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Top of the Arc - January 23, 2009

Jan. 23, 3:30 p.m.: As Georgetown has learned the past two weeks, this year’s Big East is strong enough to humble any team. The Hoyas have faced four of the RPI’s top 14 the past two weeks (including non-conference foe Duke) and are preparing to take their 3-3 conference record on the road for three consecutive games. No one is saying Georgetown won’t make the tournament – the Hoyas have played the nation’s toughest and have an RPI of 10 – but things will get interesting if they can’t two of the next three games, which include games at Seton Hall, Cincinnati and Marquette.

Regardless of what ACC coaches say, the Big East has nine teams with solid NCAA tournament resumes. Tournament hopefuls need to beat up on the conference’s bottom seven, which includes the triumvirate from the New York metro area, and steal a few games against other teams in the top nine.

The top nine teams are starting to fall into one of three tiers. There are the legitimate national title contenders, a category that includes talented Connecticut, bruising Pittsburgh and a resuscitated Louisville team that has overcome non-conference struggles.

Next comes a group of three teams that have outside chances to reach the Final Four: Notre Dame, Syracuse and Georgetown. The Irish has played a handful of lightweight opponents during non-conference play and has been stumbling at times in recent weeks. Syracuse hosts Louisville on Sunday in a game that will determine whether the Orange is worthy of inclusion in the top tier. And last night’s decisive loss to West Virginia should give Georgetown fans some pause.

The third tier includes Marquette, West Virginia and Villanova. Marquette is 5-0 in the Big East, but consider its final five games of the regular season: at Georgetown, Connecticut, at Louisville, at Rutgers, Syracuse. It could theoretically lose all five. West Virginia earned its best win of the season last night, but the Mountaineers have already been blown out by Marquette. And Villanova’s resume is the weakest of the top nine in the Big East; the only top 50 victory came against Temple.

The Big East’s 10th-strongest team, Providence, seems fully capable of beating every Big East lightweight and losing to all the conference’s tournament teams, which won’t be enough to get the Friars into the NCAAs.

By Eric Prisbell  |  January 23, 2009; 3:27 PM ET
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