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Big East at a glance

Fran Tolan, Greg Arbogast, and Chris Hine | Monday, November 24, 2008

Likely Tournament teams:

(Teams in no particular order underneath their grouping.)

Connecticut: The preseason No. 2 team in the country and the coaches’ pick to take the Big East regular season crown this season. Connecticut possesses a lot of weapons. Hasheem Thabeet developed into a threat on both ends of the floor late last season. Jeff Adrien complements Thabeet nicely inside. Freshman Kemba Walker can handle things in the backcourt while A.J. Price gets back into the swing of things following an anterior cruciate (ACL) tear in Connecticut’s final game last season. Connecticut will be tough to beat, but the same can be said about a lot of teams in this league.

Louisville: The Cardinals made it to the Elite Eight before falling to North Carolina last season and look poised for another deep Tourney run. Louisville adds the high school USA Today National Player of the Year, Samardo Samuels, to a frontcourt that was already one of the best in the country. Forwards Terrence Williams and Earl Clark, both of whom could have been NBA draft picks after last season, give the Cardinals a good shot at taking the conference title.

Marquette: The Golden Eagles have had basically the same team for the past three years. Coach Tom Crean left for Indiana, replaced by Buzz Williams – who has a lot of talent on his squad. The backcourt trio of Dominic James, Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal are among some of the best guards in the country and McNeal is a great lockdown defender. If Marquette wants to go far this year, they’ll need some help in the front court from Lazar Haywood

Notre Dame: The Irish have a well-rounded, experienced team that has proven it can compete with the elite in the Big East. They have reigning Big East player of the year Luke Harangody inside, sharpshooter Kyle McAlarney outside, the always-improving Tory Jackson running the show at the point, and a confident group of seniors in Ryan Ayers, Luke Zeller and Zach Hillesland. And don’t forget that Mike Brey has won the conference coach of the year award two years in a row. If ever there was a year for Notre Dame to make a run at a national title, this is it.

Georgetown: After losing Roy Hibbert, Jonathan Wallace and Patrick Ewing, Jr., from back-to-back regular-season conference champions, the Hoyas will look to some lesser-known players if they are to again compete for the title. But Georgetown has good coaching in John Thompson III and a star-in-the-making in junior forward DaJuan Summers. The loss of several mainstays will not take the team out of contention.

Pittsburgh: Last year’s young Pittsburgh team found their stride late winning the Big East Tournament – a sign of things to come for 2008-2009. Their two-headed front court monster of Sam Young and DeJuan Blair should be even better in the post this year, and senior Levance Fields returns to bring a steady hand at point guard. Mike Cook, Benjamin Keith and their 20 points per game from a year ago are gone, but they’re replaceable. Look for the Panthers’ big three to have this team near the top of the Big East.

Possible Tournament teams:

West Virginia: Never count out a Bob Huggins-coached team. Returning to Morgantown to coach his alma mata, Huggins took West Virginia to the Sweet 16 upsetting Duke along the way. Junior Joe Mazzula had a breakout game against the Blue Devils, and he takes over the point guard duties from Darius Nichols. The Mountaineers also lost first-round draft pick Joe Alexander and starting center Jamie Smalligan. Senior guard Alex Ruoff, talented underclassmen and a nationally-ranked recruiting class should ease the transition.

Villanova: Villanova has almost everybody back. Scottie Reynolds, who averaged 15.9 points per game last season will lead the offense once again, as is Dante Cunningham, who averaged 10.4. Last year, the Wildcats were one of the last teams in the Tournament and made a nice run to the Sweet 16, but Villanova will need another offensive threat to emerge if they want to get in the Tournament this year.

Syracuse: Freshman sensation Donte Green was drafted in the first round by the Houston Rockets, but the Orange have plenty of other scorers to pick up the slack. Guards Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins are all back, as is forward Arinze Onuaku. All four averaged double figures in scoring in 2007-2008. If Syracuse hopes to improve this year upon their NIT berths the last two seasons, it needs to improve a defense that yielded over 74 points per game last season.

Providence: The team Irish coach Mike Brey said will surprise a lot of people this season. The Friars finished 6-12 last year but lost a lot of close games, including an overtime thriller in the Joyce Center last season. Coach Tim Welsh lost his job. Drake’s Keno Davis came in, after being named Associated Press coach of the year last season, and the Friars return most of their players from a roster that had five players average over double figures last season. Providence is balanced and experienced, and that will be needed in the tough Big East.

Cincinnati: If Another team that can make a move in the standings this year is Cincinnati, who finished 8-10 last year, good enough for 10th. Texas transfer Mike Williams brings a little bit of everything to the frontcourt, and Deonta Vaughn will provide the bulk of the scoring. Throw in freshman Yancy Gates who led Cincinnati in points and rebounds in the team’s first game, and the Bearcats should improve over last season.

Little chance of making the Tournament:

South Florida: Coach Stan Heath is in the middle of rebuilding a program that just lost its best player, forward Kentrell Gransberry, who put up Harangody-like numbers the past two seasons. They do return Dominique Jones, who was arguably the best freshman in the Big East last season (17.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists per game). The Bulls had a large amount of transfers and brought in a lot of recruits, but a young, inexperienced team won’t get it done in the Big East this year.

Seton Hall: In point guard Jordan Theodore and big man Melvyn Oliver, the Friars added a pair of recruits that figure to contribute right away. The team also welcomes Robert Mitchell, who scored 16.5 points for Duquesne in 2006-07 before transferring to Seton Hall. Bobby Gonzalez’s squad looks to improve on a 17-15 campaign in which it nosedived after starting 15-6.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights have won just three conference games in each of the past two seasons but they finally appear to have rebuilt. They added highly-regarded recruits Greg Echenique and Mike Rosario, who is the program’s first McDonald’s All-American. Echenique, who spent the summer with the Venezuelan Junior National Team, joins shot-blocking center Hmady Ndiaye in the Rutgers frontcourt. J.R. Inman, who dropped 12.2 points per game last year, looks to lead the offense again.

St. John’s: With seven freshmen seeing the court last year, the Red Storm struggled to a 5-13 conference mark. But coach Norm Roberts hopes the experience paid off for those players. Senior Anthony Mason, Jr. will lead this still-inexperienced team as it seeks to make the conference tournament. He will have his hands full as a pair of freshmen will start in the backcourt for the once-proud program.

DePaul: After just missing the NCAA Tournament two years ago, DePaul took a step backward in 2007-2008. The Blue Demons won only six conference games, finishing 13th in the Big East and failing to qualify for a postseason tournament. Things don’t look much better this year as the Blue Demons lose leading scorer Draelon Burns and his 17.6 points per game. If DePaul wants to improve this season, they’ll need guard Dar Tucker and center Mac Koshwal to improve after strong freshman campaigns.