Big East reset: At least five teams will contend for league crown

Jeff Eisenberg
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With conference play beginning in earnest this week, it's time to revisit our preseason projections. Here's a look back at how the Big East fared in non-conference play and an updated forecast for the league season:

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Conference RPI: 1

Record against Big Six opponents: 24-12

Conference favorite: Whereas many of college basketball's other top leagues have clear-cut favorites, the Big East has a handful of formidable teams that appear capable of capturing the league crown. Syracuse and Connecticut are undefeated and Pittsburgh began as the most popular choice, but the slight edge goes to Georgetown, which defeated Old Dominion, Missouri, Memphis and Utah State in the preseason thanks to one of the nation's best backcourts.

Pleasant surprise: Three of UConn's four top scorers graduated from a team that missed the NCAA tournament last season, making the Huskies appear to be a prime candidate to struggle for a second straight season. Instead UConn defeated Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky in Maui and then feasted on a bevy of cupcakes afterward, taking an undefeated record and a top-10 ranking into Big East play.

Biggest disappointment: In a league in which almost everyone else overachieved in non-conference play, Seton Hall over-scheduled, suffered a key injury to guard Jeremy Hazell and then floundered. All six of Seton Hall's losses were against quality opponents and all six were by eight or fewer points, yet it doesn't excuse the Pirates taking a 6-6 record into a Big East play in a year when they expected to contend for an NCAA tournament berth.

Player of the Year: Even though Rick Jackson has enjoyed a breakout season for Syracuse and Georgetown's trio of guards have exceeded expectations, this one is a no-brainer at this juncture of the season. UConn guard Kemba Walker has been the best player in the nation the first two months of the season, averaging 26.5 points per game, hitting 42.1 percent of his threes and contributing 4.0 assists and 2.1 steals as well.

Freshman of the Year: There haven't been very bright spots for woeful DePaul so far this season, but guard Brandon Young certainly offers some hope for the future. In a league curiously devoid of impact freshmen, Young's 13.4 points, 3.9 assists and 53.3 percent shooting stand out, even if those stats come for a team that would be lucky to escape the Big East cellar this season.

Three best wins:

1. Georgetown 111, Missouri 102 (OT)

Comment: In perhaps the best game of the season thus far, Georgetown squandered an 18-point first-half lead, tied the game in the final second of regulation on a Chris Wright three-pointer and pulled away in overtime.

2. Pittsburgh 68, Texas 66

Comment: This November neutral-court win has aged well as Texas has emerged as a legitimate top 20 team.

3. Connecticut 84, Kentucky 67

Comment: Nobody has enjoyed a better three-day stretch this season than UConn, which beat Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky to win the Maui Invitational in late November.

Three worst losses:

1. Fordham 84, St. John's 81

Comment: If St. John's contends for an NCAA tournament berth, this brutal loss to Atlantic 10 bottom feeder Fordham will be an anchor weighing the Johnnies down.

2. Cal State Northridge 88, DePaul 66

Comment: As if providing the Matadors their only win wasn't bad enough, DePaul was never even in this game after the opening five minutes.

3. Drexel 52, Louisville 46

Comment: The Dragons aren't a bad team by any means, but this is the sort of game Louisville has to win at home to make the NCAA tournament.

Three fearless predictions:

1. Capitalizing on a strong non-conference season, the new 68-team field and the weakness of the Pac-10, SEC and ACC, the Big East will put nine teams in the NCAA tournament.

2. Cincinnati's weak non-conference schedule helped the undefeated Bearcats pile up non-league wins, but they will regret not preparing themselves better for the challenge of Big East play.

3. Steve Lavin will have St. John's back in the NCAA tournament before too long ... but it won't be this season. Those losses to Fordham and St. Bonaventure are killers for the senior-heavy Johnnies.