Big East Hoops Preview

Have the Hurricanes finally caught up to Perry Clark's hectic style of basketball or will it take some more time? With four starters back and the return of Elton Tyler in the middle, the answer won't take very long to figure out.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Troy Bell (Boston College) will have Eagles soaring with play-making and sharp shooting abilities; Preston Shumpert (Syracuse) is another bombs-away artist (80 three-pointers last season); John Linehan (Providence) averaged 3.1 steals a game last year and plays suffocating D; Caron Butler (Connecticut) forms a solid 1-2 with back court mate Talik Brown; Ty Shine (Seton Hall); Freshman Jonathan Hargett (West Virginia) has potential of carrying team; Is second season the charm for Darius Rice (Miami)?

ON THE HARDWOOD

Could be an average year for a conference that sent four first-round picks to the NBA (Eddie Griffin, Troy Murphy, Michael Bradley and Samuel Dalembert) and lost eight of its top 11 scorers from a year ago. But it will mean one thing for sure- anybody can win the Big East. After perhaps Georgetown and UConn, there are plenty of teams all bunched up. Three major questions: Can Miami win meaningful games on the road? Who will step up in the middle for UConn to provide their dynamite guards with some help? Can BC coach Al Skinner handle all this talent, again?

KEEP AN EYE ON CALENDER

Notre Dame at Indiana (Dec. 4); Seton Hall at Michigan State (Dec. 22); Providence at Texas (Jan. 7); Syracuse at Tennessee (Jan. 19); Duke at Boston College (Jan. 24); Syracuse at Georgetown (Jan. 28); Connecticut at St. John's (Feb. 9); UConn at Boston College (Feb. 25) GOING DANCING: Syracuse, Boston College, Connecticut , Georgetown. UM (?????????)

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

EAST DIVISION

1. Boston College Eagles
COACH: Al Skinner (197-187, .513)
LAST YEAR: 27-5 (13-3 1st t, Big East champions)
OUTLOOK: The Eagles went from finishing with the league's worst record two seasons ago to kings of the conference a year ago. Skinner, the Big East coach of the year in 2000-01, welcomes back three starters (Bell, Kenny Walls and Uka Agbai). Bell (20.4 ppg) makes the Eagles go and can play both guard spots.

Bell will most likely be joined in backcourt by Ryan Sidney, the league's top sixth man last year. Walls, the only senior starter, brings leadership and steady rebounding. Agbai returns in the middle where he posted 9.1 points and 3.3 boards a game last year. Senior Brian Ross could also see a lot of time on the court at center or power forward. Jury still out on Skinner to go to distance.

2. Connecticut Huskies
COACH: Jim Calhoun (599-279, .682)
LAST YEAR: 20-12 (8-8, tied for 3rd)
OUTLOOK: The Huskies will travel as far as Butler and Brown take them. The 6-7 Butler, a Big East All-Rookie Team member last year, led the team in scoring (15.3), rebounding (7.6) and steals (2.2). He threw in 3.1 assists per game for good measure. Brown, the point guard, pitched in over eight points a game and is a hawk on defense. Combined they helped UConn to hold opponents to 67 points a game. Tony Robertson, Robert Swain and Ben Gordon will spell in the backcourt.

Senior forward Johnnie Selvie and Scott Hazleton will man things closer to the hoop. Chad Wise and Mike Hayes will also provide some muscle under the basket. Calhoun is one victory shy of 600 for a career. He will get that one and many more this season.

3. Miami Hurricanes
COACH: Perry Clark (201-158, .560)
LAST YEAR: 16-13 (8-8, tied for 3rd)
OUTLOOK: Have the Hurricanes finally caught up to Perry Clark's hectic style of basketball or will it take some more time? With four starters back and the return of Elton Tyler in the middle, the answer won't take very long to figure out. Mr. Do-It-All John Salmons is expected to carry even more of a load this year and with a season under his belt Rice should be much improved. 6-8 junior James Jones is solid and plays according to plan. Simmons and Barnes will control the backcourt for Miami and must play under control for the Canes to be successful. Freshman point guard Kahleaf Watson could emerge as a star before long.

4. Providence Friars
COACH: Tim Welsh (118-65, .645)
LAST YEAR: 21-10 (11-5, 2nd)
OUTLOOK: The Friars were another of the Big East squads to post an impressive turnaround last year, after finishing 11-19 two years ago. The Friars made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997 after posting their best league record in school history. Welsh (in his first year at PC) will have to find a way to replace forward Erron Maxey, the team's leading scorer and Karim Shabazz, the team' leading rebounder from a year ago.

Linehan is the anchor of a pressing, up-tempo style the Friars run. He was fourth in the nation with a 3.1 steals mark and dished out close to four assists per game. He added 10.7 points. Junior Abdul Mills will join him in the back court. Romuald Augustin is a work-horse at small forward that provides good defense. Depth will also be a strength as Providence will rely on six new players, including Michigan transfer Leland Anderson.

5. St. John's Red Storm
COACH: Mike Jarvis (320-173, .645)
LAST YEAR: 14-15 (8-8 tied for 3rd)
OUTLOOK: The core of a young group last season, except for point guard Omar Cook, returns for the Storm. Five of nine top players, who averaged at least 19 minutes a game, were newcomers a year ago. That means Jarvis will have an much more experienced bunch.

Sophomore swingman Willie Shaw (13.8 points) is a perimeter hog and will plenty of big shots. Forward Anthony Glover is consistent in finding a way to score and crashing the boards. The biggest hole on the team is at point guard, created by the departure of Cook to the NBA. Cook led the team in scoring and assists. Marcus Hatten, juco transfer, and freshman Tristan Smith will get looks to take over the position.

Junior Alpha Bangura is the front-runner to start at forward. Sharif Fordham gives the Storm versatility at forward and guard. Donald Emanuel, a 6-8 senior, averaged 3.4 points and 2.7 rebounds in 13.5 minutes per game. Center Mohammed Diakite, a sophomore, keeps developing and could be a force in the middle. This team is capable of winning 20 games or losing 20.

6. Villanova Wildcats
COACH: Jay Wright (122-85, .589)
LAST YEAR: 18-13 (8-8, tied for third)
OUTLOOK: Jay Wright, an assistant at Villanova in the early 90's, returns to take over a squad that lost two full-time starters including center Michael Bradley. Without much offensive fire-power, Wright wants to place more of an emphasis on defense and rebounding. Last season, the Wildcats were last in scoring defense (74.9) and turnover margin (-4.39).

Bradley won't be easy to replace, after finishing second in the Big East in scoring and rebounding. Gary Buchanon is back after posting a 13.4 scoring average and a 4.8 rebounding mark. Buchanon, an excellent free-throw shooter, will be moved to small forward at times. Sophomore Derrick Snowden will be the point guard.

7. Virginia Tech Hokies
COACH: Ricky Stokes (24-34, .514)
LAST YEAR: 8-19 (2-14, last place)
OUTLOOK: A five-man recruiting class will make will make the Hokies more experienced and possibly talented this season. Stokes goal is to develop a squad that plays an up tempo game and presses on defense, The backcourt tandem of Brian Chase and Carlos Dixon anchored the Hokies. Chase, a sharp three-point shooter, averaged 12.9 points a game and Dixon was the only player to start every game for Tech. Eric Branham, a 5-11 junior college transfer, figures to get a long look at point guard.

The Hokies are deep with wing players. Sophomore Bryant Matthews was a regular starter wide averaged 9.1 and 5.2 rebounds. Senior Joe Hamilton started seven games. Close to the basket, senior center Carlton Carter started 15 games after joining the team in late December. More frontcourt help is on the way, as well. Terry Taylor, a 6-7 junior college transfer, may have the best chance to make an immediate impact. Other newcomers include Harding Nana, Dimari Thompkins and J.C. Pigford- all freshmen forwards.

WEST DIVISION

1. Georgetown Hoyas
COACH: Craig Eshenck (52-33, .616)
LAST YEAR: 25-8 (10-6, 2nd)
OUTLOOK: Three starters return for the Hoyas, who made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997 and made it to the round of 16. And with guard Kevin Braswell leading the way, the Hoyas could be making plans for late March, again.

Braswell was the engineer of a balanced attack last year, averaging 12.8 ppg and was fourth in the conference in assists (6.1). Braswell was the Hoya to play 25 minutes a game. Freshmen Tony Bethal and Drew Hall will share most of the time at shooting guard. Hall could also spell Braswell at the point. Gerald Riley is the returning starter at small forward, but will be pushed by junior Victor Samnick, who is a solid defender and rebounder..

In the paint, Mike Sweetney returns after a strong freshman season. Sweetney made the All-Rookie Big East team after tying for the team lead in scoring (12.8) and added 7.4 boards a contest. Welsey Wilson will start at center. The Hoyas could go a long way if they avoid the injury bug.

2. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
COACH: Mike Brey (119-62, .657)
LAST YEAR: 20-10 (11-5, 1st)
OUTLOOK: The loss of star forward Troy Murphy to the NBA still might not be enough to keep the Irish out of the Big Dance. Notre Dame still has three double-figure scorers returning in Ryan Humphrey, Matt Carroll and David Graves. Humphrey, a conference second-teamer, is a strong perimeter shooter (13.8 ppg) and an adequate rebounder. Carroll is back at shooting guard and will give the Irish another long range threat. Sophomore Torrian Jones will see himself with plenty of minutes.

Mr. Basketball in Indiana last year, Chris Thomas is expected to take over the point guard position. Freshmen forward Jordan Cornette and Chris Markwood will provide depth. No matter who leads this team, Brey will continue to emphasis defense. The Irish held opponents to a league-best (39.7) field goal percentage.

3. Syracuse Orangemen
COACH: Jim Boeheim (600-208, .743)
LAST YEAR: 25-9 (10-6, 2nd)
OUTLOOK: The cliché of great programs reloading instead of rebuilding definitely applies to Syracuse. Last season, the Orangemen had to replace three starters, including two NBA draft choices. So what did they do? Rolled up a 25-9 record and ranking in the AP poll.

The Orangemen have another two players they must replace, but history says it might be a bad idea to think the Orangemen won't have another 20-win season. Under Boeheim, Syracuse has reached the 20-win plateau in 23 of 25 seasons. The offense starts and ends with forward Preston Shumpert. Last year, the 6-6 senior averaged 19.5 points per game en route to a All-Big East selection. A traditionally soft schedule to open the season every year doesn't exactly help Syracuse in the long way. It won't again this season. The Orangemen will be pressed to make the NCAA Tournament.

4. Pittsburgh Panthers
COACH: Ben Holland (111-89, .555)
LAST YEAR: 19-14 (7-9, 4th)
OUTLOOK: Unlike Walt Harris, Ben Holland has the Panthers pointed in the right direction. The Panthers (19-14 last year) had the most victories since 1990-91 and made the Big East title game for the first time ever. Despite having three starters returning, the biggest task will be finding a replacement for forward Ricardo Greer. Greer, the team's only double-figure scorer, could score, rebound and get everybody else involved. His 17.4 ppg will be missed.

The team's strength could be in the backcourt with the duo of Julius Page and Brandin Knight. Both can take the ball to the basket and also have the ability to get others involved. Jaron Brown, a versatile player, could be a factor at either guard spots. Freshman Yuri Demetris will compete for minutes at shooting guard. The center spot will be a battle between sophomore Toree Morris and freshman Mark McCarroll. Although, this could be a problem later on. The 6-10 Morris saw limited action, while McCarroll was a medical redshirt with a knee injury last year.

5. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
COACH: Gary Waters (92-60, .605)
LAST YEAR: 11-16 (3-13, 6th)
OUTLOOK: Waters, who came over from Kent State, will have the Scarlet Knights playing defense (listen up, Schiano). Waters inherits a team that was 11-16 overall, but was second in the Big East in scoring defense, allowing 65.8 points points per game. Rutgers has plenty of depth in the front-court, but will rely more on newcomers on the perimeter.

Rashod Kent could turn out as one of the anchors up front. The 6-6, 265-pounder senior averaged 9.8 points and was fourth in the Big East in rebounding at 9.3. He averaged 3.8 offensive rebounds – best in the conference. Eugene Dabney and Kareem Wright will share the center spot. Shawn Hampton, a transfer, could also sneak into the rotation in the middle. Rutgers will certainly get a boost in the frontcourt from Herve Lamizana, a top recruit who missed last season because of academic problems. Jerome Coleman, a junior college transfer, is expected to make a quick impact. Rutgers will find themselves in a lot of games, but finding enough points to win them could be a problem.

6. Seton Hall Pirates
COACH: Louis Orr (20-11, .645)
LAST YEAR: 16-15 (5-11, 5th)
OUTLOOK: Orr takes over a team that often started three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior last season. Last year's squad will be a little more experienced, but will also need contributions from some newcomers. With Griffin gone, guard Darius Lane will be carrying a lot of the load. Lane averaged 16.9 ppg and poured in a league-leading 103 three-pointers. Andre Barrett will run the attack from the point guard position. He averaged 10.2 ppg and 5.5 apg a year ago. Look for big numbers from senior Ty Shine as well. Highly-regarded freshman John Allen will be looked at for time at guard or forward. Sophomore Damion Fray sat out last season due to academic reasons, but he will push hard for playing time at power forward. 6-8 freshman Mauricio Branwell can play either forward spot. Alexander Gambino, a 7-0 freshman, is a prospect at center.

A lot of talent; Just, how long will it take to develop?

7. West Virginia Mountaineers
COACH: Gabe Catleit (557-304, .647)
LAST YEAR: 17-12 (8-8, 3rd)
OUTLOOK: West Virginia, coming off a NIT appearance, can boast about a strong and deep backcourt that has plenty of scoring punch.

The backcourt could be stronger than ever with the addition of highly-acclaimed Jonathan Hargett, a 6-0 point guard. Hargett, along with freshman Drew Schfino, is expected to play right away. At small forward, junior Josh Yeager returns after averaging 8.1 points and 3.8 rebounds as a part-time starter last year. Freshman Tyrone Sally has looked impressive and will push to play. Chris Moss will make his way back to power forward, his natural spot after playing the entire frontcourt throughout his career at WVU. Chaz Briggs, a transfer, will team with Moss up front.

The biggest thing the Mountaineers have to do is replace forward calvin Bowman, who was one of the league's top forwards and a All-Big East first team pick after scoring 17.6 ppg and 9.7 apg.

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