Monday, April 09, 2007

2007-08 Preview: Big East

Big East Conference

Pitt was the best team in the Big East for most of the year until Georgetown came on strong near the end of the year. It was a surprisingly good year for Pitt, but the Panthers yet again lose a lot to graduation. Aaron Gray's play on the inside set up the three-point attack that was the meat of Pitt's offensive attack. Levon Kendall was a great glue guy that won't be replaced easily. Levance Fields is going to have to be more aggressive on offense to open things up for Ronald Ramon on the outside. They should still have some decent inside scoring with Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs, but nothing too exciting. As you'd expect, Pitt's recruiting focused on big men. DeJuan Blair is one of the top power forwards in the nation, and the Panthers also add not one but two centers - both 6'9" or taller. With a lot of talented size in the Big East, it will be imperative that some of these big guys contribute immediately if Pitt wants any chance of returning to the top of the Big East.

Georgetown played like the top team in the country for much of February and March before puttering out in the Final Four. Roy Hibbert deserved a lot more attention than he deserved, even outplaying Greg Oden in their head-to-head matchup. Unfortunately for the Hoyas, I think that NBA scouts have noticed what Sportscenter has ignored, and his draft stock is skyrocketing. I would be surprised if he's not a lottery pick at this point. He could even go Top Ten, depending on his draft workouts. But even if he leaves, Georgetown will return basically everyone else. Jeff Green's awful Final Four performance probably made his draft decision for him. Jonathan Wallce, DeJuan Summers and Jessie Sapp will all provide ballhanding and scoring. Even Patrick Ewing, Jr. came on towards the end of the year as a great glue guy. JT III brings in a recruiting class ranked 11th by, which represents exactly what they need. They don't need to have a bunch of good recruits, because they already have so many good players in place. What they need are one or two really elite recruits, which is what they got in Austin Freeman (Scout: 3 SG, Rivals: 4 SG) and Chris Wright (Scout: 6 PG, Rivals: 7 PG). While they can't possibly replace Hibbert's inside presence, this is going to be an incredibly athletic team that will be able to score a lot of points and rebound.

Another really good team will be Louisville, which returns basically everybody. Only one Senior got more than ten minutes per game (Brandon Jenkins), and no one is expected to go pro early. Rising-Sophomore Edgar Sosa, especially, has a chance to establish himself as one of the elite players in the Big East. David Padgett also finally became an inside force this past year. It's not a coincidence that Louisville became an elite team late in the year when they figured out how to run their offense through Padgett.

Two other improved teams will be Marquette and UConn. Marquette was a very young team in 2006-07, and the inexperience showed as they tailed off down the stretch. They struggled when Dominic James wasn't on, and he did have some awful shooting days. I expect he'll return for another year and be more consistent. A healthy Jerel McNeal for one more year will be incredibly important on the other end of the floor. With their top seven scorers returning, Marquette will have an excellent set of athletes on the perimeter. Star recruit Trevor Mbakwe (Scout: 28 PF, Rivals: 36 PF) will hope to add some more size, as Marquette too often struggled with the size of schools like Georgetown and Pitt. Meanwhile, UConn was so young and inexperienced last year that they made Marquette look like a bunch of wily veterans. They lost a slew of close games because they just didn't know how to win, but with all of that talent returning they should be able to exact a lot of revenge on the rest of the Big East. Hasheem Thabeet, especially, should dominate. He is a poor man's Greg Oden, and his 7'3" frame has NBA scouts drooling. If he can get his game under control (and another year under Jim Calhoun can't hurt) he could be a real elite player.

That sums up all the teams with any chance at winning the conference. Let's get to the full preseason rankings:

1. Louisville - The top of the Big East will be really close, but I'm giving the edge to Louisville. Just look at how this young talent improved throughout 2006-07. They will just keep improving further. Edgar Sosa and David Padgett will probably be the best inside-outside combo in the entire conference. I can't bet against Rick Pitino here.
2. Georgetown - Roy Hibbert is a big loss, but with everyone else back this will still be a top team. Jeff Green needs to take the leap and be more aggressive if they want to steal the conference from Louisville.
3. Marquette - Yet another team I think has a real shot at winning the Big East. Assuming Dominic James returns, this team will have the talent to run against anybody, with a good mix of elite scorers and elite defenders. I worry if they have the size to deal with G-town and the Cardinals, which is the only reason I put these guys third. Plus, they still have to prove that they can score and win when James has an off night.
4. UConn - These guys have enough talent to win the Big East if they can get their act together. This is an important year for Jim Calhoun, as he has now had two consecutive years where he has underperformed with top tier talent. A third year in a row and he'll start getting called the rich man's Rick Barnes.
5. Pittsburgh - They lose a lot, but I can't drop them too far. Pitt tends to have a well-balanced team, with depth and experience and solid coaching. They should still easily make the Tournament again.
6. Syracuse - Should bounce back after getting robbed by the Selection Committee. They graduate Demetrius Nichols and Terrance Roberts, but with a Top 3 recruiting class (according to both and they should again have elite talent. It will be up to more experienced players like Eric Devendorf to help the young guys develop.
7. Depaul - A team really taking advantage of being in the Big East. They have a Top 20 recruiting class, which should soften the blow from the graduation of star Sammy Mejia. This team has a good shot at getting back to the Tournament.
8. Villanova - Won't be as deep with talent as they have been in recent memory, but Scottie Reynolds alone could drag this team back to the Tournament. He is a really special player in every sense.
9. West Virginia - You know how they say that you shouldn't want a woman to leave her husband for you, because you don't want to be with a woman who would do that to her husband? Well I wouldn't want to hire a coach that would go to the only school that would hire him, bring in a ton of kids from tough backgrounds who only want to play for him, and then jump ship at the first opportunity after only one year. Huggins has so much baggage that I just don't think he's going to fit in at a school used to John Beilein's style. I'm sure Huggins will find a transfer or two, but he's not going to have enough talent from Day One to do too much.
10. Cincinnati - A rapidly improving program under Mike Cronin, an excellent coach that I loved when he was at Murray State. He does a good job of winning with inferior talent, and he is bringing in an outstanding recruiting class - much better than he ever could have imagined before he joined the Big East. Within a few years, Bearcats fans might completely forget Bob Huggins. Or even better... they might get a good chance to exact revenge.
11. St. John's - A program improving under Norm Roberts, even if the changes aren't happening lightnight quick. With a decent recruiting class, this team should move higher in the Big East standings. I expect a sub-100 RPI for the first time in a few years.
12. Notre Dame - A lot of graduations are going to ravage this team. I have trouble seeing this team returning to the Tournament.
13. Seton Hall - Should improve in their second year under Bobby Gonzales. They return their top five scorers and should soon be at the point where they can atleast qualify for the Big East Tourney.
14. Providence - A team that had a tough year in '06-'07, and then loses its star (Herbert Hill) and brings in a mediocre recruiting class. With the Big East expected to rebound after a down year, I can't see Providence not dropping several spots in the standings.
15. South Florida - An improving program, but with so many other teams improving in this conference it's hard to see South Florida narrowing the talent gap enough to qualify for the big East Tourney.
16. Rutgers - Could be a long year for a team that is compounding a 3-13 record with losses of two of their top three scorers.

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