Big East Contenders

The Big East Conference basketball season is almost half over. Pittsburgh is the leader in the clubhouse at 6-1 while Marquette is hot on their heels a game back at 5-2. With most teams having nine or ten contests remaining, a lot can happen in the topsy turvy league. Here's a look at the top seven contenders in the Big East.

*Pittsburgh (18-3, 6-1): A 67-51 win at Cincinnati on Wednesday kept them at the top of the standings. The ninth ranked Panthers were led by Levance Field's six three-pointers as they bounced back from a 77-74 home overtime loss to Marquette this past Sunday. The long distance shot is a big weapon for Pittsburgh. They were second in the conference in three point percentage heading into Wednesday's game, right behind leader Notre Dame. The schedule down the stretch is not a cakewalk. Pittsburgh has to still go on the road to Villanova, West Virginia, Georgetown and Marquette. They will need a consistent effort from big man Aaron Gray (15 PPG, 10 RPG) while continuing to play unselfish basketball. The Panthers are first in the league in assists per contest.

*Marquette (18-4, 5-2): No one is playing better in the Big East than the Golden Eagles. In addition to winning five consecutive games in conference play after a 0-2 start, they added another victory on Wednesday over Seton Hall 89-76 in Milwaukee. Despite getting just 11 points from superstar guard Dominic James, fellow sophomores Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews scored 22 against the Pirates. No. 20 Marquette has got the job done at home and on the road. They've won at Connecticut, at Louisville and at Pittsburgh. It starts with James and his 16.9 PPG average heading into Wednesday but don't sleep on McNeal. The 6-3 sophomore averages 14 PPG and four assists and rebounds each a contest. The final two games of the year will determine the Golden Eagles' own fate. They're on the road to No. 21 Notre Dame and end the season at home against Pittsburgh.

*Syracuse (15-5, 4-2): It's tough to get a read on the Orange. After winning four in a row in league action, they lost to St. John's last Sunday. Yes, it's difficult on the road but the Red Storm had lost six of seven prior games. Demetris Nichols is tied with the Irish's Russell Carter in scoring at 18.7 PPG while the Orange are second in the Big East in field goal percentage defense. Eric Devendorf leads the offense at the point guard position and averages 13 PPG while big man Terrence Roberts is fifth in the league in rebounding at eight a contest. After a week off, a lot will be found out about this team when they travel to Louisville this weekend. The Cardinals have the friendly confines of Freedom Hall and the winner will have a leg up. They have no road games left against ranked teams and the biggie should be at the Carrier Dome on January 30th against No. 21 Notre Dame.

*Georgetown (14-5, 4-2): The Hoyas moved into a tie for third place with a 66-52 victory over DePaul on Wednesday. After an even first half, Georgetown outscored the Demon Deacons 36-22 in the second half. Jeff Green scored 19 points to lead the Hoyas. Georgetown knows their identity. They slow it down, are patient on offense and play outstanding defense. This explains them being first in the Big East in scoring defense and first in field goal percentage. 7-2 Roy Hibbert and his 11 PPG average is a big presence down low while Green provides a little bit of everything. A team effort and balance explains six players averaging seven PPG or more on the season. The Hoyas have both Pittsburgh and Marquette coming to Washington, D.C. later in the year while the toughest road test will be at Syracuse on February 26th.

*Louisville (14-6, 4-2): After a 16-point loss at Notre Dame to start conference play, the Cardinals have won four of five to push into a tie for third place. On Monday, they downed a struggling Connecticut team 68-54 to set up a weekend showdown at home with Syracuse, also at 4-2 in the league. Louisville doesn't do anything special. They're 10th in scoring offense and eighth in scoring defense. But wins keep coming. Terrence Williams, a 6-6 sophomore, leads the team in scoring at 13 PPG and rebounding at 7.8 boards a contest. Also watch out for junior forward Juan Palacios, who is averaging 18.5 PPG in the last two outings. The schedule does them no favors. Louisville still has road games against Villanova, Pittsburgh and Marquette. A late road date with a young Connecticut team on February 26th could trip them up as well.

*Notre Dame (16-4, 4-3): The 21st ranked Irish are unbeatable at home. They're 14-0 at the Joyce Center this season. But Notre Dame cannot find its way on the road. The Irish have lost all three true road games this year, including a heartbreaking 71-68 defeat at St. John's on Tuesday. The Red Storm's Larry Wright nailed the game-winning three-point shot with just under 10 seconds remaining to continue the Notre Dame road weariness. They're led by Russell Carter, who is now tied for the league lead in scoring at 18.7 PPG. The senior guard has broken his career-high in points three times this season. The best was against St. John's, where he went off for 32 points. Junior forward Rob Kurz is the main man down low, pulling down eight rebounds a contest to go along with 14 PPG. The Irish are first in the Big East in scoring but fourth to last in scoring defense. The news that sophomore point guard Kyle McAlarney won't be with the team for the rest of the year makes Saturday's home contest with surging Villanova a biggie. Notre Dame has five road games left, including one at Syracuse. A February 24th home date with Marquette also remains.

*West Virginia (15-4, 4-3): The Mountaineers won an in-state bragging rights game on Wednesday, besting Marshall 77-63. West Virginia has been an up-and-down team lately. The past four contests have gone like this: loss, win, loss and win. After starting out 3-0 in the league, they've lost three of the past four games. The one that hurts was a 96-83 overtime defeat at Cincinnati last Saturday. The Bearcats had lost four in a row, all by double digits, but earned their only Big East win of the season against the Mountaineers. West Virginia does bring the defense, ranking second in scoring defense in the Big East. Senior forward Frank Young leads the team in scoring at 14 PPG and is first in the conference in three-pointers made. Schedule wise, the Mountaineers have a home-and-home left with Pittsburgh and a game in Morgantown against No. 2 UCLA.

*The rest of the Big East:

Villanova 14-5, 3-3

Providence 13-6, 3-3

St. John's 12-8, 3-4

Seton Hall 11-8, 3-4

DePaul 12-9, 3-4

Connecticut 13-6, 2-4

South Florida 2-5, 11-10

Cincinnati 10-9, 1-4

Rutgers 8-12, 1-6


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