The Big East Conference once again boasts a bevy of teams destined to play deep into March. Members of the conference make up more than a quarter of the current AP Top 25 Poll, as seven Big East squads are among the nationally ranked.
We've come to expect an avalanche of exciting moments from this conference each season. Those expectations continue to be met this winter, as the Big East schedule has featured a series of stunning upsets and a steady dose of superb individual performances.
Through a month of conference competition, teams have taken turns playing the role of "best team in the Big East." Any time pundits seem ready to anoint one program as the conference powerhouse, things have been shaken up.
Louisville spent time atop the national rankings. Syracuse climbed to No. 3 at one point. Meanwhile, teams like Marquette and Georgetown continue to assert themselves as conference title contenders with recent strong play.
There's always so much at stake during the second-half stretch of Big East regular-season action, leading into the unpredictably wild postseason conference tournament.
Let's examine which teams have risen to the occasion so far this season and those in danger of becoming irrelevant. We hand out midseason grades based on the current state of each program.
Coach Stan Heath has seen his team fall far from a 2012 NCAA tourney appearance.
Current record: 10-11 (1-8 in Big East)
Expectations were elevated in Tampa after South Florida picked up its first NCAA tournament victory last March. Sure, the Bulls lost a few key players from last season's team but not many believed the Bulls stock would plummet so sharply.
USF is 1-8 against conference foes after finishing fourth in the Big East last season and has won just one game on the road. Of the Bulls' last nine losses, only two have come courtesy of an eight-point margin or less.
Leading scorer Victor Rudd averages less than 11 points per contest. Without a go-to guy on the floor, the Bulls offense has sputtered.
The Blue Demons continue to struggle in conference play.
Current record: 10-11 (1-7 in Big East)
It's been another rough road for DePaul, which can't seem to pick itself up off the conference doormat. The Blue Demons haven't won at home since Dec. 22 and this appears to be another lost season under head coach Oliver Purnell, who was signed away from Clemson in 2010 to resurrect a struggling program.
DePaul is now 5-39 in Big East play under Purnell. The Blue Demons were embarrassed at Pittsburgh on Jan. 26, suffering a 38-point defeat.
The team has been more competitive lately, losing its last two contents in overtime (versus St. John's and Notre Dame). DePaul's December win at Arizona State and 9-3 start are a distant memory at this point.
The Blue Demons' 29 percent shooting from three-point territory tells part of the story.
An inconsistent offensive focus plagues the Pirates.
Current record: 13-9 (2-7 in Big East)
Seton Hall was picked to finish 14th in the preseason Big East Coaches' poll. So far the Pirates have looked the part.
The team is averaging 16 turnovers per game and has too often been out-muscled inside (with the exception of Eugene Teague). Seton Hall is currently on a three-game slide that includes a 22-point loss at Georgetown.
The road doesn't get any easier for the Pirates, who face four ranked teams in the next six games. Seton Hall's lack of consistent post play routinely sets the team back.
Mike Rice's team has cooled off considerably.
Current record: 12-8 (3-6 in Big East)
Rutgers began its Big East schedule 2-1, including a win versus nationally ranked Pittsburgh. The modestly successful start excited Scarlet Knights fans, who have long waited for the team to break its lengthy string of disappointing seasons.
This team has taken considerable steps backward since then, losing four straight and falling to 11th in conference standings. Rutgers fell to St. John's by 12 at home on Jan. 12 in a game it desperately needed to win in order to salvage any semblance of momentum.
Rutgers followed that loss with consecutive road defeats at Connecticut and Cincinnati. Throw in the fact that head coach Mike Rice served a three-game suspension handed down by the university earlier this season and this season is on the verge of becoming another year of unfulfilled promise in Piscataway.
Bryce Cotton (11) is averaging 21 points per game.
Current record: 11-11 (3-7 in Big East)
Providence has already proved many of its rivals' coaches wrong. The Friars finished last in the preseason Big East Coaches' Poll but a pair of victories over Villanova have quickly improved the program's reputation.
Led by dynamic scorer Bryce Cotton (21.4 points per game, 41 percent three-point shooting), Providence is picking up its game. Since starting 0-3 in conference play, the Friars have won at Villanova and Seton Hall.
Even defeats are looking more respectable. Providence lost at Connecticut in overtime and put a scare into visiting Syracuse during a 72-66 loss on Jan. 9.
Jay Wright and the Wildcats have been up and down all season.
Current record: 13-9 (4-5 in Big East)
Villanova owns wins over two third-ranked teams. The Wildcats have also been swept by Providence and trounced at home by Pittsburgh.
The result of balancing those two realities is a C grade.
Coach Jay Wright's program is well on its way to becoming a team on the March Madness "bubble." Aside from consecutive headline-grabbing victories against Louisville and Syracuse, this has hardly looked like a squad capable of catching fire for a significant period of time.
Losses to Pitt and Notre Dame have cost Villanova dearly in conference standings.
Kevin Ollie hopes to build something special at UConn.
Current record: 15-5 (5-3 in Big East)
Connecticut continues to feel its way through this post-Calhoun era. The Huskies are currently riding a three-game win streak, including a pair of overtime wins over Providence and South Florida.
Under head coach Kevin Ollie, Connecticut has been a balanced squad (four players average double-digit scoring). The Huskies are 10-1 at home and picked up a significant January road win at Notre Dame.
Jack Cooley anchors a veteran Notre Dame squad.
Current record: 18-4 (6-3 in Big East)
The Fighting Irish put in as much effort as any team in the Big East, while displaying lethal shooting range on the perimeter and commanding post play at times. Consistency has been the primary issue.
Notre Dame dropped home matchups against Georgetown and Connecticut. The Fighting Irish won't face either team again until perhaps the postseason conference tournament.
Versatile forward Jack Cooley is Notre Dame's catalyst and the senior is surrounded by a capable supporting cast. The Fighting Irish have faced just two ranked teams so far, so the jury is still out about how this group will handle itself against an elite lineup.
Led by D'Angelo Harrison, the Red Storm are on the rise.
Current record: 14-8, 6-4 in Big East
St. John's has already matched its conference win total of a year ago by beating the teams it should beat. Though the Red Storm are still lacking a signature win, this is a squad on the rise.
St. John's season has featured a five-game Big East win streak and victories over two ranked opponents (Notre Dame and Cincinnati). The Red Storm suffered a season sweep to Georgetown and let a matchup at Villanova slip away in overtime, but remain in position to build a solid NCAA tourney resume.
Freshman forward Jakarr Sampson has been a big addition to St. John's lineup. He ranks second on the team in scoring (14.4 ppg) and leads in rebounds.
Pittsburgh survived the toughest stretch of its schedule.
Current record: 18-5 (6-4 in Big East)
Pittsburgh is certainly a battle-tested bunch. The Panthers have faced five ranked opponents, tops in the Big East.
This isn't a flashy team and lacks an elite scorer, but it has proven its ability to clamp down on defense and is vastly improved from last season (5-13 in the Big East). Pittsburgh surged past Syracuse on Saturday and has now won four of five games.
The Panthers' four conference losses have come by a total of 24 points, so this squad has been competitive throughout the season.
The Cardinals cruised until a surprising three-game losing streak.
Current record: 18-4 (6-3 in Big East)
Louisville is always a dangerous team under Rick Pitino. This year's version appeared to be on cruise control until it hit a three-game skid in late January.
Peyton Siva and Russ Smith team up to form one of the country's most experienced backcourts. The Cardinals are a veteran-laden group so it wasn't surprising to see the team spring out to a 16-1 record.
Three straight conference losses to Villanova, Syracuse and Georgetown have tempered title talk a bit in Louisville. But the team appears to be back on track with wins over Pittsburgh and Marquette.
Cincinnati may be the conference's most improved team.
Current record: 18-4 (6-3 in Big East)
The Bearcats have won five of six contests. The only loss during that stretch was a 57-55 nail-biter at Syracuse.
That should give you an indication of how well this team is playing at the moment. After starting the season 12-0, Cincinnati hit a rough patch in early January but has since righted the ship.
An overtime victory over Marquette on Jan. 19 provided the Bearcats with another psychological test. To this point, Cincinnati's mental toughness is impressive.
Georgetown's defense has dominated lately.
Current record: 16-4 (6-3 in Big East)
The Hoyas play defense better than any team in the conference and have been able to absolutely shut down half-court offenses this season. Georgetown is currently riding a four-game Big East win streak, surrendering 56 points or less in each game during the span.
The Hoyas held Notre Dame to just 47 points in a Jan. 21 road victory.
Sophomore Otto Porter continues to develop. The 6'8" scorer can score from just about anywhere on the court.
An aggressive defense and savvy offensive play can take you far in the NCAA in the tournament. Georgetown appears to have both covered quite well.
Will Marquette emerge among conference's elite.
Current record: 15-5 (6-2 in Big East)
The Golden Eagles are unbeaten at home (13-0) and continue to exceed initial expectations. Marquette was picked to finish seventh in the preseason Big East Coaches' Poll but currently finds itself tied for the conference lead in February.
The team's Jan. 12 road victory at Pittsburgh provided an early statement and Marquette sustained momentum throughout January. A 19-point defeat at Louisville on Sunday serves as a reminder that this upstart team still has plenty of room for improvement if it truly wants to make noise in March.
Junior forward Davante Gardner has been steadfast inside for the Golden Eagles. He's on his way to shooting better than 56 percent from the field for the third season in a row.
Not many teams can match the depth of Syracuse's lineup.
Current record: 18-3 (6-2 in Big East)
Syracuse is 3-0 against ranked opponents this seen and looks like a front-runner to repeat as Big East regular-season champion. The Orange lead the conference in scoring (76 points per game) and feature a deep rotation.
This team could have been in line for an A+ grade had it not been for recent stumbles. Syracuse has lost its last two games on the road at Villanova and Pittsburgh.
Senior guard Brandon Triche has been through a lot during his days in orange and white. His veteran leadership and clutch play could spearhead Syracuse to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Michael Carter-Williams is one of the best ball distributors in college basketball.
A March 2 rematch with Louisville looms large as the most important game remaining on the Big East regular-season schedule.