Big East Preview - East Division

A couple of weeks ago, we took a look at the West Division of the Big East men's basketball conference. This week we turn to the East and our predicted order of finish.

1. Boston College – The Eagles' 12-1 record should be the talk of the conference. But Miami's unexpected and improbable 14-0 start has regulated Al Skinner's school to second within its division. The two schools with the farthest separation (close to 1,500 miles) are closest in talent, however, and the conference regular season title will be decided in tilts in Bean town and South Florida.

Boston College, last year's Big East champion, wins because of experience. Troy Bell again leads the Maroon and Gold with 23 points. He also averages 3.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. He is, arguably, the best point guard in the conference. He handles the ball well, makes intelligent plays and keeps his team focused.

The Eagles don't have the quality wins of Miami (and have lost to Miami (Ohio)), but they seem to play better fundamentally and work as one unit. That will be key over the two-month Big East schedule, where teams on off nights will fall. BC has the best assets to avoid that.

2. Miami – The Hurricanes tied a school record, 14 consecutive wins, set in 1947 with a victory over Georgetown.

It was UM's fifth straight win over a ranked foe, and it showed the Big East this will not be a football-only school this season.

They have also proven their ability to win on the road, with victories against Clemson, Texas A&M, Indiana, LSU and Georgetown. The 'Canes are a league-best 19-7 in BIG EAST road games since 1998. John Salmons' 13.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game make him the consummate all-around player. He's the catalyst, with James Jones and Darius Rice also averaging more than 13 points. All five UM starters are in double-figures, proving a balance is key to winning.

The Hurricanes, in outscoring foes by 14 points per game, can hit from inside and outside. They have power, a shooting stroke and the physical assets needed to win.

Still, something in their game says they won't be able to maintain the current level of play throughout the season. They will stumble against the Eagles — and maybe against Pittsburgh first. Miami, the only unbeaten school in football and basketball, finishes second to Boston College.

3. Connecticut – The starters give head coach Jim Calhoun a mix of size, talent and veteran leadership. But there is not a main player, no go-to player. That's something Connecticut has always needed to win.

It's difficult to tell how good UConn is. Probably noticeably better than the bottom three, but with little chance to cracking the top two. The loss to Maryland did not reveal anything, but the shellacking against St. Bonaventure coupled with mundane wins have settled an uneasy feeling over Storrs, Conn.

Caron Butler (19.2 points, seven rebounds per game) and Tony Robertson give the Huskies an inside-outside punch.

The team shoots well but hits just four threes per game. In today's college game, that is not enough. They are also minus-one in turnover margin.

Stats are misleading, especially at this time, when teams like Syracuse have camped out in their home arenas and played patsies. But Connecticut leads foes in almost every other category. Add that to a stifling home court edge and, as usual, the Huskies will win their share this season.

4. Villanova – The Wildcats, at 8-2, have played only Temple. Theirs might be the weakest non-conference slate, but that came to an end with Providence (76- 57 win) and Notre Dame. With Connecticut and Boston College upcoming, Villanova will get its shot to prove where it sits in the conference.

Consider that Villanova is 7-0 against Notre Dame in Big East play and is 12-10 all-time. A win there would put the ‘Cats in the conference race early.

First-year head coach Jay Wright, who spent seven years at Hofstra, has talented players. Forward Ricky Wright averages 15 points and eight rebounds. He scored a team high 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the win over Providence. It was his second double-double of the year.

Guard Gary Buchanan leads the team with 18.5 points. He has 11 steals. Buchanan missed a free throw in the first half against the Friars, ending a string of 25 straight. He set an NCAA record for consecutive free throws last season, but is hitting just more than 75 percent this year.

Reggie Bryant adds 11.2 points, and Brooks Sales averages 8.9 points and a team-leading 8.6 rebounds.

This is another good shooting team, especially from behind the arc. Villanova has made 55 of 122 (45.1 percent). At 10.9 rebounds per game better than foes, if the Wildcats can better their minus-six turnover margin they might leap UConn.

5. St. John's – The Red Storm, spoiled by Omar Cook at point the past two years, are realizing what a difference maker he was. Marcus Hatten, now the point player, would be better as a two guard and a backup.

With Hatten outside and Anthony Glover at forward Mike Jarvis has his foundation. Hatten, at 6-1, 165 pounds, could use more bulk. But his mid-range jumper, with both legs spread, helps him average 17.9 points per game. He adds 4.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. Glover, at 12.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, supplies consistency and another shooting threat. He has hit 33 percent (three of nine) of his three-pointers.

Eric King and Willie Shaw, two other forwards, give St. John's the scoring punch and athletic ability needed inside.

The Red Storm will need to find another outside threat and some consistency in their offense to make any waves in the conference.

Wins over Wake Forest, Tennessee and Oregon State were impressive, but St. John's was crushed in Pittsburgh in the league opener for both teams before ripping West Virginia in Madison Square Garden. The Red Storm also lost, 75-69, to the Harlem Globetrotters in the preseason.

6. Providence – The 9-6 Friars have what so many teams in their spot do: A lack of talent. They are 0-2 with a blowout loss to Villanova and a seven-point defeat versus Syracuse.

This is a team without direction. Head coach Tim Welsh has started Abdul Mills and Marcus Douthit, with John Linehan, for 14 of 15 games. But from there seven different players have started at least two games, and three players have started six. One has started four games.

It's a largely unsettled lineup, and Welsh is still mixing and matching going into Big East play.

What he does have is Linehan, a point guard who averages 10.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. The senior, however, is only 5-9. He will make the right decisions and is a solid floor leader. But he can't get his shot off against many of the taller guards, and that has hurt PC.

Mills, the shooting guard, adds a team-high 15.9 points. Freshman forward Ryan Gomes, a six-game starter, averages 13.7 points and 6.9 rebounds and should earn a full-time starting spot within the next three games.

Because of a lack of inside punch Providence has bombed away from three-point range, taking 325 and making 99 (30.5 percent). Most teams have shot almost 120 three-pointers thus far. If the Friars can knock more of those down and find an inside scorer they could move up a few places. More than likely, however, PC will be battling Tech to stay out of the Big East cellar and move to the conference postseason.

7. Virginia Tech – The Hokies are by far the worst team in the division and probably the conference. They are still adjusting from Atlantic-10 play, and the jump has not been nearly as smooth as it was for West Virginia. The Mountaineers tied with Connecticut for the most league wins their first three years.

Tech, meanwhile, didn't make the Big East Tournament last season, lost to Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Murray State, and is just 6-5 in non-conference play. That is when most Big East-caliber teams earn fluff wins to pad the total for the NCAA or NIT. Tech, after losing three straight and its first two Big East games, now must win eight of 14 conference contests just to be eligible for the NIT.

The Hokies' top three players are Brian Chase, Carlton Carter and Carlos Dixon. All average more than 11 points per game, and Dixon scores 13. From there the talent drops off immensely, and those three are not enough to carry Virginia Tech. This was virtually a built-in win for East teams during Tech‘s first two years and will remain so this season.

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