The end of December means the beginning of the second season in college basketball: conference play.
The Big East schedule got under way Tuesday night with two games -- both with surprising outcomes. Notre Dame beat No. 22 Pittsburgh in South Bend 72-59, while St. John's wiped the floor with Providence in Queens 91-67.
If those two results are any indication, it could be a wild ride in the Big East the next couple of months. Let's take a look at the prospects for the three local teams -- St. John's, Seton Hall and Rutgers.
The Good: Well, you have to start with the performance against Providence. The Friars came in on a seven-game winning streak and 11-2 overall, while the Red Storm were just 6-5 and barely had beaten Texas-Pan American at home their last time out. But this game was a mismatch from start to finish.
Afterward, the St. John's players admitted they were inspired in part by some trash talk Providence dished out before the game. "I think they came out thinking that they were better than us, and that motivated us," forward Moe Harkless said.
"Y'all not ready, y'all too young, stuff like that," shooting guard D'Angelo Harrison said when asked about what the Friars were saying.
Well, St. John's certainly looked ready Tuesday night, especially Harkless and Harrison. Harkless set a Big East record for points in a freshman debut with 32, breaking the record of 30 previously held by Allen Iverson and Troy Murphy. And Harrison added 25, shooting 8-for-12 from the field.
Both freshmen are averaging more than 15 points per game and look capable of providing a solid 1-2 scoring punch the rest of the season.
The Bad: Depth is the glaring weakness on this team. St. John's has a seven-man rotation, and one serious injury could torpedo the entire season.
Barring an injury, foul trouble is the other big specter looming over this squad, another thing the Red Storm simply cannot afford. But so far so good on that front. God'sgift Achiuwa, the team's lone true post player, has fouled out only once in the team's first 12 games -- and that was in a win over St. Francis (N.Y.). Swingman Sir'Dominic Pointer also has fouled out of one game, but that's it so far for the current Johnnies.
Then again, we're just getting started with rough-and-tumble Big East play.
The X-Factor: It has to be Amir Garrett, the freshman forward who has appeared in just the past two games after being academically cleared on Dec. 21. Garrett played 15 minutes off the bench against both Texas Pan-American and Providence with rather modest numbers (five points, three rebounds, three assists combined). But he has taken only three shots from the field as he tries to learn the offense and his role in it.
That said, assistant coach Mike Dunlap called the addition of Garrett a "shot in the arm" after the win over Providence. At 6-foot-6, the athletic lefty can get to the rim on offense and wreak havoc on defense in the team's matchup zone. Getting Garrett was important if only to give St. John's another player to add to the rotation after Nurideen Lindsey decided to transfer just nine games into the season. But over the next few weeks, we'll see just how much Garrett can contribute when he's on the floor.
The Good: Hardly anyone expected Seton Hall's Big East opener, at Syracuse, to be a game of national interest. The Pirates, coming off a 13-18 season, were picked to finish 13th in the conference this year.
But Seton Hall was one of the most pleasant surprises of the nonconference season. The Pirates opened 11-1 under second-year coach Kevin Willard for the school's best start since 1992-93. Their loss came at the hands of now-10-2 Northwestern, 80-73 in the championship game of the Charleston Classic on Nov. 20.
A few people might jump off the bandwagon after the Hall was crushed by the Orange 75-49 on Wednesday night. But Syracuse is ranked No. 1 in the country for a reason and was playing in the Carrier Dome. That doesn't erase the fact that the Pirates already own quality wins over VCU, St. Joseph's, Auburn, Wake Forest and Dayton.
Like St. John's, Seton Hall is led by a 1-2 punch -- except Willard's is a pair of seniors. Six-foot-eight power forward Herb Pope is an early candidate for Big East Player of the Year, averaging 19 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. Six-foot point guard Jordan Theodore is averaging 15.6 points and 6.9 assists per game.
"Herb Pope is having a great year," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim before Wednesday's game. "He is one of the best big guys in the country right now. They have good senior leadership between him and Jordan Theodore. They have a good team -- a really good team."
The Bad: Seton Hall is plagued by the same issue as St. John's: lack of depth. Willard has more scholarship players on his roster, but as of now six guys are getting the bulk of the playing time with no one else averaging more than nine minutes. And after Pope and Theodore, the other four players are freshmen and sophomores.
Four of those six also have fouled out of at least one game this season, so foul trouble could be an issue as well. Pope fouled out of eight games last season, but he is in much better shape this year and has been disqualified only once so far.
The X-Factor: Sophomore forward Patrik Auda. Willard said during Big East Media Day in October that Auda would have to be a double-digit scorer for Seton Hall to be successful. So far he's on the cusp, averaging 9.2 points as well as 4.8 rebounds in 28.3 minutes per game. But can he keep that up against Big East competition?
The 6-foot-9 product of the Czech Republic averaged just 3.2 points in 15.3 minutes as a freshman but looks vastly improved this year. Seton Hall knows it can count on scoring from Pope, Theodore and sophomore swingman Fuquan Edwin (14 ppg). Auda is still a question mark heading into conference play.
The Good: Rutgers (7-5) still has one nonconference game -- hosting No. 10 Florida at the RAC on Thursday night -- before its Big East opener. It's a chance for the Scarlet Knights to end an up-and-down first two months of the season on a high note.
Mike Rice's club has won three games in a row, but it hasn't always been pretty. In fact, the Scarlet Knights trailed NJIT by eight in the second half in their previous game on Dec. 22 before rallying to win. They also lost to Princeton at home, as well as to Illinois State and Richmond in the Cancun Challenge.
The list of teams Rutgers has beaten isn't all that impressive: Dartmouth, Sacred Heart, Hampton, UMBC, Monmouth, Stony Brook and NJIT. What is impressive is the Scarlet Knights' defensive statistics. Rutgers is holding opponents to 61.3 points per game, 38.8 percent shooting from the field and forcing 17.2 turnovers per contest.
The Bad: On the other end of the floor, Rutgers has yet to unearth a go-to guy. Unlike the other two local Big East teams, depth is not a problem -- Rice is using nine or 10 men regularly, with no one averaging more than 27.1 minutes per game. But no one is averaging even 12 points per game -- sophomore forward Gilvydas Biruta leads the way with 11.7 ppg.
Particularly puzzling is junior swingman Dane Miller, the other returning starter from last season along with Biruta. Miller averaged 9.2 points in each of his first two seasons in Piscataway, but Rice raved about him in October, lauding his increased work ethic and predicting he would make a big leap this season. Instead, Miller has regressed, averaging just 6.5 points per game.
Miller has shown flashes of brilliance, such as his 13-point, 11-rebound, 7-block outing against Monmouth on Dec. 12. But he followed that up by going scoreless in 27 minutes against Stony Brook and then scoring just three points in 30 minutes against NJIT.
Furthermore, Miller took just one shot from the field in each of those games -- pretty strange from a guy who talked to me in the preseason about being in the gym until 3 a.m. some nights, working on his outside shot. Miller needs to be more proactive offensively for this team to be successful in conference play.
The X-Factor: Freshman Kadeem Jack, who likely will make his season debut against Florida on Thursday night. Jack, a 6-foot-10 center from Queens, has been out of action since early October after breaking a bone in his right foot, but this past week he was cleared to return to practice.
Rice had big plans for Jack in October, calling him his best rebounder and shot-blocker. If Jack can pick things up quickly and stay healthy, he could make a huge impact the rest of the way.
One thing all three of these teams have in common? Inexperience. The St. John's seven-man rotation comprises five freshmen, a juco transfer and a junior. Four of Seton Hall's six key contributors are freshmen and sophomores. Rutgers' top three guards are all freshmen, with other young ones playing pivotal roles as well.
Translation: All three of these teams likely will be inconsistent. And conference-wise, it doesn't get tougher than the Big East, with six teams currently ranked in the Top 25.
Seton Hall has the edge with its tandem of senior stars, Pope and Theodore. The Pirates are capable of going .500 in the conference -- and that was good enough to make the NCAA tournament last season. In fact, UConn went 9-9 in Big East play and went on to win the national championship.
Willard's team must rack up some wins in mid-January, when the Pirates have a five-game stretch against Providence, DePaul, South Florida, Villanova and Notre Dame.
St. John's has a conference win under its belt but faces a daunting next five games, starting with a matchup at No. 9 UConn on New Year's Eve. That's followed by hosting No. 4 Louisville, traveling to Cincinnati and No. 13 Marquette, and then hosting No. 12 Georgetown. The Red Storm likely will be an underdog in all five games.
Rutgers opens its Big East slate with a winnable game at South Florida on New Year's Day. But in the following two weeks, the Scarlet Knights host No. 9 UConn, go to No. 22 Pittsburgh and play a pair of games against West Virginia -- no easy task.
Realistically, the Red Storm and Scarlet Knights will aim to get as close to .500 as they can. They'll fall short, but their young players will gain valuable experience that will pay off in the years ahead.