Get To The Point: Big East EditionPosted by zhayes9 on July 1st, 2011
Throughout the summer RTC contributors Zach Hayes and Brian Otskey will discuss the hot topics — or whatever comes to mind — around each major conference in college basketball. This week, they tackle the Big 12. For the entire summer series focusing on each of the six power conferences, click here.
Zach: It’s fair to say the Big East is smack dab in the proverbial wheelhouse for both of us. It’s the conference we’ve watched since our earliest years, the conference with the premiere tournament on the biggest stage, the conference whose history and unforgettable players will be forever etched in our memories. Despite disappointing NCAA Tournament results outside of national champion Connecticut, last season may have been the banner year for Big East hoops, quite the label bestowed on a conference that’s rivaled the ACC and Big 12 since the turn of the century. In all probability, 11 teams would have earned a trip to the Dance even without expansion, and Big East representatives lined the rankings from November to March.
While it’s a near impossibility the conference can match last season’s incredible depth with players like Kemba Walker, Ben Hansbrough and Brad Wanamaker departing and teams such as Villanova, Notre Dame and Georgetown sustaining significant personnel subtractions, don’t shed a tear for this conference. It still should be the best in the land next season. What makes 2011-12 even more enticing is the lack of a clear-cut frontrunner. Reasonable arguments can be made for Syracuse as the preseason favorite with their entire team other than Rick Jackson back in the fold. Louisville lost their heart and soul in Preston Knowles, but their deep roster, style of play and breakout potential equals a formidable unit. After winning the title, does Connecticut claim the honor by default? What about the steadiest of steady programs in Pittsburgh, especially given the last-second return of Ashton Gibbs.
My choice is Syracuse. I have one major reservation and his name is Scoop Jardine. His decision making can be head-scratching and shot selection at times perplexing, but he’s still a playmaker and a good Ying to Brandon Triche’s Yang, a more steady presence in that backcourt. Many viewed Kris Joseph as a breakout candidate heading into last season and he didn’t necessarily make that expected jump into stardom, but he markedly improved his jumper and still has first round talent. On top of that patented zone, Syracuse should also possess outstanding depth, buoyed by another outstanding recruiting class led by 7-footer Rakeem Christmas in the middle, attacking combo guard/future star Michael Carter-Williams and sharpshooter Trevor Cooney. The bench will be formidable with the scoring punch of Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair and James Southerland. Losing double-double machine Rick Jackson stings, but there’s more than enough to replace his production.
Brian: While last season was certainly a stellar year for the Big East, I’d still rank 2008-09 ahead of 2010-11. The Big East earned three #1 seeds that year and while no conference team won the national championship, that was the strongest conference I’ve ever seen in my time following college basketball. Last year’s version benefited from a weaker national landscape and seized the moment. It was the perfect storm for a large number of bids from this mega-conference.
As for the coming season, I too have Syracuse pegged as the favorite. As you mentioned, the Orange return everyone sans Rick Jackson and Jim Boeheim has put together yet another solid recruiting class. Joseph will continue to improve and star in this league while Jardine should be a heady senior point guard despite his bi-polar play in recent years. I really like Brandon Triche not only opposite Jardine but also on the defensive end. He’s the type of guard (while not at the level of an Andy Rautins) who can stretch out and disrupt an opponent on the wings. Syracuse will score plenty of points but they’ll have to play defense in order to win the league. With Triche and company on the perimeter, the versatile Joseph patrolling the wing and Christmas/Melo anchoring the paint I think Syracuse will be more than adequate defensively. That will be a big reason why they win the league if they’re so fortunate.
Louisville can give Syracuse a run but I think the Orange just have a bit too much. The more I think about Connecticut, the more I think they can win the conference. Jeremy Lamb is a star in waiting and I’m looking for a big improvement out of Shabazz Napier and Alex Oriakhi. With Kemba Walker no longer around, there’s a void to be filled in Storrs. Lamb looks to be the guy but I wouldn’t be surprised if Oriakhi steps up and becomes the next great UConn low post presence. One thing is for sure: the Syracuse/Connecticut rivalry will be must-see TV yet again next season.
Zach: It’s hard to peg Connecticut. The ancillary pieces are enticing by themselves- Lamb’s got a superstar ceiling, Napier is an aggressive, defensive-minded point and Oriakhi has a body you can’t teach – but how will they mesh on the floor without Kemba? He was their heart and soul, their leader, the guy entrusted to take every big shot, an extension of Calhoun on the floor. Those types of personalities are difficult to replace. Since there’s enough to like in their returning pieces, not to mention a duo of freshmen in Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels that should see minutes immediately, a top-10 or 15 season appears to be in the cards, but it could take well into Big East play for roles to be determined and on-court chemistry to be solved post-Kemba. UConn will be one of the more fascinating teams to track from day one.
If I had to rank them today, I’d put Pittsburgh ahead of UConn and behind Syracuse. Ashton Gibbs is back, giving Jamie Dixon a legit 20 PPG scorer who could win Big East POY. He’ll constitute a solid tag-team in the backcourt with Travon Woodall, one of my potential breakout stars. There’s plenty of bodies up front with Nasir Robinson, Dante Taylor, Talib Zanna, J.J. Moore and incoming McDonalds All-American Khem Birch. I’m not exactly breaking new ground when I call Jamie Dixon one of the top coaches in America. His ability to shuffle out winning team after winning team at Pitt without an assembly line of heralded freshmen or any sniff of a recruiting violation is remarkable. Pitt’s two win road swing through West Virginia and Villanova without Gibbs late last season symbolized what the Pitt program is all about: nobody is irreplaceable. Expect another ho-hum 28-30 win season. Avoiding a way-too-early March flameout is always the question, though.
My sleeper for next season: Marquette. Maybe I’m biased as a Milwaukee resident and Buzz Williams supporter. Set me straight.
Brian: I’m a huge Buzz Williams fan as well but I think you may be a bit overzealous. Marquette certainly will be in the middle of the pack at the least but I don’t see them as a sleeper to crack the top five of this brutal conference. Why? Despite making the Sweet 16, the Golden Eagles did lose 15 games while finishing 9-9 in league play a season ago and a key ingredient from that team is now gone. Jimmy Butler was the heart and soul this Marquette squad and his leadership, not to mention his talent, will be sorely missed.
We use the term “matchup nightmare” too often but it really did apply to the versatile Butler. He posted double figures in all but two games while pulling down six boards per contest. At 6’7/220, Butler was able to create his own mid-range shot, knock down a triple or take you inside. More importantly, he was the clear leader on the court and, similar to Kemba Walker, an extension of Buzz Williams on the floor. Marquette has plenty of returning talent and a couple of promising newcomers led by Juan Anderson, a guy who may be able to step in at the 3 and pick up some of the minutes vacated by Butler, but this team has to get better defensively. With Jimmy Butler in the fold, Marquette was only able to muster the #61 defensive efficiency last season (#12 out of 16 teams in conference games only). Defense is all about intensity, effort and determination and I just don’t see how MU can improve defensively without that type of leader on the court. Under Williams, Marquette has been highly efficient on the offensive end but has always left you wanting more defensively. Even if someone like Darius Johnson-Odom or Jae Crowder steps up and leads, I still don’t see the Golden Eagles becoming a strong defensive unit. I see Marquette finishing somewhere between 7th and 10th place but that should still be good enough to secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament in all likelihood.
My sleeper is Cincinnati. Mick Cronin’s team returns its top four scorers and adds two New York City-area forwards in Shaq Thomas and Jermaine Sanders. With a capable point guard in Cashmere Wright, a breakout candidate in Sean Kilpatrick and big man Yancy Gates in the middle, Cincinnati could really do some damage. This team won’t blow you away with anything they do offensively but they are one stout defensive club. Defense takes you far in this league and Cincinnati will be in every game because of it. The Bearcats were doubted early last season while playing one of the worst non-conference schedules I’ve ever seen but they proved they belonged in conference play. Cronin’s rebuilding job has been long and difficult but patience is starting to be rewarded. Last season laid the foundation for what looks to be a pretty successful run in the near future for Cincinnati basketball.
With 16 teams, there are bound to be many question marks in the Big East. To me, the biggest involve St. John’s and West Virginia. Steve Lavin welcomes a bloated but loaded recruiting class to Queens while a visit to the West Virginia athletics website reveals four (!) players on the current roster. Lavin has to achieve good chemistry in a delicate balancing act of egos, recruiting promises and the sobering reality that only five men can be on the court at any one time. Bob Huggins has plenty of bodies coming in but how many will be able to contribute right away? How do you think these programs stack up heading into the new season?
Zach: I’m concerned about Marquette’s defense, as well, but why is Cincinnati’s offense simply dismissed as “won’t blow you away” while Marquette’s defense will single-handedly derail their hopes of contending near the top part of the league? The difference is negligible and being able to score and preventing the opposition from scoring are both of equal importance. You know in baseball how they have the Pythagorean record for teams measuring what their win-loss record should be given their runs scored for and against, a handy tool to determine whether a team has been lucky or unlucky? If this tool was applied to Marquette last season (and I believe Basketball Prospectus did track this), their record would have been a lot closer to 12-6 than 9-9. They managed to peak at the end of the year despite limited contributions scoring-wise from Butler. Darius Johnson-Odom started shooting the ball consistently like he did as a sophomore while I think Junior Cadougan can be a really valuable distributor at the point guard spot and Jamil Wilson is a transfer to keep an eye on. It’ll be a close battle behind the most likely double-bye candidates (Syracuse, Pitt, UConn, Louisville) for those next couple spots.
West Virginia is at a lot more of an enviable position to sustain success than the day care facility Steve Lavin will have to run. Huggins may have eight incoming freshmen, but the roster will be infused by those three talented returnees: Darryl Bryant at the point, Kevin Jones on the wing and Deniz Kilicli up front, three players who played 20+ minutes on a consistent basis for the Mountaineers last season. There’s question marks down the line, though. Bryant has been a woeful shooter for most of his collegiate career (don’t be shocked if Jabarie Hinds, the most notable Huggins recruit, steals Bryant’s job at some point), Jones took a major step back after being a Big East first team possibility this time last year and Kilicli, while improving mightily, is still tremendously raw. One player who does have a chance to break out is Kevin Noreen, a skilled 6’10 big who fits Huggins’ system to a tee and just needs to add some strength this summer. He’s a former Minnesota Mr. Basketball that has the capability to fill it up. Huggins will have this team toughened up and doing Huggins-type things like defending the perimeter and snatching every offensive rebound in sight. Question remains: will the talent match the effort?
The elephant in the Big East room, if you will, that we haven’t addressed is Villanova. Jay Wright is a fine coach, don’t misinterpret, but he’s lost control of his last two teams on the Main Line. Late-season collapses have become a norm recently for the Wildcats. Last year’s version slipped from 16-1 to 21-12, including an embarrassing first round loss in the Big East tournament to South Florida and a choke job in their 8-9 game vs. George Mason. Whether it be fatigue, leadership issues or simple regression to the mean, it’s hard to diagnose why this happened two seasons in a row. With Fisher, Pena and Stokes departed, it’s now Maalik Wayns time to shine with Dominic Cheek on the wing and Mouph Yarou in the middle. Incoming freshman Tyrone Johnson should see immediate minutes with sophomore James Bell and the re-instated JayVaughn Pinkston also getting a crack at the rotation. Wright has a star-studded trio coming to Philly for 2012-13, but for this upcoming season, the headache may begin in November rather than February for the esteemed Villanova head coach. I’m not convinced this team has the weapons to be a sure-fire NCAA squad.
Brian: I’m not sure how losing your last two regular season games qualifies as peaking down the stretch, unless you’re talking about Marquette’s performance in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments, both of which were admirable. Those games don’t count towards their 9-9 record though. I’ve heard a lot over the last few years about how unlucky Marquette has been. It is true (Ken Pomeroy has a luck rating as well) but eventually you have to get the job done and stop blaming things on bad luck. Marquette can definitely make a move up the standings but I just don’t see them coming close to the top four without Butler. As for defense versus offense, I just flat out disagree. I put much more value on good defense, always have. Unless your offense is inept like Florida State, a great defensive team will quite often be among the better teams in the nation. Nobody said Marquette’s defense is an “abomination” but I wouldn’t consider it anything spectacular.
I agree with you on West Virginia. In fact, the Mountaineers are a good example of an average offensive team that plays great defense and is in every game as a result. They’ll be a solid club and should finish middle of the pack. I thought Kevin Jones would have a monster year last season and although he didn’t, I think he could go out with a bang. I love Hinds coming in at the point and I also believe he’ll give Bryant a run for the starting job at some point.
Villanova will probably make it but yes, it’s not a sure thing. Dominic Cheek needs to take the next step and become a solid 20-25 minutes per game player. He was a heralded recruit out of high school but his time at Villanova has been very average at best. If Pinkston can stay out of trouble, he and Yarou will form a nice tandem inside. One player the Wildcats will miss is Antonio Pena. He was a warrior for them and provided some leadership on the court in difficult moments. I think Georgetown is in the same boat with Villanova. A bunch of question marks on that roster but they do have a veteran presence in the always underrated Jason Clark. The Hoyas will be decent but they’re another team you could say has underachieved a bit in recent years. What’s your take on Georgetown?
Zach: I definitely see your point. I’m just highlighting that Marquette played better last season than their overall record, which you cited as a detraction, with a ton of close losses in both the non-conference and Big East competition. I think their eventual success in both postseason tournaments showed that. Last year was last year, but there is a decent core- Johnson-Odom, Crowder, Cadougan, Otule, Blue- returning from that unit. I always trust teams that are formidable defensively over the grind of a long season, but scoring points in an efficient manner is just as important. Just ask Brad Stevens after what happened early last April. We can agree to disagree on Marquette, although I certainly do concede their team defense needs to improve. I think they’ll be in the running for that #5 spot. This is refreshing, we agree too much anyway.
Believe it or not, Georgetown screams NIT to me. We both have touted the traits of Jason Clark. He’s an under-appreciated player in this conference, but I’m not sure his ceiling is much more than a third piece on a ranked team. You can apply that to other players on that roster, as well. I sense this as more of a rebuilding than reloading year in the nation’s capital, which could place considerable pressure on John Thompson III following unceremonious exits to Ohio and VCU the last two NCAA Tournaments. One player who I feel can make a major impact with more opportunities is Hollis Thompson (no relation), a talented swingman that quietly shot 52% from the field and 46% from deep last year. Whether a higher burden on his shoulder drops those numbers or vaults him into stardom is still to be determined. Unless Clark and Thompson make the leap, Markel Starks does his best Chris Wright impression at the point and a freshman like Otto Porter or Tyler Adams provides an immediate impact, I sense bubble/NIT.
It looks like we both think Syracuse, Pitt, UConn and Louisville are near-surefire NCAA locks with Cincinnati also a preseason top-25 squad. Marquette should make it and I get the sense Villanova will find a way. That leaves West Virginia and Georgetown lingering around the bubble. The two other Big East representatives that danced last year were St. John’s and Notre Dame. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like Lavin has a 2-3 year rebuild on his hands that won’t bear fruit until at least next season, even though those freshmen are ultra talented. That leaves Notre Dame without Ben Hansbrough, Tyrone Nash and (surprisingly and head-scratchingly, if that’s a word) Carleton Scott. The core should be Tim Abromaitis, Scott Martin, Eric Atkins and Jack Cooley. Is that sufficient for a bid? My first instinct is no.
Brian: My main concern with Georgetown has to be the point guard position. Markel Starks is a nice player but he was thrown into the fire last year when Chris Wright got hurt and the team suffered greatly. With an off-season of practice and coaching, Starks should be able to step in and assume the starting job. I’m not saying it is his fault for the Hoyas’ late season skid but the onus is now on him. As we all know, good point guards can turn average teams into quality teams. My other question with this team is scoring. Clark will score, but who does John Thompson III turn to with Wright and Austin Freeman no longer around? Hollis Thompson could be that player. I saw him live a couple of times last season and was pretty impressed with his play. He has to mature into a 12-14 PPG type of guy in order for Georgetown to have success. At 6’7/205, Thompson is one of those guys who can score from anywhere on the floor. It’d be nice to see him blossom in the mold of someone like Jimmy Butler. Don’t underestimate the loss of Julian Vaughn, either. He was a more than serviceable big man able to block shots, rebound and score occasionally. He didn’t need to score all that much with the Hoya backcourt doing most of the work but Georgetown no longer has that much talent on the perimeter. They will need an inside presence and that has to come in the form of Nate Lubick, Henry Sims or a duo of freshmen bigs, Mikael Hopkins and Tyler Adams. I think you’re right, Georgetown could be a close call on Selection Sunday.
St. John’s is going to be really interesting to follow. A lot of observers are pegging them in the bottom half of the league but I think the door is open for them to jump up and snag the 7th or 8th spot. I recognize that’s a big leap of faith on my part to say that about a team full of freshmen but this team is going to be very talented. If Lavin can manage the roster effectively, St. John’s will surprise. With so many newcomers to the program, especially at the 3 and 4 position, the potential for internal problems (playing time first and foremost) exists and can torpedo any team’s season. Another issue has to be point guard. Will it be Malik Stith stepping into that role or will Lavin groom one of his first year guards, who are mostly scorers rather than distributors, into a successful point? D’Angelo Harrison will be a terrific player for St. John’s but he’s not exactly the type of guy who can distribute, handle the ball and make others better, especially as a freshman.
It’s very difficult for me to get a read on Notre Dame. I like the core returning but depth has to be a major concern. Mike Brey has never put together the deepest teams but with three quality players now departed, I’m not sure the Irish can play at a high level with only five or six key contributors. Abromaitis and Martin will be rock solid and I think Atkins is a really good Big East point guard in the making. He looked great over the early part of last season but his minutes and production faded as Ben Hansbrough took over the primary ball handling duties. Expectations are high for incoming freshman Patrick Connaughton, the latest Notre Dame player billed as a major threat from three point land. The Irish can get to the NCAA Tournament if Atkins steps up at the point and Jack Cooley improves in the paint. I’d probably slot Notre Dame in the NIT but I may be under-estimating them. Over the years, Mike Brey’s teams have seemed to play their best when expectations are lower. That will be the case again in South Bend in 2011-12.
I think nine is a good over/under for NCAA teams out of the Big East. It’s hard to see 11 teams making the field of 68 again and there isn’t a team in the bottom five that I think could make a major jump up the ladder. Rutgers might be the most likely candidate if you had to pick one but that just doesn’t happen in a league like the Big East. That is a long shot pick at best. The Scarlet Knights have a tremendous recruiting class coming in but Mike Rice needs another year or two to really get his program cranking. Rutgers hasn’t made the big show since 1991 and, while that could change soon with Rice at the helm, they’ll fall short again this year. Rutgers can win seven or eight games with the talent on their roster but a lot of things would have to go right for that to come to fruition. Here’s my guarantee for the bottom of the league: DePaul will not finish last this time around.
Zach: Ultimately, since neither of us have actually seen these St. John’s recruits on a consistent basis and can only rely on scouting reports, predicting their season is a bit of a waste. Lavin may very well mold them into one of the most exciting freshmen classes since the Fab Five. Or, as is the risk with ultra-talented and coddled recruits in the AAU era, they could be a massive disappointment where the parts simply don’t fit together, similar to that infamous Ben Howland recruiting class of a few years back. As for Notre Dame, I totally agree. Mike Brey has always done more when expectations aren’t sky-high. His Big East COY awards, normally given to the coach whose team exceeds expectations, lends credence to that theory. I do believe Atkins will mature into a playmaking point guard in this league and I’ve always viewed Abromaitis as severely underrated. The depth is scary, though. And I’m not sure this Notre Dame team has the athleticism of some of their counterparts.
Out of the bottom portion of teams, Rutgers seemingly has the best shot at surprising some folks. The 5-13 record in Big East play was ugly last year, sure, but they were never an easy out and began to resemble the toughness, intensity and grit of their coach. Fair warning: Rice wearing on his administration, fans and players similar to Bobby Gonzalez is possible, though. The solid forward tandem of Biruta/Miller will be joined by Kadeem Jack up front and St. Anthony’s point guard Myles Mack has a clear path to the job from day one. Rice’s ability to recruit immediately in the NY/NJ area can only be commended. Look for Rutgers to have a five or six win season once again in conference play with the possibility of a breakout year in 2012-13 very much a possibility.
Let’s quickly examine the rest of the league: There’s also South Florida, a team that only lost one senior in Jarrid Famous. Does Stan Heath have a competitive team on his hands? If Gus Gilchrist can stay on the floor and maintain focus from November to March, they won’t be a total pushover. Seton Hall and Providence appear to be in trouble, but I do believe Kevin Willard and Ed Cooley, respectively, are the right men for those jobs. DePaul has some young talent as well, including conference rookie of the year Cleveland Melvin. Maybe this league won’t receive 11 bids again, but could it be deeper than ever in terms of competitiveness?
Brian: I can’t argue with what you said regarding Rutgers. Down the road I think it’s very possible that Mike Rice’s act gets old and the team suffers as a result. We’re still many years away from that (if it even happens) but I’m most concerned about the effect his attitude has on his players right here and now. Some kids can handle it, but a lot of people in the 18-22 age group can’t and will either rebel or simply tune you out. Over time, Rice needs to keep his intensity high but tone down the “heat of the moment” emotions not only when the cameras are rolling but also in practice. The way he handled the atrocious officiating in Rutgers’ second round Big East Tournament loss to St. John’s last season was a feather in his cap. He earned a lot of positive publicity for taking the high road that day and must be careful not to slowly give that away. Rice can build a very good program at Rutgers if he does it in a professional and respectful manner. There has been room for demonstrative coaches in this game in the past but I don’t think personalities of his kind go over so well this day in age.
South Florida is my pick to finish last. Outside of Gilchrist, there’s not much talent on this roster at all and they’ll be playing in a temporary home this season. The loss of Jarrid Famous hurts the Bulls because he was a guy who needed to be paid attention to alongside Gilchrist in the post. With Famous gone, teams won’t have as tough a time defending the paint against Stan Heath’s team. USF also returns 9 PPG scorer Jawanza Poland but the guard play on this team is just not where it needs to be. That was their downfall last year and I think it’ll doom them yet again this year.
Over in Chicago, the light at the end of the tunnel is glowing brighter for Oliver Purnell. Cleveland Melvin is going to be a terrific player in this league and nobody talked about rising sophomore Brandon Young’s performance as a rookie last year. He averaged double figures in points and just short of four assists per game at the point. When you consider his personal story of incredible tragedy, he’s an easy kid to root for. Purnell also signed Shane Larkin, a kid who can become a nice Big East player down the road backing up or playing alongside Young. DePaul might make a nice jump this season and that could serve as a springboard to finally turn this once proud program around.
Providence and Seton Hall certainly won’t be pushovers and actually have a nice core of players returning despite losing Marshon Brooks and Jeremy Hazell, respectively. I love what Vincent Council has done over his first two years in Rhode Island while Gerard Coleman and Kadeem Batts can add some scoring punch as well. The issue for Providence under Keno Davis was defense, but I expect Ed Cooley to instill a culture of hard work and rectify this problem over his first few seasons at the helm. Cooley, a native Rhode Islander, brings badly needed energy and passion to the toughest job in the conference and his dramatic improvement in defensive efficiency over five years at Fairfield (#210, #288, #197, #134, #22) has to bode well for Providence. With more talent now at his disposal, Cooley has the potential to be a great long term hire. Kevin Willard did something similar in his first season at Seton Hall last year, turning Bobby Gonzalez’s group of streetballers into a strong defensive unit that finished the season ranked 13th in the nation. Unfortunately for the Pirates, they couldn’t put the ball in the basket and stumbled to a 7-11 conference record. On paper this should be a rebuilding year for Seton Hall without Jeremy Hazell but they have a senior point guard with potential, Jordan Theodore, and a strong inside presence and rebounder, Herb Pope, on the roster. Don’t expect Aaron Cosby to step in and put up Hazell numbers but the freshman from Northfield, MA will be able to put the ball in the basket and contribute immediately for the Hall. The Pirates could surprise if Theodore and Pope excel and lead as seniors and six to eight Big East wins is a realistic goal for this young team.
I do think the Big East has the potential to be deeper than ever. The league is very balanced in the middle and the bottom few teams aren’t complete dead weight. It will be the best conference in the nation yet again and I’ll stick with my over/under of nine clubs headed to the NCAA Tournament next March. I’m biased as an east coast resident but there is nothing better than watching and following Big East basketball over the cold winter months. It’s one of the few leagues that is known primarily for basketball and not football and, despite it’s size, this league regularly churns out quality teams and memorable moments each and every season.