Tue Sep 07 09:00am EDT
Our week-long Big East preview continues with a look at the conference's five most intriguing storylines entering the new season.
1. Can Pittsburgh go from very good to elite?
The most pressing question facing Pittsburgh entering the new season is whether the Panthers can improve on last season's surprising success now that opponents know they'll be good.
Expected to take a step backward last season after the departure of Sam Young, Levance Fields and DeJuan Blair, the Panthers instead won 25 games and earned second place in the Big East. They return the core of that team next season, leading to optimism among fans that this could finally be the year that Pittsburgh makes it to its first Final Four.
Playing a starring role for the Panthers will be guard Ashton Gibbs, who returns as a junior after averaging 15.6 points per game and hitting 39 percent of his threes in a breakout sophomore season. Production from backcourt mate Brad Wannamaker and forwards Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee will also be crucial, but the key to Pittsburgh taking a step forward might be highly recruited sophomore forward Dante Taylor living up to his hype.
2. Will newcomers keep Syracuse atop the Big East?
For a team that lost an All-American forward, a center who started the previous two seasons and a shooting guard who hit 40 percent of his threes, Syracuse enters next season with surprisingly high expectations.
One reason is that returners Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson each seem poised to make the transition from complementary players to breakout stars next season. The other is the presence of McDonald's All-American 7-footer Fab Melo and promising freshman guard Dion Waiters, two key pieces in Syracuse's decorated 2010 recruiting class.
It will be difficult for Syracuse to be as dominant in the Big East as it was a year ago, but there's no reason the Orange can't be playing during the second weekend of the NCAA tournament again. In fact, maybe they can go even further if they find a go-to scoring threat and fix some of the turnover woes that plagued them a year ago.
3. Will UConn redeem itself for last year?
Six months after UConn's disastrous 2009-10 season mercifully came to an end, it's still difficult to pinpoint exactly which moment was the most embarrassing.
Was it dropping eight of 11 in Big East play to plummet out of NCAA contention? Was it losing by 22 to Saint John's in the first round of the Big East tournament to end all hope of a miracle run? Or was it the off-the-court turmoil that has cost two assistant coaches their jobs and may keep UConn out of the postseason in the future?
UConn loses starters Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards from last year's team, but the return of point guard Kemba Walker and the arrival of a deep recruiting class are reason for optimism next season. Walker must cut down his turnovers, one of the new wings must emerge as a consistent outside shooter and a young big man must provide a consistent interior scoring threat.
4. Can Georgetown win with guards instead of size?
From Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning to Roy Hibbert and Greg Monroe, Georgetown has always been known for producing NBA-caliber big men. This year, however, the Hoyas will likely have to overwhelm their opponents with their guard play instead of their size.
Although Georgetown flamed out in the NCAA tournament with an opening-round loss to 14th-seeded Ohio, guards Austin Freeman and Chris Wright proved during the regular season that they could be a formidable duo. The 6-foot-3 Freeman led the team at 16.5 points per game and hit 44.4 percent of his threes, while the 6-foot-1 Wright overcame early inconsistency to contribute 15.2 points and 4.1 assists.
In Monroe's absence, senior Julian Vaughn, sophomore Hollis Thompson and freshman Nate Lubick will be responsible for cleaning up the glass, playing stout defense in the paint and providing low-post scoring. The 6-foot-9 Vaughn, in particular, will have to improve upon his modest productivity from a year ago in order to provide an interior complement to Freeman and Wright.
5. Will three new coaches lead a New York basketball renaissance?
New York may be the heartbeat of the Big East, but lately the local schools haven't done much to get fans' blood pumping. The last time Seton Hall, Saint John's or Rutgers won an NCAA tournament game was March 2004 when the Pirates slipped past Arizona in the first round before getting clobbered by Duke two days later.
There's reason to believe that those schools' fortunes may turn around thanks to coaching changes each of them made this spring. Seton Hall plucked Kevin Willard from Iona, Saint John's coaxed former UCLA coach Steve Lavin away from ESPN and after a protracted standoff with Fred Hill, Rutgers settled on Robert Morris coach Mike Rice.
Lavin and Rice have already made inroads on the recruiting trail, but the coach with the best chance to enjoy some immediate success next season is likely Willard at Seton Hall. Mississippi transfer Eniel Polynice arrives and high-scoring guard Jeremy Hazell, talented forward Jeff Robinson and elite rebounder Herb Pope each return from a Pirates team that fell just a few wins shy of the NCAA tournament last season.