After last week's 2008-09 media day for the Big East Men's Basketball season, it seemed fitting to start making predictions and previews.
Big East basketball is similar to the SEC in football, because there's never a true favorite and the battles are timeless. What's better than watching Syracuse and UConn duking it out with zone defenses and premier guard play? How about a classic Notre Dame-Georgetown four-overtime thriller that only gets there because of the dreaded four-point play? What about Georgetown, one of the nations top scoring teams, traveling to Rutgers and squeezing out a healthy 58-46 victory?
The Big East is the best basketball conference, bar none, and here is a short preview of the season to come.
Player of the Year: You have to start with Luke Harangody of Notre Dame. He won the award as a sophomore last year and is still fine-tuning his game. He was recently given the pre-season award by the league and I really have no way to argue this. Very few people have the chance to compete with his numbers. Last year he averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds in only 30 minutes per game. Good luck to the competition.
Coach of the Year: Mike Brey of Notre Dame has won this award two years in a row and I find it hard to believe it'll happen a third time. I'm going out on a limb and giving it to first year coach at Marquette, Buzz Williams. Williams is inheriting a very talented, veteran group and his tenure under Tom Crean is invaluable. Look for Marquette to hit 5th or 6th in the league, and that should be enough to propel a rookie coach to receive an award. Bob Huggins is in the same boat if he can improve a solid WVU team. Other than that, I think John Thompson III could get mention if Georgetown can get back to the top, but only the top, of the Big East.
Who's on top?
It's pretty well understood around the conference that it can be broken down into three categories: generic teams, tournament teams and national contenders. This is the first year that all 16 teams will be invited to Madison Square Garden for the Big East Championship with ranks 9-16 playing on Tuesday in 2 sets of double-headers.
The Generic Teams
Rutgers and South Florida are annual bottom-feeders in the Big East but neither team are pushovers. Rutgers (16) is potentially the second hardest place to play behind Notre Dame and that's only because their product isn't as good. That place rocks when the Knights are on defense. Rutgers extends the game, makes you slow down and look for a shot and it's not uncommon to win with a low 60s score. Unfortunately they usually have a score in the 40s or 50s.
South Florida (15) is the red-headed step child of the conference. Brought in because of the football team, this basketball squad is trying to play catch up. They aren't awful, but they just aren't as talented as the big boys. Two of their three wins came against Rutgers last year and that's the only reason I have them ranked above Rutgers this year.
The DePaul Blue Demons (14) are very young. Only two seniors and one junior lead this young squad against a veteran competition. In a couple years this team might finally get a bye in the Big East tournament, but I feel like it will struggle to the tune of four or five wins in the conference this season.
St. John's (13) is in the same boat as DePaul with only three upperclassmen, but they also only have one freshman. With a team full of sophomores we should see improvement to the tune of around six conference wins this season. This is a traditional powerhouse that is trying to rebuild its huge fall in the last ten years. I predict that they'll be back in the top five with UConn and Georgetown again in a few more years.
Cincinatti (12) is going to have a slight fall this season. The Bearcats lost four of their top five scorers last year and now Deonta Vaughn will have to run that team like Kobe Bryant to stay afloat. They'll make some noise later in the season but I don't see them making a run for a title any time soon.
Seton Hall (11) is talented and slightly more veteran than some of these other teams, but they've been forced to hold walk-on tryouts this November. They don't have the depth to beat the better teams but should have the talent to get seven wins.
Providence (10) was a disappointment last year and I'm not sure they'll get much better this year. The team didn't have the cohesiveness that a good Big East team needs to have and unless they found something this off-season, I don't see this year being any better for Friar fans.
Now we get to the big boys like Villanova (9). The magic of the 2006-07 campaign has completely worn off for the Wildcats now, and they've fallen to the middle of the pack where they belong. Look for upsets this season but they're susceptible to bad losses as well.
Look out for Syracuse (8). Love him or hate him, Jim Boeheim is one of the best coaches in all of college basketball and they're just one year away from getting back on top in the Big East. His vaunted zone-trap defense is scary good and can completely ruin even the best of scoring offenses.
Marquette (7) will probably fall after the loss of coach Tom Crean to Indiana, but the talent in its back-court will take over and probably get them back to the NCAA tournament. The tandem of McNeal and James is as good a 1-2 punch as you'll find in the nation.
Georgetown (6) lost too much talent last year to win the regular season title again. I love what coach Thompson III is doing with that team but losing Roy Hibbert, Jonathan Wallace and Patrick Ewing Jr. will hurt hard.
West Virginia (5) is only going to get better with another year under uber-recruiter Bob Huggins. Adding Huggins to an already established Big East squad is about as scary as Phil Jackson taking over North Carolina. He's a fantastic coach with good talent right now.
Louisville (4) enjoyed an unexpected run late last year to propel them near the top of the standings and they return four of their starters. They were the most successful Big East team in the NCAA tournament last year and Rick Pitino will undoubtedly have them hungry for more.
I never thought I'd see Notre Dame (3) on this list, and they could be even higher. Losing only one starter from last year, this team is poised to make one heck of a run through, well, anybody. Preseason games against Ohio St. and Indiana, with potential match-ups against Texas and North Carolina, could provide this veteran team with lots of early experience that could give them a fast start in the conference. This is a team that needs to prove it can play in any tournament with early exits almost every year.
A huge disappointment last year, Pittsburgh (2) looks to regain its grip near or at the top of the conference. Proving that last season wasn't the real Panther team, they became the first seventh seed to win a Big East Championship that required them to win four games in four days. This is a very deep squad who always plays with a chip on its shoulder and after an early exit in the NCAA tournament last year this could be a very scary team.
Jim Calhoun has yet another front-runner at Connecticut (1). Winning in the Big East is not only traditional for the Huskies, it's expected. This year is no different with the return of A.J. Price and Jeff Adrian, along with Hasheem Thabeet, who was probably the rawest talent in the league last year. With another off-season to hone his skills, Thabeet could progress enough to challenge Harangody for the POY award, and to help UConn challenge the nation in the NCAA tournament
Wrapping It Up
I can't wait for this basketball season, not only in the Big East, but all over the NCAA landscape.