NEW YORK -- To hear the experts tell it, the 2008-09 version of the Big East Conference is the deepest and toughest league in the history of college basketball.
Eight Big East teams went dancing to last year's NCAA Tournament and as many as 10 of the league's 16 teams are projected to go this season. Seven schools finished last year ranked among the top 25, and as many as eight are ranked in some preseason polls this year. Several national polls feature three Big East teams in the top five.
"It's the best league in the country by far, it's not even close," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "You can be the 10th-best team in the league and one of the top 50 teams in the country. It's a joke how deep this league is."
"This is my ninth year and it's not even close," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Wednesday during Big East media day. "Quite frankly, it's off the charts. When I was recruiting and talking to coaches from the Big 10 and the ACC and the SEC, they were shaking their heads."
"By far this is the best that it's ever been," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, the dean among Big East coaches with 32 years' experience. "This year I think we have 10, 11, 12 really great teams and I think those bottom teams are pretty good."
UConn was tabbed as the preseason favorite to win the regular-season title, receiving nine first-place votes. The Huskies feature two first-team preseason All-Big East players in 7-foot-3 junior center Hasheem Thabeet and 6-2 senior guard A.J. Price, who is fully recovered after tearing his ACL.
Louisville, which had the deepest run of all Big East teams in last year's NCAA Tournament, reaching the East Regional finals, was picked to finish second. Defending Big East tournament champion Pittsburgh will finish third, the coaches said.
Notre Dame, which welcomes back reigning Big East player of the year, forward Luke Harangody, was chosen fourth. And Villanova, which advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, received the nod for fifth place.
"As far as who is the favorite, I'm going to say UConn," Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez said. "Thabeet and [Jeff] Adrien, that is an NBA front line. To me they have the best chance in our league to win the national championship."
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin echoed those thoughts.
"I would say the best defensive team in our league this year would be UConn," he said. "That's where I would lean for the team to beat, because of how hard it's going to be to score on them. Especially on the interior if they stay healthy with Thabeet and Jeff Adrien, they're going to be awfully tough to get baskets against."
What makes the league so deep is the number of experienced returning players, like Thabeet, who could have been a potential NBA lottery pick but opted to remain on campus.
"I think it's a great decision, there's nothing to regret about it," Thabeet said. "I could have gone since my freshman year. I just want to get a little more experience, and get a little more education. And when the time comes, I'll make the right decision again."
The conference returns 23 of its top 30 scorers, 15 of the top 20 rebounders and nine of the top 10 assists leaders. Both Harangody, the reigning player of the year, and Thabeet, the defensive player of the year are back and looking for more.
"In my opinion, [he] has a chance to be national player of the year," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said of Thabeet. "He can lead us to the Final Four. He's capable of nine blocks, 20 rebounds and 20 points on any night."
A slew of talented rookies are also joining the league, including the preseason co-rookies of the year, Greg Monroe of Georgetown and Samardo Samuels of Louisville. Many of the top rookies come from the New York/New Jersey area, including Samuels, who played at St. Benedict's in Newark; New York product Devin Ebanks of West Virginia; former Rice High star Kemba Walker of UConn; and Rutgers rookies Mike Rosario of St. Anthony and Greg Echenique of St. Benedict's.
Once again, the local schools will be looking up from the bottom. Rutgers (No. 12), Seton Hall (13) and St. John's (14) were picked to finish near the bottom of the conference.
Yet unlike last season, when only Gonzalez's Pirates made the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, all 16 teams will qualify for this year's tournament, which will run over five days in March.
Asked what it would take for the three local schools to one day join the upper echelon of the league, St. John's coach Norm Roberts said: "We've got to get a good base, and I think we have a good foundation down for us right now. And then we've got to keep our recruiting going and try to get some of those cherries on top, try to get some of those elite guys and then add to that."
At the end of what should be a long and brutal season in which the teams beat each other up on a nightly basis, the NCAA selection committee could well be faced with nine or 10 Big East teams deserving bids to the Big Dance.
"The selection committee is going to have a lot tougher time with the Big East than they've ever had before, and this season there are times when your performance in a loss in the Big East will be good enough to have beaten 90 percent of the teams out there, maybe more," Bilas said.
"When the league went to 16 teams, I said there's going to come a time when they're going to have 10 teams and the committee better let them in because otherwise all that rhetoric didn't mean anything."
PRESEASON COACHES' POLL
4. Notre Dame
9. West Virginia
13. Seton Hall
14. St. John's
PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Luke Harangody, Notre Dame
PRESEASON CO-ROOKIES OF THE YEAR
Greg Monroe, Georgetown
Samardo Samuels, Louisville
PRESEASON ALL BIG-EAST TEAM
Luke Harangody, Notre Dame
Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati
AJ Price, UConn
Hasheem Thabeet, UConn
DaJuan Summers, Georgetown
Terrence Williams, Louisville
Jerel McNeal, Marquette
Kyle McAlarney, Notre Dame
Sam Young, Pittsburgh
Jonny Flynn, Syracuse
Scottie Reynolds, Villanova
Jeff Adrien, UConn
Earl Clark, Louisville
Dominic James, Marquette