So where does USF fit in Big East standings?
With USF's men's basketball team rolling to seven wins in a row, there's a question I've been asked a lot: How does this success translate to the Bulls being competitive in the Big East?
Based on the first month of play, it's certainly reasonable to think USF -- picked last in the Big East by league coaches -- is in position to finish in the conference's top 12, which would mean a trip to the Big East tournament and potentially a spot in the NIT, arguably the two most reasonable goals to show significant improvement in Stan Heath's first season. Anything less is too dismissive of their early wins; anything more is getting way ahead of things.
Just to give a rough estimate to the difficulty of opponents, I'm going to use the current RPIs as calculated by realtimeRPI.com -- lots of weird ratings in there, but I'm just using it as a model.
The Bulls are 7-3 with an RPI of 71, which ranks them 11th out of the 16 Big East teams (the conference has 13 teams in RealtimeRPI's top 80). USF could easily be 10-3 when Big East play starts in January -- it's safe to say St. Francis (275) and Winston-Salem State (292) are easy home wins, and Wake Forest (130) won't be easy but hasn't beaten a team with an RPI higher than 232. Being 10-3 going into the Big East means the Bulls could go 7-11 in conference play and still make the league tournament and be 17-14 going to Madison Square Garden, where one upset win might get them into the NIT field. (Only two Big East teams that made the conference tournament missed the postseason last spring: 11th-seeded St. John's (16-15) and 12th-seeded Connecticut, which went 17-14. Both lost in the first round at MSG.)
First, that loss to Rhode Island doesn't look bad right now, in that URI is now 10-1 and has also beaten Providence and just edged Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. Records can be misleading early in the season, when schedules are full of cupcakes. If you consider only a team's record against teams in the RPI top 200, USF is 5-3, and only Pitt (7-0) and Syracuse (6-3) have more wins. Using the same criteria, Georgetown (3-0), Marquette (4-1), West Virginia (4-1), Villanova (3-1), Louisville (3-2) and Connecticut (5-2) would fill out my projected top half of the Big East, so you're left with eight teams battling for four spots in the league tournament.
Of those eight, as a reference point, we'll first lay out USF, whose wins include FSU (52), UCF (148) and UAB (155), with losses to URI (19), Cleveland State (70) and Buffalo (131).
Best of the eight? Providence has an impressive RPI of 16, with wins against Arkansas (10), Boston College (37) and Temple (78), its only losses to Miami (2!), Rhode Island (19) and South Carolina (137). The Friars may be the surprise team in the Big East this season. Close behind would be Notre Dame, which is 5-2 against top 200 teams, its only losses to Baylor (29) and Georgia Tech (73) by a combined five points. All seven of the Irish's wins are by at least nine points.
USF is probably right in the next group, along with two largely unproven teams: Seton Hall, which is 7-2 but is just 2-1 against top 200 teams, with a win against Virginia (90) but a loss at Penn State (227). St. John's, picked to finish 14th in the league, has only played five games, going 4-1 with a 19-point loss at Miami (2); its best win is probably Long Island (152). These two opponents could put USF in or out of the Big East tournament -- the Bulls get the Pirates twice, and get St. John's during their toughest week of the season, immediately in between road games against Marquette and Georgetown.
The three Big East teams off to the worst starts would begin with Cincinnati, which is 4-4 overall, hasn't beaten a team with an RPI higher than 233 and lost to UAB by 19 points. DePaul (2-3 overall) hasn't beaten a team rated higher than 192 (Northwestern) and gets tested in the next two weeks, with games against Vanderbilt (4), Mississippi (51) and Clemson (39). Rutgers' best win is North Dakota State (144) and the Knights only beat Princeton (230) by a 54-50 score, and beat a 1-7 Tennessee Tech team by six.
So after a month, where do you see USF falling in the Big East standings? Drop in a comment with your place in the standings and conference record, remembering they play 18 in the Big East now. We'll come back in March and pat people on the back or ridicule them, as warranted ...