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April 16, 2009

Big East may withstand loss of top stars

Conventional wisdom states that the quality of play in the Big East has to slip a notch or two after its record-breaking 2008-09 basketball season.

At least one coach in the conference isn't so sure about that.

"I don't think you could ever go in expecting to have three No. 1 seeds or seven teams in the top six seeds [in the NCAA tournament]," Providence coach Keno Davis said. "But when you look at the bottom half of the Big East, almost every team thinks they're going to be better next year.

"It might be more equally proportioned from top to bottom. I don't know if it will be any easier, but the top teams might not get as much recognition coming in."

The league as a whole will have trouble grabbing as much attention as it did this season. Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh made the Big East the first conference to have three No. 1 seeds in a single NCAA tournament. The league set an NCAA record by having nine teams in The Associated Press rankings at one point in the season. And the league had a record four teams reach regional finals, with two (Connecticut and Villanova) advancing to the Final Four.

Only the absence of a Big East team from the national championship game prevented the league from having a legitimate argument that its season was the most productive of any conference in college basketball history.

"I think the Big East this year was just tougher than any time since its inception," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.

It shouldn't be nearly as tough next season, at least at the top. Villanova is bringing in three of the top 30 prospects in the 2009 recruiting class, but the other teams that had the deepest postseason runs this year could take a few steps backward.

Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet, Louisville's dynamic duo of Terrence Williams and Earl Clark and Pittsburgh's trio of DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields are all leaving school. Syracuse's chances of returning to the Sweet 16 could take a hit if point guard Jonny Flynn hires an agent as expected.

In at least one respect, the lack of elite programs actually could help the league. The league was so top-heavy this season that it may have hurt the middle-tier teams seeking NCAA tournament bids. Seven Big East teams were seeded sixth or better in the NCAA tournament but those were the only league teams to receive NCAA bids.

The Big East actually had more NCAA tournament teams (eight) a year earlier, and the ACC and Big Ten sent as many teams to the tournament as the Big East this season.

"What we were worried about in the coaches meetings was would the league [members] chop each other up so that we wouldn't get enough high seeds," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "It did the opposite. We got enough high seeds, but we didn't get enough teams [into the tournament]. People like us and Georgetown and Providence couldn't get enough to get that eighth bid."

It's too early to tell whether the perceived lack of elite teams will create the type of balance Davis is predicting this season.

Georgetown should return to its usual NCAA tournament form as long as Greg Monroe returns to school. Cincinnati should benefit from the lessons learned in its late-season collapse. St. John's could emerge as a surprise if it isn't beset by injury problems again.

On the other hand, Notre Dame could struggle if Luke Harangody enters the NBA draft. Providence must replace leading scorer Weyinmi Efejuku. And while DePaul can't get much worse after going winless in conference play during the 2008-09 regular season, the Blue Demons' two best players (Mac Koshwal and Dar Tucker) could turn pro.

The more likely scenario is that many of the teams that finished in the bottom half of the league this season stay there next season because the conference's premier teams won't backslide as much as expected.

Thabeet's departure leaves Connecticut with a gaping hole in the paint, but Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Kemba Walker still would give the Huskies a solid nucleus. Pittsburgh figures to rebuild after losing Blair, Young and Fields, but recent history suggests the Panthers won't fall too far. The Panthers have made eight consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and they have won at least 20 games overall and 10 Big East games in each of those seasons. Louisville is going to have a hard time replacing Williams and Clark, but the expected improvements of Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings in their sophomore seasons should make the job easier. Pitino also indicated this group should be easier to manage than the team that reached the NCAA Midwest Region final this season.

"We'll have an extremely low-maintenance group," Pitino said. "These guys [on next year's team], getting them to meet for more than 10 minutes is hard. They want to go to work, do their job. They're humble individuals, and now we've just got to develop them."

Most of the teams that finished in the top half of the Big East this season find themselves in similar situations. How soon their young guys develop will determine whether the Big East remains the nation's strongest conference.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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