Big East is top heavy once again

With the conference season soon to be in full swing, Dana O'Neil takes a look at what's in store for the Big East.

The favorite: It's hard not to argue that the top team in the country is the legit favorite to win the Big East. Syracuse not only remains undefeated, but this nonconference season has shown just what makes the Orange so special. It's not just the talent of returning guys like Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph. It's not just the improved play of Fab Melo. It's not just the length that is making coach Jim Boeheim's zone so tricky.

It's all that and the biggest weapon of all -- the Orange's depth. Syracuse's bench would make most coaches salivate. Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair, James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams and Baye Moussa Keita would make a great starting five, let alone a terrific second five.

Other contenders: The Big East is top-heavy once again, with a solid list of worthy choices. Louisville, which has survived an injury-riddled nonconference schedule, is playing lights-out defense. With Ryan Boatright in the mix, UConn is starting to look like the top-10 national team everyone thought it could be. With Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, Marquette can't be overlooked. And sleeper Georgetown, relying on the unexpected play of Henry Sims, should be considered too. Pitt would've been on this list earlier in the season, but have you seen that team lately? Yikes.

Player of the year (so far): He may be the most improbable POY candidate in the country but there's no way that, right now, you can overlook Herb Pope. The Seton Hall senior, whose life has been one twist after another turn, has had a double-double in eight of 12 games.

Other contenders include Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom, West Virginia's Kevin Jones, Connecticut's Jeremy Lamb, Syracuse's Kris Joseph and in the long-shot department, DePaul's Cleveland Melvin.

Freshman of the year (so far): St. John's Moe Harkless has been the lone bright spot in an otherwise frustrating season for the Red Storm. Amid all the turmoil -- Steve Lavin is still recovering from prostate cancer surgery and sophomore Nurideen Lindsey inexplicably announced he would transfer at semester's end -- Harkless has been reliable. He's scored in double figures in all but one game and is averaging a team-best 15.7 points and 8.5 rebounds, blowing open the doors on the Big East season with 32 against Providence in the conference opener on Tuesday.

Other contenders include Providence's LaDontae Henton, Louisville's Chane Behanan and Connecticut's Andre Drummond.

Wins to brag about: Syracuse over Florida 68; Louisville over Vanderbilt; Georgetown over Memphis (twice); West Virginia over Kansas State; Marquette over Wisconsin

Losses that sting: Presbyterian over Cincinnati; Santa Clara over Villanova; Georgia and Maryland over Notre Dame; Penn State over South Florida; Central Florida over Connecticut; Illinois State over Rutgers; Northeastern over St. John's; LSU over Marquette; Wagner over Pittsburgh.

Pleasant surprises: Despite losing Austin Freeman and Chris Wright, Georgetown is a legit league contender. … In line with that, center Henry Sims has to be the most improved player in the league. The senior is averaging 12.5 points but more importantly, 3.7 assists, key to JT3's Princeton offense. … DePaul is showing life under Oliver Purnell. The Blue Demons are 9-3 and off to their best start in 12 seasons. … Seton Hall's Herb Pope has been unexpectedly sensational. … Providence is much improved under new coach Ed Cooley, though what the Friars could do with a weak nonconference schedule won't be the same as what they can do in the Big East.

Biggest disappointments: Villanova has a ton of talent but little to show for it. The Wildcats are young, which is a legit issue if not an excuse, but that doesn't entirely explain the pedestrian 7-5 start. … Tim Abromaitis' knee injury sank the senior's season, and with it, Notre Dame's offense. Bad luck for a good kid. … Rutgers, which looked like it was making progress at the end of last season, instead has been a debacle. … Hard to figure out Pittsburgh this season. Usually one of the more stable teams in the league, the Panthers have had a highly touted freshman transfer (Khem Birch) and lost two games at home, including to underdog Wagner. Then there was that Big East opener against undermanned Notre Dame. Pitt is long overdue for a rebuilding year, but this is a wheels-spinning-off one right now.

Three questions going forward

How many bids will the Big East get this year? That is the question after the glut of NCAA tournament berths handed to the conference last season, followed by the lackluster results. There's a lot of average in the middle of the league right now but if those teams -- Villanova, Seton Hall and Cincinnati -- surge in conference play, they might get rewarded come March.

Is there a national championship contender in the Big East? The national rankings say there are a few -- Syracuse, Louisville and Connecticut -- but will conference play make them tougher or beat them up?

Who is the surprise, sleeper team in the Big East? A season ago it was Connecticut, stunning the entire country all the way to the title game. There may not be that sort of surprise run in store this season, but don't be surprised if Georgetown and Seton Hall keep turning heads well into March.

Revised predictions:

1. Syracuse: The Orange are talented, deep and play great defense. That's the recipe for a great team.

2. Louisville: The Cardinals have won despite an injury-plagued roster thanks to superior defense.

3. Connecticut: The Huskies continue to play better now that their entire roster is available.

4. Georgetown: The surprise Hoyas don't appear to be a flash in the pan.

5. Marquette: Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder will take Buzz Williams' team far.

6. West Virginia: The young Mountaineers are getting better and better and should be a tough out by March.

7. Pittsburgh: The Panthers did little to dispel the doubters with Tuesday's debacle at Notre Dame, but this team still has a reservoir of talent if it can figure things out.

8. Cincinnati: If the Bearcats can continue to keep their post-brawl focus, Mick Cronin has the talent for another NCAA tournament team.

9. Seton Hall: If Herb Pope continues to play well, the Pirates could surprise a lot of teams in the Big East.

10. Villanova: The Wildcats are the league enigma, with enough talent to move up the standings but enough questions to slide down.

11. Notre Dame: Tuesday's win over Pitt was a nice boost, but without Tim Abromaitis, it still will be tough sledding for the Irish in this league.

12. DePaul: The Blue Demons are much improved and will pull out of the Big East basement.

13. St. John's: The addition of Amir Garrett is good news for a Red Storm team that has been plenty stormy.

14. Providence: Ed Cooley has the Friars headed in the right direction, but it will still be tough in the Big East, as evidenced by that opening wipeout against St. John's.
15. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights' struggles don't appear to have an end in sight.

16. South Florida: Other than the sunshine, not much reason to get excited in Tampa these days.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.