5. West Virginia
Last Year: 31-7, 13-5 BE
Gains: Noah Cottrill, Kevin Noreen, David Nyarsuk, Darrious Curry
The Mountaineers never really impress you with skill. However, they always seem to get the job done with execution on the offensive end, there’s never a moment they aren’t hustling and oh yeah, they also play terrific defense. Their hard working nature is part of the reason that they made the Final Four a year ago, dispatching #1 Kentucky in the process. Their losses are great: Da'Sean Butler was one of the best ever at WVU, and Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith fit that team to a 'T'. Despite the subtractions to the current Mountaineers squad, I think Bob Huggins will make the sum greater than the parts.
The Mountaineers return Darryl "Truck" Bryant and Joe Mazzulla (yes, he's still there) at the point guard position, plus they add the best high school player in West Virginia to that group in Noah Cottrill. Cottrill adds what the other two don't have in a pure shooting touch. He also has a West Virginia motor and is an excellent ball-handler.
Also returning are multi-faceted forward Kevin Jones (above), the ultra-tough Deniz Kilicli, shooters Dalton Pepper and Casey Mitchell, and hustle guy Cam Thoroughman. To that, Huggins adds power forward Kevin Noreen, wing player Darrious Curry, and lean 7'1" center David Nyarsuk to complete a roster that is deep at the point and in the post.
The Mountaineers will miss Butler's scoring and Smith's smarts, but they will still be extremely long on defense, and will win games that way rather than out-scoring their opponents.
Last Year: 25-8, 13-5 BE
Gains: James Bell, Jayvaughn Pinkston
There was some change this summer at "Guard-U." Scottie Reynolds, All-American and crunch-time scorer extraordinaire, not to mention the face of the program, is gone. So is Reggie Redding (the Wildcats' best perimeter defender) and Taylor King (arguably 'Nova's toughest player from a year ago).
What remains, however, is a solid corps of guards, led by a new team leader in Corey Fisher. Also returning to that group are the ever-efficient Corey Stokes, and the exciting sophomore duo of Dominic Cheek and Maalik Wayns (above). The frontcourt remains largely intact from last year's squad, with one big new addition in McDonald's All- American, Jayvaughn Pinkston. Pinkston is the perfect forward for Jay Wright's system as he’s tough and versatile. He should replace some of the toughness that King brought last year with a more diverse offensive game once he gets his feet wet.
Bell, meanwhile, could be one of the more underrated players to come into the Big East this year. He also has a diverse offensive game that includes 3-point range and a strong drive to the basket with very good athleticism. He has the talent to contribute right away.
The Wildcats will miss Reynolds' ability to score in the clutch, but it's Fisher's team now, and I have a hunch that he'll really become a star this year because of the increased leadership. He's always been electric and with the addition of the freshman Pinkston, I believe the Wildcats will have enough for a top 5 conference finish.
(P.S.- Fisher recently scored 105 points in a summer league game. Need I say more?)
Last Year: 25-9, 13-5 BE
Losses: Jermaine Dixon
Gains: J.J. Moore, Cameron Wright, Isaiah Epps
The Panthers were the other surprise team in the Big East last season. Coming off an Elite-8 appearance, they lost all of their Big 3 (Levance Fields, DeJuan Blair, Sam Young) and were predicted to drop in the standings. That drop was absent over the course of the season, thanks in large part to the sweet-shooting Ashton Gibbs (above), who became a bona-fide star for Jamie Dixon. They had several players step up to offset the 3 big losses, including Travon Woodall, Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, and Gary McGhee.
This speaks volumes about Jamie Dixon as one of the best coaches in the conference, not to mention the nation. Coming into the fold is another great recruiting class consisting of 3 guards: versatile and a highly skilled wing in J.J. Moore, slasher Cameron Wright, and quick point guard Isaiah Epps. Returning are the aforementioned players, plus big men Dante Taylor, Nasir Robinson and J.J. Richardson.
The Panthers therefore have depth at every position, and in the hands of Dixon, they shouldn't surprise anyone by finishing in the top 5 this season. Keep an eye out for their games with their arch-rivals, the West Virginia Mountaineers, the last game went into triple-OT with the Panthers emerging victorious. They seem to bring out the best in each other. Who wouldn't want to watch that?
Last Year: 28-11, 10-8 BE
Losses: Greg Monroe
Gains: Nate Lubick, Markel Starks, Moses Abraham, Aaron Bowen
Yes, the Hoyas have been extremely inconsistent the past two seasons, but they were a young team overall in both of those seasons. This year, the Hoyas lost Greg Monroe, but they return pretty much everyone from last year's squad, in addition to a stellar recruiting class. Even though the strength of the school they call "Big Man-U" has historically been their post play, this year guards Austin Freeman (above) and Chris Wright will be the leaders of the team instead of the X-factors (as Wright was last year).
Because they add four players while subtracting only one, the depth issues that the Hoyas had last year won't be as much of an issue. Nate Lubick is a very skilled forward who, once he learns John Thompson's intricate system, should contribute every night. Markel Starks is garnering a lot of excitement around the fans of the Hoyas as they've nicknamed him, "The Stark Plug." I believe that he'll be the change-of-pace 6th man that every team likes to have. Abraham is very raw on the offensive end, but should step in on defense and be fine, while Bowen gives them another shooter.
The Hoyas will be extremely dangerous because they have every piece that a contender needs on the roster for a late March run: Superstar (Freeman), Near-Superstar (Wright), Post Players (Wright, Henry Sims, Jerelle Benimon, Lubick), Post Defenders (Abraham) and Shooters (Bowen and Hollis Thompson along with Jason Clark and Freeman). They are still on the young side, but if the post players can collectively bring what Monroe brought last season, watch out.
Last Year: 30-5, 15-3 BE
Gains: Fabricio Melo, Dion Waiters, Baye Moussa Keita, C.J. Fair
Jim Boeheim is pretty much always right about his teams, and last year showed us a great example. Before last season, I along with so many others believed Syracuse would drop in the standings following the losses of Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris. We all thought wrong, as the Orange marched through the season, garnering 30 wins before falling in the NCAA Tournament to eventual national runner-up Butler.
Before the season, Boeheim was singing the praises of a rare transfer from Iowa State who would contribute immediately. Over the course of the year, Wesley Johnson went from relative unknown to superstar and the 4th pick in the NBA Draft as Syracuse took first place in the conference to the surprise of everyone, but Boeheim.
This year, the Orange lost a lot with Rautins and Onuaku alongside Johnson, but just like last year, Boeheim has a potential ace up his sleeve in Brazilian 7-footer Fabricio "Fab" Melo. The big man has a wingspan of 87 inches (EIGHTY-SEVEN INCHES. That's a 7-footer with a 7-foot wingspan. I get chills just thinking about it), and Boeheim has suggested that he will start for the Orange right away. With that kind of length, Melo should be a terror in that old Syracuse 2-3. In addition, Boeheim also speaks of a very good offensive game out of Melo and barring injury, he should take the conference by storm.
The Orange also bring back Kris Joseph, who will most likely make the leap from important piece to star of this club. His size makes him a nightmare to defend off the dribble, which resulted in his extremely high free throw rate; he drew 4.7 fouls per 40 minutes last year, leading the team in free throws attempted in the process.
With Joseph and Melo, along with Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine (above), and Rick Jackson plus the rest of the excellent recruiting class (scoring guard Dion Waiters and big men Baye Moussa Keita and C.J. Fair), the Orange should be at the top of the conference. The only question I have is who is going to emerge as the prototypical Syracuse 3-point shooting threat, but something tells me that Boeheim will find one (early candidates are Jardine and the little-used Mookie Jones, by the way).
Phew! Now that I've done that, I'm even more excited! If only it would get here sooner...