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November 1, 2011
Today we finish our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we've been working backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.
1. BIG EAST
While the Big East's future is extremely cloudy, one thing is perfectly clear: It's still the best conference in college basketball.
The Big East enters the 2011-12 season with seven teams ranked in the Rivals.com Preseason Top 32 Countdown - at least two more teams than any other league - and all seven have at least Sweet 16 (if not Elite Eight or even Final Four) potential.
And remember, the Big East's ninth-place team a year ago, Connecticut, won the national championship.
UConn shouldn't have to worry about a ninth-place finish this season. Despite the loss of all-everything G Kemba Walker, the Huskies should have more than enough to win the Big East and could even repeat as national champions.
Sophomore G Jeremy Lamb emerged during the NCAA tournament, averaging 16.2 points and 4.8 rebounds and shooting 58 percent from the field during the title run, and he should be the Huskies' go-to player with Walker gone. Expect G Shabazz Napier and Fs Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi to also build on their postseason success of a year ago.
Adding to the Huskies' excitement is the arrival of C Andre Drummond, who changed his mind about a second year in prep school and signed with the Huskies in August. He will be a dominant force down low, although he may be slowed a bit by a broken nose and concussion he suffered in practice last week. Five-star F DeAndre Daniels and four-star G Ryan Boatright should also make an immediate impact for the Huskies, who may not be eligible for the 2013 NCAA tournament because of new academic rules recently passed by the NCAA.
Syracuse and Pittsburgh may not represent the Big East in the 2013 NCAA tourney, either, depending on how their exit from the league to the ACC pans out. In 2011-12, though, the Orange and Panthers appear to have the best shot at edging out the Huskies for the top spot in the conference.
The Orange return four starters from a 27-win team, including one of the best backcourts in the nation in Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche. Leading scorer Kris Joseph (14.3 ppg) headlines a frontcourt that also includes Fab Melo, Baye Moussa Keita and highly touted newcomer Rakeem Christmas. The Panthers return sharpshooter Ashton Gibbs (16.8 ppg), who hit nearly 50 percent of his 3-point attempts last season, and Travon Woodall will replace Brad Wanamaker at the other guard spot. Pitt has reached 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments - the longest such streak in the Big East. The only thing missing from coach Jamie Dixon's resume is a Final Four appearance, and he may get it this season.
The Golden Eagles have one of the Big East's top players in senior G Darius Johnson-Odom, but another guard needs to emerge. Louisville has experience with G Peyton Siva and swingman Kyle Kuric, but injuries continue to be an issue for Louisville. Freshman F Wayne Blackshear is the latest casualty (he'll miss the season with a torn labrum), and Fs Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles still are recovering from injuries suffered last season. Cincinnati has a potential star in F Yancy Gates, but the rest of the frontcourt is an issue. While West Virginia returns two 1,000-point scorers (F Kevin Jones and G Darryl Bryant) for the first time in school history, will their plethora of newcomers adapt quickly enough to Bob Huggins' coaching style to make WVU a contender?
There are plenty of teams outside these seven that can make a run at the top of the league standings, most notably Villanova (led by G Maalik Wayns) and Notre Dame (led by F Tim Abromaitis). Georgetown, Rutgers and St. John's are extremely young - and talented - and also could make some noise.
DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence and USF, meanwhile, likely have to look to the future to make a move up the Big East standings, when Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia - and who knows who else - leave the league.
ALL-BIG EAST FIRST TEAM
ORDER OF FINISH
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Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Gary Mondello is an assistant editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can