- Eamonn Brennan, College Basketball Reporter
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The ESPN.com summer previewing tour continues every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with Summer Shootaround, our exhaustive August look at key college hoops conferences. In addition to helping out with the Shootarounds, yours truly will be adding some related commentary on this here blog. Today: a best-case/worst-case look at the Big East.
Best case: Cincinnati lost some of its forward trajectory when Lance Stephenson, the man with the "Born Ready" nickname who at one point (correctly) admitted he wasn't ready for the NBA, decided to head to the pros anyway. The good news for the Bearcats is that even though Stephenson used a high number of possessions, he wasn't particularly efficient with them, and his departure paves the way for promising youngsters like Cashmere Wright and Yancy Gates to see if they can do better. Still, a mid-table finish is probably the most Cincy fans can hope for.
Worst case: If Stephenson's departure proves more important than we think, or Mick Cronin's team merely can't find an efficient offensive option, the Bearcats could be looking at a sub-.500 season.
Best case: Much of UConn's hopes rest on Kemba Walker. The ultra-talented but fundamentally unsound point guard will have to take his game to a different level, one that makes his teammates better while allowing Walker to score in bunches, too. That coherence was missing from last year's Huskies team. The Huskies will also require big leaps from much-touted forwards Ater Majok, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, and Alex Oriakhi. But without a cadre of top-flight UConn-type recruits coming in, there is a very real ceiling on what these Huskies can accomplish.
Worst case: The Huskies could be as disjointed as last year's team. That would be bad news, because that team (with Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson) was arguably more talented. If Walker doesn't excel in a leadership role, or if the program's looming NCAA hearing distracts Jim Calhoun for any stretch, the Huskies -- earmuffs, UConn fans -- could take another dreadful step back.
Best case: The best case for the DePaul Blue Demons is this: Show up to games at the dreary AllState Arena, play hard, maybe win a few and, above all, make sure recruits have a good time when they visit. That's Oliver Purnell's short-term plan, as the first-year coach attempts to rebuild a talent-scarce program that hasn't had any Big East or NCAA tournament success since 2003-04. Actually, scratch that: Best case would see the Blue Demons get some new hoops facilities closer to their pretty campus on Chicago's north side. But that's probably not going to happen.
Worst case: Besides having to play at AllState? OK, I'll stop. Still, projecting a worst case for DePaul seems like folly. The Blue Demons are unlikely to do much in 2010-11, so even if the worst case happens -- a winless conference season? -- Purnell can quietly file it away and move on to more important things. In a way, that has to be refreshing. Frustrating, but refreshing.
Best case: Big Man U built its reputation on the backs of All-American post players, and John Thompson III's tenure has been no different ... until 2010-11. After Greg Monroe's departure to the NBA, Georgetown will be forced to adjust its style, featuring three top guards in Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark. How well the Hoyas adapt to that style -- will Thompson let his team run, or will he continue to slow the game down? -- will determine whether they finish in the Big East's top three.
Worst case: Georgetown should remain competitive -- those guards are just too good -- but if the lack of a true big man is too much for the Hoyas to overcome, they could end up having a just-OK season. A middling Big East season and a No. 6 seed would accurately be considered a letdown.
Best case: Louisville coach Rick Pitino had his share of fun this offseason (and by fun, I mean debilitating and embarrassing public disclosures about a random sexual encounter in a Louisville restaurant) and now he'll have to prove why Louisville brass had his back so relentlessly through his off-court dilemma: He'll have to coach. Louisville doesn't have much talent returning from last year's inconsistent team. Pitino promises to up the tempo in a big way, and if the Cardinals are competitive this year, it will be thanks to Pitino's mastery of high-pressure basketball.
Worst case: Uptempo, pressuring style is great and all, but it helps if you have some talent. Louisville, unfortunately, doesn't have much. Terrence Jennings, Peyton Siva and Preston Knowles are all unproven, and freshman shooting guard Justin Coleman -- who, at No. 50 overall, is the highest-rated player in Louisville's uncharacteristically mediocre recruiting class -- will likely need time to develop before he's Big East-ready. Maybe Louisville's style will make them surprisingly tough. A better bet is a year of struggles almost as frustrating as Pitino's offseason.
Best case: Marquette spent their entire 2009-10 playing in -- and oftentimes losing -- close games. It was a streak of bad luck Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams will be happy to put behind him. The good news for Williams is that luck might not matter so much in 2010-11. Marquette lost star forward Lazar Hayward, one of the Big East's most unsung players, but he retained Jimmy Butler, who posted the country's seventh-best offensive rating last season. Junior Darius Johnson-Odom looks like a leap-ready guard, and Marquette's incoming class (especially No. 7-ranked shooting guard Vander Blue, whose name is decidedly awesome) should immediately contribute to a team that could compete for the Big East title.
Worst case: Make no mistake, though: The gap left by Hayward's graduation is going to be hard to fill. Marquette was not a good rebounding team in 2009-10, and without Hayward around the defensive boards, that problem could worsen. If the Golden Eagles can't find some interior help to complement Butler, Hayward's absence could keep them in the Big East's crowded middle for at least another year.
Best case: In a rational world, the loss of four-year scoring and rebounding machine Luke Harangody would doom Notre Dame to a rebuilding year. Strangely enough, the Irish played their best basketball of 2009-10 when Harangody was out with injury. The Irish will be hoping that was more than a fluke. If senior Tim Abromaitis can keep up his mega-efficient offensive play (he was just a notch behind Jimmy Butler in offensive rating last year), and the Irish can incorporate touted Purdue transfer Scott Martin, Notre Dame could recreate last year's suddenly effective play over more than the last few weeks of the season.
Worst case: What if the Irish's Harangody-less run to the NCAA tournament was a fluke? It's hard to say. But if it was, the Irish will likely lack the talent to do much more than keep pace in the Big East.
Best case: The supposedly rebuilding Panthers were a surprise in 2009-10, finishing in a second-place conference tie despite losing a trio of stars from 2008-09's Elite Eight team. That won't be the case this year: Pittsburgh returns four starters -- breakout guard Ashton Gibbs, backcourt mate Brad Wannamaker and solid forwards Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee -- to a team that should compete for the Big East's top spot yet again.
Worst case: It's hard to imagine an experienced and proven Jamie Dixon-coached team taking much of a step back in the coming year. Instead, the danger for the Panthers is that last year's impressive finish is this team's peak. No one would scoff at another second-place Big East finish, but Dixon will be looking for this group to make a leap, and while that outcome remains a likelihood, it's not a stretch of the imagination to think this particular group of Panthers has already topped out.
Best case: The Friars couldn't have had a worse offseason. Four players -- Johnnie Lacy, James Still, Jamine "Greedy" Peterson and Kadeem Betts -- have faced disciplinary or legal issues since April, and coach Keno Davis just finished a rather ugly recruiting standoff with 2010 NLI holdout Joseph Young. Even if Young had decided to come to Providence, though, Davis' team was never bound for much more than last year's 4-14 Big East finish. In fact, that might the Friars' best case scenario. That's how bad it is.
Worst case: Worst case, obviously, is even worse than that. If Davis plans to keep his job for the foreseeable future, he'll need to field a spirited (if not competitive) team that stays out of trouble for the next eight months. Good luck, Keno.
Best case: New coach Mike Rice's situation is much like fellow first-year DePaul coach Oliver Purnell's. In fact, Rice's situation might be tougher, as the Scarlet Knights lost their two leading scorers (Mike Rosario, Greg Echenique) to transfers. The best case for the Scarlet Knights -- a team lacking anyone taller than 6-foot-8, which is sort of amazing, when you think about it -- is somehow convincing recruits that they can be a part of an up-and-coming program in the years to follow.
Worst case: Again, much like DePaul, Rutgers shouldn't even worry about worst-case scenarios. Just play hard, impress recruits when they arrive, and hope by 2011-12 -- or, more likely, a few years after that -- some added talent can pull the Knights out of their perennial competition for the Big East's wooden spoon.
Best case: Given former coach Bobby Gonzalez's hilarious and bizarre post-firing behavior -- including the coup de grace, a shoplifting charge for the alleged theft of a $1,400 man-purse from a New Jersey mall -- it's easy to forget that Seton Hall was a bubble team last year. Much of the talent from that team returns, including leading scorer Jeremy Hazell. If forward Herb Pope is allowed to play after collapsing during an offseason, the Pirates could be more competitive than you'd think.
Worst case: Even if Pope is back and Hazell remains his efficient self, this is still a team coached by a first-year guy, and still a team that couldn't muster more than a 9-9 record in the Big East last season. Expecting Seton Hall to stay on the bubble seems like a stretch.
Best case: Relative to his talent, Dominique Jones was one of the country's least talked-about players in 2009-10. He's gone now, and the Bulls seem destined to decline without him. If they don't, it will be thanks to forwards Jarrid Famous and Gus Gilchrist and immediate competency from freshman point guard LaVonte Dority, whose name immediately made me want to buy some ranch-flavored Doritos.
Worst case: Even if Famous and Gilchrist excel and Dority manages to keep the point guard spot in check, the fact of the matter is the Bulls lost their star and leading scorer (Jones), their starting point guard (Chris Howard), and their starting off-guard (Mike Mercer). That would be a lot for any team to overcome, and even though the Bulls have made major strides under Stan Heath, a program like South Florida won't bounce back quite so easily from such sustained personnel losses.
Best case: If DePaul and Rutgers have matching situations, St. John's and Seton Hall look awfully similar, too. Both gave their coaches some decent returning talent to work with; it's easy to forget, given Norm Roberts' resignation, that St. John's finished above .500 and made the NIT in 2009-10. Lavin's main focus should be attracting New York talent to his personality-driven program. In the near term, though, his returning core of D.J. Kennedy, Paris Horne, Dwight Hardy and Justin Burrell should prevent the Johnnies from sliding backward in the Lavin's first year.
Worst case: The last thing that will impress recruits is a lifeless season, and you never know how returning players will react to a new coach. If Lavin has any issues in that regard, St. John's could have bigger problems than whether or not it can make the NIT again.
Best case: We won't be fooled again. That's the common refrain surrounding Syracuse, which suffered a supposedly daunting loss of 2008-09 talent only to win the conference outright in 2009-10. Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku are all gone now, but the Orange have replaced them with an elite recruiting class -- including No. 1 overall center Fab Melo -- and a handful of talented players (Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph, Mookie Jones) ready to step into larger roles right away. No, the only way we'll be surprised by this year's Syracuse team is if it doesn't win the Big East.
Worst case: Despite all those talented returners, much of Syracuse's hopes are pinned to Melo. But it's never easy to predict how a recruit will play, even if that recruit is as touted as Melo, and if the big man struggles, Syracuse's lack of bench depth could leave it susceptible in the middle of Jim Boeheim's patented 2-3 zone. Still, the worst case for the Cuse -- a fourth- or fifth-place Big East finish, I guess -- would be the best case for many of its conference foes. Expect more, not less.
Best case: It's a credit to Jay Wright's yearly recruiting efforts that Villanova can lose a player like Scottie Reynolds and still look like a prospective Big East favorite. That's the case in 2010-11, when guards Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns and forwards Antonio Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou will look to bring some much-needed balance to Nova's typically guard-heavy offense. If they do, Villanova shouldn't miss a beat. In some ways, they could be even better.
Worst case: That improvement relies on one thing more than any, though: Defense. Villanova was a stellar offensive team last year, but their weak defense -- caused largely by their propensity for sending their opponents to the free throw line (Nova ranked No. 329 in the country in opponents' free throw rate) -- doomed them to their lifeless finish. If Wright's charges can't figure out how to take a few, the Wildcats could be doomed for another good but ultimately disappointing season.
Best case: Who replaces Devin Ebanks? Who leads like Da'Sean Butler? Those are difficult questions to answer, but the good news for Bob Huggins is that he has a few experienced and talented players left over from last year's run to the Final Four. Turkish forward Deniz Kilicli should improve in his first full year in the lineup, and should prove a nice interior complement to Kevin Jones, whose range extends to the three-point line. If Joe Mazzula and Truck Bryant can anchor the backcourt and Kilicli can help replace some of Ebanks' incredible offensive rebounding ability, Huggy Bear's boys should be able to stay near the top of the Big East yet again.
Worst case: West Virginia had one overwhelming skill in 2009-10: offensive rebounding. Ebanks was one of the main causes for that skill; he grabbed 9.5 percent of available offensive rebounds while on the floor. Kevin Jones was even more proficient, but someone (Kilicli being the most likely candidate) will have to replace Ebanks' ability to keep possessions alive. Harder to replace will be Da'Sean Butler's leadership, especially the six game-winning shots he made throughout the 2009-10 season. Even without those two stars, West Virginia should still be one of the Big East's better teams. But a Final Four squad? We wouldn't go that far just yet.
The ESPN.com summer previewing tour continues every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with Summer Shootaround, our exhaustive August look at key college hoops conferences.