The RTC Interview Series: Big East Preview with Jon RothsteinPosted by Walker Carey on November 5th, 2013
Rush The Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you periodically throughout the offseason. If you have any specific interview requests or want us to interview you, shoot us an email at email@example.com.
With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. To read through the entire 2013-14 preseason interview series, click here. As part of our national preview with the Big East, RTC correspondent Walker Carey recently had the pleasure of speaking with a Big East expert in CBS Sports Network College Basketball Insider Jon Rothstein.
Rush the Court: The new Big East has formed with its roots based almost exclusively on basketball. What will that do for the conference’s reputation from a national standpoint?
Jon Rothstein: I think we are going to have to wait and see how these schools that are left in the conference perform on a national level. From the periphery, I think everyone is looking at the Big East as a conference that can send either five or six teams to the NCAA Tournament. That would put the Big East probably on the same par as the American Athletic Conference. A lot of its reputation is going to be formed by how many teams the Big East will send to the Tournament on a consistent basis.
RTC: Marquette has been the popular preseason pick to win the league. The Golden Eagles lost Junior Cadougan, Vander Blue and Trent Lockett from last season’s Elite Eight team, so what is it about this season’s squad that makes it so formidable?
Rothstein: This is the deepest and most talented frontcourt that Buzz Williams has had since he has been the head coach at Marquette. On the other hand, this is also going to be the least experienced backcourt that he has had. I initially picked Marquette to win the Big East at the start of the offseason, but going back on it now, I wish I had picked Georgetown to win the league.
RTC: What makes you believe Georgetown has the talent to win the league?
Rothstein: To me, Georgetown replenishes talent as well as any team in the country. The thing about the Hoyas that is interesting to me is that they are able to win with different styles. You saw them feature a perimeter attack when they had Chris Wright, Jason Clark and Austin Freeman. You saw them use an inside attack with Henry Sims leading the way. Last season, we saw Otto Porter really blossom and do a bit of everything. Georgetown always finds a way to win consistently, but it does it in different ways.
RTC: Sticking with Georgetown, Josh Smith struggled mightily to stay in-shape and be productive during his time at UCLA. How important is it for Georgetown to have an effective Josh Smith as it tries to recover from the departure of Otto Porter and the injury to Greg Whittington?
Rothstein: First of all, Greg Whittington did not play last season after January 1. He really was not on the team during the core of Georgetown’s season last year. Georgetown won the Big East without Greg Whittington. When you look at Georgetown, even if it did not have Josh Smith, it still has three experienced big men from the team that won the regular season Big East crown last year in Mikael Hopkins, Nate Lubick and Moses Ayegba. After watching Georgetown practice a few weeks ago, the biggest thing that stuck out to me about Smith is his skill level. It is really unbelievable to watch what Josh Smith can do on a basketball court. He can dribble two basketballs up and down the court. He is probably the best passer that John Thompson III has had in the high post with the exception of Greg Monroe. The problem with Josh Smith is he is a little bit like Eddy Curry was in the NBA. One night, Smith could look like a guy who could earn an $80 or $90 million dollar contract at the next level and on the next night, he could look like a guy who is going to eat his way out of the game in a couple of years.
RTC: There are obviously going to be some concerns about Creighton as it makes the transition from the Missouri Valley to the Big East. One thing the Bluejays have going for them is the tremendous experience of All-American Doug McDermott and do-everything guard Grant Gibbs. How much will that experience and leadership aid the team in its first season in a major conference?
Rothstein: That experience and leadership is monumental. Creighton has the ability to be a breathtaking offensive team, but the one thing everyone needs to take in consideration is how is Creighton going to be able to replace Gregory Echenique? The one thing I have always said when I looked at Creighton and how it matches up with other Big East teams is I am sure the team is going to be able to score and I am sure Doug McDermott is going to be a first-team All-American and the Player of the Year in Big East, but everyone looks at the team as a conference title contender. My question is, who is Creighton finishing above? We talked about Marquette, we talked about Georgetown, Villanova is going to be tough, St. John’s has the most talented roster in the conference, Providence might have the league’s best four/five combination in LaDontae Henton and Kadeem Betts, as well as who I think is the league’s most talented freshman in Brandon Austin, and Xavier is a team that is always going to be in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid. Those are six teams right there who I believe are formidable and I think even Seton Hall has a chance to be a sneaky good team and win 16 or 17 games. Going back to my question, if Creighton is going to make the NCAA Tournament and be a team that is going to contend for the league title, who in that core is it finishing above?
RTC: It was a bit of a surprise that Villanova made the NCAA Tournament last season. A portion of the team’s success was due to the stellar freshman campaign of guard Ryan Arcidiacono. What can be expected out Arcidiacono in his sophomore season and what is this Villanova squad capable of accomplishing?
Rothstein: Villanova, to me, has the potential to not only compete for the conference title, but also to play into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Two years ago when Villanova won only 13 games, I believe it lost its identity a little bit. It got its identity back last season in what I believe was the best coaching job of Jay Wright’s career. The one thing you notice about Villanova right now – and I have seen it practice twice already in the preseason – is that it is going to play small with JayVaughn Pinkston and James Bell playing more inside. Ryan Arcidiacono is going to be in better shape than he was a year ago and he is going to have more guys who are going to be able to play in the backcourt with him. Tony Chennault is a year older. When Dylan Ennis returns from injury, he is going to play some important minutes. I think the guy who sometimes gets forgotten is Darrun Hilliard. I would not be surprised if Hilliard ends up leading the team in scoring.
RTC: St. John’s arguably has the most talented roster in the league. What can it do to take the next step from last season’s 17-16 campaign?
Rothstein: The experience factor with St. John’s is huge, but I think there are a lot of questions about how it is going to gel as a team. The talent level is unmatched in the league. In the past couple of years, the only people in college basketball who have recruited better than Steve Lavin are John Calipari and Sean Miller. The question for St. John’s now is who emerges as the point guard? Phil Greene might be the most experience player at the position. According to Steve Lavin, Jamal Branch is the most improved player at the position. The freshman, Rysheed Jordan, is probably the most talented player at the position. Another question is how does Steve Lavin find minutes for Sir’Dominic Pointer? When St. John’s made moves last season, it was because Pointer played extended minutes. Pointer is one of the better glue guys in the country and he has to be on the floor a lot if St. John’s wants to contend for an NCAA Tournament bid.
RTC: Semaj Christon is one of the most dynamic guards in the country. Who can help him out at Xavier and what are the chances that the Musketeers return to the NCAA Tournament this season?
Rothstein: Myles Davis is an unproven commodity because he has not played a collegiate game, but I think you are going to see him hit shots from the perimeter and really open things up for Semaj Christon. I think Xavier’s perimeter depth is going to be much improved. Davis is going to play a big role and I think fellow freshman Brandon Randolph is also going to play a lot of minutes. Xavier’s frontcourt depth is also going to be much better with Matt Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds. I think Semaj Christon is a guy who is really going to benefit from the new foul rules, especially when he is taking the ball to the rim. Xavier is definitely going to have a dog in the fight when it comes to the battle for an NCAA Tournament bid.
RTC: Providence is another team with a very talented roster, yet it is still projected by many outlets to finish near the bottom of the league. What are the prevailing issues with the Friars?
Rothstein: I do not see much of an issue with Providence. It is my sleeper team in the league. I think the Friars will finish sixth and compete for an NCAA Tournament bid. Providence has the returning leading scorer from the old Big East in Bryce Cotton, a very talented four/five combination in Henton and Betts, and you have a player who is going to fall out of bed and get 12 or 13 points every night in the freshman Brandon Austin. Brandon Austin is going to be the best freshman in the conference. I do not think there is any question about it.
RTC: Butler is an interesting team entering its first season in the Big East. Rotnei Clarke graduated from last season’s team, Brad Stevens left in July to become the head coach of the Boston Celtics, and Roosevelt Jones will miss the season with a wrist injury. Is this going to be a long season for the Bulldogs?
Rothstein: It depends what is going to happen with freshman Rene Castro and if he is going to be able to be thrown into the fire at point guard right away. Butler is going to have to get a lot from Kellen Dunham. He is going to need to have a breakthrough year to pick up some of the scoring that left with Rotnei Clarke. The Bulldogs have some experience on the perimeter with players like Alex Barlow and Jackson Aldridge. Even if Brad Stevens had stayed at Butler, I do not think this was going to be a banner year for the program. Without Stevens, I think Butler is going to really struggle to finish in the top half of the league.
RTC: Do you think DePaul has any chance of righting the ship now that it is in this predominantly basketball league?
Rothstein: DePaul, to me, has a chance to be one of the best jobs in the league if the program can get an arena with a decent proximity to its campus. Right now, DePaul is playing its home games 22 miles from its campus. It is tough to get students excited and supportive with that. Until DePaul gets an arena around its campus, it is going to be tough for the Blue Demons to climb that mountain to relevancy.
RTC: Lastly, who do you believe will take home conference player of the year and conference coach of the year when all is said and done in March?
Rothstein: I believe Doug McDermott will be the conference Player of the Year and I believe Ed Cooley will be the conference Coach of the Year. McDermott will lead the league in scoring and he is just such a good player. Cooley will have Providence as one of the most improved teams in the league and a team that will be in the thick of things for an NCAA Tournament bid.