BIG EAST PROGNOSTICATIONS
The conference slate couldn't get off to a better start on Monday when UConn takes on Pittsburgh at the Petersen Events Center. This has become one of the Big East's best rivalries over the past several years. Who could forget two seasons ago, when DeJuan Blair flipped Hasheem Thabeet over his back (and Thabeet was called for the foul), and Pitt handed UConn two of its three regular-season losses before being bounced from the NCAA tourney in the Elite Eight while the Huskies cruised to the Final Four.
It should be another showdown on Monday. I expect the Panthers to win the game, but I think UConn will keep it close. Let's say Pitt wins, 87-81.
Even if the Huskies lose, it won't derail what should be a nice season. Obviously, a 10-0 start, with wins over Michigan State and Kentucky, and a national No. 4 ranking bode well. Are the Huskies really the fourth-best team in the country? I don't think so. They may not even be the fourth-best team in the Big East. But I like their chances of having a strong season and making a nice run in the NCAA tourney.
Why? Two reasons: Kemba Walker and Jim Calhoun.
With these two leaders, I don't see UConn losing too many games it shouldn't lose, while it'll win some games it might not be favored to win. The biggest concern is Walker getting worn down during the grind of the Big East. He's not the biggest, strongest guy in the world, obviously, and if teams continue to harass him and throw junk defenses at him and essentially force him to play 37, 38 hard minutes every night, it will take its toll.
That's why I envision UConn hitting a rut somewhere in the middle of the season -- maybe that Villanova-Tennessee-Marquette-Louisville-Syracuse stretch from Jan. 22 to Feb. 2. Maybe PC-Georgetown-Louisville-Marquette from Feb. 13-24. Somewhere in there, I see a few double-digit losses.
But I also believe that, because of Walker and Calhoun, this is a team that can make runs in tournaments -- both the Big East (finally) and the Big Dance. What makes a good tourney team, after all? Guard play, leadership and good coaching. UConn's got all three.
Anyway, here's how I see the Big East playing out this season:
1. Pittsburgh (14-4) Befitting of their city, Panthers are toughest defensive, rebounding team in conference.
2. Syracuse (13-5) The Orange's 2-3 zone is always long, but this year's overall team wing span is ridiculous.
3. Georgetown (13-5) Has anyone ever seen Chris Wright and Jamie Foxx in the same room together?
4.UConn (12-6) Junior Walker & the All-Stars? Other players besides Kemba must step up.
5. Villanova (12-6) Jay Wright says he doesn't think his team deserves to be ranked No. 8 right now. He's probably right.
6. Louisville (11-7) Rick Pitino. The KFC Yum! Center. There's gotta be a Karen Sypher joke in there somewhere.
7. Notre Dame (10-8) Tim Abromaitis is the type of player fellow Nutmegger Tyler Olander should someday hope to be.
8. West Virginia (10-8) After a great 2008 NCAA tourney, Joe Mazzulla has never really returned to form.
9. Marquette (9-9) Buzz Williams seems to get the most out of his teams.
10. St. John's (8-10) Give Steve Lavin a pretty good, deep, veteran (10 seniors) team and see the Red Storm improve this season.
11. Cincinnati (8-10) Along with Syracuse and UConn, Bearcats are currently only other current undefeated Big East team (11-0).
12. Providence (8-10) After an offseason even worse than UConn's, frosh-laden Friars aren't nearly as bad as many predicted.
13. Rutgers (6-12) Mike Rice may turn this program around. Just not yet.
14. Seton Hall (5-13) So much depends on when Jeremy Hazell returns from wrist surgery. Probably not 'til mid-January, at the earliest.
15. South Florida (3-15) Gus Gilchrist, suspended due to "philosophical difference" with Stan Heath, returns to lineup in time to crucify Huskies (again) on New Year's Eve?em>
16. DePaul (2-16) Cleveland Melvin, who de-committed from UConn last fall, averaging 9.3 points and 3.3 boards for Blue Demons.
Kemba Walker, UConn
Austin Freeman, Georgetown
Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh
Corey Fisher, Villanova
Kris Joseph, Syracuse
Rick Jackson, Syracuse
Corey Stokes, Villanova
Jimmy Butler, Marquette
Casey Mitchell, West Virginia
Tim Abromaitis, Notre Dame
Peyton Siva, Louisville
Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette
Marshon Brooks, Providence
Ben Hansbrough, Notre Dame
Chris Wright, Georgetown
Brad Wanamaker, Pittsburgh
Scoop Jardine, Syracuse
Alex Oriakhi, UConn
Dwight Hardy, St. John's
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kemba Walker, UConn: He probably won't end up leading league in scoring (PC's Marshon Brooks is my bet), but has there been a player more valuable to a program in recent years?
COACH OF THE YEAR: Jim Calhoun, UConn: No homer bias here. After being picked to finish 10th in conference, a top-five finish should cement Calhoun's first COY since 1997-98.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Vander Blue, Marquette: Tough one to call. Fab Melo has been anything but Fab for Syracuse. We'll go Blue, who's averaging 10.3 points and 1.73 steals thus far.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Rick Jackson, Syracuse: Shabaz Napier will win this award some day.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Casey Mitchell, West Virginia: Averaged 3.7 ppg last year; netting 17.8 ppg this year (fourth in Big East).
SIXTH MAN AWARD: Dominic Cheek, Villanova: But really, your guess is as good as mine on this one.
A few awards that won't be handed out at the Big East tournament:
THE 'PLAYER WHO SHOULD BE BETTER THAN HE IS' AWARD: Yancy Gates, Cincinnati: His heart hasn't matched his body size (6-9, 265 pounds) ... at least not yet. (Runner-up: Gary McGhee, Pittsburgh).
THE JEFF ADRIEN AWARD: Rick Jackson, Syracuse: Already has eight double-doubles this season.
THE 'WHAT DID I GET MYSELF INTO?' AWARD: Oliver Purnell, DePaul: Always seemed to underachieve at Clemson. He'll have a lot less talent to work with here.
THE 'UZI' AWARD: Marshon Brooks, Providence: With Jeremy Hazell sidelined for the foreseeable future, Brooks -- who never met a shot he doesn't like -- gets this one.