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November 1, 2011

League preview: Big East

Today we finish our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we've been working backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.


While the Big East's future is extremely cloudy, one thing is perfectly clear: It's still the best conference in college basketball.

The Big East enters the 2011-12 season with seven teams ranked in the Rivals.com Preseason Top 32 Countdown - at least two more teams than any other league - and all seven have at least Sweet 16 (if not Elite Eight or even Final Four) potential.

And remember, the Big East's ninth-place team a year ago, Connecticut, won the national championship.

UConn shouldn't have to worry about a ninth-place finish this season. Despite the loss of all-everything G Kemba Walker, the Huskies should have more than enough to win the Big East and could even repeat as national champions.

Sophomore G Jeremy Lamb emerged during the NCAA tournament, averaging 16.2 points and 4.8 rebounds and shooting 58 percent from the field during the title run, and he should be the Huskies' go-to player with Walker gone. Expect G Shabazz Napier and Fs Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi to also build on their postseason success of a year ago.

Adding to the Huskies' excitement is the arrival of C Andre Drummond, who changed his mind about a second year in prep school and signed with the Huskies in August. He will be a dominant force down low, although he may be slowed a bit by a broken nose and concussion he suffered in practice last week. Five-star F DeAndre Daniels and four-star G Ryan Boatright should also make an immediate impact for the Huskies, who may not be eligible for the 2013 NCAA tournament because of new academic rules recently passed by the NCAA.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh may not represent the Big East in the 2013 NCAA tourney, either, depending on how their exit from the league to the ACC pans out. In 2011-12, though, the Orange and Panthers appear to have the best shot at edging out the Huskies for the top spot in the conference.

The Orange return four starters from a 27-win team, including one of the best backcourts in the nation in Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche. Leading scorer Kris Joseph (14.3 ppg) headlines a frontcourt that also includes Fab Melo, Baye Moussa Keita and highly touted newcomer Rakeem Christmas. The Panthers return sharpshooter Ashton Gibbs (16.8 ppg), who hit nearly 50 percent of his 3-point attempts last season, and Travon Woodall will replace Brad Wanamaker at the other guard spot. Pitt has reached 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments - the longest such streak in the Big East. The only thing missing from coach Jamie Dixon's resume is a Final Four appearance, and he may get it this season.

Marquette, Louisville, Cincinnati and West Virginia may need some help to reach the Final Four.

The Golden Eagles have one of the Big East's top players in senior G Darius Johnson-Odom, but another guard needs to emerge. Louisville has experience with G Peyton Siva and swingman Kyle Kuric, but injuries continue to be an issue for Louisville. Freshman F Wayne Blackshear is the latest casualty (he'll miss the season with a torn labrum), and Fs Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles still are recovering from injuries suffered last season. Cincinnati has a potential star in F Yancy Gates, but the rest of the frontcourt is an issue. While West Virginia returns two 1,000-point scorers (F Kevin Jones and G Darryl Bryant) for the first time in school history, will their plethora of newcomers adapt quickly enough to Bob Huggins' coaching style to make WVU a contender?

There are plenty of teams outside these seven that can make a run at the top of the league standings, most notably Villanova (led by G Maalik Wayns) and Notre Dame (led by F Tim Abromaitis). Georgetown, Rutgers and St. John's are extremely young - and talented - and also could make some noise.

DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence and USF, meanwhile, likely have to look to the future to make a move up the Big East standings, when Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia - and who knows who else - leave the league.

C Andre Drummond, Connecticut (6-10/270, Fr.)
F Kris Joseph, Syracuse (6-7/210, Sr.)
G Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh (6-2/190, Sr.)
G Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut (6-5/180, Soph.)
G Maalik Wayns, Villanova (6-2/200, Jr.)
F Tim Abromaitis, Notre Dame (6-8/236, Sr.)
F Kevin Jones, West Virginia (6-8/260, Sr.)
F Cleveland Melvin, DePaul (6-8/205, Soph.)
G Jason Clark, Georgetown (6-2/170, Sr.)
G Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette (6-2/215, Sr.)

UConn G Jeremy Lamb
UConn C Andre Drummond

1. Connecticut
2. Syracuse
3. Pittsburgh
4. Marquette
5. Louisville
6. Cincinnati
7. West Virginia
8. Villanova
9. Notre Dame
10. Georgetown
11. Rutgers
12. DePaul
13. Seton Hall
14. St. John's
15. Providence
16. USF

New coach: Ed Cooley at Providence (had been coach at Fairfield)
Regular-season winner last season: Pittsburgh
Tournament winner last season: Connecticut
League RPI in each of past 3 seasons: 1st in 2010-11, 2nd in 2009-10, 4th in 2008-09
NCAA bids the past five seasons: 40
2012 conference tournament: March 6-10, New York

Best frontcourt: Connecticut. The arrival of highly hyped freshman C Andre Drummond gives the Huskies the edge here. He has the potential and size to be a force down low. If he and Alex Oriakhi can mesh, UConn will have a potentially devastating defensive duo on the interior. Oriakhi needs more consistency, though. Roscoe Smith, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander should be solid complementary components.
Best backcourt: Syracuse. The Orange return both starting guards, and each is going to be a third-year starter, which means they know what coach Jim Boeheim wants. Scoop Jardine is a solid playmaker who was second in the Big East at 5.9 assists per game; he also averaged 12.5 points. Brandon Triche averaged 11.1 points last season, his first as the shooting guard; he should be more comfortable in that role this season. Dion Waiters adds a physical presence, and freshman Michael Carter-Williams, a top-30 prospect, adds more depth.
Program on the rise: Rutgers. Mike Rice has shown he can get the players on campus; now he has to coach them up. It might not show this season, but the Scarlet Knights should start challenging for upper-division finishes in the league starting next season.
Program on the decline: USF. For the most part, the Bulls have struggled since joining the league and this season they could hit rock bottom. Quite simply, there aren't enough Big East-caliber players on the roster. The school finally is spending some money on facilities, but when is it going to show on the court?
Coach on the rise: Marquette's Buzz Williams. Numerous observers questioned the hiring when it was made, but no one is saying anything now. Williams has proved to be a solid recruiter and a good X's and O's guy, too. He has done a nice job mining the JC ranks and then assimilating the newcomers his system. He rebuffed some coaching overtures in the offseason, and he knows he has a good thing going in Milwaukee.
Coach on the hot seat: USF's Stan Heath. Heath is heading into his fifth season and has averaged 12.8 wins per season. USF is overmatched in the Big East in basketball and registers barely a blip on the local sports scene. This looks as if it will be another long season. Why not shake things up?
Most overrated player: Seton Hall F Herb Pope. He's talented but inconsistent, and never is going to live up to his high school hype. He deserves credit to battling through ailments and injuries, but he is not a good shooter (41.9 percent from the field, 54.8 percent from the line) and doesn't rebound as much as he should, either.
Most underrated player: Providence G Vincent Council. He was a key component in the Friars' up-tempo attack last season, averaging 13.7 points, 5.9 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals in 36.3 minutes per game, excellent numbers for a team that struggled in league play. New coach Ed Cooley likely will slow the pace a bit, and how Council adapts will be a key part of the Friars' season.

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Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com. Gary Mondello is an assistant editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mondello@yahoo-inc.com, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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