Monday, January 19, 2009

Schedule Musings -- "Next Fives"

Three weeks into the Big East season, and still only one loss by a Top Nine team to a Bottom Seven team -- Notre Dame at St. John's on Jan. 3.

Marquette came close Saturday night, falling behind by 13 in the second half at Providence. But as we've already discussed, not even angry family members of Friar players were enough to keep Marquette from improving to 5-0 in the Big East.

So what's coming up? What potential pitfalls do the Big East's Power Nine teams face in the coming weeks? Today we're taking a look at the next five games on each of those teams' schedules, and analyzing what may be in store as we lurch toward February.

It all starts tonight with Syracuse traveling to Pitt, but we'll do the "Next Fives" in order of current standings, since these teams have earned that.

Next Five: DePaul/at Notre Dame/Georgetown/at DePaul/at South Florida
Trouble Spot(s): at Notre Dame on Jan. 26.
Breather(s): DePaul twice in four games? Somebody's livin' right in Milwaukee.
Assessment: Nobody ever wins at Notre Dame, and the Hoyas will cause problems inside, but the Eagles should get to 8-2 without any trouble and could win four of these five if they shoot it well enough.

Next Five: at Rutgers/at Syracuse/South Florida/West Virginia/Connecticut
Trouble Spot(s): at Syracuse on Jan. 25, home to UConn on Feb. 2
Breather(s): Home to South Florida on Jan. 28
Assessment: This is no easy stretch, including the trip to Rutgers, which is always harder than it should be. But this team has looked tough enough to handle anything, when it focuses.

Next Five: Villanova/at Notre Dame/at DePaul/Providence/at Louisville
Trouble Spot(s): at Notre Dame on Jan. 24, at Louisville on Feb. 2
Breather(s): at DePaul on Jan. 28
Assessment: Huskies have looked fantastic since losing to Georgetown in the conference opener, but things are about to get rough. Even the home games in this stretch are Villanova (Scottie Reynolds is always a problem) and Providence (which will sneak up on you if you're off your game). UConn should be the conference's best team, and now's their chance to prove it.

Next Five: at Pitt/Louisville/at Providence/West Virginia/at Villanova
Trouble Spot(s): Wow. The whole thing, really. They play the No. 4 and 12 teams in the country this week.
Breather(s): Home to West Virginia on Feb. 4
Assessment: They should win at Providence and beat West Virginia at home, but neither is a gimme. They have practically no chance tonight, and I don't love their matchup with Louisville either. So I say the Villanova game is the difference between going 3-2 and 2-3 over the next five.

Next Five: Syracuse/at West Virginia/at Villanova/Notre Dame/Robert Morris
Trouble Spot(s): at Villanova on Jan. 28, home to Syracuse tonight
Breather(s): Robert Morris? No, it's not a typo.
Assessment: The first four are tough, but there's no reason to think DeJaun Blair and Co. can't handle it. They could have problems with Reynolds on the road, and they'll need to focus on defense to keep Notre Dame from scoring, but the Panthers could come out of this 9-1 in conference play.

Next Five: West Virginia/at Seton Hall/at Cincinnati/at Marquette/Rutgers
Trouble Spot(s): at Marquette on Jan. 31
Breather(s): at Cincinnati on Jan. 28, home to Rutgers on Feb. 3
Assessment: Finally, things ease out, if only a little. West Virginia's no pushover even at home, and the three games that follow are all on the road. Still, having survived the meat grinder of the first three weeks, Hoyas are poised to win four of their next five and improve to 7-3.

Next Five: UConn/Marquette/at Pitt/at Cincinnati/at UCLA
Trouble Spot(s): Yikes. The first three and that last one.
Breather(s): at Cincinnati on Feb. 4
Asssessment: Holy crap. Why didn't the Irish get the out-of-conference home game against Robert Morris? Somebody's got to talk to the schedule-makers here. The first two are real testers of that home winning streak the Irish have going. I say it ends with UConn, but then they hand Marquette their first conference loss. Still, ND is going to have to be careful not to come out of this 4-6 in conference and 13-9 overall. This stretch could be a season-killer if they don't toughen up on D.

Next Five: at UConn/at South Florida/Pitt/Cincinnati/at Providence
Trouble Spot(s): at UConn on Wednesday, home to Pitt on Jan. 28
Breather(s): home to Cincinnati on Super Bowl Sunday.
Assessment: Villanova is generally thought to be the team, of the Power Nine, most likely to slip up and dare the NCAA tournament to leave it out. (I still say it's Notre Dame.) They have a home loss to Louisville and a road loss to Marquette, which are fine, to go with an out-of-conference loss to Texas. So they're in good shape right now, and if they take care of business in this stretch, they'll be at least 5-4 in conference and 17-5 overall. If they slip up in Tampa or Providence, then alarm bells could start going off.

Next Five: at Georgetown/Pitt/St. John's/at Louisville/at Syracuse
Trouble Spot(s): First two and last two, baby. This is as tough as anybody's got it but ND.
Breather(s): home to St. John's on Jan. 28
Assessment: Ken Pomeroy still ranks the Mountaineers No. 12 nationally and fourth in the conference, so there's something in the underlying stats that makes them look better than they have on the court so far. If the Moutaineers are looking for an opportunity to assert themselves and have the rest of the country take note of how good they are, this is it. If they can win three of their next five, they're a real contender. If they look like they did in escaping Marshall and South Florida in their last two games, they're looking at a 1-4 stretch and a 3-6 conference record from which it'll be hard to recover.

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