures (12.4 points per game) and leading the Big East in steals (3.8 per game).

Where did he go? Luke Hancock, Louisville.
The George Mason transfer was billed as one of the top transfers in the Big East, and Rick Pitino has sung his praises in the preseason. But the junior forward has struggled so far this season. He’s averaging just 6.8 points per game and has been mired in a season-long shooting slump.

Key stat: Pittsburgh’s assist-to-turnover ratio.
The Panthers have a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio this season with 185 assists and 92 turnovers. That may level off as the schedule gets tougher, but it’s an encouraging sign for a Pitt team that had a rare NCAA Tournament miss last season. No team since West Virginia in 2005-06 has finished the season with twice as many assists than turnovers.

Related: Five questions on the Big East split

THREE THINGS TO WATCH IN CONFERENCE PLAY

Louisville guard Russ Smith

Can Russ Smith make a run at an All-American season? He’s averaging better than 20 points per game for a Louisville team with only two players averaging double figures. He’s an elite scorer, but he can play out of control at times. He already has the “Russdiculous” moniker. Can he add some postseason hardware to the mix?

Can anyone break into the Big East’s top tier? Syracuse and Louisville are firmly atop the Big East this season. Both of which have the look of teams that can make NCAA Tournament runs. Veteran-laden Cincinnati and Notre Dame are nearing the league’s upper echelon. Both team’s momentum will be tested in a key game early in the conference season in South Bend on Jan. 7.

What will Connecticut do with Kevin Ollie? The Huskies coach remains in limbo on a one-season contract. UConn has been better than expected, starting the season with a win over Michigan State and losses to New Mexico and NC State on neutral courts. At least for the administration, the start hasn’t been enough to hire Ollie long term. The resolution to the UConn coaching situation looks like a season-long storyline in Storrs.

BIG EAST POWER RANKINGS

Player of the year watch
Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse
Russ Smith, Louisville
Otto Porter, Georgetown
Freshman of the year watch
JaKarr Sampson, St. John’s
DaJuan Coleman, Syracuse
James Robinson, Pittsburgh
Coach of the year watch
John Thompson III, Georgetown
Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
Mike Brey, Notre Dame

1. Syracuse (8-0). The Orange are steamrolling the competition this season, winning by an average of 28.5 points per game. Only Arkansas has played Syracuse within single digits this season, losing 91-82 at home. Temple on Dec. 22 is the biggest test Syracuse will face before a road trip to Louisville on Jan. 19.

2. Louisville (8-1). The Cardinals hope to get Gorgui Dieng back from wrist surgery within the next week, allowing the junior center to work back into game shape in time for Kentucky at the end of the month.

3. Cincinnati (9-0). Turning up the tempo has worked for guards Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright and JaQuan Parker, who have increased their scoring as a trio by 11.4 points per game.

4. Notre Dame (8-1). The 64-50 victory over Kentucky on Nov. 29 may not be as impressive as once believed, but the Irish are usually tough to defeat in South Bend.

5. Georgetown (8-1). Otto Porter, the team’s top player, is attempting the third-fewest shots on the team. Do the Hoyas need to put more in Porter’s hands to contend in the Big East?

6. Pittsburgh (9-1). The first 10 games have been an encouraging turnaround for a Pitt team that went 5-13 in the Big East last season, but the Panthers have faced a paper-thin schedule. Pitt has faced one major-conference team, Michigan, and lost 67-62.

7. Marquette (6-2). Marquette could use more of what it saw from Junior Cadougan in the final 10 minutes against Wisconsin. Cadougan scored 18 points agains the Badgers, more than he scored in the previous four games combined.

8. Connecticut (7-2). The inside game will be a problem all year for the Huskies. Can Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright lead surprising UConn through the course of the Big East season.

9. Providence (7-2). The Friars aren’t yet at full strength with Vincent Council playing one game and Kris Dunn out all year with a shoulder injury.

10. Seton Hall (7-2). Pirates squandered a 16-point lead against LSU, had to sweat against NJIT and recovered from a 13-point deficit against Wake Forest. That 7-2 record may be deceiving.

11. Rutgers (6-2). Eli Carter is shooting 49.3 percent from the field in Rutgers' wins and 12.5 percent in losses.

12. St. John’s (7-3). The Red Storm lost 81-65 on Dec. 4 to San Francisco, allowing the Dons to shoot 50 percent from the field and 9 of 15 from 3-point range. Not a good sign.

13. USF (5-3). A year ago, USF led the Big East in scoring defense and finished last in scoring offense. Trying to finish 12-6 again with an offense struggling to score 60 points again would seem to be tempting fate.

14. DePaul (7-3). Before defeating Arizona State on Wednesday, DePaul's four-game win streak came over teams that are a combined 13-25, but any progress is good for a team that lost to Gardner-Webb in the second game of the season.

15. Villanova (6-4). The Wildcats have lost four of the last seven, including losses to Columbia and La Salle, but Tuesday's win over St. Joseph's signals a bit of life in the Wildcats.

CBK Conferences: 

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