Big East Basketball Preview: Can Ashton Gibbs Lead The Pitt Panthers to The Top?

Mike HendersonCorrespondent IISeptember 12, 2010

Big East Basketball Preview: Can Ashton Gibbs Lead The Pitt Panthers to The Top?

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    Every season, the Big East has produced top-notch contenders and while some suggest this year's version may not be quite as strong as in recent years, there are some who could definitely make some noise on the national scene.

    West Virginia, a Final Four team a year ago has some questions to answer offensively, Syracuse loses three top players, four new coaches try to get their teams on track and several others look to build off of last year's success.

    Overall, the league will again be one of, if not the, most competitive in college basketball and could, with the addition of three extra teams to the NCAA tournament, send as many as eight representatives.

Depaul Blue Demons

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    16. Depaul

    Sorry Oliver, but things aren’t going to be pretty this year. Will Walker and Mac Koshwal are gone, leaving Mike Stovall (seven ppg) as their leading returning scorer. After a 1-17 conference mark last season, it’s difficult to be optimistic.

    Purnell has to hope that he can recruit and fast, otherwise the move he made from Clemson will be more questionable than it already is.

    He made Clemson a perennial NCAA team but he has his work cut out for him here.

Providence Friars

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    15. Providence

    The Friars only upperclassman will be senior Marshon Brooks. Last season’s top scorer, Jamine Peterson was dismissed earlier this year.

    This team could have as many as eight freshmen on their roster at the beginning of the season and after last season’s defensive debacle, it may get ugly - again.

    Gerard Coleman is a good prospect at shooting guard but the Friars are going to have to find a way to stop people. Teams shot roughly fifty per cent against the up-tempo Friars so scoring seventy-five points sometimes wasn't enough.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

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    14. Rutgers

    The Scarlet Knights have some returning players, so putting them here could be a mistake. New coach Mike Rice is in but star Mike Rosario is gone (Florida). Jonathan Mitchell is solid at the forward spot and is a very good free throw shooter and Rice would like to see him there more often.

    Dane Miller and Mike Coburn (fourth and fifth leading scorers) are back as well and the recruiting class for next year is promising.

    It just might not happen for the Knights this season.

South Florida Bulls

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    13. South Florida

    Coming off of their best Big East season by far, the Bulls have to try and compensate for the loss of Dominique Jones, one of the top talents in the Big East last year.

    Gus Gilchrist and Jarrid Famous  give the Bulls a formidable duo in the front court and Ron Anderson (Kansas State transfer) provides some more bulk at forward.

    Building on, or at least trying to maintain the momentum from last year’s successful campaign will depend on the back court which returns Anthony Crater and Justin Leemow as the only two with significant minutes.

    Hard to know what to expect without Jones, as there is no established “go to” player.

Cincinnati Bearcats

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    12. Cincinnati

    Last year was a disappointment for the Bearcats, who started well but faded and finished 11th in the conference.

    Despite the losses of Deonta Vaughn and Lance Stephenson, the ‘Cats return a veteran team. Yancy Gates and Ibrahima Thomas need to do more up front for Cincinnati to move up in the standings, while Dion Dixon and  Cashmere Wright need to fill the void created by the departure of Vaughn.

    Recruit Justin Jackson adds depth up front and could contribute right away. 

    Better shooting and overall team cohesion could have the Bearcats moving up.

Marquette Golden Eagles

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    11. Marquette

    Lazar Hayward was as clutch as anyone in the Big East and his skills will be missed. The Eagles are confident that Jimmy Butler is ready to fill those shoes, at least in part. After that, Marquette will need to rely on Darius Johnson-Odom to continue his improvement, and some top recruits to play minutes early.

    Vander Blue was one of the highest-rated shooting guards in the country and fills the void left by Maurice Acker and David Cubillan. Jamail Jones provides some length and athleticism on the wing, while Reggie Smith will get some time at the point.

    This team will compete but will need some time for their younger players to adjust.

St. John's Red Storm

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    10. St. John's

    Every significant contributor except for injury-plagued Anthony Mason returns for new coach Steve Lavin.

    D.J. Kennedy and Dwight Hardy will be asked to lead once again in the back, where the Red Storm have some depth.

    The front court is a little thin. Justin Brownlee, Sean Evans and Justin Burrell will get minutes and are big bodies who can defend and rebound. After that, St. John’s has some very limited options.

    This is a veteran team that competed hard last year and weren’t rewarded too often. They could be a few spots higher than this by the end of the year.

Louisville Cardinals

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    9. Louisville

    Rick Pitino is a good coach who has had a bad year. 

    Off-the-court issues have dogged him and the program and it didn’t help when Samardo Samuels left early. Jerry Smith and Edgar Sosa have exhausted their eligibility while Roburt Sallie, who was to attend graduate school at Louisville after playing the past two seasons at Memphis, will not play.

    Jared Swopshire and Preston Knowles are the top returning scorers, while Peyton Siva and Kyle Kuric look to assume larger roles this season as well.

    Terrance Jennings needs to step up in a big way, after averaging only thirteen minutes per game last year. Recruit Gorgui Dieng is long but needs to add some bulk to his frame. 

    This could be a trying year for Cards fans.

Connecticut Huskies

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    8. Connecticut

    Faced with potential NCAA sanctions and some key personnel losses, the Huskies could be hard-pressed to find themselves in the top half of the conference.

    Kemba Walker is an all-conference guard who is going to need some help in the back court. Recruits Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier could help ease the load. 

    Up front, Alex Oriakhi could have a breakout year. An excellent rebounder, Oriakhi can bang down low but needs to improve his foul shooting. Charles Okwandu is a role player at best and will see limited minutes.

    The Huskies are hoping that help for the front court has arrived from Germany in the form of recruits Niels Giffey and Enosch Wolf, a legitimate seven-footer.

    Depth and experience could be issues for UConn. I’ll still be watching just to see Walker.

Seton Hall Pirates

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    7. Seton Hall

    Another team with a new coach as Kevin Willard steps in for the departed and bizarre Bobby Gonzalez.

    Willard has plenty to work with too, as the top four scorers return including the explosive Jeremy Hazell.

    They have also added some international flavour to their roster with big men Patrick Auda (Czech Republic) and Aaron Geramipoor (England).

    But their fate and their potential to move up sharply depends on the health of Herb Pope, who collapsed during a workout in the spring. If he returns at full strength, the Pirates have a shot at a higher finish and possibly an NCAA berth.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    6. Notre Dame

    Yes, Luke Harangody is gone but I happened to see the Irish play without him and I have to admit that I was impressed with what coach Mike Brey was able to do in what amounted to a mid-season change of philosophy.

    What the Irish may miss more is the leadership of Tory Jackson, who wasn’t the most skilled player but was a relentless worker.

    Tim Abromaitis, who had a breakout year in 2009-2010, Ben Hansbrough and Scott Martin give the Irish some leadership and skill at the shooting guard and small forward positions. Carleton Scott and Tyrone Nash give them some depth but they may be a little undersized overall.

    The key could be promising point man Eric Atkins adjustment to the Big East. He won’t replace Jackson’s leadership but he could be a better offensive player in time.

West Virginia Mountaineers

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    5. West Virginia

    Fresh off of their Final Four appearance, the Mountaineers are in somewhat of a reload mode.

    There is still some talent and we know that they will fight for everything on the defensive end, but scoring could be an issue and replacing a leader like Da’sean Butler is very, very difficult.

    Upperclassmen Kevin Jones and particularly Joe Mazzulla (who has a tendency to get arrested) need to become the leaders on this team.

    A healthy Truck Bryant and a full year from Deniz Kilicli will give Bob Huggins some offensive options. John Flowers, who shoots threes about as well as he shoots free throws can contribute off of the bench as well.

    There will be a slight drop from last year based on the absence of Butler and Ebanks, but the Mountaineers will still be near the top of the league.

Syracuse Orange

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    4. Syracuse

    A disappointing loss to Butler in the Sweet Sixteen marred what was otherwise a spectacular year for the Orange.

    Kris Joseph is ready to emerge as one of the top swingmen in the Big East and will be joined by returnees Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine. Top recruit Dion Waiters will vie for time in a crowded back court as well.

    The key to the Orange success will be their ability to play defense, specifically their big men. Fab Melo is a highly-touted prospect and he will join Rick Jackson and possibly DaShonte Riley at the back of the zone.

    Losing Andy Rautins, Wesley Johnson and Arinze Onuaku would be crippling to most programs but the ‘Cuse seems to have reloaded nicely.

Georgetown Hoyas

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    3. Georgetown

    When a team loses a player like Greg Monroe, you would think that a sharp decline might follow. However, the Hoyas return every other significant contributor and add top prospect PF Nate Lubick into the mix.

    Austin Freeman could very well be in the conversation for player-of-the-year in the Big East. His numbers have gone up every season, he is a good three-point shooter and an exceptional foul shooter.

    Chris Wright and Jason Clark give Georgetown a strong back court while Julian Vaughn had a good year at power forward. Lubick, Hollis Thompson and Jerelle Benimon need to provide the depth up front and help the Hoyas avoid a first-round NCAA knockout this season.

Villanova Wildcats

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    2. Villanova

    After last season’s disappointing finish, the Wildcats come back one year older and hopefully one year wiser.

    Gone are Scottie Reynolds, Reggie Redding and Taylor King but Nova has plenty of talent to offset the loss. The Coreys (Fisher and Stokes), will lead in the guard-oriented offense, while Antonio Pena returns to anchor the front line.

    The prized freshmen class of last season are now sophomores and it is time for them to step up. Maurice Cheek, Maalik Wayns and Mouphtaou Yarou will all be asked for very significant contributions. Isaiah Armwood and Maurice Sutton also saw some minutes last season and will be pushed for playing time by incoming freshmen Jayvaughn Pinkston and James Bell.

    Skill and talent abound here and they will score, but the key will be for Nova to play defence with resolve. 

Pittsburgh Panthers

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    1. Pittsburgh

    This team surprised many last year but won’t be underestimated this time around. 

    Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wannamaker are the offensive leaders on the team, while Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee provide some veteran leadership. Pitt is counting on Dante Taylor to have a greater impact in his sophomore season as well.

    But this is still a young team and recruits J.J. Moore and Talib Zanna will by vying for minutes as well. The Panthers were fortunate enough to travel to England for a pre-season tour, where they were undefeated in six games.

    Pitt has size, athleticism and enough experience to really make some noise, not only in the Big East, but nationally as well.

    Could be the season for Jamie Dixon’s first Final Four.

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