It's been said once, it'll be said a million times this basketball season, the Big East conference is the greatest collection of teams ever.
It's a fact because when looking at the top nine teams, there are nine NCAA Tournament teams. Notre Dame, UCONN, Louisville, and Pitt will be in the preseason top ten while Villanova and Marquette will float around in the top 20 and Georgetown, Syracuse, and West Virginia are top 30 teams.
But that's only nine teams. What about the other seven?
Four of the remaining seven teams are in a position to take a giant step forward, but the gaggle of powerful teams at the top of the conference could prevent these teams from moving forward.
Providence is the poster boy for constant conference whippings. The Friars are the only one of the original Big East teams to never win the regular season conference title. For the first time in a long time, PC finally has the players to compete for a conference championship.
Now it may seem like a pretty bold statement, but in a normal year, PC would probably rank fourth or fifth in the conference which means saying they are a conference contender a legitimate statement.
But in 2009, this solid collection of players will at best get the Friars a seventh place finish in the Big East. In essentially any other conference, PC would be projected to finish third or fourth, but not in the Big East. They are projected to finish 10th.
But being 10th in the Big East in 2009 might actually be good enough to go to an NCAA Tournament. Providence should turn itself around from its 15-16 record a year ago to win over 20 games. They won despite not having their best guard Sharaud Curry who sat out all but one game due to injury.
PC returns all but one player. That's four players who averaged double-digit points. That's seven players who played at least ten minutes per game. That's a team loaded with five seniors, two juniors, and three sophomores.
It's a team with a phenomenal coach. Mid-rate coach Tim Walsh was fired after ten so-so seasons in favor of Drake's savior Keno Davis. The new PC coach should be able to work the same magic he did with Drake which was also a very deep, experienced team.
Providence is going to beat a lot of tough teams in 2009, so don't be surprised when the Friars hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
Rutgers has finally dipped into the good New York and New Jersey talent. Somehow, someway, the Scarlet Knights brought in two stellar freshmen that will eventually be stars in the Big East. With the strength of the conference, having two future stars says a lot.
Guard Mike Rosario of Jersey City, New Jersey committed to RU despite its 11-20 season and just three conference wins. Rosario is considered one of the premiere freshman guards in the country and a McDonald's All-American.
Now enter in Gregory Echenique, a top-notch forward/center combo who will eventually be able to bang inside with the Big East's top big men. Where's he from? St. Benedict's Prep, another New Jersey school.
Coach Fred Hill needs to build off those two players and continue to reel in the top prospects from the New York City area. Both Rosario and Echenique come from two of the most impressive prep schools in the country and could become the piece of the pipeline that will consistently send very talented players to Rutgers.
Hill has a great location to work with and probably the toughest place to play in the Big East, the RAC. No matter how bad Rutgers is, almost every year some top tier team (some years multiple teams) come into the RAC and leave with a stunning defeat.
Last season, Villanova and Pittsburgh (who was actually at home) went down with head-scratching losses.
Rosario and Echenique will also have talent around them in their first year with the team.
Then freshmen, Corey Chandler and Mike Coburn gained valuable experience throughout Big East play combining for 52 minutes and 20 points per game.
Rutgers also has solid upper-classmen leadership. Seniors JR Inman and Anthony Farmer will play major roles in mentoring the young players and the leading RU in an upset or two in 2009. Junior Hamady Ndiaye will serve as Echenique's tutor as a tough, shot blocking, defensive center.
Once again, it goes back to how Rutgers would fare in a normal conference. Maybe in a PAC-10 or an SEC, two conferences that will struggle this season, could the Scarlet Knights finish in the middle of the pack.
But with a ridiculous group of teams in the Big East, Rutgers is looking at a finish no better than 12th.
Cincinnati used to fall under the same category as a Memphis or a Gonzaga. They were a mid-major powerhouse. Now they are a BCS laughing-stock.
The transition from Conference USA basketball to Big East basketball has come with some major lumps. The switching of conference came at a bad point in Cincinnati's program.
Current coach Mick Cronin has only been around for two years, and a pretty bad two years at that. The Bearcats have fallen to the depths of mediocrity, but are on the way back up.
In Cronin's first year, Cincinnati won just two games in the Big East; last season, they won eight games. Vast improvement, but still not good enough for the standards of Bearcats fans.
Despite losing stud guard Devan Downey who transferred to South Carolina, Cronin has quickly reassembled the Bearcat roster into a group of players who can win.
Nobody knows who Deonta Vaughn is, but the junior is probably the most dominant player in the Big East. No single player in the Big East with the exception of maybe Luke Harangody takes over more games and single handily wins them. Vaughn averaged 17.3 points per game for a team that couldn't score to save its life.
Vaughn won't receive much help from the remaining returning Bearcats, but it's the incoming JUCO transfers, Division I transfers, and freshmen that will bring new life to the 'Nati basketball team.
Junior Nick Aldridge only averaged 18 points per game for West Carolina two seasons ago. Not too shabby eh? (Ed. Thanks to Jux for pointing out Aldridge recently didn't qualify academically for UC)
Senior Mike Williams enters the Bearcats from the University of Texas and will help provide depth in the frontcourt.
Freshman guard Cashmere Wright and forward Yancy Gates are two of the most over-looked freshmen in the Big East. Wright will prove to be a perfect compliment to Deonta Vaughn because of Wright's ability to drive and finish or drive and pitch.
Yancy Gates is the highest profile prospect to come out of the actual city of Cincinnati in years. Keeping him in town is the biggest success of the short Mick Cronin era.
So where does this leave Cincinnati?
Despite the collection of impressive players, the Bearcats will still be left in the dust wondering how will they catch up to the rest of the top tier Big East teams.
UC will surely regress in the win column from the 2008, but will most likely still improve as a team. A finish higher than tenth in the conference would be shocking.
The St. John's name used to carry a lot of prestige, and to basketball traditionalists, it still does, but to those new to the game in the 21st Century, Red Storm basketball is a joke.
Mike Jarvis sent this team spiraling downwards in a hurry. Now Norm Roberts has been left to try to pick up the pieces.
It would seem like a school that plays in the Big East conference, that has a rich history, plays in New York City, and plays home games in the most recognizable arena in the world, Madison Square Garden, shouldn't have trouble attracting players.
But a string of poor recruiting classes, busts, and injuries have left St. John's wondering when they'll ever get back to the promise land.
While the current recruiting class is a solid class, it lacks a major superstar that can help Norm Roberts re-brand the program. He needs to be able to keep the best players from New York City in New York City in order to make the Johnnies consistent winners.
The emergence of numerous Big East powerhouses as well as strong Mid-Atlantic and Northeast mid-majors has made it very difficult for St. John's to hand pick the best players from the great New York City area.
What Roberts does have working for him is a core group of players that consists of seven sophomores and one stand-out senior.
Anthony Mason Jr. has struggled through injuries, but if healthy should be primed to make his final year as a Johnnie a memorable one. Mason Jr. played in only 22 games last year, but made a significant impact as the team's leading scorer at 14 points per game.
In 2008, the Red Storm will be fighting it out with South Florida to stay out of the conference's cellar.
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