- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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Here are five storylines I'm keeping an eye on in the Big East:
1. The potential swan song for Pittsburgh and Syracuse
It's still hard to imagine this league without two of the schools that have come to epitomize both the personality and the brand of the Big East. But like it or not, the Panthers and the Orange are now conference short-timers. Nobody knows quite when the end of the road will come, but both are poised to go out with a bang if it's this season.
Pitt has more questions than Syracuse -- in need of replacements for Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee -- but as usual, Jamie Dixon has answers. Ashton Gibbs is my preseason pick for conference player of the year, and Nasir Robinson, still stinging from that end-of-game fiasco against Butler and a recent torn meniscus, is perhaps one of the most underappreciated players in the league and should be good to go for the start of the season.
Syracuse is flat-out loaded. Yes, the Orange need to find a reliable replacement for Rick Jackson to anchor the back of that zone, but between Fab Melo and Rakeem Christmas, I’m sure Jim Boeheim will figure it out. Cuse is good enough and talented enough to reach the Final Four, which would be a bittersweet run for a Big East founding member.
2. The last Big East tournament as we know it?
As the conference shuffle continues -- at last report, the Big East was looking to add as many as six football schools -- the single best week in college basketball (in my opinion) might change forever, and not necessarily for the better.
Pitt and Syracuse already are taking their talents (not to mention their big fan bases) to Tobacco Road. For those who haven’t been in Madison Square Garden when it is more orange than a Florida grove, it’s hard to explain just how much the atmosphere is about to change.
But that very well could be just the beginning. Before season’s end, other teams could leave -- put Louisville, West Virginia, Connecticut and Rutgers on the rumor mill -- and others could come in. A Central Florida-SMU Big East tournament game at the Garden? Oh boy.
3. Does Andre Drummond make Connecticut a legit repeat threat?
The short answer appears to be yes. Jim Calhoun, not one for hyperbole, said his team is more talented right now than last season’s. That would be last season’s national championship team with Kemba Walker.
Part of that is the invaluable experience Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier gained last season, but a big reason for the talent boost is Drummond. When the 6-foot-11 star opted in August to join the Huskies, UConn immediately went from top 10 to top 5. Drummond is a game-changer who could be a No. 1 draft pick in 2012 ... if there’s a draft, that is.
4. Can DePaul finally show progress this season?
The Blue Demons have won one Big East game in each of the past three seasons, so progress is perhaps a relative term. But there is reason, at least, to grab hold of a small slice of cautious optimism. Cleveland Melvin won Big East rookie of the year honors last season, a heck of a feat considering he had but a win against Providence to hang his hat on -- and he wasn’t even the leading scorer in the game. Now with a conference season under his belt, Melvin ought to be even stronger and tougher.
Oliver Purnell also adds Miami transfer Donovan Kirk in late November to shore up his frontcourt. This remains a young team -- freshmen and sophomores dominate the rotation -- so leaps and bounds is asking a lot, especially after the news that top freshman Macari Brooks is ineligible and third-leading scorer Tony Freeland is lost for the season with injury. Nevertheless, there's enough talent on hand that DePaul shouldn’t be the complete walkover it’s been in years past.
5. How many NCAA tournament teams will come from the Big East this season?
That's always a red-hot question and the subject of heated debate. The conference placed a record 11 teams in the field last season. But of those 11, only two made it through the first weekend -- and only by eliminating their league brethren (UConn over Cincy, Marquette over Syracuse). Of course on the flip side, a Big East team did win it all.
So what will happen this season? Whereas in previous years, you could look around the Big East media tables and say unequivocally, "NCAA lock," this year it’s a little murkier. Barring insanity, write Connecticut, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville in ink. You probably can use serious leaded pencil for both Cincinnati and Marquette.
But after that, there are plenty of questions about some of the regulars -- Villanova, Notre Dame, West Virginia and Georgetown all have critical holes to fill in their lineups. Mix in St. John’s, with a plethora of freshmen to replace 10 seniors, and there are plenty more unknowns in the Big East this season.