Big East Season Preview
Ever steady, Pitt’s at the top.
by Jon Jaques /@JJaques25
Defending Conference Champion: West Virginia
Defending Regular Season Champion: Syracuse
6. West Virginia
7. Notre Dame
8. St. John’s
12. Seton Hall
13. South Florida
Summary: For the first time in what seems like a decade, the Big East might not be the nation’s top conference this season. As always though, it is deep, with as many as 12 (by my count) teams with legitimate NCAA Tournament aspirations. How many elite teams does the Big East have this season though?
If the Pitt basketball program were a publicly traded company, it would be Microsoft. No one talks about Microsoft anymore because, let’s be honest, it’s not nearly as exciting as Apple (who’s goes to Best Buy thinking Zune before iPad?), but year after year, Microsoft churns out profitable quarters. Pitt doesn’t produce many NBA players (Round Mound of Rebound 2.0 DeJuan Blair comes to mind as the only former Panther in recent history succeeding in the NBA) and doesn’t earn any style points, but Jamie Dixon’s program pumps out winning season after winning season, regardless of the personnel. People may say Pitt annually overachieves (then underachieves once March rolls around), but the truth is Panther basketball’s reliance on toughness, grit, and tenacious defense is the most consistent formula for good basketball and the reason for the school’s remarkable steadiness. After winning 25 games a year ago with a largely unproven roster, almost everyone, including Ashton Gibbs, Gilbert Brown, and Brad Wannamaker, returns for a season full of expectations. A season without a Big East Championship or a deep run into March would be a disappointment.
Villanova may be the only other team in the conference with the chops to become an elite squad this season. Scottie Reynolds is gone, but as good a scorer as Reynolds was, the Wildcats may benefit from the shots he is leaving behind. Reynolds needed the ball in his hands at all times, and that negated some of the explosive play potential of Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns, and Dominic Cheek. If ‘Nova can find legit big men to ease burden their guards have been carrying since the days of Allen Ray and Mike Nardi (there hasn’t been a dangerous low post scoring presence for Jay Wright since Curtis Sumpter) and if Wright can impress upon his players that it is possible to play good defense and score a lot of points at the same time, then the Wildcats have the talent for a deep tourney run.
After these top two teams, schools like Georgetown and Syracuse, that lost a ton of talent, will try to remain atop the league by counting on the progress of returning players and highly touted newcomers. I slotted the Hoyas above the Orange because of their league-best backcourt of Chris Wright, Austin Freeman, and Jason Clark and because Jim Boeheim will have to rely on the rapid development of Fab Melo (The wait for Bill Raftery’s first brilliant Fab Melo/Carmelo Syracuse wisecrack is killing me!) and Dion Waiters. Syracuse surprised everyone last season, but they had one-in-a-trillion transfer Wes Johnson (sidebar: when do you think Iowa State realized they blew a potential frontcourt of Wes Johnson and Craig Brackins?). Don’t expect a similar run to the league title for Boeheim’s boys this year.
Team on the Rise: I’m still stunned Steve Lavin is coaching at St John’s. After growing up in Los Angeles just minutes from Pauley Pavilion, if you had told me that Lavin would be fired from UCLA for his perceived incompetence, then come back to coaching years later to revitalize a once-proud program and make it relevant again in a city that desperately needs college basketball, I’d say your as crazy as Lavin is for ditching the trademark hard hat gelled hair doo. But that’s exactly what working in broadcasting for the better part of a decade can do for your career these days. The energy and excitement around the St John’s basketball program has clearly taken off since Lavin was announced as the team’s next head coach. Whether not Lavin is a more effective coach than Norm Roberts remains to be seen, but if his first few months on the job are any indication, his web of nation-wide recruiting connections will make St John’s fans quickly forget Roberts’ frustrating inability to sign players in the New York-Metro area.
Lavin’s instant splash in recruiting is exciting for the future of St John’s basketball, but the present doesn’t look too terrible either. Returning is a veteran squad that started last season strong, suffered a few tough injuries that halted their early momentum, yet remained competitive throughout Big East play. DJ Kennedy, Paris Horne, and Dwight Hardy give Lavin an athletic and skilled backcourt to work with, and Sean Evans and Justin Burrell provide an underrated frontcourt. Lavin will have to do a lot of actual coaching to get this team to the postseason before his prized recruits arrive, but the talent is there to surprise people this season.
Team on the Decline: I still don’t know exactly to what to make of Rick Pitino’s busy off- season, but if Louisville fans are hoping for some respite on the court this year, they should think again. I do know that Pitino wouldn’t have survived another year with the finally graduated point guard Edgar Sosa (add him to the list of players who seemed to be in school for eight years), but as erratic and troublesome as Sosa was at times, his departure leaves the Cardinals with a gaping hole at point guard. Peyton Silva will have to live up to expectations (something Sosa could never quite do) and fill that void quickly if Louisville will have any success this season. Also gone is big man Samardo Samuels, and while Terrence Jennings is a defensive standout, no one on the Louisville roster seems ready to provide a similar low-post threat offensively. As usual, the Cardinals have their fleet of athletic and scrappy players Pitino loves (i.e. ones without a true position but can execute a full court press for days). But for Pitino to get back to the Tournament with this bunch, he’ll have to do his best coaching job in years.
Underrated Player: The reason many people see St John’s as a potential sleeper in the Big East is not because Steve Lavin left Brent Musberger’s side to gallantly save the St John’s basketball program – it’s because of the situation Lavin inherited. And the most important piece to this experienced Johnnies team is DJ Kennedy, who has gone from role player to go-to stud in a few seasons. Now entering his senior year, Kennedy is one of the Big East’s most underappreciated and versatile players statistically. The forward put up solid numbers across the board last season (15 ppg, 3 apg, 6 rpg), and his three-point percentage improved dramatically as well. A successful season in Queens/MSG for St John’s will make Kennedy more of a household name in New York City basketball circles and put him on the radar of NBA GMs.
Keep an eye on: The mutant basketball program that Kevin Willard inherited at Seton Hall. The funniest part about the disjointed and dysfunctional jumble Bobby “Man Purse” Gonzalez left the Pirates program in? This team is actually pretty good. It’s up to Willard to somehow get all of the pieces that found their way from other puzzles into the Seton Hall jigsaw – Herb Pope (New Mexico State), Keon Lawrence (Missouri), Jeff Robinson (Memphis), Eniel Polynice (Ole Miss) – to coexist, something Gonzalez could never do. The team imploded at the end of last season, but a fresh face could finally inspire a team that has the talent to do damage in the conference. If Herb Pope can return to form after his scary off-season heart concerns to remain one of the Big East’s most difficult matchups, and if Jeremy Hazel continues to shoot like he’s carrying an NBA Jam “ON FIRE!” ball, the Pirates will be in business. That’s a lot of ifs, especially for a young, rookie coach.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.