Who is the second-best team in the Big East right now?
Cincinnati (14-4, 4-1 Big East)
Case: The Bearcats are the only team besides Syracuse with less than two losses in conference play. The Bearcats won at Georgetown 68-64 on Jan. 9, and beat Villanova at home 82-78 on Saturday after losing 57-55 at home to St. John’s on Jan. 7.
After failing in the only nonconference test of its campaign (a 76-53 loss at Xavier on Dec. 10), Cincinnati will get a good gauge of how good it really is with road games at Connecticut on Wednesday and West Virginia on Saturday before hosting Syracuse Jan. 23.
Connecticut (14-3, 4-2 Big East)
Case: The Huskies have quality wins over Florida State in the Bahamas, at home against West Virginia and, most recently, at Notre Dame, where they snapped the Fighting Irish’s 29-game home win streak.
Losses against Central Florida, Seton Hall and Rutgers are head-scratching to say the least, and Connecticut’s signature win so far is a 67-53 home win against Harvard.
Seton Hall (15-3, 4-2 Big East)
Case: After being bad for a long time, it’s possible the Pirates have turned the corner under second-year coach Kevin Willard with wins over West Virginia and Connecticut, despite losing do-everything guard Jeremy Hazell. Senior forward Herb Pope is in contention to be the Big East player of the year, and the Pirates’ losses have come at Syracuse and South Florida in addition to a neutral-site loss against Northwestern.
Seton Hall enters a brutal stretch of its schedule that will see it play at Villanova, Marquette and Connecticut in the coming weeks, in addition to home games against Notre Dame and Louisville.
Will the Big East match its record-setting mark of 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament from last year?
No. Typical conference stalwarts Villanova (8-10, 1-5 Big East) and Pittsburgh (10-7, 0-5 Big East) are a combined 1-10 in Big East play. It is difficult to imagine the Wildcats and Panthers not making a run in the next few weeks and challenging for a top-eight finish in the Big East, which could be enough to earn an at-large berth in the Big Dance.
Villanova will have a lot of work to do to gain the tournament committee’s attention, but road games at Louisville and Georgetown and home contests against Marquette, Seton Hall and Connecticut before the end of the season will give the Wildcats a chance, albeit slim.
Pittsburgh’s fall from grace is shocking, to say the least. Home losses to Long Beach State and Wagner in nonconference play, as well as a humbling 62-39 loss at home against Rutgers on Jan. 11 have the Panthers at rock bottom.
Two home-and-home series against West Virginia and Louisville, as well as a home game against Georgetown and road trip to Connecticut will give the Panthers an opportunity to make the NCAA Tournament yet again.
South Florida, Rutgers, DePaul and Providence simply do not have enough talent or quality wins at this time to be considered challengers for at-large berths.
That leaves nine possible tournament teams, and it’s difficult to see Notre Dame as a challenger for a berth with just one quality win on its resume (a 67-65 double overtime win at Louisville on Jan. 7).
Look for the Big East to send seven teams to the Big Dance (Syracuse, Cincinnati, Connecticut, West Virginia, Georgetown, Marquette and Louisville) this year, with Seton Hall having an opportunity to gain a berth with many difficult games on the horizon.
Player of the Week
Sean Kilpatrick, So. Guard Cincinnati (#23 ERIN REMOVE THIS ON EDITS, STRICTLY FOR PHOTO-FINDING PURPOSES)
Kilpatrick scored a career-high 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting and had four steals in the Bearcats’ 68-64 upset at Georgetown on Jan. 9.
The sophomore guard followed up that performance with 14 points in Cincinnati’s 82-78 win over Villanova on Saturday to help the Bearcats improve to 4-1 in conference play.
Kilpatrick leads the team in scoring at 16.2 points per game and is shooting a respectable 44.7 percent from the field and 39.7 percent from three-point range.
Game of the Week
Cincinnati at Connecticut Wednesday
If the Bearcats want to erase any doubt that its home loss to St. John’s was a fluke, they can take a big step by beating the Huskies in Storrs, Conn., on Wednesday night.
Cincinnati has more bad losses (Presbyterian, Marshall at home) than quality wins this year and will have few chances to impress the tournament committee after its next three games.