1. West Virginia
The Mountaineers laid a huge egg in the NCAA Tournament against Dayton, but Bob Huggins’ third West Virginia squad is loaded. Da’Sean Butler may be the most underrated player in the country and Devin Ebanks is primed to breakout and become a full-fledged superstar.
Losing Dante Cunningham is an enormous hit, but the sensational guard trio of Scottie Reynolds and the Coreys (Fisher and Stokes) return from last year’s Final Four squad and Jay Wright reeled in one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Don’t be surprised if the much-hyped Wildcats drop a game or two they shouldn’t before Reggie Redding returns to the team after Christmas.
A.J. Price is gone, but Kemba Walker should make a strong push for the title of "best point guard in the Big East" in his sophomore season. The bigger loss is in the post, where Jim Calhoun will be looking to replace Hasheem Thabeet’s defensive presence. How well freshman big man Alex Oriakhi adapts to the college game could determine whether or not the Huskies again challenge for the league title.
This is higher than I’ve seen the Bearcats placed by anyone else, but I don’t think there’s a more complete starting five in the league. Cashmere Wright is healthy and ready to take much of the ball-handling duties away from Deonta Vaughn, Yancy Gates is one of the best big men in the league, and Lance Stephenson, the Big East’s most talented newcomer, has been cleared to play by the NCAA. The pressure is on Mick Cronin to win now.
History has not been kind to college basketball teams trying to recover from losing two lottery picks, but the defending Big East regular season and tournament champions do return a strong nucleus from the squad that ended the ’09 regular season ranked No. 1 in the country. Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings will both demand significant attention in the post, but how well Pitino’s team shoots from the outside will likely determine its fate more times than not this year.
Though the nation kept waiting it for happen, the Hoyas were never able to click and get on track a season ago. Still, expectations to produce are again prevalent as John Thompson III returns multiple starters including reigning Big East Rookie of the Year Greg Monroe.
7. Notre Dame
Returning nearly everyone from a team that almost captured the ’08 regular season conference title, no squad disappointed more than the Fighting Irish a season ago. But preseason Player of the Year Luke Harangody is back and has more than enough talent around him to guide this team back into the NCAA Tournament. If Notre Dame doesn’t go dancing, Mike Brey could be spending the summer looking for a new job.
8. Seton Hall
The biggest wild card in the league, Seton Hall is loaded with talent at every position. Jeremy Hazell and Eugene Harvey are two of the most explosive offensive players in the Big East, and Bobby Gonzalez has brought in three big-time transfers who he hopes can transform the Pirates into legitimate contenders. You can justify picking this team to finish just about anywhere.
No coach has a tougher job this year than Jamie Dixon, who must find a way to replace the superstar trio of DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and LeVance Fields. Freshman Dante Taylor is the real deal, but some guys who have been role players up until this point in their Panther careers are going to have to step up significantly for Pitt to finish in the top half of this league.
No one knew how well the Orange were going to react to the not-so-surprising departure of Jonny Flynn and the extremely surprising departures of Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf. Dropping an exhibition game to a D-III school was not a solid start. Arizne Onuaku is a beast in the middle and Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson is a legit NBA prospect, but without an established floor general, it’s hard to see turnovers and poor decisions not plaguing this group from season’s beginning to end.
Lazar Hayward is a star and Mo Acker earned his stripes when Dominic James went down a year ago, but if Buzz Williams' talented group of newcomers doesn’t drastically overachieve then the Golden Eagles are going to struggle.
Despite the toxic mix of a bevy of seniors and a first-year head coach, Keno Davis’ first Providence squad was probably a single win over Louisville in the Big East tournament away from making the Big Dance. This year’s task might be even tougher for Davis, who has a talented backcourt duo in Sharaud Curry and Brian McKenzie but lost nearly all of his other production.
Mike Rosario was extremely impressive over the course of his freshman season and big men Greg Echenique and Hamady N’Diaye are both solid defensive presences, but Fred Hill needs at least one more big-time scorer for the Scarlet Knights to avoid the infamous "teen four" status in the Big East. The dismissal of Corey Chandler was a big blow.
14. St. John’s
Believe it or not, this is actually one of the deepest teams in the conference. The health of Anthony Mason Jr. is still a major concern, but there’s enough talent on this roster to pull a major upset or two.
15. South Florida
Dominique Jones is an elite scorer and Chris Howard is a terrific playmaker, but the Bulls still don’t have enough in their front court to really compete in a league like the Big East.
Will Walker and Mac Koshwal are both good players, but they weren’t good enough to earn the Blue Demons a single conference win in the regular season last year and they won’t be good enough to vault Depaul out of last place in ’09-’10.
Player of the Year: Luke Harangody, Notre Dame
Rookie of the Year: Lance Stephenson, Cincinnati
Coach of the Year: Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
Luke Harangody, Notre Dame
Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati
Da’Sean Butler, West Virginia
Scottie Reynolds, Villanova
Kemba Walker, Connecticut
Jeremy Hazell, Seton Hall
Lazar Hayward, Marquette
Greg Monroe, Georgetown
Devin Ebanks, West Virginia
Arizne Onuaku, Syracuse
Samardo Samuels, Louisville
Dominique Jones, South Florida
Wesley Johnson, Syracuse
Yancy Gates, Cincinnati
Jerome Dyson, Connecticut
There was much debate throughout the course of last season over whether or not the Big East was stronger than it had ever been. The fact teams from the conference ultimately comprised half of the Elite Eight and Final Four fields would seem to bolster the case of the folks on the "yes" side of that argument, but when you have three squads with resumes strong enough to earn No. 1 seeds, it also means that a lot of teams in the bottom half of the league are piling up a lot of losses.
By and large, the teams that finished 1-8 a season ago have gotten worse and the teams that finished 9-16 have gotten better, which should make for a jumbled final league standings. Expect the difference between teams 6-11 to be razor thin, and the second day of the Big East tournament to be tremendous.
2. Rick Pitino
Little has gone well for Rick Pitino since his top-seeded Cardinals were bounced in the Elite Eight by Michigan State last March. He lost a pair of lottery picks to the NBA and his offseason was mired by a scandal that involved extortion, adultery and abortion. He’s talked about the matter being behind him and focusing on the upcoming season for the past two months or so, but expect the issue to be thrust back into the national spotlight if the Cardinals go through any significant struggles.
3. National Title Contenders
For all the praise that has been heaped upon the Big East since its expansion, the league hasn’t produced a national champion since Connecticut cut down the nets in 2004. The top-tier teams in the league have the talent to make a run, but it will be more of a surprise if the league isn’t again shut out in 2010.
The Big East has lost a significant chunk of star power as all but two of the 11 players named to the first and second All-Conference teams a year ago have moved on. Perennial powerhouses Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville have been especially rocked by graduation and early defections. The door now appears to be open for teams like Cincinnati and Seton Hall to make their moves toward the top half of the standings.
5. The big, big Big East Tournament
The league has opted to stick with the 16-team tournament format for a second straight season after it was more exciting than anyone could have anticipated in its trial run. If another significant alteration to the tournament is going to take place, it will likely come after this season.
15 Best Non-Conference Games
1. Connecticut vs. Kentucky (Big East/SEC Challenge: Madison Square Garden) (12/9)
2. Louisville at Kentucky (1/2)
3. Connecticut vs. Texas (1/23)
4. West Virginia at Purdue (1/1)
5. West Virginia vs. Ohio State (1/23)
6. Duke at Georgetown (1/31)
7. Cincinnati at Xavier (12/13)
8. Connecticut at Michigan (1/17)
9. Georgetown vs. Butler (Jimmy V. Classic) (12/8)
10. UCLA at Notre Dame (12/19)
11. Washington vs. Georgetown (Wooden Classic) (12/12)
12. Florida vs. Syracuse (Big East/SEC Challenge) (12/9)
13. Villanova at Maryland (12/6)
14. Memphis at Syracuse (1/6)
15. Louisville at UNLV (11/28)
Big Monday Schedule
January 4 – Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
January 11 – Villanova at Louisville
January 18 – Syracuse at Notre Dame
January 25 – Georgetown at Syracuse
February 1 – Connecticut at Louisville
February 8 – Villanova at West Virginia
February 15 – Connecticut at Villanova
February 22 – West Virginia at Connecticut
March 1 – Georgetown at West Virginia
Top 15 Guards
1. Scottie Reynolds, Villanova
2. Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati
3. Kemba Walker, Connecticut
4. Jeremy Hazell, Seton Hall
5. Dominique Jones, South Florida
6. Jerome Dyson, Connecticut
7. Sharaud Curry, Providence
8. Mike Rosario, Rutgers
9. Eugene Harvey, Seton Hall
10. Corey Stokes, Villanova
11. Tory Jackson, Notre Dame
12. Jerry Smith, Louisville
13. Corey Fisher, Villanova
14. Will Walker, Depaul
15. Edgar Sosa, Louisville
Top 15 Forwards
1. Luke Harangody, Notre Dame
2. Da’Sean Butler, West Virginia
3. Lazar Hayward, Marquette’
4. Devin Ebanks, West Virginia
5. Greg Monroe, Georgetown
6. Arizne Onuaku, Syracuse
7. Yancy Gates, Cincinnati
8. Samardo Samuels, Louisville
9. Wesley Johnson, Syracuse
10. Stanley Robinson, Connecticut
11. Lance Stephenson, Cincinnati
12. Greg Echenique, Rutgers
13. Mac Koshwal, Depaul
14. Anthony Mason Jr., St. John’s
15. Dante Taylor, Pittsburgh
Top 10 Freshmen
1. Lance Stephenson, Cincinnati
2. Dante Taylor, Pittsburgh
3. Alex Oriakhi, Connecticut
4. Mouphtaou Yarou, Villanova
5. Peyton Siva, Louisville
6. Dominic Cheek, Villanova
7. Maalik Wayns, Villanova
8. Hollis Thompson, Georgetown
9. Junior Cadougan, Marquette
10. Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, Connecticut
Top 5 Rebounders
1. Luke Harangody, Notre Dame
2. Mac Koshwal, Depaul
3. Greg Echenique, Rutgers
4. Lazar Hayward, Marquette
5. Arizne Onuaku, Syracuse
Top 10 Shooters
1. Jeremy Hazell, Seton Hall
2. Andy Rautins, Syracuse
3. Corey Stokes, Villanova
4. Jerry Smith, Louisville
5. Casey Mitchell, West Virginia
6. Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh
7. Taylor King, Villanova
8. Preston Knowles, Louisville
9. Sharaud Curry, Providence
10. Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati
Top 5 On-Ball Defenders
1. Jerome Dyson, Connecticut
2. Preston Knowles, Louisville
3. Kemba Walker, Connecticut
4. Paris Horne, St. John’s
5. Eugene Harvey, Seton Hall
Top 5 Shot-Blockers
1. Hamady N’Diaye, Rutgers
2. Greg Echenique, Rutgers
3. Terrence Jennings, Louisville
4. John Garcia, Seton Hall
5. Arizne Onuaku, Syracuse
Top 5 Passers
1. Tory Jackson, Notre Dame
2. Eugene Harvey, Seton Hall
3. Chris Howard, South Florida
4. Chris Wright, Georgetown
5. Reggie Redding, Villanova
Top 10 Impact Transfers
1. Wesley Johnson, Syracuse (Iowa State)
2. Herb Pope, Seton Hall (New Mexico State)
3. Ben Hansbrough, Notre Dame (Mississippi State)
4. Keon Lawrence, Seton Hall (Missouri)
5. Taylor King, Villanova (Duke)
6. Ibrahima Thomas, Cincinnati (Oklahoma)
7. Chase Adams, Pittsburgh (Centenary)
8. Jonathan Mitchell, Rutgers (Florida)
9. Anthony Crater, South Florida (Ohio State)
10. Jeff Robinson, Seton Hall (Memphis)