- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rating the Big East

1. Connecticut (24-9, 13-5)Jim Calhoun (526-200)

If North Carolina is the most experienced elite team in the land, UConn is the most talented. With a 1-2-4-5 upperclassman combination of playmaker A.J. Price, gunner Jerome Dyson, workhorse Jeff Adrien and 7-foot-3 NBA lottery lock Hasheem Thabeet, the Huskies have the Big East’s most daunting arsenal. If last season’s starting swingman, Stanley Robinson, rejoins the team for the second semester (as expected) and UConn gets contributions from coveted freshmen Kemba Walker and Ater Majok, the Huskies could be the team to beat in Detroit at the Final Four.

2. Pittsburgh (27-10, 10-8)Jamie Dixon (131-41)

The Panthers face two questions: How long will senior point guard Levance Fields be sidelined with the gimpy left foot that plagued him last season? And who will take over for departed Ronald Ramon as the 3-point specialist? With the middle and wing anchored by the all-league tandem of DeJuan Blair and Sam Young, Fields’ health and a reliable 3-point shooter are the only variables in what could be a deep NCAA tournament run.

3. Louisville (27-9, 14-4)Rick Pitino (169-67)

Of the league’s big three, only the Cardinals will rely heavily on newcomers. Louisville replaced pivot and offensive catalyst David Padgett with the blue-chip freshman tandem of Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings; it also hopes Mississippi State transfer Reginald Delk can provide a boost to an average backcourt. Louisville has nice pieces but no true playmaker at the point to put them together.

4. Notre Dame (25-8, 14-4)Mike Brey (167-86)

No team in the league has a better inside-outside tandem than returning Big East player of the year Luke Harangody (20.4 points, 10.6 rebounds) and guard Kyle McAlarney (15.1 points, 44.1 percent from 3-point range). A third star needs to emerge if the Irish hope to contend for the league title and reach the second weekend of the NCAAs. Junior point guard Tory Jackson is the most likely candidate.

5. Syracuse (21-14, 9-9)Jim Boeheim (771-278)

The Orange aren’t getting much publicity despite returning arguably the most valuable player in the league (point guard Jonny Flynn), one of its ultimate warriors (undersized forward Paul Harris) and its most underrated center (Arinze Onuaku). Throw in junior guard Eric Devendorf, the team’s most consistent scorer before he lost the bulk of the season to a knee injury, and Syracuse has its strongest nucleus since it won the 2003 national title. Size and frontcourt depth will be a major issue, though.

6. Georgetown (28-6, 15-3)John Thompson III (87-33)

The Hoyas have talent, but six members of the eight-man rotation are sophomores (three) or freshmen (three). Two of the sophomores are a transfer (Julian Vaughn) and a player who missed most of last season with an injury (Chris Wright). Georgetown could finish anywhere from second to 11th based on how quickly and cohesively the young team bonds.

7. Villanova (22-13, 9-9)Jay Wright (148-82)

The Wildcats still have no legitimate pivot and thus a Sweet 16 ceiling. But Jay Wright’s perimeter onslaught of Scottie Reynolds, Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher, Reggie Redding and Shane Clark should prove enough to warrant a fifth straight trip to the NCAAs. However, Villanova isn’t climbing higher than sixth or falling further than eighth.

8. Marquette (25-10, 11-7)Buzz Williams (First season)

If the NCAA had a 6-foot-6-and-under division, Marquette might win a title. Much like Villanova, the Golden Eagles again feature the perimeter-oriented stylings of Jerel McNeal, Dominic James, Lazar Heywood, Wesley Matthews and David Cubillan. But unlike Villanova, Marquette doesn’t boast any player with a post presence. Throw in the departure of coach Tom Crean to Indiana and this is the Big East team most overrated by most media outlets.

9. West Virginia (26-11, 11-7)Bob Huggins (26-11)

Another midtier Big East team full of guards and small forwards, the Mountaineers could move up if the first-year tandem of center Dee Proby and blue-chip recruit Devin Ebanks give Huggins an interior presence.

10. Providence (15-16, 6-12)Keno Davis (First season)

The Friars have the talent and balance to be the Big East’s dark horse. Former Drake coach Davis inherits a team that returns all five starters from the underachieving bunch that cost Tim Welsh his job.

11. Cincinnati (13-19, 8-10)Mick Cronin (24-38)

The Bearcats are a sleeper to make serious waves in the league and earn a surprise NCAA tournament bid behind all-conference combo guard Deonta Vaughn (17.3 points), Texas transfer Mike Williams and one of the Big East’s deepest frontcourts. If freshman point guard Cashmere Wright hadn’t suffered a season-ending knee injury, Cincinnati would be right behind Villanova. As it is, the Bearcats have a thin backcourt and little help for Vaughn.

12. Rutgers (11-20, 3-15)Fred Hill (21-39)

With the top six players in last season’s rotation returning and the addition of freshman guard Mike Rosario (the first McDonald’s All-American in the program’s history), this could be the year Rutgers moves into the meat of the Big East.

13. DePaul (11-19, 6-12)Jerry Wainwright (40-48)

Last season’s inside-outside freshman pair of Mac Koshwal (10.7 points, 8.4 rebounds) and Dar Tucker (13.6 points) still needs a lot of assistance if the Blue Demons want to take the next step.

14. South Florida (12-19, 3-15)Stan Heath (First season)

The Bulls made the first step toward Big East respectability when the school hired Arkansas’ Stan Heath. He will begin his stint in Tampa with sophomore guard Dominique Jones (17.1 points) and a seven-man recruiting class.

15. Seton Hall (17-15, 7-11)Bobby Gonzalez (30-31)

The Pirates are a guard-centric team that can’t shoot. They also have a coach whose sanity is regularly in question.

16. St. John’s (11-19, 5-13)Norm Roberts (48-67)

The only intriguing thing about the Red Storm would be a guess-the-date office pool concerning the inevitable arrival of Roberts’ long-overdue pink slip.

ALL-BIG EAST

Jerel McNeal (6-3, 200)Sr.GMarquette

Defensive stopper is a terror in transition and off the bounce

Jonny Flynn (6-0, 186)So.GSyracuse

Best pure playmaker in league would be unstoppable with a more reliable jumper

Sam Young (6-6, 215)Sr.FPittsburgh

Erupted last season thanks to improved jumper

Hasheem Thabeet (7-3, 263)Jr.CConnecticut

Sorry, “Psycho T,” the national player of the year is this NBA-sized center

Luke Harangody (6-8, 251)Jr.F/CNotre Dame

A bit of a black hole who could improve efficiency by passing and involving teammates

MUST-SEE GAMES

Notre Dame vs. North Carolina, Nov. 26, 10 p.m.* - If Tyler Hansbrough isn’t back, how will an inexperienced North Carolina frontcourt handle Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody?

Connecticut at Gonzaga, Dec. 20, 4 p.m. - The Huskies meet fellow top-10 team Gonzaga in Seattle. An upset in this dogfight would make this a statement game for Gonzaga.

Georgetown at Duke, Jan. 17, 1:30 p.m. - The young Hoyas should improve during the course of the season; winning midseason at Cameron could be a stretch.

Connecticut at Pittsburgh, March 7, noon - Finale could decide the regular-season champion and determine Big East tournament seeding.

*Potential matchup in Maui Invitational final

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