Fantasy Football 2014:

The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Big East reset: Louisville is a cut above the rest thanks to its smothering defense

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Rick Pitino (Getty Images)

With conference play fast approaching, we'll reassess our preseason projections over the next week. Here's a look back at the Dagger's preseason Big East forecast and some updated predictions for the league season:

Conference RPI: 3

Record against Top 25 teams: 3-8

Preseason predictions I'd like to have back: Selecting Steven Adams over Jakarr Sampson as preseason freshman of the year and  the wrong Louisville guard as preseason player of the year. Peyton Siva has been a solid distributor and defender once again for Louisville, but Russ Smith has emerged as the Cardinals' go-to scorer and top defensive weapon, averaging 19.7 points and 2.8 steals per game.

Preseason predictions I still feel good about: My top eight in the Big East from Nov. 2: 1. Louisville 2. Notre Dame 3. Syracuse 4. Cincinnati 5. Pittsburgh 6. Georgetown 7. Marquette 8. UConn. We'll have a better idea in a few weeks if Georgetown is too low and if my hunch on veteran-laden Notre Dame proves correct, but I'm not sure I'd change a thing about that order almost two months later.

Conference favorite: Five or six teams appear to be legitimate contenders, but at this point Louisville still enters league play as the favorite. Despite the absence of rim protector Gorgui Dieng for the past five weeks, the Cardinals' boast the nation's stingiest defense, limiting opponents to 0.8 points per possession and forcing 21.4 turnovers per game. And while Louisville's outside shooting is a weakness, the emergence of Russ Smith has given the Cardinals' offense unexpected pop. 

Who else could win it: There's a long list of contenders poised to strike if Louisville falters, starting with Notre Dame and Syracuse. With Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant to create off the dribble, Jack Cooley to score in the low post and an array of dangerous outside shooters, Notre Dame (12-1) is a threat. So is Syracuse because of its efficient backcourt and its length and quickness defensively in its trademark zone. Pittsburgh is promising but unproven, Georgetown is much better than expected and Cincinnati plays rugged defense, crashes the glass and has a talented veteran backcourt.

Biggest surprise: Georgetown's three top scorers from last season were gone, yet the Hoyas have won 10 of their first 11. Sophomore Otto Porter Jr. has developed into a star as expected and guard Markel Starks and forward Greg Whittington have also blossomed, enabling Georgetown to defeat UCLA, Tennessee and Texas and take then-No. 1 Indiana to overtime on a neutral floor.

Biggest disappointment: It's hard to call Villanova a disappointment when the Wildcats weren't good last year and weren't expected to contend this season, but it's clear this is a team that is going to struggle. Villanova lost by 18 to Columbia, by 22 to Alabama and in overtime to La Salle, all bad losses caused in part by the Wildcats' inefficient offense that lacks a dynamic go-to scorer.

Player of the Year: Jack Cooley is averaging a double-double, Michael Carter-Williams leads the nation in assists and Bryce Cotton is scoring 22 points per game, but at this point how can you not give the nod to Russ Smith? The dynamic Louisville guard has shed his reputation for erratic play and emerged as a catalyst on both ends of the floor, keeping his team a fixture in the top five.

Best freshman: It took a year longer than expected to get Jakarr Sampson in a St. John's uniform as a result of academic issues, but so far he has been worth the wait. Not only has the 6-foot-8 forward averaged 14.7 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, he has also played his best basketball in December, averaging 18.2 points per game.

Three fearless predictions:

• It took almost two months for Pittsburgh to finally crack the AP Top 25, but the Panthers will remain a fixture in the poll the rest of the season. Though largely untested besides a narrow loss to Michigan in the NIT Season Tip-Off title game, Pittsburgh boasts the most efficient offense nationally thanks to the return of a now-healthy Tray Woodall and the development of wing J.J. Moore and forward Talib Zanna.

• UConn will perform well enough in conference play that athletic director Warde Manuel will have no choice but to reward Kevin Ollie with a longterm contract. Even though the Huskies are ineligible for postseason play, they boast enough backcourt talent to finish in the upper half of the league.

• Seven Big East teams will make the NCAA tournament: Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Georgetown and Marquette, with the Golden Eagles being the most dicey on that list. Providence is the team I'd give the best shot of proving me wrong, but that loss to Boston College last week makes me think the Friars are still a year away from an NCAA bid.

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