Big East update: Trouble at the bottom

For the second season in a row, a Big East team could finish ninth in the regular season but then win a postseason title. Thing is, it’s likely to be the NIT title this season.

Connecticut famously finished ninth in the Big East before winning the NCAA title last season. This season, the conference has the nation’s No. 1 team (Syracuse) and two other undefeated teams, which is more than any other league, but the league’s depth isn’t what it usually is.

Syracuse looks like a Final Four contender, even if the Orange hasn’t played a game outside the state of New York. Undefeated Marquette may have the strongest away-from-home resume of any team in the conference after defeating Wisconsin 61-54 in Madison and edging Washington 79-77 in Madison Square Garden. Louisville is undefeated against all but the injury bug (again), and the Cardinals are starting to get healthier.

Darius Johnson-Odom and Marquette have picked up a pair of impressive road wins.
Team rankings so far
1. Syracuse*
2. Marquette*
3. Louisville*
4. Connecticut*
5. Pittsburgh*
6. Georgetown*
7. West Virginia*
8. Seton Hall
9. Villanova
10. Providence
11. Notre Dame
12. DePaul
13. Cincinnati
14. USF
15. St. John’s
16. Rutgers
*—projected tournament team

But the middle of the Big East is where the questions begin – and a big reason the league is an unheard-of sixth in conference RPI. Pittsburgh lost early at home to Long Beach State. Connecticut lost to UCF on a neutral court. Villanova’s run of seven consecutive NCAA appearances is in danger, as the Wildcats have started 6-4. Providence (9-2) and Seton Hall (8-1) have started well, but lack quality wins.

Here’s a look at the season so far in the Big East.

You’re better than we thought you’d be: Georgetown. In two of the past four seasons, the Hoyas struggled when expectations were high. Georgetown is flipping the script: After entering the season without much buzz, Georgetown is 8-1, including wins over Memphis and Alabama. The only loss is by four to Kansas in Maui. Hollis Thompson has been a revelation; he is averaging 14.7 points after averaging 8.6 a year ago, and his 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left clinched a road win over a ranked Crimson Tide team. The Hoyas’ most established player, senior guard Jason Clark, also is having a career year.

You’re in more trouble than we thought you’d be: Cincinnati. Mick Cronin probably wishes he could go back to the day where blowing a 15-point lead to Presbyterian in a home loss was the low point of the season. A season after reaching the NCAA tournament, the Bearcats already look like a long shot to return. The team’s best player, Yancy Gates, is in the midst of a six-game suspension for his part in the brawl against Xavier and presumably will be on thin ice when he returns. But Cincy isn’t the only team that could fit in this category. Perennial tournament team Villanova has lost four of its past six, and Notre Dame is in trouble, too. But the Irish’s issues center on the season-ending injury to Tim Abromaitis.

[The Dagger: Indiana fans nearly trampled Playboy model]

We’re still not convinced: Seton Hall. The Pirates already are 8-1 and should eclipse the 13 wins they had last season, coach Kevin Willard’s first at the school. Whether that translates to a tournament appearance is the question. Herb Pope is one of two players averaging better than 20 points and 10 rebounds (West Virginia’s Kevin Jones is the other). That’s impressive, but Seton Hall has not played a tough schedule, and the Pirates’ loss was an 80-73 setback against Northwestern.

Top freshman so far: Providence F LaDontae Henton. First-year coach Ed Cooley has one of the nation’s top signing classes for next season, but he already has a star freshman on his roster. Henton, a three-star prospect from Lansing, Mich., is averaging 13.7 points and 8.5 rebounds. Look for Cooley to continue to lean on Henton.

Where did he come from? Syracuse G Dion Waiters. Waiters, a sophomore, has provided a huge boost off the bench while Scoop Jardine battles a slump. Waiters has been a highlight-reel player; he is averaging 11.9 points per game and helped seal a win over Virginia Tech in the Preseason NIT. He already has scored in double figures in seven games this season, just one fewer than all of last season.

Where did he go? Connecticut F Alex Oriakhi. Oriakhi was Connecticut’s top frontcourt player during the Huskies’ title run, but he has been in the doghouse this season. Jim Calhoun held him out of the starting lineup for three consecutive games earlier this month, and Oriakhi is averaging just 6.7 points and 5.8 rebounds

[Power rankings: KU’s Thomas Robinson off to a fast start]

Best non-conference win: Marquette beat Wisconsin 61-54. Others: Syracuse beat Florida 72-68, Louisville beat Vanderbilt 62-60 in OT, Connecticut beat Harvard 67-53, Georgetown beat Memphis 91-88 in OT, Georgetown beat Alabama 57-55

Worst loss by an NCAA tournament contender: Cincinnati lost 56-54 to Presbyterian. Others: Pitt lost 86-76 to Long Beach State, Connecticut lost 68-63 to UCF, West Virginia lost 70-60 to Kent State

Conference play begins: Dec. 27. Notre Dame at Pittsburgh, St. John’s at Providence.

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David Fox is a college football staff writer for Follow him on Twitter.
Updated Thursday, Dec 15, 2011