Big East predicted to be top-heavy this season

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 11:26 PM

The Big East has long been regarded as one of the deepest conferences in college basketball. This season, though, there could be a discernible drop-off after the top three or four teams and the conference's pool of high-end talent seems shallower than in recent years, according to coaches and college basketball analysts.

The consensus top three teams are Syracuse, Villanova and Pittsburgh, though not necessarily in that order. Georgetown, they said, belongs in, but on the periphery of, any conversation about title contenders.

"Those will be the top teams," ESPN and CBS analyst Jay Bilas said. "I think Villanova and Syracuse are going to be the two best [and] Pittsburgh has almost everybody back."

While that's subject to debate, this much is not: Last June, a Big East record-tying 11 players were selected in the NBA draft, including lottery picks Wesley Johnson (Syracuse) and Greg Monroe (Georgetown). And it's possible, if not entirely likely, the 16-team conference won't have a player picked in the lottery next summer.

"It's not as strong as it was two years ago," said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a former coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico. "That's because college basketball runs in cycles. It's like the difference between a baseball player that hits .350 one year and .330 the next. But it's still going to be a strong league."

That strength will come from the Orange, Wildcats, Panthers and perhaps the Hoyas.

Syracuse lost Johnson (the conference player of the year), Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku, or roughly half of its scoring output. But as Jim Boeheim has repeatedly proven during his 34-year tenure, he's as good as anyone when it comes to reloading on the fly.

Forward Rick Jackson and guard Brandon Triche return from a team that went 15-3 in conference play before bowing out to NCAA runner-up Butler in the Sweet 16. Analysts anticipate forward Kris Joseph (Carroll High) and guard Scoop Jardine will break out this season, while Boeheim said he expects freshmen Fab Melo, a 7-foot McDonald's all-American, and guard Dion Waiters to make significant contributions.

"All four are going to play," Boeheim said of his touted freshman class. "C.J. Fair is a very good player and the other guy [Waiters] is really good, too. He's one of the best freshmen guards we've had in a long, long time."

Bilas said of Melo: "He's going to really help that zone [defense] because he's really long armed. So he's going to get a lot of deflections and blocked shots and things like that. At times, when he's not in the right spot, his length is going to be a determining factor in making a play."

Scottie Reynolds, who provided leadership and a team-leading 18.5 points per game for Villanova, used up his eligibility, but Coach Jay Wright has three seniors to lean on: forward Antonio Pena and guards Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher, Reynolds's understudy. The Wildcats also will benefit from a healthy Mouphtaou Yarou, the Montrose Christian product who missed most of his freshman season with hepatitis B, as they seek a seventh straight NCAA tournament bid and to rebound from a second-round loss to Saint Mary's.

"Having a difference maker inside like Yarou, that gives Villanova a dimension they don't normally have," Fraschilla said of the 6-foot-10, 250-pound shot-blocker.

Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon shrugged when asked whether being picked as the conference favorite in the preseason coaches' poll put any additional pressure on his Panthers.

"I didn't feel anyone was taking it easy last year when we were picked ninth," he said. "So I don't think being a target changes anything for us."

If Dixon sounds confident, he's got every reason to be. He has four returning starters, including a back court of Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker, and has established a blue-collar identity the players embrace. With 188 victories, Dixon is tied for the most wins in the first seven seasons of an NCAA coaching career.

Georgetown, meantime, might be the Big East's biggest mystery. Coach John Thompson III has four returning starters, including one of the nation's best back courts in guards Austin Freeman, the Big East preseason player of the year, Chris Wright and Jason Clark. But it remains unclear how, or even if, Thompson's frontcourt-by-committee strategy can offset the loss of Monroe.

"How do you replace a guy who had the size to not only hold his own inside in a physical league, but how do you replace a guy who was the facilitator of the offense?" Fraschilla said. "Who are they going to run the offense through?"

Despite the conference-wide dip in talent, and the expected gap between the top teams and second-tier squads, prognosticators (and recent history) still anticipate the conference will send seven or eight teams to the NCAA tournament.

"You can be one of the top teams in the Big East and finish fifth," Bilas said. "You can also be a Final Four team in that league and finish fifth."

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