The top of the league is rock-solid strong, with six nationally relevant programs in Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati, Georgetown, Notre Dame and, yes, I’m buying -- Pittsburgh.
After that, things already are muddy. Connecticut is better than anyone expected but irrelevant in the national picture, and Marquette remains a work in progress.
Everyone else has some major work to do.
1. Syracuse. With James Southerland doing a good Dion Waiters impression, starring as the sixth man, the Orange keep steamrolling the competition, getting Jim Boeheim within single digits of his 900th win in the process. Arkansas is the only team that has gotten within single digits of Syracuse this season. And the Razorbacks lost by nine.
2. Louisville. The Cards turned up their trademark withering defense against Charleston (the same team that beat Baylor, which beat Kentucky, if you’re into transitive theory), holding the Cougars to 38 points and forcing 27 turnovers. The only caveat: Louisville still isn’t great offensively. The Cards hit only four of 14 shots from behind the arc. Next up: UMKC.
3. Cincinnati. The Bearcats are quietly sensational. With Cashmere Wright saving the day with a buzzer-beating jumper against Alabama, Cincinnati remains undefeated, relying on a three-guard lineup that is as potent as any in the country.
4. Georgetown. Everyone wanted to talk about the Hoyas’ awful offense in the 37-36 victory against Tennessee last week. Fair enough. It was brutal. But the defense was impressive, as it was Tuesday against Texas, limiting the Longhorns to only 41. Georgetown is already very good offensively. The D could make for a scary combo.
5. Notre Dame. The scheduling gods were kind to the Irish -- offering them more than a week to savor the win against Kentucky. Notre Dame returns to action against Brown on Saturday.
6. Pittsburgh. The Panthers keep rolling, and in the process, they are coming up with a pretty sweet inside-outside package in the form of Tray Woodall and Talib Zanna. The point guard and the forward have been solid all season for Pitt, which sits at 8-1.
7. Connecticut. The Huskies' guards, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, are sensational. The question: Can they be enough for the long haul? That’s the biggest issue for UConn and coach Kevin Ollie these days, evidenced in the loss to North Carolina State, in which the Huskies were simply outmuscled inside.
8. Marquette. The Golden Eagles had the week off, welcome especially after the news that alum and former assistant Rick Majerus had died. Now Buzz Williams' team needs to regroup for Saturday's game against in-state rival Wisconsin. Marquette likes to score -- but can it against the Badgers?
9. Providence. Freshman Kris Dunn is still out with a shoulder injury, but the Friars keep winning. With seven scholarship players -- including a hampered Bryce Cotton -- Providence beat Rhode Island easily Thursday. And every day is closer to Dunn returning.
10. DePaul. The Blue Demons are on a three-game win streak, and while the quality of competition leaves much to be desired, building confidence is crucial right now if DePaul is going to make any strides come Big East time. The feasting should continue Sunday against two-win Milwaukee.
11. South Florida. That the Bulls have no inside game isn’t surprising -- Gus Gilchrist is gone -- but it’s still an absolute killer for Stan Heath’s squad. South Florida simply couldn’t compete on the glass against Oklahoma State, and until USF can find at least some semblance of a paint presence, it will be tough sledding.
12. St. John’s. The Red Storm keep building themselves large holes to climb out of. The problem: Sometimes you can’t finish that climb, especially if you’re not that adept at scoring to begin with. That’s why St. John’s took a bad loss against San Francisco. The Red Storm can cure what ails them against one-win Fordham in the Holiday Festival on Saturday.
13. Seton Hall. The Pirates needed a late 3-pointer to seal a victory Tuesday against New Jersey Institute of Technology. That’s not going to instill fear in anyone. Fuquan Edwin can’t do it alone, although he’s trying.
14. Rutgers. When Eli Carter can’t score, the Scarlet Knights can’t win. Plain and simple. Carter went 1-of-12, including 0-for-6 from 3-point range, and Rutgers lost Saturday at Ole Miss. That’s too much pressure on Carter.
15. Villanova. Things are not pretty on the Main Line, where the Wildcats are simply a mess. Yes, Villanova beat Vanderbilt, but that says as much about the Commodores’ struggles as it does Villanova’s strengths. This is a team without a rudder right now, ineffective defensively and confused offensively -- and rival Saint Joseph’s is salivating at all of that ahead of their meeting Tuesday.