RTC Conference Primers: #1 – Big East ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on November 14th, 2011
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.
Reader’s Take I
- The Realignment Circus Continues: The latest blow to the Big East came just recently as West Virginia was accepted into the Big 12. That leaves the Big East with 13 basketball schools remaining and a handful of others (football schools) desperately trying to flee the sinking ship. Commissioner John Marinatto has said he is committed to holding Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia to the 27-month notice provision in the conference’s bylaws but one has to wonder if a financial settlement will be worked out in order to expedite the transition and move the conference into rebuilding mode. It’s going to be quite awkward if these three schools remain in the league until 2014. All of the current Big East members should eventually find a stable home in one form or another, but the days of Big East basketball as we know it will soon come to an end. Enjoy the 2011-12 season because it just might be the last year of this remarkable 16-team behemoth.
- How Many Bids This Year?: After sending a record 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament last year, can the Big East reach that mark again? That seems unlikely but you never know how things will truly play out. I’d say there are ten contenders for NCAA bids and to make 11 you would need all of those teams plus one of the three New York City-area schools to have a wildly successful year and snatch a bid. The Big East is quite possibly the best conference in the land yet again but 11 NCAA teams is far-fetched. Eight or nine bids this season would seem to be much more realistic.
- Can Connecticut Repeat?: The technical answer is yes but it will be extremely tough to do. There’s a reason only two teams have gone back-to-back in the last 20 years. College basketball is as deep as ever in terms of talent and quality teams, plus there’s someone missing from last year’s Connecticut team. Kemba Walker is now in the NBA and, despite Jim Calhoun’s impressive recruiting haul, there is a major leadership void to be filled. This team is stocked with talent but Walker was a one-of-a-kind leader who took complete control in Maui and parlayed that into a way of life for the rest of the season. Jeremy Lamb figures to take control but remember how young this group is. They’ll get better as the season progresses and may even win the Big East but when the chips are down in the NCAA Tournament, they won’t be able to call on Kemba and that’s why I feel they will not repeat.
- Cautious Optimism at Georgetown, Villanova and West Virginia: These traditional powers lose a lot of talent and figure to be lodged in the middle of the conference. All three programs return key cogs but the departures of Austin Freeman, Chris Wright, Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, Antonio Pena, Casey Mitchell, John Flowers and Joe Mazzulla leave more questions than answers. These teams all need someone to step up and become a deep shooting threat while maintaining a low post presence. Guards win in college basketball but you also have to be able to rebound and score inside occasionally. Hollis Thompson, Mouphtaou Yarou and Deniz Kilicli must become better all-around post men if their respective teams hope to make the NCAA Tournament. At 6’7”, 205 lbs., Thompson isn’t one to bang with the big guys but he’s going to have to score in the paint at times. Each team has a nice recruiting class coming in, but it’s up to the returning players to make the ultimate difference.
- A New Era in Queens: Malik Stith is Steve Lavin’s only returning player after graduation and the transfer of Dwayne Polee decimated his roster this offseason. Lavin reeled in a top five recruiting class but three players were declared ineligible in September and some have even reopened their recruitment. As such, SJU remains an incredibly young and thin roster. The Big East routinely chews up and spits out freshmen and it will take one heck of a coaching job by Lavin, already saddled with the more important issue of his own health, to get this team in contention for a postseason bid. However, the future is extremely bright for this program with newcomers such as Sir’Dominic Pointer, Maurice Harkless, D’Angelo Harrison and God’s Gift Achiuwa.
Predicted Order of Finish
- Syracuse (26-5, 14-4)
- Pittsburgh (27-4, 14-4)
- Connecticut (26-4, 14-4)
- Louisville (25-6, 13-5)
- Cincinnati (24-7, 12-6)
- Marquette (21-10, 11-7)
- Villanova (19-11, 10-8)
- West Virginia (20-11, 10-8)
- Notre Dame (19-12, 9-9)
- Georgetown (16-13, 9-9)
- Seton Hall (17-13, 7-11)
- Rutgers (16-15, 6-12)
- St. John’s (13-18, 5-13)
- South Florida (12-19, 4-14)
- DePaul (11-19, 3-15)
- Providence (12-19, 3-15)
- G: Ashton Gibbs, Sr., Pittsburgh (16.8 PPG, 49.0% 3FG, 88.9% FT) – The Preseason Big East POY made the right decision in bypassing the NBA Draft and is now the undisputed leader of a Pitt team that loses Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee. Gibbs is the perfect player for Jamie Dixon’s efficient offensive system, at his best coming off a screen and using his quick release to bury a three. Another stellar year is in the cards for the Scotch Plains, NJ, product’s final college season.
- G: Darius Johnson-Odom, Sr., Marquette (15.8 PPG, 2.4 APG, 36.4% 3FG) – The dynamic DJO needs to shoot the ball better this year (his three-point percentage dropped 11% last season), but he can have an effect on any game in so many different ways. Johnson-Odom can break an opponent down off the bounce or pull up and knock down a mid-range jumper with ease or electrify the crowd with his performance in transition. He’s the guy that will have to take charge and lead with Jimmy Butler out of the picture.
- G: Jeremy Lamb, So., Connecticut (11.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 48.7% FG) – The national media is all over this kid and rightfully so. Lamb seamlessly transitioned into Kemba Walker’s sidekick last season while leading the Huskies to an improbable national championship. This year, Lamb is the big man on campus. Just oozing with potential, Lamb’s silky smooth jumper and terrific length make him highly versatile and deadly from the outside as he can elevate over almost any defender. Can you say breakout player?
- F: Tim Abromaitis, GS, Notre Dame (15.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 42.9% 3FG) – Abromaitis finished his undergraduate work and now returns for his final season in South Bend while working on his MBA. He added a lot of strength last year and it paid off, becoming a really good rebounder for a guy who spends most of his time on the wings. Mike Brey’s rotation is thin up front so expect Abromaitis to do more than just shoot threes. He’ll have to carry a Notre Dame team without Ben Hansbrough and Carleton Scott so Abromaitis has a great chance to prove to skeptical NBA scouts that he can play at the next level.
- F: Yancy Gates, Sr., Cincinnati (11.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.3 BPG) – Mick Cronin has said Gates is more mature this year than in the past. If that’s true, the rest of the Big East better watch out. Cronin suspended Gates for one game in the middle of last season and that seemed to flip the switch for the UC big man. From February 19 to March 10, Gates made nearly 60% of his shots as the Bearcats won five of their last seven games to lock up an NCAA bid. This wide-bodied big man is a beast in the paint and can dominate the glass when motivated. As a senior with a talented supporting cast around him, there’s no reason to think he won’t be up to the task in 2011-12.
6th Man: F: Kevin Jones, Sr., West Virginia (13.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG) – Jones never quite made “the leap” most observers expected him to last year but he had a fine year regardless. A hard worker and relentless rebounder, he’s a terrific fit in Bob Huggins’ rugged system. Jones’ FG percentage dipped significantly last season but that should improve this year with quality guards Truck Bryant and freshman Jabarie Hinds surrounding him. One interesting note about Jones is he ranked #15 in turnover rate last year (1.1 per game), almost unfathomable for a man of his size and stature.
Impact Newcomer: C: Andre Drummond, Fr., Connecticut – The latest in a long lineage of Connecticut big men, Drummond reclassified to the Class of 2011 and signed with the Huskies late this summer. Scouts say Drummond can do it all and you can bet Jim Calhoun will mold him into the next Emeka Okafor or Hasheem Thabeet. With Alex Oriakhi alongside him in the post, it’s going to be extremely difficult for any opponent to score in the paint against Connecticut. Drummond broke his nose and suffered a mild concussion in practice on October 28 so that is something that bears watching. The Hartford Courant reports he will wear a mask for six to eight weeks but, as long as the concussion isn’t serious, this injury probably won’t have a major effect on his play.
Predicted ChampionSyracuse (NCAA Seed: #2): Nobody on this roster is a go-to superstar but Jim Boeheim has a deep and talented group filled with experience. While double-double machine Rick Jackson is a huge loss in the paint, Syracuse has everyone else back and a strong recruiting class coming in to the Carrier Dome. The Orange can go ten deep but the big key this season will be rebounding. Jackson was relentless on the boards and the Orange’s leading returning rebounder is Kris Joseph at only 5.2 RPG. Freshman Rakeem Christmas is said to be a defensive force so he should see plenty of minutes, but Fab Melo must also improve. Boeheim’s pattern of starting him and pulling him immediately was certainly mysterious but he may see more time this year out of necessity. Syracuse’s strength is in its backcourt, with Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, Dion Waiters and freshmen sensations Michael Carter-Williams and Trevor Cooney. I really expect Jardine to play smarter this year and cut down on his turnovers (2.9 per game). Better shot selection would help Triche increase his shooting percentage but when he’s hot he can fill it up like no other. Cooney was a terrific shooter in high school and will bring instant offense off the bench, while Carter-Williams and his thin, wiry frame can also stroke it while providing added length on the perimeter of Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone. When the zone is porous, as we saw over a brutal four-game losing streak last season, Syracuse is very beatable. When it’s on, however, the Orange are a national championship contender. Expect more of the latter this year. For someone else to capture the league title, Jardine would have to continue to be inconsistent and nobody in the frontcourt makes the leap. I don’t see that happening with Bernie Fine, one of the best big man coaches in the business, on Boeheim’s staff.
- Connecticut (NCAA Seed: #2) – The Huskies will be a tremendous team yet again this year but I’m hesitant to declare them the Big East champion. Why? It’s really quite simple. Kemba Walker no longer plays in Storrs and his former team, albeit highly talented, is still very young. While Jeremy Lamb figures to break out, Connecticut lacks a leader. Lamb is only a sophomore and although last year’s championship experience certainly helps, you just can’t depend on a junior, five sophomores and three freshmen for leadership. Chemistry could become a concern when nobody knows who the ball should go to with the game on the line. Part of that also includes point guard Shabazz Napier making better decisions with the ball. He was sloppy at times as a freshman, but now he’s been handed the keys to the offense. Napier must not try to do too much and work the ball through Lamb on the perimeter along with Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond in the post. Drummond is going to be a beast inside and every team they play against will be hard pressed to score in the paint with those two and the athletic Roscoe Smith by their side. Jim Calhoun’s teams are known for their ability to block shots and defend the paint, and this year’s edition of the Huskies will be no exception. Don’t get me wrong, this is a quality basketball team. But remember, Connecticut only went 9-9 in Big East play and was carried almost exclusively by Walker in Maui and in New York at the conference tournament. Lamb and company played a role, but it was pretty much all Kemba. When Walker went through a mid-season shooting slump, the Huskies went 4-3 between January 17 and February 10. The Huskies also lost seven of their last 11 regular season games before Kemba said enough is enough. That’s more like the UConn team I expected this season but the additions of DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright (once his clearinghouse issues are ironed out) and Drummond move them up into contention for a league title.
- Pittsburgh (NCAA Seed: #3) – Over the years, I’ve learned never to doubt Jamie Dixon’s program. The Panthers possess arguably the best home court advantage in the conference, but their player development is second to none. That’s why Pitt is consistently among the top teams in the Big East. This season, Dixon will ask veterans Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson to set the tone and lead the team. The roster is chock full of young talent, especially in the front court. Pitt makes its living off efficient offense, strong defense and spectacular rebounding. Gary McGhee has graduated so it’s time for some of Dixon’s young players to pick up the slack inside. As I mentioned, superb player development is woven into the fabric of this program so look for Dante Taylor, J.J. Moore and Lamar Patterson to be vastly improved. In addition, Pitt brings in two freshmen bigs, Khem Birch and Malcolm Gilbert. Both are outstanding defensive players who fit the Panther system like a glove. Birch is the best player in Dixon’s recruiting class and should make an impact right away on both ends of the floor. The Panthers lose three key players from last year’s Big East regular season championship team but their two best players are seniors and the bench is deep yet again. Putting faith in young players to step up is usually a risky proposition but that’s not the case with this Pitt team. They’ll be right in the thick of the Big East race all year long.
- Louisville (NCAA Seed: #4) – The Cardinals were dealt a huge loss when it was announced that freshman Wayne Blackshear will have shoulder surgery and will miss a significant chunk of time. Blackshear was Louisville’s best incoming recruit and figured to see lots of time in the deep Cardinals rotation. Even so, Rick Pitino’s club remains locked and loaded. Louisville could go as many as 10 or 11 deep which plays right into Pitino’s hands. This team will press opponents to death before setting back into a stifling half court defense. Louisville has ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency in three of the last four seasons but one thing to watch will be how well they replace graduated seniors Preston Knowles and Terrence Jennings. Knowles created plenty of steals while Jennings blocked numerous shots. Those are two key aspects of defense that someone will have to step up and fill in. Peyton Siva and Rakeem Buckles could be the tandem to do it but each struggled with turnovers last season, negating extra possessions gained on the defensive end. This team has suffered through a rash of injuries but persevered through the tough times the way a Pitino-coached team should. Jared Swopshire returns from injury while Buckles hopes to remain healthy. With Blackshear out, the freshman spotlight will fall on Chane Behanan. He’s a wide-bodied 6’6” forward with a quality face-up game and a ton of potential. Behanan will contribute right away and should be among the leading scorers on this team. The keys for Louisville will be maintaining the terrific chemistry and defense exhibited last winter. If they do that, the Cardinals will have a chance to win the league.
Other NCAA Tournament Teams
- Cincinnati (NCAA Seed: #5) – It certainly seems like Cincinnati is floating under the national radar yet again. Mick Cronin has this program at a level unseen since the Bob Huggins days but the Bearcats couldn’t crack the top 20 in either major preseason poll. None of that matters, of course, but this Cincinnati team returns its top four scorers and is the only team in Division I to increase its overall win total year over year for the last five seasons. If that trend continues, Cincinnati will be among the beasts of the Big East. For that to happen, the Bearcats must get a quality season out of Yancy Gates. That’s looking more and more probable after a summer of hard work and an end to last season that propelled his team to a 5-1 finish and sealed up an NCAA bid in the process. Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick and Dion Dixon also return, forming a solid core of established Big East players to lead this team. Kilpatrick is primed to break out after a promising freshman campaign in 2010-11 that included a 37.7% mark from deep. With Kilpatrick on the wing, Wright anchoring the point and Gates dominating the paint, Cincinnati has an imposing team capable of beating anyone on any given night. To take that next step into the conference elite, the Bearcats must receive positive contributions from their freshmen. Depth, especially in the frontcourt is a concern for this team after Shaquille Thomas was declared ineligible. Another concern for Cincinnati is their offense which won’t exactly knock your socks off. That can be smoothed over if Gates dominates inside and Wright has a good year at the point guard position. Cincinnati’s defense is plenty good enough to contend with the top teams in the Big East but this group is going to have to score at a better clip to take the next step.
- Marquette (NCAA Seed: #9) – If you tried to come up with a team that perfectly reflects the personality of its coach, Marquette would come really close to fulfilling that. This isn’t a great team per se but I’m convinced Buzz Williams adds at least three extra wins to their record just for being the coach. I hate using the cliché “nobody plays harder than ___,” but you can safely apply it to this group of Golden Eagles. Marquette loses the valuable leadership of Jimmy Butler and Dwight Buycks along with glue guy Joseph Fulce but there’s still plenty of talent returning to the Bradley Center. The questions for Marquette center on defense and leadership. I’m of the opinion that Butler brought much more to this squad than you see in the box score (although his stat line was impressive in its own right). He’s such a terrific person but had the toughness to go out there night after night leading by example. This team took after him so well and I do think they’ll miss his presence this season. Defense is a bigger concern. Under Williams, Marquette has never finished in the top 50 in defensive efficiency. That’s been the difference between being a conference title contender and just a very good team. They have to guard better this year, otherwise they won’t crack the top of the Big East. At point guard, Junior Cadougan will take over the position full time and should have a big year. The key players for this team, however, are Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. Johnson-Odom is an explosive guard with the ability to take it all the way to the basket or knock down a deep three. He needs to improve his accuracy from long range but his presence on the floor makes Marquette a threat to any opponent. Crowder is the do-it-all junkyard dog type of player. Despite DJO’s flashy style of play, Crowder may be Marquette’s MVP. He can score from anywhere on the floor and isn’t afraid to do the dirty work in the paint. Crowder pulled down 6.8 RPG last season and made 48.5% of his shots. He also excels at blocking shots and creating steals. The Golden Eagles welcome in transfer Jamil Wilson and freshmen Juan Anderson, Todd Mayo and Derrick Wilson. Wilson and Anderson are the best of the bunch and will see significant minutes from the get-go. Of the other returning players, Chris Otule has proven to be a serviceable big man while Vander Blue looks to rebound from a somewhat disappointing freshman season. Marquette has a balanced lineup with good depth at almost every position. If Davante Gardner can stay on the floor for a longer period of time, he’ll make Crowder and Otule’s jobs that much easier. Marquette has good potential but another finish in the middle of the league seems to be the best bet.
On The Bubble?
- Villanova (NCAA Seed: #10) – It’s been an interesting last few years for Villanova as off-court distractions and late season flameouts have put a bit of a damper on the buzz Jay Wright’s program created several years ago. This will be a new look Wildcats team as it’s now in the hands of Maalik Wayns and Mouphtaou Yarou. Wayns is an ultra-quick guard but he has to cut down his turnovers and shoot the ball better for Villanova to have a successful season. Yarou is primed to explode this season and a significant jump in production just might be necessary for Villanova to win 20 games. This team loses quite a bit of talent with the departures of Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, Antonio Pena and Isaiah Armwood and the most glaring need right now is a three-point threat. Stokes and Fisher provided that but Wayns was well under 30% and Dominic Cheek has not yet lived up to the hype. If Villanova can’t make a triple, opponents will pack the paint and say, “go ahead, shoot it.” That will handcuff Yarou along with freshmen JayVaughn Pinkston and Markus Kennedy inside. In short, Villanova can have a terrific season if its guards can knock down deep shots. Wayns and Cheek have to get better in that department but James Bell could be the guy who breaks out almost like Tim Abromaitis did at Notre Dame a few seasons ago. I’m not saying Bell will average 15+ PPG but he’s certainly capable of hitting double figures. Bell had a terrific summer for the US U-19 National Team after being hampered by an injury last winter. A former four-star recruit, Bell will be counted on to provide that three-point threat and make a big leap as a sophomore. Cue up the “Liberty Bell” headlines and Bill Raftery saying “ring the bell!” I expect Bell to have a big year. Villanova’s freshmen will play a key role in the rotation because only five players return from last year’s team. Tyrone Johnson, Achraf Yacoubou and Darrun Hilliard are the other members of Wright’s recruiting class in addition to Kennedy and Pinkston. All of them are talented enough to contribute, especially Pinkston who sat out last year for disciplinary reasons. This group is built well for great success in 2012-13 and this year will be an important building block for that future.
- West Virginia (NCAA Seed: #10) – Only four players return for Bob Huggins, but three of them are proven Big East commodities. With leadership from Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant and Deniz Kilicli, West Virginia has a solid enough core to make the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in eight seasons. Many folks thought Jones would dominate last year and while he had a very good season (averaged 13/7), he didn’t shoot the ball as well as expected. As a senior leader, this is now his and Bryant’s team. With Kilicli improving inside and a deep freshman class coming in, Jones should be able to dominate and post impressive numbers in his final season in Morgantown. The lefty Kilicli has a nice hook shot but he needs to become more aggressive in the paint. He has great size and strength but didn’t fully use it to his advantage last season. Now with more experience playing in American basketball games, look for Kilicli to become a force inside for the Mountaineers on both ends of the floor. Bob Huggins teams will always play strong defense so the question for West Virginia will be their offense. Similar to Villanova, they lack a true three-point threat and will need freshmen to make immediate contributions. Jabarie Hinds is most likely to do that. The lefty point guard comes from the same high school as former UConn star Ben Gordon and may even push Bryant for the starting spot. It’s hard to see Huggins going with a freshman over a senior but Hinds is going to be that good. The best course of action may be to have him back up Bryant this year in preparation for his future as the starting point guard. Huggins brings in a slew of freshmen including Gary Browne, a combo guard with good range and basketball IQ. The freshmen must be incorporated into the rotation quickly and the chemistry between the upperclassmen returnees and the new faces could go a long ways towards determining how successful the Mountaineers are this year.
- Notre Dame (NCAA Seed: #12) – The Fighting Irish will have depth issues but Mike Brey is used to that. A solid core of Tim Abromaitis, Scott Martin and Eric Atkins return and that just might be enough to vault Notre Dame into the NCAA Tournament. The Irish are used to low expectations and that’s when they usually perform well. It’s also the main reason why Brey has won three of the past five Big East Coach of the Year awards. Everyone knows what Abromaitis brings to the table and he should be as steady as ever once he returns from his four-game suspension to start the year. Atkins and Martin are the real keys here. I thought Atkins played very well at times as a freshman while Martin needs to improve his outside shot. If Atkins can penetrate and kick to Abromaitis or Martin, Notre Dame will be tough to guard. In the post, it’s critical that Jack Cooley and Mike Broghammer improve quite a bit. Notre Dame is painfully thin up front, especially after freshman Eric Katenda’s freak injury that left him blind in one eye. Brey has said it’s possibly that Katenda will return to school sometime in January but it seems highly doubtful that he’ll play. This is obviously a real unfortunate incident for a promising young athlete and we wish him all the best as he recovers. Notre Dame’s recruiting class consists of two other players with Pat Connaughton expected to make the biggest impact. He’s a great shooter with a solid basketball IQ, essentially the prototypical Notre Dame player. From David Graves to Matt Carroll, Colin Falls to Ben Hansbrough and now Abromaitis, Notre Dame has always had terrific three-point shooters. In short, this is a decent Fighting Irish team with an eight-man rotation. There are lots of question marks after the top three returnees, but Brey is an underappreciated coach and will get the most out of this group. Additionally, the home court advantage at Purcell Pavilion usually rewards the Irish with a handful of wins they otherwise may not have come away with. I think Notre Dame will find a way to get back to the big dance despite the thin rotation (especially up front) and some holes defensively.
- Georgetown (NIT) – John Thompson, III, once again loaded up Georgetown’s non-conference schedule, a slate that includes trips to the Maui Invitational and Alabama along with a home date against Memphis before Big East play begins. That strength of schedule will certainly help the Hoyas when it comes down to the selection process, but I’m afraid they may lose too many games for that to matter. Jason Clark is perennially underrated and Hollis Thompson will become a reliable scorer, but this team lacks depth and the talent necessary to move solidly into the middle of the pack. Georgetown’s system will always get the offense good shots but they have to adjust to life after Austin Freeman and Chris Wright, not to mention the steady presence of Julian Vaughn inside last season. Markel Starks took over at the point after Wright went down to injury and the results weren’t pretty. Georgetown lost its last four games before Selection Sunday after Wright was hurt in a game against Cincinnati (the first of those four losses) and then fell to VCU in the NCAA’s despite Wright’s return. Starks has to take a dramatic step forward, or else Clark will have to handle the majority of the point guard duties while limiting his scoring. You can’t win in college basketball without a quality point guard, and that is Georgetown’s biggest question mark heading into the season. The rotation may only be seven deep by Big East play, as freshmen forwards Otto Porter and Mikael Hopkins are the only recruits expected to make an immediate impact. With Porter and Hopkins in the fold, Georgetown is deep in the frontcourt but alarmingly thin elsewhere. Clark and Starks are the only returning guards and freshman Jabril Trawick may not be ready to step in right away. Trawick has solid potential down the line but he needs to expand his game before becoming a major force. Freshman center Tyler Adams is going to be another in a long line of Georgetown shotblockers, but he needs to lose some weight in order to stay on the court for longer periods of time. The Hoyas get the benefit of the doubt for now as a bubble team but finishing higher than eighth may be too much to ask of this team this year.
- Seton Hall – The Pirates have two quality senior starters in point guard Jordan Theodore and forward Herb Pope along with budding sophomore Fuquan Edwin but that little thing called depth may rear its ugly head here as well. That three-man core is enough to make Seton Hall the “best of the rest” but Kevin Willard will need more players to step up if the Hall hopes to surprise anyone. Patrik Auda and freshman Aaron Cosby will have to be the ones to do that. Auda, a native of the Czech Republic showed what he can do in a late season win over Marquette last March (14/6) but he’s got to be able to perform on a more consistent basis in order for Seton Hall to improve. Cosby improved his stock on the recruiting trail last year and should add some pop to a team that was flat out awful shooting the basketball last season. However, Seton Hall did manage to win seven league games despite that poor shooting and the reason was defense. If Willard can keep his team’s 13th-ranked defensive efficiency near that level, the Pirates will be in a lot of games. For a team with only two seniors, two sophomores and six freshmen, getting over the hump and winning the games their defense keeps them in will be the greatest challenge. Willard is building well for the future but the Pirates will likely be stuck in neutral, yet again on the outside looking in at the middle of the pack.
- Rutgers – Mike Rice has rejuvenated a perennial Big East doormat and made Rutgers somewhat of a factor in the conference. The Scarlet Knights didn’t win many games last year, but they came very close on more than one occasion, including the disaster against St. John’s at the Big East Tournament, where they were robbed of a win by disgraceful officiating. Gilvydas Biruta was one of the better freshmen in the conference last year and is the leading returning scorer for Rutgers. The big Lithuanian averaged nearly 10/6 last season on 52.9% shooting. With the graduation of three point threats Jonathan Mitchell, James Beatty and Mike Coburn, Rutgers will have to play through its sophomore big man. This team has no three-point threats outside of freshman Myles Mack, who at 5’9” will have a hard time getting his shot off right away in the Big East. Austin Carroll (37.2% 3FG) could conceivably move into a bigger role but he only played ten minutes per game in 2010-11. Rutgers has to find a deep threat, otherwise teams will overplay inside and limit Biruta and athletic junior Dane Miller. Biruta, Miller and Mack should be the three best players for Rice, but there’s some hope that Mike Poole and/or Austin Johnson will improve under Rice’s tutelage. Rice and his staff brought in a top 20 recruiting class but it suffered a major blow when Kadeem Jack injured his foot, requiring surgery and a three to four month recuperation. Biruta and Miller are going to be good but the freshmen class must come up big for Rutgers to move up in the league standings. It will be a slow climb but Rice definitely has this program headed in the right direction.
- St. John’s – It’s been proven time and time again that teams with lots of freshmen don’t win in college basketball. That will be put to the test as Steve Lavin welcomes six freshmen to St. John’s, and things get crazier when you consider that others were set to suit up until they were declared ineligible. As talented as the current team is, that’s just not going to get it done unless Lavin pulls a rabbit out of his hat. Sir’Dominic Pointer, Maurice Harkless and D’Angelo Harrison will be the three key freshmen to watch along with center God’s Gift Achiuwa while Phillip Green and Nurideen Lindsey should see major minutes as well. Everyone on the team is going to see significant time with such a thin rotation and you may see St. John’s really start to falter in February as tired legs begin to take hold. A non-conference schedule that includes dates with Arizona, Texas A&M or Mississippi State, Kentucky, mid-major sleeper Detroit, Duke and UCLA certainly won’t do them any favors. Give Lavin credit, he’s giving his team a stiff challenge right off the bat. Just don’t expect St. John’s to be a major factor in the Big East until next year or the year after.
- South Florida – Stan Heath has two talented players up front with Augustus Gilchrist returning alongside Ron Anderson Jr. but depth is again an issue for this team. Center Jordan Omogbehin was declared ineligible while fellow big man Andre Jackson was unable to qualify and transferred to Cal State Bakersfield. Victor Rudd makes his way to Tampa via Arizona State but he averaged only 2.5 PPG as a Sun Devil. Jarrid Famous is no longer around to anchor the paint so it looks like the Bulls are headed towards another dismal year. Jawanza Poland and Hugh Robertson can score in the back court but they are hardly three-point threats. In addition, this team has had an awful time dealing with turnovers. The guards simply haven’t been able to get their best player, Gilchrist, the ball and the Bulls don’t win many games as a result. This team shot 41.6% as a unit and that’s not what you’re looking for on a team with zero front court depth. The Sun Dome is currently undergoing renovations so playing in new surroundings certainly can’t help. USF will win a few games but that’s about all you can expect at this point.
- DePaul – Oliver Purnell is slowly building up his program and he must be given plenty of time to get this team back to respectability. DePaul drove off the cliff many years ago and it still hasn’t recovered. Purnell is the type of guy who can fix it but the Big East is just too difficult for a program like this to make a significant leap in a short period of time. The Blue Demons were hit hard by injuries and other issues this offseason as five players are either hurt or ineligible. Junior forward Tony Freeland is out for the season for shoulder surgery along with freshman Montray Clemons (torn patellar tendon). Fellow frosh Macari Brooks was deemed ineligible and has withdrawn from the university. Charles McKinney has tendinitis in his knee and Moses Morgan tweaked his ankle recently. Both of those players should be okay, but Purnell also had to deal with prized recruit Shane Larkin transferring to Miami to be closer to his family. Sophomores Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young will have to score a lot of points for this team to win some games, but they proved they could do that last year, each averaging well into double figures. They were bright spots in an otherwise awful year for DePaul basketball. Jeremiah Kelly and Krys Faber also figure to be important factors especially given the thin roster Purnell now faces. It’s going to be a long haul but Purnell is making some progress.
- Providence – What Ed Cooley has done in less than a year on the job has been amazing. He convinced top recruit Ricardo Ledo to honor his commitment to the Friars while also going out and luring point guard Kris Dunn to Providence. Cooley is keeping up with the Big East arms race but 2011-12 will be another rough year for the Friars as those players don’t come in until next fall. In his first season, Cooley should establish what he wants out of his players and instill a mentality of toughness and defensive intensity. Providence was a horrid defensive team under Keno Davis and that’s the first thing Cooley has to change. His Fairfield team was #22 in defensive efficiency last season and any step in that direction will be a major positive for Providence. The Friars have some bright spots including point guard Vincent Council as well as Gerard Coleman and Kadeem Batts. Freshman LaDontae Henton should contribute right away but this is another team short on depth. Providence needs to rebound and defend before it can do anything else, laying the foundation for what looks like a brighter future under Cooley.
Reader’s Take II
Only two out of the 11 Big East NCAA Tournament participants (Connecticut and Marquette) made it to at least the Sweet Sixteen last year.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
- Connecticut Stars: Both Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb are projected to be solid lottery picks in next year’s NBA Draft with Drummond taking the top spot on most early draft boards. Both have tremendous potential and should lead their team to a high league finish this year, enhancing their individual stocks. Lamb has the size and length to be a great NBA two guard while Drummond can dominate the game on the low block when committed. He also has a solid mid-range game for a man of his size. Both players are very young and that makes him even more attractive to NBA teams.
- Louisville, Connecticut and/or Rutgers?: While conference realignment appears to be on hold for the moment after West Virginia’s departure, it can fire up again at a moment’s notice. These three schools have been rumored to be looking elsewhere (at this point who isn’t?) with Louisville focused on the Big 12 while UConn and Rutgers have their sights set on the ACC. With the Big Ten saying (at least publicly) it isn’t expanding, the ACC is the only viable option for the Huskies and Scarlet Knights. Given the crazy history of this round of conference realignment, your odds of predicting what will happen with these schools are not good.
- Stan Heath?: Now in his fifth season with only one NIT appearance to his credit in Tampa, the USF head man is starting to feel some heat. Another lackluster season and poor recruiting class might be enough to seal his fate. Heath did an admirable job at Arkansas from 2002-07 but two consecutive NCAA appearances still wasn’t enough to keep him around in Fayetteville. Heath won 82 games in five seasons with the Razorbacks. After four with USF, he’s only at 51 wins.
There’s no doubt conference realignment will negatively impact the Big East. As it moves forward, two tremendous programs are headed to the ACC while a third makes its way to the Big 12. The football schools have shown no loyalty to the league and will bail out at the first opportunity. Connecticut, Rutgers and Louisville may be next while Cincinnati and South Florida sit idly by, twisting in the wind. A “Catholic league” consisting of the seven (plus Notre Dame?) basketball-only schools wouldn’t be bad at all, especially if they add schools like Xavier and Butler to the mix. We can sit around and mope all day about what’s happened but life goes on. Relish this coming season and celebrate the good times. No conference commissioner, athletic director or amount of money can take away the legacy of Dave Gavitt’s 33-year old creation. It was one a hell of a ride.
Spotlight on… Jim Boeheim
Now in the 36th season as head coach of his alma mater, Boeheim can move into sole possession of third place (behind Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight) on the all-time Division I wins list with 24 victories this year. That would give him 880, one better than North Carolina legend Dean Smith. By passing Smith, who spent his entire head coaching career at UNC, Boeheim would also top the list for most-ever wins at one school. Turning 67 later this month on November 17, Boeheim is clearly in his final years as a collegiate head coach. While the Syracuse program will undoubtedly remain strong long after he retires, the next few years are going to be critical in determining exactly how strong it will be. Assistant coach Mike Hopkins was reportedly designated his successor in 2007 but no timetable was given, nor is the arrangement set in stone. As such, Hopkins’ name has been floated for other jobs around the country, though he remains with the Orange. As Syracuse makes its way to the ACC sometime between 2012 and 2014, you have to wonder who will take over this program once Boeheim decides to call it quits. His trusty Associate Head Coach and friend Bernie Fine is only a year younger than Boeheim himself, so he’s out of the picture. Whether it’s Hopkins or someone else, Boeheim will obviously have the biggest say in who takes over. Nobody truly knows when Boeheim will decide to wrap up his legendary career but it’s going to happen soon and Syracuse needs a strong coach and recruiter in place to go head to head with North Carolina and Duke once it joins the ACC.
For at least one more year, the Big East is still the top league in the nation. It’s incredibly deep as the top 13 or 14 teams can all win any game on any given night even if they don’t make it to the Big Dance. The Big East has been must-see TV for many years and that will never be truer than in 2011-12. Top 25 teams will line the conference standings yet again and as many as nine or ten schools could make their way into the NCAA Tournament. There’s a lot to like across college basketball but the Big East boats the defending national champions and a host of teams that always seem to have a flair for the dramatic. There is no doubt the conference’s performance in postseason play must improve but there’s no regular season race or conference tournament quite like this league. Big East basketball is a different breed, most evident at said conference tournament in March. You’d be wise to spend your cold winter nights curled up on the couch watching the traditional Big East basketball powers duke it out over 18 league games.