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Big East Conference rebuilding on the run

| Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009

The Big East isn't such a beast this season.

One year after it record-breaking season of NCAA men's basketball dominance, the mega-conference is just one of the guys.

Just another major conference with a handful of top-25 teams. Nothing special.

"It's not the No. 1 conference in college basketball this year," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "I think the Big Ten will be the best conference this year."

Ouch.

A gifted, experienced senior class and some high-profile early NBA defections tapped the 16-team Big East of most of its star power heading into the 2009-10 season.

Pitt lost four starters, including NBA-bound Sam Young and DeJuan Blair; Syracuse watched Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf turn pro as underclassmen; Louisville bid goodbye to lottery picks Terrence Williams and Earl Clark; Connecticut lost Hasheem Thabeet, Jeff Adrien and A.J. Price; Marquette moves on without its trio of four-year starters (Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James); and Providence packed up four 1,000-point scorers.

"There is no question we are younger," new Big East commissioner John Marinatto told a jammed room of coaches, players and reporters at last week's annual Media Day at Madison Square Garden, "but we are more balanced."

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose team received its highest rank in the program's history (second) in the 2009-10 Big East preseason coaches poll, said the conference will regress for no other reason than it couldn't go up from last season.

"We're going to take a step back," he said. "We're probably now just the best league in the country rather than the best league in the history of college basketball. That's a step back."

An argument can be made that last season the Big East was, in fact, the best conference in NCAA history.

No other conference had ever achieved some of the Big East's conquests.

• Three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament (Louisville, Pitt and Connecticut).

• Four teams with at least 30 wins (Louisville, Connecticut, Pitt and Villanova). No conference ever had more than two 30-win teams in the same season.

• Five teams reached the Sweet Sixteen.

• Four teams reached the Elite Eight.

• Nine teams ranked in the same Associated Press Top 25 poll (Jan. 5).

Remarkably, seven different Big East teams were ranked in the top 10 at some point during the 2008-09 season, highlighted by Pitt at No. 1 for the first time.

"We probably won't have that this year," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "But that doesn't mean we're not going to be a good league. We're going to be a very good league."

There were individual honors to go with last year's successes. Six players were named to an AP All-America team (Blair, Young, Thabeet, McNeal, Williams and Notre Dame's Luke Haragody, who withdrew his name from the NBA draft this past summer and is one of the few decorated players returning to the conference this season).

Only once were more than three Big East players named All-Americans in the same year (four in 1996).

Pro scouts took notice. Nine players were picked in the 2009 NBA draft, the second most in conference history (11 in 2006).

The Big East's youth is reflected in this season's preseason polls. Villanova, the preseason favorite, is the only consensus top-10 team in the league. The Wildcats bring back guard Scottie Reynolds (another player who withdrew his name from the draft to return for his senior year).

West Virginia is a top-10 team in most polls, while Georgetown and Connecticut are in the bottom third of ESPN.com's preseason poll.

"I guarantee there's going to be a team that's picked not at the very top that's going to surprise some people and be a top-20, top-10 team," Providence coach Keno Davis said.

Georgetown sophomore center Greg Monroe, a first-team preseason all-Big East selection, believes the widespread departures will provide a chance for talented — albeit lesser known — players.

"I think this year will just be new stars," he said. "A lot of great players left last year, but I don't think it's taking a step back. We still have a lot of great teams."

Added Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates, "The Big East recruits a lot of great players. The player on the bench could be just as good as the player on the court, but just maybe not as experienced."

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon will have to find four new starters, but he draws on a promising freshman class led by McDonald's All-American Dante Taylor, a 6-foot-9 forward.

"Guys evolve," Dixon said. "When they are put in a situation, they often times step up."

So, who are the candidates to shine in the new-look Big East• It's a mixture of established players, underclassmen with increased roles and incoming freshmen with star potential.

Some of the top veterans are Haragody, Reynolds, Da'Sean Butler of West Virginia, Deonta Vaughn of Cincinnati, Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson of Connecticut, Lazar Hayward of Marquette, Jeremy Hazell of Seton Hall and Sharaud Curry of Providence.

No one will confuse that list with last season's Big East senior class. Of the current group, Robinson is the only projected 2010 first-round draft pick (No. 25 overall), according to NBAdraft.net .

The stars who will help the Big East rebuild on the run are sophomores. Players such as Monroe and West Virginia forward Devin Ebanks, who are projected lottery picks in the 2010 NBA draft; forwards Gates and Samardo Samuels of Louisville; and guards Kemba Walker of Connecticut and Mike Rosario of Rutgers.

"They aren't (household names) right now," Boeheim said of the league's rising stars. "But they will be. At the end of the year, they will be."

Some of the new faces are Pitt's Taylor; Cincinnati five-star recruit Lance Stephenson, who was voted Big East preseason Rookie of the Year; Connecticut forward Alex Oriakhi; Louisville guard Peyton Siva; and Villanova guards Dom Cheek and Maalik Wayns.

Then, there's former Aliquippa star Herb Pope, who will play at Seton Hall this year after sitting out last season following a transfer from New Mexico State; and Syracuse forward Wesley Johnson, an all-Big East caliber talent who arrived from Iowa State.

"I think that's why the Big East has been the best league," said Marquette coach Buzz Williams, who welcomes two first-team Juco All-America guards. "When they lose really good players, they replace them with really good players. The conference may be younger, but it's not a step back as it relates to talent."

Elite Eight

Here are some of the star players, both current and future, in the Big East, in order of class.

Da'Sean Butler, 6-7, Sr., F, West Virginia — He's not flashy, but good enough to pour 43 on 'Nova last season

Luke Harangody, 6-8, Sr., F, Notre Dame — Joins Patrick Ewing as only multiple Big East preseason Player of the Year

Scottie Reynolds, 6-2, Sr., G, Villanova — Love him or hate him, he's consummate leader for Big East favorite

Devin Ebanks, 6-9, So., F, West Virginia — NBA scouts are drooling over this '09 Big East all-Rookie selection

Greg Monroe, 6-11, So., C, Georgetown — With Blair and Thabeet gone, he's the premier Big East big man

Kemba Walker, 6-1, So., G, Connecticut — Quickest guard in the league takes over full time at the point for Huskies

Dante Taylor, 6-9, Fr., F, Pitt — Arguably the league's top frosh, he will anchor all-new Panthers frontline.

Lance Stephenson, 6-5, Fr., G, Cincinnati — Five-star NYC phenom gives experienced Bearcats another weapon.

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