Conference Preview: Louisville is the favorite in Big East after run to Final Four

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

It came as no surprise last week when the Big East coaches resoundingly named Louisville the preseason favorite to win the conference, but what about the other storylines?

This year’s edition of the Big East has all of the ingredients for drama: realignment storylines, television negotiations, and a little preseason war of words.

Let’s break it all down:

Five Things to Know

1. “Realignment” is the word in the Big East. Absent at Media Day was a longtime fixture, Bob Huggins, whose West Virginia Mountaineers are now members of the Big 12. Syracuse and Pittsburgh are both entering their final season in the conference before heading to the ACC. Notre Dame is likely negotiating some sort of deal to head to the ACC early, as well. On the horizon wait Memphis, Temple, UCF, Houston, and SMU, ready to enter the league. Prepare yourself for frequent “this could be the final match-up…”-type storylines as the season progresses.

2. Louisville is the preseason favorite to win the conference, but much of its success hinges on Big East Preseason Player of the Year Peyton Siva. We saw different versions of the then-junior point guard last season. Who will ultimately prevail this season, the player who was the catalyst for Louisville’s run in the Big East and NCAA tournaments or the player who averaged 5.4 points and 3.6 turnovers per game for a seven-game stretch in late December and January?

3. Connecticut is in a season of change. Not only are they banned from the Big East and NCAA tournaments, but longtime head coach Jim Calhoun announced his retirement earlier this year. Former Husky assistant Kevin Ollie now takes over the program. Players say that, though more stern, Ollie is the same optimistic leader as they remember him in his assistant role. He might be just what they need in this season of transition.

4. Syracuse has lost a number of key pieces from last season, among them Dion Waiters, Fab Melo, Kris Joseph, and Scoop Jardine, but comes into 2012-13 as a top-15 team nationally that is ready to compete for a conference title. Expect sophomore Michael Carter-Williams to have a breakout year.

5. Stan Heath and South Florida surprised a lot of people last season when they finished 22-14 and earned a berth in the NCAA tournament. Point guard Anthony Collins returns for his sophomore season and will be key. Interesting note: Despite the slow offensive tempo that produced just 59.2 points per game last season, Heath told NBCSports.com at Big East media day that this year’s team is built to play faster, so don’t be surprised if we see Collins lead the “Running of the Bulls.”

Impact Newcomers

C Steven Adams (Pittsburgh)

The 6-10 Adams was chosen by league coaches to be the Preseason Big East Rookie of the Year and will have expectations to match in 2012-13. The New Zealand native likely has been praised by scouts for his upside.

C DaJuan Coleman (Syracuse)

The local prospect will have to help in compensating for the loss of Fab Melo to the NBA. Reports are that he has lost significant weight (he was last listed at 6-9, 275 pounds), which should make him more mobile.

F Montrezl Harrell (Louisville)

Rick Pitino and the Cardinals were fortunate enough to land Harrell after he decommitted from Virginia Tech this spring. Point guard Peyton Siva says he already sees improvement in the 6-8, 215 forward, who should provide more stability in the frontcourt.

F Stephen Domingo (Georgetown)

Domingo was a member of the Class of 2013 until he committed to Georgetown and sped up his high school timeline. The lanky California native should provide the three-point threat that the Hoyas need.

F JaKarr Sampson (St. John’s)

Sampson is an elite athlete who returns to the Red Storm after taking a post-graduate year at Brewster Academy in 2011-12. He has a different skill set than Moe Harkless, who left for the NBA after one season in Queens, but has a high ceiling and an undeniable “wow” factor when his athleticism is on full display.

G Kris Dunn (Providence)

With Ricky Ledo being ruled ineligible to play this season, Providence head coach Ed Cooley will rely more on his other star recruit, Dunn. Injury is holding him back for now, but if he doesn’t redshirt, he will change the complexion of the Friar offense.

Breakout Players

F Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse)

Carter-Williams played sparingly during his freshman season, but he’ll have an increased role because of the loss of key pieces to the NBA.

G Anthony Collins (South Florida)

If coach Stan Heath wants to implement a faster brand of offense, Collins is his man. Quick and explosive, the sophomore is ready to lead.

G Vander Blue (Marquette)

Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder have moved on to the NBA, which leaves Blue with a chance to shine.

G Ryan Boatright (Connecticut)

Plagued by NCAA investigations last season, Boatright should be able to focus and find his groove in 2012-13 as part of a backcourt with Shabazz Napier.

G Jerian Grant (Notre Dame)

He averaged 12.3 points and led the Irish with 5.0 assists per game last season, but didn’t get the national recognition that he should be able to grab this year.

Player of the Year: G Peyton Siva (Louisville)

The biggest question will be which Peyton Siva shows up for most of the season, but if the end of the season is any indication, we could be in for a special season from him.

Coach Under Pressure: Oliver Purnell (DePaul)

After a 3-15 season in Big East play, Purnell and his reported $1.8 million annual contract will have to prove some things in 2012-13. The Blue Demons are still projected to finish in the bottom third of the conference.

All-Conference Team

(*) denotes Player of the Year

G Peyton Siva (Louisville)*

G Vincent Council (Providence)

F Otto Porter (Georgetown)

F Jack Cooley (Notre Dame)

C Gorgui Dieng (Louisville)

Predicted Finish

1. Louisville–Coming off a Final Four run and with Siva at the point, the Cardinals are the favorite.

2. Syracuse—Personnel losses shouldn’t be a problem for the Orange. They have reloaded and will be solidly in the nation’s Top 15.

3. Notre Dame—Jack Cooley and Scott Martin are key, as are guards Jerian Grant and Erik Atkins. Could be the final Big East season for the Irish.

4. Cincinnati—Yancy Gates’ departure will hurt Mick Cronin’s team, but guard Sean Kilpatrick should be able to continue capitalize on momentum from last season.

5. Georgetown—The top three scorers for the Hoyas—Jason Clark, Hollis Thompson, and Henry Sims—have all left. This is Otto Porter’s chance to step up.

6. Pittsburgh—With no Ashton Gibbs, Tray Woodall takes on more responsibilities in the backcourt. Big man Steven Adams will play a role, as will transfer Trey Zeigler.

7. USF—The element of surprise is gone for Stan Heath’s team. Can they compete when other teams expect it?

8. Marquette—Crowder and Johnson-Odom aren’t easily replaced. If we’ve learned one thing, though, it’s not to underestimate Buzz Williams.

9. Connecticut—The general sentiment around the program is that this is not a loss season, despite the postseason ban. We’ll see what Kevin Ollie can do in his first season.

10. St. John’s—Steve Lavin returns after undergoing prostate cancer surgery and has another young, talented recruiting class coming to the Red Storm.

11. Rutgers—Coach Mike Rice began to lay the foundation with his recruiting class last season and now he will build on it. Eligible transfer Wally Judge should help.

12. Villanova—Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek have departed, take with them a combined 30 points per game. Wake Forest transfer Tony Chennault and freshman Ryan Arcidiacono will compete for the starting PG spot.

13. DePaul—Cleveland Melvin once again is the centerpiece. Injuries plagued the Blue Demons last season.

14. Providence—Ricky Ledo being ruled ineligible hurts the Friars in the short term, but the long-term outlook is bright.

15. Seton Hall—Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope have left, and the NCAA’s decision not to grant a hardship waiver to guard Sterling Gibbs will make life more difficult in Jersey.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

The slogan of the NCAA Tournament is “The Road to the Final Four”.

Outside of Duke, the runaway preseason favorite, and it’s months-long narrative of “Is Duke back?”, you could make the case there wasn’t a Final Four contender with a journey filled with more ups and downs than Oregon.

Weeks following a season-ending loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, Oregon learned that both Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey would return to school for the next season. In July, Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth-year of eligibility. With Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell returning, and Payton Pritchard joining the program, the Ducks were an easy choice for a preseason Final Four pick.

Brooks’ offseason foot surgery — and the recovery that followed — raised concern about whether or not Oregon could fully reach its preseason potential, entering conference play without a notable win. Brooks’ Pac-12 Player of the Year season put to rest the status of his foot, leading the Ducks to a 16-2 Pac-12 record.

Hours before Oregon was set to battle with Arizona, it was announced that Chris Boucher had torn his ACL and would be out for the remainder of the season. Not only could this have played a role in the team’s seeding by the selection committee, but Boucher offered more than rim protection, as he helped space the floor given his ability to step out and shoot from the perimeter.

After fending off a good fight from Iona, the Ducks looked to be part of a Rhode Island’s magical postseason run. Tyler Dorsey ended that. In the Sweet 16, Oregon was matchup with Michigan, dubbed as the team of destiny. Bell and Dorsey, Oregon’s two tournament stars, stepped up in critical moments once again. Slated as an underdog for the second straight game, Oregon proved its Final Four worth by handing Kansas its worst tournament defeat of the Bill Self era in a regional final game that was played 40 miles away from the KU campus.

“I’m happy for our team,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said following the game. “I’m happy for, as I mentioned, our university and our state. It’s been a long time coming and now we just need to go continue to play well.”

For Oregon, its road to the Final Four has come full circle.