Big East Basketball Preview Extravaganza

This is the first installment of a series of articles previewing the Big East basketball teams. This installment takes a look at Cincinnati, UConn and DePaul.

Cincinnati Bearcats

The Bearcats finished last season with a 13-18 record, bowing out 70-67 to Bradley in a first round CBI game last year. The ‘Cats will be a very young bunch this season, led by junior guard Deonta Vaughn. Vaughn averaged 17.3 ppg last season, but will be asked to man the point guard spot for the 2008-09 season, after star recruit Cashmere Wright suffered a torn ACL in practice. The Cincy roster only features two juniors, one being Vaughn. The other is Mike Williams, a young man who's been bit by the injury bug through most of his career, but is expected to play an integral role in the offense this season.

3 Questions for Cincinnati

    * Who is going to step up to be a viable second option behind Deonta Vaughn? Will it be Mike Williams (a candidate to start at SF this season) or will it be either Yancy Gates (highly-touted frosh) or inconsistent sophomore big man Anthony McClain?

    * How will such a young roster (1 senior, 2 juniors…and of these three, Vaughn is the only one who has received significant playing time in the last two years) adapt to the rigorous Big East schedule?

    * Can Mick Cronin get his squad fired up for a non-conference schedule that features a few cupcakes? The ‘Cats don't hit the road until a December 29th showdown with Memphis. But last year, the Bearcats lost games to Belmont, Bowling Green, UAB and Illinois State. Cincy has scheduled more home games for this year to try to get Cronin's young squad acclimated to the college game, but they need to be in the game not just physically, but mentally as well.

Schedule Breakdown

November 28 – v. Florida State. This game begins a prolonged three game homestretch that will show us whether the Bearcats are remotely worthy of dancing in March. The ‘Cats follow this one up with revenge games against old C-USA rival Alabama-Birmingham and in-state foe Xavier.

January 14 – v. Rutgers. This game starts a stretch of four of the easiest games you'll ever find in the Big East conference. And by easy, I mean four games in nine days and three of them on the road. But seriously, the ‘Cats can start this four-game stretch off with a win at home, before visiting DePaul, Providence and St. John's. This game might be the tonic Cincy is seeking, especially if they start out 0-3 in conference play (challenging games with Marquette and UConn to begin Big East play).

February 21 – v. Louisville. The Bearcats always bring their ‘A' game against Louisville, but this one might be asking too much. The ‘Ville will likely be ranked in the top 10, if not higher, when this game takes place. But Cincy will have a week to prepare for this one and don't think Deonta Vaughn will forget how the upset of Louisville last year felt. (Note: Isn't it odd how Louisville has had Cincy's number in football lately, while it's vice versa in basketball?)

Best Case Scenario

Deonta Vaughn averages 20 points and 6 assists per game. Anthony McClain develops into a viable center, while Yancy Gates and Mike Williams combine to form a formidable frontline (even by Big East standards). The ‘Cats roar through non-conference play with just one loss and battle their way to a 10-8 Big East record. They squeak into the Big Dance as the conference's tenth team before getting bounced in the first round.

Worst Case Scenario

Cincy's inexperience shows from the opening tip. Vaughn tries to be college basketball's version of Baron Davis. This one-man band implodes and Cincinnati limps into conference play, before struggling to get four conference wins. They are the first team left out of the College Basketball Invitational.

UConn Huskies

The Huskies first-round loss to San Diego in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year didn't sit well with Jim Calhoun. And he has surely used this as motivational material for a team laden with upperclassmen that knows it's going for broke this season. UConn returns a star-studded team, including seniors A.J. Price, Jeff Adrien and Craig Austrie. And that list doesn't even include the 7'3" behemoth that is Hasheem Thabeet clogging up the middle. The Huskies are the Goliath of the Big East this year and will be able to make some noise in Detroit (site of the Final Four) if they aren't taken down by supernatural forces.

3 Questions for UConn

    *Can Hasheem Thabeet be the most dominant force in college basketball (think Greg Oden with a pair of healthy wrists)? Thabeet has garnered scads of media attention this offseason, but will certainly be tested by some other ‘glass monsters', namely Luke Harangody and DaJuan Blair. The UConn big man did get a reputation as being ‘soft' at times last year, but should be motivated and will be a force to be reckoned with if he can give the Huskies even thirty solid minutes per game.

    *What's Kemba Walker's role on the team going to be? He'll have plenty of obstacles in the way of playing time, but flying past adversityis nothing new for him. Expect Kemba to serve as A.J. Price's apprentice for much of the season, before supplying a much-needed burst off the bench as Big East play wears on.

    *How will Jim Calhoun's recent battle with cancer affect the team? Will this band the team together tighter than ever, intent solely on cutting down the nets in Detroit? If Calhoun's cancer resurfaces, how will the team respond? Calhoun has always been a fiery leader, but his players show up ready to do battle for him. This UConn squad is susceptible to letdowns (see losses to West Virginia and San Diego to end last season).

Schedule Breakdown

December 20 – v. Gonzaga. This matchup will be the Huskies' first test of the season and it even comes at home. A marquee win like this one will go a long ways toward determining which #1 seed gets the most favorable road to Detroit once March Madness starts. Coupled with SU's matchup at Memphis following right after, this day will be one for Big East basketball aficionados to spend on their couches.

February 2 - @ Louisville. No longer will we wonder if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow. The pressing issue of the day will likely be: which heavyweight is going to seize control of the Big East? Unfortunately, this matchup at Freedom Hall is the only one in the regular season between these preseason top 5 teams.

February 16 – v. Pittsburgh. This game starts a brutal five game stretch to the finish. Following the Pitt game, the Huskies get a brief respite with USF at home. From there, they finish with road games against Marquette and the Panthers. A home date with the Irish is sandwiched in between, completing this murderer's row of games.

Best Case Scenario

Hasheem Thabeet puts up 15, 10 and 5 (blocks, that is) per game and UConn goes 16-2 in conference play. The Huskies outrebound every opponent by at least ten en route to the national title game, where they beat up on an overrated North Carolina squad.

Worst Case Scenario

One year older doesn't necessarily mean one year wiser for the Huskies. They continue to try to play an NBA game and despite their talent level, it doesn't translate. UConn finishes a disappointing fourth in the conference, before flaming out early in the tourney, just like a year ago. On top of that, prized recruit Kemba Walker decides to transfer after getting minimal playing time.

DePaul Blue Demons

DePaul finished last season with an 11-19 record and to expect much better out of them this year would be, quite frankly, unfair. They hail from the heart of Big Ten country and have to compete with schools like Illinois, Indiana and Purdue, as well as the Big East. While the Blue Demons signed a couple of intriguing big-man prospects this season, there's no clear evidence they got better, while the rest of the Big East ‘superconference' clearly has. With the departure of seniors Draelon Burns and Karron Clarke, Jerry Wainwright's club will be in for a long season.

3 Questions for DePaul

    *Who will take Draelon Burns' place as the primary scorer for this team? Will it be freshman sensation Jeremiah Kelly that puts his stamp on this team or will DePaul rely on their influx of foreign big men to play a slower, more grind-it-out style of game – a marked contrast from Jerry Wainwright's usual game plan?

    *Who's going to suit up as the starting guards? The roster lists just four guards. Two of them are freshmen and another is a senior who averaged less than five points per game last year.

    *Can DePaul break its postseason drought? With the advent of the CBI, a whopping 113 teams now make it to the postseason in some shape or form. If DePaul can't add at least three more wins to last season's total, this will be an uphill battle. Unfortunately, DePaul has one of the nation's more difficult schedules and could struggle to reach the double digit plateau this season.

Schedule Breakdown

December 3 – @ California. Don't sleep on this one. Despite a 10:30 tipoff, this game is a can't miss for Blue Demons fans, as it'll likely tell you all you need to know about this team for the rest of the season. We'll get to see how the young Blue Demons respond to adversity on the road, most likely their first taste of it on the season. This will be their first game out of the state of Illinois and I'll be surprised if DePaul isn't 4-0 when this one comes around.

January 10 – v. USF. This contest starts a three-game stretch of Big East matchups that DePaul could probably win. The Blue Demons follow this one up with a home date with Cincinnati and a visit to the aforementioned Bulls. Should DePaul win these three, it'll be a welcome breath of fresh air for a team that'll likely need a pick-me-up to carry it into the teeth of the Big East season.

February 28 – v. St. John's. Just a year ago, this game could've had great significance as a battle for the coveted twelfth spot in the conference (and a trip to MSG for the BE tourney). The game still should have a bit of luster, as it represents a bit of a ‘down point' for both teams on the schedule. It should be a competitive game for two schools that are based in two of America's largest cities, but often overlooked.

Best Case Scenario

Jeremiah Kelly is worth all the hype and then some. He establishes himself as floor general and guides DePaul to ten wins before 2008 even ends. For an encore, DePaul manages to stay competitive in the Big East and finishes tenth in the conference, one of the bigger surprises. They make the NIT and end up in Madison Square Garden for the second time in a month.

Worst Case Scenario

With a lack of leadership and proven scorers (heck, even one would be nice), the Blue Demons stumble out of the gate, getting embarrassed by 30+ points by UCLA on national television. DePaul limps its way to a handful of Big East wins and finds its sole function as the Big East's doormat this year. To top it all off, head coach Jerry Wainwright's job security is called into question.

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