Tuesday, April 07, 2015

2015-16 Preview: Big East

Big East Conference

A few years ago, the old Big East was the media darling. I've talked about this many times before, but the media loves big, top-heavy conferences. Those are the leagues with the most Top 25 teams, the most Sweet 16 teams, and the most national title contenders. The fact that Creighton finished in last place in the Big East but would have been favored on a neutral court against almost half of the ACC is not relevant to any public "which is the best conference?" discussions, even though the schedules are balanced. Duke and Virginia get to inflate their conference records playing Boston College and Virginia Tech, while every game in the Big East (except maybe against DePaul) is a battle.

The biggest loser in this perception is Villanova. They unfortunately had an atrocious shooting performance that knocked them out against NC State (their 38.5 eFG% was their second lowest of the entire season), causing all the usual "I told you Villanova sucked all along" nonsense. Of course, the fact that Xavier finished 6th out of 10 teams in the Big East and still pushed Arizona to the final minute with the Elite 8 on the line didn't come up. When you have a narrative, you will pick and choose the anecdotes you want to use to promote it. The fact is, the Big East is going to need some Elite 8 teams and a Final Four team or two over the next few years in order to shift the narrative.

Can Villanova be a national title contender again next season? It's possible, but doesn't seem particularly likely. They lose three starters, with star Darrun Hilliard and big man JayVaughn Pinkston graduating, and with combo guard Dylan Ennis transferring. The inside-outside combo of Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu will be back, as well sharpshooters Phil Booth, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Booth, in particular, is going to be expected to take the next step in his development to replace a lot of Ennis and Hilliard's minutes. They should add 6'7" wing Mikal Bridges, a 2014 recruit who took a redshirt season. So far they have just one blue chip recruit signed in Jalen Brunson (Scout: 1 PG, Rivals: 16), but Jay Wright has scholarships to work with if he wants to add more depth.

Xavier was the most successful Big East team in the NCAA Tournament, making the Sweet 16 and pushing Arizona to the final minute there. Fan favorite Matt Stainbrook graduates, as does point guard Dee Davis. Myles Davis and Remy Abell both return, but neither is really a point guard. A lot will be expected of Edmond Sumner, a hyped 2014 point guard recruit who had to miss the entire 2014-15 season with an injury. Larry Austin, another 2014 recruit, also plays point guard, but he could barely get off the bench as a true freshman. The front court returns Trevon Bluiett and 6'10" Jalen Reynolds, with James Farr off the bench. 6'9" 2014 recruit Makinde London took a redshirt season and could be a productive bench piece next season. They also add Kaiser Gates (Scout: 27 PF, Rivals: 124). So Xavier has enough raw talent to repeat this season next year, but it's going to require a lot of contributions from young, untested players.

Georgetown managed to escape the popular upset pick of Eastern Washington in the Round of 64, but a loss in the Round of 32 is still an unfulfilling season for a program that hasn't reached the Sweet 16 since 2007. They are hit hard by graduation, too, losing four of five starters, including leading scorer D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera to the NBA Draft. Their starting front line of Josh Smith and Mikael Hopkins are gone, too. Georgetown returns four players that earned regular minutes this past season, and all of them were true freshmen, meaning it's going to be a talented but young starting lineup. LJ Peak has shown flashes of being a star, while Isaac Copeland is already an effective big man. Shooting guard Tre Campbell and 6'8" Paul White are the other two bench returners. JTIII also has two blue chip recruits coming: Jessie Govan (Scout: 15 C, Rivals: 46) and Marcus Derrickson (Scout: 16 PF, Rivals: 91). They will also have the midseason addition of 6'8" Akoy Agau, who played sparingly in 1.5 seasons at Louisville. It's certainly a thin roster, but it's going to be talented in the starting lineup, and JTIII still has a couple of scholarships left to hand out this summer.

Butler fans certainly enjoyed the first half-season of Chris Holtmann at the helm, and he signed a nice extension that should keep him at the school long term. And next year's team should have a good chance to get right back to the NCAA Tournament. They lose Kam Woods and Alex Barlow from the starting lineup, but return every other key contributor. On the wings they return Roosevelt Jones and Kellen Dunham for one more season, as well as Austin Etherington. The point guard role will be filled by Tyler Lewis, who averaged 4.4 ppg and 3.8 apg as a sophomore at North Carolina State in 2013-14. They will also add 6'3" Jordan Gathers (who averaged 8.2 ppg as a junior at St. Bonaventure in 2013-14) as well. The front court is more unproven, with Andrew Chrabascz and Tyler Wideman the top returners. 6'8" 2014 recruit Jackson Davis hasn't played much, but could see a much larger role next season. 6'9" Nate Fowler (Scout: 35 C) is Butler's top recruit. But considering how important rebounding was to Butler this past season (they led the Big East in both OR% and DR%), the loss of Woods is a really serious problem, as good as Butler's backcourt is likely to be.

Providence is hit pretty hard by losses. LaDontae Henton and Carson Desrosiers graduate while Tyler Harris will transfer out. If Kris Dunn leaves for the NBA Draft, and for the sake of this preview I believe he will, then that means the Friars will lose four of five starters. They do return a nice crop of rising-sophomores in point guard Kyron Cartwright, 6'7" wing Jalen Lindsay, 6'8" Ben Bentil and 7'2" Paschal Chukwu. The Friars have a big 2015 recruiting class, but with no true blue chippers. The highest rated recruit is probably Alex Owens (Scout: 29 C, Rivals: 110). So assuming Dunn goes pro, this looks very much like a rebuilding season for a very young Providence squad.

Personally, I'm unimpressed by the Chris Mullin hire at St. John's. Steve Lavin isn't the greatest coach on Earth, but he has a history of success, while Mullin has never coached anywhere before. And if you weren't sure it was a bad hire, you just have to see how much the NYC media was tripping over itself to declare how much Mullin won the opening press conference. You never, ever want to hire a coach based on "winning" the opening press conference, whatever that means. The Johnnies are heading into a rebuilding season either way. D'Angelo Harrison, Sir'Dominic Pointer, Phil Greene and Jamal Branch all graduate. Meanwhile, Rysheed Jordan and Chris Obekpa are both rumored to possibly want to leave to go pro, or to transfer. And their one blue chip recruit, 6'4" shooting guard Brandon Sampson, has now decommited. Mullin has plenty of scholarships to work with, so he'll presumably sign some more recruits this summer, but he'll have to work miracles to get this team back to the NCAA Tournament in year one.

If there's a dark horse to make a run from the crop of non-NCAA Tournament teams this past season, it's got to be Marquette. They lose three starters (Matt Carlino, Derrick Wilson and Juan Anderson), but Steve Wojciechowski is remaking this roster with recruits anyway. 6'11" Luke Fischer, the former Indiana transfer, is a big talent, while combo guard Duane Wilson was effective as a freshman. 6'7" Steve Taylor is probably their best overall returner. But the future at Marquette is going to be built around Wojo's 2015 recruiting class, his first full class as head of Marquette. It's headed by blue chippers Henry Ellenson (Scout: 2 PF, Rivals: 18), Haanif Cheatham (Scout: 27 SG, Rivals: 70) and Matt Heldt (Scout: 16 C). Ellenson's brother, 6'6" Wally Ellenson (1.9 ppg and 1.3 rpg over two seasons at Minnesota) also joins the squad.

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

1. Villanova - Villanova won't dominate the Big East the way they have done the past two seasons, but they're still the favorites, in my opinion.
2. Xavier - The Musketeers have a lot of raw, unproven talent, but Chris Mack has enough on this roster to legitimately challenge for a Big East title. He needs to figure out who his primary playmaker and/or point guard will be, for one.
3. Georgetown - This will be a very young, but also very talented team. It will be interesting to see how JTIII handles this roster, and if he perhaps loosens up on what can be a complicated offensive system for freshmen.
4. Butler - Butler has depended on rebounding so much over the last decade, and they are going to need to find some rebounders on this roster to try to replace Kam Woods.
5. Marquette - Wojo put together a good first recruiting class. Now we get to see if he can put this roster together in a way that works.
6. Seton Hall - Sterling Gibbs says he is going to stay for another season, and if he does then this Seton Hall team will have enough talent to make the NCAA Tournament. Of course, they had enough talent to make the tourney this past season as well. Isaiah Whitehead either needs to be more efficient, needs to shoot less, or needs to figure out how to get along with Gibbs.
7. Providence - Unless Kris Dunn comes back, this will be a rebuilding season for the Friars.
8. St. John's - Even if both Rysheed Jordan and Chris Obekpa come back, this Johnnies roster is going to need multiple quality additions this summer to have any chance of getting back to the tourney bubble.
9. Creighton -The Bluejays lose five players from a ten man rotation, but add two big transfers (Maurice Watson from Boston University and Cole Huff from Nevada), also get back 2014 recruit Ronnie Harrell from a redshirt, and also have a big, deep 2015 recruiting class coming in. So this will be a very different roster next season, but a potentially pretty talented one. It's not inconceivable that they could be significantly improved next season.
10. DePaul - Nobody is excited about rehiring Dave Leitao, are they? Step number one will be upgrading this roster, which just doesn't have many players who would be good enough to earn minutes on teams in the top half of the Big East.


Anonymous said...

Simth-Rivera is coming back according to reports. He changed his mind I guess.

Nate Kenny said...

Having Butler at 4th is laughable. They are returning the best trio in the Big East in Jones, Dunham, and Chrabascz. And you act like they have nobody to replace Woods. They have Tyler Wideman, Jackson Davis, and Nate Fowler all who are capable of giving long minutes at the 5 position. Size isn't an issue. Plus Butler will be a legitimate 11 deep this season. I've seen two credible early top 25 rankings for 2015-16 and Butler was ranked 12th in one and 14th in the other. Butler will also be a solid 11 deep for 2015-16. Anything lower than a second place finish in the Big East would be a disappointment.