- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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The Big East was much maligned in the preseason after exhausting the eligibility of its key players, as well as the defection of some players who left for the NBA.
But the largest league in the country once again should be one of the best, and perhaps one of the most competitive, with a chance to have more bids than any other conference.
Team to beat: Syracuse
This is a debatable argument, but the Orange do have the most talent of any team in the Big East and might have the greatest upside. The freshmen have hardly scratched the surface of their potential, notably Fab Melo. A lot of Melo's problems have been his Achilles injury.
Meanwhile, Rick Jackson has been the most consistent inside player in the conference as a double-double machine. Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche are all fully capable of leading this team in scoring. The Orange have had their share of near-misses and the best win -- over Michigan State in Madison Square Garden -- has lost some luster thanks to the way the Spartans have played of late. But the Orange (13-0) are still finding ways to win and have some solid victories against mid-major programs that have performed well (Northern Iowa and Drexel).
Georgetown has wins at Old Dominion, over Missouri in Kansas City and at Memphis. The only loss was at Temple. The Hoyas have three of the best guards in the league in Austin Freeman, Jason Clark and Chris Wright. If the bigs continue to progress, the Hoyas might be the toughest challenger to Syracuse.
Pitt was predicted to win, and still might, but the Panthers got beat up on a bad day against Tennessee. The Panthers are one of the best teams, but lack a breakout star. Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker can all go off but they don't have that mentality to take the team on their back. Expect the Panthers to be in the race down to the last weekend, too.
Player of the year: Kemba Walker
The junior guard is one of a handful of favorites to win the national award, as well. No player has been as dominant or as needed by his team. Walker had an epic performance in Maui with 31, 30 and 29 points on three successive days to win the Invitational. The latter two came against Michigan State and Kentucky. His high mark came against Vermont before that trip with 42 points. While Alex Oriakhi is a near-double-double performer (11.3 ppg and 9.9 rpg), the Huskies' role players are still searching for consistency. Walker could lead the Huskies to a potential Big East title, but that seems a bit far-fetched. He can do only so much. So don't be surprised to see the Huskies finish anywhere from third to sixth, but still a solid seed in the NCAAs.
Early surprise: Louisville
The Cards are getting sensational play out of Peyton Siva and Preston Knowles and have one blemish: a home loss to Drexel. Louisville hasn't been truly tested outside the KFC Yum! Center except for a win over Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, Ky. Beating UNLV at home was the best win for the Cards, followed by Butler. Playing Kentucky next will be a strong indicator as well. Still, the Cards are a good watch for the most part, and Rick Pitino has them primed to be possible NCAA-bid contenders.
Staying power: Villanova and Notre Dame, for different reasons
Nova will be a title contender because of the play on the perimeter of Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns. But the Irish also have as much balance as any team in the league. Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough can shoot Notre Dame to plenty of wins in the Big East. Hansbrough also brings a bit more toughness to this team.
The big unknown: Cincinnati
The Bearcats were one of a handful of teams remaining undefeated at 12-0. They beat Dayton, Wright State, Oklahoma and at Miami (Ohio). Does that do much for you? Well, it shows they can win games away from home and beat teams they're supposed to beat. Dion Dixon and Yancy Gates are a solid 1-2 punch for the Bearcats. And, most importantly, they are confident going into the Big East.
The biggest question: West Virginia
The Mountaineers are 8-2, losing at Miami and to Minnesota in Puerto Rico. Neither of those losses should be cause for concern. But there is still something missing here. They haven't had that breakout performance from Kevin Jones that makes you convinced he's a star.
Casey Mitchell shot well and put up major numbers in Puerto Rico, but then his minutes were erratic again as coach Bob Huggins still hasn't totally embraced the enigmatic Mitchell.
Guards Darryl Bryant and Joe Mazzulla should be better leaders than they've been at times this season. And the Mountaineers can't get consistent play out of the post and Deniz Kilicli. This team still could finish in the top three in the Big East or, more likely now, in that muddled middle.
Scrappiest teams: Marquette, St. John's and Rutgers
The Golden Eagles haven't won any big games but, as always is the case with the Golden Eagles, you'll get a workout against them. Scoring hasn't been an issue for Marquette this season, but closing games has once again been a problem. St. John's faced poor scheduling with two West Coast trips in the first week of the season. The Red Storm then laid an egg at home against St. Bonaventure and at Fordham. But the shooting and defense in the second half of a win over Northwestern last week proved Steve Lavin's team can be a pest in the Big East. Rutgers isn't talent-challenged, and Mike Rice has this squad ready to be a real pain to play. The win over Miami at home was a strong indicator.
South Florida has seen a dramatic dropoff after Dominique Jones left, and the Bulls went from a possible bubble team to last place. South Florida did beat VCU in overtime, took BYU to two overtimes before losing and beat Texas Tech. The Bulls lost to Central Florida, Southern Miss and Cleveland State, all respectable based on how those teams are performing. But the Bulls have lost their mojo a bit from last season.
Best of the rest
Among Seton Hall, DePaul and Providence, the Pirates certainly have the most talent, but they have struggled to find a consistent stride with Jeremy Hazell injured. DePaul is trying to figure itself out under new coach Oliver Purnell, and winning three straight before the Big East opener is a positive sign. Providence has a lofty record at 11-2 and a big-time scorer in Marshon Brooks (23.1 ppg). But, once again, it's hard to get too giddy about the Friars just yet. They've teased before, and they might tease again.
Grading the preseason picks
1. Pitt: The Panthers are still viable Big East title contenders.
2. Villanova: The Wildcats have a shot at second.
3. Syracuse: No problem with the Orange being selected here in the preseason.
4. Georgetown: The Hoyas will finish in the top four.
5. West Virginia: So far the Mountaineers aren't playing like top-five finishers.
6. St. John's: Too high. Same NIT team from a year ago.
7. Notre Dame: The Irish have played better than a seventh pick.
8. Louisville: The Cards did lose at home to Drexel, but most often at home look like a top-three team.
9. Marquette : The Golden Eagles were probably picked where they should have been, but they haven't picked up a quality win.
10 UConn: No one had this right. You had to figure the Huskies would be better than 10th. UConn is fully capable of finishing in the top two spots, although that might be a reach.
11. Seton Hall: The Pirates are performing like a bottom-six team.
12. Cincinnati: The Bearcats are undefeated, so it looks odd that they were picked 12th. But the schedule will change dramatically in the league. Still, a 12th-place finish seems unlikely now.
13. South Florida: The Bulls could have been picked 15th.
14. Providence: No issue with this selection.
15. Rutgers: Expect Mike Rice's crew to be nudging for the 10 spot.
16. DePaul: The Blue Demons have done nothing to suggest they won't be in this bottom discussion.
Preseason player of the year
Georgetown's Freeman. I wondered then about this selection. Freeman will be an All-Big East player, likely first-team, but it was hard to rally behind him being the preseason pick for player of the year.
Putting Rick Jackson of Syracuse as merely an honorable mention. Jackson is a legit candidate for Big East Player of the Year. But who knew?
Rookie of the year
Once again, Melo was projected to be a star. He's been hurt and hasn't ever been unleashed. The problem is that no freshman in the Big East has been ahead of any other. One to keep an eye on is Pitt's Talib Zanna. He's averaging 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds and could emerge as much more of a contributor in conference play.
Best place to watch a game this season
It's probably going to be the Yum! Center, because of all the amenities and the plush surroundings. The Petersen Center still rocks and will likely be the toughest home court in the league again.
Allstate Arena earns my prize. Never been a fan of airport arenas or gyms an hour away from campus when traffic hits. That puts DePaul at a disadvantage from the beginning.
1. The two Syracuse-Georgetown games: Feb. 9 in Syracuse and Feb. 26 in Washington D.C.
2. "College Gameday" will be at the Pavilion (aka the "Ski Lodge") as Villanova hosts Pitt on Feb. 12.
3. Louisville at Connecticut on Jan. 29. You could pick a number of UConn games against the top teams in the conference, but this game promises to be a wide-open, guard-loving affair with pushing tempo as the order of the day.
4. Georgetown at Notre Dame, Dec. 29. This makes the list because if the Hoyas open the Big East with a road win in South Bend, they might assume the favorite status, while the Irish could use a win like this to make everyone take them even more seriously.
5. Syracuse at Pitt and then hosting Villanova on Jan. 17 and 22. You'll know a lot about where the Orange stand in the standings after that week.
NCAA-bound (8): Syracuse, Connecticut, Pitt, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Louisville, Villanova and West Virginia
NCAA top four (1-4) seeds: Syracuse, Pitt, Georgetown, Villanova, Connecticut
Sweet 16 teams: Syracuse, Pitt, Georgetown
NIT: Cincinnati, St. John's, Marquette
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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