Big East preseason power rankings

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The Big East might not be as strong as it was in 2008-09, when four teams reached the Elite Eight with two advancing to the Final Four.

Still, even with schools such as Pittsburgh, Louisville, Syracuse and Connecticut being hit hard by graduation and early NBA departures, the conference should once again be one of the strongest in the country, with Villanova and West Virginia both having excellent chances to contend for the national title.

Here’s a look at the Big East preseason power rankings.

Villanova – Most would consider the Wildcats the favorite to win the league title and advance to the Final Four for the second year in a row and just the fourth time in school history. The decision of point guard Scottie Reynolds to withdraw from the NBA draft was huge for Villanova, which returns its top six perimeter players (although standout Reggie Redding will be ineligible until the spring semester). The biggest question mark is in the paint, where Duke transfer Taylor King and touted freshman Mouphtaou Yarou will have to make up for the loss of leading scorer Dante Cunningham.

West Virginia – In just his third season in Morgantown, Bob Huggins will have a Big East title contender. Leading West Virginia’s charge will be Da’Sean Butler and future NBA lottery pick Devin Ebanks, who are regarded as two of the country’s top swingmen. Junior college transfer Casey Mitchell will replace sharpshooter Alex Ruoff on the perimeter. Point guards Joe Mazzulla and Truck Bryant both battled off-court issues during the offseason and will need to clean up their act if West Virginia has serious aspirations of a conference championship and a deep NCAA tournament run.

Connecticut – Most teams would need a few years to recover from losing players such as A.J. Price, Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet. Not Connecticut, which should once again be one of the top teams in the Big East a year after reaching the Final Four. Guards Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker give the Huskies reason for optimism. Dyson was averaging 13.2 points before a knee injury forced him to miss the final 12 games of last season. Walker, one of the league’s top freshmen, scored 23 points in an Elite Eight win over Missouri. Freshmen forwards Ater Majok and Alex Oriakhi will try to make up for the loss of Adrien and Thabeet.

Georgetown – Not many teams in the country were as disappointing last season as the Hoyas, who finished 16-15 and failed to make the NCAA tournament. Still, with three McDonald’s All-Americans (Greg Monroe, Austin Freeman and Chris Wright) in the projected starting lineup, John Thompson’s squad should be good enough to catapult back toward the top of the standings. Freeman and Wright averaged a combined 23.9 points as backcourt starters last season. Monroe, a center and future lottery pick, was named Big East Freshman of the Year.

Louisville – Cardinals fans will be looking for something to cheer about following the embarrassing offseason situation surrounding coach Rick Pitino. Unfortunately they might not find much solace on the court. Louisville will be solid – but certainly not as strong as it was in 2008-09, when it won the Big East title. The loss of NBA draft picks Terrence Williams and Earl Clark have left the Cardinals without any true offensive stars, although sophomore forward Samardo Samuels could certainly develop into that role after averaging 11.8 points as a freshman. Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith return in the backcourt.

Syracuse – Even with the loss of its top three scorers, including standout point guard Jonny Flynn, the Orange could be the surprise team in the Big East – and maybe college basketball. Much of Syracuse’s success will depend on freshman point guard Brandon Triche, because the Orange appear to be set at every other position. Wing Andy Rautins is back after making 102 3-pointers last year, and 6-foot-9, 275-pound forward Arinze Onuaku is a future NBA forward. The biggest difference-maker, though, might end up being transfer Wesley Johnson, a forward who averaged 12.3 points in two seasons at Iowa State before sitting out last season.

Pittsburgh – DeJuan Blair and Sam Young are in the NBA now, and Levance Fields is playing overseas. All of it will result in one of the youngest, most inexperienced teams in the Jamie Dixon era. The frontcourt, which lost Tyrell Biggs along with Blair, will depend heavily on freshman forward Dante Taylor, the 14th-ranked player in the Class of 2009. In the backcourt, look for Ashton Gibbs to take over for Fields at point guard. Gibbs led the USA National Team to a gold medal in the U-19 World Championships last summer. The other guard spot will be manned by senior Jermaine Dixon. Pittsburgh’s leading returning scorer averaged 8.4 points per game last season.

Cincinnati – The Bearcats are hoping the signing of standout wing Lance Stephenson over the summer will be enough to get them to the NCAAs for the first time since 2005. Stephenson is a tremendous slasher who also is deadly from midrange and beyond the arc. His length and athleticism make him a pesky defender and a tough matchup on both ends of the court. Cincinnati has other weapons, too. Forward Yancy Gates is a 255-pound bruiser who averaged 10.6 points as a freshman last season. Senior guard Deonta Vaughn has been one of the Big East’s most consistent players with scoring averages of 15.3 and 17.3 points, respectively, the past two seasons.

Notre Dame – Not many teams with the conference preseason player of the year are picked to finish ninth in their conference. But Luke Harangody and the Fighting Irish have a lot to prove following a 2008-09 season that saw them fail to make the NCAA tournament after being ranked as high as No. 7. Notre Dame has plenty of nice pieces with Harangody, who averaged 23.3 points and 11.8 rebounds as a junior, point guard Tory Jackson and forward Tyrone Nash. Transfers Ben Hansbrough (Mississippi State) and Scott Martin (Purdue) also are slated to start for a squad that ranked 11th or worse in the Big East in scoring defense, field-goal percentage defense, rebounding margin, blocked shots and steals.

Seton Hall – One season after finishing 17-15 and missing the NCAAs for the third straight year, the Pirates might end up being the most improved team in the Big East. Leading scorer Jeremy Hazell returns after averaging 22.7 points in 2008-09. Double-digit scorers Robert Mitchell (14.7) and Eugene Harvey (12.5) also are back. The X-factors, though, will be a trio of transfers who are expected to make a huge impact. Keon Lawrence (Missouri), Herb Pope (New Mexico State) and Jeff Robinson (Memphis) are all eligible after sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules.

Marquette – No team in the Big East is in more of a rebuilding mode than Marquette, which lost three of its top four scorers in Dominic James, Wesley Matthews and All-Big East, first-team selection Jerel McNeal. Making matters worse is that last year’s team wasn’t very deep, with four players averaging more than 30 minutes. That means the Golden Eagles’ 2009-10 squad is loaded with players who have little or no experience in crunch-time situations. Lazar Hayward is an NBA talent in the paint, and the Golden Eagles signed one of the country’s top recruiting classes highlighted by juco transfer Dwight Buycks and freshman Junior Cadougan, both of whom are guards.

Providence – Keno Davis made somewhat of a splash in his first season at Providence by winning 19 games and getting to the NIT, where it lost in the first round to Miami. Included in the Friars’ victory total were triumphs over Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, just as Davis appeared to be getting things going, the Friars graduated eight players – including five who combined to average 51.3 points and 25.3 rebounds in 2008-09. Still, with a talented coach such as Davis on the sideline, the Friars will always have a chance. And it also doesn’t hurt that guards Sharaud Curry (11.7 points) and Marshon Brooks (10.1) return after averaging double figures in scoring last season.

St. John’s – The Red Storm have had just one winning season in five years under Norm Roberts, who might be in trouble if things don’t turn around soon. The good news for Roberts is that St. John’s returns all five starters from last year’s squad – and that doesn’t include Anthony Mason Jr., who learned in August that the NCAA had granted him an extra year eligibility because of an ACL tear he suffered three games into last season. St. John’s likely would’ve been an NIT team last year if not for Mason’s injury, and it definitely should be this year now that he’s back along with wing Paris Horne, who averaged a team-high 14.6 points per game in 2008-09.

South Florida – One year after finishing 9-22, it’s difficult to imagine the Bulls not making significant improvement. Other than second-leading scorer Jesus Verdejo, South Florida returns every key player from its 2008-09 squads and boasts a recruiting class that’s easily the best in Stan Heath’s three seasons at the school. Bolstering the group of newcomers is point guard Anthony Crater, an Ohio State transfer, and 6-11 center Jarrid Famous, who was one of the most sought-after junior college prospects in America. Wing Dominique Jones earned third-team All-Big East honors after averaging 18.1 points last season.

Rutgers – Things can’t get much worse for Rutgers, which went just 2-14 against Big East competition last year while winning 11 games overall. The one bright spot was guard Mike Rosario, who earned freshman All-American honors after averaging 16.2 points. The only McDonald’s All-American in Rutgers history, Rosario spent last summer competing for Puerto Rico in the FIBA U-19 World Championships, where he had a 54-point outburst against France and averaged 24 points a game. He’ll likely be joined in the backcourt by juco transfer James Beatty, who signed with the Scarlet Knights in July. Returning starters Hamady Ndiaye and Gregory Echenique will carry the load up front.

DePaul – The Blue Demons were the only school from a Big Six conference to go winless in league play in 2008-09. DePaul’s chances of escaping the cellar would’ve increased if forward Dar Tucker had returned to school. Instead he made the ill-advised decision to enter the NBA draft after his sophomore season. He was not selected. Tucker’s departure puts even more pressure on forward Mac Koshwal to produce. Koshwal, who averaged 12.2 points and 9.6 rebounds last season, will get help in the paint from Ohio State transfer Eric Wallace. Starting guards Jeremiah Kelly and Will Walker both return.

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