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College Basketball Previews: It's end of the Big East as we know it

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer
Syracuse is our favorite in the Big East this year, the school's final season in the conference. (Getty Images)

And I don't feel fine.

Any hoops fans worth their salt knows by now that Syracuse and Pittsburgh enter the 2012-13 college hoops season as Big East lame ducks. It's already been done: they're going on to the ACC. With that, the conference will bring in solid schools like Temple and Memphis to replace them, as well as hideous barnacles like SMU and Central Florida to collect mold in the Big East's basement.

I didn't even mention Notre Dame until now. And while the school's exit date on the Big East isn't yet certain, don't be shocked if it's able to finagle its way out and join its brethren in the ACC by next fall.

I won't get on a tangent or lament any further. But given how this is a league preview, mentioning the fraying of the league seems obligatory. The Big East will still be watchable, relevant, creating teams capable of making a Final Four in the coming years. But it will be different, like Alice in Chains without Layne Staley. They still sound good, but it is not the same.

I get more into predictions and what teams are for this year in the capsules below. But know this here: I think the Big East will get eight teams into the NCAAs, will have better talent and be stronger top to bottom than any other league. The Big Ten is the best, but I think teams finishing 12th, 13th in this league will be better than others that have been that low in the conference in the past five years.

  • Last year's regular-season winner: Syracuse

  • Last year's tournament winner: Louisville

  • Conference tournament: March 12-16 (Madison Square Garden, New York)

Ten best nonconference games:

1. Kentucky vs. Louisville (Dec. 29)
2. Georgetown vs. UCLA (Nov. 19)
3. Louisville vs. Memphis (Dec. 15)
4. Syracuse vs. San Diego State (Battle of the Midway, Nov. 9)
5. Marquette vs. Ohio State (Carrier Classic, Nov. 9)
6. Marquette vs. Florida (Nov. 29)
7. Marquette vs. Butler (Nov. 19)
8. New Mexico vs. Cincinnati (Dec. 27)
9. Notre Dame vs. Kentucky (Nov. 29)
10. Michigan State vs. UConn (Armed Forces Classic, Nov. 9)

What I like: Toss-up at the top.

Tray Woodall and Pitt are set for a bounce-back year, but that falls on Woodall as much as anyone. (US Presswire)

Why: As you see below, I've got Syracuse winning the league, but I think it's a four-team race overall. I'm not as aggressive on Louisville as most others are, but I do think the Cardinals are incapable of not finishing worse than third in this conference -- and I'm giving them too much flak there too, probably.

Syracuse won the league by three games last year, but that was an aberration; it was the only time since the league took in the C-USA teams almost a decade ago that a team won the Big East by three games. All but two years have seen a one-game differential at the top. That's going to happen again.

What I don't like: Continued mediocrity from the NYC/NJ schools.

Why: Allow me to state right here and now: I wish St. John's, Rutgers and Seton Hall were better on the regular. The Big East doesn't suffer too much because of its overall averageness in the past 15 years, but it really needs an uptick in play from these programs going forward.

I don't see that happening this year. All the coaches at these programs are safe, though, which I think is good. Stability is vital. And even if the triumvirate can't recruit the way it used to, cultures need to be fostered and Steve Lavin (St. John's), Kevin Willard (SHU) and Mike Rice (Rutgers) need to be given time to bolster their teams. Going forward, the Big East is going to need an identity. And while Memphis is an awesome team, it doesn't do much good to have the Tigers and UConn (though I have doubts about the Huskies' next decade) headlining the marquee year in and year out.

Player of the Year will be: Otto Porter (Georgetown). Porter is why the Hoyas aren't forecast to have a huge dip overall. He's a possible lottery pick and has shown he can be a reliable offensive threat from about 17 feet and in. Porter's a really strong player on the cut and can also get a good amount of his points off offensive boards, too. He'll be the primary target -- and I wonder how he'll thrive (or not) this season -- but I've got high hopes. Still so much untapped in the guy's game.

The next best five:

Gorgui Dieng (Louisville)
Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati)
Jack Cooley (Notre Dame)
Peyton Siva (Louisville)
Chane Behanan (Louisville)

And the five after that:

Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse)
Vincent Council (Providence)
Anthony Collins (South Florida)
Shabazz Napier (Connecticut)
Rakeem Christmas (Syracuse)

Best freshman: Steven Adams (Pittsburgh). So, I haven't seen this kid play, but apparently he's like Godzilla. Just a beast of a body from New Zealand. He's already seen as a draft pick, a first-rounder for sure. It's why I'm high on Pitt -- too many people are too high on Adams' game to not take notice. So I'm doing that here and eagerly awaiting seeing him play in a few days.

BEST GUESS ON FIRST TO WORST
1. Syracuse Orange
It's the Orange's last year in the Big East (I will always hate that SU is leaving this conference), and it's going to go out, somewhat appropriately, with a league title. Syracuse is a founding member of the Big East and has won 10 regular-season titles. The Jim Boeheim machine is going to churn another 28-win-or-better group out of these guys. It seems silly on the surface. Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine, Fab Melo and Kris Joseph are all gone. But Rakeem Christmas could be better on O and almost as good on D as Melo was last year. Michael Carter-Williams is a national breakout player in the backcourt. Brandon Triche is the steady, reliable senior. DaJaun Coleman is a freshman big man who will probably have more impact for a freshman big man than most other SU guys in recent memory. The D will be the D. That zone will have leaks early but likely meld to a top-three defense in the conference, as it's been so often before (it was best in the league last year). What you might not remember is, the Orange had the best offense in the conference last year as well. This was a one seed, folks, and it's not crazy to think another reservation at the top of a bracket awaits this year.
2. Louisville Cardinals
Yeah, I'm not totally sold on Louisville, people. As you'll see, they were picked as our preseason No. 1 team in the country by Parrish and Goodman, but I don't know. Can the offense really improve from last season? (It was 12th in the league, per possession.) That's my question. All computer models are relatively down on the Cardinals, too, so that makes me pause. And let's be clear here: I'm not saying Louisville won't be good. It's going to be very good. It's going to, at worst, be a four seed in the tournament. But I don't think it's clearly a top-five team in the country. Russ Smith is a character -- but he also takes stupid shots. That gonna continue? I also think Peyton Siva has managed to become an overrated player, and I've yet to see Wayne Blackshear be the kind of force I've heard he can be. So while I like a lot about Louisville, sometimes we need to push back to give a balance. That's all I'm doing here. Second place in the Big East and forecasting soft two/hard three seed is pragmatic enough.
3. Pittsburgh Panthers
Yeah, that's right, Pitt is back. Similar to Villanova, only not, because Villanova doesn't have a shot at the NCAAs this year. Pitt does and will and is going to get there because Tray Woodall will not have another bad year, and Steven Adams is apparently some sort of centaur. It was weird to see Pitt be so -- average last year. The Panthers are never sexy, but they're usually painstakingly reliable as a program. So to see them finally play down to that was odd. Now Jamie Dixon has this stud freshman, a good player in Trey Zeigler coming via transfer from the MAC (where he was one of the league's best guards) and two solid pieces in the paint in Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor. I think the offense won't be top five in the Big East, but the D will be. And I think it could even be third to the teams above them on this list. In the program's last year in the Big East, Pitt's going to leave its mark -- and not lose a home game in conference play, too.
4. Cincinnati Bearcats
I love Sean Kilpatrick's game, and I think things could break his way toward getting him on the Big East first team in four months. The Bearcats lose big-man Yancy Gates. But those who followed Cinci in wake of that Xavier brawl last year, when Gates was forced to sit six games, will remember how the team was better without him. In a macro sense, I don't know if that's true. But I think it is, and we'll find out for sure this year. Bearcats fans railed against us harder than any other fan base re: our preseason lists and whom we left off. Cashmere Wright was neglected from our top-50 point guards, and I think there's an easy case to be made that he should be on there. He'll probably prove it this year. Cinci's schedule isn't great (again), but it is an upgrade from last season. So if UC plays as well as I've pegged them here, expect a really nice seed and a continued rebirth of a proud program under Mick Cronin.
5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Is Mike Brey going to have to ride Jack Cooley all season long? If so, the big man probably isn't capable of lifting the Irish to a 25-win season. I don't expect that to happen, but I do think ND will get close and Cooley will have a really nice year. Beyond the big man's forthcoming season of brute force and lovable demeanor, Notre Dame will have the services of a lot of reliable players. Scott Martin is a sixth-year guy who was granted one more year by the NCAA, and he'll be the definition of an asset. Jerian Grant is a junior who deserves more love. Actually, as I get going here, I've got an urge to run down seven or eight names on this roster, but I won't. (Pat Connaughton, people!) The Irish were top-five in the league in per-possession offense and defense last year. I'd suspect the O will rise again and ND will be a single-digit seed, easily, come March.
6. South Florida Bulls
The team was one of the ugliest to watch last year because it couldn't shoot the ball and loved to slog games to a molasses-like pace. Expect more of that, but I think the offense will be better. I think South Florida, which almost made the damn Sweet 16 last year, will be better. Stan Heath was a man on the edge of losing his job a year ago. Now he's safe and has a Bulls team that has an identity, a really great player (guard Anthony Collins) and another guy who could make All-Big East honorable mention (forward Victor Rudd). The clash in projection from me and standard thinking falls in that USF lost three starters. But I think Heath's system has become a culture. Plus, these predictions don't mean anything. All I know is every Georgetown fan is giving a condescending smirk at this now, having seen I picked USF above their Hoyas.
7. Georgetown Hoyas
All aboard the Otto Porter bandwagon. The Hoyas' dynamic talent is going to carry this team this season. Georgetown was great on defense last year (second-best per-possession in the league to Syracuse) but also has real value on offense that it will have replace. Henry Sims, Hollis Thompson and Jason Clark are all gone from the District. John Thompson III has a roster from the outside that looks like it's missing pieces. But on the inside, it could be that he has a chance to coach himself to a Coach of the Year award in the league. We'll see. Porter is going to be efficient as hell this year; I think his numbers will wind up top-five nationally. So let's assume that, then look at Nate Lubick, a player who has to put up 10/game. Then we get to the sophomores, who could collectively have a breakout year: Greg Whittington, Mikael Hopkins, Jabril Trawick. Who are these guys? You're about to find out.
8. Marquette Golden Eagles
I love me some Marquette and Buzz Williams, but the team had two players drafted off last year's squad. A dip is inevitable. However, this is where I'm drawing the NCAA tournament bid line. I think MU gets in The Dance in March, but maybe it's the First Four. Once again, the team is small save for 6-11 senior Chris Otule, who returns from injury and will be one of the reasons why Marquette's defense again will be stout. My questions are with Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan, two players who are good -- but reliable? You see this team, and it looks like it will be downright average. But Williams doesn't do average, or boring, or underachieving. What will prevent that again? Senior transfer Trent Lockett, who was a commodity at Arizona State and will be the one-year-gap fixer for the Golden Eagles in 2012-13.
9. Villanova Wildcats
Villanova was just boring and forgettable last year, finishing 13-19 and proving Jay Wright was actually capable of not looking good all the damn time. But don't expect a repeat of that. While the Wildcats still aren't, the team lost a couple of guys (Maurice Cheek, Markus Kennedy) to defection, be it NBA dreams or transfers. I think that's good. Villanova needed a new start, in some sorts, but it still has big bodies Mouphtaou Yarou and JayVaughn Pinkston. Guard-wise, look for Tony Chennault, a Wake Forest transfer who plays point, to have a nice impact. Question for me is, can this team learn to play reliable defense and not be the hacking machine that it has trended to be in many recent years?
10. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
I'm thinking Mike Rice is in the midst of a five-year crescendo with this program. In year one, he was 15-17. Last season, 14-18. Now comes the jump. Not a huge one, but the first year above .500 under Rice. By March 2015, Rutgers is going to be an NCAA team. As for this year, I think sophomore guard Eli Carter is in for a big one, and Wally Judge (the former K-State forward) is probably going to have a good year, too. The Scarlet Knights bring back four of five starters as well. It's incremental here, and I think a big year for Rice. If the team is among the four worst again, he'll pretty much have to make the NCAAs in 2013-14 to keep his job.
11. Providence Friars
If Rickey Ledo was qualified to play with this team, I'd probably have Providence sixth. That's how good he is and how much I think of his impact. As it stands, I think Providence is a pretty solid group, seeing how it could easily have the league's best point guard by year's end in Vincent Council. Will Bryce Cotton play with some toughness this year, though? And can Ed Cooley get any type of reliable play within 10 feet of the hoop? I can see Providence being a team that's ultra-vexing in that it will absolutely steal two or three games against top-four Big East teams, then find itself getting boat-raced by Seton Hall and DePaul. Will be a fun team to watch, but guys like Kris Dunn -- if he's able to play; has an injury -- will have to produce for PC to play to 11th-best.
12. Connecticut Huskies
The Huskies will start a season not coached by Jim Calhoun for the first time in almost three decades. It's going to be weird in Storrs. But the transition couldn't be much more different -- or positive -- with Kevin Ollie taking over. Also: It's awkward. Ollie's contract practically expires the second after the final horn sounds on the 2012-13 season. I think UConn has holes, and I don't trust Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier to lead this team consistently. Inside, we'll see, but I think the Huskies are soft. They'll be playing for their new coach, because academic penalty has put Connecticut's postseason chances off the table for this season. Will it be a lost one for all involved?
13. DePaul Blue Demons
They won't finish last! At least that's my story that I'll stick with. DePaul isn't a program fit for the Big East, or at least the way the Big East used to be. Maybe when Syracuse and Pitt leave, the Blue Demons will inherit a landscape that allows them an occasional year to not totally suck. As for now, that's still the case. However, I really like Cleveland Melvin's game. I'm counting on the junior wing to have a breakout year, one that could get him on the Big East second team.
14. St. John's Red Storm
It was just 18 months ago that the Johnnies were an NCAA tournament team. Seems like five years, right? But Steve Lavin -- who, thankfully, is all the way back and healthy, having recovered from cancer -- still has a rebuilding project on his hands. And he lost his ace assistant coach, Mike Dunlap, to the Charlotte Bobcats. The Red Storm have pieces; they're all just raw now. I'm admittedly more down on this team than most.
15. Seton Hall Pirates
Kevin Willard (bless his heart; he really got hit bad by superstorm Sandy) doesn't have a team to exceed expectations, except when it comes to me, because I'm the guy who's picking SHU to finish in the Big East basement. (If it means anything, Pirates fans, know that teams 13, 14 and 15 are essentially a toss-up, in my mind.) The Pirates lose Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope, their two best players, meaning a 21-13 team that was weak offensively last year will get even weaker. Willard's team was pretty solid defensively last year, but I'm expecting a drop-off there, too. Aaron Cosby and Fuquan Edwin will need huge years for this team to come close to last year's bubble-worthy group.

Previously in previews:

No. 3 -- Big 12
No. 4 -- SEC
No. 5 -- ACC
No. 6 -- Pac-12
No. 7 -- Atlantic-10
No. 8 -- Mountain West
No. 9 -- Missouri Valley
No. 10 -- Conference USA
No. 11 -- West Coast
No. 12 -- Western Athletic
No. 13 -- Colonial
No. 14 -- Horizon League
No. 15 -- The Ivy League
No. 16 -- Summit League
No. 17 -- MAC
No. 18 -- Atlantic Sun
No. 19 -- Sun Belt
No. 20 -- MAAC
No. 21 -- Patriot League
No. 22 -- Ohio Valley
No. 23 -- Big West
No. 24 -- SoCon
No. 25 -- NEC
No. 26 -- Big South
No. 27 -- Southland
No. 28 -- Big Sky
No. 29 -- America East
No. 30 -- MEAC
No. 31 -- Great West
No. 32 -- SWAC

For more college basketball news, commentary and discourse, follow @EyeonCBB and @MattNorlander on Twitter. And be sure to like us on Facebook.

 
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