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November 7, 2008

Preseason story line No. 4: A loaded league

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 story lines for the 2008-09 season and will be revealing one daily. At No. 4, we delve into how good the Big East can be and how many teams it could send to the NCAA tournament.

The Big East doesn't have to worry about proving it's the best conference in the nation this season. The 16-team league has a much bigger goal within its grasp.

"I think this will be the best conference in the history of college basketball," Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. "We may not have a No. 1 seed because we will beat each other up so much, but I think at the end of the day, the number of Big East teams to make the NCAA tournament will speak to that."

So, what number do the Big East coaches have in mind? Unless you guessed double digits, you were short.

"I think we will get 10 teams in," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "I really do. There are 12 teams with a legitimate chance."

Twelve is stretching it a bit. The league tied its record last season with eight; it originally set that mark when it first expanded to 16 teams in 2005-06.

Breaking that record, which is likely what it would take to earn the title of "best conference ever," does seem plausible. Thanks to only two early defections to the NBA – Syracuse forward Donte Greene and West Virginia forward Joe Alexander – and a lack of seniors last season, the Big East boasts a remarkable amount of talent and experience.

Seven Big East teams are ranked in both preseason polls. Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, which are ranked in the top 10, are virtual locks to get into the NCAA tournament. Each returns at least three starters.

The same goes for the other three Big East teams in the top 25: Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova.

But there is a glaring question surrounding Marquette. The Golden Eagles surprised some by replacing previous coach Tom Crean with former assistant Buzz Williams, who has only one year of head-coaching experience (14-17 at New Orleans in 2006-07). But it's tough not to envision the Golden Eagles in the NCAA tournament, regardless of the coach. They return one of the league's oldest teams and have three senior guards who have been to the NCAAs in each of their first three seasons.

Georgetown has questions because of the losses of 7-2 center Roy Hibbert (a first-round NBA draft pick) and four-year starting point guard Jonathan Wallace. But the Hoyas have won the past two league regular-season titles, and this will be the most talented team coach John Thompson III has had in his five seasons with the Hoyas. Freshman center Greg Monroe gives the roster a trio of former five-star recruits; forwards Austin Freeman and DaJuan Summers are the others.

Villanova, despite having to sweat out Selection Sunday last season, has few questions to address. That's because the Wildcats return all five starters, including one of the nation's top guards in Scottie Reynolds.

Getting to nine NCAA bids will hinge largely on Syracuse and West Virginia. The Orange return four starters, and two former starters are returning from injury. Guards Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins are back from torn anterior cruciate ligaments. Devendorf was averaging 17.0 points before going down in the 10th game last season. Rautins is a 3-point specialist who was hurt in preseason practice last season.

West Virginia returns two double-digit scorers from a team that reached the Sweet 16: guard Alex Ruoff (13.8 ppg) and forward Da'Sean Butler (12.9 ppg). The Mountaineers also will benefit from the presence of freshman forward Devin Ebanks, the No. 11 prospect in the 2008 class. He was headed to Indiana, but after the Hoosiers' coaching change he got out of his letter of intent and ended up in Morgantown.

The losses of Alexander and Greene, who led their teams in scoring, leave huge holes. Still, the biggest obstacle for the Orange and the Mountaineers – and the rest of the Big East – may be the league itself.

After the move to an 18-game league schedule last season, there likely will be a handful of teams hovering around .500 in league play. The big fear among the league's coaches is that the selection committee will look down on those teams because of their league record.

"The problem is with the league being so tough, a team that goes 9-9 or 8-10 in the Big East can be devalued," DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright said. "That's why we need to approach our non-conference games just like Big East games."

That certainly is an interesting take: The Big East's quest to become the best conference ever may ultimately depend on how league teams perform outside the league.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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