Predicted order of finish
1. UConn, 2. Syracuse, 3. Pittsburgh, 4. Louisville, 5. Cincinnati, 6. Marquette, 7. Villanova, 8. West Virginia, 9. Georgetown, 10. Notre Dame, 11. St. Johns, 12. Rutgers, 13. Seton Hall, 14. Providence, 15. USF, 16. DePaul
Surprise team: Cincinnati. Mick Cronin's Bearcats return talented big man Yancy Gates and two quick guards among eight lettermen back from last year's squad that earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. If another player or two emerges in frontcourt, the team could play with conference's elite.
Hot seat: Stan Heath, USF. The Bulls haven't been able to emerge from the Big East's lower tier in four years under Heath, going 19-53 in conference. The rest of the coaches of the conference's struggling programs - DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence - are in their first or second years.
Three key games:
*Pittsburgh at Syracuse, Jan. 16. Want storylines? The two schools sparked the Big East's turmoil by announcing plans in September to exit for the ACC, plus there's the Ashton Gibbs vs. Scoop Jardine and, by the way, a pivotal early-season game.
*Cincinnati at UConn, Jan. 18. Early challenge for the Bearcats to show if they're contenders in the conference. Sure, winning in Storrs, Conn., is a brutal order. But a victory against the defending national champions would change the dynamic of Cincinnati's season.
*Syracuse at UConn, Feb. 25. The conference's top two teams by virtue of almost every preseason poll out there meet in the second-to-last game of the regular season. A taste of March Madness in February? Yes, please. Squads also meet Feb. 11 in Syracuse, N.Y.
Three key players:
G Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh. Voted the conference's preseason player of the year by coaches, Gibbs led Pittsburgh in scoring the last two seasons. Gibbs might be the conference's best shooter, including hitting 49 percent of his 3-pointers last season.
C Andre Drummond, UConn. One draft web site lists the 6-foot-11 freshman as the possible No. 1 overall pick in next year's NBA draft. Surprise August decision to attend UConn could swing conference race.
F Kris Joseph, Syracuse. Passed up the NBA draft to return for his senior season, as part of a deep and experienced Syracuse squad. If his troublesome knee stays healthy, Joseph, who averaged 14.3 points per game last season, can score inside and out.
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