The Bottom of the Big East Might Finally Compete in 2010

Jameson FlemingSenior Writer IJune 30, 2009

NEW YORK - MARCH 10:  Mike Rosario #3 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights drives the ball against Tory Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the first round of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 10, 2009 in New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Nine schools have dominated the top nine spots in the Big East since the league expanded to a nation-high 16 teams.

On average, Connecticut, Louisville, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Georgetown, Notre Dame, West Virginia, and Marquette have held eight of the top nine spots in the standings over the past four years.

In only 2005-06, the year the league extended into the heartland to grab four Conference USA teams, did two of those nine teams finished outside the top nine.

In 2007-08, those nine teams ended the season holding down the top nine spots.

But, after the 2008-09 season, a season which Georgetown finished outside the top nine, this group of dominant teams suffered dramatic losses.

Of the top 30 scorers in the Big East last season, 20 played for the nine teams that have had a stranglehold on the conference. Of those 20, 15 have either graduated or skipped out on college ball to play professionally.

Notre Dame's Luke Harangody led the conference in scoring, but the team's second option and floor-spreader, Kyle McAlarney, is no longer there. Ninth-leading scorer Da'Sean Butler will be without the league's 15th best scorer, Alex Ruoff.

Marquette's Lazar Hayward, who ranked 10th in the league in scoring, won't have the trio of guards Wes Matthews, Jerel McNeal, and Dominic James to compliment him.

Finally, rising freshman Greg Monroe ranked 29th in the league in points per game, but loses fellow forward DaJuan Summers to the NBA.

Only Villanova's Scottie Reynolds returns to a team that will return enough talent to make the it a national contender. West Virginia should return enough talent to finish as well as, if not better than, last season.

Georgetown's loss of Summers is the school's only significant personnel loss.

That means six of the Big East's superior programs should be ready to step back a bit in 2010.

And that means several schools that typically call the bottom half of the standings home have a realistic chance to make some noise.

The Queen City Has a Program Ready to Compete with the Kings of the Big East

Cincinnati has essentially done nothing since the school joined the Big East. The Bearcats have notched a few upsets early in the conference slate, but overall have a 26-42 Big East record.

UC even lost in the first round of the 2009 Big East Championship to formerly winless DePaul.

But, there is hope for Mick Cronin's club.

Cronin is finally beginning to move outside of the gigantic shadow Bob Huggins left. The Bearcats won just two league games in 2007, followed by eight wins in 2008, and eight more in 2009. They managed to increase its overall win total from 13 in 2008 to 18 in 2009.

Cronin returns perhaps the league's second best rising junior, Deonta Vaughn, and one of the most under-appreciated freshman, Yancy Gates.

The majority of Cronin's '08-09 rotation also consisted of underclassman. Plus, highly touted freshman Cashmere Wright will be added to the rotation after missing the 2009 season with a knee injury.

On paper, only Villanova and West Virginia are clearly better than the Bearcats. A third-place finish for Cincinnati may be unlikely, but should be a realistic goal for a Bearcats team ready to compete and beat the beasts of the east.

Seton Hall Will Be One of the Nation's Most Improved Teams

The Pirates have one of the best scoring trios returning in the country. Jeremy Hazell (22.7 ppg), Robert Mitchell (14.7 ppg), and Eugene Harvey (12.5 ppg) will team up with two of the biggest impact transfers in the country.

Both Keon Lawrence (from Missouri) and Herb Pope (from New Mexico State) averaged 11 points per game for their former schools.

Throw in a tank in the center, John Garcia, thrifty rising freshman guard Jordan Theodore, another transfer from Memphis in Jeff Robinson, and two solid incoming freshmen Jamel Jackson and Ferrakohn Hall—and Seton Hall will potentially have a 10-man rotation when Big East play starts. 

It's a rotation that should save Bobby Gonzalez's job.

Gonzalez does face one problem—the Pirates haven't played a lick of defense since 2005, and the team lost its top defender, Paul Gause.

The guard was one of the league's best defenders and was really the only reason Seton Hall's defense wasn't completely laughable.

Rutgers Is Taking Major Strides Forward

Last year, the first male McDonald's All-American suited up in Rutgers red. That freshman, Mike Rosario, found ways to score from anywhere and everywhere on the court.

Rosario's partner in crime, Gregory Echenique, is a load in the frontcourt and could give Big East centers fits if he continues to get in shape and develop his game.

Alongside Echenique, Hamady N'Diaye is an accomplished shot-blocker who is an offensive move or two away from being a dependable third or fourth option.

Rutgers also has two incoming freshman that will help bolster the frontcourt. Brian Okam is a top-15 center and Dane Miller is a top-40 power forward.

Rutgers won't be among the Big East's best, but the improvements on Fred Hill's roster should be enough to first save his job, and second, move Rutgers into the top half of the league.

For St. John's, the Time Is Now

St. John's had been irrelevant before the league expanded in 2006, but that should change quickly in 2010.

Five sophomores filled the Red Storm starting lineup in 2009. With two more rising sophomores in the rotation and a freshman, St. John's is poised to build off a strong 4-3 finish in the conference.

Norm Roberts is also on the verge of saving his job if he gets production out of one of the more experienced lineups in the league. Paris Horne is one of the league's craftier scores while Sean Evans and D.J. Kennedy have become dependable forwards.

Horne and Kennedy are the league's 11th and 12th best returning scorers, while Evans is the seventh best returning rebounder.

If point guard Malik Boothe can be consistent, Roberts will have one of the better distributors in league.

A top-five finish in the league isn't out of the question, nor is a return to the NCAA Tournament for the Johnnies.

For more updates and stories about college basketball follow Jameson on Twitter.


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