Big East Preview - West Division

As usual, the Big East Men's Basketball Conference is large, unpredictable and full of talent. There may not be a National Championship-caliber team among the 14 teams in the league, but there is plenty of ability to make the conference battle very interesting.

Those league wars begin with the New Year, so it seems like an appropriate time to preview the conference. Here is a look at the West Division of the Big East, and ourpredicted order of finish. We'll preview the East Division in a couple of weeks.

1. Georgetown – The 9-2 Hoyas have ripped virtually every team they have played. The two losses, to Georgia and Virginia, won't hurt them in an NCAA drive if they can piece together a few quality wins in the conference.

They had won eight straight, including a victory over South Carolina and were unbeaten at home before falling to top 10 UVA last week.

Forward Mike Sweetney and center Wesley Wilson are a dominant one-two punch inside. They had 25 and 22 points, respectively, in a 19-point win over Howard. And point guard Kevin Braswell, finally a senior, is the best floor leader in the Big East. His situational knowledge and ability to create shots for himself and others is invaluable, and he knows what head coach Craig Esherick wants.

The team leads the conference in scoring at 87.5 points per game and is shooting 48.4 percent as a team this season. Their scoring margin per game (25.3 points) leads the Big East. And they can run the floor and pound the ball.

The lone problem is the Hoyas' tendency to blow a few winnable games each season. This Georgetown squad is not as solid as last season's and does not have the depth.

That could hurt late in the season, when they play four of their last six on the road, including trips to Syracuse and West Virginia, two of the hardest places to play in the league. Add in a road game at Villanova and a home meeting with Connecticut, and it seems the Hoyas could stumble going into postseason play.

2. Notre Dame – The Fighting Irish have played well in winning eight of nine, but they also have not played anybody outside of DePaul, Miami (Ohio) and Indiana.

Notre Dame won its first six games before losing to Indiana (76-75) in one of the better-played games of the young season.

The class of the squad is forward Ryan Humphrey. His 22.6 points and 8.9 rebounds lead the team. He also has 28 blocks and dishes 2.7 assists per game. Humphrey had 18 points, seven rebounds, six assists and six blocks against Miami. He has the power and finesse to dominate in the paint.

Swingman David Graves' numbers are impressive (15 ppg, 5 rpg, 2.4 apg), and he is a pure shooter. Graves, with 22 takeaways, hits 45.4 percent of his shots, including a 24 of 51 performance from behind the arc. He has made 13 of 14 foul shots.

Shooting guard Matt Carroll's numbers (10.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.6 apg) are also impressive. Like his teammates, Carroll isn't excellent at anything but is a solid all-around player.

All five Irish starters average double figures, and the team leads the conference in free throw shooting.

The lone weakness is the lack of a true center. Couple that with Notre Dame's inability to run, and bigger squads like Georgetown should be able to pound them inside or go small and outrun them.

Head coach Mike Brey, in his second year, has done an excellent job of filling needs and getting players where they perform best, however. If Notre Dame can continue to shoot the three well and get the ball to Humphrey, they could finish second in the West.

3. Syracuse – The Orangemen aren't the same team without head coach Jim Boeheim, who was recently named USA Basketball Coach of the Year. Boeheim guided the U.S. to the gold medal at the 2001 FIBA World Championship for Young Men in Japan.

His coaching importance became evident when the team started 8-0 only to suffer blowout losses to N.C. State (82-68) and Georgia Tech (96-80) when Boeheim took his anticipated leave Dec. 4 to have prostate surgery.

Syracuse's game is still getting the ball to Preston Shumpert, a preseason All-Big East selection and one of the premier forwards in the nation. Shumpert, who has led SU in scoring in five games, had 29 points against the Wolf Pack. He can drive and dump the ball, or step back and hit three-pointers and jumpshots. He also adds a rebounding presence and plays solid defense. Like many SU players, Shumpert (22.5 ppg) is what baseball scouts would term a five-tool player. He can pass, shoot, rebound, play defense and handle the ball.

Guard Keith Duany is a smart, saavy player who doesn't turn the ball over. He can shoot and opens the floor for teammates. Back court mate DeShaun Williams is also a scorer and can pass.

The Orange don't have a dominant inside threat like in the past, but they can run as well as ever. Part of their typical early season success comes from weak scheduling and camping out in the Carrier Dome until Big East play starts in January. With the tough losses to Tech and State balancing early wins over Michigan State and Wake Forest, SU's momentum has been tempered. Still, with their talent and home advantage, the Orange will finish in the top three – again.

4. West Virginia – Mountaineer head coach Gale Catlett has claimed WVU would make some noise in the Big East this season. They have improved depth with the addition of freshmen Jonathan Hargett, the conference Newcomer of the Year, Tyrone Sally and Drew Schifino.

Those three, mixed with a solid retuning nucleus, has propelled WVU to an up-and-down, 7-2 start. The team has the talent and skill to knock off one or two of the first three teams, but it has yet to learn to play defense or get the ball inside to Chris Moss. Until that happens WVU will be anchored in its normal four to five spot. WVU ranks last in the Big East in defensive field goal percentage and scoring defense.

Hargett should continue to lead the squad, but West Virginia needs scoring help from Lionel Armstead and Josh Yeager and better rebounding from Chris Garnett. If WVU checks the attitudes at the door, they can be wildly successful.

Look for Catlett to start and reel in his freshmen, making them play his brand of basketball. If he can find the right fit and use the youthful enthusiasm and veteran leadership the Mountaineers will win 20 games.

5. Pittsburgh – The 10-1 Panthers are hot. They have won most games by 20 points, though the schedule has been light. A 30-point win over arch-rival Penn State at home and a win over Rhode Island (58-51) and upset at Ohio State have given the Panthers reason to crow.

Point guard Brandon Knight had 14 points, 10 rebounds and six assists against Rhode Island. He leads the team in scoring with 15.9 points per game and is second in the Big East in assists with 6.7 per game. His inside force is Donatas Zavackas, a bruising center who averages 10.9 points and five boards per contest.

Guard Julius Page adds 11.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Pitt averages more than 18 assists per game.

Opposite of WVU, Pitt also leads the league in scoring defense and field goal defense. It's the offense which has struggled. The Panthers are shooting 47.2 percent from the field, which is respectable, but they aren't getting many second chances and are shooting three-pointers at a 29 percent clip.

Pitt's 18.2 point spread per game is impressive, though, and it's because foes are scoring just 52 points per game. That likely will not hold once conference play starts.

The Panthers play only a weak Penn State squad and Ohio State out of conference, so they must get to 20 wins to reach the NCAA Tournament. Pitt doesn't seem to have the depth or talent needed to pick up even nine wins in the Big East, and that's enough to send them to the NIT on the strength of 17-18 wins.

6. Seton Hall – The Pirates are trying to fight off a 2000 campaign that could be considered nothing but a mammoth disappointment. Then-head coach Tommy Amaker had NBA-caliber talent at almost every position, but the Hall never jelled and finished without the thought-to-beguaranteed NCAA bid.

Seton Hall brought in Siena's one-year head coach Louis Orr after Amaker went to Michigan. Now the Bucs have the BE's worst record at 6-3 (one loss was to No. 1 Duke, 80- 79) and another was a loss to La Salle.)

Guard Andre Barrett (20 points, six boards, five steals, four assists vs. La Salle) is the go-to player. He is still surrounded by talent with Darius Lane, Greg Morton, Ty Shine and Marcus Toney-El.

Freshman forward John Allen has started the last two games and might have latched onto the slot with a 16-point, 10-rebound showing last game.

The Pirates have still not shown the ability to play together, however, and that will get the best of squads beaten in the Big East.

Seton Hall has games against Michigan State and Boston College coming up, so the record likely won't improve entering Big East play. With less talent and a new head coach, SHU will struggle in the conference and will have to hope for an NIT bid.

7. Rutgers – The Knights (8-2) have won eight straight for the first time since 1988-89 after losing their first two, against lowly East Carolina and Virginia Commonwealth. They are 6-0 at home.

A blowout win over La Salle, which beat Seton Hall, provides a shot of confidence. Tests against Virginia and Princeton remain before Rutgers opens Big East play at Syracuse before playing host to Georgetown. That's potentially four consecutive losses, which would be difficult for a team under a new head coach (Gary Waters) to recover from.

RU's threats are inside, with Fairmont, W.Va. native Rashod Kent, a 6-6 bowling ball who somehow easily leads the conference in rebounding at 11.8 per game. No other player has more than 9.4. Kent had 12 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high seven blocks in the win over UMBC. That was also Waters' 100th career head coaching victory.

Guards Jerome Coleman and Ricky Shields average 14.9 and 10.8 points per game, respectively, and give RU a nice one-two scoring threat. They both contribute on the boards as well. After that the scoring drops off quickly, however, as does the talent.

The Scarlet Knights are again without a true big player and lack the physical presence to bang inside. That leaves them in the West Division cellar, where they've been for the last few seasons.

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