Basketball Preview: Sports staff predictions for Big East standings

By Greg Trietley

The Pitt News polled 11 of its sports writers to create the Preseason Pitt News Poll. The poll,… The Pitt News polled 11 of its sports writers to create the Preseason Pitt News Poll. The poll, like the Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll, ranks all 16 Big East men’s basketball programs based on their expected performances this season.

1. Syracuse Orange (First-place votes: 4)

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 1 (tie)

Syracuse returns six of its top seven scorers from last year’s team, which tied for third in the conference with a 12-6 record. Seven-foot sophomore Fab Melo must elevate his game defensively in the wake of Rick Jackson’s departure, but Syracuse as a whole is both an experienced and deep team. Kris Joseph (14.3 points per game), Scoop Jardine (12.5 points per game) and Brandon Triche (11.1 points per game) make Syracuse one of the most skilled teams in the Big East.

2. Connecticut Huskies (First-place votes: 5)

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 1 (tie)

Highly touted freshman center Andre Drummond was named Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year and sophomore Jeremy Lamb is poised to step out from the shadow of ankle-breaker Kemba Walker, a first-round pick in this year’s NBA draft. Connecticut’s defense held opponents to a conference-low 39.3 percent shooting percentage last season en route to the National Championship, although the Huskies finished just 9-9 in regular-season Big East play.

3. Pittsburgh Panthers

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 4

Pitt led the conference in 3-point shooting last season, and there’s no reason to believe that will change as long as Ashton Gibbs remains a Panther. Gibbs hit 49 percent of his attempts from deep in 2010-2011. The Panthers lost three-fifths of last year’s starting lineup, including center Gary McGhee, but All-American freshman Khem Birch, junior Dante Taylor and a crowded frontcourt look to pick up where McGhee left off.

4. Louisville Cardinals (one first-place vote)

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 3

A Louisville squad with no returning starters surprised the conference last season with a 12-6 record. That core returns this year with higher expectations. Junior forward Jared Swopshire, who missed all of last season with a groin injury, also returns this season. No team loves the 3-point shot more than the Cardinals, who attempted the most in the Big East in 2010-2011. “We shoot the ball well,” coach Rick Pitino said after Louisville’s intrasquad scrimmage. “But until you play real competition, it’s tough to tell.”

5. Marquette Golden Eagles (one first-place vote)

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 6

Leading scorer Darius Johnson-Odom returns for his senior season after averaging 15.8 points per game last year. Fellow junior college transfer Jae Crowder is also back with the high-scoring Golden Eagles, who qualified for their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth in 2011. Sophomore guard Vander Blue should see more time on the court with the departure of starters Jimmy Butler and Dwight Buycks.

6. Cincinnati Bearcats

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 5

Cincinnati quietly allowed a conference-low 59.1 points per game last year under Mick Cronin, who signed a three-year contract extension in April. Forward Yancy Gates and guard Dion Dixon — Cincinnati’s two double-digit scorers in 2010-2011 — are both back. The Bearcats qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2005. “One thing I’m going to stay away from is talking at all about last year,” Cronin said at the Bearcats’ media day. “The last hurdle for them [Cincinnati’s veteran players] is handling success.”

7. Villanova Wildcats

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 8

More than 40 percent of Villanova’s offensive output left with the departure of guards Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes, but the Wildcats hope that junior Maalik Wayns can top last year’s 13.8 points per game. Villanova must avoid a third straight late-season letdown, as it lost its last six games last year and was eliminated in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament in both 2010 and 2011.

8. West Virginia Mountaineers

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 7

Guards Casey Mitchell and Joe Mazzulla and forward John Flowers have all moved on, leaving forward Kevin Jones and guard Darryl Bryant, both seniors, as the leaders of a Mountaineer team with seven freshmen. No program contested shots from deep range like West Virginia did last year, as it held opponents to a 29.1 percent shooting percentage beyond the arc.

9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 9

Notre Dame’s clock-burning offense will be without graduate Ben Hansbrough’s 18.4 points per game this season. The Irish bring back two starters, 6-foot-8 guards Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin. Only Pitt shot better than Notre Dame did last year from 3-point range, and the school finished second in the conference in points per game (75.2).

10. Georgetown Hoyas

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 10

Coming off a conference-best 47.5 percent shooting percentage last season, Georgetown will miss the production of its two top scorers — departed guards Austin Freeman and Chris Wright. Jason Clark is the sole returning starter from the Hoyas’ potent backcourt. The young Georgetown lineup has a month to prepare for a midnight battle against No. 13 Kansas in the Maui Invitational on Nov. 21.

11. St. John’s Red Storm

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 12

St. John’s returns no starters from last year’s team, which finished 12-6 in the Big East. Reserve guard Malik Stith is the only scholarship player back for Steve Lavin’s Red Storm, which brought in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. Leading the way is junior college transfer God’s Gift Achiuwa, who had 22.3 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game for Erie last year. Eligibility issues, though, cut the October roster to eight players. “We can’t really afford to have injuries, so we’re going to turn it back as far as how we prepare them,” Lavin said at St. John’s tip-off event. “We can’t run them into the ground like we did to the guys last year.”

12. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 11

Rutgers went 10-6 last season at the often-deafening Louis Brown Athletic Center, the smallest full-time home court in the Big East. The Scarlet Knights, though, struggled on the road and finished 13th in the conference. With one senior on the roster, coach Mike Rice will lean heavily on sophomore Gilvydas Biruta, who averaged 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last year, as well as a seven-man recruiting class.

13. Seton Hall Pirates

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 13

Seton Hall went 5-8 last year when Jeremy Hazell missed 13 games due to an injury. In their first season in the post-Hazell era, the Pirates will rely on veterans Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore for offense. Kevin Willard’s team had the worst shooting percentage in the Big East last year (41.3 percent).

14. Providence Friars (tie)

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 15

Like the Pirates with Hazell, the Friars lost their identity with the departure of Marshon Brooks, who paced the conference with 24.6 points per game and carried Providence’s league-best scoring offense. Brooks scored at least 10 points in every game and had 52 in a losing effort against Notre Dame in February. Without him, Providence turns to its returning backcourt of Vincent Council and Gerard Coleman, but the Friars do not have a scholarship senior on the roster.

14. South Florida Bulls (tie)

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 14

The Bulls failed to build off their 9-9 conference record of 2009-2010, as they went just 3-15 in the Big East last year and finished 15th. Six of the top seven scorers from that team return, led by 6-foot-10 forward Augustus Gilchrist. He had 13.4 points and 6.0 rebounds per game last season, but the Bulls lacked consistent guard play and had trouble closing out games under coach Stan Heath.

16. DePaul Blue Demons

Preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll Rank: 16

DePaul had the worst defense in the Big East in 2010-2011, giving up 76.7 points per game and allowing opponents to shoot 50.1 percent from the floor. Coach Oliver Purnell begins his second season of rebuilding the program, and the Blue Demons return conference rookie of the year Cleveland Melvin and seven others. DePaul snapped a 24-game regular-season Big East losing streak when it beat Providence 79-76 in February.

Jon Anzur, Nate Barnes, Chris Fanelli, Brody Engelhard, Mike Furlong, Dustin Gabler, Lauren Kirschman, Roger Sepich, Jasper Wilson and Torie Wytiaz contributed to this story.