There are three starting dates for college basketball. First is Midnight Madness, when only college students pay attention to their schools' big parties for the basketball teams before going on to play a few cupcake games. The third is the NCAA tournament, which is when everyone tunes in — including those people who pick their brackets based on colors. But the real start date that true hoops fans have on their calendar? The start of the conference season. And yes, Big East fans, that means tonight, as DePaul takes on Pitt in the second conference game of the season. (West Virginia beat Seton Hall last week, but that was over the holidays, so everyone was too busy to watch.) Without further ado, here's New York's predictions of how this season will look.
1. Syracuse. Things the Orange need to work on: free-throws. Things the Orange are good at: pretty much everything else. Since dunking everyone out of the Garden in the finals of the Coaches versus Cancer tournament, Jim Boeheim's squad has been on a roll, streaking out to their best start since 1990, thanks to the following:
(a) Wes Johnson is a beast: The Iowa State transfer has averaged eight rebounds, sixteen points, two steals, and two blocks per game.
(b) So is Arinze Onuaku. Consider him Johnson's partner in crime.
(c) Brandon Triche (and occasionally, Scoop Jardine) plays less like a freshman than Jonny Flynn did at times (and we love Jonny Flynn).
(d) In his sixth year of college, Andy Rautins is also playing well.
(e) They are shooting the lights out of the arena: The Orange's field-goal percentage is the best in the country.
2. Connecticut: A.J. Price finally graduated. Hasheem "I will block every shot you try to take against me, ever" Thabeet skipped out to the NBA. So is UConn screwed? Not quite. Kemba Walker, Jerome Dyson, and Gavin Edwards filled the void nicely in the early season games. Then, finally, with his daughters watching, Stanley Robinson stepped up this weekend. Jim Calhoun (who signed a two-year contract to keep the two-time cancer survivor coaching into his 70s, woo!) hopes Ater Majok will fill the No. 11 Huskies void inside (the lane, not hearts — Walker does that with his constant smile throughout the game). We'll see. He missed the first semester, but had six rebounds and three blocks — in his third career game. If he can keep up that pace, and Robinson can continue the assertiveness he had against Iona on Sunday, watch out for the Huskies to make it to the top of the Big East again — which should keep anyone from ever questioning Jim Calhoun's net worth again.
3. Villanova: The speedy trio of Corey Stokes, Scottie Reynolds, and Corey Fisher carried the Wildcats easily through the early part of the season. Watch for Mouphtaou Yarou to take Jay Wright's squad to the top of the Big East as soon as the Benin native is back from a slight issue with hepatitis B.
4. West Virginia: We might get burned on this one. The Mountaineers have two projected first-round draft picks — Devin Ebanks and Da'Sean Butler — which is nice to have, but they also need them at every game. Which is a problem, since Ebanks sometimes has to go away for a little while. Butler can carry the Mountaineers, with the help of point guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant, but Coach Huggins's extremely talented team is extremely volatile (e.g., blowing a ten-point lead in 58 seconds against Seton Hall on Saturday). We have faith that they'll get it together, though — they're too talented not to do so. And we think they'll challenge for a Big East title.
5. Georgetown: In an interview with Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy, Hoyas big-man Greg Monroe said he came back to school instead of heading for the NBA last season because he wanted to be bigger, faster, and stronger. That could sum up what happened for the entire Hoyas team in the off-season. After last year's implosion, Georgetown is off to a 9–1 start, with quality wins over Butler and a threatening Harvard team. The big "but"? The Hoyas bench has only managed to have two players good enough to enter the regular rotation — a huge problem if there are any fouls, injuries, or anything else down the stretch.
6. Cincinnati: The Bearcats took a big risk on New York guard Lance "Born Ready" Stephenson, but so far, it's paying off. He's leading the team with twelve-and-a-half points per game, five rebounds, two assists, and an 8–3 record going into Big East play. The question is, can he co-exist with senior star Deonta Vaughn? If the answer is no, it's going to be a long season for the talented Bearcats. But if the answer is yes, watch out for the revival of the Nati.
7. Seton Hall: Okay, we know that early season games don't really mean anything, but let's dream for a minute. If Saturday's game against sixth-ranked West Virginia was any indication, thanks to some key transfers (see: Pope, Herb) it's going to be a happy year for Hall fans — which is sort of a rare thing. Down by ten with 58 seconds left, Brooklyn native Eugene Harvey and Harlem native Jeremy Hazell put the game into overtime and inched Bob Huggins closer to early retirement. They lost, but still: This is not the Seton Hall that finished last year as a Big East bottom-feeder.
8. Notre Dame: A loss to Northwestern left us questioning what in the world happened to Luke Harangody, Tory Jackson, and the Fighting Irish. Luckily, watching the Wildcats improbably tear through their early season games negated the embarrassment for the Irish. But we still question whether the Big East Preseason Player of the Year pick (the 'Gody) and his squad have more than they showed in their thrashing against Baylor in last year's NIT finals.
9. Louisville: Head-scratching losses to Charlotte and Western Carolina have many wondering what's going on in Kentucky. Edgar Sosa, who has spent his career floating in and out of Rick Pitino's doghouse, has done a serviceable job at the point and Samardo Samuels has done a good job of stepping up inside. But without electrifying point forward (and excellent Twitterer) Terrence Williams, it might be a tough season for Cards fans who will have to watch as crosstown rival Kentucky lights it up. That being said, we would never count out a Pitino team whose slow start may have something to do with the fact they had a lot to deal with in the off-season.
10. Pittsburgh: Of all the teams in the Big East, the Panthers have lost the most talent since last season, when they made a run to the Elite Eight. That being said, the well-coached squad has won all the games they were supposed to win, and they go into their Big East opener tonight against DePaul with a 10–2 record. Ashton Gibbs has done a nice job stepping up from his secondary roll last season and is leading the Panthers in scoring this year. But will it be enough to be more than a middle-of-the-pack Big East team? Not this year.
11. Marquette: The Golden Eagles are left with only nine scholarship players heading into the regular season. That means a lot is going on the shoulders of Lazar Hayward and Jimmy Butler, not only to put the points on the board, but to stay healthy. An injury could be the quick demise of the speedy Eagles.
12. St. John's: We're personally big fans of Norm Roberts, but we're not so sure New York's official team will be that great this year. Positives: They've gotten out to a 10–2 start, and D.J. Kennedy is still up to the job of carrying the team. The negatives: Wins over Georgia and Temple are good, but aren't enough to make us confident enough the Red Storm won't break our hearts again this year.
13. Providence College: Jamine Peterson leads the Friars with seventeen points per game and ten rebounds, and Sharaud Curry and Marshon Brooks are the people you want to have the ball, but in pre-Big East play, the Friars have done the following, as pointed out in this Providence Journal column:
(a) Lose to University of Rhode Island and Iona, two teams that are nothing compared to Big East play.
(b) Blew big leads.
(c) Have shown no semblance of an inside game, which is pretty important to playing in the Big East.
14. Rutgers: Rutgers squeaked past a significant win against UMass, but beyond that, the Scarlet Knights haven't had to show us anything yet this season. St. Anthony–product Mike Rosario is a levelheaded go-to player, and
Gregory Echenique is a solid inside presence, but without a stronger supporting cast, it won't be the year for Fred Hill's squad.
15. DePaul: Don't let the 7–5 start fool you. Watch this team just because it might be the last time to see Jerry Wainwright coach there. Will Walker leads the team with sixteen points per game and three rebounds, but that won't be nearly enough to top a rebuilding Pitt team tonight in their Big East opener.
16. South Florida: First. We're not sure why South Florida is even in the Big East. (Yes, we understand revenue deals, TV markets, etc., but it annoys us.) But here's what you need to know: Their best player is Dominique Jones, who earned the Big East Player of the Week nod this week. Also a positive development: This week USF received an injection of energy from Mike Mercer in place of the injured Augustus Gilchrist. They run a fast game — but so does everyone else in the Big East.