Big East down, but should still be competitive

By Kelly Flanigan

As a conference, the Big East enjoyed one of its strongest seasons ever last year. It tied the record for most teams from one conference in the NCAA Tournament with seven.

While a lot of the league’s top talent is now in the NBA, it should still be competitive this season. Here’s what fans can expect this year in the Big East:

Cincinnati: After heading the basketball program for three years at Cincinnati, coach Mick Cronin brings a great recruiting class into 2009. Watch out for McDonald’s all-American recruit Lance Stephenson.

Cincinnati boasts seven returning players and two highly recruited freshmen in 6-foot-4-inch Sean Kilpatrick and 6-foot-3-inch Jaquon Parker.

After leading the Bearcats in assists and scoring for three straight years, senior guard Deonta Vaughn will be expected to take the leadership role on the court this season. Cincinnati finished last year’s season at 18-14 (8-10) and 10th in the Big East but was picked to finish seventh in the preseason media poll.

Connecticut: Longtime basketball powerhouse Connecticut finished the 2008-09 season at 31-5 (15-3).

The Huskies lost to Michigan State in their third consecutive trip to the Final Four.

Key losses include Hasheem Thabeet, who was drafted by the Grizzlies, and guard AJ Price, who went to the Pacers.

The Huskies also lost 6-foot-7-inch playmaker Jeff Adrien. With three empty starting spots, this team faces some serious questions. However, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun brought in the nation’s sixth-ranked recruiting class.

“I’ve got the zest to hopefully try and win another national championship, and that’s really our goal. I’m really looking forward to a great schedule and hopefully a great year,” Calhoun told ESPNews.

DePaul: The Blue Devils lacked leadership last season. Coach Jerry Wainwright did not start a senior, and the team finished 9-24 overall and winless in conference play.

Players Dar Tucker (18.4 ppg) and Mac Koshwal (12.2 ppg, 9.6 rebounds), both sophomores, were the best players for DePaul, which was picked to repeat as the league’s worst team in the preseason poll.

Georgetown: After snapping a streak of three straight NCAA Tournament appearances last year, the Hoyas were disappointed again when they lost in only the first round of the NIT Tournament. Coach John Thompson III didn’t have an especially impressive recruiting class, but returning Big East Rookie of the Year Greg Monroe contributed significantly and should improve in his sophomore season. Georgetown will turn to guard Chris Wright for the leadership they need to get back on track this season.

Louisville: The 2008 Big East tournament champions received the No. 1 overall seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament but lost to Michigan State 64-52 in the Sweet 16. They lost two key players, junior Earl Clark and senior Terrence Williams, to the NBA. This year, Louisville looks especially to senior Edgar Sosa and sophomore Samardo Samuels.

Marquette: The Golden Eagles (24-9, 12-6) ended last season with a loss to Missouri in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Seniors Jerel McNeal and Dominic James were Marquette’s standout players, but both graduated. Head coach Buzz Williams looks to senior Maurice Acker and 7-foot-2-inch freshman Youssoupha Mbao (Senegal) to make a big impact on the court this year.

Notre Dame: Led by Coach Mike Brey, the Fighting Irish (21-15, 8-10) lost to Penn State in the semifinals of the NIT tournament last year. Forward Luke Harangody led the Big East in scoring with 23.3 points per game and was picked as a preseason all-American and Big East Player of the Year. “I think we have the team and the players to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament this year,” Harangody told ESPN. Senior guards Tory Jackson and Jonathan Peoples will also contribute significantly to the Irish this year.

Pittsburgh: At Pitt’s Basketball Media Day, Coach Jamie Dixon spoke of his expectations for the Panthers this season. “We never limit ourselves to a conference championship or an NCAA Tournament berth or this and that. This team can be as good as any team that we’ve had before. No one thinks that outside, they just look at what we have on paper, but we don’t play the game on paper, we play out there on the court. Where we are now is not where we’re going to be in January or February or March.” With key losses of DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields, Pitt looks to returning veterans such as Brad Wanamaker, Ashton Gibbs and Jermaine Dixon to make an impact. Senior transfer Chase Adams and redshirt freshman Travon Woodall are expected to have a big impact in the backcourt. Four freshman, including McDonald’s all-American recruit Dante Taylor, join the squad and hope to fill the gaps left by last year’s departed players.

Providence: The Friars (19-14, 10-8) lost in the first round of the NIT Tournament to Miami last season. Head coach Keno Davis lost eight seniors, including four starters. Though this is a rebuilding year for Providence, the team can look to junior guard/forward Marshon Brooks and senior Sharaud Curry for leadership.

Rutgers: After finishing 11-21 in the regular season and with only two wins in the Big East, the Scarlet Knights ended their season with a loss to Notre Dame in the first round of the Big East tournament. Freshman guard Mike Rosario was the team’s top scorer and could make the jump to one of the conference’s best players, and Gregory Echenique led the nation in rebounding.

Seton Hall: The Pirates (17-15, 7-11) did not make a postseason tournament, but many expect that to change this year. Junior forward Jeremy Hazell led the team with 22.7 points per game. Significant losses include senior guard Paul Gause, who led the Big East in steals with an average of 2.7. Although Seton Hall was picked to finish 10th in the Big East preseason media poll, many also think the Pirates are a sleeper pick to compete in the conference.

St. John’s: Led by Coach Norm Roberts, the Red Storm hopes for a better season than last, when they finished 16-18 in the regular season and racked up only six wins in the Big East and fell to Richmond in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational. St. John’s will return all but one player this year and will depend on experienced players such as juniors Paris Horne, DJ Kennedy and Sean Evans to put points on the board.

Syracuse: Longtime coach Jim Boeheim heads a very experienced and storied basketball program in upstate New York. Last year, Syracuse (28-10, 11-7) lost to Oklahoma in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. The NBA claimed three of the Orange’s stars in Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris. The Orange head into their season with the blemish of losing to a Division II school in an exhibition game, after Le Moyne defeated Syracuse 82-79 on Tuesday.

South Florida: The Bulls lost to Seton Hall in the first round of the Big East tournament and finished their season 9-22 overall (4-14). Returning starters Dominique Jones (18.1 points per game) and Augustus Gilchrist (10.2 ppg) were the team’s top scorers last year. The only loss for the Bulls was senior starter Jesus Verdejo (12.2 ppg).

Villanova: Head coach Jay Wright (300-176 in 15 seasons) has enjoyed great success with the Wildcats, which finished last year’s season 30-8 (13-5) and advanced to the Final Four for the fourth time in school history. The Wildcats lost major players including Dante Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark and Frank Tchuisi. Still, the Wildcats were picked to win the conference in the preseason media poll and are ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press and No. 9 in the USA Today preseason polls. Senior guard Scottie Reynolds, who will forever hold a spot in the memories of Pitt fans for his last-second, game-winning shot against the Panthers in the Elite Eight, returns to lead Villanova. “All we can do is be humble and hungry every time we step on that court and put that Villanova jersey on and go out there and play Villanova basketball for 40 minutes,” Reynolds told ESPN.

West Virginia: The Mountaineers finished 28-12 (10-8) under head coach Bob Huggins in the 2008-09 season. “If it’s not the best league in the country, it’s tied for it. We’re not going to have a drop off,” Huggins told MountaineerTV of the condition of the Big East this year. “If you can win our league you can win a national championship.” West Virginia suffered an embarrassing loss to Dayton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and was picked to finish second in the conference. Sophomore forward Devin Ebanks and senior forward Da’Sean Butler (17.1 ppg) return for West Virginia in the coming season. Alex Ruoff is the only major loss for the team. The Mountaineers are ranked No. 8 in the AP poll and No. 9 in the USA Today poll.