By Harry Allison

Villanova, which plays at Lehigh tomorrow night, Nov. 14, is the heavy favorite to repeat in what the Inquirer’s Bob Ford calls the Ivy League with Rosaries — the second year of the new Big East — but beyond the Cats it is a wide open race

Or, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, lots of known unknowns.

Former Creighton star Doug McDermott is in the NBA with the Bulls, but there is a promising group of freshmen — particularly at Georgetown and Seton Hall — who could add much-needed excitement to a conference in need of an infusion of young talent.

The Big East may not be as powerful as it once was, but its unpredictability makes it as interesting as ever.

Preseason Rankings

1. Villanova Wildcats
2. Georgetown Hoyas
3. Xavier Musketeers
4. Providence Friars
5. St. John’s Red Storm
6. Seton Hall Pirates
7. Butler Bulldogs
8. Marquette Golden Eagles
9. Creighton Bluejays
10. DePaul Blue Demons

Player of the Year

F JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova

His career has had more twists and turns than “Gone Girl,” from his arrest for an on-campus fight and subsequent suspension as a freshman to the MRSA scare before last season.

Despite those transgressions, the Brooklyn product has carved out a fine career, improving each season on the court, maturing off it and reaching the NCAA Tournament twice. Pinkston will establish himself as one of the best players in the nation this year, a 6-foot-7 mismatch nightmare — strong inside, a monster on the glass and potent from the perimeter.

Coach of the Year

Ed Cooley, Providence
Three years after leading Fairfield to a MAAC regular-season title, the Providence native took the Friars to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade, after winning their first Big East Tournament title in 20 years.

Cooley, 45, has won 44 games over the past two seasons and will earn even more acclaim in his fourth season with do-it-all star Bryce Cotton gone.

Freshman of the Year

G Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
Whitehead was the story of Big East Media Day, drawing the biggest crowds of reporters, but now all that hype must turn into production. The expectations are insanely high for Whitehead and the Pirates’ top 10 recruiting class.

The understated 6-foot-4 McDonald’s All-American will reach them, score in bunches and make Seton Hall relevant, leading head coach Kevin Willard’s team to the middle of the league and (some kind of) postseason.

How many Big East teams get into the NCAA Tournament?
Despite its basketball-centric appeal, the Big East will regain the national respect it once held only by sending several teams to the dance.

The newly configured conference disappointed in its first season, with just four teams qualifying — Villanova, Providence, Creighton and Xavier — which tied for sixth nationally and was behind the Atlantic-10.

Multiple teams could surprise in an unpredictable conference, but an even less successful season for the league would be even less surprising.

Can Villanova make a deep March run?
The defending Big East champs look like the conference’s only lock to make it to the NCAA Tournament.

Though more than half the league may be left out on Selection Sunday, the Wildcats could singlehandedly boost the league’s reputation by making a deep run. Last season, Villanova earned a No. 2 seed in the tournament but lost in its second game to eventual-champion UConn.

No team from the Big East advanced past the tournament’s first weekend last season.

Can Providence sophomore Kris Dunn stay healthy and live up to lofty potential?
He was hailed as the future, a dynamic multi-talented scoring point guard who would lead Providence to new heights.

That was three years ago, before the McDonald’s All-American suffered multiple shoulder injuries that limited the redshirt sophomore to 29 games in his first two years.

Now, with last year’s backcourt gone and Dunn finally healthy, the Friars desperately need to see the player they recruited live up to that hype. Their postseason chances hinge on it.

Does the Big East have a star to make up for the loss of Doug McDermott?
By next year, possibly, but not this year. The league’s best players aren’t marketable future NBA players like McDermott, they are quality college players such as Villanova’s JayVaughn Pinkston, Xavier’s Matt Stainbrook, St. John’s D’Angelo Harrison and Georgetown’s D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera.

The conference may not see anyone like McDermott for a long time, and there certainly isn’t anyone with his nationwide appeal this winter.

How important are the league’s top freshmen to its growth?
They’re the Big East’s future — Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead, Georgetown’s impressive trio of Isaac Copeland, Paul White and L.J. Peak, Providence’s Ben Bentil and Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett.

The league is recruiting well, right there with the county’s premier conferences — a realistic reason to view better days ahead for the new conference — and it is imperative that the solid crop of freshmen not only perform well, to boost what seems like a decidedly down season ahead, but stay in school to foster future growth.

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