Ask A Writer: Big East discussion

The Big East Conference has undergone a bevy of changes this offseason. So we asked our writers to share their thoughts on the most burning questions about the league in 2012-13:

What are the three things you’re most looking forward to seeing in the Big East this season?

Dana O'Neill: With Pittsburgh and Syracuse heading to the ACC next June, I’m looking forward to one last good run out of the Big East as we know it, especially in New York. The flavor of the conference lives and breathes in Madison Square Garden, promoted by good teams and great games, of course, but also by fans who have a lifelong affinity to the place and its meaning -- especially those clad in Orange.

Beyond that, I’m looking forward to Kevin Ollie’s debut at UConn. He’s been handed a difficult task during trying times and no guarantee for his future, but I’m betting on the likable coach.

Finally, I’m looking forward to watching Louisville go from surprise Final Four contestant to Final Four favorite. If the Cardinals’ defense can echo last season’s and their offense can even be a fraction less offensive, I suspect Rick Pitino has a special team on his hands.

How many teams do you realistically consider contenders for the Big East title?

Eamonn Brennan: Well, let's count. Louisville is unquestionably the favorite. Syracuse is just a shade behind, but extremely talented, and will be right in the hunt. Notre Dame has one of the best rebounders in the country (and who saw that coming?) in Jack Cooley. I could see the Irish putting together a regular season like the Ben Hansbrough-led team of two years ago.

Marquette lost a lot but has plenty of depth at the guard position, and intriguing players all over the floor. It's a really interesting, potentially versatile team. Georgetown is sort of the same way -- losing veterans but remaining strong, with emerging young stars like Otto Porter. And it wouldn't be fair to cite those teams without including a team like Cincinnati, which may struggle on the low block but has really strong guard play.

That gives us -- carry the one -- six potential contenders. Now, I think Louisville will win the league. If the Cardinals don't, I think Syracuse is next in line. But all of these teams have a realistic chance to put something special together by the time the Big East slate rolls around.

Which Big East player is ready to break out in 2012-13?

Myron Medcalf: For 14 minutes last season, we saw the real Wayne Blackshear. The Louisville sophomore missed most of the 2011-12 campaign because of injuries that derailed his conditioning. He gained weight and never reached “game shape.” Still, the 6-foot-5 forward’s performance in Louisville’s Final Four loss to Kentucky was promising. In 14 minutes, he recorded nine points, four rebounds and went 3-for-5 from the floor. He was efficient and effective on the game’s biggest stage.

Blackshear is my pick to have a breakout season in the Big East because I think he will be an elite and versatile athlete now that he’s healthy. Louisville has talent everywhere. But that helps Blackshear’s cause. As teams wrestle with Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Chane Behanan, Blackshear could emerge as the most impactful performer on the roster. The Chicago native was ranked No. 27 by RecruitingNation in 2011’s installment of the top 100 ratings. And he can fulfill that potential this season. Without those nagging injuries, Blackshear will have a chance to become a star on a team that many expect to see in Atlanta in April.

Who do you see as the sleeper team in the Big East?

Andy Katz: This may seem a bit odd, but I’m going with UConn. The Huskies aren’t eligible for the Big East tournament but can compete for the regular-season title. They won’t win it. But they will be better than projected if they stay healthy.

The three-guard lineup of Ryan Boatright, Shabazz Napier and Omar Calhoun can match up with any perimeter unit in the league. DeAndre Daniels is developing into a solid rotation player and Tyler Olander can become a more than serviceable rebounder.

The question for the Huskies will be their bench. They need the three German-born players on their roster -- Leon Tolksdorf , Niels Giffey and Enosch Wolf -- to be productive. The sleeper on this sleeper team, however, may be 6-9 freshman forward Phillip Nolan. If he can emerge as a scorer, the Huskies will have balance.

Ollie has three former head coaches on the bench to help guide him through the next seven months. The Huskies should finish above the bottom third of the league, even though they will be predicted to finish lower.

How many NCAA bids will the Big East get this season?

Jason King: I don’t believe the Big East will be quite as strong as it’s been the past few seasons. Still, even in an “off year,” I think the conference will receive seven NCAA tournament berths.

Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame are locks. No need to discuss them any further. I’ll throw in Marquette, too. The Golden Eagles lost their top two players (Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder) but they return a wealth of experience while boasting one of the Big East’s top coaches in Buzz Williams.

Look for Cincinnati and Georgetown to be the conference’s “bubble teams.” Hoyas forward Otto Porter might be the best player in the Big East, but Georgetown lost three double-digit scorers in Hollis Thompson, Jason Clark and Henry Sims. Greg Whittington and Nate Lubick (both forwards) were nice role players last season. They’ll need to make great strides in 2012-13 for the Hoyas to earn a berth. So will point guard Markel Starks, who averaged 7.1 points a year ago.

My respect for John Thompson III -- who I believe is one of the more underrated coaches in the country -- is the main reason I’m picking the Hoyas to make the Big Dance.

I think Cincinnati will get in, too. Yancy Gates and Dion Dixon are gone, but the Bearcats still feature a talented crop of returnees, led by junior guard Sean Kilpatrick, who may be the top 3-point shooter in the conference. Coach Mick Cronin is also expecting big things from freshman small forward Shaquille Thomas.

Cronin turned in one of the best coaching jobs in the country last season. He’ll need to do it again for Cincinnati to be in the mix at the end of this one.