An offseason look around the Big East

The buzz right now, of course, is about that group of professional pigskin people who finally found the proper keys to end the standoff between millionaires.

We know better. The Buzz really is because, as of today, July 28, college basketball season is a mere 79 days away, with no threat of a lockout, lockdown or lockjaw.

And so with a clear horizon in front of us, there is no better time than the present to get ready for some basketball, conference by conference.

Here’s a quick peek into the Big East ...

First the bad news: To those who hate the Big East, anyway. The league will be good again this season, good enough to earn another hearty number of NCAA tournament spots. In his preseason Bracketology, Joe Lunardi awarded 10 spots to the Big Beast.

So to those who cried foul over 11 last season, an apology in advance. Like it or lump it, it’s hard to imagine the league not being well represented come March. Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Louisville have Final Four aspirations. Legitimate ones, we might add.

Cincinnati and Marquette surprised folks by advancing in the NCAA tournament a year ago (the Bearcats to the second round, the Golden Eagles to the Sweet 16). Neither will surprise anyone this season.

Yes, West Virginia has nine newcomers, but Bob Huggins expects big things from them, so pick against the Mountaineers and Huggins at your own risk. As for Steve Lavin, he goes from handing out AARP cards to looking for babysitting services, but his young St. John's team includes six freshmen ranked in the ESPNU 100.

Georgetown and Villanova have holes to fill but, as usual, players to fill them.

And now the good news: Last season the Big East was a beneficiary of the lousiness of others. Forced to find 65 teams, the NCAA Selection Committee went with the lesser of two evils, taking teams from the Big East that at least had something on their résumés worth bragging about.

This season the teams that make it will earn their way on their own merits. In the always cyclical world of college basketball, the game is swinging in the Big East’s favor. Why? The NBA didn’t pickpocket the conference's players.

With the exception of the one guy everyone knew would leave (Kemba Walker) and the one guy no one thought should leave (Terrence Jennings), the top non-seniors returned to school.

This isn’t a league top heavy with lottery picks -- Basketball Prospectus recently ranked just two Big East players in its top 100, Pitt’s Ashton Gibbs (No. 16) and UConn’s Jeremy Lamb (No. 17). But there is a wealth of experience, of guys who know how to circumnavigate the conference’s brutality -- Syracuse’s Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph; Gibbs and Nasir Robinson at Pitt; Darius Johnson-Odom at Marquette; Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates and Cashmere Wright; Jared Swopshire and Peyton Siva at Louisville, Alex Oriakhi at Connecticut and Villanova’s Maalik Wayns.

And if you don’t think that experience matters, consider the past six Big East tournament champions have been steered by elder statesmen: Kemba Walker (junior, UConn), DaSean Butler (senior, West Virginia), Terrence Williams (senior, Louisville), Sam Young (senior, Pittsburgh), Jeff Green (junior, Georgetown), Gerry McNamara (senior, Syracuse).

The harsh reality: To paint everything in the Big East as sunshine and roses would be slightly disingenuous.

When the conference season dawns, Jim Calhoun -- owner of the most recent NCAA championship hardware -- will not be on the bench. Calhoun was suspended for the first three Big East games following an NCAA investigation into his program.

Calhoun faced the music during the Huskies’ tournament run and it will certainly resurface when George Blaney slides one chair over when UConn opens its conference season.

Division about divisions: Rick Pitino filled up a slow July by blogging about his way to streamline Big East scheduling. Frustrated by Louisville’s loaded draw, the coach sat down and came up with his own solution -- splitting the league into divisions beginning next season, when TCU joins the fold.

The idea was met with a thud. Citing the NCAA tournament success the league has enjoyed since expanding (exploding) to 16 teams, coaches were less than receptive to a split conference.

Plus, Pitino’s pitch -- separating the schools based on which have and don’t have football -- sent shivers down the spines of people who worry that the Big East could someday kick the Catholic, non-football schools to the curb.

But Pitino did have a relevant point. With the addition of TCU, the already unwieldy league will have 17 teams. That makes the regular season trickier, but worse, an equitable Big East tournament a mathematical impossibility.

A couple of years ago, the coaches voted to invite everyone to New York, ending a three-year run where only the top 12 teams qualified. It added a day to the tourney -- and a chapter to the legend that was UConn basketball last season -- but has been, for the most part, well-received.

Now what? A 16 versus 17 play-in (aka the annual DePaul-TCU If A Team Comes to NYC and No One Sees It Play, Was It Really There Extravaganza)?

Or will there be an 18th team added to the bloated conference? Expansion talk never dies. It just goes off quietly in a corner and bides its time. Well, the Big East’s time is now. Expect the next year to be filled with rumor and speculation as to whether the league will, in fact, add yet another school.

Proving its worth: No one beats up on itself quite like the Big East.

Like all national champions, Connecticut won six games over three weekends to capture the hardware. And hardly anyone within the league thinks that was the Huskies’ biggest accomplishment. No, most concur that winning five games in five days in New York to win the Big East tournament was tougher.

But outsiders and critics are naturally skeptical. Is the league really that good or just really good at marketing how tough it is?

The proof of the conference's brawn, therefore, will have to come in nonconference games, in the head-to-head and toe-to-toe matchups against the best of the rest.

Here are some games worth keeping an eye on:

Louisville at Kentucky: If you have to ask why, you don’t deserve to know. Both teams are on virtually every preseason top 10 list. The fans bases don’t like one another. The coaches aren’t exactly each other’s greatest fans. And the game is in Kentucky, where football season is also known as basketball preseason. Oh, and it’s on New Year’s Eve. No need for fireworks in the Commonwealth. This one will supply plenty.

Cincinnati at Xavier: A heated rivalry when both teams are average, this one jumps a few octaves because both are expected to be very good. Xavier’s Tu Holloway should be a dark horse for national player of the year.

Marquette at Wisconsin: Yet another regular in-state rivalry made all the better by two quality teams.

Villanova vs. Missouri at the Jimmy V: The Wildcats finished the season in a nosedive. Missouri has a strong returning roster but a new coach in Frank Haith.

The Big East/SEC Challenge: The leagues agreed to change the format this season, with all 12 SEC schools competing and the games moved to campus sites. The welcome changes only add to the luster of a decent draw between two very deep conferences. The matchups include ...

Florida at Syracuse: Billy Donovan’s guard-heavy team faces Jim Boeheim’s experienced squad at the Carrier Dome.

Vanderbilt at Louisville: With nearly everyone back, this might be the best team Kevin Stallings has had in Nashville. Dickie V even has the Commodores in his top 5.

St. John’s at Kentucky: Also known as the Class of 2011 Showcase. Ten members of the ESPNU 100 will take the court in this game. For UK: Anthony Davis (No. 1), Michael Gilchrist (No. 3), Marquis Teague (No. 7) and Kyle Wiltjer (No. 18). For the Johnnies: Dom Pointer (No. 24), Jakarr Sampson (No. 31), Maurice Harkless (No. 38), D’Angelo Harrison (No. 63), Norrell Pelle (No. 75) and Amir Garrett (No. 96).

Georgetown at Alabama: The Crimson Tide narrowly missed out on an NCAA bid a year ago. Expect Anthony Grant’s squad to circle the Hoyas as a must-win for bonus points come Selection Sunday.