Top to bottom, the Big East still might be the toughest basketball conference in the nation this season, but the coaches assembled for Media Day Wednesday at Madison Square Garden agreed that topping last season is next to impossible.
The league had a record three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament (Louisville, Connecticut and Pittsburgh), a record five teams in the Sweet 16 (those three plus Villanova and Syracuse) and a record four in the Elite Eight (all but Syracuse). Nine Big East stars graduated to the NBA, including four lottery picks (UConn's Hasheem Thabeet, Syracuse's Jonny Flynn and Louisville's Terrence Williams and Earl Clark).
"Last year was the best year that I think any league has ever had in terms of teams top to bottom," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who is one win away from 800 for his career, ranking third all-time behind No. 2 Jim Calhoun of UConn (805).
Villanova, which lost to eventual national champion North Carolina in the NCAA semifinals last year, was named the preseason favorite in the coaches' poll, receiving 10 of 16 first-place votes to beat out West Virginia, which lost in the first round of the NCAAs but had three freshmen in its top six plus returning frontcourt stars Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks.
"If we're the No. 1 team, we're not a dominant team," coach Jay Wright said. "We're a young team, and we've got a lot of new players. There are a lot of really good teams that are really close. I think the team that wins this league is going to have a lot of losses."
The Wildcats have a core of returning vets led by point guard Scottie Reynolds plus a stellar crop of recruits that includes Duke transfer Taylor King, redshirt freshman center Maurice Sutton and prep star Isaiah Armwood.
Calhoun must replace the inside dominance of Thabeet at Connecticut. "What's going to happen this year is what I call the 'stars unknown,' " Calhoun said. "We know about Ebanks and Notre Dame with Harangody coming back, but the 'stars unknown' are going to appear."
Calhoun predicted teams such as Cincinnati, Seton Hall and St. John's will improve, and Syracuse with transfer forward Wesley Johnson should be strong. But he really likes West Virginia. Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said forwards Butler and Ebanks are even better as a pair than the Kenyon Martin-Danny Fortson duo he had at Cincinnati.
Ultimately, the Big East might not match last season but still should send a formidable group to the NCAA Tournament. "Villanova is going to be hard for anybody to beat; Louisville is going to be hard to beat, and hopefully, we're to that point," Huggins said. "You go to Syracuse, you're going to play against the best 2-3 zone in the country. You go to Louisville, and you're going to play against pressure. You go to Georgetown, you play the Princeton offense. It's hard, but in a lot of ways, it makes you better because, at the end of the day, you've seen a lot of things."
Results of the Big East preseason coaches' poll, including first-place votes in parentheses and total points:
1. Villanova (10) 218
2. West Virginia (5) 215
3. Connecticut (1) 185
4. Louisville 179
5. Georgetown 161
6. Syracuse 152
7. Cincinnati 135
8. Notre Dame 132
9. Pittsburgh 119
10. Seton Hall 110
11. St. John's 82
12. Marquette 78
13. Providence 52
14. South Florida 44
15. Rutgers 43
16. DePaul 15
The coaches' picks for top individual honors in the Big East:
PLAYER OF THE YEAR - Luke Harangody N. Dame, F, Sr.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR - Lance Stephenson Cincinnati, F, Fr.
Deonta Vaughn Cincinnati, G, Sr.
Greg Monroe Georgetown, C, So.
Lazar Hayward Marquette, F, Sr.
Scottie Reynolds Villanova, G, Sr.
Da'Sean Butler W. Virginia, F, Sr.
Jerome Dyson UConn, G, Sr.
Kemba Walker UConn, G, So.
Samardo Samuels Louisville, F, So.
Jeremy Hazell Seton Hall, G, Jr.
Dominique Jones S. Florida, G, Jr.
Devin Ebanks W. Virginia, F, So.
(tie in voting created 6 positions)
Stanley Robinson UConn., F, Sr.
Arinze Onuaku Syracuse, C, Sr.