Big East Primer: UConn could make run at back-to-back national titles
Jeremy Lamb's improvement was an important factor in UConn's title run
If DePaul can improve, Cleveland Melvin could emerge as a breakout player
UConn, Syracuse and Pittsburgh will all be major players in the Big East
In preparation for the 2011-12 college hoops season, SI.com breaks down the best of the best in each of the six major conferences. Seth Davis serves up his picks for Player of the Year, breakout candidate and more for the Big East.
Jeremy Lamb, UConn
The Big East coaches selected Pittsburgh guard Ashton Gibbs as the league's preseason POY, but there's no question that Lamb is the more talented player. For all the much-deserved credit that Kemba Walker received for UConn's title run, it would not have happened without Lamb's improvement. His 15.3 points per game in the postseason was more than four points higher than his output during the regular season. Lamb also shot 51 percent from three-point range in the postseason and averaged 4.5 rebounds. With Walker having moved on, Lamb is ready to be the Huskies' alpha dog.
Andre Drummond, UConn
When Drummond announced in August that he was foregoing his final year of prep school to attend UConn, he transformed the Huskies from a quality team to a national championship favorite. Drummond is the best big man to come out of high school since Greg Oden in 2006. Though he is raw offensively (it's best to look away when he's on the foul line), Drummond is big, strong and athletic, and he's a terrific passer to boot. I expect Drummond to have an All-America-type of season and then be one of the top two picks in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Cleveland Melvin, DePaul
The Blue Demons finished last in the Big East with a 1-17 record last season, so you can be forgiven if you missed the news that Melvin was the league's Rookie of the Year. Melvin entered the starting lineup in late February and steadily got better. He was ranked sixth in the Big East in scoring in conference games (17.4 ppg) and was third in offensive rebounding at 3.3. Melvin worked hard over the summer to add 30 pounds of muscle to his slight frame. If DePaul is able to be more competitive, Melvin will become a household name.
That is Villanova's record in February and March over the last two years. The Wildcats ended the 2010-11 season with six consecutive losses, and after losing three starters, their prospects for a better finish this year are dim.
Based on future pro prospects, the Huskies have the top two players in the Big East in Lamb and Drummond. They also have much more. Junior forward Alex Oriakhi is a monster rebounder (9.6 rpg), sophomore point guard Shabazz Napier is a fierce ball hawk (1.6 steals per game), and a bevy of freshmen and sophomores are bursting with potential. UConn is a far more likely contender for an NCAA title than it appeared to be at this time last year.
The Orange lost just one starter (forward Rick Jackson) from last season, and they have added two McDonald's All-Americans in 6-foot-5 guard Michael Carter-Williams and 6-9 forward Rakeem Christmas. Their chances of surpassing UConn, however, will be determined mostly by how their upperclass perimeter nucleus of Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph performs.
Is this the season the Panthers finally break through and make their first Final Four? Could be, thanks mostly to Gibbs' decision to withdraw his name from the NBA Draft. Dante Taylor, a 6-9 junior forward, has been a bit of a disappointment thus far, but he could be headed for a breakout season. The presence of 6-9 freshman Khem Birch, who is arguably the best player Jamie Dixon has ever recruited, will help immensely.
The Cardinals were one of the nation's most overachieving teams last season despite a rash of injuries that shortened their bench. Now, Rick Pitino's roster goes 16 deep. The most important of those is junior point guard Peyton Siva, who takes over for the graduated Edgar Sosa, but the front line will also be bolstered by the arrival of 6-7 freshman Chane Behanan.
5. Notre Dame
The Irish may have lost three starters, including Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough, from the squad that almost earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but the cupboard is far from bare. Mike Brey has spent the last few years setting up a system that fills his lineup with older players, and he has two good ones to lead the way this season in fifth-year seniors Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin. Sophomore point guard Eric Atkins should also show improvement.
Point guard Vander Blue had lofty expectations coming out of high school, but he failed to meet them. Now a 6-4 sophomore, Blue is hopefully ready to spearhead an offense that will get most of its scoring punch from 6-2 senior Darius Johnson-Odom and 6-6 senior Jae Crowder.
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