Conference Report Card: Big EastPosted by Brian Goodman on April 19th, 2011
Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor. We will be publishing a series of conference report cards over the next week for conferences that got multiple NCAA bids to recap the conference, grade the teams, and look at the future for the conference.
- College basketball has never witnessed a season like this year’s Big East. The conference destroyed its own record of eight NCAA bids by placing 11 clubs in the Big Dance this year and also claimed the national champion with Connecticut, which spent most of the season in the middle of the pack in the Big East. The Huskies also gave the conference its first title since the Huskies last did the trick in 2004. While there was not a truly great team in the Big East (including Connecticut), the league was better than any other from top to bottom. Of the five teams that failed to make the NCAA Tournament, only South Florida and DePaul were truly uncompetitive. Rutgers showed signs of improvement while Seton Hall managed to win seven league games and gave some good teams a major scare in the process. Even Providence, which finished 4-14, knocked off Louisville and Villanova in consecutive games back in January. Despite the lackluster NCAA showing by most Big East members, it says here the conference boasted the best player in the nation (sorry, Jimmer) and a deserving national champion. Additionally, ten Big East teams were ranked in the AP Top 25 at some point this season. Say what you want about its postseason performance (it’s certainly fair to bash the league in that regard), but this was by far the best conference in the nation this year.
Team-by-Team (teams are in order of finish, but grades are based on performance vs. expectations):
- Pittsburgh (28-6, 15-3): The regular season was terrific once again for Jamie Dixon and the Panthers but, as has become common over the years, they fell short of their goal–getting to the Final Four. Pittsburgh lost four of their final eight games after starting the season 24-2. A mid-season injury to Ashton Gibbs was thought to bring them down a peg, but Pitt responded with wins at West Virginia and Villanova without him to quiet any doubters. That turned out to be their peak. Dixon did not really test his team out of conference except for two games at Madison Square Garden against Maryland and Texas back in November as part of the 2K Sports Coaches vs. Cancer event and a “home” game (in Pittsburgh) against Tennessee, which they lost. Looking back, one theory could be that an average non-conference schedule did not adequately prepare this team for the NCAA Tournament which is all about match-ups and teams you haven’t seen before from other leagues. While Big East coaches love to use the strength of the league as a crutch when questioned about a lack of non-conference heft to their schedule, I think this is a theory that has to be taken into consideration. Big East play is obviously rough and tumble every night but that can actually be a detriment come tournament time when games are officiated tighter and you don’t have as much time to prepare for an opponent who you likely don’t know very well, if at all. Pitt will lose Gilbert Brown, Brad Wanamaker, and Gary McGhee to graduation while Gibbs tests the NBA waters. I expect Gibbs to come back to join a very good recruiting class led by five-star forward Khem Birch. Despite the loss of three senior leaders, look for Pitt to be in the thick of the Big East race yet again next season. Dixon has established a culture of winning and I have learned never to doubt him after witnessing the 2009-10 campaign, a season that certified Dixon as one of the best basketball minds in the country. While this year was a great success during the regular season, Pitt’s inability to get to the Sweet Sixteen and eventually the Final Four renders this year a disappointment. GRADE: B-
- Notre Dame (27-7, 14-4): Mike Brey and his team collected a host of accolades as a result of their impressive season. The Fighting Irish coach was named AP National Coach of the Year and Big East COY while Ben Hansbrough took home the conference’s Player of the Year award and was a consensus second team All-American. The Irish were one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country and no game exemplified that more than the 21-point thrashing of Villanova on February 28th, a game that was not that close and saw Notre Dame bury 20 three pointers, a school record. That win capped a perfect season at Purcell Pavilion and the Irish followed that up by winning at eventual national champion Connecticut to finish the regular season with wins in in 11 of their last 12 games. Unfortunately for the Irish, that was as good as this season would get as they faltered in both the Big East and NCAA Tournaments. The year ended early in the “third” (err, second) round against Florida State in embarrassing fashion. Notre Dame won the Old Spice Classic in November and played Kentucky tough in Louisville. It was then when the nation started to take this experienced group seriously if they had not already. All but one of Notre Dame’s seven losses were by 12 points or more, indicative of their over-reliance on outside shooting. When the shots fell, this team was as good as any out there. When they did not, the Irish were rather ordinary. There was not much middle ground this year for this Notre Dame team and that was a main reason why they were not picked by many to go far in the NCAA Tournament despite earning a #2 seed. Brey will lose seniors Hansbrough and Tyrone Nash but a solid core of Tim Abromaitis, Carleton Scott, and Scott Martin all return for their senior seasons in South Bend. Joining them will be only one recruit but he’s a good one. Patrick Connaughton, a wing out of St. John’s Prep in Massachusetts, joins the Irish next season and could eventually become another in the long line of great shooters who come through Brey’s system. With the expected development of younger players such as Eric Atkins paired with the returning experienced seniors, Notre Dame should be very good again next year. GRADE: B+
- Louisville (25-10, 12-6): The Cardinals simply had a fabulous year. Rick Pitino did such a great job that, in my opinion, he should have won National Coach of the Year honors. Louisville dealt with injury after injury all season long and Pitino somehow got a roster not exactly chock full of talent to surpass expectations by a wide margin. The Cardinals were tied for eighth with Marquette in the preseason coaches poll and ended up third with a #4 seed in the Big Dance. With this season’s success, the potential distraction caused by the fallout from Pitino’s personal and legal troubles last summer quickly became a moot point. While the upset loss to Morehead State was unexpected by most, this season was still a major success for Louisville, one that has now laid the foundation for a big time future. Only two Louisville players (Peyton Siva and Chris Smith) played all 35 games this season, giving you an indication of all the personnel issues Pitino had to work around. Inside presence Rakeem Buckles was sidelined for all but four games after New Year’s and suffered a season-ending knee injury against Pittsburgh in late February. Knowles was Louisville’s best player but there was no real star on this team and it seemed like a different player stepped up every night. The Cardinals put the nation on notice with their opening night destruction of eventual national runner-up Butler but still had to prove themselves away from the brand new KFC Yum! Center. While Louisville won only four road games all year, the double-overtime win at Connecticut in late January converted any remaining doubters into believers. Louisville was one of the better defensive teams in the nation and held opponents to 53.5 PPG over a four game stretch towards the end of the regular season. Louisville came oh-so-close to winning the Big East Tournament but fell to the unstoppable train that was the UConn Huskies. The Cardinals welcome a top-ten recruiting class for next season, headlined by Wayne Blackshear, and will lose only Knowles to graduation. With Siva emerging as a fantastic point guard, Louisville will be a major factor in next year’s Big East race. GRADE: A-
- Syracuse (27-8, 12-6): Syracuse finished the year right about where it was expected, but what a roller coaster ride it was. The Orange started the year 18-0 and tricked most observers into believing they were a national title contender. Syracuse beat Michigan and Michigan State out of conference, the latter coming on national TV at Madison Square Garden. That game made everyone a believer, but it turned out to be just another win over a bubble team. Four main players led the Orange, but a number of young players seem ready to step up on a team that only loses Rick Jackson. Jackson was arguably the best rebounder in the Big East, but Syracuse brings in the #1 center (according to Scout) in the 2011 class, Rakeem Christmas, for next season. I don’t want to minimize the loss of Jackson but Jim Boeheim has all the pieces needed to make a Big East and Final Four run in 2012. Two four-star recruits join Christmas plus the versatile Kris Joseph (14.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG) should be back for his senior campaign. With a senior point guard in Scoop Jardine and budding young stars like C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters, Syracuse looks loaded for next year. The Orange lost four in a row and six of eight at one point, including an embarrassing 22-point loss to Seton Hall at the Carrier Dome. However, they picked themselves up off the mat and won six in a row before bowing out to UConn in the Big East semifinals. The season ended on a sour note against Marquette in the NCAA Tournament but the future looks really bright in upstate New York. While most Orange fans are probably disappointed with the way this season ended, years from now we may look back on 2010-11 as a major building block towards big things at Syracuse over the next few years. GRADE: B+
- St. John’s (21-12, 12-6): College basketball is relevant again in New York City thanks to Steve Lavin and his tough group of seniors. At times this season, the Garden was jumping like it was back in the days of Lou Carnesecca. The Red Storm scalped Georgetown, Notre Dame, Duke, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh at MSG en route to a 12-6 conference record. Aside from the win over Duke, St. John’s struggled in non-conference play. This team suffered back-to-back losses in early December to St. Bonaventure and lowly Fordham but something clicked in a home win over Northwestern later that month. St. John’s shot 80% from the field in the second half of that game and never looked back, winning at West Virginia to open the Big East slate eight days later. The Red Storm won seven straight Big East games towards the end of the season, peaking at Villanova on February 26 for that seventh win in a row. After that, St. John’s lost at Seton Hall and struggled with South Florida to close the regular season. They had a tough time with Rutgers in the second round of the Big East Tournament, a game marred by awful officiating in the final seconds. St. John’s would not win another game however, losing the next day to Syracuse and bowing out to Gonzaga in their first NCAA Tournament game since 2002. Dwight Hardy (18.3 PPG) made a name for himself this year culminating in the Big East’s Most Improved Player Award. The point guard hit the game winner against Pittsburgh and made plenty of big shots in other games throughout the season. St. John’s will lose nine seniors but Lavin reeled in the #2 recruiting class (according to ESPNU) for next year. Dwayne Polee showed flashes this year and he will be counted on to make the leap next year for this team. St. John’s will have only two players who are not freshman on the roster and Polee is one of them. While this recruiting class is highly talented, I would not go so far as to expect big things out of this team next year. A solid year in the 5th to 8th place range is a fair expectation for a team that will be among the youngest in the nation in 2011-12. However, the building blocks are in place for Lavin to bring his program back towards the top of the Big East over the long haul. This season went a long way towards that goal and exceeded almost everybody’s expectations. GRADE: A
- West Virginia (21-12, 11-7): The Mountaineers were in a transitional phase coming off a trip to the 2010 Final Four. That will be the case again next year but Bob Huggins has the pieces needed to stay in the upper half of the conference. West Virginia loses five seniors, including Casey Mitchell and John Flowers, but Truck Bryant should be able to take over full time at the point and a solid backup is coming in the form of freshman Jabarie Hinds. While the Mountaineers struggled to shoot this year and lose their best shooter in Mitchell, that could be addition by subtraction. Mitchell had a number of run-ins with Huggins and was even suspended for three games at one point. It obviously remains to be seen what happens with that but the Mountaineers should have two go-to guys in Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli. Jones was very good this year but never made the leap most expected him to make. Just a gut feeling but I think he’ll have a monster senior year. Expect Dalton Pepper to take on a larger role and possibly become their best outside shooter next season. He’ll be a junior and is already quite the athlete. More playing time and some extra tutelage from Huggins should turn Pepper into a pretty good player in 2012. The Mountaineers won’t have the talent needed to compete for a top finish in this conference but never count out a Huggins team. This club looked really good at times this year and still has plenty of pieces to build around. Next season will likely continue the transition and a big 2012 recruiting class could bring West Virginia back towards the top in a couple of years. GRADE: B+
- Cincinnati (26-9, 11-7): In all likelihood, Mick Cronin saved his job with this season’s 26-win campaign. Relative to expectations, this year was a rousing success. Cincinnati was picked 12th in the preseason poll but finished 7th, easily making the NCAA Tournament after being on the bubble in February. The Bearcats were doubted early as they fattened up on cupcakes courtesy of a schedule that would even make Jim Boeheim blush. However, Cronin and Cincinnati rode the positive momentum from lots of early wins to 11 conference victories, making the NCAA Tournament with plenty of room to spare where they dispatched Missouri before losing to Connecticut. Cincinnati didn’t knock your socks off with anything they did offensively but a commitment to defense and rebounding rewarded this team with a #6 seed in the NCAA’s. The Bearcats closed the regular season with five wins in six games, including a sweep of Georgetown. Cincinnati did not lose to a team that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, an impressive accomplishment for a team that finished 7-11 in league play just last season. An improvement on both sides of the ball and the emergence of Yancy Gates (11.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG) fueled their success this season. Including Gates, Cincinnati returns their top four scorers next year to go along with a top 25 recruiting class led by New York-area players Shaquille Thomas and Jermaine Sanders. With a solid foundation in place and ready to go, Cronin can really build on this year’s success with his top four guys back. It appears the long rebuilding project is over in the Queen City and Cincinnati is poised for a good run in the top half of the conference over the next few seasons. GRADE: A
- Georgetown (21-11, 10-8): For the last few years, the Hoyas have been a very puzzling team. This year was no exception. At one point, Georgetown reeled off eight straight Big East wins, scalping the likes of St. John’s, Villanova, Louisville, and Syracuse in the process. However, the Hoyas came crashing down in the end, losing their last five games and six of their final seven. The injury to Chris Wright in the Cincinnati game on February 23 was the major turning point for this team but I believe there was something deeper going on. There is absolutely no doubt the loss of Wright was the primary reason why Georgetown fell apart but the last four seasons have now featured a relatively early postseason flameout (3 NCAA’s and 1 NIT). Georgetown has won only one postseason game over this span, not including Big East Tournament games. I do not know why that is but the trend has to be alarming if you are a Hoyas fan. Georgetown looked terrific in an early season game against Missouri in Kansas City but then looked awful at other points this season. Combining the extreme positive and the extreme negative, perhaps their 21-11 (10-8) record was just right after all. This was a pretty good team but not an elite club able to challenge for a Big East title. When the trio of Wright, Austin Freeman, and Jason Clark was not functioning properly, Georgetown became a very beatable team. The Hoyas will lose Wright and Freeman (30.5 PPG combined) as well as inside presence Julian Vaughn, but John Thompson III has a pretty good class coming in and a couple of key returnees who should thrive in bigger roles. At times this season, Hollis Thompson showed he was able to play at this level and should transition into a really nice player next year alongside Clark. JT3 signed the #4 center in the 2011 class (according to Scout), Mikael Hopkins, and still has enough to finish in the middle of the pack next year. Hopkins actually went to the same high school (DeMatha Catholic in Maryland) as Freeman, so that has to provide Hoyas fans with some positive vibes. A similar result should be expected of the Hoyas next year with the senior leadership of Clark being a key factor. GRADE: B-
- Connecticut (32-9, 9-9): Just think about this: Connecticut finished ninth in their conference and won the national title. I don’t ever recall a national champion finishing that low in its conference. The Huskies went undefeated (23-0) outside of Big East regular season play and won every tournament game they played in this year. Connecticut was not expected to do much this year but the nation was swept away by Kemba Walker’s performance at the Maui Invitational before Thanksgiving. From then on, Connecticut was a fixture in the national polls and a legitimate title contender. Early in the year, the story was all about Kemba (23.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, and 4.5 APG) and his one-man team. As we saw over the final three months, this team became a lot more than just the remarkable Bronx native. Jim Calhoun was able to get this young group to buy into the team concept and the development of players such as Jeremy Lamb was enough to propel them to a national championship. This has to rank atop Calhoun’s greatest coaching achievements and it is not close. Connecticut had to play on Tuesday of the Big East Tournament and won 11 games over a four week span en route to the title. While I’m not sure this is an all-time great achievement (more a product of a down year in my opinion), this team got hot at the right time and parlayed talent with momentum all the way to Houston. UConn will lose Walker to the NBA and a couple role players to graduation but there are still plenty of building blocks in place for next year. If Alex Oriakhi can turn into an elite Big East forward and Lamb continues to improve, Connecticut will be a factor yet again next season. However, the uncertain status of Calhoun could put a damper on that. Nothing is set in stone, but there have been rumors that he will retire and go out on top. If there ever was a time for an accomplished coach with health problems to leave, this is the time to do it. This will all play itself out soon, but it bears watching. My gut is he comes back, but nobody really knows. GRADE: A+
- Villanova (21-12, 9-9): It was quite an interesting year on the Main Line. As late as February 19th, Villanova was 21-6 (9-5) after escaping DePaul in overtime. They would not win another game for the rest of the season. The Wildcats, who were even 19-4 two weeks earlier, lost their last six games and eight of their final ten. If it weren’t for two wins at Seton Hall and DePaul (games they arguably should have lost) mixed in, Villanova would have ended the year on a ten-game losing streak. Jay Wright has now had two late season collapses in a row and you would have to think there is a bit of pressure on him for next season. Wright has been beloved at Villanova but a third year with of a so-so performance in 2011-12 would be a major cause for concern. The Wildcats started the season 16-1 and had some impressive wins along the way. A two-point loss at UConn was no cause for concern but consecutive losses to Providence and Georgetown should have sent up red flags in retrospect. By the time folks realized this team was collapsing, it was too late. Villanova was basically a five-man team after the failure of Dominic Cheek to step up and the early season suspension of JayVaughn Pinkston. Pinkston, who never played a game this season, is set for a pretrial hearing on May 4th facing an assault charge. He can return to school in June, but his status as far as basketball is concerned is still uncertain at this time. The Wildcats were playing well when Antonio Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou contributed but their scoring fell off a cliff late in the year and with that went Villanova’s season. The Wildcats lose three of their top four scorers next year so some younger players are going to have to step up for Villanova to be a player in the conference next year. Maalik Wayns will become the man at the point but it’s unrealistic to expect any of this team’s recruits to make a significant impact in their freshman year. Tyrone Johnson is the best player in the class, but he will have to wait his turn at the point behind Wayns. That will be good for long-term development but Villanova looks to be in a holding pattern in 2011-12. They have a good chance to make the NCAA Tournament but a finish in a similar position looks likely. This was the year for them to do some damage and, while it wasn’t a total failure, it came close. GRADE: D+
- Marquette (22-15, 9-9): The Golden Eagles lost 15 games and made the Sweet Sixteen. If that doesn’t give you an idea of how deep this conference is and how down college basketball was nationally, I don’t know what does. Marquette was a good team and finished 11th out of 16 teams, but still made the NCAA Tournament. Judging by their seed, the Golden Eagles really needed that second round Big East Tournament win against West Virginia and their earlier road win at UConn to lock up a bid. Without one or two of those, Marquette may have been left out in the cold. This team was competitive out of conference, but failed to win any games of significance in the Big East until they beat West Virginia on New Year’s Day. A beat down of Notre Dame nine days later got them off to a 3-1 start in conference but they did not win a meaningful road game until that critical overtime victory at Connecticut in late February. Besides making the Sweet Sixteen, the best news out of Milwaukee of late was that Buzz Williams is staying. He’s done a really nice job at Marquette since taking over for Tom Crean and, despite his southern roots, jobs at Oklahoma, Texas Tech, or Arkansas are not the most attractive at this point. MU will take some personnel hits next year but a core group of Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, Junior Cadougan, and Vander Blue have to give this passionate fan base some hope for the future. Marquette may not be as good next year but they could finish higher than 11th. The loss of Jimmy Butler and Dwight Buycks will hurt, but a decent recruiting class that includes California native Juan Anderson should add depth for next season. GRADE: B+
- Seton Hall (13-18, 7-11): The Pirates were competitive in all but four of their 18 Big East games but an inability to learn finish games has cost this team dearly over the past two years. New coach Kevin Willard brought much needed stability after the turmoil of the Bobby Gonzalez era and his commitment to defense really paid off with this team. The Pirates went from #122 to #13 in defensive efficiency over the course of just one year and that allowed them to stay in many games. However, this team’s offense went totally awry this season. Things looked promising when the Pirates beat Alabama in the first round of the Paradise Jam on November 19 but the team then learned that star senior wing Jeremy Hazell had broken a bone in his wrist in that game. Hazell (19.8 PPG) went on to miss the next 13 games and was even shot in Harlem over Christmas break. Luckily, he was alright and returned to action against DePaul in mid-January. By then, however, it was too late. Seton Hall had lost eight of the 13 games that Hazell missed and stood at 7-9 (1-3) when he returned. The Pirates just could not put the ball in the basket and could never make a big play when they needed one most. They had really good chances to close out Georgetown, Connecticut, and Villanova at home, but lost all three games due to late game collapses. The future does not seem so bright in South Orange heading into next season. The Hall will lose their top two scorers but at least Herb Pope is expected to return. The forward was technically dead almost a year ago but was resuscitated and recovered quickly. He was able to play and put up very respectable numbers this season. With another year of conditioning and recovery, Pope should be one of the better post players in the Big East. The Pirates can stay out of the bottom four in 2011-12 if point guard Jordan Theodore embraces a team-first philosophy and Fuquan Edwin improves with Pope anchoring the paint. However, Willard will need contributions out of a below-average recruiting class by Big East standards. Aaron Cosby seems to be the most likely to contribute and he may even start at the two guard now that Hazell has moved on. While Willard did a nice job establishing the culture of his program this year (two players were thrown off the team in February) and did his best to rid the team of the bad habits left behind by Gonzalez, Seton Hall had enough talent with realistic postseason expectations prior to the season. They did not come close to those goals and their grade must suffer as a result. GRADE: C-
- Rutgers (15-17, 5-13): You may never see a 15-17 team get as much positive press as this Rutgers team received this year. The Scarlet Knights, under the direction of first year coach Mike Rice, competed hard in every game and scalped Villanova along the way. Their season will likely be remembered either A) for Jonathan Mitchell’s four-point play to beat Villanova or B) the ending to their second round Big East Tournament game against St. John’s in which they should have been given a chance to tie the game. Instead, the officials failed to call the game to the final buzzer and amazingly walked off the court with a few seconds to play. To his credit, Rice, always demonstrative on the sidelines, took the high road after the game and created a positive and sympathetic image of his program in the process. Rutgers loses four seniors next year, including leading scorer Mitchell, but a top 15 recruiting class awaits. Jerome Seagears and Myles Mack will compete to replace James Beatty at the point guard position while Kadeem Jack will give the Knights an inside presence. Rice has done a tremendous job on the recruiting trail in selling a program that hasn’t been relevant in decades. It is probably too much to expect Rutgers to finish in the top half next year but if Rice keeps the positive momentum going, it is only a matter of time before the Scarlet Knights become players in this league. GRADE: B
- Providence (15-17, 4-14): The Friars were the only Big East team to make a coaching change after this season, replacing Keno Davis with Ed Cooley, formerly the head coach at Fairfield and an assistant under Al Skinner at Boston College and Rhode Island. Cooley has quite the rebuilding job ahead of him but the Rhode Island native seems like the right guy to do it. Marshon Brooks (24.6 PPG, 7.0 RPG) led this team all year long but Providence has some young players to build around. Vincent Council looks like a promising point guard while Gerard Coleman posted double figures scoring this year. There is no doubt that Providence can score, but a strong commitment on the defensive end is necessary. The good news is that Cooley’s Fairfield team ranked #22 in defensive efficiency this year. Fairfield also improved defensively in each of the last four seasons illustrating Cooley’s ability to build a program. Unless the new headman can find some recruits in the spring signing period, Providence won’t have much coming in to build upon next season. They will have to depend on who they have coming back but could surprise if they play better defense. Considering all that happened on (and off) the court, this season could have been a lot worse than it already was. At least the Friars were competitive against some good teams. GRADE: C-
- South Florida (10-23, 3-15): It is just so hard to compete in this conference at a school like South Florida where basketball is considered an afterthought. The Bulls were actually picked 13th but were not competitive in the vast majority of their games. Still, they finished two games clear of DePaul, sweeping the Blue Demons. South Florida had one highlight, beating Villanova in an amazing comeback on day one of the conference tournament last month. USF lost to Cincinnati the next day but they did advance further than anyone expected. Believe it or not, South Florida beat eventual Final Four team VCU in overtime on December 1st for their best win of the season. Stan Heath’s team was led by Augustus Gilchrist (13.4 PPG and 6.0 RPG), but any semblance of quality guard play was just not there. Gilchrist opted to declare for the NBA Draft but has not hired an agent yet, leaving open the possibility he returns for next season. South Florida loses only one player otherwise but that will be Jarrid Famous, their third leading scorer and another post presence. With only a couple of two-star recruits coming in next season, USF looks to be stuck at the bottom of the league for the foreseeable future. GRADE: D+
- DePaul (7-24, 1-17): Year one of the Oliver Purnell era was all about establishing a culture. Despite winning only seven games, you could argue Purnell did that. Freshman Cleveland Melvin was a major bright spot for DePaul, shooting 52.2% from the field and averaging 14.3 PPG. The Blue Demons played at a much quicker pace this year (Purnell’s preferred style of play) and did win one Big East game, on the road at Providence. Out of conference, DePaul had a nice win over Horizon League regular season champion Milwaukee. In addition to Melvin, freshman Brandon Young had a solid season. Purnell has all five of his top scorers back and a decent freshman class that includes Shane Larkin, son of the great former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, coming in. The Blue Demons won’t be a factor for an NCAA berth next season, but a trip to the CBI and maybe an outside shot at the NIT should be the goal. DePaul has enough pieces in place to escape the Big East basement in 2011-12. GRADE: C
- The Big East may not be as strong next year, but it will still be an incredibly deep league. The same 11 teams that made the NCAA Tournament this season will be factors again but 11 bids seems unlikely. I expect St. John’s, West Virginia, Georgetown, Villanova, and Marquette to take slight steps backwards even though their standing may actually improve. In the bottom half of the league, look for Rutgers to make the biggest jump. Mike Rice and the Scarlet Knights will be young but the future looks very promising in Piscataway. They likely will not make the NCAA Tournament but seven to eight conference wins is not out of the question for Rutgers. Seton Hall should be in about the same place and maybe fall back a spot or two so don’t expect the Pirates to be a major player. Providence is interesting because they can compete if Cooley can get them to play defense without sacrificing offense (similar to what Willard did this year at Seton Hall just without the offensive ineptitude). I do think DePaul can move up a couple of spots but it is hard to see them cracking 12th place. At the top, Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame, and Pitt look to be the four best teams yet again as of this writing with the Orange being my preseason favorite. Keep an eye on Cincinnati in 2011-12. The Bearcats can be a major sleeper and even crack the top four if everything goes their way. All in all, the Big East won’t be as dominant, but it will likely still be the best league in college basketball.