Commentary

Big East looking top-heavy heading into league play

Updated: December 30, 2008, 1:26 AM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Editor's Note: This story was published before Monday's start of Big East play.

The Big East could be setting itself up to grab a record 10, maybe even 11, NCAA tournament bids, including a pair of No. 1 seeds.

That's the best-case scenario after what coaches are calling the most anticipated conference season since the league expanded to 16 teams four years ago.

But to make sure this occurs, there must be clear separation. The Big East needs to have an elite ruling class of at least 10 teams, and a six-team lower class that is fodder for the ruling 10. Unfortunately, there may not be room for a middle class. Beating that bottom six won't be enough.

The NCAA tournament selection committee will slice apart each member's résumé, like they will for every other at-large candidate. Beating up on the bottom six -- projected as Seton Hall, Providence, St. John's, DePaul, Rutgers and South Florida -- is a must as a first step, but if there aren't quality wins among the other 10 teams, the worthiness of a bid will be questioned. Going 8-10 in conference play won't mean as much if seven of the eight wins are against the bottom six. A team that goes 9-9 will have to beat a few of the top 10 teams to reach that record.

"The tournament committee will look at who you beat, but in this league, that will show up in the RPI," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "I've told our team that our fate will be decided in the Big East. In the Big East, you're always a week away from a potential three-game losing streak. If your kids are flat, if you lose your mojo and relax, you could lose three in a row. By the time you snap out of it, you could be in a funk."

The consensus is that getting through this league unblemished isn't possible. As well as Connecticut and Pittsburgh are playing, no one in either camp, as well as the rest of the league, truly believes either team could run the table.

"I've said all along that we're going to lose a No. 1 or 2 seed because we're all going to lose games," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "This conference is too good and we play 18 games. We've got too many good teams and we're going to have losses. It's a given."

No one is safe from getting beat, at home or on the road, according to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.

"Somebody is going to emerge that's going to win a lot of close games," Boeheim said. "It's going to be really interesting."

This is the first season the Big East is inviting all 16 teams to the conference tournament. Dismissing the bottom four teams -- likely Rutgers, DePaul, St. John's and South Florida -- isn't right. They all have a shot, even though winning five games in New York City in March is a monumental task.

The bids for the Big East will be earned, Cronin said, during the conference grind.

Here's a look at what the 10 contenders (and two additional long shots) have done so far, along with the strength of their conference schedules and arguably the most critical stretch of league games they'll face in their quests for NCAA tournament bids:

Cincinnati Cincinnati (10-2)
• Next game: Monday at Memphis (9 p.m., ESPN2)
• First Big East game: Jan. 4 at Marquette
• Most meaningful wins thus far: at UNLV; vs. UAB; vs. Mississippi State (in Cincinnati)
• Number of Big East games against projected bottom six: 7
• Number of projected top-10 Big East teams Cincinnati plays twice: 1 -- Georgetown
• Key stretch: Feb. 14-March 1

Cincinnati's potential at-large bid will come down to this stretch. The Bearcats go to Pitt, host Louisville and West Virginia and then travel to Syracuse. The two road games will be tough, making those two home games against a contender in Louisville and a possible fellow bubble team in West Virginia critical for Cincinnati to impress the committee.

UConn Connecticut (11-0)
• Next game, first Big East game: Monday vs. Georgetown (7 p.m., ESPN2)
• Most meaningful wins thus far: vs. Gonzaga (in Seattle); vs. Miami, vs. Wisconsin (both in Virgin Islands)
• Number of Big East games against projected bottom six: 7
• Number of projected top-10 Big East teams Connecticut plays twice: 2 -- Pitt and Notre Dame
• Key stretch: Feb. 16-March 7

UConn plays Pitt twice during this final push, at home Feb. 16 and in the season finale on the road March 7. UConn also hosts Notre Dame (in addition to South Florida) during this stretch and goes to Marquette. Connecticut will win or lose the Big East title in these last three weeks.

Georgetown Georgetown (9-1)
• Next game, first Big East game: Monday at UConn
• Most meaningful wins thus far: vs. Memphis (OT); vs. Maryland (in Orlando, Fla.)
• Number of Big East games against projected bottom six: 6
• Number of projected top-10 Big East teams Georgetown plays twice: 3 -- Syracuse, Marquette and Cincinnati
• Key stretch: Dec. 29-Jan. 17

Georgetown will know if it can be a player in the Big East race in the first few weeks of conference play. The Hoyas play two of the projected top-four teams on the road in UConn and Notre Dame, host two other top-five teams in Pitt and Syracuse, then take on Providence at home and end the stretch with a nonconference game at Duke.

Louisville Louisville (8-2)
• Next game: Wednesday vs. UNLV (ESPN2)
• First Big East game: Jan. 7 at South Florida
• Most meaningful wins thus far: vs. UAB; vs. Ole Miss (in Cincinnati)
• Number of Big East games against projected bottom six: 7
• Number of projected top-10 Big East teams Louisville plays twice: 2 -- Notre Dame and West Virginia
• Key stretch: Feb. 21-23

Maybe it's not fair to single out just one two-game road trip, but this swing to Cincinnati and Georgetown could decide whether the Cardinals are still in the chase for the title or second place. The schedule is favorable from mid-February to early March, save this critical road trip.

Marquette Marquette (11-2)
• Next game, first Big East game: Thursday vs. Villanova (ESPN2)
• Most meaningful wins thus far: vs. Wisconsin; at NC State
• Number of Big East games against projected bottom six: 7
• Number of projected top-10 Big East teams Marquette plays twice: 2 -- Georgetown and Villanova
• Key stretch: Feb. 21-March 7

Marquette may have the toughest end-of-the-season string of games in the Big East. The Golden Eagles play three of five on the road at Georgetown, Louisville and Pitt, and their two home games are against Connecticut and Syracuse, which have been quality road teams so far this season. This run of games symbolizes how unforgiving the Big East can be this season. This also plays into something a number of coaches said last week: the point of the season in which teams play will be key. The Eagles may have to be in good standing prior to this run and then hope they don't get slammed, leaving a bad impression before the conference tournament and selection weekend.

Notre Dame Notre Dame (9-2)
• Next game, first Big East game: Wednesday at DePaul (ESPN2)
• Most meaningful wins thus far: vs. Texas (in Maui)
• Number of Big East games against projected bottom six: 7
• Number of projected top-10 Big East teams Notre Dame plays twice: 2 -- UConn and Louisville
• Key stretch: Jan. 12-Feb. 7

The Irish will know where they stand after this gauntlet of games. Notre Dame goes to Louisville, Syracuse, Pitt and Cincinnati during this stretch and hosts Connecticut and Marquette. As you can see, there are no bottom-six games in this stretch. And just to prove they're gluttons for punishment, the Irish will travel to UCLA for a nonconference game to cap off this brutal stretch. So that makes five of seven games on the road, with all seven teams likely NCAA tournament-bound.

Pitt Pittsburgh (12-0)
• Next game, first Big East game: Wednesday at Rutgers
• Most meaningful wins thus far: at Florida State; vs. Washington State; vs. Texas Tech (in New Jersey)
• Number of Big East games against projected bottom six: 7
• Number of projected top-10 Big East teams Pittsburgh plays twice: 2 -- UConn and West Virginia
• Key stretch: Jan. 17-31

The Panthers do have those two UConn games in late February and early March, but the rest of the games in between their matchups with the Huskies aren't as daunting, with three of four coming against the projected bottom six. The late-January stretch should decide whether those Connecticut games will determine the conference championship. Pitt plays three of five on the road in this stretch, going to Louisville, West Virginia and Villanova, and gets Syracuse and Notre Dame at home.

Syracuse Syracuse (12-1)
• Next game, first Big East game: Tuesday vs. Seton Hall
• Most meaningful wins thus far: vs. Florida; vs. Kansas (in Kansas City); at Memphis
• Number of Big East games against projected bottom six: 7
• Number of projected top-10 Big East teams Syracuse plays twice: 2 -- Villanova and Georgetown
• Key stretch: Jan. 14-28

The Orange play three of five on the road during this dangerous period, with games at Georgetown, Pitt and Providence. The two home games are against Notre Dame and Louisville. How Syracuse fares after this grouping of games should say a lot about whether the Orange are players for a top-three conference finish.

Villanova Villanova (11-1)
• Next game: Monday vs Temple (ESPNU)
• First Big East game: Thursday at Marquette (ESPN2)
• Most meaningful wins thus far: vs. Niagara
• Number of Big East games against projected bottom six: 7
• Number of projected top-10 Big East teams Villanova plays twice: 2 -- Syracuse and Marquette
• Key stretch: Feb. 22-March 2

Villanova has a schedule that is well spread out until this cluster of games late in the season. The Wildcats play three of four on the road during this run, going to Syracuse and DePaul on one trip, coming home to play Georgetown, and then visiting Notre Dame. The Wildcats aren't likely a Big East title contender, but this run of games will likely determine their NCAA seeding, as well as their conference finish.

West Virginia West Virginia (10-2)
• Next game, first Big East game: Saturday at Seton Hall
• Most meaningful wins thus far: at Ohio State; at Ole Miss; vs. Cleveland State
• Number of Big East games against projected bottom six: 7
• Number of projected top-10 Big East teams West Virginia plays twice: 2 -- Pitt and Louisville
• Key stretch: Jan. 22-Feb. 4

The Mountaineers play three of five on the road during this stretch (at Georgetown, Louisville and Syracuse). One of the two home games is against archrival Pitt, and the other is versus St. John's. West Virginia will come away from these games either more comfortable (if that's possible) or desperately seeking quality conference wins.

Two projected bottom-six Big East teams with a shot at a bid:

Providence Providence (8-4)
• Next game, first Big East game: Wednesday vs. St. John's
• Most meaningful wins thus far: vs. Charlotte (in Anaheim, Calif.)
• Number of Big East games against projected bottom six: 6
• Number of projected top-10 Big East teams Providence plays twice: 2 -- Cincinnati and Villanova
• Key stretch: Feb. 18-March 5

Fittingly, the final three weeks of the regular season can determine if the Friars have a pulse. The Big East will provide more opportunities for quality wins than any other conference. If Providence is still standing by mid-February, then playing three of its final five games on the road (at Louisville, Rutgers and Villanova) will determine the Friars' fate. The two home games during this stretch are against Notre Dame and Pitt, which could prove to be must-wins by that point in the season. But just imagine if Providence were to beat Notre Dame and Pitt, and steal a win at, say, Louisville, in the final three weeks. How many other bubble teams would have three quality wins like that in the final few weeks of the regular season? That's why a team like PC has a shot.

Seton Hall Seton Hall (9-3)
• Next game, first Big East game: Tuesday at Syracuse
• Most meaningful wins thus far: vs. USC; vs. Virginia Tech (in Puerto Rico)
• Number of Big East games against projected bottom six: 7
• Number of projected top-10 Big East teams Seton Hall plays twice: 1 -- UConn
• Key stretch: Dec. 30-Jan. 18

The Pirates have one of the easiest schedules in the Big East (if you can say that), but it won't matter if the Hall is buried early in the season. Seton Hall has already lost to IUPUI at home and at James Madison, so it's hard to project whether the Pirates can take care of business early in the conference season. But during this opening Big East run, the Pirates play three of five on the road at Syracuse, Notre Dame and Connecticut. Let's assume those are three losses. If that's the case, then it puts a premium on the Pirates two home games against West Virginia and Villanova. If the Pirates come out of this five-game stretch at 2-3, they could be alive in February.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com