The Big East has every indication of being an outstanding conference this season. There will be competitive games featuring titans and goliaths every night during league play. As many as 9 or 10 teams have been projected to the NCAA tournament. The Big East Tournament has been expanded to include all 16 teams, which should make 4 days of madness before the madness even starts.
1. Connecticut – The Huskies showed some flashes last season that they could have a chance to play on an elite level this season. It all starts with 7’3” Hasheem Thabeet who anchors a tough defense inside. Jeff Adrien plays alongside Thabeet and is a monster on the offensive glass. Stanley Robinson gives UConn great length at small-forward but he won’t be playing until midseason. The backcourt could be a lot better this season, which it will need to be. AJ Price has to be effective coming off an ACL injury. He could move to an off-guard position to make room for the play-making freshman Kemba Walker. Jerome “Slicin” Dyson gives coach Jim Calhoun the option of playing three guards while Stanley Robinson is gone. All great UConn teams have featured a three-point threat, and UConn has that this year in freshman Scottie Haralson.
2. Louisville – The Cardinals have the pieces in place to be a major contender this season. Senior Terrence Williams can do it all but decided to forego the NBA for his senior season. Earl Clark also returns to start alongside Williams at the two forward spots. Pitino has a couple players capable of running the offense in Edgar Sosa and Andre McGee. The eligibility of Reginald Delk, the transfer from Mississippi State, gives Pitino another quality three-point shooter to go along with Jerry Smith. Pitino’s best teams always have the ability to knock down treys. Losing David Padgett, Juan Palacios, and Derrick Caracter leaves questions up front. The answers will have to come from freshmen Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings.
3. Pittsburgh – DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, and Levance Fields give the Panthers as good of a trio as any in college basketball. Blair was a beast as a freshman lasts season averaging 11.6 ppg and 9.1 rpg. He can only get better with a strong supporting cast in the frontcourt. Sam Young and Gilbert Brown are high-flying small forwards that can attack the basket. Young returned to school for his senior season wanted to add a better perimeter jump shot to his game. Tyrell Biggs and Gary McGhee give the Panthers some much needed height down low. Levance Fields is capable of willing the team to victory as the floor general, but the rest of the backcourt is young with the departures of Ronald Ramon, Mike Cook, and Keith Benjamin. Jamie Dixon has to find a capable two-guard from the mix of returning Brad Wanamaker and newcomers Jermaine Dixon, Ashton Gibbs, and Travon Woodall.
4. Notre Dame – The Irish have a chance to make a push this season, something they were unable to do the last couple of years in the tournament. Luke Harangody was one of the most underrated players last season, but struggled against some of the more lengthy big men in the country. Still, he is a 20 and 10 guy more often than not. Kyle McAlarney gives the Irish the inside-outside duo as he provides a three-point threat from way beyond the arc. Outside of Rob Kurz, the rest of the supporting cast returns. They are going to have to make teams honest, so double teaming Harangody and McAlarney aren’t so easy solutions. Zach Hillesland and Luke Zeller should see more minutes alongside Harangody up fornt. Tory Jackson will have options when running the offense, and should have opportunities to score when defenses focus on the shooters McAlarney and Ryan Ayers.
5. Marquette – Tom Crean left Buzz Williams with quite the arsenal of players. The trio of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wes Matthews gives opponents fits with there quickness and tenacity. Throw in David Cubillan and Maurice Acker and Marquette has plenty of options in the backcourt. The questions are up front where Ousmane Barro and Dan Fitzgerald are no longer around. Lazar Hayward would have his work cut out for him if he went at it alone at only 6’6”. Luckily, Trevor Mbakwe returns after undergoing knee surgery that shortened his season last year. Dwight Burke showed some improvement at the end of last season and should contribute more this year. Marquette was underrated last year as they likely should have beaten Stanford in the tournament last year and they could be underrated going into this season with much of the pieces returning.
6. Villanova – With everybody back from a Sweet 16 team, it’s hard to believe that nobody is talking about the Wildcats. Scottie Reynolds can take over any game playing point or shooting guard. With Corey Fisher’s development at point guard it is likely that Reynolds plays off the ball. The backcourt has major upside that can be reached if Corey Stokes can become the scoring threat he is capable of being. Dante Cunningham is the second leading scorer behind Reynolds, and he will be the anchor in the frontcourt. Coach Jay Wright can opt to use smaller and quicker forwards in Shane Clark and Dwayne Anderson. He can also use the bigger options of Antonio Peña and Casiem Drummond. Plenty of versatility exists on the Villanova roster, which could help against the different lineups they will face in the Big East.
7. Georgetown – The Hoyas lost some major pieces in Roy Hibbert, Jonathan Wallace, and Patrick Ewing Jr. They still have some solid players returning in Austin Freeman, Jessie Sapp, DeJuan Summers, and Chris Wright. The good news is they are bringing in some great players up front in 6’10” Greg Monroe, 6’10” Henry Sims and 7’1” Julian Vaughn. DeJuan Summers wasn’t quite Jeff Green last year, but he could be more consistent with an expanded role on offense. Jessie Sapp is back after leading the team in assists and hitting 41.3% of his threes. Chris Wright missed time with an ankle injury last year but can bring some serious energy to the floor.
8. Syracuse – The Orange have a chance to get off the NIT slide and get back to the NCAA tournament. A big reason for that is the return of Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf. The Orange will be deeper and have plenty of options. Johnny Flynn was a Big East Rookie of the Year, and he will lead a backcourt with Rautins, Devendorf, and Scoop Jardine with starting experience. The frontcourt will be without Donte Greene, if he was in fact a frontcourt player. Arinze Onuaku is a presence down low and Paul Harris is built like a linebacker at small forward. That kind of size will be a tough matchup for anyone. Depth will have to come from Kristof Ongenaet who started 15 games last year after transferring from junior college. Rick Jackson and the freshman Mookie Jones will look to contribute off the bench. Depth can only help keep the 2-3 zone active and less pedestrian.
9. West Virginia – Bob Huggins had a big first year with the Mountaineers, but the team will have to adjust this year without Joe Alexander and Darris Nichols. Huggins will have to find a way to mesh John Beilein’s players with the fantastic class of freshmen coming in. Small forward Da’Sean Butler and sharp-shooter Alex Ruoff are the mainstays from last year’s team, although Joe Mazzulla had a coming-out party against Duke in the tournament last season. This could be his breakout season as point guard. Wellington Smith is the other holdover who improved last season when attacking the basket. Devin Ebanks is the biggest name recruit coming in. He will make an impact right away, scoring anywhere from the 2-guard position down to power forward. Both Roscoe Davis and Dee Proby are listed at 6’10” and could fight for time up front along with 6’8” Kevin Jones.
10. Providence – New head coach Keno Davis takes over for the Friars after leading Drake to a 28-5 season last year. He has one of the better group of perimeter players to work with in the Big East. Sharaud Curry returns to take over at point guard after missing all but one game last season with a foot injury. He averaged 15.3 ppg and 4.4 apg two seasons ago. With Curry back at point, expect Jeff Xavier to play some off-guard along with Brian McKenzie. Both of them can really fill it up from outside. Weyinmi Efejuku will be able to play more at the small forward position with more depth at the 2-guard. The frontcourt isn’t as solid, but Geoff McDermott played well for them last season despite the workload in front of him. Randall Hanke made strides but wasn’t effective enough on the glass. The unit can improve if Jamine Peterson can come in and body up some of the Big East’s best frontcourt.
11. Cincinnati – The Bearcats return only two starters from a team that finished 13-19 last year. The good news is that one of those guys is Deonta Vaughn who averaged 17.3 points per game last year. The other returning starter is Rashad Bishop who started 20 games as a freshman last season. He will have help up front form Mike Williams, a transfer from Texas and former McDonald’s All-American. The rest of the contributions will come from new freshmen, transfers, or sophomores. Cashmere Wright will likely start right away at point guard, and 7’0” Anthony McClain and 255-lb Steve Toyloy will add size up front.
12. DePaul – The Blue Demons lost leading scorer Draelon Burns and another solid contributor in Karron Clark. This year they will look to two outstanding sophomores in Dar Tucker and Mac Koshwal. Dar Tucker is an athletic wing who will likely play small forward to allow sharpshooting Jabari Currie to get more minutes at shooting guard. Will Walker proved himself last year, but will have to take over as full-time point guard. Mac Koshwal was almost a double-double guy last season and will be a force at power forward if he has more help from either Matija Poscic or Krystopher Faber at center.
13. Seton Hall – The Pirates were pretty deep on the perimeter last season, but lose guard Jamar Nutter, Larry Davis, and Brian Laing. That leaves Eugene Harvey, Paul Gause, and Jeremy Hazell. That is a solid trio which could have depth again if newcomers Jordan Theodore and Jamel Jackson deliver as promised. The most important recruit might be Melvyn Oliver at 6’11” and 340 pounds. Even at his size, Oliver could be a force right away but will have to get in shape. John Garcia and Mike Davis are the returnees up front, but Garcia has knee problems and Davis wasn’t effective last year. Robert Mitchell is the other newcomer who could contribute right away, as he transferred from Duquesne after being named Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year in 2007.
14. Rutgers – For once, head coach Fred Hill might have options when filling out his lineup and putting players on the floor. Mike Rosario is the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with Rutgers. He will make an immediate impact in the backcourt playing alongside returning starters Anthony Farmer and Mike Coburn. Corey Chandler also returns in the backcourt after averaging 11.9 points per game as a freshman. Three freshman frontcourt players could all see significant time. Christian Morris and Gregory Echenique bring a lot of size and strength up front, while small forward Patrick Johnson should figure into the rotation. That leaves returnees JR Inman and Jaron Griffin as returning starters who could see their roles diminish.
15. South Florida – Slowly but surely the Bulls might be more competitive in the Big East. They posted back to back season with 3 conference wins after only winning 1 game in their first season in the conference. This year they will have to do it without Kentrell Gransberry who averaged 16.0 ppg and 10.8 rpg. They have some players to work with in the backcourt, including leading scorer Dominique Jones and senior Jesus Verdejo. Chris Howard will be back at point guard and transfer Mike Mercer from Georgia will also figure in to the backcourt mix. The Bulls will have questions up front but will look for answers from Gus Gilchrist, a transfer form Maryland who had once signed with Virginia Tech, and Alex Rivas Sanchez, a junior college transfer.
16. St. John’s – The Red Storm had a lot of trouble on offense last year, but the return of Anthony Mason Jr. and Justin Burrell up front might not be enough. Guard Eugene Lawrence and Larry Wright are gone, which means freshmen TyShawn Edmondson and Quincy Roberts could see time at the point while Malik Boothe and Paris Horne return to round out the backcourt rotation. Swingmen DJ Kennedy and Rob Thomas will have to do more to get this team to improve.