Tuesday sets up to be an intriguing evening, complete with some important non-conference games along with conference play in some leagues getting underway. The Big Ten will have its first conference games on Tuesday with title contender Purdue visiting an Iowa team that looks to be the worst in the conference. But Iowa City is a dangerous place to visit so expect Matt Painter's squad to be completely focused on this one instead of looking ahead to their home game against West Virginia on Friday.
It may not feel like it to the respective conferences, but it has been over six years since the ACC raided the Big East, taking with them Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to reach the mandatory 12 team minimum for a conference football championship game. The Big East, caught flat-footed by the move, promptly raided Conference USA, which in turn raided the Western Athletic Conference, which then invaded the Sun Belt Conference – leading to one of the most dramatic re-alignments in college sports since the expansion of the “major” conferences themselves in the early 90’s.
With a lot of talent leaving the Big East, a lot of people felt the conference would be in a down year. However, it currently has the best record of any power-6 conference and has a great shot at putting 7+ teams in the NCAA tournament.
There was no mistaking what the big game of the night was on Thursday with a pair of unexpected unbeatens facing off in Tampa on the final night of the SEC/Big East Invitational. Both Syracuse and Florida have posted impressive early-season results, showing the pundits who didn't expect much of them in the preseason that they've got the ability to have an impact nationally. And with neither team expected to be this good this early it was fitting that an unexpected source of offense proved to be the difference in Syracuse's 85-73 victory.
The best thing about the proliferation of these conference challenges is the number of big-time games it brings to the non-conference season. The SEC/Big East Invitational features two of the pleasant surprises of November in #10 Florida and #7 Syracuse. Although I was higher on the Gators than most pundits in the preseason, not many expected them to defeat Michigan State and be undefeated at this point. As for Syracuse, the Orange dominated the NIT Season Tip-Off, handling California and North Carolina with ease.
If you're looking at Thursday's schedule from a national perspective there really isn't a reason to miss out on Syracuse taking on Florida in the SEC/Big East Invitational in Tampa. The two leagues split on Wednesday night in New York and the same could occur on Thursday with DePaul/Mississippi State being the opener. The Blue Demons have become a far more efficient club on offense and the departure of Dar Tucker (went pro but wasn't drafted), who dominated the ball last season, likely had something to do with the improvement.
Nine months removed from becoming the first conference to earn three #1 seeds in a NCAA Tournament, the Big East is looking to break its own record and send as many as nine teams to the Dance come March.
Through November, the conference has three teams ranked in the top 10, with seven ranked teams overall and sporting a 79-12 record.
For the first half, the championship game of the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament between North Carolina and Syracuse was a competitive affair that promised to go down to the wire. That's when Syracuse flipped a switch, going on a 22-1 run that removed any doubt in regards to the result and ultimately winning 87-71 in front of a pro-Syracuse crowd at Madison Square Garden. Wesley Johnson scored twenty-five points and added eight rebounds while Andy Rautins posted one of the better overall stat lines of his career with 11 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and 7 steals.