Quick. Name as many teams as you can from the Big East.
Can't get all 16? Don't worry. Neither can I. It's a near impossible feat because inherently, you'll forget South Florida. Or Seton Hall. Or Rutgers. Or all three!
Either way, the Big East has become a lumbering giant of a power conference, spitting out some of the best talent, most memorable games and the most tourney bids every year.
Many actually think the Big East could receive 10 tournament bids this season. I'm not ready to go quite that far; I think the top half of the conference will be next to shoe-ins for March Madness, but if the cards fall the right way, 9 or 10 might actually not be too far off.
The most fun thing about the Big East this season will be the amount of incredible, quality upperclassmen that are returning this season. I feel like the lack of turnover throughout the conference will only increase the quality of conference play in 2009 and make the postseason tournament, which this year includes all 16 teams, that much more intriguing to watch.
On to my analysis of the Big East, in order of predicted finish:
1) Louisville Cardinals
It all starts at the top at Freedom Hall; Rick Pitino is still one of the premier coaches in Division I basketball and he does more with the talent that he has than anyone else. Despite the loss or David Padgett and the defection of Derrick Caracter (who was an attitude problem anyway), this team is a Final Four contender. If they can find someone to fill Padgett's big shoes, they're going to be dominant. Super-recruit Samardo Samuels joins an already talented cast including Earl Clark, Edgar Sosa and Terrence Williams.
2) Connecticut Huskies
Another Final Four contender is located in Storrs, where Hasheem Thabeet is back and stronger than ever. Possibly the most dominant big man in the college game, Thabeet's 7'3" frame dwarfs everyone else in the Big East. During the offseason, he sured up the weaker points in his game (handling contact and foul shooting) to fine tune his repertoire of skills. It also goes without saying that he's the conference's best shot blocker. Around him, A.J. Price will return from his ACL injury and reliable four Jeff Adrian will be Thabeet's supporting cast.
3) Notre Dame Fighting Irish
I never thought I'd say that the Big East' best 1-2 punch would come out of South Bend, but enter Kyle McAlarney and Luke Harangody. With the loss of dominant rebounder Rob Kurz, the Fighting Irish are going to need Harangody to become more of a banger down low, something that should be a problem considering his 251-pound frame. McAlarney has arguably the best range in the conference, and when you pair him with Tory Jackson and his ball-moving ability, you've got a very dangerous backcourt.
4) Pittsburgh Panthers
Kind of an unfortunate year for Jamie Dixon to have what many regard as his best Pitt team under his tenure. However, their defensive prowess and the recovery from the rash of devestating injures the Panthers suffered last year makes them more than a darkhorse to finish on top of the Big East heap this season. This year's Pitt team will be very physical inside with DeJuan Blair, Gary McGhee and Tyrell Biggs...it's the unit that will have the best chance to match up with Hasheem Thabeet. The surprising return of Sam Young gives the team desperately needed veteran leadership and long-distance shooting.
5) Syracuse Orange
This is my conference sleeper. They bring back six (yes, six) players with significant stating experience from last season, and we all know what Jim Boeheim can do with experience. The Orange return Jonny Flynn, who I think is the most exciting young point guard in the Big East. Pair him with Eric Devendorf, and you've got a very athletic, quick and talented backcourt. They lose uber-talented guard Donte Greene, but it shouldn't be a large dropoff. I'm a bit concerned about their size in the post; starting center Arinze Onuaku only comes in at 6'9", but their outside shooting will pick up that slack. The most appealing thing about Syracuse is their depth; Boeheim has at least 10 players that will make a significant impact this season.
6) Marquette Golden Eagles
I'm putting Marquette lower than most experts on this list because I really do think the loss of Tom Crean will have an immediate, short-term mental impact on the program. Despite the fact that there isn't a whole lot of turnover on the roster, Buzz Williams has his work cut out for him in this top-heavy conference. At least setting the starting lineup will be easy; it won't take a rocket scientist to get the trio of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews on the floor and active every night. A startling lack of size up the middle will hurt this team as the loss of Ousmane Barro leaves Marquette without an experienced big man.
7) Georgetown Hoyas
Georgetown is going to be the mystery of the conference this season; they definitely have the talent to finish higher than 7, but they have the lack of depth that could send them spiraling lower. The lack of depth comes from the sudden transfers of Vernon Macklin and Jeremiah Rivers, but having shooters and defenders like Jessie Sapp and DaJuan Summers make Hoyas fans optimistic. Look for a jump in production from swingman Austin Freeman along with the return of oft-injured guard Chris Wright. Oh yeah...the loss of Roy Hibbert...it just might hurt. A little.
8) Villanova Wildcats
The 'Cats are way too small to compete for a Big East title this season. Jay Wright loves the small, speedy guys (Speedy Claxton, Randy Foye, Allan Ray), but it leaves his teams year in and year out without matchup size in the post or length in the backcourt. The thing that Villanova has going for them is the lack of roster turnover; the Wildcats didn't lose anyone of significant value to graduation or the draft, as Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark will lead the way.
9) West Virginia Mountaineers
I'm reluctant to call anything that Bob Huggins has his hands on a rebuilding project, but it's the closest thing to it he may have encountered. His most talented player and emotional leader, Joe Alexander, is gone, and there isn't a sure shot to take his place. Joe Mazzulla is a bit unreliable with his shot selection, as are Alex Ruoff and Da'Sean Butler, but when all three of them are hitting, the Mountaineers are able to steal basketball games. This isn't a good defensive team by any stretch though; the starters aren't quick enough and they don't block enough shots.
10) Providence Friars
First year head coach Keno Davis, who comes over after his tremendous work at Drake last year, has his work cut out. He'll soon find out that this isn't quite the Missouri Valley, especially with the offense he runs and the three-point shooting he lacks. Jeff Xavier and Brian McKenzie are nice outside shooters, but they're going to be taking many more long-range shots in this flex offense than they're used to.
11) Cincinnati Bearcats
They're better, but still not a tourney contender. The cupboard was bare for Mick Cronin when Huggins took off and he's done his best to recruit over the past three seasons, but his roster this year tremendously lacks experience. There's no doubt that this is the most talented team that Cronin has fielded in three seasons, but they're still a year or two away from being a postseason threat.
12) Seton Hall Pirates
The conference isn't getting any worse while Seton Hall progressively gets better. The Pirates stingy defense will create turnovers, but scoring off of those TO's tends to be a problem that keeps them from winning games. The loss of Brian Laing, the team's emotional and physical leader, will hurt Seton Hall big time.
13) DePaul Blue Demons
It was a surprising step backwards for DePaul last season and it will not get much better in suburban Chicago this year. Their most significant players, Mac Koshwal and Dar Tucker, are not surrounded by experienced role players, putting undue pressure on the youngsters. DePaul has a devestating habit of blowing leads, which obviously isn't conducive to being a consistent winner.
14) Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Worst offense in the Big East. Period. 16th in FG percentage, 16th in 3-point percentage, worst assist-to-turnover ratio and next to worst in overall scoring. Pretty much explains it all for the Knights. The one thing they have going in 08-09 is a surprisingly good recruiting class, headlined by Mike Rosario and Greg Echenique. This is definitely a work in progress.
15) St. John's Red Storm
How can "New York City's College Basketball Team" be this bad every year?
16) South Florida Bulls
Can Matt Grothe play power forward, too?