Two weeks ago, the 16 Big East teams had established some semblance of a pecking order -- certainly the top two had, as Villanova and Syracuse had vaulted not only into the national top five, but into a tier of their own in the conference.
The easy conclusion to reach from the sobering losses both suffered on back-to-back days this week, is that the rest of the Big East has caught up with them. Complicating that, though, is the inconvenient fact of the utter unpredictability of the rest of the conference.
Which raises the question at an awkward point in the season: Can you worry about catching up to Villanova and Syracuse when St. John's and Rutgers are catching up to you?
It would still take an epic freefall for either No. 3 Villanova (22-3, 11-2) or No. 5 Syracuse (24-2, also 11-2) to even knock itself out of contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament a month from now. On the other hand, it wouldn't take much of a stumble at all for neither to win the regular-season conference championship, or even avoid the first two rounds of the now-endless conference tournament. Both had seemed to separate themselves from the rabble in the middle of the standings -- until, again, Sunday, when the Orange were blindsided by Louisville, 66-60 in the Carrier Dome, snapping an 11-game winning streak; and Monday, when Connecticut stole one from Villanova in Philadelphia, 84-75.
All fine and good ... except that on Saturday, Connecticut had played so poorly in losing at Cincinnati that Jim Calhoun, coaching again in his return from a seven-game medical leave of absence, verbally scorched both his team's performance and a reporter who had asked, in essence, whether that performance reflected on the coach. Connecticut, losers of eight of 11, and Villanova, winners of 13 of 14, were going in such complete opposite directions that even in a year of surprises in conference, this caught plenty of observers off-guard.
Including Calhoun, who had termed the play in the loss to Cincinnati "embarrassing.'' He didn't back down Monday, saying it was "a tough thing to say, but I meant it,'' but added, "I'm so proud of them.''
Just as stunning was what Louisville did to Syracuse -- all of three days after the Cardinals had fallen flat on their faces to St. John's, in the very building (Madison Square Garden) in which coach Rick Pitino had shone so brightly as coach of the Knicks a couple of careers ago, as well as last March in the Big East tournament. The rest of the weekend was spent dissecting not the team or the game -- which Pitino called "our worst ... of the season'' -- but his future as Louisville coach, with his slightly-too-insistent denials of reports of overtures from the New Jersey Nets.
If Pitino didn't have cashing in on his mind, his Cardinals seemed already to have done so. Until Sunday, that is.
Speaking of St. John's and Sunday; the Red Storm also won at Notre Dame, albeit with the Irish missing injured conference scoring leader Luke Harangody. With that win, the three hottest teams (relatively speaking) in the Big East are Marquette (five straight wins to get back into NCAA tournament contention at 16-8 and 7-5), St. John's (two in a row to spring back to ... 14-10 and 4-8) and Rutgers.
Yes, Rutgers, ahead of only DePaul and its one league win in the standings, has won four out of its last five, including the most inexplicable result of the weekend, a 71-68 victory at home over Georgetown, which had only beaten the likes of Duke and Villanova the previous two weekends.
No coach had preached the gospel of any-team-can-beat-any-team competitiveness more than the Hoyas' John Thompson III, and his team is proof, as it will surely wonder well into March how losses to South Florida and Rutgers followed those marquee wins so closely. They are 18-6 and 8-5 right now; win those two games, and everything about their season looks different, possibly even their national ranking, which was seventh before the Rutgers shocker. Worse, their game Thursday at home against Syracuse is for even higher stakes than it already is.
As for South Florida, the talk of the conference a little over a week earlier after knocking off Georgetown in Washington for its school-record fourth straight Big East win? The Bulls have lost two straight since then, creating sudden distance between them and the NCAA bubble.
Also cooling suddenly and to its detriment was West Virginia, which had not lost consecutive games until last week. The second was at Pittsburgh Friday night, in a game already fraught with tension after unruly fans disrupted their first meeting at Morgantown. The Mountaineers led this one by five with 44 seconds left, let the Panthers catch them, then lost in triple-overtime. Hold on to win, and with the other bizarre results the next few days, West Virginia would have been a game out of first place.
Pitt, on the other hand, now sees an opening, jumping into a tie for third in the conference, two games behind the co-leaders, and this week play at Marquette and at home against Villanova.
The final tally from the holiday-weekend carnage: five teams beat teams ahead of them in the standings in a span of four days -- Pittsburgh over West Virginia, Louisville over Syracuse, Rutgers over Georgetown, St. John's over Notre Dame and Connecticut over Villanova, with three of those "upsets'' (for lack of a more appropriate term) on the road. Four of the defeated -- West Virginia is eighth, Georgetown 10th -- were ranked in the top 10 even after their losses.
The season will end with an avalanche of what-ifs, because of all the Big East teams -- right now encompassing Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, South Florida and now, once again, Connecticut -- perched precariously on the periphery of the NCAAs, and the five now bunched within three games of each other at the top. With no more than six conference games left before they all reconvene at the Garden next month, there isn't much time to make over the standings, but there is time.
The biggest surprise of this surprising Big East season might be how different those standings look when it's over compared to how they look now. The last thing Villanova and Syracuse can do now is get comfortable with where they are today.
Can anybody in the conference get comfortable, though? DePaul's lone Big East win came last month against the aforementioned team with the longest win streak of any conference team, Marquette.