- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rating the Big East

1. Villanova (30-8, 13-5)

Coach: Jay Wright (ninth season, 178-91)

Following last season’s run to the Final Four, Villanova returns arguably the nation’s best backcourt trio in senior scorer Scottie Reynolds and the junior tandem of point man Corey Fisher and gunner Corey Stokes. Though the Wildcats add a typically guard-heavy, top-five recruiting class, blue-chip freshman pivot Mouph Yarou (6-foot-10, 250 pounds) finally could give Villanova the premier big man that has been missing in the Wright era. The Wildcats lost frontcourt leaders Dante Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson and cannot afford an injury to critical big men Yarou and Antonio Pena.

2. West Virginia (23-12, 10-8)

Coach: Bob Huggins (third season, 49-22)

There are massive expectations in Morgantown as defensive guru Huggins enters his third season at his alma mater. Four starters return for the Mountaineers, including superb senior slasher Da’Sean Butler (17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds), frontcourt jumping jack Devin Ebanks (10.5 points, 7.8 rebounds) and sophomore point man Darryl Bryant. West Virginia earned this slot by finishing tied for seventh in a far more top-loaded Big East last season. The Mountaineers could lose it if they can’t find a replacement for marksman Alex Ruoff. They’ll see lots of sagging zones.

3. Connecticut (31-5, 15-3)

Coach: Jim Calhoun (24th season, 557-205)

The Huskies are the only team in the league that could lose the top three scorers from a Final Four squad (A.J. Price, Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet) and challenge for a conference crown the following season. Perimeter scorer Jerome Dyson should be a steady force after returning from a foot injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season. The maturation of sophomore point man Kemba Walker and consistency of freakishly gifted wingman Stanley Robinson will determine whether the Huskies challenge Villanova and West Virginia or slide back to the pack.

4. Georgetown (16-15, 7-11)

Coach: John Thompson III (sixth season, 116-51)

On paper, the Hoyas feature the most balanced 1-3-5 trio in the league in junior Chris Wright, third-year starter Austin Freeman and center Greg Monroe, who bypassed the NBA Draft in an attempt to improve upon his performance as the Big East rookie of the year (12.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 steals). But the combination of last season’s chemistry issues and a supporting cast featuring as many question marks as credentials requires a wait-and-see ranking.

5. Louisville (31-6 16-2)

Coach: Rick Pitino (ninth season, 200-73)

Like Connecticut and Georgetown, the Cardinals are a tough team to read. The best-case scenario involves underachieving point man Edgar Sosa finally blossoming in his senior season to direct a talented roster boasting big men Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings and gunners Jerry Smith and Preston Knowles to its second consecutive Big East regular-season title. In a worst-case scenario, Sosa struggles again, Pitino finds no replacement for departed floor general Terrence Williams and the Cardinals take a tumble into the Big East’s NCAA tournament bubble scrum.

6. Cincinnati (18-14, 8-10)

Coach: Mick Cronin (fourth season, 42-52)

Watch out. Nothing against Mick Cronin, but if the Bearcats had a coach with Final Four credentials, Cincinnati would be a chic pick to challenge Villanova for the Big East title. Talent is no longer an issue. The Bearcats finally have a true point man in Cashmere Wright, a playmaker who should allow all-conference gunner Deonta Vaughn (15.3 points) to move back to his natural off-guard spot. Brooklyn scoring sensation Lance Stephenson should slide into the swing position. And no team in the league has a deeper set of capable big men than the Bearcats, who feature four solid wide-bodies led by sophomore center Yancy Gates (10.6 points, 6.1 rebounds).

7. Seton Hall (17-15, 7-11)

Coach: Bobby Gonzalez (fourth season, 47-46)

Say what you want about the sanity and antics of Bobby Gonzalez — the man can coach and recruit. The Pirates add three solid transfers (guard Keon Lawrence from Missouri and forwards Herb Pope from New Mexico State and Jeff Robinson from Memphis) to a team already making noise behind perimeter players Jeremy Hazell, Robert Mitchell and Eugene Harvey. With Gonzalez at the helm, the squad is equally likely to self-destruct or be a pleasant surprise.

8. Pittsburgh (31-5, 15-3)

Coach: Jamie Dixon (seventh season, 163-45)

No team in the league lost more productivity, leadership and grit than the Panthers, who must replace Levance Fields (10.7 points, 7.5 assists), Sam Young (19.2 points, 6.3 rebounds) and DeJuan Blair (15.7 points, 12.3 rebounds). Unless freshman center Dante Taylor outplays stratospheric expectations, Pittsburgh will miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.

9. Notre Dame (21-15, 8-10)

Coach: Mike Brey (10th season, 188-101)

Without preseason player of the year Luke Harangody (23.3 points, 11.8 rebounds), the Irish would be no better than DePaul. Even with him, they are an NIT team at best.

10. Marquette (25-10, 12-6)

Coach: Buzz Williams (25-10)

The Golden Eagles are expected to tumble even farther than this slot after losing senior staples Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James. But solid senior guards Maurice Aker and David Cubillan have spent years waiting behind McNeal and James, and senior Lazar Hayward (16.3 points, 8.6 rebounds) is a bona fide all-league forward.

11. Syracuse (28-10, 11-7)

Coach: Jim Boeheim (34th season, 800-288)

The Orange’s exhibition loss to Le Moyne was no fluke; Syracuse is inexperienced and disjointed following the departure of backcourt standouts Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf. Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson should be superb on the wing, and junior center Arinze Onuaku might be the league’s most underrated big man. But Boeheim and Co. have major issues in the backcourt, especially at the point.

12. St. John’s (16-18, 6-12)

Coach: Norm Roberts (sixth season, 64-85)

The good news is St. John’s loses nobody of note from last season’s roster and returns slashing forward Anthony Mason Jr. from a season-ending injury. The bad news is the Red Storm add nothing to indicate they’ll change their ways as a jump-shooting bunch that plays little defense.

13. South Florida (9-22, 4-14)

Coach: Stan Heath (third season, 21-41)

The trio of Dominique Jones (18.1 points), Gus Gilchrist (10.2 points) and junior college All-American Jarrid Famous (6-11, 240) gives second-year coach Stan Heath a nucleus capable of pushing the Bulls toward the center of the Big East pack.

14. Rutgers (11-21, 2-16)

Coach: Fred Hill (fourth season, 32-60)

The outside-inside duo of Mike Rosario (16.2 points) and Greg Echenique (8.4 points, 8.4 rebounds) gives the Scarlet Knights reason for optimism.

15. Providence (19-14, 10-8)

Coach: Keno Davis (19-14)

Davis underachieved with one of the league’s better rosters last season. That doesn’t bode well given this season’s bare cupboard.

16. DePaul (9-24, 0-18)

Coach: Jerry Wainwright (fifth season, 52-72)

Despite a seemingly heartless, winless run through the league, Wainwright survived last season. A pink slip is in the offing.

ALL-BIG EAST

Greg Monroe (6-11, 247), So., CGeorgetown

The Hoyas boast the league’s most versatile player… for one more season.

Luke Harangody (6-8, 255), Sr., F/CNotre Dame

The sticky-fingered stat-stuffer again should post impressive numbers.

Da’Sean Butler (6-7, 225), Sr., FWest Virginia

Look for the seasoned scorer to pull his game even farther from the basket.

Scottie Reynolds (6-2, 190), Sr., GVillanova

The scoring machine could improve his NBA stock by bolstering assists and leadership.

Kemba Walker (6-1, 172), So., GConnecticut

The superb playmaker is a good bet to make the biggest leap forward among Big East stars.

MUST-SEE GAMES

*Georgetown vs. Butler, Dec. 8 — Plenty of Bulldogs in the house at Madison Square Garden when the Hoyas face a loaded Butler squad featuring fab forwards Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard in the Jimmy V Classic.

*Kentucky vs. Connecticut, Dec. 9 — Cats vs. dogs, Cal vs. Calhoun, John Wall vs. Kemba Walker. If you’re not intrigued by the nightcap of the SEC-Big East Challenge at the Garden, you just don’t like college hoops.

*Duke at Georgetown, Jan. 30 — The Hoyas try to square the series after the Blue Devils took two straight at Cameron. Georgetown’s 87-84 victory over top-ranked Duke in 2006 put the Hoyas back on the college basketball map.

*West Virginia at Villanova, March 6 — The league’s preseason favorites meet on the final weekend of the regular season. This game could decide the conference champion and determine Big East tournament seeding.


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