The Big East earned three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament last season.
This season, I don't believe there will be any.
That's the result of Louisville losing Terrence Williams and Earl Clark, Connecticut losing Hasheem Thabeet, Jeff Adrien and A.J. Price, and Pittsburgh losing DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields. The departures are plentiful and significant. But the number of teams in the league ensures the Big East will remain strong, especially if Villanova meets expectations, a revamped UConn roster develops well and Devin Ebanks emerges as a national star and leads West Virginia the way I anticipate.
Bottom line, it's going to be a fun season in the Big East.
Just not as fun last season.
Let's take a look.
(Schools listed in predicted order of finish)
Scottie Reynolds headlines a core that consists of three of the top four scorers from last season's Final Four team. He averaged 15.2 points and 3.4 assists for the Wildcats, who beat American, UCLA, Duke and Pitt on their way to Detroit. It was an impressive run, and yet a run made with Dante Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson and Shane Clark. So it remains to be seen whether Jay Wright can keep his team at that level despite those losses. But a consensus top five recruiting class means the goal must be a Big East title and another trip to the Final Four.
A testament to the talent Jim Calhoun has assembled is the fact that the Huskies lost their top three scorers from a Final Four team and are still good enough to make the Final Four again. Hard as that is to believe, it's true. With Kemba Walker and Stanley Robinson back in the mix, the Huskies have a nice core. Combine that with a healthy Jerome Dyson (was averaging 13.2 ppg before an injury ended his season) and a top 10 recruiting class featuring Alex Oriakhi, and it's clear UConn is plenty talented enough to remain at the top of the Big East.
| Defending regular-season champion: |
| Defending tournament champion: |
| Top returning scorer: |
Luke Harangody ( Notre Dame), 23.3 ppg
| Top returning rebounder: |
Luke Harangody ( Notre Dame), 11.8 rpg
|3. West Virginia||NCAA|
|7. Notre Dame||NCAA|
|10. Seton Hall||NIT/CBI|
|11. St. John's||NIT/CBI|
|13. South Florida||none|
|G - Kemba Walker, Connecticut|
|G - Scottie Reynolds, Villanova|
|F - Devin Ebanks, West Virginia|
|F - Greg Monroe, Georgetown|
|F - Luke Harangody, Notre Dame|
|G - Deonta Vaughan, Cincinnati|
|G - Wesley Johnson, Syracuse|
|G - Lance Stephenson, Cincinnati|
|F - Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia|
|F - Lazar Hayward, Marquette|
|Player of the year|
|Luke Harangody, Notre Dame|
|Newcomer of the year|
|Lance Stephenson, Cincinnati|
|Marshon Brooks, Providence|
|Coach on the hot seat|
|Jerry Wainwright, DePaul|
season previews & primers
Remember in the SEC preview when I acknowledged picking Vanderbilt fifth in the Eastern Division is likely to make me look stupid? I feel the same way about picking West Virginia third in the Big East. A Bob Huggins team with Darryl Bryant, Joe Mazzulla (back from injury), Wellington Smith, Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks is talented and super tough. Of the group, Ebanks is my favorite. The sophomore forward averaged 15.5 points and 11.2 rebounds in West Virginia's final six games last season. Those could be his normal numbers this season and the foundation for a serious Big East Player of the Year campaign.
It's been a wild few months for Louisville, thanks to Rick Pitino's extortion case and the arrest of Jerry Smith and Terrence Jennings. But, thank God for the Cardinals, the offseason is over. So now the focus can return to the court, where Pitino is operating without Earl Clark and Terrence Williams from last season's team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Still, there is talent in the program. Samardo Samuels is back after averaging 11.8 points and 4.9 rebounds as a freshman; he'll be joined by veterans like Edgar Sosa, Smith and Jennings. But the most interesting thing to watch might be the development of Peyton Siva, a freshman point guard from Seattle. He had eight assists and six steals in Louisville's first exhibition. Sure, Siva also had six turnovers. But the point is that he's an exciting addition, and the McDonald's All-American can be a difference-maker if he gets a little more under control.
Greg Monroe's decision to return to school despite being projected in the lottery was a gift; the 6-11 forward averaged 12.7 points and 6.5 rebounds last season. But Monroe only averaged eight field goal attempts per contest, and someone of his caliber has to be more assertive, particularly when you consider that Notre Dame's Luke Harangody averaged 19 field goal attempts a game. In fairness, Monroe isn't a natural scorer; that's the hang-up. But I'm going to be wildly disappointed if he came back to college to be the best passing big man in the county. I want to see him dominate the way he's capable of dominating, and if he does then Georgetown will make the NCAA tournament.
Xavier's Jordan Crawford has the hype because of his summer dunk on LeBron, and Memphis guard Elliot Williams is high-profile because he used to play at Duke. But the nation's best transfer might actually be Syracuse's Wesley Johnson, the 6-7 wing from Iowa State. He averaged 12.4 points and 4.0 rebounds for the Cyclones two seasons ago and is good enough to make up for some of the production lost by the departures of Jonny Flynn (17.4 ppg), Eric Devendorf (15.7 ppg) and Paul Harris (12.0 ppg). Expect Johnson, Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku to all score in double-figures, and the Orange to return to the NCAA tournament.
7. Notre Dame
Losing Purdue transfer Scott Martin to a torn ACL in a preseason workout was a tough blow. But the Irish still have Luke Harangody, which means they have a chance to shake last season's disastrous campaign and be competitive again. Harangody averaged 23.3 points and 11.8 rebounds as a junior and is a consensus First Team All-American. He'll miss Kyle McAlarney, of course. And Ryan Ayers, too. But Mississippi State transfer Ben Hansbrough is eligible after sitting out last season and ready to share the backcourt with Tory Jackson. If those two are solid, Notre Dame will finish in the top half of the league and be in play for an at-large bid.
Though the eligibility issue surrounding Lance Stephenson remains unsettled, most believe he'll eventually be cleared to compete as a freshman, at which point the Big East will have its most intriguing player. Will he set a scoring record? Will he destroy a promising roster? There's no way to know for sure, but it's clear Mick Cronin took a calculated risk bringing in the controversial prospect. If Stephenson decides to guard and play well with his talented teammates (among them All-Big East candidates Deonta Vaughn and Yancy Gates), the Bearcats could sneak into the top five of this league. If not, they could fall to the bottom five, which is why Cincinnati will be fun to watch.
Jamie Dixon has never won fewer than 20 games, never missed the NCAA tournament in six years as a head coach. But this should be his most challenging season considering Sam Young (19.2 ppg), DeJuan Blair (15.7 ppg), Levance Fields (10.7 ppg and 7.5 apg) and Tyrell Biggs (6.4 ppg) are no longer around to dominate the Big East. Meantime, Jermaine Dixon is recovering from foot surgery. So, at the moment, the Panthers are without all five starters from last season's 31-win team, and even the greatness of freshman Dante Taylor -- the McDonald's All-American scored 27 points in Pitt's first exhibition -- won't be enough to ensure a smooth transition.
10. Seton Hall
Bobby Gonzalez has his most talented team to date, and if all goes right the Pirates could make a run at the NCAA tournament. But is it really possible that all goes right? Gonzalez has brought in gifted but questionable-character guys in Keon Lawrence (transfer from Missouri) and Herb Pope (transfer from New Mexico State), and most believe things will blow up, sooner or later. If so, Gonzalez could pay with his job. But if he can somehow blend Jeremy Hazell (22.7 ppg), Robert Mitchell (14.6 ppg and 8.0 rpg) and Eugene Harvey (12.5 ppg) with his newcomers, then this team will finish in the top half of the Big East, for certain.
11. St. John's
Norm Roberts begins the season just like he began last season, with his job security very much in doubt. This is his sixth year at the school, and he's never finished better than 11th in the league; news that Anthony Mason Jr. will start things sidelined with an injury won't make things easier. But this St. John's team should be better with or without a healthy Mason, although it's all relative in the Big East. The Red Storm could be good and not crack the top eight. If so, will that be enough to give Roberts another season?
Buzz Williams was tremendous in his first season at Marquette, but this is where he'll earn his paycheck. That program-changing class of Jerel McNeal, Dominic James and Wesley Matthews is gone, and Lazar Hayward is the lone returning starter. He averaged 16.3 points and 8.6 rebounds last season, but he's never had to carry a team the way he'll need to carry this team. Making things worse is that freshman point guard Junior Cadougan tore his Achilles tendon in a preseason workout and is out for the season. Bottom line, this is a rebuilding year for Williams, and it won't get easier until Cadougan returns and is joined next season by Vander Blue, a star shooting guard from the Class of 2010 who committed to Marquette last month.
13. South Florida
On some level it's an impossible task, what Stan Heath is trying to do, because turning USF into a force in the Big East is the tallest of tall challenges. But Heath has assembled a relatively talented group of players, and this should be his best team since moving from Arkansas. Again, it's all relative; the Bulls haven't finished better than 14th in the league. But a core of Dominique Jones (18.1 ppg) and Augustus Gilchrist (10.2 ppg) could be enough to upset a few opponents. The addition of Ohio State transfer Anthony Crater will help, too.
Keno Davis is similar to Williams at Marquette in that his first year was better than anticipated, but his second year could be rough. Five players who averaged at least eight points per game are gone, among them Weyinmi Efejuku (15.7 ppg). It should clear the way for Sharaud Curry to increase his scoring load significantly, and Marshon Brooks (33 points in the Friars' first exhibition) could have a breakout season. But it's still difficult to envision Providence competing in the top half of this league. Too much was lost at the same time.
Mike Rosario (16.2 ppg as a freshman) is a great Big East talent, and Gregory Echenique (8.4 ppg and 8.4 rpg) is solid up front. But there just isn't enough here to make any real impact in this league. The larger question is whether Fred Hill can do enough to make his seat a little less hot? His Big East record is 8-44 through three seasons. If that doesn't improve, the call for a coaching change will grow louder given that two years of Rosario would've amounted to nothing.
The good news is that there is nowhere to go but up after an 0-18 record in the Big East; can't really do worse. But the bad news is that the best player (Dar Tucker) from that team is gone, and Will Walker (14.6 ppg) and Mac Koshwal (12.2 ppg and 9.6 rpg) aren't enough to help the Blue Demons make significant progress. It's why Jerry Wainwright's fifth season will probably be his last. Then somebody else can come in and try to turn DePaul back into a nationally relevant program.
|2009-10 Season Preview/Conference Countdown Schedule|
|Monday, Oct. 5||Preseason Top 25 (and one)||Monday, Oct. 26||Coaches on the Hot Seat|
|Wednesday, Oct. 7||Preseason All-America Team||Wednesday, Oct. 28||Ranking the best of the non-BCS|
|Friday, Oct. 9||Impact Freshmen||Friday, Oct. 30||No. 6: Pac-10|
|Monday, Oct. 12||Programs on the Rise||Monday, Nov. 2||No. 5: SEC|
|Wednesday, Oct. 14||Programs on the Decline||Tuesday, Nov. 3||No. 4: Big East|
|Friday, Oct. 16||Midnight Madness | From Kansas||Wednesday, Nov. 4||No. 3: ACC|
|Monday, Oct. 19||Player rankings: Points/Combos||Thursday, Nov. 5||No. 2: Big Ten|
|Wednesday, Oct. 21||Player rankings: Wings||Friday, Nov. 6||No. 1: Big 12|
|Friday, Oct. 23||Player rankings: Big Men||Monday, Nov. 9||Brackets: Parrish | Palm|