Big East Once Again Full of Beasts
It's an annual tale, but it never gets old. And Bob Huggins -- some 20 minutes after his unranked West Virginia team had knocked off 13th-ranked Georgetown in Washington D.C. -- didn't have to tell an old story to illustrate it.
Still, this was his example of what a monster Big East conference play is every year, including this one:
"We came out here (to Georgetown) two years ago, we were playing three freshman, and we won. And I was giddy,'' Huggins said Saturday. "I go out and get on the bus with my Jimmy John's sandwich, and (his assistants) come out and drop about 12 tapes on my chair. And I say, 'What's this?', because I want to relax a little bit. They say, 'Coach, we've got Pitt on Monday.' And they were No. 2 in the country.''
So it goes in the Big East, once again. Some two weeks into conference play, and the league is devouring itself again. It began last week with seven teams ranked in the AP top 25, six in the top 15 and four in the top 10. Cincinnati, unbeaten and ranked 24th, lost at Villanova Sunday; the Hoyas lost twice. Meanwhile, of the seven teams that began the week without a Big East loss, three were beaten, including surprise early leader St. John's, which likely lost a chance to enter the rankings this week when it got throttled at Notre Dame Saturday.
Meanwhile, No. 10 Connecticut, the darlings of the non-conference season, pulled off another win on a non-league home court, at Texas Saturday -- yet is still strictly middle-of-the-pack in the Big East, where it has suffered its only two losses this season. Because of those conference defeats, there was talk of the Huskies, not predicted by anyone to be that good, was overrated, something Jim Calhoun found himself addressing in the weekly league conference call.
"Maui (where they defeated Michigan State and Kentucky) certainly wasn't a fluke, but it was early season,'' he said. "Early season we had all kinds of energy and people didn't know us. The tape is starting to catch up a little bit and now we have to catch back up with the tapes ... I think we will be a better team four weeks from now.''
If the overtime win at 12th-ranked Texas, with the game-winner by unexpected player-of-the-year candidate Kemba Walker, is any indication, Connecticut is better now. It just isn't showing in the Big East standings, where it begins the week trailing nine teams.
As for the aforementioned Hoyas, they entered the week at the top of collegerpi.com's rankings in RPI and strength of schedule -- and now are 1-3 in the league, their worst start since 2003-04, before John Thompson III took over.
The Big East's claim to being the best conference in the country -- the perennial argument with, as always, no clear guidelines or criteria -- appears strong again. They lead other conferences in ranked teams, had eight teams in the top 17 in RPI, and no one else can beat their slate of non-conference wins: they can claim as their victims Michigan State, Kentucky, Missouri, Memphis, Texas, Maryland, Temple, Dayton, Xavier, Gonzaga, Wisconsin, Butler, N.C. State and UCLA.
Their biggest threats, though, are from within. Even Syracuse, their highest-ranked team at No. 4 and its last undefeated team, is not expected by many to stay perfect with the schedule looming the next two weeks, including games at still-impressive St. John's and No. 5 Pittsburgh, and at home against No. 7 Villanova (which dealt surprising Cincinnati its first loss Sunday).
"That's what this league is,'' Huggins said. "You go from one really hard game to another really hard game, sometimes from one really hard game to a harder game. It's brutal. And I think what you've got to be really careful of is having your guys think that there are teams in this league that can't beat you. Everybody in this league can.''
Huggins knows. The Mountaineers, without three starters from the team that won the Big East tournament and reached the Final Four, acquitted themselves tremendously well Saturday in winning their second in a row after an 0-2 league start. But the previous win was as narrow as could be, 67-65 at DePaul, which is off on another long conference losing streak (16 in a row), but is still improved under new coach Oliver Purnell.
Providence, like DePaul is winless in the league, was edged by the same score by St. John's last week. And on Sunday, South Florida, the first Big East team to reach 10 losses, pushed Louisville (which fell out of the AP poll last week) to the final minutes before losing at home.
Then there's Georgetown, which was on the perimeter of the Final Four conversation thanks to some strong non-conference wins and the balance-tipping play of its three-headed backcourt of Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark. That was before the stumbling start in the conference.
"The good news is, we're four games into an 18-game season. The bad news is, we've lost three of those four games,'' Thompson said after the loss to the Mountaineers. That angle, as well, isn't new -- the unbalanced, hard-to-grasp 18-game schedule that accommodates the 16 teams (to grow to 17 with TCU the season after next) is a blessing and a curse. Bad starts can be overcome, but they also can turn into snowballs rolling downhill toward doom.
And that momentum can either be extended or reversed in no time, because the games keep coming. "This is the Big East -- no game gets any easier, (or) the next opponent,'' Thompson said.
Proof: Georgetown hosts Pitt on Wednesday. The same night, Villanova goes to Louisville and Syracuse visits St. John's. And on Monday, Notre Dame -- unranked in the preseason but a season-best ninth this week -- gets no breather after the St. John's game by going to tough, possibly under-the-radar Marquette. It's worth noting that four Big East teams were ranked in the preseason poll -- and by season's end the number could easily fall back to that because of the infighting.
The Big East is still a presence in the polls this week -- Cincinnati hangs in at 25. Nine ranked non-Big East teams lost in the past week, seven on Saturday as the Mountaineers were taking out Georgetown. Notably, seven of those nine defeats were intra-conference games.
The fact that all bets are off once league play begins isn't unique to the Big East. But the wreckage taking place already in that conference is no exaggeration. This season is writing another chapter to a familiar story.