The Big East comes off a season in which it tied its record of eight NCAA tournament bids.
Anyone for nine? Go ahead – throw out 10 if you want.
Yes, the Big East is that good this season. Seven of its teams are in each of the top 25 polls, and the Rivals.com Top 65 had nine Big East teams among the top 32.
Anyone who survives should get a medal. Anyone who finishes .500 or better should get an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"Look around at many of the preseason polls and we have eight teams in the top 25 in the country," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said at the league's media day. "We return 10 of our leading 11 rebounders from last year. We return 13 of our leading 18 scorers. We return our player of the year, our defensive player of the year and our co-rookies of the year. … That in itself is enough to scare you if you're coaching in this league."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino isn't one to be scared. He has one of the Big East teams ranked the highest in the polls (the Cardinals are No. 3 in both polls; Connecticut is No. 2 in both). But he is bracing himself.
"Since I've been a coach 33-some odd years, I think this is the strongest league in the history of college basketball in terms of its depth, in terms of the returning players coming back," he said. "I've never seen a league with 11 teams that could be ranked in the top 30."
Team on the rise: Rutgers
First off, it's hard to pick a team on the rise in the Big East because the first eight or nine teams are established programs with legitimate top-25 aspirations. You can't call UConn, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Villanova, Marquette, Syracuse or even West Virginia a team on the rise. Their elevators go to the top floor. The Scarlet Knights, though, are coming off a season in which they were in the basement. They went 11-20 overall and 3-15 in the Big East. The good news is it was a young team that got better throughout the season. It managed consecutive victories over top-25 teams last season when it upset Villanova, then went on the road and stunned Pittsburgh. All five starters and the top seven scorers return, and coach Fred Hill adds a recruiting class that Rivals.com ranked No. 30 nationally. The class includes two four-star prospects who could make a major impact immediately in center Greg Echenique (No. 50 prospect overall) and shooting guard Mike Rosario (No. 55). Rosario is the first McDonald's All-American to sign with Rutgers. The league's coaches see a little something brewing, too: They picked the Scarlet Knights 12th in their preseason poll.
Rivals.com Preseason All-Big East Teams
Notre Dame's Luke Harangody is our preseason Big East Player of the Year.
Team on the decline: DePaul
The 2007 recruiting class included five-star center Mac Koshwal (10.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and four-star guard Dar Tucker (13.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg). Each was solid as a freshman, but it wasn't enough to get the Blue Demons back on track in the Big East. Now, they lose leading scorer Draelon Burns and leading assist man Cliff Clinkscales, and the league's coaches tabbed them 15th in the preseason vote. This season's recruiting class included only one player in the Rivals150, point guard Jeremiah Kelly at No. 141. Some teams have to lose, and lose a lot, in a league where it's possible nine teams make the NCAA tournament.
Coach on the rise: Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon
Dixon is entering his sixth season with the Panthers, and he has fashioned a 132-40 record, including 55-27 in the Big East. His teams always have managed a winning record in conference play. They had their worst regular-season finish (seventh) of the Dixon Era last season, but they followed it with a run to the Big East tournament title. That feat included consecutive victories over Louisville, Marquette and Georgetown. Dixon already is being mentioned as a possibility to take over at Arizona in the wake of Lute Olson's retirement. Each of his five teams have won at least 20 games and made the NCAA tournament. If he's ever going to leave Pittsburgh, this could be the time. He has a team capable of reaching his first Final Four.
Coach on the hot seat: St. John's Norm Roberts
He enters his fifth season at the helm of the Red Storm, and he can see the storm clouds brewing. A lot of people are surprised he wasn't dismissed after last season, after St. John's went 11-19 overall and 5-13 in the Big East. Roberts has an overall record of 48-67, including 20-46 in conference play. The Red Storm has qualified for the Big East tournament only once during his tenure, and the league's coaches don't seem to believe they're much of a threat this season. They were picked 14th in the coaches' preseason poll, one spot ahead of DePaul.
Best offensive player: Notre Dame's Luke Harangody
Harangody tore through the Big East last season, averaging 23.3 points in conference play. That was 5.0 points more than any other player. He attempted more free throws than anybody in the league, too, and shot a respectable 76.8 percent from the line. Harangody had three games of 30-plus points against Big East opponents, including 40 against Louisville and 32 against UConn. Word out of South Bend is he has expanded his range, which is a scary thought for the league's coaches trying to devise ways to defend him.
Best 3-point shooter: Notre Dame's Kyle McAlarney
Mr. Outside to Harangody's Mr. Inside, McAlarney led the Big East in 3-pointers made (108) last season and was second in 3-point percentage (44.1). That's a lethal combination. He gets a lot of open looks on the perimeter with Harangody pounding away on the inside and with Tory Jackson's ability to penetrate. The 3-point line moving back a foot will be of no concern.
Best defensive player(s): Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet and Marquette's Jerel McNeal
The Big East has two previous defensive players of the year still in the conference. Thabeet took the honor last season after finishing first in the conference and third in the nation in blocks (4.5 per game). Thabeet, who is 7-3, has a 7-7 wingspan and great timing. McNeal won the award in 2007 and remains a ball-hawking guard who can shut down just about anyone on the perimeter. He was second in the Big East in steals (2.2 per game).
Best player you don't know yet: Marquette's Joseph Fulce
Fulce is a 6-7 transfer from Tyler (Texas) College. He was a second-team NJCAA All-American after averaging 16.6 points and 13.2 rebounds last season. The Golden Eagles need help in the frontcourt, and anyone who can rebound has a chance to see significant minutes.
Deepest bench: Louisville
The Cardinals return four starters and the sixth man from an Elite Eight team, and they add Mississippi State transfer Reginald Delk and a four-man recruiting class ranked sixth nationally by Rivals.com. The class includes two five-star power forwards who will see major playing time immediately (see below) and another member of the Rivals150 (see below). Coach Rick Pitino likes to rotate nine or 10 players, and he will do so again this season.
Impact newcomer: Louisville's Samardo Samuels
The Cardinals need help in the frontcourt after the departures of David Padgett, Juan Palacios and Derrick Caracter. In comes Samuels, a five-star prospect with NBA size (6-8/240) and strength. He has been praised early by Pitino for his desire and worth ethic, and he led the Cardinals with 20 points in their first exhibition. His rebounding and low-post presence will be a key if Louisville is to live up to Final Four expectations.
Freshman sleeper: Louisville's Jared Swopshire
The 6-7 forward is a three-star prospect (ranked No. 131 overall) with a high ceiling. He has a smooth game and is a good scorer in the mid-range. Swopshire had 14 points and 11 rebounds in Louisville's first exhibition in just 19 minutes of action.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Tuesday at 8:15 a.m. ET and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.