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2003-04 Big East Preview

After tumultuous summer, league looks to build on last season's postseason success

by Raphielle Johnson

Only months after watching its members put together one of the most successful postseasons in college basketball history, the Big East sat and watched as the Atlantic Coast Conference poked and prodded amongst its membership in vulture-like fashion. The end result was the loss of Miami and Virginia Tech, with Boston College deciding to follow as the 12th member a couple of weeks ago. Yet all three of these programs will be in the league this season, giving opponents a few more chances to get some good parting shots in. Whether or not all three make it to the annual party at Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament is another matter. Just like last season, the Big East can make a claim for being the best league in America, and last postseason no other league could say that. Syracuse won the first national title in school history on the back of super freshman Carmelo Anthony, who is now in a Denver Nugget uniform. Coach Jim Boeheim need not worry; however, with the return of Hakim Warrick, Gerry McNamara, and Craig Forth among others, and one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, the Orange will make it tough on any team attempting to take their crown.

All four Big East teams that made the NCAA's (Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame) reached at least the Sweet 16. Among the league teams that were invited to the NIT (Seton Hall, Boston College, Georgetown, St. John's, Villanova, Providence), four won at least one game, and the Hoyas and Red Storm faced off for the title, with the Johnnies taking the trophy on their "home" court. Add to that UConn's womenís national crown and you have the most successful postseason; arguably, in league history (1985 and 1987 were great years as well, to name two). People around the nation hoping for the demise of Big East basketball received a rude awakening, and look for more of the same this season.

Projected Order of Finish

1. Connecticut (NCAA) - Coach Jim Calhoun has a team that is absolutely loaded. All starters return, with the only major loss being Tony Robertson. Add to that the top recruiting class in the nation, and that leads to the preseason number one ranking in most national publications. The challenges for this team are the juggle the roles of each player and keep up the good team chemistry. Senior PG Taliek Brown and preseason All-American juniors Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon will be the ones who will take on this task. Expect to see another banner hanging in Gampel Pavilion. Whether there is only a league title or something more is up to the players and their mentality. Key player: PG Taliek Brown. Must play consistently and keep the entire team going in the same, positive direction.

2. Syracuse (NCAA) - Yes, Jim Boeheim has finally won a national title at Syracuse, but don't expect either Boeheim or the Orange faithful to be satisfied with just one, for the talent needed for a repeat is firmly in place. Carmelo Anthony was a huge loss, but an expected loss at that. The Orange bring in one of the best recruiting classes in America, and with the amount of talent returning from last season, expect a deep tourney run for the 'Cuse. How the freshmen adjust to their roles will decide how far Syracuse gets this year. Key player: Hakim Warrick. Itís time for Warrick to realize his potential and take some of the scoring load left behind by Anthony's departure.

3. Pittsburgh (NCAA) - New coach Jamie Dixon takes over for Ben Howland, who left to try and clean up the mess known to many as UCLA. But the cupboard is not empty at all for the former Howland assistant. PG Carl Krauser takes over for Brandin Knight, but Julius Page and Chevon Troutman return to this physical team. Add to that the arrival of two large freshmen, 7-foot, 280 pound Aaron Gray and 6-10 230 pound Chris Taft, and there shouldn't be too much of a drop-off for the Panthers. Now you can add in Mark McCarroll to the mix since heís finally showing why the coaching staff was as high on him as a recruit. They, like Georgetown, had a soft schedule to start the year, so weíll see how they deal with the challenging league schedule. Key player: Chevy Troutman. With the loss of Ontario Lett and Donatas Zavackus, Troutman needs to leads the suddenly green frontline for Pitt.

4. Providence (NCAA) - Here's one thing that Friar fans can look forward to this season: every single player from last season returns. Post presence Ryan Gomes now has help with a deeper bench behind him. Gomes showed improvement from his freshman year last season, and expect more of the same from one of the most underrated players in America. Add in senior C Marcus Douthit, and depth at each position, and the people in "Friartown" are eagerly anticipating this season. The key is balancing the minutes at the guard spots between Donnie McGrath, Abdul Mills (who is injured again following last seasonís medical redshirt), and Sheiku Kabba. If Welsh and the Friars can accomplish this, look for these guys to shock someone in March. Key player: F Rob Sanders. The athletic forward should be even more productive this season once he returns to the lineup. He was the difference-maker in their 70-51 beating of Illinois last month.

5. Notre Dame (NCAA)- After watching PG Chris Thomas flirt with the NBA Draft, Golden Domers were pleased with the news that Thomas would return for his junior year rather than stay in the Draft. He comes back with a renewed sense of what the scouts look for in a point guard. However, Mike Brey will not be able to lead this team back to the Sweet 16 if they continue to struggle. Non-conference play has shown that the Irish need to find another consistent scoring threat, and Chris Thomas needs to be more consistent himself for them to win. PF Torin Francis showed why so many were high on him leading into his freshman campaign, but another option has to step up down in the post. Key player: G Chris Quinn. Chris Thomas needs help in the backcourt with Matt Carroll gone, and Brey will look to Quinn first for that assistance.

6. Seton Hall (NCAA) - With PF/C Kelly Whitney returning from his academic suspension, the Pirates were able to give some other players a look. Guards Andre Barrett and John Allen will be the key to the Hall navigating a treacherous pre-conference schedule with a trip to Louisville and a possible meeting in the Great Alaska Shootout with Duke, along with visits by Rhode Island and Ohio State, but it will be a moot point without help from forwards Marcus Toney-El and Andre Sweet. Coach Louis Orr found a welcome bench scoring option during non-conference play in the form of J.R. Morris. The schedule is in place for Seton Hall to make a run at an at-large berth, but finding rebounding help for Whitney is the key as to which tournament they qualify for. Key player: Marcus Toney-El. Marcus needs to contribute more on the glass for this team. He has shown the ability to fill all areas of the stat sheet during his career. Now the team needs more from him.

7. Villanova (NIT) - Another telephone scandal managed to ruin the chemistry that the Wildcats were able to build in the middle of an inconsistent season. More than half of the roster was implicated in the scandal, with some of the returning serving time on the bench this year as a result. The majority of last season's team returns, including a now healthy Jason Fraser, who had a tough time adjusting to the physicality of the Big East as a freshman. Look for the Wildcats to build on last season and make a run for the NCAA's, falling just short. With a few wins out of league play, however, 'Nova could find themselves in the Big Dance, for the schedule is in place. Key player: F Curtis Sumpter. He can be another offensive option for the Wildcats, which is needed down low.

8. Boston College (NIT) - A late arrival to the ACC, the Eagles find themselves looking at a year without Troy Bell for the first time in four seasons. Boy do they wish that he had some eligibility left. Sophomores Craig Smith, a unanimous selection to the All-Rookie Team, and Louis Hinnant find themselves with a team devoid of significant experience besides post players Uka Agbai (medical redshirt due to neck injury last season) and the foul-prone Nate Doornekamp. Ryan Sidney left the team due to personal reasons, and Andrew Bryant was asked by Coach Al Skinner to leave the program. This, along with league rivals looking to give BC a nice going away present, spells possible doom for the fans in Chestnut Hill. But do not expect the Eagles to go out with a whimper. Key player: Craig Smith. Agbai comes back, giving him another physical presence to work with, but he still has to pick up the scoring load.

9. Miami (NIT) - The first of the three defectors to the ACC, Miami sure is lucky that the league did not worry much about basketball when looking to get to twelve members. The Hurricanes, led by head coach Perry Clark, went 2-10 on the road, and yet picked up quality home wins over North Carolina and Connecticut last season. Senior F Darius Rice showed flashes of brilliance along with an infuriating tendency to flat-out disappear when challenged physically. This is his last chance to show the potential that he displayed as a McDonald's High School All-American on a consistent basis. The low post bangers are present in the form of Rodrigue Dhajue and a solid bench. However, this team will go as far as PG Armando Surratt can lead them. Darius had better rest that shooting arm, for the 'Canes will need him to put up a lot of points this season. Key player: PG Armando Surratt. Surratt's play last season could best be described as erratic. He needs to be much more consistent for Miami to improve at all this year.

10. Georgetown (NIT) - Coach Craig Escherick, armed with a contract extension, did some housecleaning last off-season. In addition to the losses of Mike Sweetney and Wesley Wilson, Escherick allowed guards Tony Bethel and Drew Hall, the starting backcourt, to transfer. Bethel ended up at NC State and Hall is at Gonzaga. Sophomore F Brandon Bowman was also released from his scholarship, but he elected to stay. The Hoyas are now a young team devoid of experience, and it will show on the court this season. A soft schedule to begin the year was meant to give them confidence, and the Hoyas are still undefeated. A Big East Tournament without GU at the Garden may seem weird, but it is a definite possibility this year. Key player: Brandon Bowman. Assume that Bowman will be the focal point of the Georgetown offense, since there aren't many other options available.

11. Rutgers (NIT) - Coach Gary Waters did the opposite of what the powers that be at North Carolina did when presented with angry players: get rid of them, not the coach. Three major contributors are now gone, but forwards Herve Lamizana and Sean Axani return to the Scarlet Knights. Calvin Wooten is still recovering from an ACL tear, so expect a point guard by committee until he returns. After worrying that he would be asked to leave as well, sophomore G Juel Wiggan is in possession of the reins to the Rutgers attack. How he adjusts to this new responsibility will determine how well the Knights do this season. The other determining factor for the Scarlet Knights will be whether or not they can win on the road, which has been a problem since they entered the league. Key player: Herve Lamizana. A majority of the scoring from last season is gone, meaning that the time is now for the senior from the Ivory Coast.

12. West Virginia - Second year coach John Beilein returns the wealth of last season's team, including junior G Drew Schifino and sophomore C Kevin Pittsnogle, who was a member of the Big East All-Rookie Team last year. The key for the Mountaineers is finding a reliable option at the point, and if they can do this, and NIT berth is well within reach. West Virginia struggled mightily on the road last season, finishing with a record of, which ultimately resulted in their just missing the NIT with a record of 14-15. Now that Beilein and the youngsters are acquainted with going on the road in the Big East, they should fare better than last season. The bad news for the Mountaineers is that Schifino is suspended indefinitely due to a violation of team rules. Key player: G/F Johannes Herber. With Schifino out going into conference play, Herber needs to expand his game rather than rely on his outside shot.

13. St. Johns - The Marcus Hatten era has ended at St. John's, and the star guard will be missed. But that also means that the Darryl "Showtime" Hill era will begin. Hill, who arrives with high regard, will share the backcourt with sophomore Elijah Ingram, who showed promise, and an inconsistent perimeter shot, in his freshman campaign. With Willie Shaw kicked off the team for good, this team has no consistent perimeter shooters. How this team deals with that issue along with the lost leadership of Hatten and Glover will determine if the Red Storm even get to defend their Postseason NIT title or go to the Big East Tournament. Key player: C Abe Keita. With Glover gone, Keita must step up in order to lead the Johnnies to the Big Dance, and possibly for interim coach Kevin Clark to become permanent coach.

14. Virginia Tech - New coach Seth Greenberg comes to Blacksburg from South Florida, where he recruited well yet still found a way to never make it to the NCAA Tournament. To be honest, the Hokies wanted Jim Baron, but the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year felt that it would be smarter to stay at Rhode Island. Good thinking, for much won't change for Virginia Tech basketball this season. The Hokies are a young team on the interior, and without Terry Taylor down low, this will be another long season. Brian Chase has also graduated, leaving this team devoid of a point guard. However, they are a dangerous team at Cassell Coliseum, evident in their 24-point beating of Connecticut last year. How perimeter players Bryant Matthews and Carlos Dixon play will determine how well the Hokies play. Key player: G Bryant Matthews. Matthews showed promise last season, but with Taylor and Chase gone must step up.

 

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