Friday, April 11, 2014

2014-15 Preview: Big East

Big East Conference

How was year one of the New Big East? Meh, I guess. The Big East was certainly underrated, I think. People on twitter would get apoplectic when I'd point out that every computer rating I was aware of had the Big East rated higher than the AAC. But that's the nature of conference ratings. Most fans look at the top four or five teams, where the Big East was certainly weaker than the AAC. But the computers see that the second-to-worst Big East team (Butler) was inside the Top 100 in the computers, and thus well ahead of the 6th best AAC team. The Big East was a deep league, even if it was soft in the upper half. Villanova's 16-2 record was still awfully impressive.

But there are some cracks in the facade with players leaving and rumors of maybe another coach or two leaving. Buzz Williams leaving Marquette to get paid less at Virginia Tech next year is a big blow. I feel like we need to give the Big East a few years to find an equilibrium. How does Creighton do in the post-Doug McDermott world? Can Butler still thrive in the post-Brad Stevens world? What happens to Marquette now? What is going on at St. John's? There is a lot in flux with the Big East right now, as one would expect with a new conference. And the poor NCAA Tournament performance was not a good start.

Let's begin with Villanova. Was this team really underrated or really overrated? I feel like I'm leaning toward the former, but I can see the argument for the latter. Their season was just so bizarre. Getting crushed by Creighton twice but going 16-0 against the rest of the Big East is just the start of it. And this team should be stronger next season, losing just James Bell from the starting rotation and Tony Chennault off the bench. Ryan Arcidiacono will be back to run the point, and their backcourt will be boosted by the return of Dylan Ennis, along with Phil Booth (Scout: 12 SG, Rivals: 85). Their strength is going to be on the wings, where Darrun Hilliard (who technically played shooting guard for the team) will be back, and they have two very good up-and-comers in 2013 recruits Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Mikal Bridges (Scout: 22 SF, Rivals: 84) also joins the team. All of the bigs from this past season will be back, led by JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu. Because of their poor NCAA Tournament performance, Villanova won't get a lot of respect in the preseason polls, but this is a team that should be awfully good next season. If there's one thing that keeps them from being a 1 seed it will be Ryan Arcidiacono. He has already started getting some of the Aaron Craft gritty, hustling white guy hype, but he just committed far too many turnovers for the number of assists he gets. That needs to get better.

A whole lot of people had the same thought about Creighton over the last few weeks: "Let's see how Greg McDermott does without Doug McDermott." In a sense that's unfair, as he won at Northern Iowa, and this past year's Creighton team was about a whole lot more than Doug McDermott, but the roster also loses a lot more than just Doug McDermott. Grant Gibbs, Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat all graduate as well, making Austin Chatman the only returning starter. Who else returns from the regular rotation? Backup point guard Devin Brooks, 6'11" Will Artino and 6'6" Avery Dingman. Brooks is probably the strongest player of the three. They also get back Isaiah Zierden, who was lost for the season with injury on March 1st, and might end up the starting shooting guard next season. They do get back some redshirts from the 2013 recruiting class, including power forward Tony Hegner and 6'6" Darian Harris, but neither of them is a blue chip recruit. The 2014 recruiting class is led by 6'7" Leon Gilmore (Rivals: 121). It's hard not to see Creighton taking a big step back next season.

Xavier was set to just lose Isaiah Philmore from their starting lineup, but star playmaker Semaj Christon is off to the NBA, The three returning starters of Dee Davis, Justin Martin and big man Matt Stainbrook are all good (Davis will be the primary playmaker, presumably), but a lot of next season's success will come down to a very strong and deep (but young) core. Shooting guard Myles Davis and big men James Farr and Jalen Reynolds all played well in limited minutes this past season. Top 2013 recruit Brandon Reynolds, a point guard, didn't get on the court much as a true freshman, but could be a big part of next season. They add 6'4" Remy Abell (4.0 ppg and 1.5 rpg as a sophomore at Indiana) as well. And Chris Mack has a huge 2014 recruiting class signed: Trevon Bluiett (Scout: 12 SF, Rivals: 45), Makinde London (Scout: 17 PF, Rivals: 79), J.P. Macura (Scout: 20 SG, Rivals: 104), Edmond Summer (Scout: 27 SG, Rivals: 133) and Sean O'Mara (Scout: 25 C). So if that young talent pans out, Xavier should be better next season. But if it doesn't, or if Chris Mack leaves to take another job (he's been rumored for a couple already this offseason), then all bets are off.

The last NCAA Tournament team out of the Big East was Providence, but going one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament meant that Bryce Cotton didn't get the national attention that he deserved. He played a staggering 41.3 minutes per game in Big East play and 39.9 minutes per game on the season, which seems almost impossible. And he ran Providence's entire offense, made all their big plays, and did it all in an efficient way. He'll be missed big time, and Kadeem Batts graduates as well. As the team played a six man rotation, that means that they return four guys who got regular minutes, led by Josh Fortune and LaDontae Henton on the wings. They do have some key additions, as well as some question marks. Kris Dunn, the once highly touted recruit who has struggled badly with injuries and missed almost the entire 2013-14 season should be back, though obviously it would be a mistake at this point to expect too much of him. The 2013 recruiting class of Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock, both wings, ended up involved in a sexual assault incident and were suspended for the entire season. Austin has since transferred out, but Bullock in theory will be back next season. The team also adds 6'5" Junior Lomomba, who averaged 5.8 points and 2.3 rebounds per game as a freshman at Cleveland State in 2012-13. Ed Cooley has a big recruiting class coming in also, led by 7'1" Paschal Chukwu (Scout: 8 C, Rivals: 60) and Jalen Lindsey (Scout: 19 SF, Rivals: 68). Depending on the production from Kris Dunn and the freshmen, and whether Bullock comes back, there's a large variance when trying to project Providence for next season.

St. John's was a very talented team that just didn't seem to fit together, and after a disappointing miss of the NCAA Tournament followed by a loss in the opening round of the NIT to NIT Giant Killer Robert Morris, the Johnnies are in trouble for next season. Orlando Sanchez and God'sgift Achiuwa graduate, Jakarr Sampson is off to the NBA, and Chris Obekpa and Max Hooper are going to transfer. And there are rumors floating around about both D'Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan transferring, but at this time both are still saying that they're staying. So who do we actually know will be on the roster next season? Phil Greene, Sir'Dominic Pointer and Jamal Branch, none of whom is taller than 6'5". 6'4" Felix Balamou played sparingly this past season and 6'7" Christian Jones took a redshirt, so those two players could potentially contribute next season. And they now have a big man as they recently inked 6'10" Adonis DeLaRosa. It's a start, but realistically Steve Lavin needs to avoid any more transfers and needs to add another big man or two (perhaps Juco transfers) this summer to have any chance of getting back to the Tourney bubble.

Georgetown had one of the more disappointing seasons in the entire nation, including quite a few heartbreaking losses. Next season, though, this roster will look very, very different. They lose a lot, but also bring in a real blue chip recruiting class. First, they lose Markel Starks, Nate Lubick and Moses Ayegba. The front court should be okay, even with all of those losses, with Joshua Smith expected back from his academic suspension and Mikael Hopkins turning into a really nice player defensively (though he needs an offensive game). 6'7" Reggie Cameron, a 2013 recruit who struggled as a true freshman, should be a significantly more important player next season, and they also add Isaac Copeland (Scout: 10 PF, Rivals: 37) and Paul White (Scout: 11 PF, Rivals: 54). On the wings, Jabril Trawick and Aaron Bowen both return, with Trawick potentially shifting down to be the starting shooting guard next season. The backcourt is the one place that Georgetown might have an issue. They return D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera and add LJ Peak (Scout: 15 SG, Rivals: 76) and Tre Campbell (Scout: 19 PG, Rivals: 115). That's a quality starting backcourt, but not a lot of depth. I'd expect Georgetown to play much of the time without a traditional point guard, using Smith-Rivera as the de facto PG but running a lot of the offense through Trawick and Josh Smith. It's a team that should be better, if JTII can make this roster construction work.

Butler was a team that suffered more than its share of bad luck this past season, and I'm not even including the loss of Brad Stevens in that. Even before the season started they lost their primary playmaker, Roosevelt Jones, to injury. Then, they proceeded to go 5-8 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime, including a crazy stretch around the start of the season where three out of four games were overtime losses. But despite going 4-14 in a disrespected league, they were still a borderline Top 100 team and will get back Roosevelt Jones. That said, I believe transfer Tyler Lewis will have to sit out the next season, and they lose Khyle Marshall and Erik Fromm. The trio of Jones, Kellen Dunham and Alex Barlow gives them three strong offensive players, with Kam Woods and Andrew Chrabascz anchoring the paint. If there's a sleeper for next season it's 6'4" Elijah Brown, a 2013 recruit who struggled to shoot as a true freshman. Their 2014 recruiting class is led by 6'6" Kelan Martin (Rivals: 143).

In the end, here's how I see the Big East playing out next season:

1. Villanova - This is an easy pick. Villanova is going to start the season ranked in the 10-15 range in the national polls, but I think they'll be underrated. This is a team that can make a run at a 1 seed.
2. Xavier - This spot is entirely predicated on Chris Mack staying and keeping this roster together. But if he does, Xavier should be improved.
3. Georgetown - Because of their reliance on young players, Georgetown could miss the tourney again, but they could also get back to being a borderline Top 25 team. They definitely have depth and talent. A full season of Josh Smith is key.
4. Butler - Kellen Dunham looked like a superstar at times, but he was awfully inconsistent. If he can pull his game together, this could be a really good Butler squad.
5. Providence - Can Kris Dunn actually play a full season and live up to the hype he got out of high school? If he can, this can be a tourney team again.
6. Creighton - Welp. It's a cliche, but let's see what Greg McDermott does without Doug McDermott.
7. Marquette - Buzz Williams put together a nice recruiting class before jumping ship. The first job for Steve Wojciechowski is holding that class together, particularly with the graduation of four of their top six minute earners. At last count, he was already down Marial Shayok, and Sandy Cohen might go as well.
8. Seton Hall - Kevin Willard is on the hot seat, but he has a nice recruiting class coming in, led by blue chipper Isaiah Whitehead (Scout: 1 SG, Rivals: 14). Replacing Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fuquan Edwin is the biggest concern.
9. St. John's - Things are getting to be a mess with the Johnnies. Don't be surprised if this is Steve Lavin's last season coming up.
10. DePaul - No, I don't know why Oliver Purnell wasn't fired. If anything, DePaul will be worse next season. They lose a lot to graduation and have nobody of note coming in their recruiting class.

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