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ND Women’s Basketball: Conference complications

Jay Fitzpatrick | Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Big East is out to prove that it is the best conference in the NCAA, and it is doing it in force. Every team but Providence (7-11) is above .500 so far this season, and the conference boasts five teams ranked in the Associated Press top 25 – including top-ranked Connecticut. No Big East game is a given, especially on the road, and each win is even more important this season as the top four seeds get two bye games in the Big East tournament.

Louisville (19-1, 6-0)

By virtue of having played more games than Connecticut, the Cardinals are currently on top of the table in the Big East, having just beaten Cincinnati 66-50 Tuesday night. The lone blemish on the No. 7 Cardinals was an 85-82 upset at the hands of Nevada-Reno on Nov. 29. The Cardinals still have the brunt of their conference schedule left, including trips to UConn, Notre Dame, Marquette and a rematch at the Bearcats all still to come.

UConn (18-0, 4-0)

The best team in the country isn’t the best in the conference standings, but only as a result of scheduling. The Huskies have played fewer conference games than Louisville, in part because they played in one of the biggest out-of-conference matchups of the season: a 1-vs-2 game last Monday at North Carolina. Connecticut crushed the Tar Heels 88-58, snapping a 31-game home win streak for North Carolina and proving they are the best team in the country beyond a shadow of the doubt. UConn also has arguably the best player in college basketball, sophomore forward Maya Moore, who averages 29.2 points per game on 53.4 percent shooting.

Notre Dame (15-2, 4-1)

The Irish remain alone in third place in the league after Cincinnati’s loss Wednesday night, but could be worse off if not for clutch play against St. John’s this weekend. Notre Dame has won both close games and had blowouts in the conference season, but still have to travel to Pittsburgh and Storrs. Notre Dame has a chance to make a statement in the league in the coming week with a matchup with No. 21 Rutgers at the Joyce Center.

Pittsburgh (13-4, 3-2)

The Panthers jumped up to the fourth spot in the conference after the Cincinnati loss, despite the loss of all-Big East center Marcedes Walker, who graduated last May. Guard Shevonte Zellous has picked up the scoring for Pitt so far this season, averaging 24.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. The Panthers showed how good they could be in their last game out, when they crushed Seton Hall 76-40 on the road. (Just for the record, the Irish only beat the Pirates 66-60 on that same court.)

Cincinnati (13-5, 3-2)

Cincinnati has only two losses so far, but has avoided playing most of the big dogs in the league. The Bearcats have beaten up on Seton Hall, West Virginia and Villanova in their wins, but lost to Louisville and last year’s surprise of the season Syracuse. Cincy avoids the Huskies thanks to scheduling, but has a three-game road trip later this season where it have to travel to Pitt and Rutgers back-to-back. A solid performance in those games could help put the Bearcats over the top and get them the second bye game.

Rutgers (10-5, 3-2)

How the mighty have fallen. The national runner-up of a year ago and a No. 2-seed last season, the Scarlet Knights have already lost twice in conference, at Syracuse and at Louisville. Even though every coach in the conference will say it is tough to win on the road, C. Vivian Stringer should know that her team needs to win games like those if they want to remain among the elites. Rutgers has only one player in double figures – guard Epiphany Prince with 20.8. They don’t score much, but the Scarlet Knights also have a stifling defense, allowing only 52.5 points per game.

Georgetown (12-5, 2-2)

The Hoyas have see-sawed in their conference season so far this season, alternating wins with big losses. Georgetown has struggled against the two top tier teams it has played (Notre Dame and Louisville) and will likely fall quickly in the standings in the next few weeks: They play Marquette, Pitt and UConn in their next four games. Those three are all at home, but with how the Hoyas have played so far, they will be lucky to go 1-2 in those games.

Marquette (11-7, 2-2)

The Golden Eagles are another team looking to find their way in the league. They started off by beating USF before falling on the road to Seton Hall. Marquette then snapped Notre Dame’s win streak with a 75-65 victory Jan. 13, but then lost to Rutgers by 23 five days later. Marquette is lucky to avoid any long road trips this season, and has the luxury of playing its road games against some of the other middling teams in the conference.

Villanova (2-2, 10-7)

The Wildcats are just where they should be on paper, beating West Virginia and Providence and losing to Rutgers and Cincinnati. They have a chance to make a statement game against the Irish on Saturday to improve their league standing and postseason opportunities. Otherwise, Villanova has a chance to win out at home (Providence, St. John’s, DePaul, Louisville and USF) and get into the top half of the Big East bracket.

DePaul (14-5, 2-3)

The Blue Demons have had to replace their leading scorer from a year ago, forward Allie Quigley, and have done so with some ease. The team has three players averaging in double figures this season: Deirdre Naughton with 17.3 points per game, Natasha Williams with 15.4 and Keisha Hampton with 10.4. DePaul already has one big win on its NCAA resume, a 69-62 victory at Pittsburgh.

Syracuse (13-5, 2-3)

The Orange have one of the more prolific offenses in the country, averaging 71.1 points per game with four players in double figures. Sophomore guard Erica Morrow leads the way with 17.7 points per game. The Orange started their conference schedule strong with wins against Rutgers and Cincinnati before falling at home to Seton Hall and getting doubled up by UConn.

South Florida and Seton Hall have matching 2-4 conference records, and have gotten them in very similar fashions, beating only other teams in the bottom half of the bracket. With every team making the Big East tournament this season, there is less pressure on these teams to step up their games in February in order to make a postseason appearance, but seeding still helps as both will try to turn things around quickly.

St. John’s, Providence and West Virginia are the current league cellar dwellers, but that is not to say they are all bad teams. St. John’s played the Irish close until the final whistle, refusing to play dead, and the Mountaineers are, if at all possible, a good 0-5 team in the Big East. Four of their losses are against the top half of the league and the final one was a two-point squeaker at Villanova. Top-to-bottom, the Big East is a solid league, where even the worst team in the league (WVU) boasts a winning record (11-7).