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Big East could boast its deepest field this season

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NEW YORK | College basketball has never seen anything like this season's Big Beast.

With nine of its 16 teams tabbed as top-25 squads by major preseason publications, the Big East is primed to shatter its own mark of sending eight teams to the NCAA tournament.

"I think it's the toughest, deepest conference in the history of college basketball," Louisvillle coach Rick Pitino said at Wednesday's Big East Media Day at Madison Square Garden. "We have 11 different teams that I've seen getting consideration as top-30 teams. That's outrageous. If we don't beat each other up too much, I think we'll get 10 teams in the NCAA tournament this year."

According to the conference's coaches, Connecticut is the preseason favorite to break Georgetown's two-season run as the conference's regular-season champions. The Huskies return the top four scorers from last season's 24-9 squad, including preseason All-American Hasheem Thabeet. The 7-foot-3, 263-pound center averaged 10.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.5 blocks as the Big East's defensive player of the year last season.

"I think by the end of the season, Hasheem has a chance to be the most dominating player in America," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "I'm talking about offense, defense and rebounding. Nobody has the ability to impact the game at both ends like Hasheem."

Despite Thabeet's 2008 accolades, Big East coaches voted Notre Dame center Luke Harangody to repeat as the conference's player of the year. Harangody averaged 20.4 points and 10.6 rebounds in 2007-08.

That's less of a knock on Thabeet than a testament to the Big East's depth. Louisville, Pittsburgh and Harangody's Irish all garnered first-place votes in the league's Nos. 2-4 slots. And the Hoyas, despite returning three starters and adding two McDonald's All-Americans, are picked to finish seventh.

Fifth-year Georgetown coach John Thompson III isn't concerned about predictions, but he hopes the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee takes the conference's depth into account in March.

"I hope and trust that the nation, and most importantly the selection committee, understands that 9-9 in this league is a whole lot better than .500 in any other league," Thompson said.

Despite a difficult schedule which includes nonconference meetings with perennial powerhouses Memphis (Dec. 13) and Duke (Jan. 17), most observers expect the Hoyas to make their fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

With all 16 teams included in the Big East Tournament for the first time this season, those seemingly in the most danger of falling prey to the league's competitive glut are West Virginia, Providence and Cincinnati, the squads picked to finish Nos. 9-11.

"That's what makes this conference so brutal," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said."You could have a real quality team and that might not be reflected in your league record. In a lot of other major leagues around the country, we're a team that would be drawing some attention as a possible second- or third-place team. In this league, we still haven't even entered the conversation ... It's incredible for the fans and players. For a coach, the depth and incredible breadth of styles and quality in this league qualifies as an occupational hazard."

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