- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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This was supposed to be the down year for the Big East Conference. After ascending ridiculous highs last season -- seven NCAA bids, three No. 1 seeds -- the league was supposed to fall flat in the top team department and even flatter in the drama department.
Yeah, how's that theory working out?
The Big East could easily surpass last season's output with eight bids, and some people can make a stretched case for nine.
As for the drama? Maybe there won't be six overtimes in New York this week (please?), but with teams vying for No. 1 seeds, vying for bids and vying for relevance, expect the usual mayhem in Manhattan from, yet again, the best college basketball conference in the country.
Player to watch: Andy Rautins. Wes Johnson is the player of the year candidate, but Rautins is the Orange's engine. A great shooter who makes opponents flat-out paranoid (and with good reason -- he's shooting 39 percent from the arc), he can be equally lethal when he's not scoring. Case in point: In the marquee game against Villanova, Rautins had only 12 points as the Wildcats keyed their defense on him. His response? Eight assists and three steals.
Stat of note: The Orange are one of three teams (with Pittsburgh and Connecticut) to claim two conference tourney titles this decade (2001-2010). Can the Cuse go out as the team of the decade with a third?
Reason to care: Syracuse is among a handful of teams considered national championship worthy. The regular-season champion Orange also will be heavy favorites to win their first Big East tournament title since Gerry McNamara caught lightning in a bottle in 2006. Here's the catch: Postseason success in the league hasn't been a precursor to NCAA tournament success. In the past 11 years, only two teams -- Georgetown and Connecticut -- have managed the impossible trifecta of winning the Big East regular season, winning the conference tournament and making it to the Final Four. Only the 1999 Huskies managed to win it all.
Player to watch: Gary McGhee. Ashton Gibbs and Gilbert Brown provide the offense, Jermaine Dixon the defense and the pulse, but the improvement of McGhee is what has really helped the Panthers to their stunning No. 2 spot. Filling the impossibly big shoes of DeJuan Blair, McGhee has been solid offensively but huge on the boards, averaging seven rebounds per game.
Stat of note: The Panthers are the winningest Big East tourney team in the past decade, racking up a 19-7 record since 2001. To keep the success going, however, Pitt will need help from new faces and places. The current roster collectively has 47 career points in the conference tourney.
Reason to care: The Panthers were among the teams expected to vie for the tourney title last season and instead were stunned in their first game. This season, Pitt wasn't supposed to do much of anything, but is sitting second in the league. With Dixon nursing a rolled ankle, the double-bye might actually play in Pitt's favor this time around.
Player to watch: Da'Sean Butler. He leaves West Virginia third on a pretty prestigious list, behind only Jerry West and Hot Rod Hundley in scoring in Morgantown. Butler is more than a scorer. He can rebound (6.3 per game) and dish out assists (3.3). It's just he's so good at scoring. Butler failed to reach double digits just four times this season.
Stat of note: With 129 career points in the Big East tourney, Butler leads all active players in the scoring category. He has a chance to move into the top five so long as the Mountaineers don't pack up quickly. Getting to No. 1, however, will be tough. Chris Mullin racked up 201 points in just 10 conference tournament games.
Reason to care: The Mountaineers are among a small collection of teams that could slip into the final No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament. They've won five of their past eight, and going the distance here would put meat on the bone.
Player to watch: Scottie Reynolds. The big-game player is made for the bright lights of Manhattan. In six Big East tournament games, Reynolds is averaging 16.2 points per game. But it is the efficiency in those shots that is most impressive. In 16 of Villanova's past 22 games, the senior has shot 50 percent or better from the floor.
Stat of note: Villanova has won at least one game in the Big East tournament in each of the past six editions, the longest streak of its kind among current teams.
Reason to care: Once an in-ink choice for a top seed, the Wildcats have spiraled down the NCAA and Big East seedings with four losses in their past six games. The Cats went from 9-0 in the league to a stumbling 4-5 finish. Villanova certainly wants to steady the ship before the NCAA tournament begins.
Player to watch: Jimmy Butler. A solid sub last season, the junior college player has stepped into the void in the backcourt. He's averaging 15 points per game, but even better, he's shooting 54 percent from the floor.
Stat of note: Once a hard-luck team -- the Golden Eagles lost their first five league games by a total of 11 points -- Marquette managed to reverse its fortunes. Four of the Eagles' final five games went into OT. Marquette lost only one.
Reason to care: Another surprise team, the Golden Eagles have survived the graduation of their vaunted guard triumvirate and emerged on the other side. Marquette is in right now, but with a loss in the regular-season finale to Notre Dame, not exactly in with gusto.
Player to watch: Edgar Sosa. Just how long Louisville lasts in New York depends on the city's native son. Sosa could lift the Cardinals to new heights -- a la the winning, impossibly difficult layup he scored against Connecticut -- or shoot them out of New York in one night, such as his 0-for-6 effort in the stunning loss to St. John's. He could even do both in the span of one game.
Stat of note: So the Cardinals don't like Pittsburgh. The team, not the city. In their conference tourney history, the Cards are 4-0 against anyone not nicknamed the Panthers and 0-3 against that team of the three rivers.
Reason to care: Much like their erratic point guard, the Cardinals are hard to predict. They could be gone in 40 minutes or hanging around Saturday night. With a sweep of Syracuse (digest that for a second), Louisville played itself off the bubble and into the tourney. What remains to be seen here is whether or not these Cards are like many Rick Pitino-coached teams: late bloomers.
Player to watch: Luke Harangody. The one-time conference player of the year is coming off the bench while he returns from a knee bruise. He didn't do much in his first game back -- five points against Marquette -- but that doesn't mean he won't here. If Harangody gets back into form and the Irish play with him as well as they played without him, Notre Dame could continue its stunning rally.
Stat of note: Over the last seven Big East tournaments, the Irish have won a grand total of three games.
Reason to care: No one has righted their fortunes so dramatically as the Irish. A double-overtime loss at Louisville with Harangody sitting on the bench seemed to seal Notre Dame's fate a month ago. Instead, the Irish reeled off four consecutive victories to go from out to in. Could they be summoning up a miraculous New York run?
Player to watch: Austin Freeman. Recently diagnosed with diabetes, Freeman already has quieted any concerns that the disease might impact his play. In the regular-season finale, he dropped 24 on Cincinnati. But New York hasn't been kind to him. He has yet to score in double digits in the Big East tourney.
Stat of note: Georgetown has the most wins (46) and best winning percentage (.667) in Big East tournament history. The Hoyas also have claimed the most titles with seven.
Reason to care: Which Hoyas team will show up -- the one that roared out of the gates against Villanova or the one that lost to Rutgers? When the Hoyas are clicking, they are as good as anyone in the conference and more than capable of winning the whole thing. When they aren't, they're more than capable of being upset.
Player to watch: Dominique Jones. He put himself on the map during a four-game swing when he averaged 35 points per game from Jan. 23 through Feb. 3. He's no flash in the pan. Only one team -- Louisville -- managed to hold him to less than 10 points all season. He's dynamic and flat-out fun to watch.
Stat of note: The Bulls shoot just 29 percent from the 3-point line, second-worst in the league.
Reason to care: South Florida is a long shot to make the tournament at this point, but if the league has a chance at a ninth bid, it will come down to the Bulls or Seton Hall. Whichever team wins most in the Big East tourney has the edge in the long-shot derby.
Player to watch: Herb Pope. Jeremy Hazell is the scoring machine, but Pope is the reason the Pirates have moved up the Big East ladder. Not always a prolific scorer, he's tireless on the boards, where he averages 11 rebounds a game. For a team that likes to go and score as much as Seton Hall, each ball Pope corrals is critical.
Stat of note: The Pirates haven't lost to a team with an RPI worse than 64 all season.
Reason to care: Bobby Gonzalez might actually self-combust on live television. Seriously, the volatile coach is unstable on his calmest days -- and now he comes to NYC on the bubble and under the microscope after a New York Times story examined his combative behavior. With the Pirates clinging to the slimmest of NCAA hopes -- they won six of their past eight -- expect Gonzo mania to be at an even higher fever pitch.
Player to watch: Lance Stephenson. "Born Ready" was occasionally tardy, as his rookie season was a mix of flashes of brilliance and head-scratching decisions. Stephenson says he'll be back next year -- a decision absolutely no one saw at the start of the season, but it's the absolutely smart decision.
Stat of note: The Bearcats are winless in New York since joining the Big East four years ago. South Florida is the only other new addition to still have a goose egg in the W column.
Reason to care: What many thought (present company included) could be a breakout season for the Bearcats hasn't materialized, but there is still more than enough talent on this squad to upset a few apple carts in the Big Apple.
Player to watch: Stanley Robinson. The best athlete and best player in a Connecticut uniform often forgets he is either. Robinson, whose ups are otherworldly, has the ability to take over the game, but his love affair with his jumper often takes him out of the game. If the man they call Sticks plays to his potential and plays smart, UConn could make things interesting.
Stat of note: The Huskies, in need of a miracle run, will have to right their own history. Connecticut has lost five conference tournament games in a row. Of course, it took six overtimes before the last one was decided.
Reason to care: For starters, it will be interesting to see if Jim Calhoun makes good on his threat and keeps Gavin Edwards, Robinson and Jerome Dyson on the bench to start the tourney. Smart money says yes. The man isn't one for idle threats. Beyond that, the Huskies, with the ignominious distinction of playing on Tuesday, are playing for survival. Anything less than a trophy probably spells N-I-T.
Player to watch: D.J. Kennedy. DeJuan Blair's running mate back in Pittsburgh, Kennedy has done his best to carry a Red Storm team that never got over the loss of Anthony Mason Jr. He reached double figures in 13 of 18 Big East games.
Stat of note: There is no home-court advantage at the Garden for the Red Storm. This season they were just 8-7 at home.
Reason to care: Conventional wisdom says coach Norm Roberts is coaching with his job on the line (though conventional wisdom said the same last season and Roberts was retained). The Red Storm pulled off a stunning win against a dispirited Georgetown team one year ago to start the tourney. Can they do the same against a similarly reeling Connecticut team?
Player to watch: Dane Miller. The freshman has improved steadily throughout the season and is capable of offering another scoring punch when teams swarm Mike Rosario. The Scarlet Knights absolutely need him to score if they want a chance to win a game here.
Stat of note: A conference member since 1995-96, Rutgers and Notre Dame are the Big East's version of the Cubs. Neither has won a conference tourney title.
Reason to care: Coach Fred Hill is on the hot seat as well, as Rutgers has been like the proverbial tree in the forest when it comes to the Big East tourney. In his first two seasons, the Knights didn't qualify for New York. Last season, they were dispatched on Tuesday night, before some teams checked into their hotels. Can Rutgers show some sort of life this season?
Player to watch: Jamine Peterson. Who saw this coming? He averaged 4.7 points and 2.9 rebounds in a limited role as a rookie. Last season, at new coach Keno Davis' suggestion, he redshirted. This season? Peterson posted 15 double-doubles in 30 games. Nicknamed "Greedy," he is fourth in the league in scoring and second in rebounding.
Stat of note: The Friars tote a heavy burden of a 10-game losing streak to New York, their longest drought since 2000.
Reason to care: Providence likes to score points: The Friars are second only to Villanova in scoring offense among Big East teams. Mix in the fact that they don't particularly like to play defense -- they give up 81.3 points per game -- and their game against Seton Hall should be fairly entertaining.
Player to watch: Will Walker. He dropped 31 on Providence in a losing effort in last season's quarters. He went for 35 against Notre Dame this season. What does he have in store for the Big East tourney this time around?
Stat of note: The Blue Demons finished in the red in scoring margin on the season, outdone by their opponents by 5.8 points per game. That explains a lot.
Reason to care: Last season the Blue Demons didn't win a game in the conference regular season and then all but shocked the world when they sent Cincinnati packing in the tourney opener. This season, DePaul already has its requisite victory -- way back on Jan. 20, the Demons topped Marquette -- but is back in the conference tip spot. Can the Demons stun the world again?
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.