We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we're working backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.
3. BIG EAST
By Jason King, Yahoo! Sports
Year after year, the Big East is regarded as one of the top - if not the top - conferences in college basketball. But recent shortcomings in the NCAA tournament have caused the league to lose a bit of its luster.
It has been six years since a Big East team played in the national championship game. During that same span, the ACC has won three titles, the SEC claimed two and the Big 12 snagged one.
Heck, since Connecticut cut down the nets in 2004, only four Big East schools have even advanced to the Final Four. And, remember, the conference has four more teams (16) than any other Big Six league.
In other words, when it comes to the NCAA tournament, the Big East's recent resume isn't all that dazzling. But that could easily change this season, as at least three Big East teams appear capable of earning a trip to Houston for the Final Four.
Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon is the only Big East coach to have led his program to at least 20 wins and no fewer than 10 conference victories in each of the past seven seasons. But this season's Panthers squad could be Dixon's best. Only one starter (G Jermaine Dixon) is gone off a team that went 25-9. With veterans such as Ashton Gibbs, Gilbert Brown, Travon Woodall and Brad Wanamaker, anything is possible.
Syracuse lost its best player in F Wesley Johnson. And replacing Andy Rautins' leadership and Arinze Onuaku's size won't be easy. Still, with Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim on the bench, the Orange feel confident about their chances of repeating as Big East champions. Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine return in the backcourt, and Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson will be tough to stop down low along with highly touted freshman Fab Melo.
The other Final Four contender should be Villanova, which will have one of the conference's top backcourts in Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher. Also, don't sleep on the Wildcats in the paint. F Antonio Pena is underrated, sophomore Mouphtaou Yarou had become a force by the end of his freshman season and freshman F JayVaughn Pinkston was a McDonald's All-American.
The second tier of Big East teams will be competitive, as well. Georgetown lost standout C Greg Monroe, but the Hoyas boast the league's Preseason Player of the Year in G Austin Freeman. Marquette has one of the top coaches in the country in Buzz Williams, and it doesn't hurt that the Golden Eagles added standout freshman G Vander Blue to a talented cast of returnees.
West Virginia must replace NBA draft picks Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks, but the Mountaineers still should be salty. Notre Dame lost F Luke Harangody, but the tougher job will be replacing PG Tory Jackson.
Looking for a surprise team? Try St. John's or Seton Hall. First-year St. John's coach Steve Lavin inherits a squad that returns all five starters - including standout F D.J. Kennedy - from a 17-16 squad. At Seton Hall, new coach Kevin Willard has brought some structure to a talented team that lacked discipline under Bobby Gonzalez. Both schools have a legitimate chance to earn an NCAA tournament berth.
Traditional powers Connecticut and Louisville are in transition seasons. At Cincinnati, Mick Cronin is fighting to save his job. USF finished an impressive 9-9 in Big East play last season but should regress a bit after losing leading scorer Dominique Jones to the NBA a year early. DePaul and Rutgers are rebuilding under new coaches, while Providence will be forced to deal with a handful of offseason defections that could put the Friars in the Big East cellar.
FACTS AND FIGURES New coaches: Steve Lavin at St. John's (had been an ESPN analyst), Oliver Purnell at DePaul (had been coach at Clemson), Mike Rice at Rutgers (had been coach at Robert Morris), Kevin Willard at Seton Hall (had been coach at Iona)
Regular-season winner last season: Syracuse
Tourney winner last season: West Virginia
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2nd in 2009-10, 4th in 2008-09, 5th in 2007-08
2011 league tournament: March 8-12, New York
MAKING A LIST Best frontcourt: Syracuse. Even with the loss of Arinze Onuaku and Wesley Johnson, the Orange should be strong in the paint. F Rick Jackson is a returning starter who averaged 9.7 points and 7.0 rebounds last season, and Kris Joseph moves into the starting lineup after earning Sixth Man of the Year honors in the Big East last season. Freshman Fab Melo will be the key to determining where Syracuse's frontcourt ranks among the nation's elite. Melo was the 16th-ranked prospect in the Class of 2010.
Best backcourt: Georgetown. The Hoyas believe they have a legitimate shot at the Big East title thanks to the return of Austin Freeman and Chris Wright. The duo combined to average 31.7 points and 6.5 assists last season. Freeman shot 52.5 percent from the field, including 44.4 percent from 3-point range. Wright scored 15.2 points per contest and ranked fifth in the Big East in steals with 1.5 a game. Mix in underrated Jason Clark, and Georgetown edges out Pittsburgh and Villanova for the top backcourt in the conference.
Program on the rise: St. John's. Under new coach Steve Lavin, the Red Storm have a legitimate shot to reach their first NCAA tournament since 2002. St. John's boasts nine seniors and returns all five starters from a squad that finished 17-16 last season. Lavin's squad was picked sixth in the league in the preseason coaches poll. That may be a bit high. But this still should be one of the country's most-improved teams.
Program on the decline: Providence. The Friars lost their final 11 games last season and finished 12-19. Don't be surprised if things get even worse this season. Leading scorer and rebounder Jamine Peterson was kicked off the team during the offseason, and two other players were suspended from school. The biggest challenge for Keno Davis, though, will be improving a defense that ranked 333rd in Division I.
Coach on the rise: Marquette's Buzz Williams. The Golden Eagles haven't missed a beat since Williams took over for Tom Crean two years ago. Despite a lack of height and depth, Marquette finished 22-12 overall and 11-7 in the Big East last season. All but one of the losses came by single digits, and seven of them were by six or fewer points. Bottom line: Williams can coach.
Coach on the hot seat: Cincinnati's Mick Cronin. Even though he inherited a tough situation, Cronin has been a major disappointment for the Bearcats. In four seasons, the former Bob Huggins assistant is just 25-45 in Big East play and has yet to make the NCAA tournament. And thanks to the departures of Deonta Vaughn and Lance Stephenson, Cincinnati probably won't get there this season, either.
Most underrated player: Notre Dame F Tim Abromaitis. He made 42.9 percent of his 3-point attempts and shot 87.3 percent from the free-throw line last season. Abromaitis came up huge when the Fighting Irish lost Luke Harangody to an injury. Now, Abromaitis will attempt to do it one more time for a school that has been to three of the past four NCAA tournaments.