Commentary

Big East: UConn and Pitt are teams to beat heading into '09

Updated: December 24, 2008, 2:46 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Favorite: In a slight nod, it goes to Connecticut over Pitt. The Huskies have the most intimidating force in Hasheem Thabeet (when he wants to be assertive). And they still have a healing all-conference guard in A.J. Price and plenty of depth at every position. Connecticut also proved its toughness and March capability with one of the most impressive wins of the season by beating Gonzaga in Seattle. Its win over Buffalo, on the road, also was gritty, even if it was against a middle MAC team. But don't for a second think that Pitt can't win this conference. The Panthers are equally tough, as they survived a poor-shooting game to win at Florida State and have as many veteran players as -- if not more than -- the Huskies. Circle March 7, because that's when the Huskies and the Panthers could be deciding the regular-season title in Pittsburgh.

[+] EnlargeSam Young
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)Sam Young has emerged as the early favorite for Big East Player of the Year … and Pitt has looked the most likely to challenge UConn for the league crown.
Most surprising team: Georgetown lost plenty, including its center and point guard and other role players, through exhausted eligibility and transfers. Yet, the Hoyas have been impressive, led by freshman Greg Monroe and sophomore guard Chris Wright. The wins over Maryland and Memphis were strong indicators this squad will be a factor throughout the conference season.

Most disappointing team: Louisville. The Cardinals were supposed to be a Final Four favorite. They might still get there, but they've whiffed on two significant games, losing to Western Kentucky in Nashville and then to Minnesota in Glendale, Ariz. Louisville has done nothing so far to make itself stand out as one of the handful of teams that could make it to Detroit. The season is far from over, and the Cards could cause plenty of trouble in the Big East. But so far, they look like they'll settle behind Connecticut, Pitt and maybe even Notre Dame, Syracuse and Georgetown.

Mystery team: Villanova. Just how good is this squad? The Wildcats lost to Texas at the Jimmy V Classic. But they haven't been seriously tested yet, outside of a Big Five game against an average Saint Joseph's team.

Best player: Sam Young, Pitt. You could make arguments for plenty of players in this category, but Young has been the most consistent player in the conference, averaging 20.1 points a game. Adrian Branch, my colleague at ESPNU, picked Young as a first-team All-American in the preseason. I wasn't sure then, but Young is making a strong push to be considered for first-team status.

Top performance: Kyle McAlarney, Notre Dame. He scored 39 points, even if it was in a losing effort, against North Carolina in the Maui Invitational final. He made 10 3s in the game. Expect him to be the top 3-point threat throughout the Big East season.

Strangest score: Northwestern 63, DePaul 36. Northwestern is much improved, but the Blue Demons have to muster more than 36 points if they want to be competitive in this conference.

What you might not have realized: Georgetown has a really good Big East schedule, so good that the Hoyas might finish higher than projected. They visit Connecticut on Dec. 29 to open conference play. But then they get Pitt and Louisville at home and don't have to return the games. Going to Notre Dame won't be a treat, and neither will the home-and-home with Syracuse. But escaping those road trips to two of the toughest places could help the Hoyas finish in the top four.

Reason to brag: Syracuse. The Orange have won three games away from the Carrier Dome, beating Kansas and Florida on consecutive nights in Kansas City and then winning at Memphis. Syracuse usually doesn't have that kind of stretch in the nonconference.

Reason to worry: Seton Hall. The Pirates had plenty of good vibes with neutral-court wins over USC and Virginia Tech in Puerto Rico. Those recently were canceled out by a home loss to IUPUI and then a road loss at James Madison.

Who's going dancing?: The locks seem to be Connecticut, Pitt, Syracuse, Georgetown, Louisville and Notre Dame -- with Marquette, West Virginia and Villanova likely to perform well enough to join them for a total of nine NCAA bids. Cincinnati, Providence and Seton Hall aren't dead but have plenty of work to do if the Big East is to reach 10 bids.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com