There are sixteen freaking teams in this conference. Sixteen!! No wonder they got eight or nine teams or whatever in the tournament last year. That's like the Big Ten getting five or six - no big whoop. Even so, there are a whole lot of quality teams here - the dominance of last year won't be repeated, but there are plenty of good teams in the Big East again and a final four contender or two.
1. West Virginia. There's no doubt Bob Huggins is leaving his stamp on this team, and not just with stellar recruiting and good overall coaching, but with lax disciplinary actions as well. The team's two point guards, Joe Mazzulla and Darryl Bryant, were both arrested this summer (Mazzulla on domestic battery charges - his second arrest following up last year's for assaulting a police officer, Bryant for two separate hit and run incidents, including "bumping" a pedestrian), but surprise, surprise, they are both back on Huggy Bear's squad. I'm kidding here, of course, I don't give a crap what any player does off the court and I hvae no problem with schools bending whatever rules possible to win - and win the Mountaineers should do. Da'Sean Butler is a monster, and Devin Ebanks is going to be an absolute superstar. Since it's Huggy, they'll probably flame out in the second round of the tournament, but they should be gold in the regular season.
2. Villanova. Scottie Reynolds coming back instead of staying in the NBA draft is a bit of a double-edged sword, for both the Wildcats and for me. For Nova, it gives them back their leading scorer, but also a bit of a wildcard who can go off in a bad way, chucking shots at every opportunity and sometimes shooting them right out of a game, and makes a crowded, yet talented, backcourt even more crowded. For me, I'm sort of happy I get another season to root against him, but on the other hand it would have been kind of fun to watch him not get drafted and end up languishing in Norwegian Basketball League or something. Oh well. Villanova is going to be very good again this year, and once again will be very perimeter-based with all those guards back. Plus they add two McDonald's All-Americans, both guards, in Maalik Wayns (#26 Rivals) and Dominic Cheek (#30). Their big concern is up front. Losing Dante Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson, and Shane Clark takes away nearly 50% of their rebounds from last year. Luckily, they have two other stud recruits, #10 Mouphtaou Yarou and #62 Isaiah Armwood coming in and both bring size and rebounding.
3. UCONN. Lots of talent leaves, but since Calhoun got this program all straightened out again after that brief dip into crappiness in 2007, you can bet their is plenty coming back and coming in as well. Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson might be the best backcourt in the conference. Walker is quick as lightning and played very well down the stretch last year after Dyson got hurt. Speaking of Dyson, I love his game. Assuming he's all the way back from injury, I can see him making a run at First Team All Big East. Stanley Robinson is back as well, and he's an incredible athlete who also came into his own the second half of last year. If someone can step in and fill the up the paint with Thabeet and Adrien gone, either one of the seldom used veterans or freshman Alex Oriakhi, the #21 prospect according to Rivals, the Huskies could have an oustide shot at another Final Four appearance.
4. Cincinnati. I love the Bearcats this year. Love 'em. Deonta Vaughn is a stone-cold killer at guard, and he's back with more help. Yancy Gates is a big man who made the all Big East freshman team last year and is just going to get better, and there's plenty of other help here with four starters coming back, and after the fall semester will be joined in the paint by former Oklahoma State center Ibrahima Thomas, giving them another low post scorer and solid defender. Another big help will come from freshman Cashmere Wright, a top 100 prospect last year before hurting his knee and missing the entire season. Cincinnati is loaded with combo guard types, but Wright gives them a true point guard, which should help Vaughn score even more. The real wild card here is SF Lance Stephenson, a top 10 recruit, a McDonald's All-American, and the all-time leading scorer in New York High School basketball history. He's still a question mark on academics, and has been a bit of a handful in high school, getting in trouble for getting in a fight with a teammate as well as for "groping" a girl against her will in the hallway (you know she wanted it). His issues are such that high profile schools such as UNC and Kansas pulling out of his recruitment. If he gets eligible and can mesh with his new teammates, the sky is the limit for the Bearcats. If he doesn't, or if he's a discipline problem, they could end up anywhere from a good team to a disaster. At 200-1 to win the whole thing, this is a great option to put $5 down on.
5. Georgetown. Greg Monroe was insanely impressive last season, and despite averaging a fairly pedestrian 12.7 points and 6.5 rebounds last season he loooked ready to break out at any time. Trust me, if you watched him play at all he looks amazing. Already as a freshman he could handle the ball on the perimeter, and not just passing, I watched him put it on the floor and drive right passed several slower, less agile centers. He also already possessed a handful of moves on the block and a decent mid-range game, and is a capable defender. Last season you could see he was willing to play a more complimentary role, even though he probably shouldn't have. If he comes into this season with a more assertive attitude, there's no way the Hoyas end up without a bid and an inexplicably horrible record like they did last season. I'm telling you, if you have a chance to watch Monroe next season, take the time to check him out. He'll probably be a Wolf soon.
6. Louisville. Losing Terrence Williams and Earl Clark is not going to be easy. Those two did essentially everything for the Cardinals, outside of three point shooting. They were the top 2 scorers, rebounders, and assist men for Louisville last year, and so it's understandable to expect the team to take a step back. How far will mainly depend on Samardo Samuels, who couldn't even stop Travis Busch. Last year Samuels was the third option and played well, but this season he will need to become the man. Another important player, and massive head-scratcher, is point guard Edgar Sosa. As a freshman, he played brilliantly at times, put up very good numbers for a first year player, and looked like he was going to be the next "big-time PG from New York." Instead, he's taken a step backward after a step backward, and now goes into his senior year with just one more chance to try to recapture whatever it is he lost from his debut season. If he can't, freshman Peyton Siva is now on board, and was ranked #39 on the Rivals 150. He could easily end up taking Sosa's job - if Rick Pitino manages to stop banging broads long enough to pay attention.
7. Syracuse. Every where I turn it seems like there's a new article about how Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson is like, the greatest transfer of all-time and he's going to carry the Orange and I don't get. Don't get me wrong, he's a good player and all (averaged 12 points and 4 rebounds his last year at ISU), but he's no savior. He wasn't highly recruited out of high school, and although he burst on the scene his freshman year he regressed quite a bit in year two. If Syracuse wasn't losing Paul Harris (one of my favorites the last few years), criminal Eric Devendorf, and Jonny Flynn, he might be the missing piece that vaults them to the top - but those guys are all gone. There is still some quality talent here, and I love watching Arinze Onuaku, who really doesn't mess around and try to get all fancy. He just gets the ball, knocks defenders over, and then dunks on their stupid heads. The Cuse should be good again, assuming they find some guard play somewhere, but let's calm down a wee tad on Wesley.
8. Notre Dame. Harangody is back - yes again - which makes the Irish dangerous in any given game, but the majority of his supporting cast is gone, and I'm not sure if that's good or bad after last year's total flame out. None of the incoming recruits are particularly impressive, with apologies to Minnesota's own Mike Broghammer, so it's going to fall on returning veterans to get the Irish back to the NCAA Tournament. They do have their starting point guard back in little Tory Jackson. He's very hard to keep out of the paint, but is not a good outside shooter and, although he's improved his free-throw shooting, can be a liability at the end of games. Two transfers were supposed to shore up the team this season, Ben Hansbrough from Mississippi State and Scott Martin from Purdue. Hansbrough will be key if they want to get to the NCAAs, but Martin got hurt and is going to miss the whole season.
9. Seton Hall. This is a really interesting team, and on paper they have a chance to be much better than 9th. It starts with their returning star, shooting guard Jeremy Hazell. He's a scoring machine who can get hot at a moment's notice, and averaged 22.7 points per game last season, second in the Big East, despite shooting just 42%. Less might be more here, and he should have more help this season, beyond even the two other returning double digit scorers returning to the Pirates in the form of a couple of interesting transfers, one inside and one outside. The perimeter guy is Keon Lawrence, who comes to the Hall via Missouri. Lawrence is an excellent scorer (he put up 9.7 and 11.0 ppg in his two years at Mizzou) who will help take some pressure off of Hazell, and is talented enough to shoulder the scoring load some nights (he put up 25 against Kansas one year). Power Forward Herb Pope, the other transfer - this time from New Mexico State, might be even more important since the Pirates a bit thin on the inside. Pope was a high school superstar - ranked #31 by Rivals and offered by Texas, Pitt, and Memphis - and averaged 11 points and 7 rebounds per game in his one season in the desert. If everything and everyone pulls together and meshes well, an NCAA Tournament bid isn't out of the question.
10. Pitt. Thank god Pitt is finally going to take a step back this year, I've been getting more tired of that program than I can possibly express in words. They lose pretty much everybody, which is good news for me because rotund irritant Levance Fields is finally gone, but is bad for Pitt. Their leading returning scorer, and only 20+ minute guy who is coming back, Jermaine Dixon, is more of a defensive specialist than any kind of offensive threat. Of course, Jamie Dixon couldn't just relax for a little bit, and he is bringing in a very good recruiting class - including Rivals #14 prospect Dante Taylor, who has a good chance to win Big East ROY - so this break from having Pitt up in your face every time you turn on ESPN will be short-lived. Enjoy it folks, I know I will.
11. Rutgers. I always find myself rooting for Rutgers and I think there are two reasons. The first, is that I liked watching Quincy "rolling a" Douby and that other guy whose name I can't remember right now when they were there and the Scarlet Knights were actually good. The second is that they have a great home court advantage when they are good, and they call the place the RAC which is pronounced like "rack", of which I am a big fan. So maybe I'm overrating them a tad but I think Rutgers could sneak up on a few people this season, especially at home. The program's first McDonald's All-American, Mike Rosario, paid immediate dividends, leading the team in scoring, but something more needs to happen if this is Rutgers return to prominence. They add a pretty decent batch of newcomers, which includes top 100 recruit SF Dane Miller, top 40 JuCo James Beatty - who will probably start at PG from day one, and a small forward transfer from Florida in Jonathan Mitchell, a top 100 recruit in 2006 and a bit player on Florida's second National Championship team. In a down Big East, maybe this is their year.
12. Marquette. Jerel McNeal, Dominic James, and Wes Matthews were without question on of the best three-man backcourts I have ever seen, and maybe the best since Lethal Weapon 3 (the aesome Georgia Tech one, not the craptacualrly overrated South Carolina nickname stealing one). But yeah, those guys are gone. Swingman Lazar Haywood is back at least, and despite being in the guards shadow a bit he's developed into an outstanding player - did you know that other than Luke Harangody, Haywood was the only Big East player to rank in the top 10 in both scoring and rebounding last season? I bet you had no idea he was that good, did you? There's some nice players coming in this year's recruiting class, with, no surprise, an emphasis on the perimeter, including Rivals #47 Jeronne Maymon, who the Gophers were looking at for a time, but unless Hayward has a super human year, I don't think we'll see the Golden Eagles back in the NCAA tournament.
13. St. Johns. The Redmen or Red Storm or Reds or whatever they are have an interesting group of talent this year - they should be deep, but I just don't know if they'll be good. They lose nobody off of their 6-12 Big East team from last year, and have plenty of balance with five players who scored between 9 and 15 points per game - although Anthony Mason only played 3 games last year. Mason is still hurt, and will be out 4-6 weeks, so it will be interesting to see what happens when he tries to return as lead dog and reintegrate with his teammates who will have played over a season's worth of games without him.
14. South Florida. Did you know that South Florida had one of the best all-around players in the Big East? Me neither, but they do and he's only a junior. Dominique Jones, a 6-4 guard out of Florida, was a bit underrated coming out of high school (3 stars, unranked, mid-major type offers), but he's certainly blossomed with the Bulls. He finished 9th in the conference in scoring (18.1 ppg), was 27th in rebounding (5.6 rpg), and was 12th in assists at 3.9 per game, and also led the Bulls in steals and was second in blocks while scoring in double figures in 55 of his 62 career games. Yeah, he's good. There's not a ton of help around him, but the best recruiting class the Bulls have had in a long time is coming in this year, and two transfers - PG Anthony Crater from Ohio State and C Jarrid Famous from a JuCo - bring hope, if nothing else. Crater is especially important because Jones won't have to worry about playing the point, and that should lead to a huge year.
15. Providence. I liked the Friars last year quite a bit, but they could never quite rise above "pesky" and fell just short of gaining an NCAA bid. Now five of the top seven guys are gone, and although Sharaud Curry and Marshon Brooks are good players, replacing two thirds of the team's scoring from last season is no easy feat, and a big burden will fall on a huge group of newcomers. The closest thing to a standout in the group is PG Johnnie Lacy (#143 according to Rivals), whose name you might remember because the Gophers had given him a scholarship offer. Unless a couple of juco guys work out really well, it will probably be a long year for the Friars, but with a good class this year and an even better one already in the works for next year, things should turn around, unlike
16. DePaul. The worst arena in the country hosts what might be, once again, the worst major conference team in the country. Seems fitting. The Blue Demons didn't win a single conference game (until a shocker of a win in the Big East tournament), and now see their best player leave for the NBA draft (note: he didn't get drafted). There's some talent here, Mac Koshwal is a great all around player and Will "Wheel" Walker is a good scorer, but that's about it. Krys Faber, who chose DePaul over Minnesota, is still here as well, and is probably going to be questioning his decision when he's watching the Gophers in the tournament from his dorm room, because I don't think DePaul even has as much as a CBI bid in them.