Part 2 of my basketball preview focuses on the supposed kings of basketball: the Big East Conference. With 16 teams, it is certainly the largest.
Last year was loaded with high expectations but poor results, as four teams, most notably Georgetown, fell in the first round of the NCAA tournament. To make matters worse, Villanova, one of the favorites to win it all, lost in the second round to 10th seeded St. Mary's after barely making it past 15th seeded Robert Morris. Only West Virginia made it past the Sweet 16, losing to Duke in the Final Four.
This year, many familiar faces have left for greener pastures. Georgetown big man Greg Monroe, South Florida star Dominique Jones, and Syracuse swing man Wesley Johnson were all drafted in the first round of the NBA draft. Seniors Luke Harangody (Notre Dame), Scottie Reynolds (Villanova), Stanley Robinson (Connecticut), De'sean Butler (West Virginia), and Lazar Hayward (Marquette) are also gone.
The Big East probably lost the most star power of any conference. Relative unknowns will be forced to lead their respective teams this season. Only three teams boasted top 25 recruiting classes, and only a few freshmen expected to make immediate impacts.
Last year: 19-16, 7-11 in Big East
Notable Losses: G Lance Stephenson: 12.3 ppg (led team), 5.4 rpg, G Deonta Vaughn: 11.7 ppg, 3.5 apg (led team), 3.5 rpg, 30.5 mpg (led team), C Steve Toyloy: 3.3 ppg, started 16 games.
Notable Gains: F Justin Jackson (No. 86 in ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: The entire frontcourt returns to the Bearcats, led by junior forward Yancy Gates. Gates, who is the only returning double-digit scorer at 10.4 per game, and leading rebounder with 6 per game, will need to really step up and become closer to a 15-10 player. He should be the first option on offense.
The other two starters from last year, 6'6" senior Rashad Bishop and 6'11" senior Ibrahima Thomas, will combine with Gates to form a big, experienced, and talented trio that could be the best in the Big East. The squad is also quite experienced, with six seniors and eight players who made major contributions last season.
Weaknesses: As good as the frontcourt will be, the backcourt could be the worst in the conference. Losing both starters in Stephenson and Vaughn brings about great uncertainty at the guard spot. The most experienced returning guard is sophomore Cashmere Wright, who started 11 games and only played 18 minutes per game. He'll be asked to lead the backcourt, and will probably struggle early.
Free throw shooting may be the biggest concern, as only guard Dion Dixon shot better than 61% from the line last year.
Prediction: Suspect guard play and poor free throw shooting will lose this team many contests late in games. However, experience is also key, and these guys have plenty of it. An NCAA berth is doubtful for a team losing its top two scorers, but it isn't out of the question. I expect a similar record, but like last year, the Cats should be on the wrong side of the bubble come Selection Sunday.
Last year: 18-16, 7-11 in the Big East
Notable Losses: F Stanley Robinson: 14.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg (led team), 52% FG, G Jerome Dyson: 17.2 ppg (led team), 4 apg, 4.3 rpg, F Ater Majok: 2.3 ppg, started 22 games, F Gavin Edwards: 10.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, sixth man.
Notable Gains: No. 20 class, F Roscoe Smith (No. 34 in ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: Point guard Kemba Walker returns and could be the best player in the conference. He averaged 14 points and 5 assists as the second or third option behind Dyson and Robinson. He'll be the first option, and his numbers should increase drastically. He has the talent to average over 20 points per contest.
The other returning starter, big man Alex Oriakhi, had an inconsistent freshman campaign and will need to become a monster down low. The incoming freshmen class is incredibly talented, led by Smith who should replace Robinson in the starting lineup. Roscoe may be as athletic as Robinson, who was the most athletic player in the conference last season.
Weaknesses: Aside from Walker and Oriakhi, only Jamal Coombs-McDaniel made significant contributions last season. With seven newcomers on the roster, it will be an extremely inexperienced bunch.
Also, NCAA investigations dealing with legendary coach Jim Calhoun could become a distraction for the young Huskies.
There is also question of who will become the second scorer next to Walker. Oriakhi and Smith both have the ability, but neither is a sure bet for more than ten points a night.
Prediction: The lack of experience combined with the NCAA investigations will make the first couple months of the season a massive learning experience for UConn. Should the freshmen live up to their hype, the Huskies could make some noise in the Big East.
Oriakhi will be the X-factor as his success down low will determine just how good this team can be. An NCAA berth is a definite possibility, but they'll need to win a game or two when the Big East tournament begins to make sure it happens.
Last year: 8-23, 1-17 in the Big East
Notable Losses: G Will Walker: 16.2 ppg (led team), 38 mpg (led team), F-C Mac Koshwal: 16.1 ppg, 10 rpg (led team), 54% FG (led team), G-F Eric Wallace: 6.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, started 19 games.
Notable Gains: None
Strengths: Ummm, yeah, let's see here. Well, they're bringing back seven players who made contributions last season led by returning starters Mike Stovall and Jeremiah Kelly. Those two will probably make up the starting backcourt along with junior Michael Bizoukas, who shot over 50% from deep last season.
Weaknesses: The Blue Demons lost their two best players, and only double-digit scorers, from a team that didn't even win 10 games. Yikes. The frontcourt has little to be proud of as only Devin Hill played more than 12 minutes per game.
Couple that with a new coach in former Clemson coach Oliver Purnell and this squad will have it rough this season. It's uncertain as to who exactly will score or rebound, and that's a huge problem.
Prediction: Put it this way, if the Demons can win ten games and/or not finish in the basement of the conference it will be quite an accomplishment. The good news is that Purnell is a proven winner, and though it will take time for winning to occur, the possibility is there (their 2011 recruiting class looks promising at the moment).
Last year: 23-11, 10-8 in the Big East, lost in first round of NCAA tournament to Ohio University
Notable Losses: C Greg Monroe: 16.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg (led team), 4 apg, 52.5% FG
Notable Gains: F Nate Lubick (No. 48 in ESPNU top 100) and G Markel Starks (No. 76 in ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: Aside from Monroe, the Hoyas return everyone from last year (six averaged over ten minutes per game). The backcourt duo of Austin Freeman (16.5 ppg, 52% FG, 44% 3PT) and Chris Wright (15.2 ppg, 4 apg) will be the best in the conference and maybe the country. Freeman's story is quite inspiring, as he was recently diagnosed with diabetes a la Adam Morrison a few years ago, and is a candidate for Conference Player of the Year honors.
The third guard, Jason Clark is no slouch either, as he averaged double figures. Overall, this may be the best shooting team in the country. Last season, no major contributor shot worse than 45 percent from the field.
Weaknesses: Monroe was a lottery pick in the NBA Draft for a reason. His loss will be massive. Frontcourt scoring and rebounding will be the biggest issue as senior Julian Vaughn is the most experienced returnee as he started every game, but only averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds.
Those numbers will have to increase if the Hoyas hope to have any kind of balance on offense. Highly touted sophomore Hollis Thompson will probably replace Monroe in the starting lineup, with the freshman Lubick and sophomore Jerrelle Benimon coming off the bench. Lubick and Starks may be the first players off the bench, so there could be growing pains when the starters are sitting.
Prediction: Even with the loss of Monroe, this team can definitely duplicate its 20+ wins from last season. The backcourt will be able to carry this team to an NCAA berth, but the frontcourt's ability to rebound and score will determine just how far this team can go in the tournament.
Last year: 20-13, 11-7 in the Big East, lost in 1st round of NCAA Tournament to California
Notable Losses: F Samardo Samuels: 15.3 ppg (led team), 7 rpg (led team), 52% FG, G Edgar Sosa: 13.1 ppg, 4.5 apg (led team), 38% 3PT, G Robert Sallie: 10.5 ppg, 4 rpg, 41% 3PT, 31 mpg (led team), G Jerry Smith: 8.3 ppg, started 30 games, G-F Reginald Delk: 6.4 ppg, 42% 3PT (led team) started 26 games.
Notable Gains: None
Strengths: A couple of highly-rated sophomores in guard Peyton Siva and forward Rakeem Buckles will be the focal point of the offense this season. Siva, a former McDonald's All-American will control the offense after being solely a bench player last season.
Junior forward Jared Swopshire is the only player returning who started more than ten games, and is the leading scorer at 7.5 per game, while finishing second on the team with 6 rebounds per game. They do return six players who made major contributions last season, so it will just be a matter of the returnees getting used to the increased work load.
Weaknesses: It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals will make up for the 53+ points they lost to graduation and the NBA. The entire backcourt is gone, and the team in general is incredibly young, with only one senior (guard Preston Knowles). They're a small team with only two players above 6'8" and no one weighing more than 230 pounds.
In the bruising Big East, that's a big problem.
3-point shooting, which was a strength last year with Sallie, Sosa, and Delk will not be prominent as only two players shot better than 33 percent from deep.
Prediction: With as much as they lost, it's hard to see any scenario in which Pitino's crew makes a return to the NCAA's this year. NIT is more likely. These guys are a year away from really being a team to fear.
Last year: 22-12, 11-7 in the Big East, lost in 1st round of NCAA tournament to Washington
Notable Losses: F Lazar Hayward: 18 ppg (led team), 7.5 rpg (led team), G Maurice Acker: 8.7 ppg, 3.7 apg (led team), 50% 3PT, G David Cubillan: 6.8 ppg, started all 34 games.
Notable Gains: No. 17 class, G Vander Blue (No. 31 in ESPNU top 100) and F Jamail Jones (No. 53 in ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: Two of their best players in G-F Jimmy Butler (14.7 ppg and 6.4 rpg) and G Darius Johnson-Odom (13 ppg) return as upper classmen to lead the Eagles. These two players could become quite the duo with Hayward now departed. Both of these players shot better than 47 percent from 3-point range as well.
Their backcourt is very experienced, with two other returning guards making big contributions last season. The guards in general are actually quite large, with most of them in the 6'3"-6'4" range. Blue may come in and start at the point from the beginning. Regardless, he should play major minutes in his first season on campus. Jones, at 6'6", may also see significant minutes.
Weaknesses: Hayward's graduation leaves a massive hole in the frontcourt. Granted, Marquette's style does not rely on post players, but someone will need to account for Hayward's ability to guard larger players and rebound.
The team is probably one of the smallest in the country with no major contributor from last year being larger than 6'7" and 220 pounds. Sophomore Jamil Wilson (6'7" 210) is the likely candidate to do this, but will still get pushed around due to his lack of size. Butler, who's the heaviest at 220 pounds, may be forced to spend much of his time on the block when on defense. This could tire him out, and his shooting percentages could suffer.
Prediction: Butler and Odom should be good enough to be one of the better backcourts in the conference. Rebounding at an average rate will be challenging for this tiny team, but their ability to shoot should keep them in most games. Faring better than the 22 wins of last season seems unlikely, but another NCAA tournament appearance does not. It will probably be yet another "one-and-done", but it's better than not making it to the big dance at all.
Last year: 23-12, 10-8 in the Big East, lost to Old Dominion in 1st round of NCAA tournament
Notable Losses: F Luke Harangody: 21.8 ppg (led team), 9 rpg (led team), G Tory Jackson: 9.6 ppg, 5.3 apg (led team), 37.5 mpg (led team), G Jonathan Peoples: 3.4 ppg, started 10 games.
Notable Gains: G Jerian Grant (No. 96 in ESPNU top 100), transfer Scott Martin (8.5 ppg for Purdue in 08-09)
Strengths: Three starters return, led by F Tim Abromaitis (16.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 43% 3PT). The frontcourt should actually be the strength, even with the departure of Harangody. Other forward Tyrone Nash also returns and will be counted on to provide the inside scoring.
Transfer Scott Martin is finally healthy and should be a welcome addition to the frontcourt after doing so well at Purdue in his then-freshman season. It's unknown exactly what he'll bring to the table, but don't be surprised if he becomes a double-digit scorer.
This team boasts six seniors and is quite experienced, as five of those seniors played significant minutes last season.
Weaknesses: Losing point guard Tory Jackson may actually hurt more due to the lack of depth in the backcourt. Only four players are back with quality minutes. Ben Hansbrough, younger brother of Psycho T, is back, but is the only returning guard with any quality minutes.
Grant may be forced to play right away, but he is not a point guard. Word is that freshman guard Eric Atkins (No. 37 rated point guard in the 2010 class) may start from Day One. That's sure to give Irish fans some headaches this season.
Prediction: The lack of depth is going to hurt the Irish, particularly in the backcourt. Harangody's graduation leaves a massive hole in terms of scoring, but the forwards should be able to fill much of that void. NIT is a definite, but making the NCAA's will depend on the inexperienced guards. Should Atkins make smart decisions earlier than anticipated, they may just do enough to warrant a bid.
Last year: 25-9, 13-5 in the Big East, lost to Xavier in 2nd round of NCAA Tournament
Notable Losses: G Jermaine Dixon: 10.6 ppg, 4 rpg
Notable Gains: F J.J. Moore (No. 77 in ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: Coach Jaime Dixon returns virtually everyone from a 25-win squad. Eight of the top nine scorers are back. Guard Ashton Gibbs broke out last year and became a star in the Big East. He led the team in scoring at just under 16 per game and shot 39 percent from deep.
Guard Brad Wanamaker did a little bit of everything for the Panthers last season. He led the team in assists and was second in scoring and rebounding. Those two in the backcourt will be backed up by 5'11 Travon Woodall, who started 11 games last season when Dixon was out.
The frontcourt is also back with C Gary McGhee (starter who led in rebounding at 6.8), F Nasir Robinson (starter), F Gilbert Brown (sixth man who was third in scoring at 10.7 per game), and F Dante Taylor (McDonald's All-American two years ago). Taylor struggled a bit last year, but with a summer to get better, should start to become the star many expected him to be a season ago.
Weaknesses: Honestly, there aren't many. Finding a reliable post scorer would be nice, as Brown was more of an outside shooter. The free throw shooting outside of Gibbs (88 percent) is shaky as no one else was above 72 percent. The fact that Coach Jamie Dixon has consistently underachieved in the NCAA tournament may be a bit of a distraction come February and March.
Prediction: This may be the most balanced team in the country. They have no glaring weakness and it's an experienced bunch. Their No. 3 preseason ranking is absolutely warranted. Unless the pressure of being hunted affects the Panthers, they have the tools to make a trip to the Final Four.
Last year: 12-19, 4-14 in the Big East
Notable Losses: F Jamine Peterson: 19.6 ppg (led team), 10 rpg (led team), G Sharaud Curry: 15.5 ppg, 3.4 apg, 32 mpg (led team), G Brian McKenzie: 5.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 37% 3PT, started 30 games.
Notable Gains: G Gerard Coleman (No. 54 in ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: Despite losing Curry and McKenzie, the backcourt will definitely be the strength, with 6'5" senior swingman Marshon Brooks (14 ppg, 4 rpg) and 6'2" sophomore point guard Vincent Council (10.3 ppg, 4.5 apg) returning. The frontcourt brings back starter Blair Dixon, who was second in rebounding behind Peterson.
Weaknesses: Losing the top two scorers from a bad team typically doesn't mean the next season will be any better. Brooks and Council will really need to increase their scoring load. There are only three upperclassmen on the team in seniors Brooks, center Ray Hall, and seldom used guard Chris Carter.
There are only four returnees who made contributions, and the six newcomers are not expected to be immediate impact players, aside from Coleman. Granted, they may have to be, simply because of the lack of depth. The free throw shooting is abysmal, as only Brooks and Council shot better than 67 percent last year (neither were above 73 percent).
Prediction: This team is a couple years away from being any good. A nucleus of Council, Dixon (a sophomore) and Coleman could be solid in the future, but not now. They should finish with a similar record, if not worse, and challenge DePaul to make it out of the basement of the conference.
Last year: 15-17, 5-13 in the Big East
Notable Losses: G Mike Rosario: 16.7 ppg (led team), 4 rpg, C Hamady Ndiaye: 9.4 ppg, 7 rpg (led team), 4.5 bpg (led team) 58% FG (led team).
Notable Gains: None
Strengths: Second leading scorer and rebounder Jonathan Mitchell (11.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg) returns and will be the focal point of the offense. The backcourt aside from Rosario is back in seniors Mike Coburn and James Beatty. There will be plenty of experience back there and that should help the team limit turnovers.
Beatty has potential to be a solid scorer, as he was the Knights' best three point shooter last season at 40 percent. 6'7" sophomore Dane Miller (9.2 ppg) will probably play everywhere. The other experienced returner is F-C Austin Johnson, who appeared in every game.
Weaknesses: Outside of the five mentioned above, no one else saw any significant time. The incoming newcomers are nothing to highlight and losing the best perimeter player and big man from a team that couldn't get to .500 means they lost a lot more than they gained.
There's also a new coach in Mike Rice, who coached at Robert Morris previously, so the learning curve is going to be steeper for the veterans. Mitchell should be a consistent double-digit scorer, but it's uncertain as to who will get there as well.
Prediction: The lack of experience and new coach is going to make life difficult for this squad throughout the year. The starting five may end up being okay, but it's unfair to expect much from the new kids. The Knights will take their lumps this year, but with a promising recruiting class waiting in the wings in 2011, there is hope for the future.
Last year: 19-13, 9-9 in the Big East
Notable Losses: G Eugene Harvey: 8.5 ppg, 4.6 apg (led team), 52% FG, started 26 games, G-F Robert Mitchell: 8.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, started 15 games, F-C John Garcia: 3.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, started 16 games.
Notable Gains: None
Strengths: Despite the three losses, Seton Hall returns much of its cast of characters that almost managed to make an NCAA tournament appearance. Guard Jeremy Hazell is one of the best scorers in the country, averaging 20.4 points per game last year.
The Pirates also return a double-double man in Herb Pope (11.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg) who will probably get more looks this year as there's rumblings of Hazell not looking to score as often. 6'6" senior Jeff Robinson is the other returning double-digit scorer at 12 points while grabbing almost six rebounds per game.
Guard Jordan Theodore (9.2 ppg, 3.5 apg) will be the Robin to Hazell's Batman in the backcourt. Those three could be one of the better trios in the conference. This is an experienced bunch, possessing six seniors and eight players who made major contributions last season.
Weaknesses: Losing the regular point guard in Harvey will cause turnover problems. It's unknown whether Hazell will assume the role of ball handler, or if it will be a committee of him, Theodore, and Eniel Polynice.
Size could also be an issue, as no returnee is above 6'8". The experienced crew also has to now deal with a new coach in former Iona head coach, Kevin Willard. Again, the transition may be rough at first, but it shouldn't be too bad if the seniors are willing to give him an open mind.
Typically, it wouldn't be a problem, but the Pirates players have had attitude issues in the past. Supposedly, it has stopped, but I'm taking a wait-and-see approach.
Prediction: Bringing back most of the firepower and size from a team that nearly made the NCAA tournament bodes well for the Pirates. If Hazell is able to cut down on his errant shots, he could be one of the best players in the conference, if not the country. An NCAA berth should happen as long as they buy in to coach Willard's philosophy.
Last year: 20-13, 9-9 in the Big East
Notable Losses: G Dominique Jones: 21.4 ppg (led team), 6 rpg, 37 mpg (led team), G Chris Howard: 10.3 ppg, 3.8 apg (led team), 3.9 rpg, G Mike Mercer: 9.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, started 30 games.
Notable Gains: None
Strengths: The entire frontcourt returns, led by 6'10" towers Augustus Gilchrist (13.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Jarrid Famous (10.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 53% FG). These two will be difficult to defend while they're both on the floor, which they should be most of the time. Their "small" forward, 6'8" Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, is also back after starting 22 games last season. Small teams will dread playing the Bulls and their size.
Weaknesses: As strong as the frontcourt expects to be, the backcourt will be one of the weakest in the conference. Sole returning guard Anthony Crater (3.1 ppg) played in only 19 games after transferring from Ohio State two years ago. He'll have to step up and make good decisions to give the Bulls any chance on the outside. The team has only one senior (Famous), and its lack of experience will hurt should anyone in the frontcourt run into foul trouble.
Prediction: Had the Bulls returned any other guards from last year, they would be an NCAA tournament automatic due to their intimidating size. However, the backcourt will doom them, though not to the point where the NIT is out of the question. 20 wins seems high, but they should do better than .500.
Last year: 17-16, 6-12 in the Big East
Notable Losses: F Anthony Mason Jr.: 7.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, played in only 19 games
Notable Gains: None
Strengths: The Red Storm return seven of their top eight scorers from last season, led by senior D.J. Kennedy (15.1 per game), who also led the team in rebounding at just over six. The team has loads of experience with nine seniors and eight returnees who averaged ten or more minutes per game.
The trio of senior guards Pat Horne, Malik Boothe, and sixth-man Dwight Hardy will be one of the better backcourts in the conference. Up front, massive body Sean Evans (6'8" 256 lbs) has the size to matchup against any big man in the conference, and he should get more looks with Mason gone.
Weaknesses: Steve Lavin takes over the program, so there may be hiccups with so many seniors used to the old way of thinking. Lavin has also been away from coaching for the better part of a decade, so he may take a bit to get used to the rigors of the profession.
Ball handling could be a problem as Kennedy actually led the team with 3.1 assists. That has to change for the Storm to be successful. Boothe is probably the best candidate to assume the decision-making duties. The squad also lacked any player from last season who shot better than 46 percent from the field, so they'll need to improve their shot selection. Hopefully if the assists go up, the shooting percentage will as well.
Prediction: Such an experienced team, and not losing much from the previous season. These are good indicators that the Red Storm should improve this season. Lavin's change in style will certainly make the early games difficult, but 20 wins is not out of the question. An NCAA tournament berth? It's a definite possibility.
Last year: 30-5, 15-3 in the Big East, lost in Sweet 16 to Butler
Notable Losses: F Wesley Johnson: 16.5 ppg (led team), 8.5 rpg (led team), 41% 3PT (led team), 50% FG, 35 mpg (led team), G Andy Rautins: 12.1 ppg, 5 apg (led team), 40% 3PT, F Arinze Onuaku: 10.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg
Notable Gains: No. 5 class, G Dion Waiters (No. 15 in ESPNU top 100), C Fab Melo (McDonald's All-American, No. 14 in ESPNU top 100), F C.J. Fair (No. 63 in ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: Waiters and Melo will probably replace Rautins and Onuaku, respectively. Melo (7-footer) will be the middle of coach Jim Boeheim's famous 2-3 zone. Waiters is a flat-out scorer, something the Orange will need with the departure of Johnson and Rautins.
Top returning scorer, Kris Joseph (10.8 ppg) was the sixth man last year, but will probably be the first option on offense this season. Returning starters Rick Jackson (6'9" senior) and Brandon Triche (6'4" sophomore) are expected to resume their roles and should increase their production.
Bench player Scoop Jardine (junior) will provide key veteran minutes for the backcourt duo of Triche and Waiters, in case either suffers from poor decision-making, a common characteristic among inexperienced guards.
Weaknesses: Finding the No. 1 scorer will be the big question heading into the season. Johnson was an All-American. And while Joseph appears to be the next big scorer for Syracuse, it's not guaranteed.
Melo will probably make some poor decisions adjusting to the 2-3 zone, which could cause massive frustration for Coach Boeheim. Riley could fill in should Melo struggle, but he did not play much last season and does not have the offensive ability Melo possesses. Jackson is the only senior on this club, so while the team is pretty experienced, they may have too much youth.
Prediction: The losses were filled pretty well with one of the better incoming classes in the country, however there should be some speed bumps with Waiters and Melo getting used to playing at the college level. This isn't to say that they won't contend for the Big East crown, because they will, but 30 wins seems too high. 25 is more likely, and a solid showing in the NCAA tournament is definitely possible, should the freshmen live up to their hype.
Last year: 25-8, 13-5 in the Big East
Notable Losses: G Scottie Reynolds: 18.2 ppg (led team), 38% 3PT, 30 mpg (led team), G Reggie Redding: 7.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 40% 3PT, F Taylor King: 7.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg.
Notable Gains: F Jayvaughn Pinkston (McDonald's All-American, No. 62 in ESPNU top 100) and F James Bell (No. 41 in ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: With Villanova, the backcourt is always its biggest strength, and even with the losses of Reynolds and Redding, this fact is still true. Senior guard Corey Fisher is now "The Guy" after playing second fiddle to Reynolds last year. He averaged 13.3 points and led the team with four assists per game last season. He has the ability to become a 20-point scorer every night and is a favorite to win Conference Player of the Year.
Highly touted sophomore Mouphtaou Yarou (6'10" 250) missed much of last year due to illness and was never able to get comfortable. This year, expect him to be a monster inside. He'll be joined in the frontcourt by returning starter Antonio Pena, who was the sole forward in the starting lineup last year and therefore led the team in rebounding with seven per contest.
Sophomore Maalik Wayns has been hyped to be the next truly great guard, so expect him to start alongside Fisher and returning starter Corey Stokes. Outside shooting again will be a focal point of the offense, with both Fisher and Stokes shooting better than 38 percent from the three-point line last year. If it hasn't become apparent yet, the Wildcats return eight players with major contributions and are quite experienced.
Weaknesses: Rebounding is always an issue with this team, and losing 10 rebounds per game between Redding and King will hurt. Also, the frontcourt in general is young with Yarou being a sophomore, and then the backups, Isaiah Armwood and Maurice Sutton also being sophomores who saw limited action. Turnovers may also be an issue if Fisher becomes too focused on scoring as he is the only returning player who had an assist/turnover ratio better than 1.0.
Prediction: If one thing is going to kill this team, it will be turnovers. The youthful squad will need to control themselves every game to limit their mistakes. Regardless, this team is still loaded with talent and should contend for the Big East crown. The NCAA tournament is all but guaranteed, though how far they go will depend on the sophomores' ability to live up to their hype.
Last year: 31-7, 13-5 in the Big East, lost to Duke in the Final Four
Notable Losses: F Da'Sean Butler: 17.2 ppg (led team), 3.1 apg, 6.2 rpg, 36 mpg (led team), F Devin Ebanks: 12 ppg, 8 rpg, F Wellington Smith: 6.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, started all 38 games.
Notable Gains: G Noah Cottrill (No. 73 in ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: Second leading scorer and rebounder Kevin Jones (13.5 and 7.1 while shooting a team-leading 52 percent from the field and 40 percent from the three-point line) is now the go-to-guy for the Mountain men. He may be one of the better players in the conference.
Fellow starter Darryl "Truck" Bryant (9.3 ppg, 3.1 apg) will be the point guard solely after having a point-guard-by-committee last season. Coming off the invaluable experience of making the Final Four, these two should have a massive amount of confidence.
Weaknesses: After the above two, there's a major drop off. Only three other significant contributors return in senior guards Casey Mitchell and Joe Mazzulla and forward John Flowers. Mitchell was used sparingly (8.2 mpg, but six starts), and Mazzulla is a horrendous shooter.
It's an inexperienced bunch and the three sophomores, who saw limited action but are talented, will be forced to make major contributions. Finding a reliable third scorer will be key along with making up for the 18 rebounds lost by the three players who left.
Prediction: Jones and Bryant are good enough to carry this team to an NCAA berth, but to expect a deep run with the lack of experience and loss of three key starters is ludicrous. They will probably finish in the middle of the Big East and follow it up with a first- or second-round exit in March.
Envisioning this conference to repeat as best in the country is a stretch. The conference simply lost too many stars. There are a several teams in the conference that have the potential to make the NCAA tournament, but depend on many uncertainties. Pitt, Georgetown, Syracuse, and Villanova are clearly the best teams in the conference, and after that it gets hazy until we get to the bottom as each team has glaring holes. Could eight teams make the tournament? Probably, but most of them will suffer early exits, much like last year.
NCAA Teams: Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Villanova, Georgetown, West Virginia, Marquette
On the bubble: Seton Hall, Connecticut, Notre Dame
NIT: South Florida, St. John's, Cincinnati, Louisville
Better luck next year: DePaul, Providence, Rutgers
Five players to watch: Ashton Gibbs (Pittsburgh), Corey Fisher (Villanova), Fab Melo (Syracuse), Jeremy Hazell (Seton Hall), and Austin Freeman (Georgetown)
The one game everyone should watch: Syracuse at Pittsburgh (Jan. 17), because it will be the first road test for a young, but incredibly talented team against the favorite, and more experienced, Panthers.