The Big East was drained of its star power in last June's NBA draft, and this could be the first year since 1998 that the conference doesn't produce a Lottery pick. Partially as a result, the Player of the Year race is wide open, with four lead guards -- Fisher, Georgetown's Austin Freeman, Pitt's Ashton Gibbs and UConn's Kemba Walker -- as the early favorites. Fisher isn't the pick because he scored 105 points in a streetball game this summer, although it was reassuring to hear that he's still capable of taking over an offense. He's the choice because he's a high-efficiency guard (116.2 offensive rating in '09-10) who can score by getting to the line (drawing 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes) or shooting from long range (39.6 percent), and he's being handed a much bigger role after the departure of Scottie Reynolds.
Impact Freshman: Fab Melo, Syracuse
Orange coach Jim Boeheim, who correctly predicted that Wes Johnson would be Big East Player of the Year last season, has said that Melo will contend for the league's Freshman of the Year honors ... so be advised. "How many 7-footers out there have good hands, can shoot, and are good passers?" Boeheim told me in August. "[Melo] is a not a project." The Brazilian big man will likely start at center and patrol the middle of Syracuse's zone.
Breakout Candidate: Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette
The Golden Eagles have two breakout candidates in their first year without Lazar Hayward: senior forward Jimmy Butler, a Scott Hattieberg-like character in college hoops (beloved by tempo-free statheads for his 128.5 ORating, unknown to average fans) ... and Johnson-Odom, a junior who could emerge as one of the league's best all-around guards. He's already one of the nation's most accurate three-point shooters (at 47.4 percent), and is developing into a formidable, physical perimeter defender. If he learns to finish more effectively around the rim, he'll be a star.
Inside the Numbers: 41.8.
That's the percentage of its own missed shots that West Virginia rebounded last season. Only one team in the country (Bob Huggins' previous squad, Kansas State) was better at offensive rebounding. That, in large part, was the reason the Mountaineers were a good enough offensive team to win the Big East tournament and reach the Final Four. The glasswork was done mostly by three forwards: Kevin Jones (who grabbed 12.0 percent of misses), Wellington Smith (10.8 percent) and Devin Ebanks (9.5 percent). With Smith and Ebanks gone, West Virginia is a difficult team to rank. It'll only crack the top 25 if Jones and role players John Flowers, Cam Thoroughman and Deniz Kilicli can collectively rebound at a similar rate.
The Panthers defended well inside the arc last season, holding opponents to just 43.6 percent (ranking 26th in the country in that category). Gary McGhee, a punishing, 6-foot-10 center, gets very little attention nationally, but deserves a lot of credit for Pitt's defensive success. He's a shot-blocking and rebounding force who's content to play a minuscule role on offense -- essentially, the perfect role player.
Maalik Wayns is just as good of a breakout candidate as Johnson-Odom; I included the Wildcats' sophomore on my Breakout Formula team, and expect big things from him in 2010-11. He's a heady point guard who should form a scary 1-2 tandem with Fisher -- and may very well be a bigger NBA prospect than Fisher is.
There's plenty of excitement over the arrival of Melo, and sixth man Kris Joseph is expected to morph from super-sub to go-to-guy as a junior, but the two-headed point guard of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche is what makes me most bullish about the Orange. Jardine was an efficient scorer and assist man as a sophomore, and Triche often played well beyond his years in high-pressure moments as a freshman.
As the Hoyas attempt a rare conversion from a center-dominated to guard-dominated offense, it's nice to know they have guards who can score on the interior. The two-point percentages of junior Jason Clark (55.7) and senior Austin Freeman (56.8) were actually higher than Greg Monroe's (54.5) last season.
Freshman Vander Blue was an impressive third guard -- alongside Duke's Kyrie Irving and high school senior Austin Rivers -- in the starting lineup of the U.S.' gold medal-winning entry in the FIBA Americas U18 tournament this summer. Blue, who should start for the Eagles from Day 1, was strong in transition, with good finishing skills and a pretty pull-up jumper, and he aggressively jumped passing lanes on D. By 2011-12, he'll be one of the Big East's most exciting players to watch.
6. Seton Hall
The Pirates were dysfunctional last season, but they have a talented core of veterans returning in Jeremy Hazell, Herb Pope and Jeff Robinson. New coach Kevin Willard, who was hired from Iona in the offseason, has the defensive mindset to elevate the Hall from an NIT team to an NCAA team. A key will be the continued dominance of Pope on the glass. He was among the nation's best all-around rebounders last season, and the Pirates are hoping he's fully recovered from surgery following a scary, post-practice collapse in April.
7. West Virginia
Junior forward Kevin Jones was perhaps the most glaring omission from the Wooden Award's preseason Top 50. He might be the most versatile 250-plus pound player in the country, having made 40.4 percent of his threes, 56.5 percent of his twos, and offensive-rebounded at a 12.0-percent rate last season. He'll emerge as a major star now that Da'Sean Butler has moved on to the pros.
8. St. John's
New coach Steve Lavin has been tearing up the recruiting trail, amassing a phenomenal class of 2011 recruits, but what he inherited from Norm Roberts isn't bad, either: 10 seniors, including the backcourt scoring trio of D.J. Kennedy, Dwight Hardy and Paris Horne. Forward Sean Evans is an underrated asset (he ranked 34th in the country in offensive rebounding last season) who should earn some of Anthony Mason Jr.'s vacated minutes in the frontcourt.
The Cardinals are capable of making the NCAA tournament, especially if junior center Terrence Jennings -- who made 61.7 percent of his twos and blocked 10.7 percent of opponents shots in limited action as a sophomore -- has a breakout season. But they'll have to overcome a messy offseason that included the embarrassment of the Karen Sypher trial, freshman Justin Coleman being ruled ineligible, Roburt Sallie failing to secure a transfer waiver, Jared Swopshire and Russ Smith's injuries and Preston Knowles' suspension.
Kemba Walker, arguably the Big East's best pro prospect, has been dominating Huskies practices, which is good to hear ... but UConn desperately needs a few scorers to step up around him if it's going to reach the NCAA tournament. The best candidate may be 6-8 freshman Roscoe Smith, an excellent shooter who'll start on the wing and be the beneficiary of all the defensive attention put on Walker.
11. Notre Dame
Senior forward Tim Abromaitis emerged from anonymity last season and earned a starting spot by making 42.9 percent of his threes. In him and senior guard Ben Hansbrough (a 41.4 percent long-range shooter) the Irish have some serious perimeter firepower. Can their offense thrive without point guard Tory Jackson, though? The four-year starter was the heart and soul of the team and rarely left the court in '09-10, playing 92.7 percent of minutes.
12. South Florida
Coach Stan Heath recently proclaimed that the Bulls "have the best front line in the league." Syracuse would probably beg to differ, but Heath isn't far off in his praise of 6-10 junior Augustus Gilchrist (13.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and 6-11 senior Jarrid Famous (10.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg). They need Gilchrist to take a commanding role of the offense after losing scoring machine Dominique Jones, who took 30.5 percent of their shots.
It's possible that the Bearcats will benefit from not having Lance Stephenson around to take 26.2 percent of their shots in 2010-11, as he did last season while posting a sub-par efficiency rating (98.6). This is Yancy Gates' team now, and the junior power forward (10.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg in '09-10) will need to have a monster season to put Cincy in consideration for the NCAAs. He's bound to face constant double-teams given the Bearcats' lack of perimeter scorers, though.
The Friars were the only Big East team with an offseason worse than Louisville's. Jamine "Greedy" Peterson, who was blossoming into a Big East star (19.6 ppg, 10.2 rpg), was dismissed from the team and left to play in Europe, and three other players faced disciplinary action. Look for sophomore forward Bilal Dixon to emerge as a force on the glass (his offensive/defensive rebounding percentages as a rookie were 11.9/16.7), but it's unlikely this team will finish anywhere near .500 in the league.
Scarlet Knights fans are willing to endure a rough 2010-11 -- in which they have no clear go-to-guy after Mike Rosario transferred, and no size after losing center Gregory Echenique -- because they know what's coming in '11-12. New coach Mike Rice has assembled a strong first recruiting class that includes four-star power forward Kadeem Jack and four-star point guard Jerome Seagears.
In September, I called Oliver Purnell's situation at DePaul the "least favorable" of any new coach; he inherits a bare cupboard of talent and the difficulty of recruiting talent to play in the way-way-way off-campus Allstate Arena. Purnell did land one top-100 recruit for 2011, though: point guard Shane Larkin, the son of ex-Reds shortstop Barry Larkin. He should earn immediate playing time when he arrives next season, because the Blue Demons -- led, presumably, by senior Mike Stovall, who averaged 7.0 points last season -- aren't liable to win many games in the meantime.