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April 16, 2009

Is more Big East parity finally on the way?

RELATED: Big East may benefit from loss of top stars

No matter how many No. 1 seeds it earned or how many teams it sent to regional finals this season, the Big East might not have been the nation's best conference from top to bottom.

Why not? Blame it on the bottom.

The top 12 teams in the Big East were as good as any conference's top 12 in recent college basketball history. But the bottom of the league was an anchor that caused the Big East to fall below the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 in conference RPI.

This has been a familiar story for the Big East since the league expanded to 16 teams in 2005. USF has finished 13th or worse in the conference in each of the four seasons since. DePaul, Rutgers and St. John's have finished among the bottom four teams in the league at least three times since the expansion.

The power atop the Big East has made it almost impossible for the teams at the bottom to make a move upward.

"It's always difficult because there are so many good teams in the league," St. John's coach Norm Roberts said. "Every game's a war."

Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh could have to reshape their rosters after earning No. 1 seeds in the most recent NCAA tournament, which could create more parity in the Big East.

Of the four teams that finished 13th or worse in the Big East last year, St. John's seems most equipped to capitalize on the situation. The Red Storm went 16-18 and reached the College Basketball Invitational with a lineup that featured five sophomores. St. John's beat Georgetown twice and knocked off Notre Dame when the Irish were ranked seventh in the nation.

They should get a boost from the expected return of 6-foot-7 forward Anthony Mason Jr., who led the team with 14 points per game in 2007-08 before an injured right foot limited him to just three games this season. Mason has indicated he will seek a medical redshirt that would allow him to play as a fifth-year senior next season.

"If we can just stay away from injuries, that's the biggest key for us," Roberts said. "We lost Anthony Mason our best player three games into the season. We lost our starting point guard [Malik Boothe] for seven games in the Big East. You just can't do that in the Big East and be real successful. I thought our guys did a great job of growing and getting better. We have to take that into the offseason and take that into next year."

St. John's needs better perimeter players to reach a more prestigious tournament next season. The Red Storm made the fewest 3-point shots in the league this season and also were last in the league in 3-point field-goal percentage defense.

The Red Storm could make huge strides if 6-foot-6 shooting guard Lance Stephenson of Brooklyn, N.Y., signs. The No. 11 prospect in the country, Stephenson is considering St. John's as well as Kansas and Maryland.

"I think we're not far away at all," Roberts said. "We obviously have got to have some things fall our way with recruiting and everything else. Guys have to get better and stronger and have to make plays when they have opportunities."

The three teams that finished behind St. John's in the Big East standings have a longer way to go before they can contend for NCAA or NIT bids.

USF returns all-league candidate Dominique Jones and three others who made at least 12 starts this season, but the Bulls also went just 9-22 and were 2-15 away from home. This team is years away from contending for a postseason bid.

Rutgers had the Big East's top freshman scorer (Mike Rosario) and rebounder (Gregory Echenique) this season, but the Scarlet Knights won just twice in Big East play. DePaul didn't win a Big East regular-season game and could have a tough time earning more than a couple of conference wins next season if Mac Koshwal and Dar Tucker keep their names in the NBA draft pool.

No. 1 with a bullet

It's looking more and more as if 2009-10 will mark the second consecutive season in which a team is a prohibitive favorite to win the national title.

Kansas probably won't be a unanimous pick in The Associated Press preseason poll the way North Carolina was this year Michigan State ought to earn at least a few votes but the Jayhawks should open as the clear-cut choice to win the title now that Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich have decided to return to school.

"Those two together mean at least 12 victories," Kansas coach Bill Self said.

Kansas also has signed 6-2 guard Elijah Johnson (the No. 24 prospect in the country) and 6-8 forward Thomas Robinson (No. 31) and remains in the hunt for Stephenson and 6-6 guard Xavier Henry (No. 8).

Syracuse looked like a legitimate challenger for the preseason No. 1 spot until Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf decided to enter the NBA draft. Multiple reports have suggested Flynn is on the verge of hiring an agent, which would prevent him from returning to school. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has indicated that Flynn's status remains "up in the air" while Harris and Devendorf almost certainly won't return to school.

Losing with Isiah

As a low-major team seeking attention in a market as large as Miami, Florida International understandably wanted to make a splash with its coaching hire. But the selection of former New York Knicks executive/coach Isiah Thomas could end up creating more headaches than headlines.

Although his penchant for acquiring high-priced players past their prime during his Knicks tenure might indicate otherwise, Thomas does know how to judge talent. He drafted Tracy McGrady, Marcus Camby and Damon Stoudamire while running the Toronto Raptors. He picked David Lee late in the first round during his Knicks tenure.

Thomas' status as one of the greatest point guards in history should mean FIU can recruit a caliber of athlete that otherwise wouldn't consider the Sun Belt program.

But why would a school on NCAA probation take a chance on a figure as controversial as Thomas?

When Thomas owned the Continental Basketball Association, the league went bankrupt. During his stint with the Knicks, a jury ordered the team's owners to pay $11.6 million to a former team employee who said Thomas sexually harassed her, though Thomas wasn't found personally liable.

The best-case scenario for FIU is that Thomas leads the Golden Panthers to an NCAA tournament bid before landing a better job elsewhere. What's the worst-case scenario? Ask Knicks fans or former CBA officials.

Tip-ins

Duke point guard Greg Paulus' potential move to Michigan as a football quarterback would be unusual, but not unprecedented. In fact, Paulus wouldn't be the only guy to make that switch this year. Matt LaGrone will play defensive end for Oregon State's football team this fall after beginning his college career as a Nevada basketball player.

Ole Miss guard David Huertas added his name to the list of players leaving school to start a pro career, but he isn't waiting for the NBA draft. Huertas instead signed with the Quebradillas Pirates of the Superior National Basketball League in Puerto Rico. Huertas would've been a senior next season.

Only time will tell if new Xavier coach Chris Mack fares as well as his predecessors, but he certainly seems more likely to stay in his job for the long haul. Mack grew up in Cincinnati, played at Xavier and has served two stints there as an assistant, first under Skip Prosser and later under Sean Miller. If this guy eventually leaves for a position at a bigger conference, Xavier might never find someone willing to stay for the long haul.

Florida International's hiring of Thomas represents the third recent reclamation project of a big-name coach by a Sun Belt Conference program. John Brady took over Arkansas State's program this season after being fired by LSU, while former St. John's coach Mike Jarvis just finished his first season at Florida Atlantic. While it's far too early to pass judgment on either experiment, the early returns haven't been encouraging. Arkansas State and FAU finished last in their respective divisions this season. FAU had been picked to finish fourth of six teams in the Sun Belt East, while Arkansas State was predicted to place fourth out of seven teams in the West.

A look at the season-ending NCAA statistics shows just how much freshmen were de-emphasized this season in comparison to the past two seasons. Liberty's Seth Curry, who has since announced plans to transfer to Duke, was the only freshman to rank among the nation's top 50 scorers. Two freshmen (Gardner-Webb's Joshua Henley and Stony Brook's Tommy Brenton) were among the top 50 rebounders. Last season, four freshmen ranked in the top 50 in scoring, while NCAA rebounding leader Michael Beasley of Kansas State was one of five freshmen in the top 50 in that category. Two years ago, two freshmen (Texas' Kevin Durant and Davidson's Stephen Curry, Seth's brother) ranked among the nation's top nine scorers and four freshmen ranked in the top 50 in rebounding.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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