Breaking Down The Big East (Cont.)
3. Notre Dame: Mike Brey brings back the entire starting lineup from last season. The Irish will slow it down, take care of the ball, avoid fouls, and defend while forward Jack Cooley (12.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg) cleans the glass and guards Jerian Grant (12.3 ppg, 5.0 apg) and Eric Atkins (12.1 ppg, 4.1 apg) can hit shots from outside. But this same team couldn't get out of the first round last year. While that's only one game, getting the team's already efficient offense back up to the elite levels -- ranked in the nation's top 22 eight of the previous nine seasons before coming in 45th last year -- and having a real go-to scorer (Grant?) emerge would likely help this unit's second go-round end on a better note.
4. Pittsburgh: Last season was a rare dud for Dixon, resulting in not only the most losses of his tenure (17) but also the Panthers' most since 1995-96. This season should be a return to form, however, with a healthy Tray Woodall and top-50 recruit James Robinson manning the point guard position that gave Pittsburgh such headaches last year while Woodall struggled with a sports hernia. But it's another recruit, Adams, that is the biggest cause for hope. His addition, along with Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler -- a big-time talent who went to the MAC to play for his since-fired father - will be key to restoring the program to where it had grown accustomed to being.
5. Georgetown: Much of the optimism around the Hoyas centers on Otto Porter, which is understandable given the overall strength and late-season surge of his freshman campaign and the increased role he is expected to play with the departures of Jason Clark, Hollis Thompson, and Henry Sims. Georgetown will likely also need quick contributions from newcomers D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, a study scoring guard, and Stephen Domingo, an early-graduating wing, alongside returning forwards Greg Whittington and Nate Lubick and once and future starting point guard Markel Starks. There may be some growing pains with so many players being asked to do more than ever or being new altogether, but Porter and the supporting cast have ample potential and should be tourney-bound.
6. Cincinnati: Yancy Gates' graduation won't help the Bearcats' underwhelming inside presence, but bringing back guards Sean Kilpatrick (14.3 ppg, 37.6 percent from three), Cashmere Wright (10.9 ppg, 4.6 apg, 37.1 percent from three), and Jaquon Parker (9.4 ppg, 37.1 percent from three) means coach Mick Cronin won't have to worry much about his backcourt. The Bearcats have plenty of sizeable options inside -- six players stand 6-7 or taller, three of which are 6-10 or above -- and one or more of them will need to emerge as an option for a team that made just 46.4 percent of its two-point attempts last season.
7. Marquette: This year's Golden Eagles will look different now that conference Player of the Year Jae Crowder and leading scorer Darius Johnson-Odom are gone. While no one on Buzz Williams's current squad is likely to match either player's individual output, there is certainly enough to make a push for the program's eighth straight NCAA tournament. Junior Cadougan (5.4 apg), Vander Blue (8.4 ppg), and Arizona State transfer Trent Lockett (13.0 ppg) make for a quality backcourt whether or not Todd Mayo is reinstated. And if they can keep Chris Otule (knee surgery) and Davante Gardner (knee, conditioning) on the floor alongside Jamil Wilson, they will have quality inside too. A reliable outside scoring threat besides Lockett (41.2 percent from three last year, though on just 51 attempts) would also be a big help.
8. South Florida: Last season's breakthrough was not always pretty given the Bulls' plodding pace, but a program with just three NCAA tournament appearances in its history cares little about style points. Don't expect much different from this year's team, which will miss forward Augustus Gilchrist but still put quality defenders all over the court. The question will be whether Anthony Collins (5.3 apg as a freshman) can generate enough offense.
9. Rutgers: It's been 21 years since the Scarlet Knights' last tournament appearance, a lifetime for most of the current team, but they have an outside chance to get back this season. Four starters return (led by sophomore Eli Carter), last year's top-10 recruiting class is a year older, and former top-20 recruit Wally Judge is eligible after sitting out a year after transferring from Kansas State. A substantial climb up the conference ladder will be difficult, but growing talent and a winnable schedule should make for more fun than Rutgers fans have grown accustomed to in recent years.
10. St. John's: Steve Lavin is cancer-free and back at work full-time, which is good news for more than just basketball reasons. He'll now have a full season to coach the returnees from last year's talented recruiting class, including the Big East's top freshman scorer, D'Angelo Harrison (17.0 ppg), and forward God'sgift Achiuwa (9.4 ppg, 53.4 percent from the floor). After a year plagued by inexperience amid massive roster turnover and a coach fighting for his health, this season should be much more stable, but that will only go so far.
11. UConn: After a rash of departures for the NBA and elsewhere, the cupboard is not exactly full for Ollie's first season as head coach. The Huskies' strength will be their backcourt, where Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright are joined by Brooklyn native Omar Calhoun, but the season will hinge on how some combination of Tyler Olander, Niels Giffey, Enosch Wolf, and newcomer Phillip Nolan handle prominent roles up front. The guards have enough talent to keep the Huskies afloat for the most part and surprise a few teams, yet so much uncertainty and a transitioning coaching staff could make for a difficult and potentially tumultuous season.
12. Villanova: A disappointing 2010-11 gave way to an uncharacteristic bottoming-out last season for Jay Wright and the Wildcats, who then lost Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek early to the NBA draft. Wake Forest transfer Tony Chennault (9.0 ppg last year) and top recruit Ryan Arcidiacono offer quality options at the point, while forwards Mouphtaou Yarou and JayVaughn Pinkston are the team's top returnees. This will be a rebuilding year as Wright tries to get the Wildcats back to where he had them for so long.
13. Providence: Oh, what could have been. The Friars' top three returnees -- guards Vincent Council and Bryce Cotton and forward LaDontae Harrison -- were supposed to be getting big-time support from top hometown recruit Ricky Ledo and fellow top-25 prospect Kris Dunn, both guards. Unfortunately for Providence, Ledo was ruled ineligible for his freshman season and Dunn recently underwent surgery for a torn labrum, which will keep him sidelined into the season and could limit him upon his return or lead to a redshirt season. The addition of Arizona transfer Sidiki Johnson, at least, should help the Friars inside when he becomes eligible midseason.
14. DePaul: Forward Cleveland Melvin (17.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and guard Brandon Young (14.5 ppg) are a pair of quality juniors, but they can't put up enough points to offset the Blue Demons' leaky defense, which ranked 251st nationally and second to last in defensive efficiency in the Big East last season. Oliver Purnell has the program moving in the right direction entering his third season, and while this team could easily improve, moving much farther away from the Big East's cellar might still be a year away.
15. Seton Hall: The NCAA's denial of a hardship waiver for Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs makes replacing the production lost to the graduations of forward Herb Pope and guard Jordan Theodore an even more difficult task than it would have already been. With no seniors on the roster, this team will be young, but a season's experience could serve these Pirates better down the line.
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