Six Teams Chase Syracuse In The Big East Race

Syracuse is setting the tone in the Big East and the nation as a whole with their undefeated season, but in the rugged Big East there are six solid teams giving the Orange chase. Today the Notebook breaks down the “Secondary Six” as we’ll call them. The group is comprised of Cincinnati & UConn (who play tonight on ESPN2, 7 PM ET), Georgetown, Marquette, West Virginia and surprising Seton Hall. All six have good overall records and no more than two conference losses. Louisville is 14-5, but with a 2-4 mark in league play, they didn’t qualify for this list. Everyone else is running a little bit over .500. So who represents the biggest challenge to Jim Boeheim’s Orange. On with the show…

UConn (14-3, 4-2): The defending national champs are ranked 13th and look like they haven’t really hit a good rhythm yet. They weren’t sharp in wins over South Florida and Rutgers and were beaten decisively by Seton Hall. The backcourt is very good, as Jeremy Lamb has made the leap from being Kemba Walker’s running mate to being the man himself. Lamb is averaging 18 points a game and hits 50 percent from the floor. Shabazz Napier has succeeded in a similar promotion, from role player last year to #2 option this time and he’s met the test, averaging 14 ppg and dishing seven assists. The Huskies took a blow when they lost three-point shooter Ryan Boatright to eligibility problems earlier this week and they’ll likely need some more scoring punch on the blocks.

Alex Oriahki is a tremendous talent who’s just never blossomed into a good offensive player and he can be inconsistent. Sophomore Tyler Olander gives some rebounding help. The X-factor for Jim Calhoun’s team is 6’11” freshman Andre Drummond, who’s become the best scorer down low. More important, he blocks three shots a game and gives the defense more liberty to take some chances on the perimeter. Overall, I like UConn—a really good backcourt, solid shotblocker and championship experience comprise a good package. But they still have some improving to do.

Georgetown (15-3, 5-2): At #10 in the country, the Hoyas are the highest-ranked team in the Secondary Six. They’ve won their last two games, abusing St. John’s and DePaul by dominating on the glass, and have split out against better competition. John Thompson III has a good inside-out combo. Jason Clark can both distribute and score, while Hollis Thompson is a tough scorer and rebounder at power forward, and he can also step out and nail the three.

Hoya fans have to like the way the pieces are filling in around this group, with 6’10” Henry Sims becoming an all-purpose scorer, rebounder and even passer down low and Markel Starks able to loosen up defenses with the three-ball. Otto Porter fills his role by grabbing seven rebounds a game. I’d pick this team to do great things, but every time I do, is when they fail—notably the 2010 NCAA Tournament when I picked them to go the distance and they lost by 14 to Ohio in the first round. So I’ll spare Hoya Nation another edition of the Flaherty Jinx.

Cincinnati (14-4, 4-1): Cincy is quietly the one team who’s within one game of Syracuse and tonight’s game with UConn is the start of a key schedule stretch, where they also go to West Virginia and then host the Orange next Monday night on ESPN. In the next five days we’ll know what we have with the Bearcats. For now we can say that the backcourt is excellent, with Cashmere Wright running the show, Sean Kilpatrick hitting from behind the arc and Dion Dixon providing further scoring punch. The trio’s skills complement each other and all average in double digits.

The Bearcats have a good option down low too with Yancy Gates, the 6’9” senior who’s known for showing flashes of talent that don’t become consistent, making him synonymous with the entire program. Gates is posting a 12/9 year thus far. His presence, plus the guards makes Cincy a threat in any given game, but head coach Mick Cronin needs to find Gates more help down low if this team is to survive the long Big East haul and stay near the top.

Marquette (15-4, 4-2): MU’s won three straight, including wins over Pitt and Louisville and with the upcoming schedule being at Providence, South Florida and at Villanova, a 7-2 conference record is well within striking distance. But if you think Cincinnati has frontcourt depth problems, that’s nothing compared to Marquette. Davante Gardner, a sophomore still developing, is the only one getting any kind of minutes in the post. His numbers, 10 points/6 rebounds aren’t bad, but there is absolutely no way this team keeps winning in this conference with this little material up front.

Darius Johnson-Odom scores 18 ppg in the backcourt and 6’6” swingman Jae Crowder works at playing bigger than he is, to help out Gardner. Crowder is a solid player who can match up with anyone in the Big East, but there’s precious little help after that. A salute to Marquette for their nice start, but the guess here is that they’re barely hanging on to the NCAA bubble when it’s all over (I should note that I’m entirely free of bias here—I grew up going to Marquette games and eventually jumped ship and became a Wisconsin fan).

West Virginia (13-5, 4-2): Two years removed from a team that contended for the Big East title and then made a Final Four run, Bob Huggins is again producing a competitive team after low expectations marked the preseason. The frontcourt, with Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilich is potent, combining for 31 points and 18 rebounds a game. Jones excels at popping out for the three-point shot, giving the Mountaineer offense an added dimension. Daryl Bryant is a solid scorer and leader in the backcourt. Like many Big East teams, WVA could use some depth, but this is a good core three to start with, giving Huggins strength in each area of the game. Another thing to like about West Virginia is blowout potential—they’ve not just beaten Rutgers(twice) and Villanova, they’ve hammered them, and WVA knocked off Georgetown by double-digits.

Seton Hall (15-3, 4-2): The Pirates are the surprise entry in the group and we do need to note that it’s been done with a relatively soft schedule, with the last three games coming against Providence, DePaul and South Florida…and the Hall dropped the last one to South Florida. But they beat UConn and West Virginia by an average margin of 14.5 points, so they remain an interesting team as they head into a schedule stretch of Notre Dame, Louisville, at Marquette and at UConn that will take them up through Super Bowl weekend and tell us what to expect in February.

Senior forward Herb Pope has finally emerged from being a steady rebounder and inconsistent scorer, to doing both well and is averaging a 17/11 line, while Jordan Theodore owns the perimeter averaging 16 ppg and eight assists, marking him one of the best playmakers in the country. But the big emergence has come from sophomore swingman Fuquan Edwin, who’s come a solid third option in the offense and is hitting the boards. That’s a good and well-balance team, and I like the Pirates to at least stay in the mix all year and get to the NCAA Tournament.