Big East Burning Question: Who is the Conference’s Best Team?Posted by mlemaire on December 11th, 2012
We admit it. We blatantly stole this topic idea from our colleagues over at the Pac-12 microsite but hopefully they’ll view this as somewhat of an homage to their creative topic ideas rather than lazy theft. Anyway, the season is more than a month old and there is a logjam near the top the Big East conference standings. Cincinnati and Syracuse are the last unbeaten teams, but are they truly the best?
Mike Lemaire: While I recognize that Cincinnati and Syracuse are the last two unbeaten teams in the conference, I still find myself gravitating to Louisville when I think of the conference’s best teams. The Bearcats have played almost nobody of note (does a buzzer-beating win over Alabama count?) and while the Orange throttled a solid San Diego State squad in the season opener, I wonder whether all of that young depth will hold up as the schedule gets more difficult and players start to wear down. Pittsburgh’s depth and incredibly efficient offense make them an excellent team, but their best win is against Lehigh and with the exception of the game against Michigan, their non-conference schedule has been embarrassingly easy (No. 257 in the country, according to KenPom). I recognize that Georgetown’s only loss was to the best team in the country and that Notre Dame has been excellent since losing to Saint Joseph’s, but the Hoyas’ offense is a mess and the Fighting Irish don’t play defense the same way that the Orange and Cardinals do.
Meanwhile, Louisville boasts the nation’s most efficient defense, a top-25 offense in terms of efficiency, and its only loss came against Duke, who has been soundly beating everyone, and they were playing without defensive star Gorgui Dieng. Of course it hurts the Cardinals’ case that one of the best defensive players in the country will miss some time, but coach Rick Pitino expects him back before the new year, and a broken wrist, while probably painful, is not nearly as bad as an ACL or another knee injury. Even without Dieng, the Cardinals have depth on par with Syracuse and their bench is far more battle-tested. If mercurial scoring guard Russ Smith comes back to earth a little, Pitino’s offense might see a bit of a backslide, but until the Orange can sustain their success against better opponents, the Cardinals remain the class of the Big East.
Will Tucker: The Big East seems fairly top-heavy this season, with Louisville and Syracuse differentiating themselves from the pack early. In light of Gorgui Dieng’s hand injury and Michael Carter-Williams developing at an explosive rate, I think Syracuse is the most complete team in the conference right now. Outside of the Cards and Orange, the rest of the league’s top half is a monolith of teams with either glaring weaknesses (e.g., Georgetown’s offense) or schedules too weak to make conclusive judgments (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati). Several Big East squads certainly pass the eyeball test, but the Cards and Orange are the only ones with top-25 adjusted efficiency in both offense and defense.
Both teams boast talented, deep rotations, with seven players posting at least six points per game. Their No. 1 and No. 2-ranked defenses are in great part a product of their ball-hawking guards: the backcourt tandems of Russ Smith/Peyton Siva and Brandon Triche/Carter-Williams are the only pair in the conference that generate more than 5.5 steals per game (5.9 and 5.6, respectively). While Syracuse looks almost unimpeachable right now, I think Louisville has the higher ceiling and will consequently win the Big East. Syracuse is the beneficiary of an ostensibly weak non-conference schedule, and the transcendent point guard play of Carter-Williams seems likely to taper against better competition, given his youth and inexperience.
In Dieng’s absence, the Cardinals took arguably the best team in the country to the wire, and have overwhelmed their last two opponents by a cumulative margin of 179-85. In the process, limited reserves Zach Price and Stephan Van Treese have developed into dependable role players and will continue to contribute after Dieng returns. Even if we’re to presume Russ Smith will plateau soon, a healthy Gorgui Dieng is all that separates Louisville from overtaking Syracuse right now.
Dan Lyons: I think that, for the most part, we are where we expected to be when we took a look at the conference early this season. Right now, Syracuse and Louisville look like the most complete teams in the Big East and among a handful of the best in the nation. Syracuse’s record is unblemished, while Louisville has one loss to a strong Duke team by five points without Gorgui Dieng, who may be the most irreplaceable player on the Cardinals’ roster. Both teams play their own unique suffocating brand of defense and seem to be able to score at will. Both teams legitimately go nine deep and have few weak spots in those deep rotations. Each team has a breakout star at guard, with Michael Carter-Williams averaging a double-double as well as nearly six rebounds and four steals for Syracuse, and Russ Smith scoring over 20 points in under 29 minutes per game for Louisville.
Other teams like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh can certainly play their way into this discussion, especially if the Bearcats continue to be prolific offensively, but right now Syracuse and Louisville seem to be a tier above the rest of the conference, just as we expected. At the moment, I tend to lean towards Syracuse here, as they are healthy and absolutely rolling through their non-conference slate while Louisville has had some close calls with teams like Northern Iowa and Illinois State. However, a healthy Dieng could make all the difference for the Cards. Luckily enough for basketball fans everywhere, the Big East scheduling gods were kind enough to give these two powerhouses a home-and-home series this season, so come January 19 we can more accurately debate who deserves to have their name at the top of the conference.