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Connecticut, Syracuse atop Big East poll

– A year ago Connecticut was 10th in the Big East coaches’ preseason poll. Six months later the Huskies had national championship No. 3.

On Wednesday, they were tied for first place in the coaches’ voting for 2011-12 with Syracuse, although the Huskies can lay claim to more No. 1 votes, 7-5.

It’s hard to imagine Connecticut playing better than it did during the 11-game winning streak that ended with the cutting of the nets in Houston.

This group will have to do it without All-America guard Kemba Walker, who did everything needed to win games.

Coach Jim Calhoun has three starters returning, including sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb, a preseason first-team pick, and junior forward Alex Oriakhi, a second-team selection. Freshman Andre Drummond, a 6-foot-11 center, was chosen preseason rookie of the year.

The Orange return first-team selection Kris Joseph, a senior, and second-teamer Scoop Jardine, a junior who led the conference in assists with a 6.1 average last season.

Louisville, which had three first-place votes was third, followed by Pittsburgh, which had one.

Panthers senior guard Ashton Gibbs was selected preseason player of the year. He led Pittsburgh in scoring (16.8) and the conference in 3-point shooting (49 percent), and was second in free throw shooting (88.9). He enters the season third on the Big East career 3-point shooting percentage list at 45.4.

The other Panthers to be named preseason player of the year were Charles Smith (1986-87), Jerome Lane (1987-88), Brandin Knight (2002-03) and Aaron Gray (2006-07).

Cincinnati was fifth followed by Marquette, West Virginia, Villanova, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Rutgers, St. John’s, Seton Hall, South Florida, Providence and DePaul.

In addition to Gibbs, Lamb and Joseph, the preseason first team included seniors Darius Johnson-Odom of Marquette and Kevin Jones of West Virginia, and graduate student Tim Abromaitis of Notre Dame.

Abromaitis is the Irish’s leading returning scorer from last season. He averaged 15.4 points and 6.1 rebounds and hit 42.9 percent of his three-pointers last season.

– Tony Krausz of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.