Big East primer: Cards still the pick

With conference play just around the corner -- Cincinnati-Pitt tips off Monday at noon ET on ESPN2 -- here's a look at what's in store for the final season of the Big East as we know it:

The favorite: Louisville. The Cardinals were picked to win the league with good reason -- a roster filled with terrific returning players, plus the addition of some talented freshmen. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith are as dynamic a backcourt force as you'll find anywhere, while Chane Behanan, Gorgui Dieng, Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell are a formidable frontcourt.

But what separates Louisville from everyone else in the league, and maybe in the country, is the team's dedication to defense. The Cards are as relentless -- if not more -- than they were a year ago en route to the Final Four. Only three teams have scored more than 70 points against Louisville this season and as the Cards showed against Kentucky, when they turn on that defensive high-octane pressure, the game changes in a heartbeat.

Defense wins championships is a cliche, but cliches, remember, are born out of some truths.

Other contenders: Could a pseudo sleeper sneak in and win the Big East? Sure, but it seems less likely this year than others. If the nonconference season has done nothing else, it has separated three teams from the pack -- Syracuse and Cincinnati, along with Louisville. Somehow the Orange have managed to restock and reload despite losing most of their starting roster. The team's biggest weakness right now is defense -- the zone is good, but not quite yet good enough.

Cincinnati's three-guard lineup has been equally terrific offensively but as the New Mexico game showed, the Bearcats struggle in a tighter defensive battle. They need to win when the points don't come so easily.
The other outlier to add to this category: Georgetown, though I still think the Hoyas are a longshot to win the league.

Player of the year (so far): Russ Smith, Louisville. He may take the rest of the pepper out of Rick Pitino's salt-and-peppering hair or take the Cardinals to the Final Four. The enigmatic Smith still has his Russdiculous tendencies but with the guard, you take the good with the bad and the good has been great -- ferocious defense, courageous (ahem) offense and an energy that serves as the catalyst for the Cards. It's almost a pick-'em between Smith and his backcourt mate, Peyton Siva, but Smith's scoring and steals give him the edge.

Other contenders include Georgetown's Otto Porter, whose statistics are eye-popping; Syracuse's assist-maker Michael Carter-Williams, lead Bearcat guard Sean Kilpatrick and Notre Dame double-double man Jack Cooley.

Freshman of the year (so far): This isn't a freshman-heavy league this year, so the edge goes to the best rookie on the youngest team in the Big East -- that would be St. John's forward Jakarr Sampson. Sampson is second on the team in scoring (14.7) and leads the Red Storm in rebounding (7.0), numbers Steve Lavin is going to need if the Red Storm is going to make noise in the Big East.

Other contenders include Pittsburgh's big man Steven Adams and playmaking teammate James Robinson, Providence's Kris Dunn, who only just got into the lineup, and Harrell, who might be overshadowed with so many other scoring options for Louisville.

Wins to brag about: Notre Dame over Kentucky; Louisville over Missouri and Kentucky; Georgetown over UCLA; Syracuse over San Diego State; Connecticut over Michigan State

Losses that sting: St. Peter's over Rutgers; Gardner-Webb over DePaul; Western Michigan over USF; Green Bay over Marquette; BC and Brown over Providence; San Francisco and UNC Asheville over St. John's; Columbia over Villanova

Pleasant surprises: Maybe John Thompson III isn't surprised, but everyone else is by the way Georgetown has played in this early season -- occasional offensive woes notwithstanding. … Talib Zanna has nearly doubled his offensive production, yet remains a force on the boards and is a big reason the Panthers look like Pitt again. … File a consistent Russ Smith under this category. … Those predicting the demise of UConn clearly were premature. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have held the Huskies together. … Michael Carter-Williams isn't necessarily a surprise -- everyone knew how good he was -- but the fact that he waited his turn and has actually lived up to the hype is impressive.

Biggest disappointments: Beside the end of the conference as we know it? … Mike Rice's reported mistreatment of his players is unconscionable. There's a line between being tough on players and being disrespectful. He crossed it, and he should know better. … Yes, Marquette lost both the Big East player of the year and the league's leading scorer, but there's no way the Golden Eagles should be losing to Green Bay. … Ditto St. John's, which has a young roster still adjusting to the return of its head coach but, still, a loss to San Francisco and coughing up a 17-point lead to UNC Asheville aren't excusable. … Thought Providence would get things going once Ed Cooley's entire roster was eligible. Instead, the Friars -- still without the injured Vincent Council -- have lost back-to-back games to Boston College and Brown, prompting Cooley to call his team 'soft' and lacking chemistry. The man has a point.

Three questions going forward:

Will the league go out with a bang?

With the Big East practically disintegrating by the day, this is the last run for the league as we know it. Will Dave Gavitt's vision end its run with a national champion? It's not out of the question. Anyone who has seen Louisville play would have to give the Cardinals good odds to get to Atlanta.

Is Pittsburgh for real?

A year after the Panthers were a debacle, they head into the Big East much like they looked last year -- 12-1 this year, 11-2 a season ago. Pitt has played just one really good opponent -- Michigan -- and lost, so can we trust this Panther team more than last year's? The signs say yes. Tray Woodall is healthy. James Robinson has been terrific at the point, but until Pitt plays Cincinnati on New Year's Eve and gets the conference season started, there will be fewer folks willing to go all in.

Can the middle of the league make up ground?

What always has separated the Big East from other conferences has been its top to bottom depth, but this year the middle of the league is sagging. Once you get beyond the top six, no one is a gimme -- or even likely -- NCAA tournament team right now (remember, UConn is not eligible). If the Big East is going to turn heads come March, the middle has to pick up its game. We're looking at you Marquette, Villanova and St. John's.

Revised predictions:

1. Louisville: The Cardinals are not just tops in the Big East; they may be best in the nation when all is said and done.

2. Syracuse: The Orange need to shore up the defense and develop a consistent scorer, but all signs point to another special team for Jim Boeheim.

3. Cincinnati: The Bearcats' three-guard offense is potent, but needs to learn to win when the shots aren't falling.

4. Georgetown: Otto Porter could easily become the league's player of the year and the Hoyas could easily move up in the standings.

5. Pittsburgh: The Panthers are playing blue-collar defense like the old days, which should mean top of the league finishes like the old days.

6. Notre Dame: The veteran Irish execute Mike Brey's game plans to near perfection. They don't make too many mistakes, which makes them tough to beat.

7. Connecticut: Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright are keeping UConn together for Kevin Ollie. DeAndre Daniels has to become consistent for the Huskies to threaten.

8. Marquette: The pieces in the form of Junior Cadougan and Vander Blue are there, but can the Golden Eagles put the puzzle together?

9. DePaul: The Blue Demons almost made a believer out of me … and then they lost to Loyola at home. Oliver Purnell's bunch keeps threatening to be relevant. Is this going to be the year?

10. St. John's: Steve Lavin has a young team with considerable room for growth. But will the Red Storm grow up? That's the big question and one with a less than assured answer heading into conference play, after the loss to Asheville.

11. Providence: Ed Cooley waited most of the nonconference season to get his roster in working order, but the Friars still lost to BC and Brown. This team could finish anywhere between eighth and 15th.

12. Villanova: The Wildcats have looked better lately, but against teams designed to make you look good. Is Nova good enough to hang with the top part of the Big East? That's the million-dollar question.

13. Seton Hall: From the outside, the Pirates' 11-2 record looks pretty good. Upon closer examination, it's revealed to be against subpar competition, and barely squeaking by wins versus Stony Brook and Wake Forest.
14. South Florida: A year after their breakthrough run to the NCAA tournament, the Bulls just haven't looked good. The defense is still good, but USF still can't score and that's a problem.

15. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights looked more comfortable and less uptight with associate head coach David Cox on the sidelines, winning all three of the games he led. If Rice lightens up, Rutgers could move up in the standings here -- the Knights have talent -- but that's a big if.