With big changes from last season, a new opportunity for the Big East’s also-rans

Hollis Thompson scores against St. John's. (guhoyas.com)
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As the Georgetown Hoyas entered their locker room at Madison Square Garden at halftime on Sunday, they'd played, by any measure, a lousy first half against host St. John's.

Georgetown had shot just 31 percent from the field, and 22 percent from three-point range. The team's best shooter, Hollis Thompson, was 0-for-6. No one on the normally flowing Hoya offense had more than one assist, and their total of five was less than their total of six turnovers.

By all rights, on the road in the nation's toughest conference, Georgetown should have been behind by double digits. Yet the Hoyas held a 25-19 lead, and went on to bury the St. John’s, 69-49.

This is a familiar story in 2011-12 for a conference that placed 11 of its 16 teams—easily an NCAA record—in the tournament last year, and usually places many of its top teams among the national heavyweights.

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Thanks to both a lack of the same depth as past years, and a distinct winnowing of true national powers in the conference, the Big East is more wide open than it has been in nearly a decade. So programs that have been buried in past seasons now have legitimate aspirations to finish in the top four. The reward for such placement is a double-bye that means just three victories at the Big East tournament earns an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

St. John's is a particularly good example of this year-over-year change. Last season at this time, the Red Storm were recording consciousness-raising wins over Georgetown, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and most notably, Duke. This season, thanks to graduating most of last year's stars, along with some academic ineligibility problems and transfers by this season's highly-regarded freshman class, St. John's dropped to 8-9 on the season and 2-4 in the Big East with Sunday's loss.

Moe Harkless, a good bet to win freshman of the year in the Big East, shot 9-for-16 on the way to 21 points and 10 rebounds. The rest of the team shot 8-for-38 combined.

“He's tough,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said with a respectful chuckle during his post-game press conference following Sunday's victory. “He can score a lot of different ways. Glad he got in foul trouble, because he's a load to handle.”

Left unsaid was the fact that once Harkless fouled out with 5:15 to play, St. John's just didn't have the offensive firepower to climb back into the game. Second-leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison, who shot 1-for-12 Sunday, is just a 36 percent shooter overall this season. And the team's third-leading scorer, Nurideen Lindsey, transferred late in the first semester.

That lack of talent depth, once characteristic of the teams at the very bottom of the Big East, can now be found throughout the conference. With two conference victories, St. John's currently finds itself ahead of both Providence, a team with even less depth than St. John's, and DePaul, a team that is largely built around one N.B.A. prospect (Cleveland Melvin) and one scoring point guard (Brandon Young). That isn't out of step with recent seasons for either program.

St. John’s also leads Villanova, 1-5 in conference, and Pittsburgh, 0-5 in conference. The Wildcats have made the NCAA tournament for seven consecutive seasons, a streak almost certain to end this year, while Pittsburgh, the defending regular-season Big East champion and number-one seed in last year's NCAA tournament, hasn't registered a single conference victory yet.

The net result of such falls is significant, at the top and at the bottom. Last year, the Big East placed 11 of its programs in the nation's top 42 in Ratings Percentage Index, a computer-generated ranking system taking wins, strength of schedule and other factors into account. This season, just seven programs rank in the nation's top 39, with the eighth best, Pittsburgh, at 86 and dropping fast.

And the number of easy victories has risen considerably. Only DePaul last season ranked outside of the top 86 in RPI from the Big East. This season, Pitt is among nine conference teams at 86 or below.

With fewer games in the sure-loss category for middling teams, and more games in the likely-win slots, the results have produced the parity one would expect. Other than top-ranked Syracuse, which is the exception to the Big East parity rule this year (and likely the best team in the country), every Big East team but Cincinnati has two league losses already. And the Bearcats, who have faced an easy conference schedule so far, will likely log that second defeat shortly, with their next three games at Connecticut, at West Virginia, and then hosting Syracuse.

But take Seton Hall, for instance, a team largely intact from last season. The Pirates went 7-11 in a remarkably difficult Big East last year. This year, they are 4-2 already, and are favorites to reach the .500 conference record they'll probably need to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005-2006.

Then there's South Florida, a deeply flawed team that already posted victories over Seton Hall, Villanova and Rutgers. With seven of its next nine games against St. John's, DePaul, Villanova, and both Providence and Pittsburgh twice, the Bulls stand a good chance of playing themselves into NCAA tournament consideration, if not a league finish well above anything the program has experienced since joining the Big East.

And if that's the case for teams like Seton Hall and South Florida, imagine the opportunity for Georgetown. The Hoyas lost their starting backcourt from last season, Chris Wright and Austin Freeman, to graduation. But a talented group of freshman, backing up the scoring duo of Thompson and Jason Clark, has the Hoyas in the championship mix during what most expected to be a rebuilding year.

Thompson gamely talked up the challenge ahead.

“Every game's big in this league,” Thompson stressed on Sunday. “Wins on the road in this league are hard to come by. Every night's a dogfight. So this was a big game in that regard.”

But with their next three at DePaul, home against Rutgers and at Pittsburgh, the Hoyas have a breather before facing Connecticut and Syracuse within the span of a week. Whether such in-season breaks can help the Big East teams that do make the Field of 68 advance further is questionable. Last year, just two of the 11 made the Sweet 16, though one of those two, Connecticut, went on to win the championship.

The way the Big East looks now, last year seems like a long, long time ago.