Georgetown's season ended in frustration last year, as they first fell out of the conference race in February and then suffered devastation in March when they were bounced from the NCAA by 14th-seeded Ohio, giving up 97 points in the process. But they merit the early favorite's role this year, with four starters back. They lose center Greg Monroe, a game-changer in the middle, but have everyone else back, including their outstanding guard, Austin Freeman. Villanova also has a high-profile loss, in clutch guard Scottie Reynolds, but they return the other two pieces of their backcourt in Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes. They also have Antonio Pena up front and will be a contender. Whether they have a big year or not is going to depend on whether their big freshman, JayVaughn Pinkston, can make immediate impact inside. And the trio of early championship possibilities is completed with Pitt, which brings back four starters last year, including a good veteran backcourt with Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs.
I'm focusing on those three teams in the early going, because there's pretty substantial rebuilding jobs to do at Louisville, UConn, Syracuse, West Virginia and Marquette. The Orangemen won the conference title last year, but lose their best player, forward Wesley Johnson, and center Arinze Onaku, from a team that was built around frontcourt dominance. West Virginia lost its best player, De'Sean Butler, whose knee injury in the second half of their Final Four loss to Duke, was one of the enduring images of the NCAAs, as Coach Bob Huggins hugged him and helped him off the court.
Three potentially interesting teams are Notre Dame, St. John and Seton Hall. The Irish lose Luke Harangody, but have three quality frontcourt players to take up the slack, in Tim Abromaitis, Tyrone Nash and post man Ben Hansbrough. Ultimate success depends on whether freshman point guard Eric Atkins is a fast learner. St. John's is loaded with experience and hungry for improvement. They've got a new coach in former ESPN analyst Steve Lavin and if he can coax Malik Boothe into some consistency, it could be an exciting year in Queens. And just down the road in New Jersey, Seton Hall's also got a new coach and some bright prospects. Bobby Willard will be able to work with explosive scoring guard Jeremy Hazell and the conference's top rebounder in Herb Pope, along with the improving Jeff Robinson inside.
At the bottom of the conference are Rutgers, South Florida, Providence and DePaul. The Blue Demons brought in Oliver Purnell to take over the coaching reins, but this is too big a reclamation project to see immediate results. South Florida made a push at the NCAAs last year, before coming up short and then losing all-everything guard Dominique Jones.
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.