Sunday, April 13, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Big East

Big East Conference

No reason to start with anybody other than Georgetown, the team which has dominated the Big East for two straight seasons. The Hoyas will be good again next season, but it's hard to see another Big East title coming. Roy Hibbert, Jonathan Wallace and Patrick Ewing, Jr. will all graduate. Still, JT3 will have plenty of good guards left at his disposal. A key will likely be Vernon Macklin. He will need to stay out of foul trouble and dominate the inside, as Georgetown's inside defense and rebounding will really suffer without Hibbert and Ewing. He will have help, however, in the form of #1 national recruit Greg Monroe. And Monroe isn't the only piece of a recruiting class that is certainly one of the five best in the nation. Georgetown is a near lock to get back into the Tournament next season, but I think they'll be a little short of experience. It's very hard to win the Big East depending so heavily on players without any starting experience.

Notre Dame is a team that should contend for the Big East title. They lose very little to graduation, and it's expected that both Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney will be back. Not only will they return almost all of their points from last season, but it will come in the form of experienced players. The entire Fighting Irish starting lineup should be made up of juniors and seniors, which will mean a whole lot as far as pulling out tight games all season. Another team that will be greatly improved if the NBA doesn't get in the way is UConn. At least four Huskies are thinking about going pro early, but it's expected that all of them will stick around for one more year. Without a single senior on the roster last year, UConn will probably have the most pure talent and athleticism of any team in the Big East next year.

Two teams that will be question marks are Louisville and Marquette. Louisville loses only David Padgett to graduation, but both Earl Clark and Derrick Character are locks to go pro. Still, Terrence Williams, Jerry Smith, Edgar Sosa and Andre McGee will be back, and Rick Pitino brings in a Top Five recruiting class. Louisville could easily have as much pure talent as they did last year, but I don't know how they'll respond to losing Padgett. He was such a key team leader, and you never know how teams will respond when they lose a piece like that from their locker room. Another team with a lot of uncertainty is Marquette, with the loss of Tom Crean. Ousmane Barro is the only key graduation, so barring any last temptation of the NBA the Golden Eagles will return Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, Wes Matthews and Lazar Hayward. If all of their recruits stick around even with Crean gone, Marquette will have Top 25 talent yet again. I don't think they're going to win the Big East, but they should be Tournament bound again.

West Virginia and Pitt are two teams that are going to have to deal with big losses. West Virginia was an even better team than their record, as they proved in their strong run to the Sweet 16. But Darris Nichols graduates, and Joe Alexander is expected to go pro early. Bob Huggins will still have plenty of talent to work with (including a very nice recruiting class), but it's hard to see them being as good as they were this past season. Pitt loses two starters to graduation, the most important being Ronald Ramon. His clutch scoring and leadership will be impossible replace. Still, Pitt did have a lot of young talent, and they won't fall too much if it all in 2008-09.

One team that could really be elite next season is Villanova. They lose nothing to graduation, and expect nobody to go pro early. Scottie Reynolds really took this team on his back late in the season, and has the potential to be the Big East player of the year in 2008-09. Another team that should be improved is Syracuse. Donte Greene has declared for the NBA, but it's expected that all of their other stars will be back. Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris were already a good duo, and will just be more comfortable with each other in year two. Syracuse probably would have been a Tournament team this past season if not for all of the injuries. If Eric Devendorf can be healthy next season, his shooting should be a great complement to Flynn's abilities to get to the hoop and draw defenses in. Throw in a solid recruiting class, and we really might not have to see Jim Boeheim on ESPN complaining about the Selection process again next year.

A final team to keep an eye on is Cincinnati. They do lose four regular rotation players to graduation, but Mick Cronin brings in an outstanding recruiting class. He's putting together a very nice program, and I expect Cincy to continue to improve year after year. They certainly won't challenge for a Big East title in 2009, but they could be a bubble team. As that covers every team with a good shot to finish near the top of the Big East, here's how I see the full conference playing out:

1. UConn - The most talent in the conference.
2. Notre Dame - The Irish lack the overwhelming pure athleticism of a team like UConn, but they'll be more experienced and savvier in close games than the Huskies.
3. Georgetown - I can't drop this team far, even with all of the graduations. Greg Monroe has the potential to be a really dominant big man, even as a freshman
4. Villanova - Scottie Reynolds has really turned into a great player.
5. Marquette - The Golden Eagles were an up-and-down team all year. They were good enough to beat some elite teams, but also had some slip ups. We'll see if the Marquette stars are more consistent with one more year of experience under their belts.
6. Syracuse - This depends on the team staying healthy - something that they weren't able to do last year.
7. Louisville - Rick Pitino will always have his teams in the mix, even with a slew of NBA defections.
8. West Virginia - Just because I have them eighth doesn't mean I don't think they'll be really good. The Big East should get eight teams to the Tournament next year, and could get the unprecedented nine.
9. Pittsburgh - Have a good shot at playing their way back into the Tournament if Sam Young can become a more dominant post presence.
10. Cincinnati - A program that is improving every season under their excellent coach.
11. Rutgers - Probably the most talented Rutgers team in years. We'll see if Fred Hill can turn these guys into a bubble team.
12. Providence - Return almost everything from a team that wasn't that bad last year. But you never know how kids will deal with the ouster of a coach that had spent so many years in one place.
13. Seton Hall - There seems to be a lot of infighting going on at Seton Hall, but Bobby Gonzalez is a very good coach and should be allowed to keep his job even if his squad misses the Tournament again.
14. St. John's - A very good crop of freshmen last year that should improve as time goes on. It remains to be seen if Norm Roberts will be allowed to coach them for their whole careers, but I hope he does. He's done a good job in a tough situation.
15. South Florida - Slowly but surely, Stan Heath is building a team that can compete in the Big East. It will certainly be a couple of years before they'll earn a Tournament bid, but they're going in the right direction.
16. Depaul - Not a great team to begin with, and they lose three starters to graduation. Could be a very long season for the Blue Demons.

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