Still find it strange preparing for a Big East tournament, which starts today, without Syracuse or Connecticut as a constant threat to run the table? That's understandable.

But it's also time to embrace the pared-down conference that still offers both parity and elite competition. Three of the 10 Big East schools are in the top 25 -- No. 4 Villanova, No. 22 Butler and No. 23 Georgetown -- and six were .500 or better in conference play.

For ease, here's a breakdown of how seriously each school's run at the conference's automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament should be taken.

Favorite

There's really only one clear-cut favorite: Nova. After all, the Wildcats (29-2, 16-2 Big East) are in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance if they take care of business at the Garden this weekend. After embarrassing a St. John's team that fancies itself a middle seed in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, betting against Villanova looks like a fool's errand.

An off game is a possibility -- like their 78-58 stinker against the Hoyas on Jan. 19 -- but it looks like the only ones capable of beating the Wildcats in this field are themselves.

Contenders

Although unranked and slotted as the No. 4 seed, Providence (21-10, 11-7) has two things going for them: The Friars are defending tournament champs, and they've got guard Kris Dunn. Dunn fills up the stat sheet with 15.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 2.8 steals per game -- the latter two rank fourth in the nation. Second-seeded Georgetown (20-9, 12-6) and No. 3 seed Butler (22-9, 12-6) also qualify, but neither has a game-changer like Dunn on the roster.

And don't discount Providence's tourney win of a year ago. They were the four seed in 2014, too.

Sleepers

No. 5 seed St. John's (21-10, 10-8) is one of the most talent-loaded squads in the field, which makes them the most maddening for being just barely better than .500 in Big East play. D'Angelo Harrison (17.8 points per game) and Sir'Dominic Pointer (14.1 ppg) were both among the conference's scoring leaders. When they come out flat they rarely recover against good teams -- five of their 10 losses were by double-figures, three by 20 or more.

Sixth-seeded Xavier (19-12, 9-9) has wins over Georgetown and Butler, so they could do some damage. And eighth-seeded Seton Hall (16-14, 6-12) was ranked earlier in the season.

Fuggedaboutit

DePaul (12-19, 6-12) earned the No. 7 seed after winning both matchups against Seton Hall to win the tiebreaker. But the Blue Demons have lost seven in a row and likely are one-and-done against 10th-seeded Creighton (13-18, 4-14).

The Bluejays won't get much farther though. They haven't been the same since Doug McDermott, last year's consensus player of the year, graduated. Ninth-seeded Marquette (12-18, 4-14) is down as well, and the Golden Eagles aren't expected to get up this season.