Seton Hall Pirates (14-9, 5-6 BE)
Even though Seton Hall had the always-tough task of replacing lots of senior leadership, it was still regarded as a prime candidate to be a sleeper in the Big East this season. And the Pirates didn't disappoint in the first month of the season. Bobby Gonzalez's squad garnered a couple of neutral victories over highly-touted Southern California and Virginia Tech. The Hall also played close with Memphis, but ultimately showed its youth when it dropped back to back games against IUPUI and James Madison in December.
The conference schedule has a story of two polar opposite mini-seasons, however. The Pirates began conference play by losing their first six games, including two by more than twenty points. Nevertheless, Bobby Gonzalez was able to flip the light switch on for his team somehow on January 25th. His team toppled Georgetown 65-60 that day and since then has not lost. Albeit, these last four wins have been over Rutgers (twice), St. John's and DePaul, so maybe it's just the team taking an advantage of a rare soft spot in the conference schedule.
We'll soon find out, as they host top-ranked UConn on Valentine's Day. Right now, the Pirates look like an NIT team at best, with a tough finish to the season. They must travel to Marquette and Louisville, and still have a home date left with the Panthers as well. It would likely take seven more wins before Selection Sunday for the Hall to even be considered for a slot in the Big Dance. However, the Pirates have a young nucleus, including the conference's leading scorer, sophomore Jeremy Hazell. Hazell ranks ninth in the country overall in points per game and puts up nearly three more per game than the Big East's next best, Marquette guard Jerel McNeal. This could be a very intriguing team to watch out for next year, especially with transfer Herb Pope ready to step in.
Louisville Cardinals (18-5, 9-2 BE)
Following a narrow loss to North Carolina, the eventual runner-up, in the Elite 8 last season, this program was steeped in high expectations. Just three games into the season, the Cardinals were dealt a harsh reality check: a 68-54 loss at the hands of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. The ‘Ville also dropped games against UNLV and Minnesota in the out-of-conference schedule, nearly tumbling out of the rankings.
Since Big East play started, this team has kicked it up a notch, however. Louisville ran off a nine-game winning streak, including an 8-0 start in conference play. This stretch included road wins over Villanova and Syracuse, as well as a home victory over then-#1 Pittsburgh. The Cardinals have been paced by three athletic big men in conference play: Terrence Williams, Samardo Samuels and Earl Clark.
Right now, the Cardinals look like a very dangerous team that can compete with anyone in the country. With a 9-2 record in Big East play, the Cardinals look like a near-lock to secure a top four spot in the Big East tournament (and therefore a double-bye), especially with none of their final seven games looking overly challenging. A home date with Marquette and a trip to Morgantown may be all that stands between the ‘Ville and a possible 16-2 record in the Big East.
South Florida Bulls (8-15, 3-8 BE)
Coach Stan Heath has one of the toughest jobs in college basketball, trying to make the Bulls, notoriously out of place in the Big East conference, a competitive team while having to fight with SEC and ACC schools for recruits. The Bulls have struggled mightily this season, but have had their moments. With Dominique Jones and Gus Gilchrist, USF has some young talent to build this team around. In a few years, they could be a middle-of-the-pack Big East team.
This year, they haven't been so lucky however. USF struggled out-of-conference, notching no quality wins really, unless you count an 18-point home win over Northeastern as quality. Nevertheless, the team has shown no signs of quit, dealing then-#8 Marquette its first loss in Big East play, 57-56. The Bulls have scrapped all season long, with their biggest home loss in conference play coming to Providence by fifteen points. They nearly pulled out a game in Morgantown and hung tough with the likes of Villanova and Pittsburgh at home.
Despite all that, the Bulls would need a massive surge to have any hopes of postseason play this year. While they could be a dangerous sleeper in Madison Square Garden that has an outside shot to win a couple of games, that's about all they're capable of this year. Next year, however, could be a much different story.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (13-10, 4-7 BE)
Oh, how the mighty have fallen! With arguably the nation's best inside-outside combo in Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney, the Irish began the season with high hopes. They topped Texas and hung tough with North Carolina, but a loss to Ohio State began their freefall as the Irish fell from number six in the country to unranked. One of the nation's most disciplined teams, with a sterling assist-to-turnover ratio, Notre Dame quickly unraveled in Big East play.
An overtime loss to Louisville on the road sparked a seven-game losing streak, albeit all to pretty solid teams. When the Selection Committee takes a look at the Irish, however, the nail in the coffin might be a road loss to lowly St. John's in the first week of Big East play. While the Irish has a lot of work to do, it is a veteran squad that has already shown a few signs of life.
The Irish recently thrashed Louisville by thirty-plus at home and has a fairly navigable schedule from here on out. The only tough game remaining at home is a date with Villanova. The Irish can ill afford to drop any of the other three (against USF, Rutgers and St. John's). In addition, Notre Dame has a chance to get some résumé-building wins on the road. They still have to travel to Storrs, Morgantown and Providence. If the Irish can win six of its last seven games, we can put it back in the discussion for a tournament bid, but they still might need to make some noise at MSG. All things considered, Mike Brey's squad has fallen fast and hard in the last three months.