Louisville

The Louisville Cardinals are in the midst of an awfully confusing season. Despite their No. 22 ranking, a brutal opening to their Big East slate has left Rick Pitino’s squad closer to the cellar than to the penthouse. A win over Providence, combined with losses to No. 6 Villanova, No. 12 Pittsburgh, St. John’s, and No. 1 Connecticut, leaves the team with a 1-4 conference record.

It’s hard to know what to make of the Cardinals. Their out-of-conference games, unlike their Big East schedule, offered no real challenges with the exception of a fading Kentucky team, who beat them by double figures. Only four of their games so far this season have been away from Freedom Hall, their home court. Scoring and assists leader Taquan Dean, a preseason all-Big East player, has been limited to only one functioning leg over the last few games. Struggling with an ankle injury, Dean missed the games against St. John’s and UConn, and only contributed nine points against Villanova and three against Pittsburgh.

The Cardinals’ season could hinge on their three games this week: a home date with a tough Cincinnati squad, a trip to the famously inhospitable RAC to tangle with an improving Scarlet Knights team, and then a tilt with a Villanova team that bested Louisville earlier in the season. Unless they can improve on their dismal conference record, the Cardinals look like they could be NIT-bound.

Villanova

The Wildcats’ unique, guard-oriented lineup has been running opponents out of the gym all season. Sophomores Kyle Lowry and Mike Nardi as well as seniors Allan Ray and Randy Foye all average double figures in points. The diminutive Lowry connects on 54 percent of his field goal attempts and somehow pulls down nearly five rebounds a game, despite standing less than six feet tall. Foye’s 20.5 scoring average is the second highest in the Big East, trailing only Rutgers’ Quincy Douby. In short, this quartet of quick, explosive guards looks tough to stop.

Villanova’s frontcourt is another story entirely. Junior Will Sheridan contributes only five points and five rebounds per game, while senior Jason Fraser puts up nearly identical numbers. The brittle Fraser, finally healthy after three injury-plagued seasons, is having a hard time living up to the expectations that followed him to Villanova. A player who led his high school team to four New York state titles and earned McDonald’s All-American honors should not be averaging such paltry numbers.

Despite their deficiencies at the forward positions, the No. 6 Wildcats have been nearly unbeatable. Their only losses came at the hands of No. 9 West Virginia and No. 4 Texas, and even then only by a combined seven points. Villanova made short work of both Seton Hall and No. 20 Syracuse this past week, rebounding nicely from a close loss to the Longhorns. This week features three very winnable match-ups against South Florida, Notre Dame and a reeling Louisville squad. If the Wildcats can figure out how to get something more out of Fraser and Sheridan, this team has the potential to finish atop the Big East.

West Virginia

With road wins against No. 17 UCLA, No. 6 Villanova and No. 24 Oklahoma, the Mountaineers are serving notice that their Elite Eight appearance last year was not a fluke. Led by a collection of seniors, including Big East player of the year contender Mike Gansey and last year’s NCAA tournament hero Kevin Pittsnogle, West Virginia is poised to make another deep March run. They currently sit atop the Big East at 5-0. With such a tough conference schedule, including two dates with No. 12 Pittsburgh, one with No. 1 UConn and road trips to No. 25 Syracuse and No. 21 Georgetown, it is extremely unlikely that WVU will run the table in the Big East, a monster conference that now has three serious Final Four contenders. The Mountaineers next take on Conference-USA cupcake Marshall before resuming Big East play. Tip-off is Wednesday at 8 p.m.

UConn

With previously unbeaten No. 2 Duke and No. 5 Florida falling to unranked opponents this weekend, Connecticut has now taken over as the nation’s first-ranked team. The Huskies are the cream of the Big East Conference crop. After losing to Marquette on Jan. 3 to open conference play, the Huskies have rattled off four consecutive Big East wins and are currently second in the conference standings.

The return of junior point guard Marcus Williams has revitalized the Huskies’ backcourt. Williams missed Connecticut’s first 11 games because of a university suspension for his involvement in the theft of four laptops this summer.

This week UConn faces St. John’s at home, followed by a road game at Providence.

Syracuse

On Saturday, No. 25 Syracuse took on No. 6 Villanova in a battle of Big East titans in Philadelphia. Syracuse started off slowly, and Villanova jumped out to an early lead, with the halftime score 39-20 in the Wildcats’ favor. Not to be swept under the rug, the Syracuse Orange clawed back into the game in the second half with a 17-2 run behind freshman guard Eric Devendorf (23 points) and junior forward Terrence Roberts (20 points). Villanova’s dynamic duo of Allan Ray and Randy Foye proved to be too much for ‘Cuse, however, and the Wildcats came away with a 15-point victory. Villanova has proven itself to be one of the premier teams in the nation, and Syracuse was not able to overcome an off-night from star guard Gerry McNamara, who managed only one field goal and four points in the loss. Syracuse has another tough game Monday night against No. 12 Pittsburgh. The Orange do not come to the Hilltop until Feb. 25 – the second-to-last game of the regular season for both teams.

Cincinnati

Bob Huggins is gone as coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats, but the 2005-06 version of the team is boasting early success in its inaugural Big East season. Balanced offense and good team defense has been the recipe for success, leading to a third-place standing in the Big East in team scoring (78.6 points per game) and second in the league in turnover margin (+5.50). Leading the team is 6-foot-6 senior forward Eric Hicks, at the top of the Big East in blocked shots at 3.6 per game and fourth in the league in rebounding at 9.1 per game. Offensively, he also contributes 14.5 points per game.

Cincinnati is 3-2 in the Big East because of victories against DePaul, Marquette and Rutgers, as well as back-to-back losses against No. 1 UConn and No. 25 Syracuse. The near future holds tough road games against No. 22 Louisville and No. 21 Georgetown, with victories going a long way toward establishing a firm standing in the Big East.

Pittsburgh

The trifecta of unbeaten teams that fell last Saturday includes Duke, Florida and the last perfect team in the Big East, the No. 12 Pittsburgh Panthers. The Panthers fell at Madison Square Garden to the St. John’s Red Storm by a score of 50-55. New York native and Pitt senior point guard Carl Krauser did not have the touch all game long, going a dismal 5-of-17. The key stat for Krauser, however, was that he had more turnovers (four) than assists (three). This season, in addition to Krauser, 7-foot junior center Aaron Gray has been a strong force, leading the Big East in rebounding at 10.3 per game. Overall, Pitt is still off to a fast start, but they are used to this kind of success having gone 18-0 just in 2004 to start the season. Maintaining success will hinge on whether or not the Panthers can beat the top-tier Big East teams like recently crowned No. 1 UConn.

Marquette

Imagine you are Marquette Head Coach Tom Crean. Not only do you have to move from Conference USA to the big, bad, 16-team Big East, but you have to do it with just two returning starters. Imagine facing No. 1 UConn, 2004’s NCAA Champion in your first-ever Big East conference game. Then, imagine winning that game, 94-79, and ending UConn’s unbeaten streak at 11 games.

Crean has met the challenge of the 2006 season head-on. Instead of mourning the loss of Marquette’s third all-time leading scorer, Travis Diener, Crean recruited seven new standout players. Freshmen guards Dominic James and Jerel McNeal have started all 19 games. James is the second-leading scorer on the team, averaging 15.2 points per game, while McNeal leads the team in steals, with 40.

Another neophyte, junior college transfer forward Jamil Lott, boasts a remarkable 16 blocks and has appeared in all 19 games. Senior forward Steve Novak has taken on a leadership role this season, holding down the postposition and leading the team with 16.9 ppg.

Although key losses to Winthrop, Nebraska and No. 23 Wisconsin in non-conference play could hurt later in the season, arquette’s strong schedule will definitely weigh in its favor. Even losses to Cincinnati and No. 9 West Virginia cannot stop the Golden Eagles (14-5, 4-2 Big East). Look for Tom Crean’s young team to make a huge splash in the Big East conference during its inaugural season.

– Compiled by Rachel Abrahams, Arun X. Koottappillil, Philip Meachin, Keith Porcaro, J.P. Uehlinger and Steve Rafferty

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