Big East Conference
The Big East is so gigantic that it's difficult to put everything in one post. There were just so many stories this past season that I don't even know where to begin. One issue has to be, of course, the media hype. There is no question that this conference was far overhyped. In overall quality from top to bottom, the Big East was not the best cconference in the nation - I'm unaware of any computer ratings that put them first. The best ratings are Sagarin's, and he has them fourth, although the top five conference (the BCS conferences minus the SEC) are all extremely close. So why was the hype so strong that Sportscenter anchors would off-handedly and matter-of-factly mention how the Big East was the best conference in the land and one of the best ever on a near-daily basis? Some have argued that this has to do with the location of ESPN's campus at Bristol, since it's not questionable that ESPN sets the tone for all of the other sports opinion around the country. But I've never bought that argument. It doesn't explain why they spend the college football season overhyping the SEC, USC and the Texas/Oklahoma and Michigan/Ohio State rivalries. And you can be sure that the focus of their hype won't change as Sportscenter moves to California. I think it has to do with the quality of the top of the conference. ESPN responds to casual fans, and casual fans only care about the top teams. Casual fans can't judge conferences on the middle and bottom of the pack because they don't know who those teams are. I would bet that the vast majority of Americans that self identify as college basketball fans could not correctly identify DePaul as a Big East team, so how would they be able to account for how much DePaul stunk while comparing the Big East to the Big 12 or Pac 10? A friend of mine who is a big ACC fan was apoplectic when I tried to argue that the Big East wasn't the best conference in the land back in January, yet when I pointed out how I'd take Northwestern and Penn State over South Florida and Rutgers, he asked me "when did South Florida join the Big East?" The problem with this is that ESPN shouldn't be just repeating what the uneducated fans want to hear. The best analysts on ESPN teach us all something. The world of sports analysis has improved a lot, and we do have some really great voices (I love the job that Bob Knight has done for ESPN, for example), but the particular issue of conference quality is unfortunately one of the areas that needs to be improved.
Of course, the issue with which conference is the best in the nation was only one of many stories in the Big East this season. And the one team that was in the thick of the most interesting news had to be UConn. Jim Calhoun started things off with that argument he got into with a fake "reporter." I sympathized with Calhoun in that he was right that he runs a profit for the school, and the reporter was out of line, but it really is below a coach to stoop to the level when you're yelling at some loser. There are also the issues of the possible recruiting violations, and the possibility that Calhoun will retire. He says he's coming back for another season, although I do believe that this was UConn's last great chance for a title under him. I feel like Calhoun's coaching abilities have slipped over the last few years, as he really is getting quite old. Back in the preseason I spoke about the Coaching Speed Limit and how Calhoun is really getting to the age that all great coaches start to lose it. This year's team was great, but it was great because they had a great mixture of players. Jeff Adrien has been a wonderful leader for a full three years now, and Hasheem Thabeet has been a great personality as well. Adrien graduates, and A.J. Price and Craig Austrie do as well. Thabeet hasn't officially ended his collegiate career, but he is expected to go. That guts the entire core of the team. Jerome Dyson will be back and healthy, and Kemba Walker, Gavin Edwards and Stanley Robinson will also probably start next season. The fifth starting position will probably go to one of the Freshmen, because UConn really was fairly thin, and doesn't seem to have a lot of stocked up talent. Their Freshman class is rated Top 20, highlighted by Alex Oriakhi (Rivals: 21, Scout: 4 C). Don't expect UConn to completely fall off the edge of the planet like they did after the 2005-06 season, but they certainly won't be nearly as good next season as they were this past season.
Louisville was the team that won the Big East's regular season title, but that was a little bit of a fluke. They got lucky with the unbalanced schedule, and also had the advantage of sneaking up on teams after their slow start. Rick Pitino has a history of slow starts and fast finishes, but people still get fooled every season when his teams lose a bad game or two early on. They will struggle to replace Terrence Williams, who really emerged as one of the top players in the Big East. Andre McGee is the other graduation, although Earl Clark will also be gone, an early entrant into the NBA draft. Samardo Samuels might also look into the draft process, but I expect that he'll stick around for another season. Jerry Smith, Preston Knowles and Terrence Jennings will all get increased playing time next season. The one player that you probably haven't heard of who should get more time next season is George Goode. Look for a lot of playing time for a quality recruiting class led by two members of the Rivals.com Top 50, Rakeem Buckles and Peyton Siva.
Pittsburgh had a great season, but had yet another Tournament disappointment. If Jamie Dixon sticks around long enough he'll eventually take this program to the Final Four, but right now they're still waiting. And they'll be waiting at least one more season because a lot of key pieces are going to be gone. Levance Fields, Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs all graduate, and DeJuan Blair is going pro early. That leaves only Jermaine Dixon from the starting lineup, although they do have some decent bench players who will be back including Brad Wannamaker, Ashton Gibbs and Gilbert Brown. The star of the recruiting class is Dante Taylor (Rivals: 24, Scout: 5 PF).
Two other successful teams that will lose a lot of top talent are Villanova and Syracuse. Villanova will lose their most important player: Dante Cunningham. Shane Clark and Dwayne Anderson also will be gone. But that outstanding back court of Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes will be back, as will Reggie Redding and Antonio Pena. They will get some more offense with Taylor King, who transfers in from Duke. They also have a recruiting class rated among the five best in the country by both Scout.com and Rivals.com led by a trio of five-star recruits: Dominic Cheek, Maalik Wayns and Mouphtaou Yarou. Replacing the leadership of Cunningham will be very difficult, but if they can then you can't count out Villanova from a run at the Big East title. As for Syracuse, Kristof Ongenaet is the only graduate from the regular rotation, but they will most likely lose a trio of stars early to the NBA Draft: Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris. The recruiting class is decent, but only DaShonte Riley (Rivals: 121, Scout: 9 C) is likely to get a lot of playing time as a Freshman. They're more likely to get production out of transfer Wesley Johnson (from Iowa State). If everybody chooses to eschew the NBA Draft then Syracuse immediately becomes a serious Final Four contender, but with everybody gone they will most likely be a Bubble team.
You had to feel sympathy for a Marquette team that was having such a great season until Dominic James suffered that foot injury. This had the feel of one last great run for this program that will have a lot of trouble replacing Tom Crean. James graduates, as do Wes Matthews, Jerel McNeal and Dwight Burke. Lazar Hayward is a very good player and showed some sparks of leadership qualities when James was gone, but it's going to be very tough for him to achieve much without anything around him. The only other returner that I like at all is Maurice Acker. They do have a talented recruiting class coming in, but it's going to be a long season for Buzz Williams. We'll see if he can rebuild this program, because they are a long shot Tournament team for 2010.
Two other teams that lose a lot to graduation are Notre Dame and Providence. Notre Dame loses Kyle McAlarney, Zach Hillesland, Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller. They'll still have Luke Harangody (most likely) and Tory Jackson, and Tyrone Nash did show some brief flashes of something special this past season. The only other regular that returns is Jonathan Peoples. At least those returners do represent all of the different positions on the floor, so Notre Dame should at least have quality starters in all aspects of the game. But their depth is going to have to come from the recruiting class, and the class is deep but there isn't a ton of superlative quality. If Notre Dame didn't make the Tournament with this team, it's hard to see them making the Tournament next season. Providence also loses a lot to graduation, including a total of eight players (four starters, and five of the players in their eight man rotation). Sharaud Curry is a great player, but he's going to feel like Lazar Hayward in that he's going to have to carry a team practically all by himself. The recruiting class is massive, with at least seven freshmen coming in, but none are real blue chippers, and none will likely star in season number one. Keno Davis had a great first season at Providence, but year two is going to be a lot tougher.
The last two teams I want to discuss are Georgetown and West Virginia. Georgetown had a really disappointing end to the season. The fact is that they were a pretty good team that just found interesting and new ways to lose games. To give you a few facts: they had a Sagarin ELO_CHESS of 59th and a PREDICTOR of 25th, and Pomeroy gave them an overall rating of 27th with a consistency rating of 340th, and a luck rating of 339th. In other words, they were far better than their record. They don't lose too much to graduation, with only Jessie Sapp leaving from the regular rotaiton. DaJuan Summers is going pro, but the rumors right now are that Greg Monroe will stick around for one more season. I said all year that Monroe was the best player on the team, and it seemed as if the older players just wanted to do everything themselves. Monroe didn't have the ball nearly enough, and he certainly didn't take enough shots. If he improves and gets more of the ball next season then Georgetown could be better even without Summers and Sapp. Expect Hollis Thompson (Rivals: 52, Scout: 7 SF) to get playing time. West Virginia loses star Alex Ruoff to graduation, but it's likely that everybody else will get back (Devin Ebanks might test the draft waters, but he's more likely than not coming back). Da'Sean Butler should be one of the best players in the Big East next season, and they have a deep recruiting class that should fill some more holes. I don't think there's any question that even without Ruoff they should be back in the Tournament next season.
Here's how I see the entire conference playing out:
1. Villanova - I'm not sure if Villanova is going to be better next year than they were this year, because the presence and leadership of Dante Cunningham was so important, but they don't have to be much better. The top of the Big East won't be nearly as good as it was last season.
2. West Virginia - This might be pushing them too high, but I don't have any doubt that this will be a Top 25 team next season. Bob Huggins has the talent he needs to make a run at a conference title. We'll see if he can coach it.
3. Louisville - They lose a lot, but I can't drop them too much. The top of the Big East will be weaker next season, and a marginal Top 25 team like Louisville should compete for one of the top spots.
4. Cincinnati - I like what Mick Cronin is building at Cincy, and I feel like 2009-10 is the year that they finally break through and make the Tournament. They bring back basically everybody, and also bring in Ibrahimi Thomas, who was kicked off of Oklahoma State's team last season. Yancy Gates really has the potential to be one of the best players of the Big East, and I think he leads this team to their first Tournament as a member of the Big East.
5. UConn - They will be young and inexperienced, but they will have a lot of talent.
6. Georgetown - They should be motivated after the disappointing way that last season ended. This assumes that Greg Monroe comes back.
7. Pittsburgh - They will be a Bubble team at best after all that they lose to graduation.
8. Seton Hall - Bobby Gonzalez gets almost everybody back from last year's team. They lack the blue chip recruits that the top Big East teams have, but they were closer to being a Bubble team last season than most people realized.
9. Syracuse - So much depends on the trio of stars looking at the draft. But the odds are that all three go pro, which means that they'll need a great performance out of Jim Boeheim just to get back to the Tournament.
10. St. John's - They bring absolutely everybody back, and even get another year out of Senior Anthony Mason, Jr, who redshirted. Norm Roberts is a good guy and he deserves the long leash that St. John's has given him, but he's got to make a run at a Tournament sooner rather than later, or they're going to go find another coach.
11. Notre Dame - They will have two or three very good players, but will be very, very thin. Things will get even worse if Harangody does decide to go pro.
12. Rutgers - They should be improved, especially if Mike Rosario lives up to the hype.
13. Marquette - It's going to be a long year for Buzz Williams.
14. Providence - Keno Davis will finally get to prove whether he can build a program, because there isn't a lot left at Providence right now.
15. South Florida - Stan Heath continues to struggle to recruit top high school players to South Florida.
16. DePaul - This was a young team last season, but they still do lose a bit. There is a possibility of two players actually going pro early off of this team, which is remarkable when you think about how bad the team was, but most likely both of them (Dar Tucker and Mac Koshwal) will return. Still, just winning a game or two more than last year might be all they'll be able to achieve with this squad. Like South Florida, they just haven't had a lot of success recruiting high school kids to last place Big East teams. The conference is just too big.