Sunday, April 11, 2010

2010-11 Preview: Big East

Big East Conference

The Big East hype wasn't nearly as bad as it was in 2008-09, when it was probably the most over-hyped conference we've ever seen. Just like last season, the Big East was not the best conference in this country. But this season the talking heads on television and newspaper columnists only called the Big East the best conference in the country, and not the best conference ever. The hype partly has to do with the fact that the Big East is the home conference for ESPN, which sets the news tone, but I think it has more to do with the fact that most fans judge conferences by how many Top 25 teams they have. Many casual fans don't even realize that the Big East has teams like Providence and Rutgers. Nobody cares or knows that the Big East produces crap fests like Rutgers-DePaul because nobody other than the friends and family of the players on those teams is watching. That all said, the Big East had a lot of interesting story lines this past season. Syracuse and Pittsburgh were two teams that dramatically out-performed expectations, while UConn dramatically under-performed. Villanova was a team that was talked about as a potential #1 team in the country before completely falling apart down the stretch, leading to interesting internet rumors about Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher. And finally we had a Georgetown team that was so bizarrely up and down that they finished the season with an RPI of 7th despite going only 10-8 in the Big East, and then promptly lost to Ohio in the first round of the Tournament.

We can start with Syracuse, the regular season champion. They had a very good seven man rotation, but it was obvious that they were not prepared to go beyond that rotation. You have to wonder whether they'd have been better able to handle the Arinze Onuaku injury if Jim Boeheim had worked in some of his bench players earlier in the season against lesser opponents. Onuaku graduates now, as does Andy Rautins, and it's assumed that Wes Johnson will go pro. Rick Jackson is a very good post player and he'll be back, but DaShaunte Riley was downright awful filling in for Onuaku. Obviously they're hoping 7-footer Fab Melo (Rivals: 16, Scout: 3 C) will be ready to go from day one. Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph will be three good returners alongside Jackson, but they're going to have to find some depth, particularly down low. West Virginia never was too close to winning the Big East, but they made it the furthest of any Big East team by getting to the Final Four. That said, they lose more than Syracuse does, with Da'Sean Butler and Wellington Smith graduating, and Devin Ebanks likely going into the Draft. They do return a lot of good role players (Truck Bryant, Joe Mazzulla, Kevin Jones, John Flowers, Casey Mitchell and Cam Thoroughman), but nobody other than maybe Jones is a potential go-to scorer. That said, West Virginia succeeded with a formula of athleticism and defense, and they'll continue to be athletic and strong defensively. Their top recruit is Noah Cottrill (Rivals: 79, Scout: 13 PG).

Pittsburgh was one of the most surprising teams in the nation, and I would have voted for Jamie Dixon as the Big East Coach of the Year. The team seemed to be rebuilding with a very young core, and they nearly won a Big East title, despite doing it a bit with smoke and mirrors (neither Pomeroy or Sagarin rated them higher than 30th in the nation). They lose Jermaine Dixon, but no other player who played more than 11 minutes per game. They will have a really good backcourt next season with Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wannaker and Travon Woodall. And they have good swing forwards with Gilbert Brown and Nasir Robinson. And inside they have Gary McGhee and Dante Taylor. So they're going to have skill and depth at every position. And they have three very good recruits coming in, highlighted by Isaiah Epps (Rivals: 69, Scout: 19 PG). Villanova was the team that I thought was the best in the conference up until they began to fall apart in February. It's hard to know whether internet rumors are true, but clearly there was something off-the-court that was killing the team. Scottie Reynolds finally graduates (it seems like he's been there forever) as does Reggie Redding. But Maalik Wayns showed some really good potential in limited time and should shine in the extra time he'll get with the graduations, and Taylor King also should get an expanded role. Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes will be starting in the backcourt again, and Antonio Pena is a very strong post player. So Villanova isn't going anywhere, and in some ways they might be better with Reynolds gone because he was clearly part of the team strife. And Reynolds sometimes hurt the team with his play on the court, where he'd try to score too much by himself rather than getting his teammates involved. I was disappointed with his development after how good he was as a freshman. The biggest flaw Villanova had this past season was frontcourt depth, but both Mouphtau Yarou and Maurice Sutton played well as freshman, and they're 6'10" and 6'11" respectively, so their development could be key to Villanova's success next season. They have another strong recruiting class coming in, highlighted by Jayvaughn Pinkston (Rivals: 67, Scout: 7 PF) and James Bell (Rivals: 76, Scout: 16 SF). Villanova will again be one of the most talented teams in the Big East, and the question will be how their chemistry changes with the new roster.

Georgetown was a bizarre team this past season because of how good they'd look at times, and how bad they'd look at times. They blew away Duke and also beat Butler, Pittsburgh, Villanova and Temple. At the same time they lost to Rutgers, and also lost at home to South Florida, all before losing to Ohio. With zero seniors on the roster the question is obviously Greg Monroe, who would probably be a lottery pick yet for some reason is insisting he intends to not go pro. I thought for sure he was gone after this season, but he's said he's returning in a way that I believe him. So for now I'm assuming he'll be back. And if he's back then Georgetown immediately becomes a serious Final Four contender. Monroe formed a great trio with Austin Freeman and Chris Wright, where all three have the ability to take the team on their back at times. Julian Vaughn provides nice depth down low, and Georgetown has some good long athletic forwards that can play the three. They're very vulnerable inside if Monroe leaves, but as long as he stays they're going to be very, very good next season. They will add depth with a solid recruiting class led by Nate Lubick (Rivals: 48, Scout: 9 PF) and Markel Starks (Rivals: 78, Scout: 15 PG). Louisville overcame an offseason Rick Pitino scandal to have a reasonably successful season. They went 11 players deep, but the star was clearly Samardo Samuels, who is really living up to the hype he got out of high school. That said, they graduate their starting backcourt of Jerry Smith and Edgar Sosa, so Peyton Siva and Kyle Kuric will have to prove that they deserve more playing time. They do have some guards coming in, but the only blue chipper in their class is a swing forward: Justin Coleman (Rivals: 45, Scout: 4 SF). With Samuels and the rest of the frontcourt back Louisville will be a good team regardless, but the only way they challenge for one of the top spots in the Big East will be if they can put together a quality backcourt without Sosa and Smith.

Marquette and Notre Dame both spent most of the season looking like they would not be an NCAA Tournament team. Both got hot late in the season and played well enough in the Big East tournament to shoot all the way up to over-rated six seeds. Both then lost in the first round. I thought Marquette was more impressive because they did it with absolutely no expectations. I thought Buzz Williams did a fabulous job, particularly considering that he was known as a recruiter more than an in-game coach when he took over for Tom Crean. That said, Marquette wasn't as young as people thought they were. Not only was star Lazar Hayward a senior, but two other starters were as well: David Cubillan and Maurice Acker. Jimmy Butler will be the star next season, and Darius Johnson-Odom is a weapon because of his three-point shooting (he took about five per game at a 47.4% clip). The other key returners are Dwight Buycks and Joseph Fulce. Their two biggest concerns will be ball handling (without Cubillan and Acker) and size (which has been a problem for Marquette for a few years now). The backcourt will get a boost from star recruit Vander Blue (Rivals: 22, Scout: 4 SG), but they do not have any inside relief coming. They'll continue to be strong defensively and athletically, but without elite ball handlers they're going to really struggle to overcome their lack of size with playing style the way they did in 2009-10. Notre Dame loses even more to graduation: Luke Harangody, Tory Jackson, Ben Hansbrough and Jonathan Peoples. The Irish only used a seven man rotation most of the season, so they'll lose four of those seven. Harangody won't be as big of a loss as it seemed he would be after they actually started playing better when he got injured, and a big part of that is the development of Tim Abromaitis. But Jackson and Hansbrough are going to be impossible replace in the backcourt. Hansbrough was particularly valuable as a floor leader, taking over where Kyle McAlarney left off the previous season. With Tyrone Nash and Carlton Scott coming back along with Abromaitis the Irish will still have plenty of size. But I don't know who will start in the backcourt. They have some decent recruits, but no super-freshmen. It's hard to see Notre Dame getting back to the NCAA Tournament unless they pull a miracle off over the summer.

UConn had a very disappointing season that was basically caused by an offense that was atrocious in the half court. They had the typical athletic big bodies that Jim Calhoun always has at UConn, but eventually their opponents figured out that UConn was completely incapable of scoring in a half court set. They had three players who were at all capable on offense: Kemba Walker, Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson. The latter two graduate, and Walker is testing the Draft, although I think he'll stay at UConn. Gavin Edwards also graduates. UConn will still have the long athletes in Alex Oriakhi and Ater Majok, but neither of those have offensive skills. They will be depending heavily on a very good recruiting class, highlighted by Roscoe Smith (Rivals: 31, Scout: 6 SF) and Jeremy Lamb (Rivals: 68, Scout: 13 SG). Seton Hall was another team that had a mildly disappointing season, although I do think that the school overreacted by firing Bobby Gonzalez. They claimed it was for his bad behavior off the court, but we've all learned long ago that schools only care about bad behavior of coaches when they're not winning enough. They did hire a pretty good coach in Kevin Willard, but it remains to be seen how much of the roster he'll be able to hold together with players like Jeremy Hazell and Jeff Robinson all looking at potentially going pro. Seton Hall already loses Eugene Harvey to graduation, but Hazell is the one they really have to keep since he's a threat to score 20 or 25 points every night. They do have a very good inside-outside combo of Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope back, and I also like Keon Lawrence and Farrakohn Hall as big contributors next season. But there's no way Seton Hall will be improved next season unless they can hang onto Hazell, and prevent any other players from leaving either to the Draft or to transfer.

St. John's is probably the most interesting team from the bottom of the Big East because of the hire of Steve Lavin. The problem St. John's has had for years now has been the utter inability to win any recruiting battles for the big time New York City recruits, and it's clear that Lavin is going to put together a staff geared toward landing those types of kids. He also is being handed a team that is chock full of rising-seniors, with only one graduation (Anthony Mason, Jr., who missed half of the 2009-10 season anyway), so he might have a decent team in 2010-11 even without big recruits. But you know Lavin will try to come in with a splash and will try to land at least one big recruit before the 2010-11 season begins. In the end, here's how I see the entire Big East playing out:

1. Georgetown - Assuming Greg Monroe comes back they are immediately one of the favorites to make the Final Four. They will obviously drop quite a bit if he does go into the Draft.
2. Pittsburgh - They should be better than they were this past season, although they obviously didn't deserve the 3 seed they got in the Tournament. This coming year they might get a 3 seed again, although they'll earn it this time.
3. Syracuse - Fab Melo should be a big contributor from day one and will help overcome the loss of Arinze Onuaku. But Syracuse will still be a thin team that is vulnerable to an injury to the wrong player.
4. Villanova - I can't drop them any further than this. They should be safely back in the Tournament, and are a potential Top 25 team again.
5. West Virginia - They'll move higher in the standings if Devin Ebanks doesn't go pro.
6. Louisville - They'll have an outstanding frontcourt, but need to develop some guards quickly.
7. Marquette - They will have almost nobody to play in the frontcourt, but that was true the past two years as well and they still earned a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament both times. I don't think they'll be that good again, but they should be in the middle of the Big East pack again and right on the Tournament bubble.
8. UConn - They need to make sure Kemba Walker stays around for another season, and they need to develop some complementary offensive weapons.
9. Seton Hall - They'll drop further if Kevin Willard can't hang onto the roster he's inheriting.
10. Notre Dame - I can't drop Notre Dame any lower than this. No matter how bad or good they seem to look in the offseason, Notre Dame basketball seems to always find its way onto the bubble during the season.
11. Saint John's - Steve Lavin is talking a big talk, and we'll know over the next few months if he's able to back it up by landing some big recruits. Even without any 2010 recruits the team should be better than they were in 2009-10 just because they return almost everybody.
12. South Florida - A strong season, but they'll be in trouble if Dominique Jones goes pro, as he's expected to. If Jones comes back then they'll move up the standings and will potentially get back to the Tournament bubble.
13. Cincinnati - Deonta Vaughn is graduating, Lance Stephenson is going pro, and I've become more and more convinced that Yancy Gates will never live up to expectations for more than five minute intervals. They did have some nice freshmen this past year, but it's going to take time for them to develop.
14. Providence - Keno Davis gets a pass for the past two years because he wasn't given much to work with, but he's got to start building up this program to prove that his one year at Drake wasn't a fluke. They won't go to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, but they should at least show some improvement and some hope for the future.
15. Rutgers - Things are a mess at Rutgers, with Fred Hill fired and many of the team's stars threatening to transfer. They're going to be in a duel with DePaul for last place in the Big East.
16. DePaul - In some sense, the hire of Oliver Purnell is a coup for DePaul, since it seems like DePaul is a step down for him. But he's already off to a bad start with Chicago area high school and AAU coaches because he has no roots in the area and none of them know who he is. I don't see him luring away the best Chicago area talent anytime soon, and until that happens it's hard to see DePaul getting out of the Big East cellar. Purnell does have a history of rebuilding programs, but it's going to take several years at least to resuscitate DePaul.


Evilmonkeycma said...

Regarding Notre Dame: Under the guidelines for transfers, Hansbrough can take a fifth year, a move which seems fairly likely. Moreover, they (finally) can play transfer Scott Martin, who Mike Brey calls the best player who he's ever coached. This may or may not impact your perspective on them.

Jeff said...

Thanks, I didn't realize Hansbrough had another year. I don't know why he was listed as a senior.. As for Martin, we'll see. Coaches like to say things like that about transfers, but it's generally not true.