Even if you do believe that the Big East will be the power conference of the land this fall, it might not carry over when looking at the ratings, rankings and records this year. On the face of it, fifth doesn't sound very impressive, but when you look at the roster of schools in the league, and the amount of talent returning, fifth becomes something more than it is in the ACC, Big Ten, or other major conferences.
First, the number of schools in the league must be considered. Fifth out of sixteen is a lot better than fifth out or nine, ten or twelve, and that's something that should be kept in mind. With only two or three schools expected to have poor overall seasons this year, the quality and depth of the league, top to bottom, can't be matched. There won't be many easy wins in the league this year, so finishing in the top half of the conference will be a very good achievement.
Of course, we also need to take into account the timing of the coaches' voting in the preseason polls, and what it took into account. Villanova, the top pick, will certainly be hurt if Curtis Sumpter is out for an extended period. Connecticut, which narrowly missed the preseason number one spot (two points behind the Wildcats), could also be adversely effected by the turmoil surrounding the team in the form of legal issues. The preseason voting almost always tends to be based around the success of last year and the number of starters returning, with intangibles, distractions and the like often getting less consideration than they likely deserve.
It's also interesting to note the closeness in the final balloting. Nova and UConn almost evenly split the first place votes (nine and seven, respectively). Louisville, Syracuse and WVU were separated by just 17 points. Pitt, Notre Dame and Cincinnati saw a margin of just three points in their grouping in the middle of the conference. If nothing else, that should be an indication of the closeness of competition we'll see in the league this year.
All this begs the question – is the league too tough? Again, I'll buck conventional wisdom here and say no. Although the Big East is chock full of name teams, many times observers look at schools and remember them as they were at their best, not as they are now. So at the risk of being viewed as tearing down the conference a bit, I'll say that while it's still the best in the land, it's not going to be so tough that teams are going to wear each other out before the NCAAs start. At the bottom of the league, Providence, Rutgers, Seton Hall and South Florida are certainly a cut below the rest, and DePaul and Marquette will likely be fighting for their postseason lives. Before I get a bunch of emails telling me I'm contradicting myself, I'd point out that still leaves at least nine, and perhaps ten, teams that should be in contention for an NCAA berth. Not of all them will get them, of course, and we'll have to endure more rants from the traditional media decrying the selection of so many teams from one conference, but there's no reason eight or nine teams from the Big East can't get an NCAA bid. Those final numbers will likely come down to how the league does in its out of conference games, as there will be a certain amount of eating each others' lunch in league play. To get half, or more, of the league into the Big Dance, the teams must put up quality wins in out of conference play, and I'm not just talking about one per team. Remember that WVU, even with great wins at LSU and N.C. State, along with a home win over George Washington, still had to beat Boston College in the Big East tournament to lock up a trip to the NCAAs.
Now for a few quick observations:
No slams intended at the Cats or Huskies, but Louisville is loaded. WVU had to put on one of the all time great shooting performances just to extend the Cardinals to overtime. The Mountaineers' barrage of threes would have buried most teams, but Louisville was able to withstand the onslaught and fight back to win. There performance was very impressive, if hard for West Virginia fans to swallow. I expect more of the same this year.
The Red Storm is finally emerging from the scandal-plagued years, and is assembling a solid team. They might not be long on depth yet, but they have scorers, rebounders and defenders to deploy this year. Tenth might be too low – I could see them finishing in front of Cincinnati or Notre Dame.
I'm not saying the Bearcats will implode, but it wouldn't surprise me if they do. Any program that undergoes a complete culture change typically struggles to adjust, and UC will certainly have some of the biggest changes to deal with after the ugly war between president Nancy Zimpher and Bob Huggins cost the latter his job. Cincy still has talent, but what will the attitude and chemistry be like?
I'm not upset that only Kevin Pittsnogle made the preseason all-Big East team. In case you haven't been listening, this league is loaded. In fact, it's so deep that only two players (Syracuse's Gerry McNamara and UConn's Josh Boone) were unanimous picks. In a league that's so deep that players like Taquan Dean or Randy Foye don't get tabbed by every coach, there's certainly not a lot of room for arguing the placement of more Mountaineers on the roster.
Of course, WVU's spread the wealth offense will always work against it in earning individual honors, as many of these selections are strictly based on the stats produced by the players. That doesn't mean, of course that the Mountaineers are inferior. For instance, I'd take Mike Gansey over Daryll Hill any day, because, in my view, Gansey is a much more complete player than Hill, who can fill it up offensively but might be a liability in other areas. However, for the most part, there's not much argument with the players on the preseason lists.
Expectations are running high, and the buzz around the Coliseum is as loud as it's ever been. But it probably won't take more than a couple of losses to set a portion of the fan base to grumbling. I'm here to say, before it even starts, to stop it.
When WVU drops a couple of consecutive conference games, think back to last year's group that lost five of six. If the Mountaineers get upset by a team that's clearly inferior, remember the Marshall game. There are going to be bumps in the road.
WVU lost its best attacker of the basket (Tyrone Sally) and its best interior defensive presence (D'or Fischer). They will be replaced by Frank Young, who may be a better shooter but hasn't shown Sally's flair for getting to the hoop, and Robert Summers, who might be a better rebounder but certainly won't block shots and intimidate as Fischer did. That doesn't mean, of course, that the Mountaineers are going into the dumper. There's a great deal of talent and experience on this team, and that will translate into wins. However, WVU probably isn't going to go 14-2 in the league, either. Those expecting West Virginia to roll over every opponent just because they won six games during March Madness just aren't being realistic.
John Beilein's club could have another outstanding season this year. They could be a better team, but not have a record that matches the 24-11 mark from a season ago. Just remember to look beyond the individual wins and losses as you make your judgments this year, and don't abandon ship if there are some hiccups on the 2005-06 voyage.