October 29, 2009

League preview: Big East

Today, we continue our conference countdown. We're working backward, from our No. 31 league to the top league in the nation.

We started with the low-major leagues, unveiling three per day, and the mid-major leagues, unveiling two per day. Each of the top 12 leagues gets a day to itself.

1. Villanova
2. West Virginia
3. Connecticut
4. Georgetown
5. Louisville
6. Pittsburgh
7. Syracuse
8. Cincinnati
9. Notre Dame
10. Seton Hall
11. Marquette
12. Providence
13. St. John's
14. USF
15. Rutgers
16. DePaul
C Greg Monroe, 6-11/247, Soph., Georgetown
F Da'Sean Butler, 6-7/230, Sr., West Virginia
F Luke Harangody, 6-8/246, Sr., Notre Dame
G Scottie Reynolds, 6-2/190, Sr., Villanova
G Kemba Walker, 6-1/172, Soph., Connecticut
F Devin Ebanks, 6-9/215, Soph., West Virginia
F Lazar Hayward, 6-6/225, Sr., Marquette
G Jeremy Hazell, 6-5/188, Jr., Seton Hall
G Dominique James, 6-4/205, Jr., USF
G Deonta Vaughn, 6-1/190, Sr., Cincinnati
F Luke Harangody, 6-8/246, Sr., Notre Dame
G Lance Stephenson, 6-5/210, Fr., Cincinnati
Regular-season winner last season: Louisville.
Tournament winner last season: Louisville (lost in Midwest Regional final to Michigan State as a No. 1 seed).
2010 conference tournament: March 9-13. Madison Square Garden, New York.
New coaches: None.
Best frontcourt: West Virginia.
Best backcourt: Villanova.
Coach on the rise: Keno Davis, Providence.
Last NCAA title team: Connecticut, 2004.
Last NCAA runner-up: Syracuse, 1996.
Last Final Four appearance: Connecticut and Villanova, 2009.
Last time league received multiple NCAA bids: 2009.
Coaches from the Big East spent most of last season hyping their conference as one of the best in the history of college basketball. While that stance might have been hard to debate in 2008-09, it certainly won't be the case this season.

Key losses at schools such as Pittsburgh, Louisville, Marquette and Connecticut have thrust the Big East into rebuilding mode. The conference certainly won't be bad, but don't expect the league to boast the type of elite, top 10-caliber teams that made it such a force a year ago.

Or at least not as many.

One team that probably won't take a dip is Villanova, which has a legitimate shot of returning to the Final Four for the second consecutive season. The Wildcats lost one of their top players in leading scorer Dante Cunningham, but a backcourt led by Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher will be one of the nation's best.

"It's going to be an interesting challenge to stay humble, stay hungry," coach Jay Wright told reporters. "If we don't [get back to the Final Four], people are going to be down on them. The new guys are coming in thinking 'we're going to the Final Four' because that's what we do. They have no idea what it takes."

West Virginia and Connecticut also believe they have the personnel to contend for the Big East and national title.

Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks give West Virginia two of the top wing players in the country. Connecticut lost standouts Hasheem Thabeet, A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien, but returns a strong cast in Stanley Robinson, Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson.

"Hopefully," coach Jim Calhoun said, "we'll be right back in the mix."

West Virginia: In just his third season, Bob Huggins already has assembled a team that appears more than capable of winning the Big East. Sophomore forward Devin Ebanks is a future NBA lottery pick who might end up being the league's breakthrough player. Da'Sean Butler should be one of the top five scorers in the conference, while National Junior College Athletic Association Player of the Year Casey Mitchell will provide the outside scoring punch that was lost with the graduation of Alex Ruoff. If Huggins can help point guards Darryl "Truck" Bryant and Joe Mazzulla refocus after a series of off-court incidents, the Mountaineers could enjoy a historic season.

USF: Excited as they were about the move two years ago, Bulls fans are now beginning to wonder if the school made the right hire in former Arkansas coach Stan Heath following a 9-22 finish last season. A repeat performance in 2009-10 could spell doom for Heath, especially if things continue to roll for Frank Martin at Kansas State. Martin is a Florida native who would be a perfect fit for the Bulls.

Jerry Wainwright, DePaul: Despite a 0-18 Big East record last season, Wainwright managed to retain his job. This season he won't be so lucky - especially if the Blue Demons don't show marked improvement during what should be a "down year" for the Big East. DePaul should be able to win at least six or seven conference games with players such as Mac Koshwal and Will Walker returning.

Guard Levance Fields, Pittsburgh: The Panthers will turn to Ashton Gibbs to replace the underrated point guard. Gibbs spent a large part of his summer playing for the U.S. team in the FIBA Under-19 World Championship. Even better: The team was coached by Pitt's Jamie Dixon. Gibbs, who can play either guard position, led the Big East with a .439 3-point field goal percentage last season. But with Fields gone, Gibbs' role will expand in 2009-10.

Guard Edgar Sosa, Louisville: Sosa's minutes have decreased in each of his three seasons with the Cardinals, and so have his statistics. He shot 39 percent from the field each of the past two seasons and averaged 7.5 points during that span. Last season he scored in double figures just twice over his last 18 games. With the departures of Earl Clark and Terrence Williams, Sosa needs to step it up big time as a senior.

Guard Mike Rosario, Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights' sophomore averaged a tournament-high 24 points for Puerto Rico during the FIBA U-19 World Championship. The first McDonald's All-American in the history of Rutgers' program, Rosario averaged 16.2 points as a freshman for a squad that won just two Big East games. Scouts love Rosario's ability and that he was coached by one of the top high school coaches in the game in Bob Hurley. It wouldn't be a shock if Rosario entered the NBA draft after the 2009-10 season.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.


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