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Big East preview

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Big East predictions
1. Connecticut
1a. Villanova
3. Syracuse
4. Cincinnati
5. Louisville
6. Pittsburgh
7. West Virginia
8. Georgetown
9. Notre Dame
10. DePaul
11. Marquette
12. Rutgers
13. Providence
14. St. John's
15. Seton Hall
16. South Florida
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The Big East isn't just the largest conference in college hoops, I think it's the best. There have been some impressive non-conference wins early this season, and when I consider the strength at the top and in the middle, it gets my nod as the number one conference in the country – for now.

The top teams in the Big East all could easily be ready for tournament play in March, while the teams in the middle, though unlikely to make the tournament, look like locks for the NIT. At the bottom, however, are several teams with various limitations that will likely keep them on the league's lowest rung (though I think all will get some conference wins).

I know teams will beat each other up a bit in conference play, but I'm anticipating that perhaps eight or nine teams from this conference will be tournament-worthy in March.

Cincinnati Bearcats
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Everyone is expecting the Bearcats to really struggle in the Big East without Bob Huggins, the very popular and successful former head coach. And although there's always a chance they might do just that, I don't really see it happening. Interim coach Andy Kennedy and a good group of seniors have too much to prove.

James White is a player of the year candidate who leads his team in multiple categories, while freshman Devan Downey is having a terrific season thus far handling the point (he can score and/or find the open man with equal proficiency).

Cincinnati has a tight seven-man rotation and will be outsized in most games, but the Bearcats are tenacious on defense and do a very good job of attacking the basket. They are second to West Virginia in turnover margin, lead the league in free throw percentage and are in the top five in free throw attempts per game.

Can they sustain those numbers in conference play? Time will tell, but if they can, a healthy number of wins will follow.

Connecticut Huskies
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With its size, depth, athleticism and Hall of Fame coach, UConn is my pick as conference champ. It clearly got off to a shaky start with Tuesday's loss to Marquette, but overall the Huskies are simply too good to let that loss be a factor as the season progresses.

The return of point guard Marcus Williams will anchor an ever-improving backcourt and give them everything they need to not only win the Big East, but maybe even win it all.

The frontline features the exciting and talented Rudy Gay, and all-conference caliber teammates Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong. Ed Nelson does the necessary dirty work, while Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown provide experience and firepower on the wings.

This team defends, rebounds, runs, plays well in the halfcourt and will wear most teams down with one of the most talented rotations in the country. Spreading the minutes will be a challenge for Jim Calhoun, but it will be just as much of a challenge for the players as well. Some will have to accept limited minutes as part of their sacrifice to be a championship team.

DePaul Blue Demons
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It's all about Sammy Mejia for the Blue Demons. He leads the team in scoring and presents match-up problems for opponents because he's a 6-foot-5 guard with a nice midrange game that can post up and take you off the dribble.

DePaul struggles to score because the team is basically all guards and forwards, and thus has no real inside game. And while the Blue Demons are a good free-throw shooting team that can attack off the dribble, they're going to have a tough time on the glass and at the defensive end of the floor in conference play.

Georgetown Hoyas
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The Hoyas employ a strong seven-man rotation that includes three seniors and a balanced scoring attack. Six players average between nine and 13 points per game, and four are shooting at least 40 percent from the three-point line.

However, at just 68 points per game, the Hoyas are near the conference bottom – but they are second to UConn in field goals made.

Sophomores Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green anchor the frontcourt. Hibbert leads the team in scoring and Green tops the team in rebounding and assists. The perimeter attack is solid, but I think Georgetown is still an elite player or two short of challenging for a top-five spot in the conference.

Louisville Cardinals
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The young Cardinals will go as far as senior Taquan Dean takes them. Producing consistent offense is a must for Dean, as evidenced by his struggles in the December 17th loss to Kentucky, and he likely will be a marked man in league play.

But the emergence of Brandon Jenkins as a consistent scorer should help, as will the continuing development of freshman point guard Andre McGee. Fellow freshman Terrence Williams, a talented wing man, must continue to improve as well. Up front the Cardinals will rely on David Padgett and Juan Palacios

Louisville has to get better at handling the ball and grabbing rebounds if it's going to reach its potential, but under Rick Pitino's demanding eye, one expects they will.

Marquette Golden Eagles
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The Golden Eagles are new to the Big East, and Steve Novak and Joe Chapman are the only seniors in Tom Crean's nine-man rotation, but if the January 3 victory over UConn is any indication, this team could be something special – and Novak is its key ingredient. The 6-foot-10 forward had career highs of 41 points and 16 rebounds against UConn as Marquette won its first game in the conference, shocking a (perhaps) over-confident Huskies team.

Because its big guys are not quite ready for extended minutes, Marquette primarily is a perimeter-driven team. It can make shots, but has shown a propensity to give the ball away on turnovers far too often.

The Golden Eagles are talented – as evidenced by the UConn game, but with young guards learning on the job (three freshmen start, with three sophomores and a junior filling out the rotation) it could be tough to keep the wins coming in the Big East.

Keep an eye on this team.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish
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The Fighting Irish have two freshmen and two sophomores in their eight-man rotation, and they will rely heavily on seniors Chris Quinn and Torin Francis (one of the league's top rebounders) to carry the load. Currently, these two are combining for 29 points pre game.

The offense is heavily weighted toward the three pointer (40 percent of the field goals attempted are threes). Colin Falls is averaging 12 points per game and so far all of his made field goals are from behind the arc.

But if Notre Dame wants to balance out its offense, Rick Cornett must emerge as a consistent inside scoring option. Otherwise the Irish will have to rely on controlling the game's pace and making the deep shot.

Pittsburgh Panthers
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I watched the Panthers handle a good Wisconsin team (albeit at home) recently and was impressed by what I saw. Pitt is deep, reasonably athletic, has good size and looks solid at both ends.

Carl Krauser is their catalyst. He leads the team in minutes, scoring, assists, steals and is shooting 42 percent from three-point land. He is their undisputed "go to" guy. But Aaron Gray, Levon Kendall and Sam Young are providing ample help up front combining for 27 points and 20 boards per game.

Coach Jamie Dixon plays ten players in double-figure minutes, and all are contributing. This is a relatively young team, but a capable one.

Providence Friars
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There is promise for the Friars with the inside duo of sophomore Randall Hanke and freshman Geoff McDermott. Hanke is averaging 15 points per game and shooting 72 percent from the field, while McDermott is getting 11 points and eight boards. Senior Donnie McGrath also is scoring well, and freshman Sharaud Curry leads the team in assists.

The Friars are scoring around 80 points per game despite averaging 16 turnovers, but with a team that has just one senior in the playing rotation, consistency on defense has been a struggle.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights
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As Douby do, so do Rutgers. Quincy Douby is averaging 23 points per game and is an excellent offensive player, but he's the only guy averaging double figures for the Scarlet Knights.

There are no seniors in the seven-to-eight man rotation, nor are there any consistent inside scorers. The Scarlet Knights scrap on defense and on the glass, but unless another scorer or two emerges, it's going to be tough for Douby to do it alone.

Seton Hall Pirates
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Like St. John's, the Pirates are offensively challenged. They are last in the league in field goal percentage and are averaging just 64 points per game.

The defensive numbers are solid, but the lack of a true point guard has contributed to a minus-2 turnover margin and makes it hard for offensive consistency to develop.

Donald Copeland and Kelly Whitney provide a combined 27 points per game, but as of yet there are no other double-figure scores. The way I see it, the sailing will be rough for the Pirates.

South Florida Bulls
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Seniors James Holmes and Solomon Jones lead four players that average double-figure scoring, but only six players make up Rob McCollum's playing rotation.

The talent level, while improving under McCollum, is not ready for Big East-caliber competition just yet.

St. John's Red Storm
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The Red Storm will have to rely on tough, stingy defense and aggressive rebounding as their recipe for success. St. John's scores just 61 points per game on 42 percent shooting, but it has offset those low numbers with its tough D (opponents are making just 36 percent of their shots).

However, with the kind of offensive firepower that exists in the Big East, good defense will only take you so far.

Syracuse Orange
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Outside of UConn, the Orange have perhaps the most athletic frontline in the league with Demetris Nichols, Terrence Roberts and Darryl Watkins. These three players anchor a defense that is leading the league in steals, is second to UConn in blocked shots and is holding teams to 36 percent shooting.

The offense so far is producing 77 points per game, but has a lot of room for improvement (currently it's hitting a pedestrian 45 percent of its shots). Senior Gerry McNamara leads the team with 17 points per game, but is struggling with his shot (32 percent - he's capable of much better than that). If he and his team can improve in this area, the Orange will be formidable indeed.

Villanova Wildcats
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The Wildcats are an elite level team and their nine-man rotation is getting the job done for coach Jay Wright. He starts four guards, and his two seniors, Randy Foye and Allan Ray, are the best "do it all" backcourt combo in the country (both average 20 points per game and are excellent in every area).

The frontcourt is anchored by Jason Fraser and Will Sheridan. Neither are big scorers, but they take advantage of their opportunities while defending, and rebound with passion and purpose.

Thus far, the Wildcats are averaging ten threes per game and shooting 48 percent from the field. At the other end, they enjoy a plus-4 turnover margin while holding their opponents to 38 percent from the field – they beat you with terrific guard play and a harassing defense.

With excellent chemistry and solid contributions from its bench, Nova has a shot to unseat UConn at the top, but will have to work very hard to do so.

West Virginia Mountaineers
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West Virginia is one of my top-five favorite teams to watch. All five guys on the floor can make plays and shots. They play well together, playing hard and with poise.

The Mountaineers are not a very big or overpowering team, nor are they all that deep. And although, they typically get outrebounded, they lead the league in turnover margin and three-pointers made per game. They also assist on 67 percent of their made baskets.

Mike Gansey is one of the best all around wing players in the country and Kevin Pittsnogle is a big guy that really stretches opposing defenses with his perimeter shooting. Add to that Joe Herber, a player who does everything well, and you get a theme that epitomizes this team.