Big East Basketball Preview: Pitt Will Survive, Will Anyone Else?
Which brings up a stinging verbal slap from then-Missouri guard Zaire Taylor during last season's NCAA tournament, speaking on the endlessly-debated topic of conference supremacy: "The Big East has a lot of talented teams, some elite teams. But at the same time, they've got about 30 or 40 teams in the conference.''
The sting came from the fact that five Big East teams were seeded third or better, but three of them (Villanova, Pittsburgh and Georgetown) couldn't escape the first weekend, and the one that did reach the Final Four, West Virginia, was something of a sleeper. It illustrated the annual dilemma the league faces: who really knows how good the best of the crop are after they emerge from the 18-game, unbalanced-schedule gauntlet of league play?
Every coach talks every year about the grind of conference play, even against the lower echelon -- after all, last season DePaul managed to beat Marquette, Rutgers took down Georgetown, St. John's knocked off Louisville and Providence sank Connecticut. It's unavoidable. It also may explain why teams have petered out early in NCAA play and have not won the national title since the league grew to 16. Or ... it may not.
This season, Pittsburgh and Villanova entertain serious Final Four thoughts, and Syracuse has a chance, too. The losses to graduation and the NBA will be balanced again by rising underclassmen (watch for Pitt's Ashton Gibbs, 'Nova's Corey Fisher and Georgetown's Austin Freeman on some all-America teams by year's end) and another influx of blue-chip recruits. And four new coaches arrive to shore up the lesser programs -- including Steve Lavin at St. John's, which finished fourth from the bottom last season but got one preseason vote to win the league this year.
So expect excellence again, but don't be surprised by another case of crabs-in-a-barrel.
Player of the Year
Austin Freeman, Georgetown
Anyone who saw the senior guard's second-half outbursts against UConn (28 of his 33 points) and Louisville (24 of his 29) last year knows he can completely take over a game, and do it from anywhere on the floor. He scored 16.5 points a game as a junior and 19.5 a game in conference play, and is fully cleared medically after being diagnosed with diabetes late in the year. In the Hoyas' three-guard lineup (Chris Wright, Jason Clark), he's the standout.
Most Important Player
Kemba Walker, Connecticut
The junior point guard is, in essence, the only truly proven player the Huskies have coming back; most of the other players Jim Calhoun is relying on are unsettlingly young, albeit talented. Walker (14.6 points, 5.1 assists) didn't have to be the most settled player last season, but he has to be the guiding light, and on the whole he's handled it well. Many shrugged off
last season's skid into the NIT while looking forward to the fruits of the last two recruiting classes. They won't mean much if Walker isn't on his job.
Fab Melo, Syracuse
The glimpses from scrimmages and exhibitions are breathtaking -- a shot-blocker at one end, a devastating finisher at the other, a 7-footer who can dribble the length of the court in between. Melo will bring his considerable size and skills to a team with lots of experience at all positions ... except his. And he'll get his minutes with DaShonte Riley out with a broken foot.
Player Who Will Be Missed Most
Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia
Speaking of finishers ... Butler's senior season was a sight to behold, with all the game-winners he pulled off as he herded the Mountaineers to the Big East tournament championship and the Final Four. West Virginia has very talented returning players, but none with such a developed knack for seizing the big moment, and none so eagerly followed by his teammates. No wonder Bob Huggins's comforting of him after he blew out his knee in the Final Four against Duke was so emotional.
Predicted Order of Finish
5. West Virginia
8. Seton Hall
9. St. John's
11. Notre Dame
12. South Florida
On the Rise
St. John's -- Lavin inherits 10 seniors, comprising the top eight returning scorers and the top seven in minutes played. He also added Gene Keady to his staff. Starting with the Louisville win, the Red Storm split their last 10 games before earning an NIT bid.
Seton Hall -- Despite the tumultuous end of the Bobby Gonzalez era, the Pirates did win 19 games and were on the NCAA bubble going into the conference tournament. Leading rebounder Herb Pope is back from his frightening offseason health scare, scorer Jeremy Hazell returns, and there appears to be an atmosphere of relief, stability and calm early in the Kevin Willard regime.
Connecticut -- Seriously, this program can't fall off but so far under a coach like Calhoun, can it? He does have a wealth of young talent coming in; in particular, freshman Roscoe Smith appears to be a real keeper.
On the Decline
South Florida -- The Bulls and Stan Heath really don't have a replacement for explosive guard Dominique Jones, architect of so many of their upsets last season. Much is being placed on center Gus Gilchrist, but at the third school of his career (the first at which he's actually played), he needs to show what all the fuss was about.
Cincinnati -- The Big East's biggest teases: big win here, aggravating loss there. Mick Cronin still has not gotten the team to the NCAAs yet, and Lance Stephenson bailed on schedule after one year. Not devoid of talent, but it's time for it to produce.
NCAA Tournament locks: Pittsburgh, Villanova, Syracuse, Georgetown, West Virginia
NCAA Tournament bubble: Connecticut, Louisville, Marquette, Seton Hall
NIT-Bound: St. John's, Notre Dame, South Florida
1. Pittsburgh: Can the Panthers live up to expectations and make the Final Four trip they narrowly missed in 2009?
2. Villanova: Will the Wildcats really finish better off this year than last year, when they had first-team all-American Scottie Reynolds?
3. Syracuse: Can league sixth-man of the year Kris Joseph make the move to starter and do a reasonable impression of the departed Wesley Johnson?
4. Georgetown: Who replaces Greg Monroe in the middle?
5. West Virginia: Can Kevin Jones emerge as a star without Butler, Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith surrounding him?
6. Connecticut: Will the ongoing NCAA investigation into recruiting violations, and Calhoun's health issues, distract this team?
7. Marquette: With Tom Crean's players now being replaced by his own, can coach Buzz Williams manufacture another 20-win, NCAA-bid season?
8. Seton Hall: Has the program puts the "Bad News Pirates'' era behind it, even with some of those players (like Pope, ejected from their NIT game last year for a groin punch) returning?
9. St. John's: Can a West Coast coach re-take the five boroughs in recruiting?
10. Louisville: Can the Cardinals' highly-rated recruiting class mature quickly enough to make followers forget the testimony in last summer's Rick Pitino-Karen Sypher trial?
11. Notre Dame: Uh-oh, no more Luke Harangody?
12. South Florida: Can Gilchrist, who showed glimpses of greatness last year when he was healthy, be the centerpiece he's expected to be?
13. Cincinnati: Where will a team returning one double-figure scorer (junior forward Yancy Gates) find points?
14. Rutgers: Can new coach Mike Rice wave away the stench of the embarrassing final days of Fred Hill's tenure and steer the program in the right direction?
15. DePaul: Can Oliver Purnell restore the former glory of a program now irrelevant not only in this major conference, but in
its own city of Chicago?
16. Providence: Does Keno Davis, who threw three players off the team after last season, including his leading scorer and rebounder, wish he'd never left Drake?