Jeremy Lamb, UConn
The Big East coaches selected Pittsburgh guard Ashton Gibbs as the league's preseason POY, but there's no question that Lamb is the more talented player. For all the much-deserved credit that Kemba Walker received for UConn's title run, it would not have happened without Lamb's improvement. His 15.3 points per game in the postseason was more than four points higher than his output during the regular season. Lamb also shot 51 percent from three-point range in the postseason and averaged 4.5 rebounds. With Walker having moved on, Lamb is ready to be the Huskies' alpha dog.
Andre Drummond, UConn
When Drummond announced in August that he was foregoing his final year of prep school to attend UConn, he transformed the Huskies from a quality team to a national championship favorite. Drummond is the best big man to come out of high school since Greg Oden in 2006. Though he is raw offensively (it's best to look away when he's on the foul line), Drummond is big, strong and athletic, and he's a terrific passer to boot. I expect Drummond to have an All-America-type of season and then be one of the top two picks in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Cleveland Melvin, DePaul
The Blue Demons finished last in the Big East with a 1-17 record last season, so you can be forgiven if you missed the news that Melvin was the league's Rookie of the Year. Melvin entered the starting lineup in late February and steadily got better. He was ranked sixth in the Big East in scoring in conference games (17.4 ppg) and was third in offensive rebounding at 3.3. Melvin worked hard over the summer to add 30 pounds of muscle to his slight frame. If DePaul is able to be more competitive, Melvin will become a household name.
That is Villanova's record in February and March over the last two years. The Wildcats ended the 2010-11 season with six consecutive losses, and after losing three starters, their prospects for a better finish this year are dim.
Based on future pro prospects, the Huskies have the top two players in the Big East in Lamb and Drummond. They also have much more. Junior forward Alex Oriakhi is a monster rebounder (9.6 rpg), sophomore point guard Shabazz Napier is a fierce ball hawk (1.6 steals per game), and a bevy of freshmen and sophomores are bursting with potential. UConn is a far more likely contender for an NCAA title than it appeared to be at this time last year.
The Orange lost just one starter (forward Rick Jackson) from last season, and they have added two McDonald's All-Americans in 6-foot-5 guard Michael Carter-Williams and 6-9 forward Rakeem Christmas. Their chances of surpassing UConn, however, will be determined mostly by how their upperclass perimeter nucleus of Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph performs.
Is this the season the Panthers finally break through and make their first Final Four? Could be, thanks mostly to Gibbs' decision to withdraw his name from the NBA Draft. Dante Taylor, a 6-9 junior forward, has been a bit of a disappointment thus far, but he could be headed for a breakout season. The presence of 6-9 freshman Khem Birch, who is arguably the best player Jamie Dixon has ever recruited, will help immensely.
The Cardinals were one of the nation's most overachieving teams last season despite a rash of injuries that shortened their bench. Now, Rick Pitino's roster goes 16 deep. The most important of those is junior point guard Peyton Siva, who takes over for the graduated Edgar Sosa, but the front line will also be bolstered by the arrival of 6-7 freshman Chane Behanan.
5. Notre Dame
The Irish may have lost three starters, including Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough, from the squad that almost earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but the cupboard is far from bare. Mike Brey has spent the last few years setting up a system that fills his lineup with older players, and he has two good ones to lead the way this season in fifth-year seniors Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin. Sophomore point guard Eric Atkins should also show improvement.
Point guard Vander Blue had lofty expectations coming out of high school, but he failed to meet them. Now a 6-4 sophomore, Blue is hopefully ready to spearhead an offense that will get most of its scoring punch from 6-2 senior Darius Johnson-Odom and 6-6 senior Jae Crowder.
Mick Cronin has made steady and impressive progress since taking over at Cincinnati six years ago. This is likely to be his best team. The Bearcats return their leading scorer and rebounder from last year, 6-9 junior forward Yancy Gates, as well as their starting backcourt of 6-foot sophomore Cashmere Wright and 6-3 senior Dion Dixon.
8. West Virginia
The Mountaineers return four starters from last year's 21-12 squad, most notably 6-8 senior Kevin Jones, who entered his name in the NBA Draft but withdrew after participating in several workouts. Whether this team reaches the upper tier of the Big East will depend on how quickly it gets contributions from its six freshmen and one junior college transfer.
The Wildcats bade farewell to the Coreys (Stokes and Fisher), but given that those guys never seemed to jell last season (partly because of injuries), that might not be such a bad thing. Maalik Wayns, a 6-2 junior, will take the reins as full-time point guard. Two other juniors, 6-6 guard Dominic Cheek and 6-10 center Mouphtao Yarou, have a lot of upside, but the most intriguing player will be 6-7 forward JayVaughn Pinkston, who was suspended for most of his freshman season because of his role in an off-campus altercation.
If the Hoyas want to accelerate the timetable under which they'll stop being known primarily as the team that got into a fight in China this summer, they need to win early and often. Unfortunately, that will not be easy following the departures of Austin Freeman and Chris Wright. Jason Clark, a 6-2 senior, could have a hard time adjusting to life as a lead guard. If there's one player who could help this team exceed expectations, it's 6-9 sophomore Nate Lubick, a blue-collar glue guy who started 13 games last season.
Mike Rice has been making waves on the recruiting circuit, but his six-man freshman class is not ready to do damage inside this physical conference. In the meantime, Rutgers could use a big year from 6-6 junior swingman Dane Miller, who took a step back last season after being named to the Big East's all-rookie team in 2009-10.
12. St. John's
Steve Lavin knew he would be facing a massive rebuilding job in his second year at St. John's, following the graduation of the nine-man senior class who finally got the Red Storm back to the NCAA tournament. Lavin brought in a highly-rated rookie class, but he suffered a setback in August when St. John's announced that three of those freshmen -- 6-6 forward Amir Garrett, 6-7 forward Jakarr Sampson and 6-10 center Norvel Pelle -- would be academically ineligible for the first semester.
13. Seton Hall
The bad news is that Jeremy Hazell, who last season became just the third player in school history to eclipse the 2,000-point career mark, is gone. The good news is that now someone else might be permitted to shoot the ball once in a while. Kevin Willard's Pirates will be anchored by their inside-outside senior combo of 6-foot guard Jordan Theodore and 6-8 forward Herb Pope. Willard will also rely heavily on his six freshmen, which is not usually a formula for success in the Big East.
Second-year coach Oliver Purnell can look on the bright side: There's nowhere to go but up. Besides the rapidly-improving Cleveland Melvin, the Blue Demons are also returning 6-3 sophomore guard Brandon Young, who averaged 12.6 points per game before missing the final four games of the season with an injury. If DePaul is going to take a step forward, it will have to begin at the defensive end, where the Blue Demons ranked last in the conference in both scoring defense (76.7) and field goal percentage defense (76.7).
15. South Florida
Stan Heath could use a quality season as he enters his fifth year at South Florida, but unfortunately that will be hard to produce without his incumbent point guard, Anthony Carter, who was dismissed in May for violating team rules. Senior forward Augustus Gilchrist will need to improve on his averages of 13.4 points and 6.0 rebounds.
New coach Ed Cooley, a Providence native, made an immediate splash on the recruiting trail this fall by garnering commitments from two of the nation's best high school guards in Kris Dunn and Ricardo Ledo. That should keep Friars fans warm during what is sure to be a cold and dreary winter. Providence was just 4-14 in the Big East last season and it lost senior guard Marshon Brooks, who was the nation's second-leading scorer.