The impending departure of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame coupled with the loss of West Virginia certainly won't kill the Big East, but it will weaken both the brand and the product in what has been the nation's best basketball league more often than not recently. The hits could keep on coming for the Big East, too, if Connecticut or Louisville find a stronger football conference willing to invite them aboard.
Despite all the impending upheaval, this season in the Big East holds just as much promise as any of the past few years. Louisville returns the core of last year's Final Four team, Syracuse has the young talent to reload rather than rebuild and Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Georgetown all have the potential to contend in the conference and make deep runs in March.
The favorite is Louisville because of the Cardinals' deep, talented roster headlined by playmaking point guard Peyton Siva, interior scorer and rebounder Chane Behanan and shot-blocking center Gorgui Dieng. This year's Cardinals again probably won't have a player who averages more than 12 or 13 points per game, but they'll go 10 or 11 deep and play the relentless pressure defense that has become Rick Pitino's trademark.
For all the well-deserved optimism about Louisville's chances of winning the Big East and contending for a national championship, the Cardinals do have some flaws. They lack proven perimeter shooters with Kyle Kuric gone and Mike Marra lost for the season due to injury. They also need Siva to perform with the steadiness and consistency he showed during the NCAA tournament rather than during the regular season when an ankle injury contributed to turnovers and unreliable shooting.
If the Cardinals fail to perform to the level they did last March, there are plenty of other teams capable of overtaking them in the Big East standings.
Syracuse lost Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters and Fab Melo off last year's Big East regular-season championship team, but the Orange have plenty of young talent to make another title push. Michael Carter-Williams is a potential breakout star at guard, while versatile James Southerland and C.J. Fair should make an impact at the forward spots after waiting their turn the past couple years.
Notre Dame also has one of its best rosters in Mike Brey's tenure thanks to double-double threat Jack Cooley in the paint and the perimeter duo of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant. Cooley is perhaps the premier low post scorer in the league, while Atkins and Grant give the Irish two guards capable of creating off the dribble in the late shot clock situations that often arise as a result of Notre Dame's patience on offense.
The dark horses are Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Without Yancy Gates, the Bearcats will play at a faster pace and rely heavily on the veteran backcourt of Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright. The Panthers will hope a healthy Trey Woodall and heralded newcomers Steven Adams and Trey Zeigler fill some of the holes that caused last year's team to plunge to the bottom half of the league.
MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati. Of the six guys who sank 40 percent or more of their 3-pointers last season, three have graduated and the other three did so in part because they attempted three or less shots per game from behind the arc. Kilpatrick is more of a scorer than a pure shooter, but he still hit 38 percent of his 3-pointers last year despite drawing constant defensive attention.
Best playmaker: Vincent Council, Providence. Overshadowed because he plays for a team typically closer to the Big East basement than contention, Council has quietly emerged as one of the top point guards in the league. The senior played 38.5 minutes per game last season, led the Big East in assists and averaged 15.9 points, all despite plenty of defensive attention.
Best defender: Gorgui Dieng, Louisville. Besides Anthony Davis of Kentucky and Jeff Withey of Kansas, Dieng was the most dominant defensive presence in the NCAA tournament last season. The 6-foot-11 center averaged 3.17 blocks per game as a sophomore and altered countless more shots, swatting away seven in one game against Michigan State in the Sweet 16.
Top NBA prospect: Steven Adams, Pittsburgh. Returners Otto Porter of Georgetown and Michael Carter-Williams of Syracuse flashed first-round potential last season, but the player with the most upside may be Adams. The highly touted 7-foot freshman from New Zealand can impact a game on both ends, whether it's scoring in the low post, sinking a mid-range jump shot or altering a shot with his size and cleaning up the glass.
Best backcourt: Notre Dame. Very tough call here between Notre Dame and Cincinnati, but the Irish get the nod because of their versatility and depth. The headliners are Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins, both do-it-all guards who can sink the 3-pointer or spark Notre Dame's slow-down "Burn" offense by creating off the dribble late in the shot clock for themselves and their teammates. Sixth-year senior Scott Martin is a matchup problem because of his size, while sophomore Pat Connaughton is a dangerous shooter.
Best frontcourt: Louisville. In addition to Dieng, maybe the best defensive center in the nation, the Cardinals have some other weapons too. Chane Behanan is a big-bodied, athletic power forward who can score in the post and plays solid defense. George Mason transfer Luke Hancock is a playmaker who can play either forward spot. And freshman Montrezl Harrell is an athletic rebounder who can run the floor but is raw offensively.
Best recruiting class: Pittsburgh. If Kris Dunn were healthy and Ricardo Ledo were eligible, Providence would get the nod. Instead it goes to Pittsburgh based mostly on the potential impact of Adams. One-and-done type talents have been extremely rare at Pittsburgh, but Adams has that type of ability.
Coach on the rise: Ed Cooley, Providence. The mere fact that Cooley has Providence competing for elite recruits less than two years into his tenure is a testament to the job he has done restoring enthusiasm for the program. Yes, he'll need to win on the court too — a task that even this year may be challenging — but the Friars are on the rise again after a few down seasons.
Coach on the hot seat: Kevin Ollie, UConn. Following Jim Calhoun at Connecticut would be difficult under any circumstances, but Ollie has it especially rough. Not only does he have only one season to win enough games to prove to the UConn administration he's the best longterm option, he has to do it with a team that's short-handed in the frontcourt and ineligible for the postseason.
FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: Kevin Ollie, UConn (Had been assistant under Jim Calhoun)
Regular-season winner last season: Syracuse
Tourney winner last season: Louisville
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 2nd; 2010-11: 1st, 2009-10: 2nd
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 28 (Louisville 3, Syracuse 3, Marquette 3, Georgetown 3, West Virginia 3, Cincinnati 2, Notre Dame 3, Connecticut 2, Pittsburgh 2, South Florida, Villanova 2, St. John's)
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