Monday, April 09, 2012
2012-13 Preview: Big East
The Big East is beginning to undergo major changes. Only West Virginia leaves this season, but Syracuse and Pittsburgh are on their way to the ACC soon. A whole slew of teams are on their way to the Big East in 2013, though as fluid as the situation is I'd say that we shouldn't assume anything will happen until it actually does.
The past few seasons I've talked a lot about how much the media over-hyped Big East basketball, and compared it to SEC football. And obviously the vicinity to New York City and ESPN headquarters plays a role in that, but I would argue that the Big East was actually underrated this past season. The fact that so many traditional powers were down and that the top of the conference wasn't nearly as strong as it has been recently meant that the media mostly acknowledged the reality that the Big Ten was the best conference. And that is a clear difference between Big East basketball and SEC football, because it's become increasingly clear that, for the foreseeable future, SEC football will be declared the best conference in the nation regardless of all of the evidence to the contrary. And because of the BCS system that actually matters - Oklahoma State got screwed out of a chance to play in the National Title game in January because the media declared the SEC the far superior conference in the land, even though every computer rating I saw had the Big 12 as the clear #1 conference. What's particularly laughable about the SEC football hype is how easily disprovable it is. The media tells us that SEC football players are more athletic and much faster than the athletes in any other conference... yet the SEC doesn't outperform the other top conferences at the scouting combine or in the NFL. And despite quasi-homefield advantage, the SEC's bowl record over the past 20 years isn't much above .500. But this type of blindness doesn't infect the media's coverage of basketball. The Big East was acknowledged as being down, even while you can argue that their NCAA Tournament performance was as good as the Big Ten's, and certainly was superior to the Big 12.
Getting back to college basketball, the biggest offseason topic in the Big East is UConn's postseason ban for next season, which is based on poor academic performance. They in theory lost their final appeal last week, though I'm guessing that lawyers will be keeping themselves busy on this issue for at least a few more weeks, if not a few more months. But even if they have their postseason ban rescinded, the damage has been done. Alex Oriakhi is transferring out, and it seems very likely that both Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb will go pro. There is a risk for more defections, too. So far UConn has one recruit signed - Omar Calhoun (Scout: 11 SG, Rivals: 38) - but there's no guarantee that he'll stay either. And you have to wonder whether Jim Calhoun will want to stick this out. Unless he can pull together a big time 2013 recruiting class, UConn is going to turn into a real rebuilding situation. Will Calhoun, at his age, want to stick it out? And with the uncertainty in the Big East conference, UConn has to be concerned about a future without Calhoun's presence. They will need to spend the megabucks to bring in a guy like Shaka Smart to keep the program moving forward.
The best team in the Big East this past season, of course, was Syracuse. But Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine graduate while Fab Melo and Dion Waiters are going pro. That leaves Brandon Triche and CJ Fair as the only returning starters, though both James Southerland and Rakeem Christmas played well after Fab Melo was suspended late in the season. Baye Moussa Keita is another good interior player, and they have two new good prospects: DaJuan Coleman (Scout: 6 C, Rivals: 27) and Jerami Grant (Scout: 7 PF, Rivals: 60). With all that talent and Jim Boeheim as coach, the Syracuse zone will be strong again. The concern is perimeter play with Michael Carter-Williams the only returner alongside Brandon Triche. Players like Keita and Christmas are good players, but they don't go looking for their own shot. I worry about how Syracuse can score consistently.
Louisville struggled with consistency in conference play, but pulled everything together late in the season, winning the Big East tournament and then playing their way into the Final Four. Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith, their two most efficient scorers, graduate, but everybody else will come back. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith both return, as does Gorgui Dieng, Chance Behanan and Jared Swopshire. They also will get back top 2011 recruit Wayne Blackshear and swing foward Rakeem Buckles, both of whom missed most of the season with an injury. Shooting guard Kevin Ware is another prospect, as is 6'10" Zach Price. Rick Pitino also adds Terry Rozier (Scout: 14 PG, Rivals: 112). Louisville will have an elite defense again, but the concern will be offense. The offense was inconsistent as it was, and loses its two steadiest players. If Peyton Siva and Russ Smith can stop forcing so many dumb shots and can get their teammates more involved, Louisville could be one of the five best teams in the country. But if not, they're going to continue being inefficient and limited over the course of the season.
Marquette finished in second place with their very aggressive, athletic style. They attacked defensively and on the offensive glass, and tended to just wear opponents down with their depth. That said, they do lose Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder, as well as Darius Johnson-Odom. Their key perimeter returners are Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan and Todd Mayo. Derrick Wilson and Juan Anderson are two perimeter prospects. On the interior, Davante Gardner played very well in short minutes, and Marquette will hope to get a full season out of Chris Otule, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury. 6'6" Juan Anderson is a good prospect, as is Steve Taylor (Scout: 13 PF, Rivals: 108).
Notre Dame was the biggest overachiever in the Big East last season. They started the season without high expectations, and hopes appeared to be dashed when star Tim Abromaitis was lost for the season. But young guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant both improved dramatically and led Notre Dame to a 13-5 record. And there's a chance that everybody will be back next season. Both Scott Martin and Tim Abromaitis are appealing for a 6th year of eligibility because of medical hardship. Jack Cooley has become Luke Harangody 2.0 while Pat Connaughton and Alex Dragicevich were two young players that look to be even better next season. Mike Brey's 2012 recruiting class is led by Cameron Biedscheid (Scout: 10 SF, Rivals: 30) and Zach Auguste (Scout: 25 PF, Rivals: 93).
According to the computers, the second best team in the Big East was Georgetown. Though after another disappointing loss to a lower seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Hoyas are starting to get a reputation as a regular season team that struggles in March. They are only five past a trip to the Final Four, though, so I wouldn't put too much stock in a few upsets. They lose two seniors: Jason Clark and Henry Sims. Sims wasn't the type of superstar that got a lot of media attention, but he was so important to the entire Georgetown offense. Despite being 6'10", Sims ran the offense, finishing with nearly twice as many assists as any other player on the team. Clark is a key loss also - he was the team's best perimeter creator. Hollis Thompson, the team's most versatile scorer, is leaving early for the NBA. Markel Starks is the only proven perimeter player returning, though 6'5" Jabril Trawick and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera (Scout: 8 SG, Rivals: 22) are a good prospects, and positions are a big interchangeable in JTIII's system anyway, as Henry Sims proved. Otto Porter and Nate Lubick will do their best to replace Thompson and Sims, while 6'9" Mikael Hopkins is another 2011 recruit to keep an eye on.
Cincinnati's season looked to be over after a slow start and then that brawl against Xavier. The brawl seemed to bring the team together, though, and they played their best basketball of the season in February and March to earn a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and then a trip to the Sweet 16. Yancy Gates finally graduates - he looked like a future Big East superstar as a freshman but never really got any better, though he did play well in the Big East tournament and NCAA Tournament as his career was coming to a close. Shooting guard Dion Dixon is the other key graduation. Point guard Cashmere Wright will be back, with Jaquon Parker and Sean Kilpatrick alongside. Cincy isn't as deep in the front court, where Justin Jackson is the only proven returner. Cincinnati will hope to finally get 6'6" 2011 recruit Shaquille Thomas on the floor.
South Florida had a remarkably successful season in 2011-12, but they have a lot to replace next season. Three senior starters will be gone, led by Augustus Gilchrist. They will lose their entire starting front line, though Victor Rudd is saying that he will withdraw his name from the NBA Draft to come back for another season. The future of USF will probably be built around Anthony Collins, who was a really good point guard as a true freshman. Seton Hall is another team that will be rebuilding a bit with Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope graduating. Their next eight minute earners were all freshmen and sophomores, though, so Kevin Willard does have a good base for the future. Aaron Cosby and Fuquan Edwin will be the best players on the team going forward. Their biggest concern, with Pope graduating, is interior defense. Pope cleaned up mistakes all season long, and there is no obvious replacement for him on the roster. 6'11" Aaron Geramipoor is probably the best prospect to fill that role.
Rutgers is a sleeper team for next season. They have no graduations from their rotation and five of their top six minute earners were freshmen or sophomores, though Gilvydas Biruta is leaving via transfer. Point guard Myles Mack is a player I really expect to break out in his sophomore season next year. Eli Carter and Jerome Seagers are two other players from Mike Rice's deep 2011 recruiting class who played well as true freshmen. With Biruta leaving, size will be a concern. Dane Miller is a proven Big East player, but after that Mike Rice will have to develop some prospects. Derrick Randall played well in limited minutes as a freshman. Kadeem Jack didn't do much in his freshman year, but he was a very highly touted recruit who could be a big contributor in expanded minutes.
1. Louisville - I think this is a pretty easy selection. The defense will be really good, and with the press there will be no way for opponents to avoid it. The only thing that can hold them back is erratic, selfish play from Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. I actually was disappointed in Siva's development in this respect since a year ago, but another year of seasoning could help. And remember, they get back Rakeem Buckles and Wayne Blackshear, neither of whom had a chance to contribute to that late season run.
2. Notre Dame - Even if Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin fail to get a 6th year, I still think Notre Dame should be very much improved. Abromaitis barely played last season anyway, and Martin wasn't a particularly efficient player. A whole bunch of young players made huge year-over-year improvements for the Irish, and if that continues next season then they really could win a Big East title.
3. Syracuse - Backcourt depth is definitely a major concern, but Syracuse is going to be as good defensively as they always are. I also expect Jim Boeheim to improve the Cuse defensive rebounding, which was their achilles heel throughout the season.
4. Marquette - They lose their two most important players, but will still have plenty of talent. If Davante Gardner and Chris Otule can both stay healthy all season then Marquette will have all of the size that they need to navigate the conference. They will have plenty of backcourt depth.
5. Georgetown - Henry Sims might be the most important graduation for any team in the entire Big East, though players like Otto Porter and Nate Lubick are both also ideal big men for Georgetown's quasi-Princeton system.
6. Cincinnati - I think there's a big drop off from the top four teams in the conference to everybody else. I think Cincinnati is a bubble team, but that could be good for anything between 5th and 9th in the Big East. I think that the loss of Yancy Gates is overrated - he shows flashes of brilliance, but overall has been just good-but-not-great.
7. Pittsburgh - Everything went wrong that could possibly go wrong for Pitt last season, but they really weren't that bad when the whole roster was together and they gave maximum effort. Tray Woodall will hope to stay healthy for the whole season, while Talib Zanna is developing into a really good big man. Ashton Gibbs is one of the great scorers in the history of Pittsburgh, but with a very good 2012 recruiting class I think the team will actually be deeper next season.
8. Rutgers - The talent level at Rutgers continues to improve, but they struggled this past season in games they were "supposed" to win. If they're going to make the NCAA Tournament, it's going to require a big improvement from young prospects like Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack.
9. Villanova - Maalik Wayns is going to pro, but everybody else will be back. Villanova wasn't nearly as bad as their Big East record would suggest (they were undone by a 2-6 record in games decided by five points or less), and have a lot of raw talent (6'10" 2012 recruit Daniel Ochefu is a blue chipper).
10. Providence - Ed Cooley showed up with a bang, landing two true blue chip records in his first recruiting class: Ricardo Ledo and Kris Dunn. They're not joining a very talented roster, but the team should be better next season.
11. South Florida - I don't want to drop them too far as their defense should still be pretty good, but they lose basically their entire front court and have shown no hints of an efficient offense. If Anthony Collins can turn into an elite point guard, though, then they could work their way back to the Tournament bubble.
12. Seton Hall - It's a rebuilding season for Seton Hall. If Kevin Willard's young prospects don't develop (particularly guys like Aaron Cosby and Patrick Audo, for whom there is a lot of hype) then Willard's seat could start getting warm.
13. Connecticut - It's hard to project where UConn is going to be because we don't know how the postseason ban is going to impact their roster. It can't be good, though. Assuming Lamb and Drummond both go pro, and if Omar Calhoun decided to go somewhere else, then the roster could be really thin. The "Will Jim Calhoun retire or not" media hype will drain the team as well.
14. St. John's - Moe Harkless going pro doesn't help things. Steve Lavin's health struggles have also clearly impacted recruiting, as Lavin's second recruiting class isn't nearly as strong as his first recruiting class. Another year of seasoning can only help all of these young returners, though. The offense was really sloppy and ugly at times this past season.
15. DePaul - The Blue Demons were feisty at times, but they lack an upper echelon Big East talent. A player like Cleveland Melvin just doesn't scare opponents. With Krys Faber graduating, their lack of size becomes even more glaring.