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Conference Countdown: No. 3 Big East

Pre-Season Awards

Player of the Year: Corey Fisher, Villanova

Its no secret that Jay Wright runs an offense geared towards back court players, and with Villanova losing a first team all-american with Scottie Reynolds’ graduation, Fisher is in line to be the feature guard. Fisher is a dynamic scorer that can get to the basket, can finish amongst the trees, and, as he proved this summer, is a very good three point shooter. He’s a tough kid from the Bronx, which leaves me with little doubt that he can flourish as a senior leader for a Nova club with a wealth of young talent.

And a close second goes to: Austin Freeman, Georgetown

To be honest, any one of the five players listed below on the Big East’s first team could slide in here, as the top six players in the league seem fairly obvious. Freeman is probably the best of that group, however. At 6'4", 240 lb, Freeman is built more like a linebacker than a shooting guard, but for someone his size, he is nimble, mobile, and athletic. The best aspect of his game is his ability to shoot -- when he gets it going, he is damn near impossible to stop. Ask UConn. Or Louisville. He needs to improve on his ability to get to the rim -- he shot less than 100 free throws last season -- but he has a high basketball IQ and truly understands what is a good shot and what isn’t. Freeman is the perfect guard for JT III’s offense, and should thrive this year.

Breakout Star: Kris Joseph, Syracuse

The last two years, Joseph has come off the bench, playing a role for a team that had legitimate stars -- Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf, Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins. But with that talent off to the NBA (or New Zealand) someone is going to have to fill the void, and Joseph is the perfect player. At 6'7", Joseph is athletic enough to be a dangerous slasher. He can get to the rim, and he can finish once there. He has the length to be a nightmare defensively in the Syracuse zone. If he can add a consistent jump shot, then Joseph seems like a safe bet to be a first round pick whenever he decides to go pro.

All-Conference First Team:

  • POY - Corey Fisher, Villanova, Sr.
  • G - Kemba Walker, UConn, Jr.
  • G - Austin Freeman, Georgetown, Sr.
  • F - Tim Abromaitis, Notre Dame, Sr.
  • F - Kris Joseph, Syracuse, Jr.
  • F - Kevin Jones, West Virginia, Jr.

All-Conference Second Team:

  • G - Chris Wright, Georgetown, Sr.
  • G - Ashton Gibbs, Pitt, Jr.
  • G - Jeremy Hazell, Seton Hall, Sr.
  • F - DJ Kennedy, St. John’s, Sr.
  • F - Jimmy Butler, Marquette, Sr.

Freshman of the Year: Fab Melo, Syracuse

In an era of one-and-done basketball, its pretty amazing that in a 16 team conference, Melo is really the only kid with a chance of being in the NBA in 2011. The seven-foot Brazilian has a pretty good back to the basket game for a player his age and is regarded by a few recruiting outlets as the best center in the class. Playing alongside Rick Jackson and Joseph, the Orange will have a very good front line.

All-Freshman Team:

  • G - Eric Atkins, Notre Dame
  • G - Vander Blue, Marquette
  • G - Dion Waiters, Syracuse
  • F - Roscoe Smith, UConn
  • F - Nate Lubick, Georgetown

What Happened?:

  • NCAA Sanctions: From a basketball perspective, the biggest story in the Big East this summer was up at UConn. The Huskies received a notice of allegations from the NCAA in May, informing them of eight major violations in the recruitment of Nate Miles. UConn will find out its final punishment from the NCAA in October, but the violations have already cost them two assistants -- Beau Archibald and Brad Sellers, the son of former Husky star Rod Sellers. Jim Calhoun avoided the heavy artillery -- getting grazed with a citation for “failure to monitor” the program, which is ironically what the best coaches need to do to succeed.
  • Coaches: The NCAA infractions weren’t the only reason Calhoun was in the news. Ailing health, which isn’t helped by the fact that he is nearing 70, coupled with the impending NCAA sanctions, a team that is going to need some rebuilding, and the fact his contract was up made many believe Calhoun would hang ‘em up this summer. Wrong. He signed a five-year deal instead.

    Calhoun had far from the worst summer for coaches in the Big East. Rick Pitino let the world -- and every single opposing student section -- know about his 15 second tryst on a restaurant table with one Karen Sypher. Bob Huggins fell, a result of being in Vegas the medicine he took on an empty stomach making him light-headed, and broke seven ribs. Fred Hill was run out of Rutgers, in part because he lost it on the Pittsburgh baseball team’s coaching staff.

    Through all of that, perhaps the worst summer was had by Bobby Gonzalez, who lost his job at Seton Hall, had the entire episode come out in the New York Times, sued he former employer, was unable to receive credentials at the NBA Draft, and then go himself arrested for attempting to steal a $1,400 man-purse satchel.

    Perhaps the only coach you can actually feel bad for this summer was Norm Roberts. All Roberts did was St. John’s program and get his kids to play as hard as they could for 40 minutes a game all season long. But he couldn’t win, and thus got the axe. The Johnnies dipped into the ESPN studios and pulled out Steve Lavin, the former UCLA head coach, to make the trip east.

    The four new coaches to the conference: Oliver Purnell left Clemson for DePaul; Mike Rice filled in for Hill at Rutgers, leaving Robert Morris; Steve Lavin replaced Norm Roberts at St. John’s; and Kevin Willard left Iona and took Gonzo’s spot at Seton Hall.

  • LOI’s: Three Big East teams made headlines for issues with LOI’s that they had recruits sign. DePaul initially refused to release Walter Pitchford, Jr., from his LOI. He signed with Jerry Wainwright, who was at DePaul two coaches ago. After appealing both the school and the NCAA, DePaul finally released Pitchford. The same thing is currently happening to Joseph Young at Providence, who as of this writing has not yet been granted a release by Providence. At Marquette, DJ Newbill was dropped from his LOI when Buzz Williams had the opportunity to bring in former top 100 recruit Jamil Wilson, a transfer from Oregon. All in all, Big East members did not shine bright this summer.
  • Back to Providence: Man oh man, did they have a rough summer. Two freshmen kicked out of school for beating up a student. Their star Greedy Peterson thrown off the team. Another player arrested.
  • Seton Hall didn’t fare much better: Aside from their coach being kicked to the curb, the Pirates had their best big man spend nearly a month in the hospital because he collapsed after finishing a workouts and saw Robert “Sticks” Mitchell get arrested for (get this) robbing eight people at gunpoint just two days after being kicked off the team.

What’s Next?

  • Expansion: I’ve had enough expansion talk for the summer, which is why I’m putting it down here. Despite all the rumors and the doomsday scenarios and the possibility of the conference disintegrating (or blowing up to 20, depending on who you asked), we are still here, a 16 team college hoops behemoth. In the future, who knows if that remains true. Do Syracuse, Rutgers, Pitt, and/or UConn go to the Big Ten? Do the Big XII’s remnants -- including the Kansas schools and Baylor -- join the Big East? What about Memphis and Central Florida? Who knows. We’ll save those discussions for next summer.

Power Rankings:

  1. Villanova: While the Wildcats do lose all-american Scottie Reynolds, Jay Wright’s club (as always) will be more than fine in the back court. Corey Fisher, fresh off an alleged 105 point performance in a Bronx summer league, and Maalik Wayns will be as dynamic as any back court in the country and should be able to thrive in Scottie’s absence. Corey Stokes is still going to be a lights out shooter. Dominic Cheek and James Bell, who is out indefinitely with stress fractures, will be dangerous on the wings. Up front, the five-man rotation of Antonio Pena, Mouph Yarou, Isaiah Armwood, Maurice Sutton, and JayVaughn Pinkston gives Villanova a very deep, very talented roster for the upcoming season. The Wildcats should compete for the Big East title and, depending on how well some players develop (Armwood, Cheek, Wayns, Yarou) and how good a couple of freshmen are (Bell, Pinkston), Nova could very well make a run at the Final Four.
  2. Pitt: The Panthers were the surprise of the Big East last season, finishing tied for second in the conference, and the majority of their roster is coming back this season. Pitt has almost reached the level of a Wisconsin -- no matter who is on their roster, this is a team that is disciplined and well coached to the point that they are always going to be competitive. As always, expect a gritty, defensive-minded team from the Panthers. An already solid back court of Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker, and Travon Woodall will be bolstered by the addition of freshmen Isaiah Epps, JJ Moore, and Cameron Wright, as well as Lamar Patterson finally getting healthy. Gilbert Brown, who missed the first half of last season due to academic issues, will be back at the small forward spot. Brown had an inconsistent season in 2010, but showed flashes of some serious potential. Gary McGhee and Nasir Robinson, who will miss the first 10 or so games, will bolster the front line, but the real x-factor on this team is going to be sophomore Dante Taylor. Taylor was one of the most highly touted recruits last year, but it took him a while to adjust to the Big East. If Taylor can live up to his promise, Pitt is a potential Final Four team. If not, this is still a club that will be competing for a league title.
  3. Syracuse: It is easy to look at the Orange and think that, with the players they lost (Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins, Arinze Onuaku), they will be down next season. Well, they might not win a Big East title, but they certainly will be in the mix atop the conference standings. Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine will anchor the back court, with freshman Dion Waiters providing an offensive spark as an off-guard. Kris Joseph should blossom into a dangerous weapon as a slasher on the wing, and if he can add some strength and a jumper this summer, could very well be in the running as a first-team all-Big East selection. Rick Jackson will be paired with Fab Melo, who Boeheim has been raving about (he raved about Wes Johnson last summer, and look how that turned out), in the front court. With guys like CJ Fair, Mookie Jones, and James Southerland providing minutes off the bench, there is no doubt Syracuse will be a good team. How good -- borderline top 25 or a potential Big East champ -- remains to be seen.
  4. Georgetown: Georgetown only lost one player form last season, but it just so happens that one player was Greg Monroe. Without Monroe, the Hoyas are going to rely heavily on their loaded back court of Chris Wright, Jason Clark, and Austin Freeman, which very well could turn out to be the best in the conference. Throw Hollis Thompson into the mix on the perimeter, and the Hoyas have a back court that rivals Duke’s for the best in the country. Julian Vaughn is a solid power forward, and with Henry Sims returning and freshmen Nate Lubick and Moses Abraham coming in, there is some potential up front. This is a deeper group with a different roster makeup than we are used to seeing JT III have. The Hoyas are a tournament team and should compete for a top four spot in the league, especially if one of the big men can become a high post passing threat.
  5. West Virginia: Expect the Mountaineers to have a bit of a different makeup next season. Three of the five players from their all small forward line-up are gone -- Da’Sean Butler, Wellington Smith, and Devin Ebanks. Whereas the ‘Eers were seemingly short of point guards last season, they will be flush this year. Joe Mazzulla may never be a real shooting threat again, but he is a bulldog and a true leader. His ailing shoulder should be as healthy as it ever will be. Truck Bryant, who dealt with some injuries and inconsistencies after a good freshman year, is also back. Noah Cottrill, one of the better point guard recruits in the class of 2010, is built in the same mold but should immediately be the best shooter of the three. The interesting question for Bob Huggins is going to be what happens on the perimeter. Casey Mitchell, who just returned from a suspension for violation of team rules, and Dalton Pepper were both touted as shooters and scorers coming into Morgantown, but neither really lived up to the hype last season. The front court will be fine for WVU. Kevin Jones is a star-in-the-wings at the power forward spot, while Deniz Kilicli should fare much better this season without having to serve a 20 game suspension. With guys like John Flowers, Cam Thoroughman, Danny Jennings, and freshman Kevin Noreen -- who may end up being the best scorer of the bunch -- Huggy Bear has plenty of options up front. WVU loses a lot defensively or on the offensive glass this season, and since they aren’t loaded on the offensive end, for WVU to make the tournament their bigs are going to need to find a way to replace the production of Ebanks, Smith, and Butler.
  6. Marquette: Don’t be surprised if you see predictions that the Golden Eagles will be down this season. Yes, they lost Lazar Hayward. Yes, Mo Acker and David Cubillan graduated. But, as we should come to expect from the Golden Eagles these days, Marquette will have on of the the best back courts in the conference come season’s end. Darius Johnson-Odom is one of the best shooters in the country, and will get quite a few more looks with Lazar Hayward in the NBA. Junior Cadougan is a bulldog at the point and should be much improved now that he is healthy. Vander Blue is a consensus top 40 recruit that is athletic, attacks the rim, and plays a tough, aggressive brand of basketball. Marquette also returns the streaky Dwight Buycks. The Golden Eagles are going to be thin up front, which means they need Jimmy Butler to continue to develop for his senior year. Keep an eye on Juco transfer Jae Crowder as well. Marquette is once again going to have a short bench and play small ball, but with that back court, they will be able to compete.
  7. Seton Hall: Seton Hall is the x-factor in the Big East this season. They got rid of Bobby Gonzalez. They have a very good back court. Jeremy Hazell, who may be the best returning scorer in the conference, returns for his senior season. He’ll play along side Jordan Theodore, an underrated point guard who will get a chance to be the ‘man’ with Eugene Harvey’s graduation. Keon Lawrence (the talented but enigmatic Missouri transfer), Jamel Jackson (a streaky shooter who hit 12 threes in a game last season), and freshman Fuquan Edwin should all see significant minutes. Eniel Polynice, the Ole Miss transfer, will be eligible immediately and could sneak into the Pirate starting line up. At 6'5", Polynice is more of a defender, a slasher, and a creator and should really complement Hazell well. Up front, Seton Hall is going to be thin even if Herb Pope is cleared. If he’s not, Jeff Robinson, who pulled his name out of the NBA Draft, and Ferrakhan Hall will be the only returnees on a young, inexperienced front line. If Pope, who averaged a double-double last season, returns, Seton Hall has all the pieces they need to make a run at a spot in the top four of the league. The question is whether new head coach Kevin Willard can fit all those pieces together. Hazell doesn’t understand the concept of team basketball or what a good shot is. Pope was ejected from the NIT last year for punching a Texas Tech player below the belt. Four players have transferred in from different colleges. This is a talented group, but if there is no chemistry, it could be another disappointing season.
  8. Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish have their work cut out for them this season, as they will be losing Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson. Mike Brey’s club will count heavily on their front line next season, which is headlined by last season’s second-leading scorer Tim Abromaitis. Scott Martin, a Purdue transfer who tore his acl before the season started, will be back after sitting out the past two years. One guy I expect to have a big season is Carleton Scott, a senior that nearly left the program before finding a groove as he moved into the starting lineup when Gody got injured. Ty Nash and Jack Cooley complete the front line rotation. In the back court, its going to be Ben Hansbrough and a lot of inexperience. After Hansbrough, the Irish return just 30 games played of experience with Joey Brooks and Tom Kopko combined, and add three freshman to the mix. Eric Atkins, a freshman point guard, should see time immediately and is probably the best of that group. Notre Dame made a run to the NCAA Tournament last season by changing their style, slowing the pace, and becoming a defensively oriented group. Will there be more of the same this season?
  9. St. John’s: St. John’s is in a good position for new head coach Steve Lavin as the Johnnies are loaded with seniors. Ten, to be exact, with eight expected to see significant minutes in the Johnnies rotation. This group isn’t just experienced, either, they are fairly talented as well. DJ Kennedy is as underrated as anyone in the league, averaging 15 points, 6 boards, and 3 assists last year. Dwight Hardy (who can heat up as quickly as anyone in the league, save Jeremy Hazell), Paris Horne, and Malik Boothe make up the rest of the Johnnies back court. Anthony Mason, Jr., graduated, but with Justin Brownlee, Sean Evans, Justin Burrell, and Rob Thomas all returning, Lavin will have a lot of big, athletic bodies at his disposal. The x-factor may end up being freshman Dwayne Polee, a 6'7" bean pole with athleticism for days. Norm Roberts had his flaws as a coach, but one thing he got his club to do was to play all out for 40 minutes. If Lavin can get this group to defend and hit the glass, they have the experience, the depth, and a legitimate first-team all-conference player. This is the year for St. John’s to make a run at the tournament. When this class leaves, it may be a while before they are back in the mix.
  10. UConn: The Huskies once again lost a ton of talent, as Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson, and Gavin Edwards all graduated from a team that disappointed many fans in Connecticut. Returning is Kemba Walker, the Huskies lightening quick point guard, as well as big man Alex Oriakhi, who had a solid, if unspectacular, freshman campaign. But beyond that, UConn has no proven or reliable pieces returning. Jamal Coombs-McDaniel was inconsistent. Charles Okwandu haven’t lived up to expectations and Ater Majok left school to sign a pro contract. Donnell Beverly is a solid back court player, but is not a starter in the Big East. Calhoun was able to land Roscoe Smith, a very highly regarded wing that should be able to take over for Robinson. The other two freshman -- Jeremy Lamb an Shabazz Napier -- are top 100 recruits that will replace Darius Smith and Jamaal Trice, last year’s duo of top 100 freshman that transferred out. UConn has some solid pieces in Walker, Oriakhi, and Smith, but unless some depth and balance develops, the Huskies are looking at another disappointing year.
  11. Louisville: Now that they are past the trial of the century in Kentucky, the Cardinals now actually have a college basketball season to prepare for. And preparing for it is going to be tougher than you think. Gone are starters Edgar Sosa, Jerry Smith, and Reginald Delk. Gone is their rock in the post, as Samardo Samuels went pro to support his family. For those scoring at home, that means that Louisville will be losing their top three scorers and four players that started at least 26 games. Then, consider that Roburt Sallie was not allowed to transfer in from Memphis, Justin Coleman did not get cleared, and Jared Swopshire and Russ Smith are injured. At least they were allowed to bring in freshman Gorgui Deng. That’s tough to overcome when you aren’t bringing in Kentucky’s recruiting class. That said, there is still talent on this roster. Terrence Jennings and Jared Swopshire have all sorts of potential on the front line, Peyton Siva -- as well as Preston Knowles -- should be able to showcase his ability in a featured role in the back court. And with guys like Kyle Kuric, Mike Marra, and Raheem Buckles, there are capable role players who have shown flashes of potential. Louisville will need to catch a few breaks to make the tournament.
  12. South Florida: The Bulls are going to have a big time front court this season. Augustus Gilchrist, when healthy (he missed about half the season last year), is an absolute force in the paint. Jarrid Famous is 6'11", 240 lb, athletic, and has shoulders as broad as Dwight Howard’s. Stan Heath also has two more-than-adequate backups in Toarlyn Fitzpatrick and Ron Anderson, who is now eligible after transferring in from Kansas State. The issue for the Bulls is going to be in the back court. Dominique Jones, Chris Howard, and Mike Mercer are all gone, which means that the Bulls lost over 40 ppg and their three best creators. Remember, this is a team that struggled to score at times last season. In two Big East tournament games, the only three the Bulls hit came from a walk-on in garbage time. Anthony Crater, the Ohio State transfer, is the only returner in the back court that played any kind of significant minutes. Beyond Crater, there are a couple walk-ons, a couple JuCo transfers, and a couple freshmen. USF may be able to make a run at a finish in the top half of the league and, possibly, a trip to the NCAA Tournament if they can become a staunch defensive team and find someone that can score and create in their back court. That is a very big “if”, however.
  13. Cincinnati: The Bearcats are going to be in trouble next season. With Deonta Vaughn graduating and Lance Stephenson off to the NBA Draft, Mick Cronin is going to be left without any real perimeter scoring threats. Point guard Cashmere Wright, a top 100 recruit in 2008 that tore his acl before playing a game, will be counted on heavily to be a playmaker. Cinci does have a big front line, headlined by potential all-Big East center Yancy Gates, and with the number of big, strong wings they have, Cronin is going to need to rely on his club’s rebounding and defensive toughness, because they certainly will struggle to score this season.
  14. Providence: The Friars have had a disastrous offseason. They lost assistant coach Pat Skerry, which cost them a top 100 recruit in Naadir Tharpe. They saw their best player, Greedy Peterson, get booted out of school along with freshmen Johnnie Lacy and James Still. Then, Kadeem Batts, a redshirt freshman, was arrested outside a club. All this happened while Joseph Young has been trying to get out of his letter of intent so he can attend college closer to an ailing aunt. Currently, 12 of the 15 players listed on the Providence roster are underclassmen, including nine freshmen. There are a couple of bright spots for the Friars. Senior Marshon Brooks is an underrated scorer as an off-guard, and sophomores Bilal Dixon, Vincent Council, and Duke Mondy showed flashes of potential during the season, but don’t expect much out of Keno Davis’ club this year.
  15. Rutgers: There was quite a bit of turnover in Piscataway this summer. Gone is Fred Hill, replaced by Mike Rice, who nearly led 15th seeded Robert Morris to an upset of Villanova in the NCAA Tournament. Mike Rosario and Gregory Echenique, the Scarlet Knights’ two best scorers, transferred to Florida and Creighton, respectively. Hamady Ndiaye graduated. What’s left? Well, sophomore Dane Miller was a unanimous selection to the Big East’s all-rookie team. Jonathon Mitchell, who averaged 11.8 ppg and 6.1 rpg, returns for his senior season. But beyond that, there isn’t much talent on this roster, and this freshman class isn’t going to be coming to the rescue. The future is bright with new head coach Mike Rice recruiting like a maniac, but this year will be another long season for Rutgers, even if they do get Kadeem Jack midway through the year.
  16. DePaul: DePaul is not going anywhere this season. Gone is Mac Kowshal. Gone is Will Walker. How bad has it gotten for the Blue Demons? The most noise they made this summer was when they refused to release Walter Pitchford, Jr., from his LOI, and when they were able to land a visit -- not a commitment, simply a visit -- from Chicago native Anthony Davis. DePaul was able to land Cleveland Melvin, who was originally a UConn commit, however most believe him to be a stretch for the Big East. Oliver Purnell was known for his hot starts to a season at Clemson. The Big East may not be as friendly.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.