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Wednesday, October 17, 2012
What I can’t wait to see: Big East

By Eamonn Brennan

Editor’s note: For two weeks, we're rolling out Blue Ribbon previews for every team in the country. We'll also have comprehensive preview coverage of the nation's top 10 conferences. As part of that, we're asking our writers to share what they're most looking forward to in each of those leagues. Today we take a look at the Big East.

1. Will Louisville bring some offense too?

I have little doubt the Louisville Cardinals are going to be one of the two or three best defensive teams in the country this season -- probably the best. That's how they ended the 2011-12 season, ranked No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency, smothering previously efficient teams like Michigan State and Florida and even holding eventual champion and all-around offensive juggernaut Kentucky to a reasonable 69 points in 67 possessions in the Final Four.

You could even make the argument that, based on personnel changes, Louisville's defense will improve. Sophomore wingman Wayne Blackshear is more athletic and covers more ground than senior stalwart Kyle Kuric did, while the rest of the formula -- ball pressure by Peyton Siva and Russ Smith and great interior rim defense by Gorgui Dieng -- remains in place.

The question is whether this team can score. With a mark of 47.3, Louisville finished 246th in effective field goal percentage last season. During Big East play, it ranked No. 9 in the league in shooting, No. 13 in turnover rate and No. 13 in offensive efficiency (per KenPom). Which is all a way of saying the Cardinals weren't very good on offense.

With most of the same pieces back, is there reason to expect improvement in this regard? Or is this team essentially what it is, for better or for worse? If so, will defense be enough to get Louisville through the nonconference and the Big East, all the way to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament?

2. Will Michael Carter-Williams explode?

There is good reason to believe that Syracuse is the best challenger to Louisville this season. For one, there's Jim Boeheim's consistency, his methodical 2–3 zone and the range of lanky, athletic forwards who will comprise the Orange yet again this season. Scoring on Syracuse will feel like a nightmare. There is the return of guard Brandon Triche, playing a more natural point guard role. There is the arrival of DaJuan Coleman, a big-bodied freshman forward who could contribute right away. And there is the emergence of young big men like Rakeem Christmas.

Then there is Carter-Williams. MCW was unable to get off the bench much last season -- with Triche, Scoop Jardine and lottery pick Dion Waiters to contend with, there's no shame in that -- but he was a top–25 recruit in the Class of 2011 and the No. 4 shooting guard. By all accounts, he has done nothing but develop into a lethal combo guard in his time at Syracuse. It feels entirely likely that Boeheim could unleash Carter-Williams on an unsuspecting populace this season, with commentators the country over wondering where-oh-where this mega-talented guard came from. You've been forewarned.

3. Can Notre Dame hang around? Cincy? Marquette? How deep is this league?

Louisville is a clear favorite in this league, with Syracuse not too far behind and a pack of good-but-not-great teams following them.

Notre Dame feels like the primary candidate. Led by forward Jack Cooley, who has gone from bench-riding, Gody-lookalike, video-game aficionado to the Big East's best offensive rebounder in two years, the Irish should be as steady as any team in the country. (They got Rick Pitino's vote to win the league at Big East media day Wednesday -- you know, for what that's worth.) Cincinnati has a cadre of solid, proven guards and wingers. If the Bearcats can find the same in the frontcourt, to replace Yancy Gates, they're a top 25-caliber team. Marquette has a host of quick young guards who will get up and down for Buzz Williams.

Most of the teams are solid, but I'm not sure any of them are anywhere near the Cardinals or Orange in terms of talent. The Big East, typically so deep, feels a little bit stratified this season. I'm eager to see how that dynamic plays out.

4. Can Otto Porter make the sophomore leap?

We didn't bring Georgetown up in the last question, though I believe it deserves that kind of preseason love. Despite the losses of Jason Clark and Henry Sims (aka the best passing big man in the game last season), there are good, versatile players in John Thompson III's lineup. Chief among them is Porter.

The sophomore small forward burst onto the scene last season. He hailed from a small town in Missouri, didn’t play AAU and gained a reputation for his ability late in the process. (This used to be commonplace; now it almost never happens.) So when he showed up in D.C., flashing ballhandling ability, a knack for efficient scoring and a tendency to block shots and clean up on the defensive glass -- all in a smooth 6-foot–8 frame -- he was immediately impressive.

I want to see whether Porter can add enough to his game to become a star, the one to lead Georgetown deep into the NCAA tournament. The tools are most certainly there.

5. Is Steven Adams for real?

Last season, Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon brought in No. 1-ranked center Khem Birch. That lasted all of a few weeks. Soon, Birch was vocally complaining about not getting along with teammates (or something like that; the whole thing was kind of confusing) and sealing a transfer to UNLV, where he is likely to form one of the nation's best frontcourts in 2012–13. As Pitt struggled throughout the season, the Birch departure looked like it could have been a long-term killer.

Enter New Zealand native (and borderline Adam Morrison look-alike) Adams, who is billed as "maybe the dominant defensive player in the Class of 2012" by ESPN's recruiting scouting report.

"For a 7–0 player, Adams possesses unusual athleticism, excellent basketball body and a relatively high motor for a young player," the scouts write. "He has broad shoulders, long arms, quick feet and excellent hands for a big man."

The only problem? He’s not all that polished around the rim.

Even so, the addition of an active, athletic 7-footer to a program that always, always rebounds on the offensive end -- even when it has the ever-so-rare bad season, like 2011-12 -- is a fearsome sight indeed. Combined with Dixon's returning assets and fellow signee James Robinson, the No. 4-ranked point guard, the Panthers have a chance to leave a mark on this league by the time the regular season is through.

Everyone is sleeping on Pittsburgh. Let's see if that's a mistake.