Monday, April 11, 2011

2011-12 Preview: Big East

Big East Conference

I've talked a lot about Big East hype in the media, so I don't want to hammer that again. I actually defended the Big East after their awful first two weeks of the NCAA Tournament. I thought all season long that the Big Ten was slightly better. There's no question that the top half of the Big East was better than the top half of the Big Ten, but there's also no question that the bottom of the Big Ten was far superior than the bottom half of the Big East. The single worst teams in the Big Ten was better than (in my opinion) four Big East teams. USF and DePaul were basically automatic wins. But I did feel like the Big Ten and Big East were close, and there was a long way back to the next best conference - the Big 12.

The story on the court in the Big East has to be UConn, a team that had one of the most remarkable National Championship runs of any team I can recall. They went 4-7 in their final 11 regular season games, but then won 11 straight games to take the Big East and National titles. Five of those 11 wins were by three points or less or in overtime, so there was a lot of luck, but it was still a remarkable turnaround that made Kemba Walker a legend. It does look like Kemba Walker is gone to the NBA, though. Charles Okwandu and Donnell Beverly graduate, too. I do think Alex Oriakhi will be back. The key to next year will probably be Shabazz Napier, who will attempt to be the new Kemba Walker. Napier has the same confidence and swagger than Walker has, but he was far less consistent. A year of seasoning will do him a lot of good, particularly since his improvement was clearly apparent even within the 2010-11 season. Jeremy Lamb will be back starting at shooting guard, but after that their backcourt will come from 2011 recruit Ryan Boatright (Scout: 15 PG, Rivals: 48). Assuming Oriakhi comes back, the UConn frontcourt will still be in very good shape, with Tyler Olander, Niels Giffey and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel coming back from the rotation. They also return Michael Bradley (who redshirted in 2010-11) and Enosch Wolf. Assuming Oriakhi comes back, UConn will get Top Ten buzz coming into the year, but I don't buy it. To me they're a Top 25 team, but they're going to be overrated.

The best Big East team over the course of the season was Pittsburgh. They won the regular season title, but fell in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 because of Nasir Robinson's boneheaded foul. To graduation they lose Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee. Ashton Gibbs has also declared for the NBA Draft, although he hasn't hired an agent yet. At this point I'm going to guess that Gibbs will come back for his senior season. Nasir Robinson will be back from the starting lineup as well. I actually think Travon Woodall will take over the point for Brad Wanamaker so that Gibbs can stay at shooting guard, although he'll create a lot of offense, too. They won't return any other perimeter players that earned significant time this past season, but both Isaiah Epps and Cameron Wright were relatively highly rated recruits from the 2010 class that redshirted the season and will be back with four years of eligibility left. They also add Durand Johnson (Scout: 20 SG, Rivals: 115) and John Johnson. The frontcourt will return zero starters other than Nasir Robinson, but plenty of regulars: Talib Zanna, Dante Taylor and Lamar Patterson. JJ Moore is a good wing prospect, who was a big scorer in limited minutes (3.7 points in 8.0 minutes per game). The 2011 class has a few quality bigs: Khem Birch (Scout: 4 C), Jaylen Bond (Scout: 23 PF) and Malcolm Gilbert (Scout: 20 C). Jamie Dixon's Pitt Panthers will, like clockwork, contend for another Big East title next season.

Notre Dame finished second in the Big East regular season standings in 2010-11, but they started five seniors: Ben Hansbrough, Carleton Scott, Scott Martin, Tim Abromaitis and Tyrone Nash. Eric Atkins, who will start at the point next season, will be the only returner that averaged more than ten minutes per game this past season. Jack Cooley is a tough body in the paint that will be back, and Joey Brooks is another key frontcourt returner. Mike Broghammer and Thomas Knight are frontcourt prospects. In the backcourt, Erik Atkins is the only returner that played more than four minutes per game. Alex Dragicevich is the other returner that played in games. Jerian Grant was a highly rated 2010 recruit that redshirted. They also add Patrick Connaughton (Scout: 20 SF), who despite being listed as a small forward will probably play shooting guard at Notre Dame. This team will fall way off, obviously, but Mike Brey has done a good job of developing young talent and I expect them to at least be competitive.

Syracuse started the season 18-0, but they lost six of their next eight games and never truly recovered. But they lose only Rick Jackson to graduation, with nobody expected to go pro. The loss of Jackson will put pressure on Fab Melo to take that next step. The very highly touted recruit looked lost early in the 2010-11 season and basically stopped playing for a few weeks, but he came on strong late in the year and actually was a key player in their two Big East tournament games. The team has a lot of size with him, DaShonte Riley, Baye Moussa Keita and James Southerland, but one of them has to develop an offensive game. They also add Rakeem Christmas (Scout: 1 C, Rivals: 12). Kris Joseph and CJ Fair are both 6'7" and are good offensively, but both are wing players. The starting backcourt of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche will return, as will Dion Waiters, who did a good job backing up both guard positions as a true freshman. Jim Boeheim also adds Michael Carter-Williams (Scout: 8 SG, Rivals: 16) and Trevor Cooney (Scout: 17 SG). Assuming a natural progression for Fab Melo, Syracuse should be improved next season, and a legitimate Big East title contender.

Louisville also will be a Big East title contender next season. They should lose only Preston Knowles from their entire roster. They'll get Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles back from season-ending injuries, and have a very nice 2011 recruiting class coming in. Peyton Siva is rapidly becoming one of the best offensive creators (and clutch shot makers) in the Big East, and he'll be joined in the backcourt by Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric. Elisha Justice, Mike Marra and Russ Smith return from the bench. They also add Wayne Blackshear (Scout: 3 SG, Rivals: 32) and Ryan Taylor (Rivals: 103). In the frontcourt, Terrence Jennings is the returning starter, and key bench returners are Gorgui Deng, George Goode and Stephan Van Treese, along with the aforementioned Buckles and Swopshire. They also add Chane Behanen (Scout: 8 PF, Rivals: 23), Zach Price (Scout: 6 C, Rivals: 72) and Angel Nunez (Scout: 30 SF). Louisville is going to be absurdly deep next year, and Rick Pitino is coming off the best coaching job he's done in years (he would've been my vote for Big East Coach of the Year), so Louisville has to be an early season Big East and National Title contender.

St. John's was a team that got a lot of hype during the year because of Steve Lavin's time at ESPN. And to be fair, it was a lot of fun seeing St. John's playing well and beating elite teams again. But Lavin's coaching performance might have been the most overrated in the nation. Despite the hype, this team was only around 35-40th in the computers at the end of the season, and they were returning every single player from a team that was in the 70s or so in the computers last season. So you would have expected, even without the coaching change, for St. John's to be approximately where they were. Steve Lavin was my favorite ESPN college basketball analyst, but that doesn't mean I can't be honest about his coaching performance. But no team in the nation is going to experience more turnover than St. John's. Of the ten players that played meaningful minutes during the season, eight were seniors, including all five starters. And Steve Lavin is responding by bringing in a nine player recruiting class, all of whom are highly rated. He needed to have a big class, but I have to wonder how he can build a program around a 9 man rotation class. He must be assuming that some of those players will either redshirt or eventually transfer. The only real returners from this past year's team are point guard Malik Stith and swing forward Dwayne Polee. I won't name all nine 2011 recruits, but the best of them are D'Angelo Harrison (Scout: 14 SG, Rivals: 41), Jakarr Sampson (Scout: 8 SF, Rivals: 44), Maurice Harkless (Scout: 13 SF, Rivals: 45), Amir Garrett (Scout: 18 SF, Rivals: 51) and Sir'Dominic Pointer (Scout: 11 SF, Rivals: 81). The fact that none of the recruits are superfreshmen is both good and bad news. The good news is that none of them are likely to be one-and-done. The bad news is that you can't expect a lot from them as true freshmen. So I'll give Steve Lavin a year to figure out what he's got in these guys. It's unfair to expect him to get them right back to the NCAA Tournament in 2012.

West Virginia loses Casey Mitchell, John Flowers, Joe Mazzulla and Cam Thoroughman to graduation. Their only backcourt returner from the rotation will be Truck Bryant, who is a solid point guard. They're in better shape in the frontcourt where Kevin Jones, Deniz Kilicli, Dalton Pepper, Dan Jennings and Kevin Noreen all return. I'm particularly interested to see what Kilicli does, since he has a couple of post moves that are basically unguardable, and I couldn't understand why he didn't get more playing time in 2010-11. They also add Tommie McCune (Scout: 30 PF, Rivals: 100) and Keaton Miles (Scout: 29 SF, Rivals: 146). But the big need is at the guard position, where they'll be relying heavily on their 2011 recruiting class, led by Jabarie Hinds (Scout: 10 PG, Rivals: 127) and combo guard Gary Browne. Cincinnati loses Rashad Bishop, Ibrahima Thomas, Darnell Wilks and Larry Davis to graduation. They do return their starting backcourt of Cashmere Wright and Dion Dixon, as well as Sean Kilpatrick, an explosive shooter and scorer. But the only bench backcourt returner is Jaquon Parker, who played only nine minutes per game. They also add Jeremiah Davis (Rivals: 123), Jermaine Sanders (Scout: 24 SF, Rivals: 134) and Ge'Lawyn Guyn. In the frontcourt, the key returner is Yancy Gates, who is supremely talented but has been inconsistent. When briefly benched late in the season it seemed to click something and he played his best ball late in the year - that will have to continue next year, with no other reliable bigs returning. Justin Jackson and Kelvin Gaines are the only returners, and both were true freshman (Gaines took a redshirt year). Their 2011 class has Shaquille Thomas (Scout: 21 SF, Rivals: 132) and Octavius Ellis.

Georgetown loses their backcourt of Chris Wright and Austin Freeman, as well as big Julian Vaughn. Those three were the Big Three that led Georgetown all year long, and will be very tough to replace. Shooting guard Jason Clark returns from the starting lineup, but I think that their next star will be Hollis Thompson, a very athletic swing forward. I really like Nate Lubick, another big, and Henry Sims and Jerrelle Benimon are other key returners. Their top 2011 recruits are Tyler Adams (Scout: 11 C, Rivals: 54) and Michael Hopkins (Scout: 4 C, Rivals: 79). The backcourt is more of a worry, with Jason Clark the only regular returner. Vee Sanford is an efficient scorer, and Markel Starks will be back as well, but none of those three is a point guard. The 2011 recruiting class doesn't have a point guard either. The quasi-Princeton offense that John Thompson runs doesn't require a true point guard, but it can't hurt.

Villanova and Marquette were the two final NCAA Tournament teams from the Big East. Villanova loses the two Coreys (Stokes and Fisher), as well as Antonio Pena. Maalik Wayns is an excellent backcourt player, but Dominic Cheek is the only other backcourt returner, meaning that a program whose strength has been the backcourt as long as Jay Wright has been there will be depending heavily on 2011 recruits Tyrone Johnson (Scout: 12 PG, Rivals: 55), Achraf Yacoubou (Rivals: 122) and Darrun Hilliard. The frontcourt is still in pretty good shape. Antonio Pena was the best offensive paint player, but Maurice Sutton is pretty good as well, and Mouphtaou Yarou is the best rebounder on the team. Isaiah Armwood and James Bell also return. Marquette loses Dwight Buycks and Jimmy Butler to graduation, Butler probably being the best player on the team. They do return an explosive offensive backcourt of Junior Cadougan and Darius Johnson-Odom, with Vander Blue off the bench. They also add Derrick Wilson (Scout: 30 PG) and Todd Mayo. The Marquette frontcourt was the best it has been in several years, and with everybody back but Butler they should still be strong. Jae Crowder is a beast in the paint, Chris Otule and Davante Gardner came on late in the season, and Erik Williams also returns. Jamil Wilson, a transfer from Oregon, is also expected to make a big impact immediately.

Here's how I see the Big East finishing up:

1. Syracuse - I like the way the bigs were developing late in the year, and Syracuse has a very talented backcourt. And you know, particularly with the size they've got, that their zone is going to be impossible to score on in the paint. I'm not sure Syracuse is a true National Title contender, but I think they're a Top Ten team.
2. Louisville - I thought about putting Louisville ahead of Syracuse, because they're also going to be really good, and have a good shot at being in the Top Ten as well.
3. Pittsburgh - I can't knock Jamie Dixon's team any further back than this. They're always deep, they're always tough, and they also play efficient offense and sound defense.
4. UConn - I know that UConn is getting a lot of Top Ten hype, but that seems to be because some people are under the mistaken perception that UConn was the best team in the country in 2010-11. They weren't - they were at best a marginal Top Ten team that got hot and lucky at the right time. Now take away Kemba Walker and I've got to take them down even a little bit further. They're going to be a Top 25 team, but they're going to be way overrated by the media.
5. West Virginia - They lose a lot to graduation, but Bob Huggins is continually stocking this team with raw talent, and I also expect Deniz Kilicli to breakout. In my opinion they'll be a borderline Top 25 team.
6. Marquette - They're going to be very athletic and they can shoot the ball. But the development of players like Davonte Gardner and Chris Otule to go with Jae Crowder gives them some rebounding prowess that really balances the team.
7. Georgetown - Mentally this team really faded down the stretch. I think they'll be more balanced, and more true to the Princeton style of offense, next season.
8. Cincinnati - A lot is going to depend on Yancy Gates, and his ability to shoulder a lot of the load on a team with a thin frontcourt. Their backcourt should be improved from this past season.
9. Villanova - It will be interesting to see how Jay Wright coaches a team with so little backcourt depth. But it can only be good for the team if they don't settle for launching threes all game, which was something that doomed them over the past couple of years when they depended too heavily on their backcourt.
10. Rutgers - Mike Rice did a really good job with this team, and he's got a very good and very deep recruiting class coming in. This program is definitely moving in the right direction.
11. Notre Dame - I can't drop a Mike Brey team lower than this, even though their entire roster is being gutted by graduations.
12. Seton Hall - Jeremy Hazell has to be replaced, although obviously he missed plenty of time this past season with multiple injuries. Jordan Theodore is a good point guard, and the offense will run through Herb Pope.
13. St. John's - As I said, I'll give Steve Lavin a year's pass to figure out his young team. You can't expect recruits (other than a handful of superfreshmen nationally each year, of which St. John's didn't land one) to play a major role on your team. Lavin will need those true freshmen to get most of the minutes on his team - that's a bad formula in the short term.
14. South Florida - They don't lose much to graduation, but that's not saying a whole lot. I still don't understand what direction this program is going under Stan Heath.
15. Providence - Marshon Brooks can't be replaced, and I'm not very impressed with the hiring of Ed Cooley - I don't see why he's a better option than Keno Davis.
16. DePaul - Even though I'm putting DePaul last, I don't think they'll be quite as awful as they were in 2010-11. Oliver Purnell has improved the level of recruiting, though it's still worrisome that most of their recruits are coming from out of state. You can't win at DePaul if you can't crack the Chicago recruiting scene.


JohnF said...

For ND, Abro, Martin and Scott have another year of eligibility. I think you need to reconsider how far they'll drop off next season.

Jeff said...

You're right. It's bizarre, because they're listed as seniors not only on every website I went to, but also on Notre Dame's own official website. Players are always listed by year of eligibility, not year of school. Particularly since Abromaitis was a grad student rather than a senior anyway.

But you're right, with those three back they'll move up the standings.

JohnF said...

Yes. ND does not automatically grant 5th years. The player has to have graduated, and been accepted to grad school before a 5th year will be granted

Jeff said...

I see. That's good to know, thanks.