Big East Preview
This week, I have what I hope to be a fun week planned for the site. With the season opener screaming right towards us (less than a week!), it’s high time to make some predictions and shift my gaze at the bigger picture around the Big East and nationwide. Today, I’m unveiling my Big East predictions and on Tuesday, I’ll take a stab at picking the winners for the other five power conferences before predicting some numbers for this season’s ‘Cuse team.
Before I get into that, I wanted to discuss the football side for a moment. After all, this blog’s namesake is the home of the football team, too. While I was spared from being on campus for Greg Robinson’s final season, I endured his first three years as head coach after the Orange finished the 2004 season with as vanilla of a conference title run as you’ll ever see, topped off by a demolition at the hands of Georgia Tech in the Champs Sports Bowl. Still, I root for the football team to do well, and there are still a few chances for it to notch a win to become bowl-eligible. While their play the last two weeks, especially juxtaposed to the sterling win against West Virginia, is disappointing, I hope it doesn’t keep people so down that they fail to realize that the upcoming basketball season is looking awfully promising.
***BACK TO BASKETBALL***
Without further ado, the Big East rankings…
1. Syracuse – I won’t spend much time on them here for obvious reasons, but the Orange have an ideal blend of experienced veteran talent, promising young players who got their feet wet last season and freshmen who are hungry to make an impact. The conditioning improvements by Fab Melo, Scoop Jardine and Dion Waiters should pay off and there aren’t many question marks (though there are a couple) holding the team back.
2. Connecticut – The defending national champs are being looked at favorably after returning everybody of significance except Kemba Walker, but the balance will ultimately serve them well and lead to a much better outcome in conference play than last season’s 9-9 finish. I believe Jeremy Lamb is a touch overrated right now, but he definitely has the potential to be a star this season. The interior of Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond should be among the nation’s best, and Shabazz Napier will be more than fine as a complementary scoring option and a steadier point guard than he was last season. The Huskies may have some of the “star power” that many are criticizing Syracuse for not having, but UConn isn’t as deep and balanced as the Orange is setting up to be.
3. Louisville – The Orange’s white whale (despite what Boeheim would call it) is the only squad that I feel can compete with Syracuse for the best backcourt in the Big East. Preston Knowles may be gone, but there’s plenty to compensate for his loss. Peyton Siva’s speed makes him a matchup headache, and Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith will be happy to put you in a hole if you slack away from the perimeter. The biggest question about the Cardinals is their frontcourt. They had horrible luck with injuries between Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles sidelined last season, and now freshman standout Wayne Blackshear will miss the first several weeks of the season. There’s still a lot of talent down low, but Rick Pitino will miss Terrence Jennings’ presence.
4. Pittsburgh – It wouldn’t surprise me to see Jamie Dixon’s craftiness and ability to squeeze what he can out of his teams lead Pitt to finish ahead of Louisville, but I find a fourth place finish more likely. Opposing teams should devote a ton of attention to Ashton Gibbs – part of it is because he’s such a lethal shooter, and part of it because the rest of their guards portend uncertainty. Tray Woodall figures to inherit Brad Wanamaker’s playing time at point guard, but given Woodall’s performance last season (36% shooting and six points per game in 21.6 minutes, though he had an A/TO ratio north of 2.0), fans should anticipate a return to the Levance Fields/Brandin Knight pass-first point guard mold. Down low, Pitt will be a force down low with its deep core of big men. Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna all played well last season in various roles, McDonald’s All-American Khem Birch would be much higher on the depth chart if he played somewhere else and Nasir Robinson, while undersized at 6’5, is bulky enough to defend the paint as well as the arc. Pitt’s cohesiveness year-in and year-out is not rivaled by many teams, so expect the usual from the Panthers.
5. Marquette – The top four in the conference is pretty clear-cut, but the next three teams could finish in any possible order and I wouldn’t be shocked. Marquette is a microcosm of that unpredictability. In a very inconsistent 2010-11 season, the Golden Eagles went 3-7 in games decided by five points or fewer, never had a winning streak in conference play longer than three games, but never lost more than two straight in league play. They’ll be more consistent this season with Darius Johnson-Odom set for a huge year and Jae Crowder getting better as well. What separates this year’s team from Buzz Williams’ squads in the past is their depth up front. Chris Otule and Davante Gardner, combined with an underrated swingman in Crowder, will keep many teams from throwing defenders at Johnson-Odom. Throw in Williams’ philosophy of smart basketball and emphasizing the little things like not turning the ball over and converting from the free throw line, and I think we’ll see a better Marquette team than we did last season.
6. Cincinnati – I can understand why Cincinnati is starting to get some love from the pollsters; Last season, the Bearcats not only made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, but somehow garnered a six seed, and their best player, Yancy Gates, is already turning heads based on mental and physical maturation that was kickstarted when the team left him at home for their trip to Pittsburgh. While Gates could embarrass a few defenses if they don’t take him seriously, and the Bearcats do have additional talent in Cashmere Wright, Dion Dixon and Sean Kilpatrick, I’m a little bullish due to their scheduling. For the second straight season, they play an absolutely deplorable non-con slate. It contains just two power conference teams: One of them is Georgia, which is thoroughly average, and the other is Oklahoma, who could finish last in the Big 12. I expect the annual game against Xavier to be more competitive than both. While the scheduling philosophy worked last season in that it helped bring Cincinnati back to the NCAA Tournament, I think Mick Cronin’s team would be better served by challenging itself with some marquee opponents (no offense to Alabama State, Jacksonville State, Presbyterian, Northwestern State, Wright State, Radford, Arkansas Pine-Bluff or Chicago State). I realize that criticizing a team’s non-conference slate may sound off-kilter coming from a Syracuse blogger, but that doesn’t make Cincinnati’s situation any better.
7. Villanova – The Wildcats will be very young this season after losing both Coreys and seeing Isaiah Armwood, who would’ve been a junior, transfer out. Without a scholarship senior, Villanova will be challenged in a way I haven’t seen since the days of their four-guard lineup. Maalik Wayns and Mouphtaou Yarou will be the leaders, and James Bell is a good bet to improve significantly, but questions pervade the Wildcats. After sitting out last season due to legal issues stemming from an altercation on campus, what impact will JayVaughn Pinkston have? Will the inconsistent Dominic Cheek get it together? Will Yarou improve offensively? If the answers to those qurstions are “yes,” then Villanova could finish as high as fourth, but if not, I could see a sub-.500 finish in conference play for the first time since 2003-04. The Wildcats are a wildcard, folks.
8. Notre Dame – Not many people saw the run Notre Dame pulled off last season, finishing in second place after losing one of the league’s most marketable stars in Luke Harangody. The spot I have them here today is close to where many tabbed Notre Dame heading into last season, but I don’t think they have it in them again. They lost a ton of production from last season’s team (and I can’t help but wonder how badly Carleton Scott regrets leaving early), and Tim Abromaitis will have to shoulder a heavy load. There aren’t many rotation players who have proven capable of creating their own shots, though some are on the way. If you’re looking for pure shooters, Abromaitis and Scott Martin will quench your thirst. All in all, the offense won’t be a problem, but defense is going to be a much bigger concern. Three of the Irish’s top five rebounders from last season are gone, and the team’s best returning shot-blocker had a not-so-grand total of 18 rejections. This team should shoot for an NCAA Tournament berth – anything more is icing, and anything less will be a disappointment.
9. West Virginia – The Mountaineers return some of their most prominent players in Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant and Deniz Kilicli, which is good enough a core to keep a team competitive in the Big East. Jones is a veteran and one of the best players in the conference, but I’m more intrigued by the others. Like James Bell and a couple other players around the conference, I like Kilicli’s chances to improve in a big way. If he steps up his aggressiveness on offense and builds on the experience he gained playing in the states, he can double his 6.6 PPG scoring average from last season. Bryant will have to lead as the senior backcourt leader. The Mountaineers are similar to Syracuse in that they don’t have a proven sniper from downtown, though there are candidates. WVU has a ton of freshmen coming in (I especially like Jabarie Hinds), but this season should be more about getting them used to a higher level of play and working in Bob Huggins’ system than it will be relying on them to lead a deep run. They may not be smooth to start the season, but pencil West Virginia in as the team that will improve the most from November to February as the deep class of newcomers adjusts to the demands of the Big East and Kilicli grows into a threat down low.
10. Georgetown – The Hoyas are stuck in neutral. Since winning the conference in 2007-08, Georgetown is just 60-37 overall, which includes a 27-27 mark in conference play, two eight-seed appearances in the Tournament and one as a 12-seed. The good news for ‘Cuse fans is that this season doesn’t look to be the one where they get the car out of the ditch. It might be the one where JT3 gets out of the car and starts pushing, though. There’s not much for even objective followers to appreciate in terms of personnel with Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Julian Vaughn having graduated and Vee Sanford off to Dayton. What remains is Jason Clark, Hollis Thompson and a forest of unknowns. Otto Porter and Mikael Hopkins are the impact freshmen, but Markel Starks doesn’t inspire confidence at the most important position on the floor. The most interesting thing about the Hoyas is their schedule. They play in a loaded Maui Invitational and a road game against a good Alabama squad in non-con play, but catch a break by getting to play Marquette, St. John’s and Providence twice each in conference play.
11. St. John’s – In resurrecting the Red Storm last season, Steve Lavin made some huge waves on the recruiting trail, though Norvel Pelle, Amir Garrett and JaKarr Sampson won’t be eligible until at least the spring semester. Unless you’re Kentucky, you won’t have much success in college hoops leaning on freshmen to carry the load all season, so expect St. John’s to toil for awhile. Between the battles for minutes and an ambitious schedule, this will be an interesting team, though not necessarily a successful one in terms of wins and losses. I’ll look forward to seeing where St. John’s is developmentally when Syracuse comes to town in February.
12. Seton Hall – The Pirates ran into some hard luck last season when Jeremy Hazell was shot over the holidays and Herb Pope missed a good deal of time after undergoing heart surgery. While nothing is certain, I feel those freak circumstances cost the Hall its best chance at a Tournament bid, which would’ve been just the Pirates’ third since 2000. Kevin Willard has to put that behind him, though, and hope Jordan Theodore, Herb Pope and Fuquan Edwin form a steady enough foundation for the Pirates’ young talent to grow without taking on too much responsibility.
13. Rutgers – It’s hard for fans to be optimistic about a team that lost as many games as the Scarlet Knights did, but close games (like their overtime loss to SU at the Dome) and an infusion of some nice talent should give them confidence going into the future. In the short term, though, the holes aren’t going to be filled quickly. Rutgers will rely heavily on Gilvydas Biruta in the blocks as well as Dane Miller, who’s more of a swingman. The backcourt is a concern that Myles Mack, Mike Poole and Austin Johnson will hope to solve, but until then, defenses will hedge towards defending the paint. As with St. John’s, we’ll have to come back to Rutgers later, but their long-term outlook is bright as they continue to dig out of the rubble and carve a new identity in life after Fred Hill.
14. South Florida – I know people were counting on more from USF after they went 9-9 in conference play in 2010, but I’m not sure how many of those people considered that the Big East’s unbalanced scheduling gifted the Bulls two games each against Providence and DePaul in making those assertions. As expected, USF regressed heavily last season and figure to struggle once again near the conference’s basement. That said, the Bulls have some pieces. Gus Gilchrist and Jawanza Poland could command minutes for better programs, and a pair of transfers from Kansas State and Arizona State will be eligible for Stan Heath. Add in Shaun Noriega, who can start fires from the perimeter, and there’s a decent mix of talent. The problem is that the ceiling for this group is “trap game” status for the better teams in the Big East.
15. Providence – Keno Davis is out as head coach, and Ed Cooley is in. This season is all about the Friars’ new coach putting his stamp on the program, doing what he can with the players he inherited while biding time until Ricardo Ledo and Kris Dunn get to campus next fall. The personnel that Providence has right now in Vincent Council, Kadeem Batts and Gerard Coleman keep them above perennial bottom-feeders DePaul and South Florida, but that’s not exactly something to strive for. Last season, the Friars were a mess defensively, and if his history at Fairfield is any indication, he should be able to shore that up before long, but over the long haul, there’s much more work to be done.
16. DePaul – The Blue Demons have Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young returning as sophomores, but not much else. Jeremiah Kelly and Krys Faber are also back, but injuries and defections have already torn up Oliver Purnell’s team. Two players are expected to miss the season (one due to injury and another due to Clearinghouse issues) and another freshman transferred to Miami. When you have the limited resources and challenges that come with coaching DePaul, you need every edge you can get, and things like staying healthy become incredibly important. Winning a conference game before February 17 would sadly be an improvement for this team, but hopefully for DePaul’s sake they can accomplish that and then some.