What do you get when you take a basketball team that finished third in the Big East Conference regular standings, made it to the semifinals of the league tournament, was invited to the NCAA Tournament, returns all five starters and bolstered it’s depth and increased its size and athleticism through recruiting?
Senior forward Jack Cooley made the preseason All-Big East First Team
Well, according to the coaches in that conference, the Fighting Irish, which turned in a 22-12 overall mark last winter and debuted at No. 23 on the ESPN/USA Today preseason poll Wednesday, are still the third-best program in the constantly evolving league.
The Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll was announced, with league tournament champion and Final Four participant Louisville (31-6 last season) topping the list and Syracuse (34-3). Cincinnati, which made a run to the league championship in New York City and used that momentum to plow into the Sweet 16, was selected fourth. The Bearcats were followed by Georgetown in fifth place, Pittsburgh in sixth place, Marquette in seventh and South Florida in eighth. Connecticut (ninth) and St. John's (10th) followed, with Rutgers (11th), Villanova (12th), DePaul (13th), Seton Hall (14th) and Providence (15th) filling out the list.
Louisville senior guard Peyton Siva was named the Big East Preseason Player of the Year by the coaches. Along with Siva, Notre Dame senior forward Jack Cooley (12.5 points, 8.9 rebounds per game), Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng, Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Otto Porter (Georgetown) and Vincent Council (Providence) comprised the All-Big East First Team.
"The kid [Cooley] has been such a great story," Irish head coach Mike Brey told ESPN Thursday at Big East media day in New York City. "What I've been so impressed with him this year is he's become a leader, and I never thought I'd get that out of him."
Cooley finished last season with 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds for Notre Dame en route to Big East Most Improved Player honors.
"We're not picked eighth or tenth, even though I tried to move us down on the board a little bit," Brey joked about the preseason placement. "I think that's good for this team. They've won together and have high expectations for themselves."
The second team was made up of Shabazz Napier (Connecticut), Cleveland Melvin (DePaul), D'Angelo Harrison (St. John's), Anthony Collins (USF) and Brandon Triche (Syracuse).
Fighting Irish junior guard Jerian Grant, who made the Big East All-Rookie team last season, Chane Behanan (Louisville), Tray Woodall (Pittsburgh) and C.J. Fair (Syracuse) were preseason honorable mentions.
Notre Dame played in its third straight NCAA tourney, its eighth under head coach Mike Brey (played in the NIT the other four years) and for the 32nd time in school history, losing to Xavier 67-63 in the second round. The Irish won 10 of their last 12 regular-season games (nine straight), beginning with a home upset over No. 1 Syracuse.
"I think our group is really focused," Brey added. "We've got a shot. When you have older guys, experienced guys that win, you always have a chance."