Commentary

Big East race could come down to wire

Originally Published: December 23, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Andy Rautins, Da'Sean Butler, Scottie ReynoldsGetty ImagesSyracuse, West Virginia and Villanova have ensured the Big East has a heavy presence in the top 10.

Favorite: Three-way tie? Seriously, picking between Syracuse, West Virginia and Villanova is like splitting the finest of hairs. All three not only have the potential to win the conference title, but make the Final Four. Based on the way they are playing right now I'd have to give the edge to the Orange. Slightly.

Most surprising team: Syracuse
Jim Boeheim knew it, but since no one else saw Wes Johnson in practice last season, not even the most ardent Orange supporter could have seen this coming. The 'Cuse is not just winning, it's humming along. The Orange is playing with a March efficiency in December.

Most disappointing team: Louisville
The Cards have a lot to replace, what with the graduation of Terrence Williams and Earl Clark but that still doesn't explain a blowout loss to Charlotte and a loss to Western Carolina. At home. Rick Pitino teams often look ugly in December and better in March but this group has a long way to go to become even mildly attractive.

Mystery team: Georgetown
Just when you think the Hoyas are over whatever ailed them a season ago, along comes Old Dominion. Sure the Monarchs are the favorites in the Colonial Athletic Association, but to build an 18-point lead against a team that had just beaten Washington and Butler was flat-out stunning. And note to the Hoyas: Stop scheduling ODU in McDonough Arena. It's not working for you.

[+] EnlargeWesley Johnson
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliWesley Johnson has taken the nation by storm and has Syracuse undefeated at 12-0.

Best player: Wes Johnson, Syracuse
He's not the leading scorer in the Big East; he's not the best rebounder but he is easily the best player in the conference and arguably one of the top five in the country. Johnson is an inside and outside threat, tough on the boards and the missing piece that has turned the Orange into an unexpected power. He is turning heads of fans, media and NBA scouts everywhere he goes.

Top performance: Jamel Jackson, Seton Hall
Really, this could go to all of the Pirates after their win against VMI with a cartoonish score, 134-107, but in a statistically eye-popping game, Johnson caused the most gasps. Jackson came off the bench for 40 points. He took 17 field goals, 15 of them from beyond the arc. More amazing, he made 12 of his 3-point attempts.

Strangest score: Have to go back to Louisville for this one -- an 87-65 thumping at the hands of Charlotte at Freedom Hall. It was the Cardinals' worst home loss since February 2001, in the waning months of Denny Crum's career. Louisville was down three players, but that's still no explanation for what the 49ers did, building a 15-point halftime lead and never looking back.

What you might not have realized: Seton Hall is off to its best start since 1988-89, the year the Pirates went to the national championship game. Meantime, St. John's is receiving votes in the Top 25 rankings for the first time since 2006. The Red Storm have stormed out of the gate despite the continued absence of Anthony Mason Jr., who is rehabbing a hamstring injury.

Reason to brag: In a supposed down season, the Big East is once again roaring: five teams are in the Top 25, including three in the top 10. Five teams also rank in the top 20 in RPI, more than any other conference in the country and usual middling teams such as Cincinnati, Seton Hall and St. John's are showing real signs of life.

Reason to worry: Will the Big East eat up its own? The brutality of the conference could do damage to teams fighting for bids and respectability -- teams such as Seton Hall, Cincinnati and St. John's -- if any of them finish with subpar conference marks.

Who's going dancing: Syracuse, West Virginia, Villanova, Georgetown and Connecticut are in. Bank on Notre Dame, too. Hard to imagine Louisville not in but right now they are decidedly not. Cincinnati, St. John's and Seton Hall probably aren't in yet but could play their way in with very strong conference performances. Ditto Pittsburgh and Marquette.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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