Boston College looks to have another competitive season, following last year’s 10-6 Big East campaign, and 19-12 record overall. The Eagles return three starters from last year’s program, but lost their top player, guard Troy Bell, to the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA Draft. Bell led the Big East with 25.2 points per game, helping the Eagles to lead the league in points-per-game average, compiling nearly 81 points in each contest. Sophomore forward Craig Smith is expected to have a tremendous season as the team’s main scoring threat. Despite suffering a preseason knee injury, he has been named to the preseason All-Big East second team. Scoring 617 points last season, Smith set a B.C. record for freshman scoring. He also led the Big East with a 60.8 shooting percentage and started the last 28 games of the season. Power forward Uka Agbai returns for a fifth season after a serious neck injury kept him out of last year’s final 28 games. He averaged 14.0 points and 6.0 rebounds in the three games he played in last season, but also averaged 11.9 points and 6.0 rebounds per game when he played competitively two seasons ago. Junior Nate Doornekamp will continue to be the team’s big man, starting in all 31 games at center in 2002-03. His 3.3 points and 4.0 rebounds will only go up as his playing time – last year, 24.8 minutes per contest – increases. Boston College has also added two sophomore walk-on guards, Ted Dunlap and Tyler Neville, to boost the backcourt.

Connecticut

Already touted as the No. 1 team in the nation by the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today preseason polls, UConn wants to capitalize on the talent it currently possesses. The Huskies compiled a 23-10 overall record and a 10-6 record in the Big East last year. The team entered the NCAA Tournament and advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 before losing to Texas, 82-78. Head coach Jim Calhoun is in his 18th season at UConn and has developed one of the nation’s premier basketball programs. His most talented player, junior Emeka Okafor, is a 6-9 center who was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2002. Already considered the preseason favorite for National Player of the Year, Okafor averaged 15.9 points and 11.2 rebounds in 2002-03. He also led the nation with 4.7 blocks per game and has already amassed a UConn record 294 for his career. He is backed by junior guard Ben Gordon, who led the Big East in three-point shooting average (41.9 percent) and whose career three-point shooting percentage (41.6 percent) is second all-time at UConn. He also averaged 4.7 assists a game, 4.2 rebounds per game and a team-high 19.5 points per game. Like Okafor, Gordon is a preseason candidate for National Player of the Year. The Huskies, to add to an already dominant team, acquired one of the top national recruits, Charlie Villanueva, who had briefly entered the NBA Draft before changing his mind. Expected to make a big impact at a forward position, Villanueva averaged 19 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks, three assists and three steals for Blair Academy (Blairstown, N.J.).

Providence

Last season, the Friars finished with an 18-14 record and played two games in the National Invitational Tournament before succumbing to Georgetown in the second round. Almost every player from last year’s squad returns for the 2003-04 season. As a team, the Friars shot 77.9 percent from the free throw line, which was second in the nation. Sophomore guard Donnie McGrath is essential to the team’s success this year, after being named to the Big East All-Rookie Team last season. He averaged 9.1 points and 4.3 assists per game, and Providence was 13-2 when McGrath was able to score in double digits. They will benefit from the return of senior Abdul ills who missed his entire junior season with a hip injury. He averaged 14.5 points per game when he played two seasons ago and started 28 of the 29 games in which he played. Mills will be a big factor at one of the guard positions and will complement McGrath well. Also, Ryan Gomes, a 6-7 junior, looks to help after leading the team last year with 18.4 points per game and 9.7 rebounds per game, which was 21st in the nation. He has been selected for the preseason All-Big East First Team and has been named one of the top 50 preseason candidates for the Wooden Award All-America Team. He scored 20-plus points in 15 contests last season. The Friars are backed defensively by senior center Marcus Douthit, who averaged three blocks per game – 11th best in the nation – and is third all-time in blocked shots at Providence with 203. Douthit also earned the team’s Marvin Barnes Defensive Player Award.

Villanova

The Villanova Wildcats want to start the season like they did last year, but do not want to finish in the same way. Last year, they finished the season 15-16, with an even 8-8 record in the Big East. At the start of February, however, the team was an impressive 12-6. It was in February that freshman standout forward Jason Fraser stopped playing because of tendonitis in his knees and, in arch, 12 players were suspended for abusing a telephone access code, leading to the poor finish by the Wildcats. The departures left only seven players for the final three games of the season. This year, Fraser is still injured and five players will miss between three and five games to finish their punishments. The Wildcats will depend on the leadership of only returning starter, sophomore guard Allan Ray – at least for the first few games. Senior guard Derrick Snowden, who last year averaged half as many turnovers as in the previous season (120 to 64), along with 8.6 points per game and 2.6 rebounds per game, may possibly have to sit because of a knee injury. Four players, sophomore Chris Charles, junior Marcus Austin, junior Andreas Bloch and Fraser will compete for the power forward position. This year’s squad is relatively young, as seven of the top nine players are underclassmen. Still, big things are expected from them, as the Wildcats have been selected by Big East coaches to finish seventh in the 14-team conference.

St. John’s

The Red Storm completed the 2002-03 season with 21 wins and 13 losses, but a sub-par 7-9 record in the Big East. Nonetheless, the team managed to clinch the school’s sixth NIT title, but will need to replace shooting guard Marcus Hatten, who now plays for the the Los Angeles Clippers, if they want to repeat last year’s success. The guard propelled the Red Storm, who split their first 24 games, to a 9-1 streak sparked by a tremendous win over Duke. Hatten averaged 2.9 steals per game and his 22.2 points per game helped him maintain the all-time career scoring average in the Big East with 23.0 points. It will be difficult to replace a player who earned All-Big East first team honors, but point guard Elijah Ingram hopes to pick up where Hatten left off last season. At 5-11, the sophomore started 31 of 34 games last season and averaged 10.5 points. He also accumulated 45 steals during the season and averaged 2.6 assists per game. Ingram also shot a tremendous 36.1 percent from beyond the three-point line. Sophomore Darryll Hill, who missed all of last year and was redshirted, but has a reputation as a solid shooter, will most likely take the shooting guard position. In the preseason, he scored 23 points on 11-of-15 shooting at an exhibition game versus the Slam All-Stars. The Red Storm will look to Mohamed Diakite, a 6-10 senior, to start at center, though he missed all of last year with a serious back injury. When he played two seasons ago, Diakite shot 50 percent from the field and averaged 7.1 points over 15 games.

Miami

Miami has to win the close games. In 2002-03, the ‘Canes suffered their first losing season since joining the Big East in 1995, with a lackluster 11-17 overall record and a 4-12 record in the Big East. Of their losses against conference opponents, eight were by five points or less and two were in overtime. The Hurricanes are a defensive team, leading the Big East with 9.7 steals per game. The key to their success this season is senior Darius Rice who plays small forward. Rice is already considered a candidate for the John Wooden National Player of the Year Award. He scored 18.7 points per game and grabbed 5.8 rebounds during each contest, but his ability to play when needed helped the team. He was named to the All-Big East Third Team and, on four occasions, he hit a three-point field goal either to send a game to overtime or to win. The other forward must replace James Jones, who left for the NBA after averaging 6.0 rebounds and 16.9 points per game. Three sophomores will comprise the team’s defensive squad. Armando Surratt, a 5-10 point guard, will likely start the season at that position, as he averaged 6.5 points and 3.3 assists per game last year. Robert Hite will probably start the season at shooting guard because of his 7.3 points per game and 18 starts last season over 6-3 Eric Wilkins who started nine times and scored 4.4 points per game.

Virginia Tech

After their 11-18 season last year – 4-12 in the Big East – the Hokies look to rebound. The team is mostly composed of freshmen and sophomores with only two seniors, so they have a lot of growing to do. Virginia Tech lost its only junior, center Dimari Thompkins, who did not return because of personal reasons. Both at 6-7, seniors Bryant Matthews and Carlos Dixon have played a significant amount of basketball in the program and are needed to lead this young, inexperienced team. Matthews led the team in scoring with 17.3 points per game and compiled 48 steals, 34 blocks and 64 assists, becoming the first player in Big East history to lead his team in all of these departments. Dixon averaged 13.8 points per game last season, along with 3.3 rebounds, despite missing four critical games the Hokies needed to win in order to qualify for the Big East championship. He also hit 35.6 percent of his shots from beyond the three-point line, and fell just shy of atthews in blocks (27), steals (42) and assists (63). Additionally, sophomore Markus Sailes and freshman Zabian Dowdell will compete for the starting point guard position. Sailes shows some potential in three-point shooting, hitting 75 percent of his shots from outside the arc in limited playing time. Sophomore Shawn Harris will also have to make a bigger contribution to the team, as he averaged 3.4 points in only 9.3 minutes per game last season. Freshmen James Gordon, Davis Stubbs, Mykhael Lattimore, Coleman Collins and Chris Tucker can also expect to see significant action, as the team is very young.

Notre Dame

After toying with the idea of entering the NBA, junior point guard Chris Thomas is back to lead the Fighting Irish to the NCAA tournament. The 6-1 point guard will be a candidate for All-American standing by the end of the 2003-04 men’s basketball season after impressive numbers last season of 18.7 points per game and 6.9 assists per game. Thomas instantly becomes the go-to shooter for the Irish with the departures of All-Big East guard Matt Carroll (19.5 ppg) and forward Dan Miller (13.9 ppg). Joining Thomas in the backcourt will be senior Torrian Jones. The 6-4 guard averaged 9.9 points and 3.3 rebounds per game as a junior. Freshman recruit Colin Falls will also join Thomas and Jones in the backcourt. Falls is described as a pure shooter in the same mold as Carroll was for the Irish last season.

The Fighting Irish frontcourt is a less experienced group, led by sophomore Torin Francis. As a freshman, Francis averaged 11.1 points per game in addition to his 8.4 rebounds per game. The 6-11 forward has long arms and limitless potential. Francis needs to improve his defense and shot-blocking in order to contend with the other dominant big men in the Big East. Senior center Tom Timmermans had limited playing time as a junior, starting 11 times and averaging 3.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. Timmermans is big at 6-11 and 270 pounds and should be a big body to help Francis guard the opposing team’s big men, but don’t look for him to score. Rounding out the Irish starters will be junior forward Jordan Cornette. Along with Timmermans, Cornette did not play much last season and only averaged 3.0 points per game. At 6-9, Cornette makes the Irish frontcourt a tall group players who should be able to defend any big men in the league. If either Cornette or Timmermans do not perform early on, look for head coach ike Brey to switch the lineup to play the freshman Falls or sophomore forward Rick Cornett.

The key to success for Notre Dame this season will be maintaining health. The Irish have good depth off the bench, yet they will need all the scoring they can get from their backcourt as well as from Francis. To repeat last year’s success, they will need to compensate for the void left by the departed Carroll and Miller. The Irish will return to the tournament as long as Francis continues to mature and Thomas repeats last year’s dominance on the perimeter.

Pittsburgh

After losing three starters in Brandin Knight, Donatas Zavackas and Ontario Lett, the remaining starters and main bench players will need to pick up the slack. The Panthers will need to fill the holes left by the departed senior class, but the 2003-04 Panthers have a veteran group of starters with a lot of experience and almost every one is a solid defender. New head coach Jamie Dixon must enforce defense the way the Panthers did last season if they want to return to the NCAA tournament, hopefully as a top four seed.

The Panthers’ backcourt is strong with returning starting guard Julius Page. The 6-3 senior has potential to be All-Big East this season and should post even higher numbers compared to his 12.2 points per game a year ago. Replacing Knight will be point guard Jaron Brown, a 6-4 senior. One of this season’s keys will be his emergence as a team leader. Brown scored 10.7 points per game last season off the bench for Pittsburgh, and with more minutes and opportunities he should provide a solid second option to Page.

The Pittsburgh frontcourt will be the real question mark coming into the season. Torree Morris, a starter in the 2001-02 season, sat out last year with an injury and will return as the Panthers starting center on opening day. The 6-10 Morris is a good rebounder and shot blocker and should be a force in the middle for Dixon. At the small-forward position, junior Chevon Troutman will earn the starting role after an impressive sophomore season in which he averaged 11.0 points and 5.1 rebounds per game off the bench. Troutman’s strengths are his defense and mid-range shooting, as he showed in last year’s Big East and NCAA tournaments. The other forward position may go to freshman Chris Taft, a 6-foot-10 recruit with a tremendous upside. Playing time right away will provide his coach and teammates with an analysis of his top-50 recruiting status of last year’s high school seniors.

For the Panthers to repeat their strong performance from last season, they will need to continue their shut-down defense and fill the shoes of the departed senior class. Brown will need to find the open shooter while Page leads the team in scoring if they want a chance at the Big East title. This season will be a huge test for rookie coach Dixon and whether or not he can pick up where Ben Howland, now with UCLA, left off in the 2003 NCAA tournament.

Rutgers

Third year head coach Gary Watters returns this season with a two-man team in junior guard Ricky Shields and senior forward Herve Lamizana. Rutgers struggled last season and will need the emergence of these two promising athletes if it has any hope of a post-season bid to the NIT tournament.

The point guard position for the Scarlet Knights will most likely be filled by 6-3 junior Juel Wiggan. Last season, Wiggan averaged only 4.4 points per game and will need strong court vision and ball handling if the Scarlet Knights want to improve. Shields will fill the shooting guard spot for the second straight season and will try to improve on his 11.9 points per game and team-leading 82 percent free-throw percentage. Shields is an athletic scorer who can go to the basket and draw the foul. He will need to spend a lot of his time on the free-throw line in close games.

Senior forward Sean Axani returns as a starter for the Scarlet Knights. Axani is an average shooter but a solid 6-8 defender, able to help out the guys down low when they get in trouble. Lamizana is the most well-rounded player on the team, trying to build off of 10.6 points and 2.96 blocks per game in 2002-03. The 6-foot-10 swingman is a good rebounder, shot blocker and scorer who will provide a much needed lift to a team looking for an identity. The center position will be competitive between sophomore Adrian Hill and freshman Byron Jones. The two big men would likely not get the chance to start on any other Big East teams, but with a decimated bench, the Scarlet Knights need one of these young players to step up and fill in for the departed Kareem Wright. The undersized Hill will compete with Jones, a graduate of the revered Oak Hill Academy, and one of the top 20 center recruits in the nation.

The Scarlet Knights should finish near the bottom of the Big East standings unless they get tremendous leadership from their star players in Shields and Lamizana. Head coach Gary Watters will need to stress defense and ball control if he wants any chance at a postseason berth, and for that matter, a record above the .500 mark.

Seton Hall

After a surprising 2002-03 men’s basketball season, the Seton Hall Pirates return with four of their starters from last season. They have a strong backcourt and a small, quick frontcourt that can score points. The Pirates could be one of the surprises this season, and if they do everything right, look for them to be in the Big Dance in March.

The starting guards for the Pirates will be their strength throughout the season. Point guard Andre Barrett, a 5-10 senior, averaged 16.7 points and 5.3 assists per game last season, earning second team All-Big East honors. Barrett combines with junior John Allen. Averaging 13.9 points and 5.5 rebounds as a starter at forward last season, Allen will shift to guard and provide a high-scoring backcourt that will be tough to stop.

The Pirates’ frontcourt is full of ability at the offensive side, but their size will be seriously tested on defense against the other big men in the Big East. Center Kelly Whitney leads the charge, returning after a stellar freshman year where he averaged 11.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. At only 6-8, Whitney made the Big East All-Rookie team last season and returns with more experience, and hopefully for the Pirates, even more determination to get better. The two forwards for Seton Hall will be senior Marcus Toney-El and junior Andre Sweet. Both are only 6-6, but both give the Pirates scoring options and solid defense. Sweet is the only non-returning starter, yet he averaged 8.1 points per game last season. Toney-El averaged 6.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season, and is typically known as the best defender on the team.

After he earned Big East Coach of the Year last season, Pirates’ head coach Louis Orr will need to keep the Pirates focused and ready to play defense this season. The Pirates have a great chance to compete for the Big East championship and an even better chance at making the NCAA tournament in March. Depth may be a problem for the Pirates, but if they stay healthy, this could be one of the best Seton Hall teams in years.

Syracuse

After an unbelievable run to the national championship, Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orangemen will have to account for the loss of the electrifying freshman Carmelo Anthony in order to prove they can do it again. They boast a strong starting cast with a solid recruiting class to bring possibly the best team the Big East has to offer.

Starting in the backcourt for the Orangemen will be a pair of sophomore sensations in point guard Gerry McNamara and shooting guard Billy Edelin. McNamara was an All-Big East rookie while averaging 13.3 points per game, and made the All-Final Four team after his six three pointers in the first half of the National Championship against Kansas. McNamara was ranked eighth in the NCAA in free-throw percentage with a 90.9 percent mark from the line. Edelin is a solid scorer who led the team in points in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in 2003. After missing the first 12 games of the season in 2002-03, Edelin will need to prove he can become one of the team’s go-to guys on the offensive side.

Two of the three frontcourt positions are locked up with starters from last year. Junior Hakim Warrick will start at power forward while junior Craig Forth will start at center. Warrick scored double digits 30 times last season with 10 double-doubles and eight games with 20 points. He finished the season with 14.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, and more importantly, the block on Kansas sophomore Michael Lee in the National Championship to seal the win for the Orangemen. Forth has started every game of his career but his career high is only 11 points. At seven feet tall, Forth is known for his shot blocking and should be able to defend almost any center he goes against this year. At the other forward position, a battle will ensue for the starting role. Junior Josh Pace averaged 8.0 points and 3.7 rebounds per game in the tournament last season. Pace will compete with two freshmen, 6-9 Terrence Roberts and 6-8 Demetris Nichols. Look for Nichols to be the starter by midseason if Boeheim doesn’t start him right away.

It will be tough for Syracuse to repeat its performance from last season, but the Orangemen retained more then they lost in Anthony. They will compete with Connecticut for the Big East championship at the end of the season and are almost a lock for the NCAA tournament in March. If they want to return to the NCAA championship, however, they will need their young players to step up and come through in the clutch as they did last year and solidify themselves as the best team in basketball – again.

West Virginia

In his second season as the Mountaineers’ head coach, John Beilein will have all five starters returning from last season, most of them underclassmen. The team will have more chemistry than last season and should be improved. There is only one true scorer on this Mountaineer team in junior forward Drew Schifino. He will need to get his teammates involved if they want to break the .500 mark this season.

Sophomore guards Jarmon Durisseau-Collins and Joe Herber return for the Mountaineers. The 5-10 Durisseau-Collins is a poor scorer but a solid ball handler who needs to improve on his court vision to get the other players involved. Herber averaged 7.2 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season and at 6-6, he is a good scorer with unlimited potential as a shooter.

A pair of juniors line up at the forward positions for West Virginia with Schifino and 6-7 Tyrone Sally. Schifino averaged 20.1 points per game and had double figures in every contest in the 2002-03 men’s basketball season. Schifino was named to the All-Big East third team and should improve at the defensive side to become a more well-rounded player. Sally posted 8.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He has long arms and should help sophomore center Kevin Pittsnogle on defense this season. Pittsnogle is tall at 6-11 and a solid second scoring option to Schifino. The young ountaineer center averaged 11.6 points per contest and is able to shoot the three if given the opportunity.

With poor depth off the bench, the starters will need to provide the bulk of the scoring this season. Some of the starters will need to improve their defense, and there is hope for a postseason appearance in the NIT. The NCAA tournament seems only a distant possibility.

The real excitement will come when this group of starters returns again next season for their real run at an NCAA tournament bid. But for now, this group of young players will need to mesh together to prove that youth is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to Big East basketball.

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