When you start discussing the elite conferences in college basketball, more often than not the Big East Conference is at the top of the list. If you need any evidence, look no further than the category of NCAA tournament bids. The league leads every conference with 348, while the perennially powerful ACC is in second with 216; not to mention the Big East has two national champions this decade in Syracuse (2003) and Connecticut (2004).
While examining the conference for the up-and-coming 2008-09 season, it appears that nine of the 16 teams have a legitimate opportunity to bag one of those 65 bids come March, including four Final Four contenders in Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. And as the Big East enjoys its continued success this season, the recruiting efforts by the coaches are ensuring that the future is looking quite bright as well.
The Big East has seven schools in the ESPNU top 25 recruiting rankings: No. 7 Villanova, No. 11 Marquette, No. 13 Louisville, No. 14 UConn, No. 15 Pittsburgh, No. 18 Georgetown and No. 24 West Virginia.
Cincinnati commits: one
Mick Cronin reloaded with an outstanding group of talented prospects during the 2007-08 season, led by 6-foot-9 behemoth Yancy Gates and ultra-quick 6-0 guardCashmere Wright, although he'll probably miss the 2008-09 season because of a serious knee injury. In addition, 6-7 Texas transfer Mike Williams will be unveiled as Cronin continues the rebuilding project.
During the November signing period, the Bearcats added 6-5 shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick (White Plains, N.Y./Notre Dame Prep). Kilpatrick is one of the most prolific shooters coming into the Big East. He is especially effective in a catch-and-shoot situation, and should do a productive job of stretching defenses so the Bearcats can pound it inside with Gates.
Connecticut commits: two
UConn is considered one of the select few that could be making reservations for Detroit in March, and from the looks of their latest recruits (Kemba Walker and Ater Majok should be future stars), there could be some more Final Four plans in the future.
Although the Huskies only have two commitments thus far, they're both high-caliber prospects. Alex Oriakhi, a 6-9 beast out of Tilton, N.H./Tilton School, was dominant throughout the spring and summer, and especially in Portland during the Nike Global Challenge.
He has a Division I frame with considerably long arms and broad shoulders. He has terrific hands, and is very adept at finishing strongly around the basket while making contact. With current starter Jeff Adrien concluding his outstanding career next spring, Oriakhi should find some significant minutes early on next season.
While Oriakhi is banging with the bigs on the inside, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (also of the Tilton School) will apply the glue for this talented bunch. He isn't a particularly strong shooter, but he is a tremendous scorer and is the quintessential glue-type for a national contender. He is an outstanding slasher (can get to the basket at will), and his leadership and overall feel for the game are high-level.
DePaul commits: two
The Blue Demons' transition into the Big East from Conference USA has not been a smooth one, but there is quite a bit of optimism in Chicago if you gaze upon that talented, albeit young, group of prospects -- nine players on the current roster are freshmen or sophomores.
Jerry Wainwright understands that in order to compete with the upper echelon of the Big East he is going to have to build on his current talent-laden roster. In the early recruiting period, Wainwright picked up a commitment from 6-5 journeyman Mike Stovall (Park Hills, Mo./Mineral Area), and went clear across the country to snag 6-5 Tony Freeland (Los Angeles/Fremont).
Stovall's life is the basketball version of Gulliver's Travels. Originally out of Chicago, where he was a prep standout at Marshall, he decided to head west and sign with Oregon State. However, after seven games he decided to leave Corvallis and head to Mineral Area College to become eligible before enrolling at DePaul.
Stovall has a solid upside and a tremendous amount of athleticism. He is a big-time finisher in transition and possesses a solid pull-up. Overall, Stovall should find some quality minutes as a sophomore during the 2009-10 season.
Freeland, on the other hand, will travel east to continue his career. After getting 6-10 Krystopher Faber from California last spring, Wainwright decided to get ahold of AAU coach Rock Johnson to see if he had any other diamonds in the rough -- enter Freeland.
Freeland is an undersized 4-man who plays at a relentless pace. He plays much bigger than his listed size and is quite bouncy, to say the least. His long arms and athletic prowess allow him to convert over taller opponents, despite being only 6-5. He'll need to improve his ballhandling and jump shot, but this kid is a warrior.
Georgetown commits: two
Since John Thompson III arrived at Georgetown after revitalizing Princeton, the Hoyas have been among the nation's elite. Entering his fifth year at the helm, his Hoyas are young but have a bevy of young talent -- 6-10 freshman Greg Monroe comes immediately to mind. The Hoyas only have a few scholarships available, but Thompson appears to be using them wisely.
First and foremost, he got his big man in 6-10 DaShonte Riley (Beverly Hills, Mich./Detroit Country Day). Riley -- think a poor man's Kevin Garnett -- hails from the same school that produced NBA standout Chris Webber. He doesn't possess the strength that Webber had coming out of high school, but because of his length, athleticism, and skill, Riley has upside written all over him.
Riley has the ability to be an outstanding inside-out presence for Thompson. His pivot work in the post is solid, and he has a soft touch around the basket. He utilizes the pump-fake very well to get around his defenders, and he can nail the jump shot in a pick 'n' pop situation. If his desire matches his overall ability, he should be an all-conference performer before he graduates.
The Hoyas went clear across the country to nab 6-7 Hollis Thompson (Concord, Calif./De La Salle) out of Pac-10 country. Thompson needs to continue to hone his perimeter skills and add strength, but he is a bouncy athlete who plays hard at both ends.
Louisville commits: four
Louisville continues to be a recruiting juggernaut under Rick Pitino; the Cardinals have corralled ESPNU 100 recruits 6-0 Peyton Siva (Seattle/Franklin) and 6-8 Rakeem Buckles (Miami/Monsignor Edward Pace).
In addition, the Cardinals also received commitments from a blue-collar special in 6-8 Stephan Van Treese (Indianapolis/Lawrence North), and 6-4 sharpshooter Mike Marra (Northfield, Mass./Mount Hernon).
Siva's transition to Pitino's up-tempo style should be rather smooth. He is exceptional in the open court and one of the most prolific shooters in the country. His speed with the basketball is simply amazing, and despite his small stature, he can get to the rim on a regular basis. In addition, he has that innate ability to hang in the air and either finish in traffic or deliver a nifty assist.
Buckles is the prototypical 4-man Pitino covets. He has the ideal frame and athleticism to play at Louisville's relentless pace. Although he is listed as a 4, he plays more like a 3. He is exceptional off the bounce and attacking the basket. Buckles has a solid-looking pull-up, but he is a streaky shooter out to the stripe. In addition, Buckles will need to pick up his defensive intensity to play for Pitino.
Van Treese has had a lofty reputation for quite some time, but his overall game has tapered off some since his junior campaign. He is a solid 4-man who plays hard at both ends and possesses decent skills. He is a good athlete who fills the lane very well and can finish strongly in transition. His face-up game is decent, and he can step out and nail the jump shot at the elbow consistently, but his post game needs refining.
Louisville needed a shot in the arm when it comes to outside shooters, and this class should deliver the goods. In addition to the aforementioned Siva, the 6-4 Marra should alleviate some of the inconsistent shooting that has haunted the Cardinals the past couple of years. With only Jerry Smith as their go-to shooter, Pitino is probably a tad anxious that Marra and Siva can't suit up for the Cardinals this season.
Marquette commits: five
The Golden Eagles have five very talented prospects making their way to Milwaukee in the fall of 2009. With three ESPNU 100 prospects leading the way for this deep class, headlined by 6-2 PG Junior Cadougan (Humble, Texas/Christian Life Center Academy), Marquette should have enough depth on the perimeter to compete in the Big East.
Top 100 players 6-6 Jeronne Maymon (Madison, Wis.) and 6-7 Erik Williams (Katy, Texas/Cypress Springs), both slated to play the small forward slot on the next level, join Cadougan in Marquette's 2009 recruiting haul. Cadougan provides Marquette coach Buzz Williams with a scoring point guard with good vision, in the mode of former Connecticut point guard Khalid El-Amin, who helped lead the Huskies to a national title almost a decade ago. Maymon, if he continues to improve his ball-handling and shooting accuracy from the perimeter, should give Marquette a rugged presence on the perimeter in the mode of current Houston Rockets small forward Ron Artest. Adding Williams and his impressive athletic ability, this trio has enough ability and upside to provide the backbone for Marquette's perimeter for years to come.
With both Cadougan and Williams playing their prep ball in Texas and having three current players on their roster from the state, the Golden Eagles have shown that they will continue to draw from their pipeline in the fertile state. The Golden Eagles will need all three of these perimeter players to contribute rather quickly; they will have to counter losing their top three perimeter players -- Jerel McNeal, Dominic James and Wesley Matthews -- to graduation in May.
The Golden Eagles also signed junior college guard and Milwaukee native Dwight Buycks to bring even more scoring and depth to the backcourt for 2009. Power forward Brett Roseboro (Quakertown, Pa.) is a big body with the ability to play in the high post.
Notre Dame commits: five
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey fully understands the Big East landscape, knowing that your roster has to have players that possess physical and metal toughness in order to enjoy success in the always-tough conference. Brey's 2009 recruiting class features four players who play with a high amount of intensity and physicality, which should make their transition to the best conference in the country a tad easier.
Six-foot-8 power forward Jack Cooley (Glenview, Ill./Glenbrook South), an ESPU 100 player, leads this class with his incredible will to compete that overcomes any drawbacks Cooley might possess in the athleticism department. His will to outwork opponents and play a physical brand of basketball serves to wear down and frustrate many players that have more explosion than Cooley. Fellow interior prospects Mike Broghammer (Minnetonka, Minn./Hopkins) and Thomas Knight (Dirigo, Maine) also provide the Fighting Irish with hard-working, blue-collar types who do not mind mixing it up in the paint, which Notre Dame needs in order to win in the Big East. Cooley, Broghammer, and Knight all have the ability to step away from the bucket and connect on jumpers from the perimeter. These three players will provide the Irish with a talented group of bigs who should anchor Notre Dame on both ends of the court in the near future. Undoubtedly, these three players will benefit immensely from practicing on a daily basis with reigning Big East Player of the Year Luke Harangody, provided that he does not bolt early for the NBA draft at the conclusion of this season.
Six-foot-5-inch SF Joey Brooks (Houston/Strake Jesuit College Prep) also brings that physical style of play to the perimeter. He has a very strong build and plays an aggressive, physical style of basketball, constantly using his strength to attack on the offensive end.
Pittsburgh commits: four
Last season, sixth-year head coach Jamie Dixon's Pittsburgh team was 10-8 in the Big East, and finished with a 27-10 overall record. The Panthers lost to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Pitt added talented newcomers in its 2008 recruiting class, including guards Travon Woodall and Ashton Gibbs, and their top-rated recruit, intense competitor and super athlete 6-5 forward Nasir Robinson.
This fall, Coach Dixon and his staff signed four outstanding players, and the Panthers are ranked the No. 15 national recruiting class by ESPNU. The most touted recruit in this group is power forward Dante Taylor (Fort Washington, Md./National Christian). Taylor is one of the best rebounders in the nation, and he could provide needed inside support for DeJuan Blair next year -- or he could replace him, if Blair goes in the NBA draft.
The Panthers also signed swingman Lamar Patterson (Newark, N.J./St. Benedict's). Patterson is a very physical wing player with exceptional strength and athleticism. He can overpower many wing defenders. Rounding out the 2009 class are potential top 100 prospects center Talib Zanna, (Forestville, Md./Bishop McNamara) and 6-9 J.J. Richardson (Missouri City, Texas/Hightower) -- one of the top senior prospects in Texas.
Providence commits: six
New Friars coach Keno Davis has come to Providence to rebuild this once-solid program, and he will look to his 2009 recruiting class to play a major role in this restoration project. With do-everything G/F Geoff McDermott, athletic SG Weyinmi Efejuku, PF Jonathan Kale and PF/C Randall Hanke all scheduled to graduate in May, Providence will have major holes to fill in the paint as well as on the perimeter.
Power forward Kadeem Batts (Powder Springs, Ga.) has the strength and body to compete in the Big East. His ability to shoot jumpers from the perimeter should also make him a nice fit for Davis' system. Interior prospect James Still (Detroit/Community) has very good athleticism and quickness. He'll be a good offensive rebounder and shot-blocker for the Friars, especially if he adds strength and muscle to his frame. Junior college PF Kyle Wright should also give the Friars more depth in the paint. Combo-guard Antoine Allen (Baltimore/Notre Dame Prep) will provide scoring punch from the perimeter for the Friars, and the ability to play both guard spots. Keno Davis went back into Michigan to get Duke Mondy (Grand Rapids, Mich./Catholic Central), another guard who should find open shots in the Friars' system.
Rutgers commits: six
Scarlet Knights coach Fred Hill has started to construct a formidable program at Rutgers with the recruits he has managed to bring in, especially making use of talent-rich New Jersey. Hill had a very impressive group slated to arrive in 2009, headlined by talented center Greg Echenique, but he qualified for admission early to Rutgers and made his debut this season for the Scarlet Knights.
Six-foot-7 forward Dane Miller (Rochester, N.Y./Rush Henrietta High) now leads the 2009 recruiting class with his outstanding athleticism and extraordinary length. Miller also has very good vision and passing skills, which allow him to spend some time playing as a point forward. As he continues to improve his perimeter shooting, Miller could become a perimeter force for Rutgers. Power forward Austin Johnson (Blairstown, N.J./Blair Academy) should give the Scarlet Knights even more depth on the perimeter. Johnson excels on the defensive end and as a rebounder. His offensive game in the paint and on the perimeter is a work in progress.
Seton Hall commits: zero
The Pirates currently have no prospects signed for their 2009 recruiting class, but coach Bobby Gonzalez always seems to find a way to persevere. If he has success this season and gets off the hot seat, expect talented recruits to make their way to Seton Hall. If the Pirates elect to make a change at the helm, the new coach might have to focus his energies on making a significant dent in the 2010 recruiting class and beyond.
South Florida commits: two
Now in his second year at South Florida, coach Stan Heath hopes to improve upon the Bulls' dismal 3-15 Big East record last season. Heath and his staff now have two fall recruits; they just missed out on a difference-maker in rugged forward Keith Clanton (Orlando, Fla./Orlando Christian), who picked Central Florida over the Bulls.
Coach Heath's most compelling need is to upgrade the talent level in his program. His most promising returnee is 6-4 sophomore 2-guard Dominique Jones.
South Florida has signed two talented newcomers in 6-4 G/F Jordan Dumars (Beverly Hills, Mich./Detroit Country Day School) -- the son of Detroit Pistons executive and former NBA All-Star Joe Dumars -- and sharpshooting guard Shaun Noriega (North Port, Fla.).
Dumars is a powerfully built wing player who hit 42 percent of his 3-point attempts last season. Noriega was a first-team all-state player as a junior, averaging 24.1 ppg, and has scored a school-record 1,282 points in three years. He is an outstanding catch-and-shoot player. Both these recruits should help fill big voids next season for South Florida.
St. John's commits: two
After five seasons at St. John's, it's getting to be "show-and-tell" time for coach Norm Roberts. He must improve upon last year's 3-15 Big East, 11-19 overall record. The good news is that Roberts primarily played freshmen last season, who should be much improved this season.
In his fall recruiting class, Roberts has signed an immediate-impact player in former New York/St. Raymond shooting guard 6-4 Omari Lawrence, who now attends South Kent (Conn.) School. Lawrence is a prolific scorer with laser-quick moves on the baseline and the ability to soar to the hoop. He could play his way into our top 100 player rankings, and projects as an immediate starter for the Red Storm next season.
St. John's also signed athletic combo-guard Dwight Hardy, another NYC product, who played at the Patterson School (Lenoir, N.C.) last year. He is now at Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College. Hardy can play either guard position and will bring toughness and experience to the Red Storm's program.
Gifted 5-11 PG Malik Stith, (a Charlotte resident now at North Bridgton, Maine./Bridgton Academy) had previously committed to St. John's. However, Stith has decided not to sign during the November period, and will delay his decision until the spring.
Syracuse commits: two
With a veteran team returning, coach Jim Boeheim, now in his 32nd year at Syracuse, hopes to better last year's 9-9 Big East record. And the Orange appear to have the talent to contend for the conference title.
With limited available scholarships, Syracuse signed only one newcomer, ESPNU No. 93-rated guard Brandon Triche (Dewitt, N.Y.). Triche is strong and physical and has the skill set to play either backcourt position. He is an effective 3-point shooter, and an excellent passer and playmaker. Triche led Jamesville-Dewitt to the New York Class A state championship last season. He gives Coach Boeheim an valuable alternative if Jonny Flynn should decide to turn pro after this season.
Villanova commits: three
Coach Jay Wright once again had an outstanding recruiting class, with three ESPNU top 35 signees, which comprised the No. 7-ranked fall class of newcomers. Heading this group is PG Maalik Wayns, from nearby Philadelphia/Roman Catholic. He's one of the nation's best true point guards and team leaders. He will probably back up Wildcats point guard Corey Fisher or replace him if he departs for the NBA.
The Wildcats were delighted to sign C/F Mouphtaou Yarou (Rockville, Md./Montrose Christian School). Yarou is a beast on the boards, and a dominator in the low post. He projects as an immediate starter for the Wildcats next year as a freshman.
The third recruit is multidimensional wing Isaiah Armwood, who is Yarou's teammate this year at Montrose Christian. He chose Villanova over Texas and Syracuse. He will become another significant contributor next season for Coach Wright's talented program.
West Virginia commits: four
West Virginia added three excellent recruits last year, and 6-9 WF Devin Eubanks appears to be capable of replacing Joe Alexander. 6-2 1/2G Darryl "Truck" Bryant, and 6-8 P/WF Kevin Jones both will be major contributors this season.
The Mountaineers have signed the nation's No. 24-rated fall recruiting class with four additions. The best of these newcomers could be 6-9 C/F Dan Jennings (now at Oakdale, Conn./St. Thomas More). Jennings, one of the nation's best fifth-year players, was a starter at Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) last year. A resident of Staten Island, N.Y., Jennings has really elevated his game in his post-graduate year at St. Thomas More. He will be a likely starter when he arrives in Morgantown next year.
Big man Deniz Kilicli (Beckley, W.Va./Mountain State Academy) is a native of Turkey. In early action, Kilicli has not yet played up to his national ranking. However, he is very skilled and has a deft shooting touch with good range. He must become a more aggressive rebounder and use his size to dominate inside.
Guard Dalton Pepper (Fairless Hills, Pa./Pennsbury) is a hard-nosed, lethal outside shooter. Pepper is in the mold of Alex Ruoff as a player, and is a fierce competitor and a winner. He is an ideal recruit for West Virginia's style of play; he fits the mold of what Huggins most wants in a recruit.