Big East Primer (Cont.)
Mick Cronin has made steady and impressive progress since taking over at Cincinnati six years ago. This is likely to be his best team. The Bearcats return their leading scorer and rebounder from last year, 6-9 junior forward Yancy Gates, as well as their starting backcourt of 6-foot sophomore Cashmere Wright and 6-3 senior Dion Dixon.
8. West Virginia
The Mountaineers return four starters from last year's 21-12 squad, most notably 6-8 senior Kevin Jones, who entered his name in the NBA Draft but withdrew after participating in several workouts. Whether this team reaches the upper tier of the Big East will depend on how quickly it gets contributions from its six freshmen and one junior college transfer.
The Wildcats bade farewell to the Coreys (Stokes and Fisher), but given that those guys never seemed to jell last season (partly because of injuries), that might not be such a bad thing. Maalik Wayns, a 6-2 junior, will take the reins as full-time point guard. Two other juniors, 6-6 guard Dominic Cheek and 6-10 center Mouphtao Yarou, have a lot of upside, but the most intriguing player will be 6-7 forward JayVaughn Pinkston, who was suspended for most of his freshman season because of his role in an off-campus altercation.
If the Hoyas want to accelerate the timetable under which they'll stop being known primarily as the team that got into a fight in China this summer, they need to win early and often. Unfortunately, that will not be easy following the departures of Austin Freeman and Chris Wright. Jason Clark, a 6-2 senior, could have a hard time adjusting to life as a lead guard. If there's one player who could help this team exceed expectations, it's 6-9 sophomore Nate Lubick, a blue-collar glue guy who started 13 games last season.
Mike Rice has been making waves on the recruiting circuit, but his six-man freshman class is not ready to do damage inside this physical conference. In the meantime, Rutgers could use a big year from 6-6 junior swingman Dane Miller, who took a step back last season after being named to the Big East's all-rookie team in 2009-10.
12. St. John's
Steve Lavin knew he would be facing a massive rebuilding job in his second year at St. John's, following the graduation of the nine-man senior class who finally got the Red Storm back to the NCAA tournament. Lavin brought in a highly-rated rookie class, but he suffered a setback in August when St. John's announced that three of those freshmen -- 6-6 forward Amir Garrett, 6-7 forward Jakarr Sampson and 6-10 center Norvel Pelle -- would be academically ineligible for the first semester.
13. Seton Hall
The bad news is that Jeremy Hazell, who last season became just the third player in school history to eclipse the 2,000-point career mark, is gone. The good news is that now someone else might be permitted to shoot the ball once in a while. Kevin Willard's Pirates will be anchored by their inside-outside senior combo of 6-foot guard Jordan Theodore and 6-8 forward Herb Pope. Willard will also rely heavily on his six freshmen, which is not usually a formula for success in the Big East.
Second-year coach Oliver Purnell can look on the bright side: There's nowhere to go but up. Besides the rapidly-improving Cleveland Melvin, the Blue Demons are also returning 6-3 sophomore guard Brandon Young, who averaged 12.6 points per game before missing the final four games of the season with an injury. If DePaul is going to take a step forward, it will have to begin at the defensive end, where the Blue Demons ranked last in the conference in both scoring defense (76.7) and field goal percentage defense (76.7).
15. South Florida
Stan Heath could use a quality season as he enters his fifth year at South Florida, but unfortunately that will be hard to produce without his incumbent point guard, Anthony Carter, who was dismissed in May for violating team rules. Senior forward Augustus Gilchrist will need to improve on his averages of 13.4 points and 6.0 rebounds.
New coach Ed Cooley, a Providence native, made an immediate splash on the recruiting trail this fall by garnering commitments from two of the nation's best high school guards in Kris Dunn and Ricardo Ledo. That should keep Friars fans warm during what is sure to be a cold and dreary winter. Providence was just 4-14 in the Big East last season and it lost senior guard Marshon Brooks, who was the nation's second-leading scorer.