Syracuse Orange (18-7, 6-6 BE)
The Orange couldn't have imagined a better start to its season following back to back appearances in the NIT. The ‘Cuse picked up big wins over Florida (neutral), Kansas (virtual road) and Memphis (road) to establish itself as a team not to be trifled with. This great start rode on the broad shoulders of Paul Harris and Arinze Onuaku. The Orange made it all the way to the number eight ranking in the country before getting manhandled by archrival Georgetown on the road. This cruel reality check was merely the start of a brutal ten-game stretch for the ‘Cuse.
SU is just 2-6 in this ten game stretch, but due to its ambitious non-conference scheduling, SU still hasn't found itself mired in bubble talk despite its recent swoon. The key to SU's season will be playing smart, team basketball and staying healthy.
SU has six winnable games to close the season with. They've been money at home and have revenge games upcoming with Georgetown and Villanova. Their toughest remaining test could come in the last game of the regular season when they travel to Marquette, a guard-oriented team. However, SU easily handled the Golden Eagles in the Dome to end last season and matches up well with them again. They could find themselves reversing the tide and riding a six-game win streak into Madison Square Garden.
St. John's Red Storm (12-12, 3-9 BE)
The Johnnies tore out of the gate, winning nine of their first ten games with a very soft non-conference schedule. However, Norm Roberts' squad also lost Anthony Mason Jr. to a season-ending injury just three games into the season. Mason, a senior, was the leading returning scorer and was averaging more than fourteen points and three dimes a game this season. However, the Johnnies didn't give up hope there. They've actually yet to be beat by more than fourteen points in a home game this season. To top that off, they tripped up a ranked Notre Dame squad as well.
However, the Red Storm only has three wins in Big East play…the other two being over fellow bottom-dwellers Rutgers and South Florida. Norm Roberts has a young and talented nucleus to work with though, as sophomores Justin Burrell, D.J. Kennedy and Paris Horne have stepped their games up to pace the Johnnies' offensive attack. Things could really be looking up next year if Lance Stephenson decides to play his basketball next year in the city.
As for the rest of the season, St. John's still has grueling tests at Marquette and home with Duke remaining. Other than that, the schedule is fairly navigable, with a home game against the Hall and a trip out to Chicago to take on the winless Blue Demons. If all goes well, this team could find itself playing postseason ball, likely in the CBI. (But you've gotta start somewhere.)
Pittsburgh Panthers (22-2, 9-2 BE)
The Panthers started out the season like a man on fire, rising to the number one ranking in the country before being dealt their first L on January 17th at Freedom Hall. Pittsburgh has been able to avoid the injury bug that plagued them in recent years and picked up some decent wins out-of-conference, topping Florida State on the road, along with Washington State at a neutral site. Don't sleep on their wins over Siena, Belmont and Miami (OH) early on. Those three teams don't look intimidating, but there's a good chance all three could be dancing in March (and possibly busting your bracket).
Jamie Dixon's squad has grown this year, mirrored in the growth of its big man DeJuan Blair. The bruiser is averaging more than fifteen points and twelve and a half boards per game. His relentless style is exactly what Dixon likes and is why Pittsburgh is able to be successful in the rough-and-tumble Big East. The question remains, however, if this is the year Pitt will have success outside the conference, a.k.a. in March Madness. They've been untouchable at the Peterson Events Center this season, but have shown vulnerability on the road.
The Panthers do have a chance to be a very highly touted team going into March nevertheless. Sure, it won't be easy with two dates left against the nation's top-ranked team, UConn. But other than a home game with Marquette, none of its remaining games should be very challenging. Pitt will have a very legitimate shot at getting a number one seed if it can win six of its final seven regular season games, leaving it 28-4 at worst entering the tournament.
West Virginia Mountaineers (16-8, 5-6 BE)
Bob Huggins' squad had a tumultuous start to the season with many ups and downs. The ‘Eers fell to Davidson and a struggling Kentucky Wildcats squad, but also crushed Miami (OH) and Ohio State by a combined 64 points. In the Big East, WVU has won the games it is supposed to but hasn't been able to snag a marquee win to pad the résumé. The Mountaineers will have chances when Villanova and Louisville pay Morgantown a visit in the next couple of weeks.
However, this is a West Virginia team that doesn't pack much of a punch in terms of size and is now without Joe Mazulla, who recently suffered a season-ending injury. West Virginia tends to be a streaky team in terms of shooting, which often becomes a benefit when they play teams outside of the Big East, who often are a little more lax on defense (less bumping, shoving, physical play, etc.).
West Virginia will need to finish strong in order to ensure a tourney bid though. It starts Friday night when the surging Villanova Wildcats come knocking. WVU tends to struggle against some of these quicker, guard-based teams (see a 22 point thrashing at the hands of Marquette). But the ‘Eers have four consecutive games they can't afford to lose right after that, the toughest of which is a road trip to Cincinnati. If West Virginia wants to dance, however, it will need that game; in fact, it'll probably need six more wins total to feel pretty safe, assuming Huggins' squad holds serve, winning the games it should.