Big East Weekly

Pittsburgh is the best team in the Big East this year, but I don't think the Panthers look like more than a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament at this point in the season. Marquette looks like the second best team. Then there are six or seven teams that look about the same – good, but not great.

It's a down year for the Big East, yet I'm finding the conference season fascinating; and parity isn't the reason. I am in awe of the young talent around the conference. Youth is the reason so many Big East teams are inconsistent. Youth is the reason so many talented teams are losing on the road. Youth is also the reason that the Big East will be a dominant conference next season.

Pittsburgh leads the league because it's talented, well coached veteran team that knows how to win. Just about every other team in the conference starts three or more freshmen and sophomores, and the many of those sophomores didn't play much last season.

Look at Connecticut. UConn's top 12 in minutes played are freshmen and sophomores. UConn is team inconsistency, sometimes looking lost and sometimes looking like the collection of stars it is. If you get a chance to watch the Huskies, pay attention to Jeff Adrien, Jerome Dyson, and Doug Wiggins. Amid the turnovers and bad shots, you'll see some spectacular basketball.

ND fans saw Villanova recently, and we'll see the Wildcats again on Saturday. Freshman Scottie Reynolds scored 27 points against the Irish in Philadelphia, and sophomore Dante Cunningham scored 19. Reynolds also had a big game in VU's home loss to DePaul, but Cunningham had only 2 points in that game; and both players were limited to 7 points in Villanova's loss at West Virginia.

We're seeing the same phenomenon at Notre Dame. Two freshmen start, and every key bench player is a freshman or a sophomore. Luke Zeller played significant minutes last season, but the other sophomores were limited to mop-up time. The result has been inconsistency and poor play on the road. Tory Jackson is in a particularly challenging position because he didn't get to start until the game before conference play started. All things considered, the kid has done a nice job; but his inconsistency shows in the team's play. If he improves as much over the next five games as he did in his first five, the Irish will be fine; but it's going to be a bumpy ride at times.

The Big East is loaded with teams like UConn and Villanova, teams that rely on young and talented players. The race for top spots in the conference depends more on which teams' young players acclimate fastest than it does on ability. A few are starting to emerge. Villanova's Reynolds is averaging 12 points per game for the season, but he's scoring 18 per game in conference play, a remarkable improvement for a freshman. Marquette sophomores Dominic James and Jerel McNeal have been playing with the consistency of upperclassmen after a rocky start in the first three games. UConn's Adrien is still an inconsistent scorer, but the 6'7" forward with the linebacker physique is 4th in the conference in rebounding.

Both Notre Dame and Villanova will feature some fine veteran players on Saturday, but they'll offset each other. The young players will decide the game. Irish by 4 because it's in the JACC.

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