After taking a look around the nation, it is now time to zero in on the Big East conference.

1. Villanova and West Virginia are the cream of the crop.

Last year, Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh were all so dominant that each earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but there will be major changes at the top of the league in 2010. Villanova, which made it all the way to the Final Four last year, must be considered the favorite in the Big East. In fact, ‘Nova arguably has the best chance of any Big East team to bring the conference its first national title since UConn in 2004.

Despite the loss of leading scorer and rebounder Dante Cunningham to the NBA draft, the Wildcats return a fearsome quartet of experienced guards in seniors Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding and juniors Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes, and they add one of the deepest recruiting classes in the nation. Villanova’s freshman class boasts three recruits ranked in Rivals.com’s top 30 high school seniors, including 6-foot-9 Mouphtaou Yarou, who will help give Villanova the post presence it needs to replace Cunningham.

The team most likely to challenge Villanova for the conference title is West Virginia. Senior forward Da’Sean Butler is a potential All-American who put up 17 points and seven rebounds per game last season. Sophomore forward Devin Ebanks improved greatly during the course of his freshman season, averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds per contest over the last 11 games of the year.

In addition, the Mountaineers’ backcourt features two tough, gritty guards in Darryl “Truck” Bryant and Joe Mazzulla. Head Coach Bob Huggins has his sights firmly set on reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1992.

2. Don’t sleep on Cincinnati.

Cincinnati’s football team has surprised many by jumping out to a 5-0 start and a No. 8 ranking in the AP poll. Look for the Bearcats’ success on the gridiron to continue on the hardwood, as Cincy should improve significantly from its 8-10 finish in the Big East last year.

Senior point guard Deonta Vaughn is the heart and soul of the program, having put up at least 14 points and three assists per game in each of his last three years. He will get some much needed scoring help in the backcourt from incoming freshman Lance Stephenson, a tough 6-foot-6, 195-pound forward from Brooklyn who was considered one of the best recruits in the country.

The Bearcats also feature a menacing bruiser down low in sophomore Yancy Gates, who put up 10.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last year. Gates was a very highly touted player in high school and should continue to improve in his second season with the Bearcats.

Expect Cincinnati to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. If Stephenson turns out to be an elite scorer in his freshman campaign, Cincinnati could even challenge for the conference title.

3. Kemba Walker is ready to take the league by storm.

Walker, a sophomore who didn’t even start for Connecticut last year because of senior point guard A.J. Price, may be the best player in the entire conference. Last year’s UConn-Missouri Elite Eight contest was Walker’s coming out party, as he led the Huskies to victory with 23 points, five rebounds and five assists. With the departure of UConn’s top three scorers in Price, Hasheem Thabeet, and Jeff Adrien, Walker will be asked to shoulder a much larger share of the load, and he should be fully up to the task.

A fearless leader who hails from the Bronx, Walker can get to the hole at will and plays with poise beyond his years. He is only a sophomore but could very well be playing his last year in Storrs, Conn., as he has the talent to be a lottery pick in the 2010 NBA draft.

The legend of New York City point guards has taken a hit with the disappointing career of Sebastian Telfair, but Walker is poised to join the storied line of Big Apple floor generals that includes Bob Cousy, Nate Archibald and Stephon Marbury.

Next time, in the last installment of a four-part preview, I’ll devote an entire column to previewing Georgetown’s season.”

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