01/07/2010 2:42 PM ET
Wild, wild Big East
Dominant teams may not emerge this season
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
Jamie Dixon's Pittsburgh team wasn't a popular pick to do well in the Big East, but it's off to a strong start. (AP)

Coming off its Final Four appearance last season, Villanova was picked No. 1 in the Big East preseason coaches' poll.

Marquette, which lost three key seniors to graduation, chimed in at No. 12.

Yet when the two teams played Saturday in Milwaukee, the Wildcats eked out a 74-72 victory thanks to a Scottie Reynolds jumper in the lane with 18.1 seconds left.

For Villanova coach Jay Wright, that outcome is Exhibit A that the Big East is as balanced this year as it has been in a while.

"We just played Marquette and they're as good as us," Wright, whose team hosts the Golden Eagles again on Saturday, said Thursday on the Big East conference call. "There is very little separation."

A year ago, the Big East was dominated by a handful of elite teams.

Louisville (16-2), Pittsburgh (15-3) and UConn (15-3) combined to go 46-8 in the league and, in an unprecedented development, each of those teams earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Villanova finished 13-5 and made the Final Four after upsetting Pitt in the Elite Eight on a last-second shot by Reynolds.

While Villanova, Syracuse and West Virginia remain the favorites to win the league this season, there is much more parity in 2010 than there was in 2009.

Cincinnati, chosen seventh in the poll, beat a UConn team selected third, on two last-second foul shots by Brooklyn's Lance Stephenson.

Pittsburgh, picked ninth in the preseason poll, knocked off the previously unbeaten Orange, who were picked sixth. The Panthers then went into Cincinnati and beat the Bearcats, 74-71.

After two brutal losses to Villanova and West Virginia, Marquette downed Georgetown, 62-59, Wednesday night. The Hoyas were picked fifth in the Big East.

"When you looked last year, there wasn't the balance," said Providence coach Keno Davis, whose team was picked 13th and has already beaten a St. John's team chosen 11th on the Red Storm's home floor.

"You could name three, four, five teams that really were very, very talented and had a chance to make long runs in the NCAA tournament.

"Right now you're finding those [bottom] teams have a lot of confidence. The difference between a team picked 12th or 13th versus a team picked second or third isn't as great as it was last year."

New York-area teams struggling: Although there is greater parity in the league this year, the New York metropolitan area teams have struggled out of the gate.

After Wednesday's games Rutgers (0-2), Seton Hall (0-3) and St. John's (0-2) are a combined 0-7 in league play.

Rutgers was blistered by No. 8 West Virginia, 86-52, in Morgantown, and Seton Hall played No. 13 UConn down to the wire before falling, 71-63, in Storrs, Conn.

Although the season is still young, remember the fateful words of Yogi Berra, who once said, "It gets late early out there."

"The bottom line we need to do is, we need to get a win, period," Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez said Tuesday, before the UConn game. "If it's not Wednesday night against UConn, then we gotta try and get it Saturday night against Cincinnati."

In an effort to jump-start his team against UConn, Gonzalez gave junior Keon Lawrence his first start at point guard and sat senior Eugene Harvey, who had started 12 of the previous 13 games.

Lawrence shot 2-for-11 from the field and finished with four points, four assists and three assists in 24 minutes.

This development marks quite a turnaround for Lawrence, who was reinstated Dec. 19 after being suspended indefinitely for driving the wrong way on the Garden State Parkway and causing a two-car accident.

A former star under Dan Hurley at St. Benedict's Prep, Harvey had been averaging 8.9 points, 5.3 assists and 2.8 turnovers with a 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio.

"We felt like we were getting off to a slow start, and a big part of it was turnovers," Gonzalez said. "And not getting us in our offense and not being in the flow. And I wanted to change some things up. We wanted to get Keon going. It's not that Keon is our most talented point guard. It's a tough decision to make because Eugene's a very good player and he's a senior but we gave it a shot and we liked the way we started last night. We stayed with it a lot and we thought Keon was better defensively with guys like Kemba Walker and [Jerome] Dyson. And then we went with Jordan Theodore."

Gonzalez, whose team has dropped four straight games and five of six overall, said he wasn't sure if he would start Harvey Saturday at home against Cincinnati.

"I'm not sure," he said. "I'm not going to give up on him but I do like what I saw. I thought that Jordan and Keon are the defensive quickness that we want for the future."

Mason Jr. to make season debut: St. John's head coach Norm Roberts said fifth-year senior forward Anthony Mason Jr. would make his season debut Saturday at Louisville. Mason Jr. has been out all season with a hamstring injury.

"We're going to put him out there and see how it goes," Roberts said. "How many minutes he'll play and how he integrates himself into the team remains to be seen."

Roberts also said junior point guard Malik Boothe (strained groin) would play Saturday. Boothe missed the Providence game.

Yarou returns for Nova: Villanova freshman center Mouphtaou Yarou returned to action Wednesday after missing the last 11 games following a diagnosis of the hepatitis B virus. He played 14 minutes and finished with 4 points and 2 rebounds on 2 of 4 shooting. He also had one blocked shot.

Wright said the big man from Benin in West Africa was "nowhere near 100 percent" and that his return to form is "going to be a gradual thing."

Still, with the 6-foot-10 Yarou in the lineup, Wright can go smaller and quicker at the other four positions.

"With a shot blocker like him in the back and a big rebounder, you can be small at the other positions," Wright said. "If you play small at the five, you need the three and four to be a little bit bigger. That is one area that helps."

"The other area is when you play a really big man like [DePaul's 6-11, 255-pound Mac] Koshwal had 17 and 11. We used all three guys [Yarou, Maurice Sutton and Antonio Pena] on him. Mouph really allows us to defend good big men in our conference one on one."

Villanova junior shooting guard Corey Stokes (hamstring) missed Wednesday's win over DePaul, but should be back for Marquette.

"I hope we have him for Saturday. I don't think that's overly optimistic," Wright said.

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com and follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AdamZagoria.
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