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November 2, 2007

Big East appears ready to bounce back

MORE: Rivals.com Preseason All-Big East teams

Preseason picks
Big East predicted order of finish
1. Louisville*
2. Georgetown*
3. Marquette*
4. Syracuse*
5. Connecticut*
6. Pittsburgh*
7. Villanova*
8. Notre Dame#
9. West Virginia#
10. Providence#
11. Seton Hall
12. DePaul
13. Cincinnati
14. St. John's
15. Rutgers
16. USF

The Big East sent only six teams to the NCAA Tournament last season.

Syracuse will be happy to tell anyone who will listen that it should have been seven. The Orange finished 10-6 in conference play, but came up empty on Selection Sunday.

Maybe Jim Boeheim had a gripe, but maybe not. Syracuse had an RPI of 50. The conference was No. 5 in the RPI, a five-year low.

That's not likely to happen again. The Big East is on an uptick.

  • Eight of its teams were among the first 36 in Rivals.com's Top 64 Countdown.

  • League members lured 13 of the top 57 freshmen in the Rivals.com prospect rankings.

  • Georgetown already has secured the commitment of the No. 1 prospect in the 2008 class, Greg Monroe.

  • All-conference performers Roy Hibbert and Dominic James returned to school after strongly considering leaving for the NBA.

    The league's move to an 18-game conference schedule will be worth watching closely. Essentially, teams will be playing two conference games instead of two nonconference cupcakes. For all of the potential damage it might do in the loss column, it ultimately should be a winner for the Big East.

    Here is the Rivals.com preview of the Big East season:

    Bob McClellan's Big East breakdown
    Team on the rise
    Villanova. OK, Jay Wright's team never really went anywhere, but we're this close to seeing the second coming of Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry in sophomore Scottie Reynolds and freshmen Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes. Fisher, a point guard, and Stokes, a small forward, are five-star prospects who make up two-thirds of Rivals.com's No. 12 recruiting class in the country. They follow Reynolds, last year's Big East rookie of the year after averaging 14.8 points per game. He was even better in conference play, averaging 18.4 points. Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark also return up front. This will be a small, quick team loaded with guys who can spot up and penetrate. They will create matchup problems similar to the 2006 Elite Eight team.
    Team on the decline
    St. John's. It has been a while since the Red Storm was heard from in the Big East. It has won three, five and seven Big East games in the past three seasons. It's steady, if mild, progress, but there isn't much reason for optimism this season. The trend will not continue. The team loses its No. 1 scorer and rebounder, Lamont Hamilton (13.4 points, 6.5 rebounds), and it was one of the worst scoring (63.5 points per game, 15th in the Big East) and worst rebounding teams (minus-2.1 rebounding margin, 14th in the Big East) in the nation last season. The league remains quite powerful among the top eight to 10 teams, so it figures to be another long season for the Red Storm.
    Coach on the rise
    John Thompson III. It's easy to forget Thompson is in only his fourth season leading the Hoyas. He guided Georgetown to the conference championship and the school's first Final Four in 22 years. The Hoyas were 30-7 last season and are 72-30 under Thompson. He has another team with enough talent to reach the Final Four this season, and he already has Monroe's commitment. It's only a matter of time before he duplicates his father's success and wins a national title at Georgetown.
    Coach on the hot seat
    Norm Roberts. Roberts has a 37-48 mark after three seasons at the helm of the Red Storm, including a 15-33 mark in Big East play. His conference high-water mark was last season when St. John's finished 7-9. But as mentioned, the team has lost a lot of talent coming into this season. Roberts has brought in a promising group of seven newcomers, but will he be around to witness the group come to fruition?
    Best offensive player
    Scottie Reynolds, Villanova. Through 13 games last season, Reynolds had yet to score more than 13 points in a game. Then the Big East schedule kicked in and the freshman guard went off. He scored at least 20 points in 10 of the Wildcats' last 19 games, including seven games of at least 25. He dropped 40 on Connecticut at Gampel Pavilion, the most the Huskies had surrendered there. Reynolds can shoot the "3," dribble-drive and get in the lane and draw contact. He may shoot a little less with the Coreys on hand, but his shooting percentage (38.7) should and needs to rise.
    Best 3-point shooter
    Jonathan Wallace, Georgetown. He didn't make enough 3-pointers to qualify for the national rankings (2.5 per game are necessary). But he did make 73 of 149, which is 49 percent. It sure is nice to have defenses collapsing on Roy Hibbert, and no one might be happier he's back for his senior season than Wallace.
    Best defensive player
    Jerel McNeal, Marquette. He is the reigning Big East defensive player of the year. He has made defense a priority since arriving on campus, and he has become one of the best shutdown guys in the country. "I've got a good frame for playing defense," McNeal said. "I'm not tall, but I have long arms and quick feet. Everything else is mental things anticipation, thinking about plays that the offense will make before they make them. It's a combination of physical ability and getting inside my opponent's head." McNeal was second in the Big East and 10th nationally in steals with 2.6 per game.
    Best player you don't know yet
    Draelon Burns, DePaul. Neither NBA first-round pick Wilson Chandler nor second-round pick Sammy Mejia led the Blue Demons in scoring last season in conference games. That was Burns, a 6-4 shooting guard who averaged 13.1 points in league play and 11.6 points overall. Without last year's two leading scorers, the scoring load will be his to carry. He's bound to have some big nights.
    Deepest bench
    Louisville. The Cardinals can throw bodies at the opposition like few teams in the country. Even with starting power forward Juan Palacios out of the lineup for 3-4 weeks with a strained knee ligament, coach Rick Pitino has few worries. Sophomore Earl Clark will start while Palacios is out, and Clark could be headed for such a breakout season that Palacios will wind up coming off the bench. Derrick Caracter will be coming off the bench, too, and all he did last season was average 8.1 points and 3.9 rebounds in only 13.3 minutes per game. If Caracter gets his weight down to where Pitino wants it, he could have a monster season, off the bench or not.
    Impact newcomer
    DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh. This was a tough pick. Strictly looking at who will put up the big numbers, though, Blair should be the guy. He's a 6-7, 250-pound power forward who has the size and strength to compete in the Big East. He's blessed with long arms and a great work ethic. He'll hit the boards tirelessly and get some garbage points while he's at it. Blair could average close to a double-double in his first season.
    Freshman sleeper
    Alvin Mitchell, Cincinnati. He's not as well-known as some of the other players in a strong recruiting class for Bearcats coach Mick Cronin, but the word is he's a big-time talent who can score. Mitchell is a 6-5 small forward who was the Class 4A player of the year in Florida.
    News and notes
    The Big East moves to an 18-game conference schedule this season, up from 16. Every team will play every other league team at least once. The league has two new coaches: Bob Huggins at West Virginia and Stan Heath at USF. Syracuse had the top-ranked Big East recruiting class, at No. 4. Other Big East teams in the top 30 were Villanova (12th), Cincinnati (15th), DePaul (16th), Georgetown (23rd), Pittsburgh (26th) and St. John's (30th). Three Big East coaches were involved with U.S. teams in international competition this summer. Syracuse's Boeheim was an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski on the USA Senior National team that won the FIBA Americas championship. DePaul's Jerry Wainwright was the coach of the U-19 team that won the silver medal at the FIBA World Championships in Serbia. Villanova's Wright was the coach of the U.S. Pan Am team that competed in Brazil but did not medal. Connecticut didn't make the postseason last year for the first time since Jim Calhoun's first season in Storrs 22 years ago. And the Huskies didn't have a player chosen in the NBA Draft for the first time since 2003. Syracuse has had a player make the All-Big East first team every year since 1999. That puts a little pressure on Eric Devendorf this season.

    Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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