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December 12, 2012
Stop Mourning, Start Watching
The Big East's Last Hurrah

by John Gasaway

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The rules of college basketball discussion in 2012-13 are as follows. We must first talk about how amazing the Big Ten is, and then we must mourn the fate that has befallen the Big East, which is either degrading or possibly even dying before our eyes.

As it happens the Big Ten really i amazing, and consequently you'll be seeing thousands of words from me on that very subject in the weeks and months to come. And, sure, the Big East really is either degrading or dying before our eyes. But has anyone else noticed something strange? This troubled and fractious league is exceptionally good at basketball at the moment. With five teams in the AP top 25 (Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati, Georgetown, and Notre Dame), a sixth that should be (Pittsburgh), and an overall conference Pomeroy rating that's head and shoulders above what it was last season, the Big East is poised to bring down the glory-years curtain in style.

Instead of bowing our heads reverently and speaking in hushed tones around the Big East, let's take an admiring look at its best teams, any number of whom may be found in Atlanta come April.

Syracuse (8-0)
The Orange have played two games outside the Carrier Dome, and, not surprisingly, those two games constitute their most impressive wins. Jim Boeheim's team opened the season on November 11 with a 62-49 win over San Diego State, in a game played on the deck of the USS Midway in San Diego Harbor. And on the last day of November, Syracuse beat Arkansas in Fayetteville 91-82. If you didn't see either of those games, however, you may not have seen the Orange so far this season, so let me bring you up to date.

In the offseason Boeheim charitably donated Dion Waiters and Fab Melo to the first round of the 2012 NBA draft. Melo was rightly recognized last season as an outstanding shot blocker, but too few observers gave Waiters proper credit for his defense, specifically his ability to force turnovers. So in theory losing those two stars could have at least raised the question as to how good the Syracuse defense could be this season, but so far the answer to that question is clear. The Orange have been phenomenal on D, holding opponents to 37 percent shooting inside the arc and recording takeaways on 26 percent of their defensive possessions.

And while it's true those numbers have been recorded against an exceptionally weak schedule, Boeheim's track record suggests his team's performance on defense won't drop too far when Big East play begins. (Heck, last season Syracuse had the Big East's best D even though they engaged in a team-wide sit-down strike against defensive rebounds.) Rakeem Christmas has loaded up on early-season blocks against mostly overmatched opponents, and if he can maintain his current strikingly normal foul rate (he's yet to pick up a fourth foul in any game) that would be one more advantage for an already excellent defense.

On offense, James Southerland's 35-point performance against Arkansas was no fluke. His rate stats for the season are stellar, and at some point Boeheim may want to revisit the assumptions behind a rotation which currently gives 30-plus minutes only to Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. Speaking of Carter-Williams, you've heard the murmurings that this guy is good, and the murmurings are exactly right. He's yet to prove he has perimeter range (over the course of two seasons he's shooting 29 percent on just 45 attempts), but he does hit his twos and, apparently, he's the only Syracuse player authorized by Boeheim to record assists this season -- MCW's absolutely hoarding the things. That being said, keep an eye on his turnover rate. By my count Carter-Williams has been on the floor for 470 offensive possessions this season, and he's given the ball away 30 times.

Louisville (8-1)
In a repeat of last season, the Cardinals once again have one of the best defenses in the nation. In fact this defense may be the best, period. Opponents aren't scoring, and 32 percent of the time they don't even get the chance to because they've given the ball away. That remarkable number will drop in Big East play, where typically a 25 or 26 percent opponent turnover rate is the best a defense can hope to achieve. But to this point the Louisville defense has allowed just 1.12 points per "effective," or turnover-less, possession anyway, so this is hardly a feast-or-famine situation. (This has always been Rick Pitino's calling card on D, by the way. His best teams both force a lot of turnovers and play excellent field goal defense.) Maybe the return of Gorgui Dieng from his wrist injury will further strengthen this D, although frankly I'm not sure how much better a defense can get.

The only question I had with regard to the Cardinals coming into the season was whether their offense would be good enough to outscore opponents burdened with playing the Louisville defense. So far the results here are quite encouraging for fans of the Cards. Russ Smith's always been more than willing to hoist a shot, but this season they're actually going in for a change, an unforeseen development which has rightly lifted the junior into the first round on some 2013 mock draft boards. In fact if Smith stays on his current performance trajectory (steals, accuracy from both sides of the arc, and tons of free throws, all in a featured scorer's role) you will be hearing Big East Player of the Year talk very soon. That would have seemed utterly Russdiculous just a short while ago, but Smith is walking that particular walk early in the season.

Cincinnati (9-0)
You may be thinking of the Bearcats as the "other" undefeated team, in addition to Syracuse, but give Mick Cronin's men credit. Cincinnati beat Iowa State and Oregon in Las Vegas to win the Global Sports Classic, and survived a scare at home against Alabama. Those three opponents comprise a test at least as tough as what the Orange have faced to this point.

When they haven't been playing the aforementioned major-conference opponents, however, UC's been facing some of the very weakest teams to be found anywhere. Apparently Cronin has zero fears of ending up on the bubble with this team come March, because the Bearcats' nonconference strength of schedule currently ranks No. 339 in Division I.

In this season's College Basketball Prospectus book I said I expected Sean Kilpatrick to be a shoo-in for first-team Big East, and the junior's making that prediction look good by combining efficiency with high volume as a 6-4 featured scorer. What I did not see coming, however, was that Cashmere Wright would suddenly become Sean Kilpatrick II in terms of highly accurate shooting from the field. Wright's long been a reliable point guard, but this season he's adding a heavy dose of scoring to his job description.

Still, Cincinnati's strength is its defense. The Bearcats' numbers are skewed by the schedule, but holding opponents to 37 percent shooting on their twos is impressive in any context and, with a slight upward adjustment, will translate well enough to Big East play. Cheikh Mbodj is and will continue to be limited by perpetual foul trouble, but he's one of the nation's best shot blockers and can be wheeled out when needed most.

Georgetown (8-1)
The Hoyas have surely won the title of Most Confusing Team to Casual Fans, and it's not even close. One minute John Thompson III's team is taking the No. 1-ranked Indiana Hoosiers to overtime on a neutral floor, the next they're scoring just 46 points at home in a lackluster six-point win over Towson. "It's early" is the official motto of all college basketball analysis in December, and nowhere is that more true than with Georgetown.

One thing we can say even this early in the season, however, is that the Hoyas will once again have an excellent defense. (Yes, "again." They had the second-best D in the Big East last season, but for whatever reason word never really got out.) Strong D plus first-rounder-to-be Otto Porter alone sums to a contender in any league not named the "Big Ten," and if Greg Whittington continues to perform the role of Highly Efficient Breakout Sophomore as well as he has to date, the Towson game may be remembered not as a troubling precedent but merely a freak occurrence.

Notre Dame (8-1)
I started the season saying the Fighting Irish were underrated, and I still think that's the case. However, the schedule that Mike Brey has put together for his team means we're not going to receive any definitive answers for a while yet.

Meantime, we can at least hand out some individual kudos. Eric Atkins may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think "elite pass-first point guard," but he's started the season in a manner that may fairly be termed Kendall Marshall-esque. Jack Cooley is once again draining twos at a better than 60 percent rate (though, oddly, his accuracy at the line has fallen off rather noticeably). And Scott Martin, who started his college career at Purdue when George Bush was still in office, is finally making threes at a rate (45 percent) commensurate with his long-held fondness for the shot. If Brey can summon some defense from this group, the Irish will be very tough to beat.

Pittsburgh (9-1)
I already looked at Pitt this week, but, for those of you who may be reading this late on a busy day during the holiday season and thus can't quite summon the strength to click on a link, I'll sum up what I said previously: Jamie Dixon's team is better than their (non-existent) ranking. The Panthers lost by five to Michigan at Madison Square Garden right before Thanksgiving, but they've put together a highly impressive run on offense already. I expect Tray Woodall, Lamar Patterson, and company to crash the top 25 very soon.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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