Most weight on his shoulders
Despite losing three crucial starters from last year’s team, Pittsburgh will be expected to continue head coach Jamie Dixon’s eight season streak of at least 20 wins, mostly thanks to senior rainmaker Ashton Gibbs, the top returning scorer in the Big East. The preseason conference player of the year averaged 16.8 points per game and knocked down a sizzling 49 percent of his three-point attempts a year ago. If the Panthers are going to make this season count, however, Gibbs must be a leader for his young team in addition to filling up the nets. Pittsburgh has rarely taken a misstep under Dixon, earning a top-ten ranking at some point in each of his eight seasons. It’s up to Gibbs to keep that tradition alive.
Most likely to take a step back
Notre Dame finished second in the Big East last year, earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament before flaming out against underdog Florida State in the second round. However, the team will need some serious luck of the Irish if it wants to match last season’s remarkable 27 win total.
With the loss of leading scorer and floor general Ben Hansbrough, as well as crucial big men Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott, this edition of the Fighting Irish is hardly the same imposing force. Sweet-shooting senior forward Tim Abromaitis should be a force on offense, but he will receive little help from an average recruiting class and a squad that returns only two other players who averaged more than five points per game last season.
Most likely to exceed expectations
Villanova has all the makings of a potential powerhouse, yet they sit unranked after being sunk by inconsistency a year ago. No squad is better positioned to reveal the brutal depth of the Big East than the Wildcats if they can replace the lost production of four-year contributors Corey Redding and Corey Stokes. With super-scorer Maalik Wayns, star big man Mouphtaou Yarou, and a loaded recruiting class, the Wildcats have enough talent to give anyone in the country a good game. As usual, head coach Jay Wright has given his team a soft non-conference schedule, so don’t expect ‘Nova to get much love until they prove themselves in the Big East.
Biggest question mark
St. John’s returned to relevance last season, finishing fifth in the Big East in head coach Steve Lavin’s first year at the helm. However, the Red Storm return only one scholarship player from last season’s team, entering the 2011-12 campaign with seven freshmen on the roster. With Lavin recovering from a battle with prostate cancer and no seniors striving to go out on top in their final season, St. John’s will try to position itself for the future while developing the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class. Look for the inexperienced Red Storm to be inconsistent, but don’t be surprised to see them cause some upsets as their talented newcomers begin to jell.
Most improved (but still likely to finish worse)
Connecticut’s 2011 title was a fitting end to a ridiculous, unpredictable NCAA Tournament. While no one can deny UConn earned its third title under head coach Jim Calhoun, few will assert that the Huskies were anything more than a good team last year, let alone the best. The Huskies finished ninth in the Big East and were fortunate to receive a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Without do-it-all superstar Kemba Walker, the Huskies have lost the unstoppable force that allowed them to surpass all expectations last postseason. Yet with freshman phenom Andre Drummond, who could emerge as the conference’s most dominant player by season’s end, and additional help from sophomores Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, the Huskies have the tools to replace Walker’s production and even greater depth. Nevertheless, this team stretched the meaning of overachieving last season. Expect them to face reality this time around.