Conference play always serves as the great revealer, separating the real teams from the pretenders and outing soft nonconference seasons for the record-padding fluff that they are.
We’ve already seen a little separation in just the first week of the Big East. This week there could be even more.
1. Louisville. The Cardinals are 2-0 against Rick Pitino’s former employers, beating both Kentucky and Providence in the same week. The cathartic victory against the Wildcats wasn’t easy, but highlighted just how overwhelming Louisville’s defense can be. The Cards are third in the nation in steals and 22nd in scoring defense.
2. Cincinnati. The Bearcats upped the tempo and the intensity on Pittsburgh in the second half Monday, outscoring the Panthers by 17 in the final 20. That’s the sort of offense UC can and has generated all season. Cincinnati should be able to dictate the tempo against St. John’s on Saturday, but can it against Notre Dame next Monday?
3. Syracuse. Jim Boeheim moved ahead of Bob Knight on the all-time wins list Tuesday and the Orange took their first victory in their last run in the Big East, beating Rutgers. Syracuse now has back-to-back road games, its first dates out of the state of New York since Nov. 30.
4. Georgetown. The Hoyas haven’t played since an easy win against American on Dec. 22. Will the long layoff affect a Georgetown team that has struggled to score when it travels to Marquette?
5. Notre Dame. The Irish play their first game since Dec. 21 when they host Seton Hall on Saturday. A trickier date is on Monday at Cincinnati, where the Bearcats’ speed and aggressiveness could push Notre Dame off its game.
6. Pittsburgh. So the big question now: Was the Panthers' gaudy nonconference record just smoke and mirrors? Pitt was swallowed up by Cincinnati’s defensive pressure in the second half, dropping its first game since Nov. 21. The Panthers have road games at Rutgers and Georgetown in the coming week, which will help answer the big question.
7. Marquette. Without their coach and with misdirected officials, the Golden Eagles won anyway. This, though, is a huge week for Marquette, with Georgetown coming to town to test the Golden Eagles’ 17-game home win streak, and a trip to Pitt to follow.
8. Connecticut. Kevin Ollie got a contract extension; the Huskies and Marquette went the wrong way for a possession, the Huskies were denied two points they should have received and lost in overtime. Otherwise it was a quiet week for UConn. The Huskies’ backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright continues to star, but the Huskies really could use another offensive threat.
9. Villanova. It wasn’t a work of art, but the Wildcats will take the win against St. John’s regardless. Villanova has now won six in a row. The Wildcats, though, remain a show-me team and need to prove they are legit. A game at South Florida is, therefore, crucial and a trip to Syracuse, well, let’s just say that would be monumental.
10. Seton Hall. The Pirates are playing well, but also playing with fire, eking out a win at DePaul to start conference play, a game after skating by Stony Brook. That won’t fly in the coming week, not against Notre Dame and Louisville.
11. South Florida. The only news that really matters -- Anthony Collins is OK. After a scary collision in a game against George Mason, Collins was taken off the court on a stretcher. He was released from the hospital and played against rival Central Florida. As for basketball, the Bulls and their stingy defense ride a four-game win streak into conference play, opening up against Syracuse this weekend with Villanova to follow.
12. DePaul. That thud you heard was the inevitable clap of reality that always seems to hit the Blue Demons. Just when things were looking good, DePaul loses to Loyola (Ill.) and Seton Hall in back-to-back games. Nothing will be easy again this season, especially with road games at Providence and Connecticut in the next week.
13. Providence. Louisville was simply too much for Providence to handle. There’s no crime in that. The Cards are too much for most teams to handle. The good news -- Bryce Cotton, the Big East's second-leading scorer, did play for the Friars. PC has talent to make moves this year but has to show it can do it. A game against DePaul on Saturday is a good opportunity.
14. Rutgers. Mike Rice returned to the sideline just in time for Boeheim to try for win No. 903. That’s not a fair fight. Upcoming games against Pittsburgh and St. John’s? Maybe a little more fair. The Scarlet Knights have to get better defensively, though, if they are going to do anything in the Big East.
15. St. John’s. The wheels aren’t spinning off for the Red Storm, but the bolts are loose. Back-to-back demoralizing losses to UNC-Asheville and in overtime to Villanova could be a tough pill to swallow for a young team, especially with Cincinnati on the horizon.