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The Panthers are led by senior Aaron Gray, who will battle Roy Hibbert for the title of the conference’s best center. Gray, the Big East Most Improved Player last season, was the only player in the league to average a double-double. Now that Carl Krauser has graduated, he is the man in Pittsburgh. But the center may not have to average much more than his 14 points per game last season because Pitt is the deepest team in the conference.
Athletic sophomore swing man Sam Young and East Carolina transfer Mike Cook are real scoring threats. Agile, senior forward Levon Kendall and sophomore big man Tyrell Biggs will help Gray on the interior. The question mark for the Panthers is whether the backcourt duo of Levance Fields and Ronald Ramon can be effective floor generals.
Coach Jamie Dixon’s squad will be tested early in conference play with consecutive home games against Georgetown, Connecticut and Marquette in January. In a battle of powerhouse frontcourts, Pitt plays the Hoyas at the Verizon Center on Feb. 24. The winner could be the Big East champ.
Picked to finish 12th in the conference last year by Big East coaches (and 11th by The Voice), Marquette stunned everyone by finishing 10-6, tied with Pitt and Georgetown for 4th in the conference. The Golden Eagles won’t have the luxury of flying so far under the radar this year, and the question left is: are they ready for prime time?
Steve Novak — the only name in Marquette hoops for the last couple of years — graduated this summer, leaving a gaping hole in the Golden Eagles’ frontcourt. There is no one on this team right now who can match his production, so the boys from Milwaukee will be left to rely on solid guard play to score most of their points. Dominic James, Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal are the knock-off version of Villanova’s solid guard corps last year, but don’t look for them to live up to all the ‘Nova hype; none of these guys are Randy Foye.
If one thing is working for Marquette, it’s experience. There’s only one freshman in the nest, and along with the trifecta of guards come five battle-tested forwards, including senior Jamil Lott and juniors Ousmane Barro and Ryan Amoroso. There’s also Head Coach Tom Crean, who has won the Athletic Department’s faith and a contract extension through 2017.
The Golden Eagles hit the ground running in the Big East, with three of their first six conference games against Pitt, UConn and Syracuse. These tests will show right away whether they’re as good as we think they are.
UConn will still be one of the best teams in the conference, even after losing pretty much everybody to the NBA: Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams, Josh Boone, Hilton Armstrong and Rashad Anderson.
The Huskies are led by sophomore A.J. Price, one of the best point guards in the country. Despite being three years out of high school, he has never stepped on the court in college. Two seasons ago, he was red-shirted because of a disease that causes bleeding in the brain. He was suspended last season for his involvement in selling stolen laptops.
As usual, UConn has one of the best recruiting classes in America, headlined by Hasheem Thabeet, a 7’3”, 265-pound center. He is the latest in a chain of intimidating Husky big men. He’ll probably have about a million blocks this year (UConn has led the country in shot blocking for five consecutive years). Thabeet will get help from sophomore forward Jeff Adrien, one of the Big East’s best rookies last season.
The Huskies are really young and will probably stumble early in the season. Their games will look chaotic. As always, Coach Jim Calhoun will be raising his arms and screaming on the sidelines. But Calhoun’s squads always gel when they need to, so his troops should be ready come March.
Rick Pitino has been around the hoops world for a while, and his experience will always work to the Cardinals’ benefit. Underneath the wise, 54-year-old master, however, is a rising youth movement, featuring one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Nine of the 12 players on scholarship are freshmen or sophomores, and that’s not a bad thing. Louisville doesn’t rebuild, it reloads.
Big men Juan Palacios and David Padgett, both juniors, give the Cardinals a formidable presence up front while returning players Brandon Jenkins and Andre McGee figure to start in the backcourt. The newcomers add plenty of depth at the guard position, and one of the three freshman guards — Earl Clark, Jerry Smith or Edgar Sosa — could be starting by season’s end.
Louisville had a disappointing season last year, largely due to injuries to key players, including Palacios, who never quite recovered from a preseason foot injury. Jenkins already broke his leg in August, putting him out for at least three months. Leading scorer Taquan Dean was lost to graduation this summer, as were rising sophomores Chad Millard and Brian Johnson, who both transferred.
Still, if the rest of the Cardinals can stay healthy, look for them to fly a little higher this year. A couple of early non-conference tests against Arizona and Kentucky should tell us whether they’re the real deal.
Paul Harris, a 6’5” 220-pounder, is the best diaper dandy in the conference. He can play four positions — ‘Cuse hasn’t had this kind of all-around talent since Carmelo Anthony. Harris is also a monster defender, who is expected to help fill the gaps in the Orange’s zone defense. But don’t expect them to win the National Championship–Head Coach Jim Boeheim doesn’t have Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick to support this freshman.
Bringing back most of their starting lineup, ‘Cuse is experienced. But, after last season’s poor regular season, the returning players are unproven. After all, the Orange only won the Big East Championship last season because of Gerry Mac’s leadership and absurd last-second shots.
Still, Syracuse will make some noise. Power forward Terrance Roberts will improve on his 11 points, eight rebounds per game average. Other returning starters include two-guard Eric Devendorf and three-man Demetris Nichols. Point guard Josh Wright looked good coming off the bench last year. Oh yeah, and Paul Harris is a beast.
Boyz 2 Men may have been from Philly, but this Big Five team is going from men 2 boys this year. After one of the most dominant seasons in school history last year, the Wildcats are losing Big East Player of the Year Randy Foye, along with standouts Allen Ray and Kyle Lowry. The only guard left from their four-guard offense is Mike Nardi, which will force the Wildcats back into a more traditional look. And they just don’t have the frontcourt to contend for the Big East crown.
Nova will benefit from the return of senior forward Curtis Sumpter, who missed all of last season with an ACL tear. Sumpter was a second-team all-Big East selection the year before. Also returning is senior forward Will Sheridan, who won’t scare any of the Big East’s best big men but will prove serviceable in most games.
Six of the 14 players on the roster are freshmen, meaning there will be plenty of opportunity for fresh blood to get some minutes. With Nardi and Sumpter around, Villanova will still give the teams higher up on this list some tough games, but those two won’t be enough to carry them out of the middle of the Big East pack.
Outside of the bruising Big East, Nova benefits from a relatively light schedule, with Texas being their only preseason-ranked opponent.
8. St. John’s:
Like John Thompson III, Coach Norm Roberts is in his third season of trying to rebuild a traditional Big East powerhouse. The Red Storm should improve this year after coming out of the Big East basement last season when they had surprising wins over Pittsburgh, Louisville and Seton Hall.
While Nova and UConn lost most of their go-to-guys, the Red Storm returns all five starters. They are very experienced, led by seniors Daryll Hill, Aaron Spears and Lamont Hamilton. Six-foot guard Daryll Hill is one of the Big East’s best scorers but is often plagued by knee injuries. Forward Anthony Mason, Jr. isn’t as badass as his dad, but he came on strong last season.
St. John’s is deeper than they were last year when they collapsed late in games. Scoring and Hill’s nagging knee problems are still a concern, but St. John’s might make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000.
DePaul is an enigma. They finished strong last year, including a 39-point shelling of Syracuse, and bring back all five starters, including four double-digit scorers. But, those same five starters finished 13th in the Big East (not even qualifying for the conference tournament) and won a mere five conference games. ESPN’s Andy Katz calls them the Big East’s sleeper; The Voice calls them just another mediocre team that hasn’t changed much.
Senior guard Sammy Mejia will lead the offense again, and sophomore Wilson Chandler — a member of last year’s Big East all-rookie team — will anchor the frontcourt. The Blue Demons also add a 7’1” transfer from Temple, Keith Butler, who could become a starter as the season wears on. As the saying goes, you can’t teach height.
These guys will play both Kentucky and Kansas before you’ve even hung Christmas decorations (unless you’re like my family and they’re already up), so the early going could be make-or-break. It’ll be an incredible boost for DePaul to take just one of those games.
Only Mike Brey is on a hotter hotseat than Friars Coach Tim Welsh. They haven’t made it to the Big Dance in four years. Their best player, Donnie McGrath, is gone, but they could be dancing this year, especially if they upset some big names (Boston College, Florida) in their tough pre-conference schedule. Freshman guard Dwain Williams will compete for a starting spot right away. They have four returning starters, led by Sharaud Curry, who drives and dishes well. Randall Hanke, a 6’11” offensive weapon, and Herbert Hill, a 6’10” shot blocker, make up a strong frontcourt. But, as with many Big East teams, their ball handling and shooting is a question mark.
Guard Jihad Mohammad has graduated, making the Bearcats, at the very least, a lot less intimidating. It gets worse though: this team is very green. Save one player, Cincinnati will feature a new starting lineup, eight new players and a new coach, Mick Cronin. Change may be for the best considering this team was not very solid last year, but it’s tough to expect much from such an unproven squad.
Cedric McGowan, the returning starter, is a gritty forward who hauled in 20 boards against DePaul last year. Still, he averaged only 8.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game last year and will need to step up production.
This team does have both Memphis and Ohio State on its non-conference schedule, so if it’s going to prove itself, those are the games.
12. West Virginia:
It’s a rebuilding year. Coach John Beilein lost most of his offensive production when he lost all of his starting five except forward Frank Young. More importantly, we don’t get to say Kevin Pittsnoggle’s name anymore, which sucks. But, no worries, freshman guard Cam Thoroughman is the next odd-named Mountaineer. Still, WV made it to number 12 on this list despite the fact that the Mountaineers are a bunch of no-names. Beilein makes his players better. Joe Herber, Mike Gansey and the coach’s son weren’t supposed to be good. Plus, nobody wants to go against the Mountaineers’ 1-3-1 defense.
13. Notre Dame:
The Fightin’ Irish can only hope their luck turns around this year. They lost five games in overtime last season (three of them in double OT), and their average loss was by just over four points. They hung tough everywhere but finished strong almost nowhere.
Leading the charge this year will be senior guard Colin Falls, who nailed 102 three-pointers last year (a school record), and fellow senior Russell Carter, a small forward who elevated his game last year. Good Irish boy Kyle McAlarney will step into the hole at point guard left by the graduation of all-Big East first-teamer Chris Quinn, a loss that will be hard to overcome.
A couple of games against Alabama and at Maryland in the first week of December should show what this team is all about.
14. Seton Hall:
New Coach Bobby Gonzalez finally decided to leave mid-major Manhattan for the big time. Wait, does Seton Hall count as big time? Gonzalez has already brought in a solid area-recruit, point guard Eugene Harvey. With leaders Kelly Whitney and Donald Copeland gone, sharp shooting guard Jamar Nutter will have to carry the load because he’s the only returning player who scored more than six points per game last season. Overall, the Pirates have a strong backcourt, but their weak frontcourt will hurt them in a big man’s league. Bobby Gonzalez’s fast-paced style will bring excitement back to Seton Hall, but his team might not even make it to the Garden this year, let alone the NCAA’s like they did last year.
With Big East-leading scorer Quincy Douby gone, Rutgers will have to find someone else to light up other teams. No one exactly jumps out, since no other player averaged in double-digits last year. Still, this team returns four starters, including Big East all-rookie team members forward J.R. Inman and guard Anthony Farmer, so the Scarlet Knights plow into 2006-07 with a little reason to hope.
The Voice just doesn’t have any faith that those hopes are going to pan out.
16. South Florida:
There’s just no quit in this team. In the season finale, the Bulls finally pulled out one Big East victory against the Hoyas. Expect one more triumph this season: March 3 at DePaul. We pick them to finish last, again.