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College Hoops: Big East Basketball Preview

Ryan BrennanSenior Analyst INovember 14, 2008

The Big East has historically been one of the toughest conferences in college basketball, and the 2008-2009 season is not shaping up to be any different. The preseason AP poll has three Big East teams in the top five, and seven in the top 25.

Let me break that down for you real quick.

Just under half of the Big East schools are in ranked in the top twenty five this year, with a few more banging on the door waiting for someone to slip up.

The Big East has seven schools in the top 25. The next is the ACC with four, and then the Big Ten, Big 12, and PAC-10 with three.

If you don't believe from the rankings that the Big East is the deepest conference in college hoops, then maybe some other numbers since the 2005-2006 season (when the Big East came into its current form) will convince you.

The Big East has had five or more teams ranked at once 36 times since the '05-'06 season.

27—The number of times the Big East has had multiple schools in the top ten.

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16—The number of times the Big East has had multiple schools in the top five.

There have been 12 first round NBA draft picks out of the Big East since the 2006 NBA Draft.

10 different Big East schools have been ranked since the start of the '05-'06 season.

8—The record for the most teams sent by a conference to the NCAA Tournament. Set by the Big East in 2006 and 2008.

3—The smallest number of Big East teams ranked at any one time.

Believe me yet?

Read on to see what each of the Big East teams has in store for the 2008-2009 season.

Cincinnati Bearcats

Coach: Mike Cronin
2007-2008 Record: 8-10 (13-19)
AP Rank: NR
Coaches: NR

Overview
Mike Cronin is starting his third season as the Bearcat's head coach, and while they wound up posting a losing record both overall and in conference play last season, they proved that they can put together a great game when they need to, upsetting Louisville 58-57 last January.

Coach Cronin is still working on rebuilding the program, and after their 2-14 Big East record during the 2006-2007 season, last year was a step in the right direction.

The Good
The Bearcats' leading scorer, Deonta Vaughn, returns for his junior year after being the league's sixth highest scorer last season, and his classmate, Rashad Bishop, will hopefully step up this season as well, both offensively and defensively.

Mike Williams will be in the mix this year after sitting out last year due to injury and the year before because of NCAA transferring rules. At Texas his freshman year, he averaged 2.3 points per game and 3.1 rebounds.

The Bad
Cashmere Wright
, a highly regarded freshman point guard, is out for the season after tearing his ACL in late October. John Williamson, the only Bearcat besides Vaughn to average double figure points per game last season, is probably the biggest loss for the team.

The Bottom Line
Despite losing Wright, the Bearcats look like they can put together a very good season. They started out last season with an 8-5 Big East record, and finished 8-10 once teams figured out how to wear them down and take away Vaughn. They should have a stronger defensive presence this year, though, which will make them a much more competitive team.

Connecticut Huskies

Coach: Jim Calhoun
2007-2008 Record: 13-5 (24-8)
AP Rank: 2
Coaches: 2

Overview
Redemption. This is what defines the Huskies this season. After being knocked out in the first round last March and not making the tournament in 2007, the Huskies are looking to rebound strongly this season, and, given their preseason ranking of two, the rest of the basketball world is expecting it too. The Huskies have four of their five starters returning at the beginning of the season from last year, with sophomore Stanley Robinson supposedly returning before the calendar turns.

The Good
The Huskies Senior leader A.J. Price returns after tearing his ACL in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last March (which many considered the reason for the Huskies losing in the first round). Big man Hasheem Thabeet returns this season after averaging 10.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 4.5 blocks per game last season. His numbers drastically improved from his Freshman year and they should continue to do so over the course of his Junior season.

Junior shooting guard Jerome Dyson returns as well after averaging 12.5 ppg and 3.6 rpg. The only issue is that Dyson was one of two players to be suspended for part of last season for breaking team rules, but he will hopefully return to his All-Big East Rookie form this season.

Senior Jeff Adrien returns after averaging 14.8 points per game, 9.1 rebounds per game, and 1.2 blocks per game last season. Freshman prospects Nate Miles and Kemba Walker join the mix after having standout high school careers.

The Bad
There is not a lot that can go in this section for the Huskies. The only bad news is that they don't have Robinson for the beginning of the season due to academic reasons, but he should be back relatively quickly.

The Bottom Line
If the Huskies can keep their focus while in the spotlight, they stand a legitimate chance at taking the Big East and National Championship titles. They have a lot of weapons while still maintaining a balanced team, and with Tyler Hansbrough recovering from an injury right now, the Huskies stand a very good chance at overtaking UNC as the No.1 team in the country.

DePaul Blue Demons

Coach: Jerry Wainwright
2007-2008 Record: 6-12 (11-19)
AP Rank: NR
Coaches: NR

Overview
The Blue Demons are still a very young team, so the good news is that they can learn from last year's mistakes. The bad news, though, is that there were a lot of mistakes last year. They finished the season on a 2-10 run after starting Big East play 4-2. They lost close games and blew a couple of leads unnecessarily.

This year will hopefully be different, and Wainwright's 43-48 record as DePaul head coach will hopefully take a step over .500.

The Good
Big-East All Rookie's Dar Tucker and Mac Koshwal return after accounting for over 24 points and 13 rebounds per game between the two of them, and Senior Matija Poscic will hopefully be a factor this year after not being 100 percent for most of last season.

The Bad
The Blue Demons currently have ten games lined up against ranked teams, and while nine of them come from within the Big East, their first game against a ranked team comes Dec. 13 against No.4 UCLA.

The Bottom Line
The Blue Demons face an uphill battle after last season, and while hopefully they will be able to rebound and utilize weapons in Koshwal and Tucker, they will definitely have their work cut out for them.

Georgetown Hoyas

Coach: John Thompson III
2007-2008 Record: 15-3 (27-5)
AP Rank: 22
Coaches: 18

Overview
Thompson's first season with the Hoyas came in the 2004-2005 season, and his rebuilding of the program has been nothing short of miraculous. After not reaching the NCAA Tournament since the 2000-2001 season, JT3 has taken the team to the big dance for three consecutive years, reaching the Final Four in the 2007 tournament, and won the Big East regular season title in the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 seasons.

He has seen three of his players drafted so far, with more sure to come. The Hoyas start the season as the sixth ranked team in the Big East.

The Good
Junior DaJuan Summers is returning to the starting lineup for the Hoyas after averaging 11.1 points per game, 5.4 rebounds per game, and one steal per game last season. Senior Jessie Sapp is also returning after hitting a very impressive 41 percent of three-pointers last season while averaging 9.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game.

Sophomores Austin Freeman and Chris Wright return this year as well. Freeman had an outstanding rookie season and made it to the starting lineup, while Wright was held back by injury for most of the season. Joining the team is Freshman center Greg Monroe, who will fill the void with Roy Hibbert now gone.

The Bad
The Hoyas lost big man Hibbert, sixth man Patrick Ewing, Jr., and point guard Jonathan Wallace to graduation, sophomores Vernon Macklin and Jeremiah Rivers to the University of Florida and Indiana, respectively.

The Bottom Line
Between the loss of key graduating seniors and transfers, the Hoyas took a pretty substantial blow this off season. Look for Summers to emerge as the clear leader of the Hoyas this year and Sapp to continue development at the top of the key.

Wright has a lot of potential and should be very successful in his sophomore year if he can stay healthy. Monroe will have to adjust to college level of play, but he should become a force to be reckoned in the Big East this year.

Louisville Cardinals

Coach: Rick Pitino
2007-2008 Record: 14-4 (24-8)
AP Rank: 3
Coaches: 3

Overview
The Cardinals finished last season tied for second, very impressive considering they finished 6-10 their first season in the Big East just two seasons before. But don't assume that this was just a fluke—they finished the '06-'07 season with a 14-4 Big East record and gained a sixth seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Last March the Cardinals landed a three seed and made it to the Elite Eight, losing to top ranked North Carolina. Since winning the National Championship with Kentucky in 1996, Coach Pitino has been anxiously awaiting another. This very well may be the team that leads him back.

The Good
Four of the Cardinals starters are returning for this season. The only one they lost is big man David Padgett, but he has been replaced by a very promising Freshman center, Samardo Samuels. The team will be lead by Senior point guard Andre McGee, who played in all 36 games last season and averaged 6.5 points per game, 1.2 steals per game, and 1.9 assists per game.

Joining him at shooting guard will be Junior Jerry Smith, who showed the College Hoops nation what he is capable of last March when he scored a team-high 17 points against the Tar Heels. Senior small forward Terrence Williams and Junior power forward Earl Clark return to the mix as well after both averaging just over 11 points per game last season and 7.2 and 8.1 rebounds per game, respectively.

The Bad
The Cardinals lost Padgett, who, at 6’11”, was a defensive presence. But the Cardinals have survived without him before—after suffering an injury early last season, he had to sit out for ten games. Aside from a lost starter to the NBA Draft, there is not a lot that the Cardinals don’t have going for them.

The Bottom Line
The Cardinals start the season ranked third in the country, and rightfully so. Their core group of starters from last season is returning, and by adding some very talented Freshmen to the mix they have become that much more of a contender.

Marquette Golden Eagles

Coach: Buzz Williams
2007-2008 Record: 11-7 (24-9)
AP Rank: 16
Coaches: 17

Overview
After being an assistant coach for one year at Marquette, Buzz Williams was named head coach last April when Coach Crean accepted the top job at Indiana. This is not Coach Williams’ first head coaching job, however. He was the head coach of the University of New Orleans Privateers during the 2006-2007 season when they went 9-9 in the Sun Belt Conference. What Coach Williams lacks in head coaching experience, though, his team makes up in playing experience.

The Good
Three of the four returning starters from last year are seniors, and the fourth is a junior. The three seniors are all guards: Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wesley Matthews.

Between the three of them, they were responsible for 39.1 points per game last season, 9.6 assists per game, and five steals per game, which, when coupled with Lazar Hayward’s 12.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, gives them a very strong group of returning players. In fact, these four were the top four scoring threats on the Golden Eagles last season, which gives them a very good chance of having a great season.

The Bad
The Golden Eagles do not have a lot of height on their team, which may not seem like a big deal, but in a league dominated by big men, it means they are going to have to shoot outside a lot more. This means they may be a little more streaky than other teams, especially given that the three point line was moved back in college basketball this year.

They survived last year without a lot of height, though, so it should not be too much of a problem for them.

The Bottom Line
The Golden Eagles lack size, but their senior leadership and speed on the court should keep them in contention. The pushed back three point line may hurt them a little bit, but look for a lot of dribble penetration and kick-outs for open shots.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Coach: Mike Brey
2007-2008 Record: 14-4 (24-7)
AP Rank: 9
Coaches: 9

Overview
After finishing second in the Big East last season and securing the Big East player of the year in Luke Harangody, the Fighting Irish have all five of their starters returning and are looking to make a great run at the Big East title. Their experience on the court should be evident this season, as they have three seniors and two juniors leading the team. Coach Brey has put together a great team, as he showed the NCAA world last season, and they should continue looking great this year.

The Good
Joining Harangody in the starting lineup is senior shooting guard Kyle McAlarney and junior point guard Tory Jackson, who averaged 23.1 points per game and 9.3 assists per game between them. Seniors Ryan Ayers and Zach Hillesland return as well.

The Bad
While the Fighting Irish have a great returning lineup, they did not sign anyone notable this off season. They do have Carlton Scott returning after being red shirted his freshman year, but he probably will not see that much playing time given the starting lineup.

The Bottom Line
The Fighting Irish finished tied for second in the Big East last season and then only made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Look for them to make a run at the Big East regular season title, and try to get much farther this March.

Pittsburgh Panthers

Coach: Jamie Dixon
2007-2008 Record: 10-8 (26-9)
AP Rank: 5
Coaches: 6

Overview
After winning the Big East Tournament last season, the Panthers have three of their starters returning to the mix in hopes of advancing past the second round of the NCAA tournament this year and finishing with a much better Big East record than they did.

The biggest controversy of this summer for Pittsburgh was whether former Panther Mike Cook would be able to have another year of eligibility after getting hurt during the beginning of their season last year.

Unfortunately, the NCAA denied Cook and he was not able to participate in the program this year. Nonetheless, Coach Dixon has a strong group of players returning to his team this year, and they should finish much stronger than they did last year.

The Good
Senior forward Sam Young returns this year after averaging just over 18 points per game last year, and sophomore DeJuan Blair returns with his 11.6 points per game and 9.1 rebounds.

After missing twelve games last season with a broken bone in his foot, senior Levance Fields returns as well and is looking to make the team that much stronger. Freshman guard Travon Woodall should add more speed to the Panthers game and Nasir Robinson will add a presence inside, once they both work their way into the Panther’s mix.

The Bad
Without Cook, Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin, the Panthers may have a rough start to the season, but more likely than not they will prevail.

The Bottom Line
The Panthers are looking to put together a much better season than they had last year when they were held back by two key injuries to Cook and Fields. They start the season ranked fifth, which shows how highly regarded their returning core is, and they should play much better in the Big East regular season.

Providence Friars

Coach: Keno Davis
2007-2008 Record: 6-12 (15-16)
AP Rank: NR
Coaches: NR

Overview
The Friars welcome last year’s coach of the year Coach Davis to their team in hopes of seeing their basketball program turn around. After finishing with a Big East record of 6-12 and an overall record under .500, the Friars are just looking for improvement in their performance more than an outright victory of the Big East.

The Friars did not lose any starters, so we will see if the coaching change really makes a difference or if a new recruiting class will be what makes the team.

The Good
Last year the Friars were without Sharaud Curry for basically the whole season after he injured himself in their first game. In his prior season with the Friars, however, he averaged 15.3 points, 4.4 assists, 1.3 steals per game, and hit 90 percent of attempted free throws. Curry has recovered and is set to start this season.

Other players returning to the lineup are seniors Jeff Xavier and Weyinmi Efejuku, who were the highest two scorers on the team last season. Another piece to the Friar puzzle is Geoff McDermott, who is known for his rebounding and passing ability. While averaging 10.3 points per game last season, he managed to also take down 8.1 rebounds per game and get 4.9 assists per game.

The Bad
The Friars have struggled lately and this is the same team as last year. The coaching change should help a lot, though, and with Curry back in the mix they have a lot of potential.

The Bottom Line
Curry may very well have been the missing key for the Friars last season. There were games where they showed what they were capable of achieving, such as when they beat Boston College and a ranked UConn team, and if they can managed to string together some back-to-back wins in this tough Big East division, they may very well get the confidence boost that they were missing.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Coach: Fred Hill
2007-2008 Record: 3-15 (11-20)
AP Rank: NR
Coaches: NR

Overview
The Scarlet Knights have all five starters returning to the mix this season after a very disappointed 3-15 Big East performance last year. They looked decent at times, keeping up with teams until the third quarter, and then fell apart. Unfortunately for the team right now, they are without leading scorer J.R. Inman and third highest scorer Anthony Farmer, who Coach Hill suspended in September.

Regardless, the Scarlet Knights have to find a way to turn this season around and simply score more points—in Big East play they averaged under 60 points per game while their opponents averaged over 70.

The Good
When sophomore Mike Coburn plays well, he really plays well—scoring in the high teens and grabbing rebounds and providing assists. When he’s off, though, he’s really off. The experience of being a sophomore should help him and he will hopefully step up and provide the leadership that is missing for this team. Center Hamady N’diaye improved his game a lot last season in every category, and he should be stronger again this year.

The Bad
Inman and Farmer are suspended, and while it may give the team the spark it needs, it will more likely hurt them because of the offensive void it will provide. Whenever these two do return, though, they should help the Scarlet Knights a lot.

The Bottom Line
The Scarlet Knights have the ability to play in big games an win—they beat a ranked Villanova team and a ranked Pittsburgh team back-to-back last season. If they can find consistency in their game and play the way they did there all the time, they stand a chance of doing decently in the Big East this season.

Seton Hall Pirates

Coach: Bobby Gonzalez
2007-2008 Record: 7-11 (17-15)
AP Rank: NR
Coaches: NR

Overview
After losing their first three Big East games last season to ranked opponents, the Pirates went on to win five straight and stand at 5-3 after eight (even beating a ranked Louisville team during that run).

Unfortunately, they then had a very tough Big East schedule and lost five in a row to the Big East powerhouse teams. Coach Gonzalez is hoping to avoid that this year, but only time will tell if he will be able to as the Pirates are facing four ranked teams in their first seven Big East games.

The Good
Two transfers are looking to get involved this year for the Pirates, former Atlantic 10 rookie of the year Robert Mitchell and Jamel Jackson, a guard who averaged 24.5 points per game his freshman year with Technical Career Institute. Sophomore Jeremy Hazell is back in the starting lineup after averaging 12.8 points per game and hitting 33 percent of his three point attempts.

The Bad
The Pirates lost top scorer Brian Laing to the Euro basketball league, which hopefully will not affect the Pirates too negatively. The big question mark currently on the team is senior Paul Gause, who was injured mid-last season and will hopefully be back in full form.

The Bottom Line
If the Pirates can put together a string of wins like they did last year at the beginning of last season and then just hold on, they will end up in the middle of the Big East bunch, which is nothing to be ashamed of. They are a team with the potential to win big games, and it is up to Coach Gonzalez to get them to utilize that potential.

South Florida Bulls

Coach: Stan Heath
2007-2008 Record: 3-15 (12-19)
AP Rank: NR
Coaches: NR

Overview
In their first three seasons in the Big East, the Bulls have finished dead last once and tied for fifteenth twice. In Coach Heath’s first season with the Bulls, they looked much better than they had previously. They stayed in games longer with teams and gave some a run for their money. The outcome was ultimately just as disappointing, though.

With seven freshmen ready to suit up for the Bulls this season, do not be surprised to see a shakeup in the starting lineup as Coach Heath’s first recruiting class gets ready to make their mark.

The Good
Sophomore guard Dominique Jones returns this year and appears to be the only starter from last season with his spot in the starting lineup secure. In the ’07-’08 season, Jones averaged 17.1 points per game while taking down 4.6 boards per game. He is a threat from beyond the arc, hitting just over thirty-five percent of his 153 attempted three pointers last season.

Joining Jones for the first time will be former Georgia guard Mike Mercer, who has to sit out the first six games of this season before being eligible to play but should fit in very nicely.

The Bad
While the Bulls began to look stronger at times last season, they did still finish tied for second to last. They have an explosive player in Jones, but lack a second option. Hopefully Mercer will be able to fill that void, but seeing as he tore his ACL in February 2007 and has not played since then, it might take a little while for him to get back into it.

The Bottom Line
The Bulls freshman class should provide the depth needed in longer, closer games. It’s not a question of if they are going to make an impact on the team, it’s a question of when.

St. John's Red Storm

Coach: Norm Roberts
2007-2008 Record: 5-13 (11-19)
AP Rank: NR
Coaches: NR

Overview
The Red Storm have had problems this whole decade, not finishing with double-digit Big East wins since the 90’s. The team ran into trouble when players were arrested, and since then the Red Storm has been trying to rebuild.

Enter Coach Roberts. Entering his fifth season as the Red Storm head coach, Coach Roberts has put together a very good young team which will build on its experiences from last year.

The Good
Justin Burrell
is ready to start his sophomore season off with a bang after averaging over ten points and five rebounds per game last season, and senior Anthony Mason, Jr. is ready to show his leadership on the court again after averaging 14 points per game last season.

The Bad
Last year, Burrell and Mason did not have a very strong supporting cast and it showed. There are a slew of sophomores that have the opportunity to step up this year, and hopefully they can find it within themselves to do that.

The Bottom Line
The Red Storm have had a tough couple of years, but Coach Roberts has convinced those around him that they are finally ready to become a contender again. The young squad features only two seniors and one junior, so, depending on who steps up, almost anything is possible.

Syracuse Orange

Coach: Jim Boeheim
2007-2008 Record: 9-9 (19-13)
AP Rank: NR
Coaches: NR

Overview
After winning back-to-back Big East championships in 2005 and 2006, the Orange have struggled to make it back to the big dance. It seemed like last year was going to be the year before they lost Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf (both starters) to torn ACL’s.

All of this allowed for two freshmen to emerge as stars, though: Big East rookie of the year Jonny Flynn and now Sacramento King Donte Greene. Ultimately fatigue set in, and the Orange had to settle for a 9-9 season and another trip to the NIT’s.

The Good
At the end of last season, Flynn averaged just under 40 minutes per game, or no break what-so-ever. But this is what happens when you lose players, and the Orange finished the season with just seven men on their team. The only starter at the end of the season that they lost was Greene, and they have Rautins and Devendorf back this season. The Orange freshmen are going to have their work cut our for them if they want to make the starting squad after the heart that last year’s team showed.

The Bad
After last year, there is not a lot that can be said about this team that is very negative. They lost Greene, but that’s about it (who else was left to lose?). The Orange will be much stronger this season than they were at the end of last season, when they simply ran out of gas at the end.

The Bottom Line
The Orange were the best conditioned team at the end of last season, no contest. Unfortunately, they were not able to finish a lot of their games strongly because everyone was so exhausted. This is why they finished with a 4-6 run. They have a lot of talent on the team, though, and with more bodies they should be able to make a very successful run.

While they are unranked right now, they find themselves just outside the top 25 with a lot of potential. A more experienced leader in Flynn, plus the return of Rautins and Devendorf, will make them a much stronger team, and provided another team catastrophe does not happen this year, they will see themselves finally dancing again.

Villanova Wildcats

Coach: Jay Wright
2007-2008 Record: 9-9 (20-12)
AP Rank: 23
Coaches: 25

Overview
After landing a number one spot in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats have been looking to get back to that level of play. With a young squad last year, the Wildcats finished eighth with a disappointed 9-9 Big East record.

Coach Wright will look to change that this year, and with all five starters returning and the experience of making it to the Sweet Sixteen under their belts, the Wildcats have a very good chance of finishing towards the top of the Big East.

The Good
Lead by junior Scottie Reynolds and senior Dante Cunningham, the Wildcats put together some very tough wins last season (64-63 win over Pittsburgh, 67-65 win over UConn), along with some very disappointing losses (69-68 loss to North Carolina State, 55-53 loss to Georgetown, 80-68 loss to Rutgers).

Joining them are sophomores Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, and Antonio Peña. This guard-heavy team will rely more on their speed and shooting ability than inside presence, although despite being significantly smaller than the Big East centers he normally has to post up on, Cunningham managed to secure 6.5 rebounds per game last season.

The Bad
The Wildcats will often find themselves outsized by their Big East counterparts, something which gave them problems at times last season.

The Bottom Line
The Wildcats gained a lot of experience last year, and having the same starting lineup back this season should help them a lot. Watch for Reynolds to continue developing as a player and the sophomore trio to be much more effective now that they have a year of playing behind them.

West Virginia Mountaineers

Coach: Bob Huggins
2007-2008 Record: 11-7 (24-10)
AP Rank: NR
Coaches: NR

Overview
In Coach Huggins’ first year with the Mountaineers they finished tied for sixth in the Big East and made it to the Sweet Sixteen. This year they are looking to do more, and a very talented freshman class is looking to be able to help with that.

The Good
After having a good run last year, the Mountaineers have a very talented freshman class, most notably forward Kevin Jones and guard Darryl Bryant. They should fall into the roster very nicely, alongside senior Alex Ruoff, who is a three point threat, and junior Da’Sean Butler, who will become a much bigger inside threat in Alexander’s absence.

The Bad
The loss of point guard Darris Nichols and leading scorer Joe Alexander is going to undoubtedly hurt the Mountaineers at the beginning of the season. Hopefully it will not take Butler and Jones too long to fill the void under the basket.

The Bottom Line
The Mountaineers have a lot of promise for this year, and even if they do not win the Big East, look for them to be back in the NCAA Tournament this year. Their two big losses have been addressed by incoming freshmen, and if they are able to step up quickly, the Mountaineers could have a very nice season.

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