Big East play begins Tuesday night with Pittsburgh at Notre Dame and Providence at St. John's. UConn gets things started Wednesday night, without Jim Calhoun, at South Florida.
Time for some predictions. First, here's a look back at my preseason Big East predictions, officially recorded as part of the Syracuse Post-Standard writers' poll.
Order of finish: 1. UConn; 2. Syracuse; 3. Louisville; 4. Pittsburgh; 5. Cincinnati; 6. Villanova; 7. Marquette; 8. West Virginia; 9. Notre Dame; 10. Georgetown; 11. St. John's; 12. Seton Hall; 13. DePaul; 14. Rutgers; 15. South Florida; 16. Providence. First Team All-Big East: Jeremy Lamb, UConn; Ashton Gibbs, Pitt; Kris Joseph, Syracuse; Yancy Gates, Cincinnati; Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette. Player of the Year: Jeremy Lamb, UConn. Rookie of the Year: Andre Drummond, UConn.
With a second shot at predicting the race, I have made a few adjustments, not at the top but more from No. 4-16. I still think UConn, Syracuse and Louisville are the Big Three for this season. They all have Final Four potential.
There may not be as many great teams in the Big East this season and the conference may not see 11 teams advance to the NCAA Tournament, but I think this is a very competitive conference. The teams in bottom eight will be capable of upsetting the top eight pretty much on any given night.
So, here's another shot at predicting the race, along with my reasons and observations:
1. UConn – I still think the Huskies have the most talent. Andre Drummond is extremely motivated to show his stuff against Big East teams and people are going to make comparisons to Derrick Coleman and Alonzo Mourning. If Alex Oriakhi can rediscover some of his Big East form from last season, UConn will be tough to beat.
2. Syracuse – Talent, depth, athleticism. UConn coach Jim Calhoun calls the Orange "far and away" the best team in the Big East. Hard to argue at this point. Syracuse is 13-0 with an average margin of victory of 21.7 points.
3. Louisville – Rick Pitino's team is 12-0 but faces Georgetown and Kentucky before moving on to 2012.
4. Georgetown – The Hoyas impressed me in Maui when they almost knocked off Kansas. They followed that with an overtime victory over Memphis and a win at Alabama. Remember the name Jason Clark.
5. Marquette – First loss came at LSU, but the Golden Eagles responded against Milwaukee in their next outing. It is beyond me that Darius Johnson-Odom doesn't get more national attention.
6. West Virginia – The Mountaineers looked much better against Baylor. This team is all about Kevin Jones. Can't wait for Jan. 9 when WVU comes here to play Ryan Boatright and the Huskies.
7. Seton Hall – The Pirates have lost only once. But they open Big East play Wednesday night at Syracuse.
8. Pittsburgh – Two losses at home already? Long Beach State and Wagner? What's up with that?
9. Cincinnati – Really, I thought Yancy Gates should have been gone for the rest of the season. A 10-game suspension certainly would have delivered a stronger message. Let's hope Gates learned his lesson.
10. Providence – Ed Cooley was a very good hire. Thought he would need three years to turn things around, but it seems the Friars are on an accelerated schedule.
11. Villanova – Jay Wright's team is 7-5. If only the Wildcats had a 7-footer. Opponents have caught on to Villanova's four-guard attack.
12. DePaul – Oliver Purnell has the Blue Demons off to a 9-3 start (best for DePaul in 12 years) and Cleveland Melvin is on his way to Big East stardom.
13. Notre Dame – The Irish without Tim Abromaitis . . . just sad.
14. South Florida – The Bulls will pull a few upsets at home, where they are 7-0, but there's not a lot of hope at USF.
15. St. John's – This is a real soap opera in Queens. Steve Lavin gets Amir Garrett, one of three freshmen who didn't qualify academically, back on the court. But the Red Storm will miss Nurideen Lindsey, who is transferring out.
16. Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights have defeated Monmouth, Stony Brook and NJIT to reach 7-5. Not much to say here.
My first team All-Big East stays the same, with one exception: West Virginia's Kevin Jones replacing Yancy Gates. Lamb and Drummond are still my choice for Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year. I really think both are going to have blockbuster conference seasons – and that will lift UConn to the regular season championship.
Coach of the Year? Right now, it's a race between Kevin Willard of Seton Hall and John Thompson III of Georgetown.
That's just one person's perspective. This is the Big East. Expect things to change every day. But, for now, let's get this thing started.