Bracketology 101 Exam Week: The Big East

Last season, the Big East annoyed its detractors by grabbing 11 NCAA bids. However, it wasn't all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows for the biggest conference in all of the land, even if UConn managed to claim the national title. The Huskies claimed half of the league's 12 NCAA wins.

A little more than a month into the season, it's apparent that the Big East will struggle to match that ridiculous bid total in 2012, but the decreased contingent might just be of higher quality.

For other posts in this series, visit the Bracketology 101 Exam Week 2011-12 section.

Records are accurate as of 12/13/2011.

Passing

Syracuse Orange (10-0)
The Orange keep winning even with the whole Bernie Fine case creating a mess and many in the national media calling for head coach Jim Boeheim's head on a silver platter. Not only has Syracuse dealt well with off-the-court adversity so far, they've handled the on-court variety admirably as well. They took Virginia Tech and Stanford's best shot to claim the NIT Season Tip-Off crown, and held off Florida and Marshall in close contests at the Carrier Dome. Of course, the Orange have yet to leave New York State, even though they face plenty of the "they don't play true road games" type of criticism you could also level at many Division I programs *cough* Duke, Missouri, Washington, and so on *cough*. Syracuse will hit the road for a December 17th game at N.C. State, their final big test before they ease into Big East play, thanks to a home game with Seton Hall, followed by roadies against DePaul and Providence.

Louisville Cardinals (9-0)
Speaking of teams who rarely leave their home state, the Cardinals have started the season by rattling off eight straight, with seven of those wins coming at their sparkling new arena (their lone road win so far came at Butler). Louisville has looked impressive even while battling injuries, most notably to point guard Peyton Siva, with victories over Vanderbilt (overtime) and Long Beach State (who won at Pitt) the most impressive. Louisville still hosts Memphis and visits Kentucky before getting into the thick of Big East play. Note that the Cardinals can't get caught looking ahead at the end of the month, as they host Georgetown in both teams' conference opener three days before the trip to Lexington.

Marquette Golden Eagles (9-0)
Who would have thought that a team that owns not one, but two wins over Norfolk State would be considered one of the nation's biggest surprises at this point of the season? Despite that scheduling anomaly, the Golden Eagles are certainly capable of not only getting in the field of 68, but improving upon both their seeding and surprising Sweet 16 result from 2011. Buzz Williams' team has picked up its two best results in the month of December. First, they beat Wisconsin at their own game in Madison on the 3rd, then they clipped Washington while under the New York City spotlight. Marquette has three final non-conference challenges before Big East play begins on January 2nd, a trip to LSU on December 19th (which granted, shouldn't be too much trouble), followed by consecutive Thursday home games against city rivals Milwaukee and a more difficult SEC foe, Vanderbilt.

Connecticut Huskies (8-1)
Despite the 8-1 record, it hasn't been the smoothest start for the defending national champs, who've been inconsistent early on, most notably during their 2-1 trip to the Bahamas, where they lost to UCF and needed overtime to defeat an offensively-challenged Florida State side. Since returning to New England, the Huskies have started to right the ship. Jim Calhoun's team looked excellent in topping Ivy sensation Harvard last Thursday, and they should continue to roll. UConn next hosts Holy Cross and Fairfield before facing the Big East's soft underbelly to kick off league play (at USF, St. John's, at Seton Hall, at Rutgers), though Calhoun will be suspended for the first three of those contests. Keep in mind that the Huskies play their only true non-conference road game on January 21st, when they visit Tennessee.

Georgetown Hoyas (8-1, 7-1 vs. Division I)
Thanks to a thrilling overtime win over Memphis in Maui and a two-point victory at Alabama in the Big East/SEC Challenge, the buzz surrounding Georgetown, a team pegged to be in the bottom half of the league by many (including myself) is growing. John Thompson III's team has one last chance to claim a big non-league win, December 22nd's rematch with Memphis at the Verizon Center. After that, the challenge for the Hoyas will be avoiding last season's late swoon, which saw them lose six of their last seven, including their Big East and NCAA Tournament openers.

Pittsburgh Panthers (9-1)
The Panthers have grabbed rebounded from November 16th's home loss to Long Beach State, ripping off seven wins on the trot. However, thanks to their participation in the Hoop Group Classic instead of higher-profile exempt event, Pitt's schedule lacks a bit of heft. Conversely, Jamie Dixon's team's two best wins, Tennessee and Oklahoma State (in New York), both came away from home. Like many of their Big East rivals, the Panthers shouldn't be challenged again until league play starts, thanks to games against South Carolina State, St. Francis, Pa., and Wagner. Of course, Pitt is now well known for shining once the Big East slate starts, meaning they have to be considered one of the top favorites for the crown.

Needs Improvement

West Virginia Mountaineers (6-2)
The Mountaineers are just now getting into the meat of their non-conference schedule, and just in time too, as they're in need of some quality wins. In its first six contests, West Virginia's best win was against Akron, a team that happened to defeat the Mississippi State squad that beat the Mountaineers in the Big East/SEC Challenge. However, the Zips' MAC rivals, Kent State, ran out of Morgantown with an impressive win during the Tip-Off Marathon. The Mountaineers picked up the pace last week, defeating Kansas State in overtime in Wichita and hammering Miami back home. Bob Huggins' team closes its non-conference slate with the Las Vegas Classic, which culminates with games against Missouri State and Baylor, and January 18th's grudge match with Marshall in Charleston.

Seton Hall Pirates (8-1)
Seton Hall's gotten off to a great start, with the only blemish coming to Northwestern in the Charleston Classic final. However, since the best wins for Kevin Willard's squad came at that event against VCU and St. Joe's, their selection profile leaves quite a bit to be desired. The key remaining non-conference game for the Pirates is a December 21st trip to up-and-down Dayton, a team that beat the Hall in Newark by four last season. Still, it looks like the Pirates will need to pull some upsets during their conference slate to have a serious shot at a bid.

Providence Friars (9-2)
Yes, Providence has won nine games, but they really needed to grab a win against either Iowa State or Northern Iowa in South Padre. As it stands now, the Friars' two best wins are over Fairfield and South Carolina, and that's not much to hang your hat on.

Villanova Wildcats (5-4)
The Wildcats closed last season by dropping 11 of their last 15, and they haven't seem to broken out of that funk yet. Sure, they have five wins, but a victory over La Salle is the best of the bunch. Plus, a 1-2 trip to the 76 Classic, with the win coming against UC Riverside, and a loss to Missouri at the Jimmy V Classic doesn't inspire much confidence. Nova's only remaining non-league game of impact is a Big Five clash at St. Joseph's on Saturday, which means they'll need to rack up some Big East wins to punch a dance ticket.

Cincinnati Bearcats (5-3)
Last year, the Bearcats roared through their non-conference slate, winning 13 games, while not earning much respect nationally because of the weakness of the schedule. (Xavier was obviously a great win, but their second best was probably against an underachieving Dayton squad.) This season, Cincy's non-league lineup is just as weak, and the Bearcats exactly haven't torn through it, as they've lost to Presbyterian and Marshall at home. That means the pressure will be on Mick Cronin's team during the Big East campaign, especially since their last non-league game of impact, December 29th's home game against Oklahoma, pits them against a team that has questionable NCAA hopes of its own. Plus, they'll be shorthanded for that affair, and several others after Saturday's game against Xavier. Yancy Gates, who threw several punches (and a ball) during the late game melee, is out for six games, as is Cheikh Mbodj, who stepped on Kenny Frease's face after Gates knocked the Xavier big man to the ground. Those games are as follows: at Wright State, Radford, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Chicago State, Oklahoma (all at home), and the Big East opener at Pitt. Octavius Ellis will also miss those contests, while Ge'Lawn Guyn sits against the Raiders on Wednesday,

Failing

DePaul Blue Demons (6-3), Notre Dame Fighting Irish (7-4), South Florida Bulls (6-4), Rutgers Scarlet Knights (5-5), St. John's Red Storm (4-5)

The bottom five teams in the league have a long way to go to earn a bid. Four of Rutgers' five losses have been six or less, including home losses last week to LSU and Princeton. USF continues to be USF, though they lose a pair of close, ugly games at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off against Old Dominion and Penn State. Meanwhile, DePaul is showing signs of life, but not enough to earn a place in the postseason.

Two teams in this group are a special case. The Fighting Irish have struggled since Tim Abromaitis was lost for the season with a knee injury, while the Red Storm need coach Steve Lavin back full-time, though honestly, the NIT would be an accomplishment for both teams right now.

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