Nine questions dominating the Big East basketball offseason

We've officially entered the danger zone for the perilously suicidal college sports fan. Any possible hangover period following the end of March Madness has been sufficiently slept off, and three months until toe meets leather is still far too much time to start assembling tailgating paraphernalia.

The only things we have at times like these are words, alcohol and Jon & Kate Plus 8 reruns on TLC.

We'll go with words today, and tackle the nine biggest questions prevalent during the Big East basketball offseason.

BORING LEAGUE OR BORING CLASSES?

We'll start with the perennial issue of should I stay or should I go, because with the June 16 deadline looming, this is the issue that will be cleared up first. Jerel McNeal's decision to return to Marquette for his senior season means that there are now just two Big East underclassmen still on the fence: Syracuse's Donte Greene, and West Virginia's Joe Alexander.

When he first threw his name out there in early April, Alexander stated that he was doing so just to get a handle on potential opportunities, and added: "As of now, I cannot see myself leaving because it would be very tough for me to miss a year playing with my teammates."

It's safe to say that the tide may be turning.

Mighty Joe was one of only 15 players to receive the elite "physical only" invitation to the NBA Pre-Draft camp in Orlando, and now he's seeing his name pop up as a top ten pick in more and more mock drafts. Regardless of how much he loves college and wants to win a championship at West Virginia, Alexander's draft stock is unlikely to ever be higher than it is right now, and that's a situation he might not be able to afford bypassing.

Thought it probably shouldn't be, Greene's situation appears much more cut-and-dry. The former Syracuse freshman has wanted to go pro since the Orange were bounced from the NIT, and less-than-stellar evaluations and mock draft projections haven't changed that.

While it's almost a certainty that Greene would be a lottery pick  in the 2009 draft (which figures to be much weaker), he's apparently hellbent on pushing his luck this summer. Unless he absolutely bombs in Orlando this week, he's gone.

In the unlikely event that Greene and Alexander both decide to return to school for another year, it would mean that the Big East would have lost zero underclassmen to the NBA Draft. And even if both players do hire agents, the conference losing just two non-seniors after a season where it put eight teams into the NCAA Tournament is pretty remarkable.

WHO'S NUMBER ONE?

This is a topic for discussion that will last us well beyond the summer months.

So many Big East teams losing so little after successful campaigns in '07-'08 means that which squad deserves to be the league's preseason favorite in '08-'09 is a serious point of contention.

A look at the candidates:

CONNECTICUT

UConn's season came to a disappointing end when A.J. Price tore his ACL and the Huskies were upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by 13th-seeded San Diego. The silver lining brought up almost immediately following the defeat was that they wouldn't be losing any contributors to graduation. When 7-foot sophomore center Hasheem Thabeet announced that he would not be taking his game to the next level, it meant that Connecticut would be returning its top six scorers.

Reserves Curtis Kelly and Doug Wiggins have since announced their intentions to transfer, but that's mostly because of the stellar freshman class that Jim Calhoun is bringing in, which includes top-15 recruits Ater Majok and Kemba Walker.

If Price's injury heals as it should, you could be looking at the preseason No. 1 in all of America.

LOUISVILLE

U of L had the best postseason of any team in the Big East, advancing all the way to Elite Eight before being knocked out of the tournament by top seed North Carolina. The Cardinals lost the heart and soul of their team - not to mention their leading scorer - when center David Padgett graduated, but his replacement just happens to be USA Today's newly-crowned National Player of the Year, Samardo Samuels.

Forwards Terrence Williams and Earl Clark return after flirtations with the NBA - the latter's more intense than the former's - and the starting backcourt of Andre McGee and Jerry Smith is also back.

In a league this strong, it's possible that Louisville will be rated higher nationally by some preseason publications than they will in their own conference by some others.

NOTRE DAME

It's very possible that a team which lost just one contributor, returns the reigning Big East Player of the Year and another first team All-Conference selection will be ranked lower to start 2008-2009 than it finished 2007-2008 (tied for second).

While the Irish's dismal performance against Washington State was as disappointing as any in the tournament, it shouldn't completely cancel out a season that saw them win 25 games and average 80 ppg.

MARQUETTE

The Golden Eagles will be another team fighting to carry the "no respect" banner into next season.

The sensational guard trio of Dominic James, Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal return for their senior seasons, as does much improved junior-to-be Lazar Hayward. Lack of an inside game will again be the point of attack for naysayers, but a healthy Trevor Mbakwe as well as incoming freshman center Chris Otule will look to make MU more formidable in the post.

But the biggest story surrounding Marquette all year will be the maiden season of head coach Buzz Williams, who steps in for Hoosier head man Tom Crean.

PITTSBURGH

What about the reigning tournament champs? Co-Freshman of the Year DeJuan Blair is back, as is 2008 breakout star Sam Young. The departure of sharpshooters Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin is a blow, but the healthy return of senior point guard/captain Levance Fields is at worst an even trade. If swingman Mike Cook is granted a sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA, then this team has a legitimate claim to be the league's preseason No. 1.

SYRACUSE

Another team being widely overlooked is the Orange, which brings back co-Freshman of the Year Jonny Flynn, the rejuvenated Paul Harris, and the backcourt duo of Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins, who both missed last season with knee injuries. If big man Arizne Onuaku continues to develop, and freshman Mookie Jones can contribute as much as some are anticipating, then this squad has the potential to surprise everyone and capture the regular season title.

GEORGETOWN

No team was hit harder by graduation than the two-time defending league champs, who lost starters Roy Hibbert and Jonathan Wallace as well as the league's best sixth man, Patrick Ewing Jr., to graduation. The good news is that JT III is bringing in one of the nation's top big men in Greg Monroe, and two more blue chip freshmen in center Henry Sims and guard Jason Clark. Georgetown also has a pair of former McDonald's All-Americans returning in Austin Freeman and Chris Wright, as well as Jeff Green clone DaJuan Summers.

The fall for the Hoyas isn't going to be nearly as steep as some in the league would like.

WEST VIRGINIA

With Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones and Roscoe Davis, Bob Huggins may have very well reeled in the best recruiting class Morgantown has ever seen. If Alexander does return for one more year, then this squad has a legitimate gripe to be the league's preseaon No. 1.

VILLANOVA

Jay Wright and the Wildcats lost absolutely nothing from their Sweet 16 team of a season ago.


There it is. Nine teams, more than half the conference, factor into the discussion of who the preseason favorite should be for the '08-'09 season.

This can't start soon enough.

JUST TEN?

I was asked the other night (by myself) to name the ten players I thought should make up the preseason All-Conference team. After I reeled off ten names I was pretty comfortable with, I immediately thought of three more that had to be included.

If you think this is a task you can handle, then here's a list of 25 candidates and you choose the ten players you think stand out above the others:

Luke Harangody, Notre Dame
Kyle McAlarney, Notre Dame
Earl Clark, Louisville
Terrence Williams, Louisville
Samardo Samuels, Louisville
A.J. Price, Connecticut
Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut
Jeff Adrien, Connecticut
Jonny Flynn, Syracuse
Eric Devendorf, Syracuse
Paul Harris, Syracuse
DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh
Sam Young, Pittsburgh
Levance Fields, Pittsburgh
Dominic James, Marquette
Jerel McNeal, Marquette
Lazar Hayward, Marquette
Eugene Harvey, Seton Hall
Scottie Reynolds, Villanova
Greg Monroe, Georgetown
DaJuan Summers, Georgetown
Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati
Dominique Jones, South Florida
Geoff McDermott, Providence
Anthony Mason Jr, St. John's

Again, this can't start soon enough.

WHEN DOES THE BIG EAST TOURNAMENT START?

I'm still amazed that there are people against the tournament expanding to include all 16 teams, because the mere thought of three straight days of four Big East Tournament games, followed by the semifinals and finals on Friday and Saturday gets me sexually aroused. Seriously. It's not something I'm proud of, nor is it something I'm particularly comfortable talking about, but I've always prided myself on my Internet honesty.

WHAT EXACTLY IS FRED HILL UP TO?

The last thing this conference needs right now is another contender, a fact that doesn't seem to concern Rutgers head coach Fred Hill. Life hasn't been especially kind to the Scarlet Knights in the post-Quincy Douby era, and Hill is doing everything he can to change all that.

The first step was signing highly regarded freshmen guards Mike Coburn and Corey Chandler, both of whom performed admirably in their first collegiate season. Hill then upped the anti by signing the school's first McDonald's All-American in Mike Rosario, as well as the No. 13 player in the class of 2009, Greg Echenique (who will be eligible to play next season), and by bringing in Florida transfer Jonathan Mitchell.

The top tier teams in the Big East need at least two or three guaranteed wins every season, but it's looking more and more like Rutgers isn't going to be one of the squads providing that service for at least the next few years.

WHICH BIG EAST FRESHMAN WILL MAKE THE BIGGEST SPLASH?

This conversation begins with Louisville's Samardo Samuels, the USA Today National Player of the Year who will attempt to fill the void left in the middle by the departed David Padgett. While a healthy contribution from Samuels is necessary for the Cardinals to reach their ceiling in '08-'09, it might not translate into individual accolades for the big man, as he'll likely be serving mainly as an accent to established scorers like Earl Clark, Terrence Williams and Jerry Smith in his first season under Rick Pitino.

Focus next shifts to Georgetown's Greg Monroe, the player who perhaps possesses the best combination of size and skill in the class of 2008. While the transfer of Vernon Macklin has basically left Monroe as the uncontested starter in the paint, it generally takes newcomers - regardless of skill - a while to get a grasp of John Thompson III's system, and thus expecting a head-turning season from any Hoya freshman is probably foolish.

West Virginia's Devin Ebanks, Syracuse's Mookie Jones and Uconn's Kemba Walker and Ater Majok are all exceptionally gifted, but in a season like this where so many teams have so much returning, it might be best to look at a freshman joining a squad that finished in the bottom half of the standings the year before as possibly having the biggest impact on the league.

Enter Cincinnati's Yancy Gates.

The 6-8 Gates is the most versatile player to come to the Queen City since the Bearcats made the jump to the Big East. He's strong, he's athletic, he can defend, and he can shoot from the outside. Deonta Vaughn, your help has arrived.

More contenders:

Mike Rosario, Rutgers
Terrence Jennings, Louisville
Jason Clark, Georgetown
Kevin Jones, West Virginia
Kris Joseph, Syracuse
Nasir Robinson, Pittsburgh

16 OR 18?

The move to an 18-game conference schedule deserves at least partial credit for the Big East getting a record-tying eight teams into the field of 64, but there are still several coaches who see it as an unfair challenge, and that's unlikely to change heading into this season. The gripe that most fans have with it is that it doesn't honor pre-existing rivalries enough. Why should Syracuse play South Florida more than - or as many times - as it plays Connecticut, and why is Louisville getting mirror games with Rutgers but not Cincinnati?

Proponents of the scheduling system will argue that the Big East had the most exciting regular season of any conference in 2007-2008, and that it got more teams into the NCAA Tournament than it would have playing a 16-game slate. It's an argument that will almost assuredly keep the system in place for the foreseeable future.

HOW GOOD CAN PROVIDENCE BE WITH KENO?

Perhaps no offseason firing was more warranted than Tim Welsh getting the ax at Providence. Welsh guided a team that began the season with victories over A-10 champion Temple and SEC runner-up Arkansas, and which possessed more than enough talent to be an NCAA Tournament team to a 15-16 overall record and a 6-12 mark in the league.

The decision was an easy one for Friar AD Bob Driscoll, who gave Welsh his walking papers and brought in National Coach of the Year Keno Davis from Drake.

Davis inherits a team that still possesses more than enough talent to be a factor in this loaded conference. Manhattan transfer Jeff Xavier is a pure scorer, shooting guard Weyinmi Efejuku is as athletic as any player in the league, and power forward Geoff McDermott has the type of raw talent that keeps coaches awake at night. All this, and he gets scoring point guard Sharaud Curry back from injury. He also pulled off a major coup earlier this month when he added Rhode Island assistant Pat Skerry to his staff. Skerry is known as a relentless recruiter and was named as the No. 1 mid-major assistant coach in the country  in a survey conducted by Jeff Goodman.

With Davis at the helm, this is yet another squad that demands preseason attention.

HOW LONG UNTIL THE SEASON STARTS?

Too long.

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