RTC Summer Updates: Big East ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on July 11th, 2011
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our Big East update comes from frequent RTC contributor Brian Otskey, co-author of Get to the Point.
- Connecticut Revels In National Championship Glory: Connecticut’s storybook year continued on into the offseason as the Huskies were invited to the White House for an event with President Obama on May 16. The team presented the president with a #1 UConn jersey and posed for photographs after being lauded for their remarkable accomplishment. Connecticut made one of the most improbable runs ever en route to the third national championship in school history, all coming since 1999, going 23-0 outside of Big East regular season play. Nobody could have predicted the way last season unfolded and the NCAA Tournament as a whole was a microcosm of that. Connecticut’s national title made up for a lackluster performance by many of the record 11 Big East teams participating in the tournament. Only one other Big East team (Marquette) managed to make it to the second weekend’s Sweet 16. Life without Kemba Walker has begun in Storrs and while the Huskies will be among the 2011-12 Big East favorites, it’ll be very interesting to see who steps up and how the team performs without its warrior. Jeremy Lamb appears to be ready to take over but the way Shabazz Napier and Alex Oriakhi handle their larger roles will be the difference between a team contending for a Big East title and one that finishes fourth or fifth.
- The Ed Cooley Era Begins In Friartown: After Keno Davis stumbled to an 18-36 Big East record over three seasons in Providence, the Friars desperately needed someone to revive their moribund program. Providence has made only two NCAA Tournaments since its 1997 appearance and the last one was eight seasons ago in 2003-04. Enter Ed Cooley, a Providence-born 41-year-old with the fire in his belly needed to succeed in arguably the toughest job in the Big East Conference. Cooley will instill a system of discipline and fundamentals with a special attention to defense, three attributes of successful programs that were sorely lacking under Davis. Cooley’s Fairfield team ranked #22 in the nation in defensive efficiency last season and he improved the Stags’ record each and every year he was there. Providence, a small Catholic school with hardly any recruiting base along with limited facilities and resources, is an incredibly difficult job even before you have to go up against bigger schools like Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh along with tradition-rich programs such as Georgetown, Villanova and Marquette. Cooley must spend his first season laying the foundation for longer term success. He won’t turn this program around overnight but more discipline on and off the court and hard work on the recruiting trail can turn Providence into a solid Big East competitor. We can’t think of many people better suited than Cooley to get the job done at Providence. While it will be a long and difficult process, brighter days are ahead for the Providence program with Ed Cooley at the helm.
- Signs Of Life In The New York Area: New coach Steve Lavin and St. John’s brought the buzz back to the Big Apple last winter as the Red Storm earned its first NCAA bid in nine seasons. “Lavinwood” has moved east, but St. John’s now enters a year full of mixed feelings. Cautious optimism as well as uncertainty rules the day with nine new faces, part of the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class, making their way to Queens in 2011-12. Malik Stith is the only returnee of note after Dwayne Polee, II, decided to transfer closer to home at San Diego State. St. John’s may be the most unpredictable team in the Big East entering this season. The potential exists for a terrific year if Lavin can mold all this raw talent into a cohesive unit capable of playing with any team in the conference. However, issues with young players, commonly involving playing time and egos, are also very possible and it takes only one incident to destroy the locker room and wreck the season. The Johnnies have enough talent to make the NCAA Tournament again, but Lavin will have to totally adjust his approach to make that happen. With hardly any experience on the roster, he can’t simply roll the ball out and hope for the best. This season will be the biggest test of Lavin’s coaching career on the court, but he faced an even more difficult challenge last year, coaching the entire season with prostate cancer while keeping it a secret until this spring. Turning St. John’s around with that constantly in the back of his mind is an a commendable achievement and we obviously wish Coach Lavin the best of luck fighting this awful disease.
- Across the Hudson River in New Jersey, Mike Rice and Rutgers appear to be building a program to be reckoned with down the road. The Scarlet Knights have been a dormant program for 20 years, never once enjoying a winning season in any of its 16 years as a Big East member. That may be about to change, although it appears unlikely that Rutgers will crack the .500 mark in league play this season. The fiery Rice reeled in a top 25 recruiting class and now must build on a season of close calls and what-ifs. Rutgers was competitive last year, but could only manage five Big East victories. It’ll take time for the new players to adjust to the collegiate level but bigger and better things should be expected from Rutgers in the years to come. Rutgers, a large state school, has the capability of becoming a pretty good program. All it needs is a commitment from the administration, facility upgrades and great recruiting. Rice is taking care of the latter, now it’s time for the Rutgers brass to provide him with the resources needed to build a top flight program. Rutgers needs major facility upgrades (a RAC renovation has been talked about for over a year), but fundraising has been a major problem. With New Jersey Governor Chris Christie trying to get the state’s financial house in order, there is going to be a lot of resistance to an ambitious project such as this one at the state’s flagship university.
- In northern New Jersey, Kevin Willard is hard at work repairing the image of Seton Hall after the controversial Bobby Gonzalez left town. Willard loses big time scorer Jeremy Hazell but returns two capable seniors in forward Herb Pope and point guard Jordan Theodore with hopes of surprising this season. The Pirates lose a lot of experience but a bunch of new blood should help turn the page from Gonzalez and rebuild quicker. Seton Hall is clearly #3 in the New York-area pecking order right now, but that can change if Willard manages to reel in a big fish or two on the recruiting trail. The Pirates picked up a quality transfer on July 6 in Georgia Tech’s Brian Oliver and he will have two years of eligibility remaining beginning in November of 2012. On the high school circuit, the Hall has all its eggs in the Kyle Anderson basket, and a commitment from the versatile St. Anthony rising senior, a consensus top ten player in the class of 2012, could be the boost Seton Hall needs to get back on the college basketball map.
- Syracuse – It’s hard not to like this Syracuse team as we head into the new season. The Orange have everyone back except Rick Jackson, but fear not, Syracuse fans, as five-star recruit and the #1 center in the class of 2011 (per Scout) Rakeem Christmas makes his way to upstate New York. Christmas leads a strong recruiting class that also includes sharpshooter Trevor Cooney and scorer Michael Carter-Williams. The only real question mark with this team is the play of Scoop Jardine at the point guard position. He had his moments (both good and bad) last year and a smarter and more consistent performance should be expected of him as a senior leader. Perhaps this summer spent at the Deron Williams Skills Academy, the CP3 Elite Camp and the current LeBron James Skills Academy will result in a smarter point guard who can lead his team to a Big East and possibly national championship. I haven’t even mentioned Kris Joseph, Brandon Triche or C.J. Fair yet and that shows you just how deep and talented Syracuse is, though there remains some uncertainty with a young frontcourt. Make no mistake, the Orange are the Big East favorites and a legitimate national title contender. Of note: Entering his 36th season at his alma mater, Jim Boeheim can pass Dean Smith and move into the #5 spot on the all-time wins list. 24 wins will do just that and we think it’s a pretty safe bet given the team Boeheim will put on the floor this year.
- Louisville – Rick Pitino always gets the most out of his teams and last year was no exception as Louisville built a strong base for future success. Entering 2011-12, Louisville welcomes a loaded recruiting class and loses only Preston Knowles. The Cardinals have all the pieces a Big East contender needs and plenty of experience on the floor to mesh with all the young talent coming in. Pitino’s top six returning scorers are all juniors and seniors including Peyton Siva, a player just waiting to break out and become one of the household names in college basketball. Siva averaged 5.2 APG last season but another offseason of work could turn him into the best point guard in the Big East. Every member of Louisville’s five-man recruiting class can be an impact player but expect Pitino to lean on his experienced group of veterans. That’s not to say the freshmen won’t contribute (they most certainly will) but the performance of the upperclassmen will determine how far the Cardinals go this year. This team has a high ceiling and don’t be surprised if they put all the pieces together and stay neck and neck with Syracuse in the race for the conference title. Of note: Pitino sharply criticized the recently released Big East schedule. Louisville will play Pittsburgh and Syracuse twice, along with DePaul. That seems to jive well with a team predicted to finish near the top of the league but somehow the coach doesn’t feel his team should have to play four games against two top teams, plus a “road trip” to Cincinnati. Color me skeptical. Is the 100-mile drive to the Queen City really that difficult? Pitino went as far as to say, “They must be doing it (the schedule) with an Ouija board.” We’ll chalk this one up to the coach trying to motivate his team while creating some laughs in the media.
- Pittsburgh – It always amazes us when people say Pittsburgh is bound to take a step back when talking about any given coming season. Pittsburgh has won at least 10 Big East games every year Jamie Dixon has been the head coach and you can bet the farm they’ll do it again this year, too. A culture of winning is not easily achieved, but that’s exactly what is in place in the Steel City. The Panthers lose good player after good player but reload every year using the same system and one of the best home court advantages in the entire country. Pittsburgh has finished in the top five in all but one of Dixon’s eight years at the school. While the Panthers lose Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee, Ashton Gibbs made the correct decision and returned to school to team up with Nasir Robinson, Travon Woodall and an impressive recruiting class led by forward Khem Birch. Birch is ready to contribute right away and you have to figure Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna will follow in the Pitt tradition of steady year-by-year improvement. The Panthers may not have the depth of talent needed to win the league but they will surely be contenders near the top. Of note: Gibbs was invited to the Team USA World University Games training camp (July 29 – August 7) in Colorado Springs. He’s one of six Big East players trying out for the team that will be coached by Purdue’s Matt Painter with Butler’s Brad Stevens and Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin assisting.
- Connecticut – The big question for the defending national champions is the obvious one: how will they perform without Kemba Walker running the show? While the transition may be difficult at first, I expect this team to settle in rather nicely as the season progresses. Everyone talks about Jeremy Lamb breaking out (We think he will too) but keep an eye on Alex Oriakhi. The junior big man was a force on the glass in March and a major piece of the national championship puzzle. With a summer of working on his low post game, Oriakhi can emerge as one of the more dominant inside presences in the country this coming season. If he does, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t given Jim Calhoun’s track record of producing quality big men, Connecticut can win this league. The more we think about this club, the more we think they can win the league title and make a run at defending their national title. While some may think it’s a stretch to say this without Walker, we think Lamb will step right in and take control of this team. With Shabazz Napier alongside him making smarter decisions as a sophomore, Lamb can blossom into one of the best players in the nation and put Connecticut back in the thick of the Big East race. Add in freshmen DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright and you have a fairly deep team that can do serious damage as they gain more experience and learn to play without Walker. Of note: Lamb is getting more valuable experience this summer after being selected to the United States FIBA U-19 team; Also of note is Jim Calhoun staying on the sidelines. Some had speculated the legendary coach would retire and go out on top, but he chose not to. It seemed to me that Calhoun was much happier last season and developed a special bond with the players on his team. With just about all of them returning (minus that one Kemba dude), it’s no surprise he signed on for another go-around.
- Cincinnati – The Bearcats are my sleeper pick to make some serious noise in the Big East this winter. Cincinnati returns its top four scorers, led by Yancy Gates, and brings seven new players into the program. New York City-area forwards Shaquille Thomas and Jermaine Sanders should contribute right away as Mick Cronin finally has his program where he wants it to be. Cronin likely saved his job last year and made huge strides forward in the process. Cincinnati won a game in the Big Dance and the foundation is now in place for a nice run over the next few years. Sean Kilpatrick could explode as a redshirt sophomore while Cashmere Wright will run the offense well at the point. The Bearcats play tremendous defense and that will keep them in every game. With some more offensive punch this season coupled with said defense, Cincinnati has the potential to advance deep into March. Of note: Cincinnati is the only major conference team to improve its win total in each of the past five seasons. That’s a feather in the cap of Cronin, who parlayed that evidence of building a program and last year’s NCAA appearance into a contract extension through the 2016-17 season worth $1.25 million per year.
- Villanova – This pick may surprise some folks reading this feature. As usual, the middle of the Big East is unclear. Almost every year, it seems one or two teams surpass expectations and fight for a double-bye at Madison Square Garden. Why not Villanova this time around? The Wildcats lose Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher and Antonio Pena but many key players return for Jay Wright. The anticipated addition of JayVaughn Pinkston will certainly help as well, provided he stays out of trouble. Maalik Wayns will run the offense and I’m expecting major improvement out of Dominic Cheek, Isaiah Armwood and James Bell. Bell is having a terrific offseason on the FIBA U-19 team and has the potential to burst onto the scene as a sophomore this season. He broke out for 21 points against Seton Hall on February 15, but scored only nine points over the rest of the year. Bell is the biggest wildcard on a team that could finish anywhere from 5th to 11th in our view. We’re buying Wildcats stock and I’m prepared to say they’re the best of the middle of the pack teams at this point in time. Of note: Villanova will travel to Europe in August on a three-country swing through France, Luxembourg and The Netherlands. Teams traveling abroad are allowed ten days of practice leading up to departure, in addition to exhibition games on the trip, and that could prove to be a valuable learning experience for a team that has lost three important contributors from a season ago.
- West Virginia – The situation in Morgantown is rather uncertain to say the least, but Bob Huggins will always have his teams prepared to compete. West Virginia is as physical a team as there is in this conference and their bruising style of defense will usually keep them competitive in every game despite any gap in talent. The Mountaineers return only four players, but they’re all going to be key members of this team. Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant, Deniz Kilicli and Kevin Noreen all return and a nice supporting class of freshmen, led by Jabarie Hinds, has arrived on campus. The core of this team will determine how far it goes, but don’t be surprised to see Hinds push Bryant for the starting point guard job. He’s that good and should thrive playing Huggy-ball. West Virginia is always a tough out and, despite losing a lot, I think they’ll be a solid middle of the pack basketball team. Of note: In-n-out. Dalton Pepper (Temple) and Dan Jennings (Long Beach State) transferred out of the Mountaineer program this spring while Aaric Murray and Juwan Staten make their way to Morgantown. Both players will have to sit out this season per NCAA rules but they’ll be major contributors for West Virginia in 2012-13.
- Notre Dame – Mike Brey has a thing for outperforming expectations, and we think that’s what is in store for the Fighting Irish this year. While Notre Dame will be seriously lacking in the depth department, a strong core of Tim Abromaitis, Scott Martin, Eric Atkins and Jack Cooley returns. Assuming Cooley makes a bit of a leap and becomes closer to a 20 minutes per game guy, Notre Dame has enough talent to make some noise. Add in highly-touted freshman Patrick Connaughton, someone who appears to be the next Notre Dame shooter in the mold of Colin Falls and Ben Hansbrough, and you have the potential for a surprise team. The Irish always play well at home, but they’ll need to do well on the road to finish here in the 8th spot. With two experienced seniors leading the way, I think Notre Dame just may find its way back to the NCAA Tournament. Of note: Abromaitis, now a graduate student, won the Big East Scholar-Athlete Sport Excellence Award for his performance in the classroom and on the court; The Irish added Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman for the season following this one. He’ll make an impact in practice this year and keep some continuity in the Irish rotation a year from now.
- Marquette – Many folks have the Golden Eagles pegged as a top-five or six team in the Big East this year, but we have to disagree. They’ve got a very nice core coming back, but we’re pretty convinced that people are underrating the loss of Jimmy Butler. This guy did everything for the team, was a good teammate and a fierce competitor on the floor. Marquette welcomes the dynamic Darius Johnson-Odom as well as Jae Crowder back for their senior seasons, but there’s a void on this roster after the two senior leaders. Junior Cadougan will be the man at the point and could very well turn into a top flight Big East lead guard by the time his career is over. After him, Buzz Williams has to get something out of sophomore Vander Blue or freshman Juan Anderson. Blue is a promising prospect, but expecting him to make a big leap in only his second season in Milwaukee is a bit too much in our opinion. Todd Mayo can add some pop off the bench as a freshman, but this is going to be a really young team outside of DJO, Crowder and Cadougan. That’s a solid three-man core capable of getting this team to the NCAA Tournament, but I’m not sure it’s one that can make Marquette a contender for a double-bye. Buzz Williams’ teams always play hard but a 10-8 league mark would be a good season for MU this year. Remember, this team only went 9-9 last year and that was with Jimmy Butler and Dwight Buycks. Of note: Marquette Athletic Director Steve Cottingham resigned on June 30 amid speculation and questions about the way the university handled a few sexual assault allegations against unnamed athletes. No member of any MU athletics program has been charged in connection with these incidents, but the school was criticized for not reporting them to the Milwaukee Police Department. Mike Broeker, Cottingham’s deputy, will serve as acting AD until a national search for Marquette’s new permanent AD is concluded.
- Georgetown – Believe it or not, Georgetown is just 20-16 in Big East play over the past two seasons. Without Austin Freeman and Chris Wright to turn to, we’re not sure Georgetown can move back into the top quarter of the league (where they were from 2006-08) or even just the top eight. The Hoyas will need many players to step up and become big time contributors and questions at the point guard position remain. Is Markel Starks capable of running this intricate offense full time this year? If not, you won’t see Georgetown’s name called on Selection Sunday. Jason Clark returns for his senior campaign in the District but Hollis Thompson is the only returning player who did much of anything last season. Nate Lubick showed flashes of his talent as a freshman but he’ll need to become a more cerebral player in his sophomore season. Lubick was a bull in a china shop at times and Georgetown just can’t afford sloppy play when running their Princeton style offense. Henry Sims could improve a lot this season, but there are too many question marks with this team to pencil them in as a sure-fire NCAA Tournament club. Otto Porter, Tyler Adams and Mikael Hopkins headline a pretty good recruiting class, but they’re going to be thrown into the fire right away. These freshmen must grow up in a hurry in order for the Hoyas to jump up into the top half of the conference. Of note: Former Binghamton coach Kevin Broadus recently returned to Georgetown as a “special assistant” to John Thompson III. Broadus worked for JT3 in the past, but we’re not sure how this move is good for the Hoyas. Broadus brings an unnecessary distraction to the program and while it’s admirable that Thompson is sticking up for his friend, it’s probably too soon to bring Broadus back into the spotlight.
- St. John’s – The Johnnies will be one of the most interesting teams to follow in all of college basketball this year. How Steve Lavin manages this collection of talented but possibly impatient group of freshmen will determine their final record and lay the groundwork for next year and beyond. Lavin must take a stricter approach this year and keep his players in line. It’s not that these are bad kids, it’s just that there are so many freshmen coming in and they will all inevitably be asking for more playing time as most players their age do. Recruiting promises and reality are two entirely different things and these Red Storm freshmen must come to the realization that there is only one basketball to share and 40 minutes within which to do that. If this team comes together like last year’s senior-laden squad did, the sky is the limit. St. John’s has an ultra-talented roster led by Maurice Harkless, D’Angelo Harrison, Sir’Dominic Pointer and Jakarr Sampson amongst many others. St. John’s will be very good in one year’s time, but nobody, ourselves included, truly knows how this team will perform this season. 11th place is just a guess, but one we think is very fair, given the situation. Of note: St. John’s will play Detroit Mercy in the Dick Vitale Dedication game this season. Lavin isn’t afraid to test his team as his non-conference schedule will feature the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament and games against Duke and Kentucky; Lavin’s hiring and the team’s success last year resulted in the nation’s fourth-highest increase in attendance over the previous year (38.1%).
- Seton Hall – Kevin Willard inherited a mess in South Orange and he’s doing his best to clean it up. A few players from the Bobby Gonzalez era still remain on the roster and it’ll be up to them to find out how far Seton Hall can go without Jeremy Hazell around. Chemistry and character issues have plagued the Pirates for the past few seasons making it imperative that Jordan Theodore matures as a senior and becomes the leader at the point guard position that many expected him to be. If Theodore can play with a chip on his shoulder while not trying to do too much, the Pirates may surprise their way up a few spots in the league standings. Seton Hall also welcomes Herb Pope back for his final go-round and, provided he’s healthy, he’ll look to be a dominating force in the paint and on the glass for Willard’s team. Pope needs to refine his offensive game a bit but the big man can rebound with the best of them. The Pirates’ recruiting class is led by Aaron Cosby, a solid two-guard from Massachusetts. If Cosby can step in right away and knock down some shots and Fuquan Edwin makes a leap as a sophomore, the Hall could finish better than expected. An NCAA berth is unlikely, but a trip to the NIT and some mention around the NCAA bubble would be a highly successful season for this team. Of note: Seton Hall is still awaiting word on whether or not freshman big man Kevin Johnson will qualify. If Johnson suits up, he’ll add much needed depth to the Seton Hall front court. Coach Willard added a pair of transfers this offseason, picking up Gene Teague from Southern Illinois and Brian Oliver from Georgia Tech. Both players will sit out this coming season but should give the Pirates a big boost in the fall of 2012.
- Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights will be better this season, but we’d caution against having high expectations just yet. Keep in mind this program has been a Big East doormat for far too long and it’s going to take some time for Rutgers to get to a respectable level. Mike Rice is well on his way towards doing that but he’ll have to integrate a talented eight-man recruiting class into his system without any flaws in order to make the leap into the middle of the pack this season. Consider that highly unlikely, even for a coach who could earn a Doctorate in motivation if there was such a thing. Rice’s team was scrappy and competitive last season, but the talent gap was just too wide. That gap is beginning to narrow, but we don’t think you’ll see Rutgers start to take off until next season. Another season of experience and maturity will go a long way towards getting Rutgers back to relevancy. They’ll be competitive again this year, but 2011-12 must be all about laying the building blocks for that to occur. Of note: Gilvydas Biruta earned a spot on his native Lithuanian U-20 team this summer while Rice scored a big transfer signing in former Kansas State forward Wally Judge. He’ll have to sit out a year, but Judge is another important piece to the puzzle for the following season.
- DePaul – We really do think this is the year DePaul climbs out of the Big East basement. The Blue Demons have two terrific young players in reigning Big East Rookie of the Year Cleveland Melvin and point guard Brandon Young. The latter went relatively unnoticed last season, but averaged 12.6 PPG and 3.7 dimes along the way. With Melvin, Young and a large recruiting class coming in, DePaul fans now have a glimmer of hope for the future. A positive first step would include not finishing last and winning 3-5 games in league play. With Oliver Purnell’s system pretty much in place now, DePaul can recruit better athletes and scorers to hang with some of the better teams in the league. Make no mistake, this is still a very long rebuilding project in Chicago. There won’t be any immediate major changes, but DePaul is now in a position where it can take the first steps up the ladder and out of the deep hole this program has been in since joining the Big East in 2005. Of note: DePaul is one of six NCAA schools to achieve a perfect score of 1000 on the latest APR report. Butler, Columbia, Holy Cross, Kansas and Texas were the other D-I programs to earn this commendable honor; The Blue Demons will head to France from August 11-21 in preparation for the coming season.
- Providence – Ed Cooley will have his team competing hard in his first year as Providence headman but with no impact players coming in this season it could very well be a long year in New England. Providence will be led in the back court by Vincent Council, an underrated junior guard who dished out six assists per game last season and Gerard Coleman but they’re going to need contributions up front from players like Kadeem Batts and Bilal Dixon. More importantly, the Friars need to show a commitment to defense in order to move up the Big East ladder. Cooley will bring that mindset but me thinks it’ll take a while to get his players to buy what he’s selling. Providence will play hard and score an upset or two but they lack the overall talent and depth to win more than a handful of games in conference play. Given time however, I’m pretty sure Cooley will have this program back on the right track. Of note: Cooley made the right decision in cutting loose the mercurial Duke Mondy but changing the culture at Providence will be a longer, more intensive process. One of the biggest offseason recruiting hires took place here as well when Cooley lured Andre LeFleur away from longtime boss Jim Calhoun. LeFleur now moves one state to the east and provides instant credibility when selling the Providence program on the recruiting trail.
- South Florida – You really have to feel for Stan Heath. He went out and signed a couple of guards (Blake Nash and Anthony Collins), recognizing his team’s painful ineptitude in the backcourt last year just as front court player Jarrid Famous moves on. Heath still has Augustus Gilchrist forming a major presence in the paint, but I think his job will get far more tougher without the capable Famous by his side. South Florida will continue to struggle with guard play, although junior guard Jawanza Poland has the potential to make the leap and become a serviceable guard. Without people capable of getting the ball inside to Gilchrist, it will be another very long season in Tampa. Of note: South Florida will play at the St. Pete Times Forum this season while the Sun Dome undergoes a renovation project. The Bulls will also open up the Muma Center, a state of the art practice facility adjacent to the Sun Dome. USF is beginning to invest in its basketball program; now, it needs to drum up interest and attract better talent.
The Big East should once again be the nation’s preeminent basketball conference in 2011-12. While the league may not place 11 teams into the NCAA Tournament, this conference may be deeper than ever. The top teams can contend for the national championship, the middle of the pack would finish top three in almost any other league and the bottom teams are certainly not pushovers. Every team in this conference has talent and many have top-notch coaches making this league by far the toughest to navigate from January to March. Syracuse appears to be the team to beat, but you just never know what will happen in such a rugged conference. A handful of teams can challenge the Orange at the top, but they’ll need a combination of players stepping up as well as some luck. Syracuse is absolutely loaded and possesses one of the strongest home court advantages in the league up at the Carrier Dome. It’s hard to see anyone outside of the top three of four challenging for a league title but Cincinnati is a team that can do it. Provided the Bearcats keep improving and building on the past, Mick Cronin has a program to be reckoned with in Cincinnati. The Bearcats get Louisville and Syracuse at home and their three repeat opponents (Villanova, Marquette and St. John ’s) are certainly not a murderer’s row. Keep an eye on Cincinnati and their quest to move into the Big East elite. Further on down the line, Rutgers and St. John’s have crucial seasons ahead of them. Each welcomes a terrific recruiting class and their respective fan bases are giddy with anticipation for the future. Avoiding chemistry issues will be the number one concern for Mike Rice and Steve Lavin but a successful year will lay a strong foundation for the future of each program. The strength of the Big East always lies in its depth and toughness. This year will be no different and could be the best ever in that regard. 2011-12 is shaping up to be yet another unique and memorable season of Big East basketball. I’d expect at least eight Big East teams to hear their name called on Selection Sunday this March.
Buzzworthy: Dante Taylor, Pittsburgh. It’s just the Jamie Dixon way to churn out a winning program year after year and Taylor is the next in line to achieve stardom at Pitt. A former five-star recruit out of National Christian Academy, Taylor has struggled to gain traction in the college game at times over his first two years with the Panthers. Now a junior, he’ll be counted on to provide a veteran presence in the post along with stud recruit Khem Birch. Taylor has a ton of talent and his quickness make him especially dangerous at his position. Using his quickness and exceptional athleticism, he should be able to create his own shot off the low block or in a face up situation. Look for Taylor to become the latest in a long line of Pitt big men (Gary McGhee, DeJuan Blair, Aaron Gray, Chevon Troutman and Chris Taft) to have a major impact on the team’s success.
Mark Your Calendar: The Big East recently released the schedule matchups for this coming season. You can access every team’s home and road schedule here. Dates and times will be announced at a later date.
Key Non-Con Games:
- Nov. 18-21: Marquette in the Paradise Jam. An interesting matchup with steadily rising Virginia could occur in this tournament, one in which the Golden Eagles will be the favorites.
- Nov. 21-23: Georgetown in the Maui Invitational. The loaded field includes Duke, Kansas, Memphis, Michigan, Tennessee and UCLA.
Big East/SEC Challenge Games of Note:
- Dec. 1: St. John’s @ Kentucky
- Dec. 1: Georgetown @ Alabama
- Dec. 2: Vanderbilt @ Louisville
- Dec. 2: Florida @ Syracuse
- Dec. 2: Cincinnati @ Georgia
- Dec. 3: Arkansas @ Connecticut
- Dec. 3: Pittsburgh @ Tennessee
Other Non-Con Battles:
- Dec. 3: Marquette @ Wisconsin. There’s no love lost between these two teams and both programs have been a staple of consistency over the past decade. This would be a big time road win for the Golden Eagles, should they get it.
- Dec. 6: Villanova vs. Missouri (Jimmy V. Classic, New York, NY). The Wildcats can make a statement early in front of a Big East-partisan crowd against what should be a very good Tigers team.
- Dec. 6: Marquette vs. Washington (Jimmy V. Classic, New York, NY). Same goes for Marquette here. While the crowd advantage won’t be as distinct, the Golden Eagles can pick up a solid non-conference win and prove they can win without Jimmy Butler.
- Dec. 10: Cincinnati @ Xavier. The Crosstown Shootout kicks things into an even higher gear this season as both teams should do a lot of damage in their respective conferences. This underrated rivalry is always one of the more intense games of the non-conference schedule.
- Dec. 17: Memphis @ Louisville. This terrific rivalry returns with a CBS game at the YUM! Center. These two clubs played some awesome games back when Louisville was in Conference USA.
- Dec. 31: Louisville @ Kentucky. Need I say more?
- TBA: St. John’s @ Duke. The Red Storm blew out the Blue Devils in New York last season, but winning in Durham will such a young team will be a tall order this time.
For more information on the Big East, be sure to check out RTC’s Get To The Point: Big East Edition. Zach Hayes and yours truly dig deep into the league providing our analysis and opinions on the biggest stories heading into next season. Get To The Point doesn’t stop with the Big East, either. We’ll discuss every major conference as well as mid-majors over the course of the summer.