League of Balance

West Virginia's watchword for the 2011-12 men's basketball season has been inconsistency. However, is that really the only reason the Mountaineers have been up and down so much this year?

There's no doubt that West Virginia's youth has played a big part in the Mountaineers' season to date. With more experience, WVU likely wins the Baylor and Connecticut games, and would be comfortably in the Top 25 and near the top of the Big East standings. However, a quick look at the results in the league so far show that there's probably more parity than was expected going into the season, and as a result, there have been a number of games that had "upset" winners so far this year.

From West Virginia's perspective, the loss to Seton Hall was something of a stunner, given the Mountaineers' recent dominance in the series and the projections the Pirates had received for this season. SHU, though, has defied those calls, running off a 14-2 record and winning three of its four league games. Although the Mountaineers certainly didn't look great in its 67-48 loss to the Pirates, that setback now doesn't look nearly as bad as it did at the time.

That game is just one example of the league's topsy-turvy start. Marquette, eyed as a contender for the Big East title in the preseason, is off to a 1-2 league start. Georgetown, which was another mid-pack contender, defeated the Golden Eagles and downed Louisville on the road, and has only a loss to West Virginia on its conference ledger. Pitt, another preseason favorite, has lost four consecutive games and resides in the basement of the league at 0-3 after a surprising loss to DePaul. Notre Dame, which lost four of five games in non-conference action, owns wins over Pitt and Louisville. The Cardinals, another preseason league favorite, have lost three of their last four.

What does all of this say about the Big East, which still is, despite some off-target opinions, the best basketball league in the country by a fair margin? First, it might not have the same number of absolute top shelf teams it has had in previous seasons, as only Syracuse has maintained its lofty ranking throughout the year. However, that's more than counterbalanced by the depth the league has shown. Only Providence, at 0-4, appears to be overmatched in most games – every other squad has at least a couple of marquee wins to hang their hats on. Rutgers knocked off Florida, while perennial bottom-feeder USF is showing life in the league with two wins, including one at Villanova. St. John's has climbed back to the .500 mark with a win over Cincinnati, which knocked the Bearcats from the ranks of the league unbeaten.

A quick look at the Big East standings shows a tangled mess. Nine teams are within 1½ games of leader Syracuse, and it's possible to go from second to 14th in the span of a week's action. Pollsters can't even figure out (or aren't paying attention to) what's going on, as Cincinnati (14-2, 3-1) isn't getting any poll votes at all, while Seton Hall (14-2, 3-1) is barely in one poll and only receiving votes in another. Meanwhile, Georgetown (13-3, 3-2) remains 11th in both polls, while UConn, with an identical record, is 16/17.

Whether there's a backlash from pollsters looking to downgrade the Big East at the first sign of a retreat from dominance remains to be seen, but what they haven't recognized is that the Big East is much more balanced this year. That's doesn't mean, however, that the overall quality is down. Simply put, if a team isn't ready to play, it's going to get smacked. WVU showed that against Seton Hall, Pitt did the same against DePaul. More than ever, there aren't any off nights in the league.

So, back to the original question. West Virginia's play has been all over the map this season, without a doubt. But there also haven't been any games, especially in league play, where the Mountaineers could play just an average game and win. That's not going to change, either. Pitt might be 15th in the league right now, but does anyone foresee a pair of easy wins when the Mountaineers face the Panthers later this year? Is DePaul a guaranteed victory, no matter how WVU executes? The answer, clearly, is no. Just about every Big East team is capable of beating any other, and by the time this season is over, it won't be a surprise to see a squad in the top four of the league standings with five or six losses, and with a huge logjam in the middle of the standings. It should make for an interesting race.


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