Conference Countdown: No. 1 -- Big East

by | College Basketball Insider
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Pitt gets Ashton Gibbs back, and that's good news if you're Jamie Dixon. (US Presswire)  
Pitt gets Ashton Gibbs back, and that's good news if you're Jamie Dixon. (US Presswire)  

This could be the final season of the Big East as we've known it.

Pittsburgh and Syracuse are headed to the ACC -- and it could come as early as next year.

Who knows where UConn will be in a year or so?

But for now, the conference is loaded once again. There is no shortage of Final Four contenders with UConn, Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh. Villanova, despite losing three starters, should be improved -- and Cincinnati brings back most of its NCAA tournament squad. Notre Dame still has a chance with some veterans back and Marquette, as long as Buzz Williams is there, will play harder than just about everyone else and find a way.

The bottom of the league remains lackluster with programs such as Providence, DePaul, Seton Hall and Rutgers trying to rebuild with first- or second-year coaches. St. John's could take a significant hit because of an influx of youth.

But all in all, the Big East can still state its case as the top hoops league in America.

At least for one more year.

(Schools listed in predicted order of finish.)

2012 Tournament:
March 6-10 -- New York
Quick facts
Defending regular-season champion:
Pittsburgh
Defending tournament champion:
Connecticut
Top returning scorer:
Ashton Gibbs (Pittsburgh), 16.8 ppg
Top returning rebounder:
Alex Oriakhi (Connecticut), 8.7 rpg
Accolades
First team
F - Tim Abromaitis, Notre Dame
C - Alex Oriakhi, Connecticut
G - Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh
G - Scoop Jardine, Syracuse
G - Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut
Second team
F - Kevin Jones, West Virginia
C - Mouphtaou Yarou, Villanova
G - Maalik Wayns, Villanova
G - Jason Clark, Georgetown
G - Peyton Siva, Louisville
Player of the year
Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh
Newcomer of the year
Andre Drummond, Connecticut
Breakthrough player
J.J. Moore, Pittsburgh
Coach on the hot seat
Stan Heath, South Florida
Click here for more
conference previews

1. Connecticut: The Huskies lost their heart and soul, Kemba Walker, but there's still more than enough talent to make a return trip to the Final Four. Alex Oriakhi will anchor the middle, Jeremy Lamb showed he can be a future star and Shabazz Napier will get an opportunity for an expanded role. And then there's Andre Drummond, Jim Calhoun's summer pickup who arguably is the best freshman in the nation.

2. Syracuse: The Orange will have to replace big man Rick Jackson, but everyone else of note returns for Jim Boeheim. Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters comprise arguably the league's top perimeter trio while Kris Joseph is coming off a season in which he averaged 14.3 points. Big men of note are sophomore Fab Melo, freshman Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita.

3. Pittsburgh: Jamie Dixon will miss Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown, but the key was getting senior guard Ashton Gibbs back. The frontcourt is solid with Dante Taylor, Nasir Robinson, Talib Zanna and freshmen Khem Birch and Malcolm Gilbert. The key will be who else emerges on the perimeter. My guess: 6-foot-6 sophomore wing J.J. Moore.

4. Louisville: Rick Pitino's Cardinals overachieved last season, but now he'll have a blend of veteran program guys and talented freshmen -- led by Chane Behanan now that Wayne Blackshear is out for the season. Peyton Siva has made strides as a leader and point guard and Pitino also has senior Kyle Kuric. Sophomore big man Gorgui Dieng's development could be the key to how far this team goes.

5. Villanova: The Wildcats lost Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena, but look for Jay Wright's team to be improved this season. Maalik Wayns is one of the league's top guards and Mouph Yarou will be one of the elite bigs. Two freshmen big men -- Markus Kennedy and JayVaughn Pinkston -- will make key contributions.

6. Cincinnati: Mick Cronin's Bearcats return the core of the team that went to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Talented big man Yancy Gates is back, so are veteran guards Dion Dixon and Cashmere Wright. Just wish Cronin took the challenge of playing a more challenging nonconference slate.

7. Marquette: Buzz Williams doesn't always have big-name guys, but the Golden Eagles always play hard. It will be difficult to replace what Jimmy Butler brought to the table, but Marquette will build around Darius Johnson-Odom. Jae Crowder was a pleasant surprise a year ago -- as was the progression of 6-11 junior Chris O'Tule. Williams will need more from sophomore guard Vander Blue.

8. Notre Dame: Mike Brey and the Irish are coming off a terrific season in which they had a chance to win the Big East title. Ben Hansbrough and Tyrone Nash graduated and Carleton Scott opted to leave early. Those are tough voids to fill -- especially the one left by Hansbrough -- but the Irish still have senior forward Tim Abromaitis and another veteran in Scott Martin. Point guard Eric Atkins has a year under his belt, so look for Notre Dame to be in the mix for an NCAA tournament bid again.

9. West Virginia:: This is a difficult team to figure, but it's hard to count Bob Huggins out. Joe Mazzulla, Casey Mitchell and John Flowers have departed, so Kevin Jones will have to step it up after a somewhat disappointing season a year ago. Truck Bryant is back and the Mountaineers added a talented freshman floor leader in Jabarie Hinds.

10. Georgetown: John Thompson III will be without Chris Wright and Austin Freeman and everyone has counted them out of the equation for the top half of the conference. However, Jason Clark will get a chance to shine and there are plenty of pieces with Hollis Thompson, Nate Lubick and freshman Otto Porter.

11. Rutgers: Mike Rice brought in a strong freshman class that will help holdovers Gil Biruta and Dane Miller. It starts with talented big man Kadeem Jack and includes guards Myles Mack, Jerome Seagers and Eli Carter. The Scarlet Knights won 15 last season and should improve this year.

12. St. John's: Steve Lavin assembled a nine-man class that was regarded as one of the nation's best, but it took a hit when three players -- JaKarr Sampson, Amir Garrett and Norvel Pelle -- were ruled ineligible by the NCAA. Lavin still has plenty of young talent in the fold with Maurice Harkless and Sir'Dominic Pointer, but the Red Storm are young -- and now lack depth.

13. Providence: Ed Cooley didn't inherit an NCAA tournament-caliber roster, but he will have a strong backcourt with Vincent Council and Gerard Coleman. It'll be interesting to see what he can get up front from Kadeem Batts and Bilal Dixon.

14. Seton Hall: Jeremy Hazell is gone, but Kevin Willard still has a couple of holdovers from the Bobby Gonzalez regime: Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore. Willard and his staff are high on freshman guard Aaron Cosby and also hope Fuquan Edwin can make strides as a sophomore.

15. South Florida: The Bulls didn't lose much from last year's team besides Jarrid Famous. Stan Heath's squad will be led by Gus Gilchrist and junior guard Jawanza Poland, but Heath will need someone else to emerge to have any shot at the postseason.

16. DePaul: Oliver Purnell added a bunch of new faces to a team that won only seven games a year ago. Cleveland Melvin had a terrific freshman season and Brandon Young is also back in the fold. The Blue Demons, however, took a hit when heralded freshman guard Shane Larkin decided to leave in the summer.

2011-12 Season Preview
DateFeatureDateFeature
Oct. 13Preseason Top 25 (and one) Nov. 1Top freshmen
 Projected NCAA tournament field Nov. 2Top transfers
 Goodman and Parrish bracket picks Nov. 3Under the radar players
Oct. 14Team profiles: 'Cuse | UConn | UK | UNC Nov. 4Breakout players
Oct. 17Preseason All-Americans Nov. 5Best shooters
Oct. 18Top 100 players Nov. 6Best defensive players
Oct. 19Positional rankings: Point guards Nov. 768 things ...
Oct. 20Positional rankings: Wing men Nov. 8Ranking the preseason tourneys
Oct. 21Positional rankings: Big men Nov. 950 can't miss games
   Nov. 10Coaches on the Hot Seat
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