Big East Conference
The Big East has so many talented teams that it's really tough to guage who will be the top dog next year. So, we'll start with the top team this past year, UConn. The Huskies had immense talent this past year, but had huge attitude problems. They just didn't put in enough effort to make it out of the Elite Eight. They lose their emotional leader in Rashad Anderson, plus Denham Brown and Hilton Armstrong to graduation. Rudy Gay and Marcus Williams are both expected to jump in the draft early as well, although for now we'll assume that Josh Boone makes the wise choice and stays in college for another year. Even so, the other five of the top six scorers will be gone, leaving a question as to just how good UConn will be next year. They do have some talented rising-sophomores, including Jeff Adrian (7 ppg, 5 rpg), and Jim Calhoun always brings in outstanding recruiting classes. The top-five class features too many blue-chippers to list, but some highlights include Stanley Robinson (Scouts: 8 PF, Rivals: 14) and Curtis Kelly (Scouts: 9 PF, Rivals: 8 PF). Expect the Huskies to have a totally revamped lineup next year, with a ton of talent but questionable experience and leadership. It's hard to see the Huskies being as good next year.
The other half of the duo that dominated the Big East last year was Villanova, under outstanding young coach Jay Wright. The Wildcats lose Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Jason Fraser to graduation, but are hoping that Kyle Lowry sticks around another year. If Curtis Sumpter can ever get healthy, the Wildcats will have even more inside depth. They also bring in a solid recruiting class with no McDonald's All-Americans, but plenty of solid players all around. If the assumptions on NBA jumps are correct, it seems clear that Villanova returns more talent than UConn does.
Two other teams that could threaten the order at the top are Pittsburgh and Georgetown. Unless he finds another way to get what would seem like an 8th year of college eligibility, Pitt will have to survive without Carl Krauser for the first time in a very long time. Aaron Gray is also expected to go pro. That said, Pitt still returns a lot of talent, including Ronald Ramon on the outside. The Panthers will try to build back some inside depth with 6'9" Austin Wallace as well. Georgetown, meanwhile, graduates a lot of role players but retains its powerful inside presence of Roy Hibbard and Jeff Green (combined 23 points and 13 rebounds per game). JT3 also brings in an excellent recruiting class highlighted by McDonald's All-American Vernon Macklin (Scouts: 6 PF, Rivals: 3 PF) and DaJuan Summers (Scouts: 14 PF, Rivals: 8 SF). Georgetown will probably have the best inside game of any team in the conference, and a key to their rise in the standings will be whether they can get adequate guard play out of Jonathan Wallace and whoever ends up starting at the other guard position.
A final darkhorse team in the Big East has to be Louisville. Sure, they struggled this past year and lose their leading scorer (Taquan Dean - 17 per game) to graduation. But they return the rest of their top talent, including David Padgett and Juan Palacios, while also bringing in a sterling recruiting class highlighted by Derrick Caracter (Scouts: 5 PF, Rivals: 5 PF) and Earl Clark (Scouts: 4 SG, Rivals: 15). Even more importantly, they're coached by Rick Pitino, one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball. You know that his team will be improved next year, and you know that they'll be back in the tournament. The only real question is how high of a seed will they end up receiving. That said, Villanova probably still has the most talent at the beginning of the year, especially if they have Lowry and a healthy Sumpter, and should be considered the preseason favorites:
1. Villanova - The most talent and an excellent coach means that Villanova should be a good team yet again in '07.
2. Georgetown - JT3 is reviving the Georgetown legacy. They will have a great post presence with Hibbard and Green, and with good guard play could challenge to win the entire conference.
3. UConn - Can't move the Huskies back any further than this. Even with all the graduations and NBA defections, you know that Jim Calhoun will have a very talented squad to put on the floor.
4. Louisville - There is no way that Rick Pitino stays out of the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year. At times this past year, the Cardinals showed flashes of what they'll be like next year, and they will have the capability of beating anyone in the conference.
5. Syracuse - Gerry McNamara graduates, but that's about it for the Orangemen. Meanwhile, Boeheim will replace his star shooter with Eric Devendorf (a 38% 3-point shooter) and top recruit Paul Harris (Scout: 3 SF, Rivals: 2 SG). This team should be improved next year.
6. Pittsburgh - The Panthers will need to find a way to get some scoring without Krauser or Gray. Their leading returner is Ronald Ramon, with a mere 8.0 ppg. If they can find some scoring, they will be able to compete to get back into the tournament.
7. Notre Dame - The Irish were a lot better than their record indictated. They lost so many buzzer-beater games that it became a joke by the end of the season. It was pretty obvious that their NIT appearance was going to end the same way as so many of their games - on a desperate 3-pointer by their opponent (in that case, Michigan). Not only will the Irish bring back a fairly veteran lineup, but they will also have a very solid recruiting class. Expect Notre Dame to be very much in the thick of the at-large hunt in 2007.
8. West Virginia - It could be a long season for the Mountaineers, as they graduate their top 4 scorers (Kevin Pittsnoggle, Mike Gansey, Johannes Herber and Patrick Beilein). Next year will clearly be a rebuilding year.
9. St. John's - A team on the rise that graduates no one that scored three or more points per game. If Daryll Hill and Lamont Hamilton can stay healthy and together all season, the Red Storm should make a serious challenge for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002.
10. Marquette - The Golden Eagles are going to be in a rebuilding phase without star Steve Novak. Their top three returning scorers will all be sophomores next year, so expect 2007 to be a year of building in preparation for another tournament run in 2008.
11. Seton Hall - The Pirates lose their top two scorers to graduation in the form of Donald Copeland and Kelly Whitney (a combined 31 ppg). But they signed an excellent coach in Bobby Gonzales, so expect this team to do a lot with the experienced role players that they have returning.
12. Depaul - The Blue Demons return their top 13 scorers from this past year and should see improvement, but with their level of talent even an appearance in the Big East Tournament should be considered a successful season.
13. Rutgers - Would be in good shape if Quincy Douby comes back, but he probably will not. With him gone, the Scarlet Knight will have a lot of trouble finding someone who can score in the clutch. Every big win they had in 2006 was on a night that Douby went off. They will lose those games next year.
14. Cincinnati - The only thing worse than being one of the first teams out of the NCAA Tournament is to go and graduate five of your top seven scorers. The Bearcats will have trouble finding a starting lineup with the talent to hang with the big boys in the Big East.
15. Providence - Only lose one senior, in the form of Donnie McGrath, to graduation. The Friars have some decent young talent that has the potential to bloom in the next few years.
16. South Florida - As the recruiting power of the Big East starts to kick in, this team will get better. They have no real blue chip recruits for next year, but do have enough quality players coming in to replace their two graduating seniors. Don't expect this team to pull itself out of last place quite yet, but they'll be better.