Big East Preview
Will the season be marred by realignment? Don’t bet on it.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Conference Champion: Connecticut
Top Player: Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut
Top Freshman: Andre Drummond, Connecticut
Most Underrated Player: Kevin Jones, West Virginia
Projected Tournament Teams: Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Marquette, Louisville, Villanova, Cincinnati, Georgetown
1. Is Connecticut a real contender (meaning on the level of North Carolina, Kentucky, and even Ohio State) for the national title?
Since Andre Drummond committed to Connecticut, many of the most respected minds in the business have convincingly argued that the standout big man makes the Huskies a legitimate national title contender. However, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Connecticut is not on the level of North Carolina, Kentucky, and even Ohio State … yet.
Let me qualify that statement by saying that Jim Calhoun’s team is already our most realistic back-to-back NCAA title hopeful since the Gator boys of 2006-2007 fame. But Drummond adds to what is already (and has always been) UConn’s strength – its block party defense. With or without Drummond, the Huskies were going to be awfully hard to score on at the rim. But does he improve the team’s offense much? Sure, he’ll give UConn a few more easy/energy buckets a game on tip-ins and drop-offs. But can he be counted on to be a secondary scorer to Jeremy Lamb, something the Huskies will be searching for? He’s a candidate (as are Shabazz Napier and Alex Oriakhi), but he’s still a freshman and a relatively raw one offensively.
2. Which of the traditional “easy win” teams will make the biggest push to the middle of the conference this season?
Rutgers, Seton Hall, DePaul, and South Florida have been as close to gimme wins in the Big East over the last few seasons. Obviously each of these programs is capable of pulling an upset (remember Rutgers memorable upset of Villanova last season?), but this not so fearsome foursome looks to be headed for the bottom quarter of the league again. That being said, Rutgers and DePaul seem to be headed in the right direction while South Florida and Seton Hall have are heading in the wrong direction.
Rutgers has the inspiring and fiery young coach in Mike Rice. DePaul has the respected and proven veteran in Oliver Purnell. It will surely take years (if it happens at all … we don’t even know if these two schools will be in the Big East a month from now) for the Scarlet Knights and the Blue Demons to crack the top half of the conference (despite their improvements, Rutgers is losing quality seniors from last year’s improved squad and DePaul is coming off a season with only one conference win). But each program’s talent level and, more importantly, confidence has received a noticeable boost since Rice left Robert Morris and Purnell ditched Clemson to joined the conference. Seton Hall and South Florida do not enter 2011 with nearly the same momentum. Kevin Willard needs (and deserves) time to cleanse the Pirates of the vestiges of Bobby Gonzalez, and Stan Heath must hope his young Bulls learn from a disastrous 2010-11 campaign. Neither is prepared to seriously compete with the conferences elite this year. For the first time in a while, though, you get the feeling Rutgers and DePaul might be.
3. Will the Big East’s tenuous future have any bearing on this basketball season?
It really shouldn’t. For the time being, this remains the deepest and most entertaining conference in the sport. Still, there’s no point in sugarcoating the situation: it stinks that Syracuse and Pitt will soon be playing ACC basketball. The pillaging might not be over either. Rutgers reportedly has the ACC’s eye, and Connecticut has done everything outside beg (oh wait, it has) to convince ACC commissioner John Swofford that it belongs in the new “it” conference.
But thank goodness the 2011-12 college basketball season won’t stop for realignment. If anything, the winds of change will infuse league rivals with even more incentive for contests versus the conference favorites and deserters from Central New York and Western Pennsylvania. How do you think Georgetown will treat its last regular season meeting with the hated Orange? Is there any way Pitt escapes its final regular season “Backyard Brawl” matchups with West Virginia without a decade’s worth of bruises? Just when you thought Big East play couldn’t get any nastier, an unintended result (and you can call this a glass-half-full outlook if you want) of conference realignment might be a more competitive and cutthroat Big East conference.
Predicted Finish + Bottom Line
In what could be the Orange’s last year in the Big East, they should battle with UConn for the top spot all season. Another loaded freshmen class is led by lanky big man Rakeem Christmas.
Andre Drummond makes Huskies an instant contender in Big East, but the team’s chances of defending its national title depend on finding consistent scoring outside Jeremy Lamb.
The Panthers’ trademark defense is a given, but Ashton Gibbs’ decision to withdraw from the NBA Draft gives Jamie Dixon a reliable go-to weapon.
Golden Eagles guard Darius Johnson-Odom is probably one of the more underappreciated stars in college basketball. He leads a large cast of returnees from last season’s Sweet Sixteen team.
Peyton Silva has been steadily progressing over his first two college seasons, but Rick Pitino is depending on a monster season from the junior point guard. As usual, Cardinals will be one of the most uncomfortable teams to face in the conference.
Last season’s team pretty much dissolved as the season wore on, and before we knew it, ‘Nova was a first round Tournament casualty. Jay Wright needs breakout junior seasons from point guard Maalik Wayns and big man Mouphtaou Yarou to avoid falling towards the muddled middle of the conference.
Is Yancy Gates in the doghouse today? The answer seems fluctuate like future of Cincinnati’s league. If his mind is straight and Mick Cronin is on board, then Gates will be one of the league’s premier big men. If not, the Bearcats can at least rely on strong and experienced guard play (Dion Dixon, Cashmere Wright, and Sean Kilpatrick, among others) every night.
The keys have finally been handed over to junior forward Hollis Thompson. Expect a production explosion across the board now that he is the team’s focal point on offense. Jason Clark is still around to provide knockdown shooting, but what the Hoyas really need to find is someone that defenses must respect on the block.
9. St. John’s
The talented senior class that quickly embraced the Steve Lavin regime and led the Red Storm back to the NCAA Tournament is gone, and replacing them is one of the nation’s top incoming recruiting classes. Most will get minutes right away, but the Johnnie’s success this season depends on the speed of this group’s development.
10. West Virginia
This is Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones’ team now. Bob Huggins can rely on those seniors’ big game experience, but is there enough throughout the rest of the roster to get the Mountaineers back to the Big Dance? Turkish big man Deniz Kilicli (owner of the greatest nickname in all of college sports, “The Istan-bull”) has had his moments but needs to stay out of foul trouble.
11. Notre Dame
Am I dumb enough to burry the Irish deep in the preseason standings for the second season in a row? Yes, I am. Last season, Mike Brey’s boys surprised everyone (including themselves, I think) with 27-7, 14-4 season good for 2nd in the Big East. Unheralded, sweet-shooting forward Tim Abromaitis is back, but this roster lost way too many seniors to expect a year like the last.
First year coach Ed Cooley has turned heads on the summer recruiting circuit by already inking his future backcourt (point guard Kris Dunn and shooting guard Ricky Ledo), but he’ll have to wait until Fall 2012 (at least … eligibility concerns of course) to get those on campus. For now, the Friars hope sophomore guard Vincent Council can replace some of Marshon Brooks’s production.
It might not seem like it, but Rutgers is inching up the Big East ladder now that Mike Rice is in charge. No, the Knights won’t challenge for a Tournament bid this year. But the program’s general energy was noticeably improved last season, and the arrival of a quality freshman class led by in-state (that’s crucial-getting Jersey kids to stop going to Duke) point guard Myles Mack should keep the ball rolling.
Baby steps in Chicago. Oliver Purnell has worked hard to improve this much, but he obviously has an Everest-sized peak ahead of him. Sophomore Cleveland Melvin, coming off a 14.3 ppg freshman year, is one of the purest talents in the Big East. The young talent surrounding him isn’t too shabby either, with Brandon Young at guard and Tony Freeland manning the other forward spot. Increased maturity is the key to this season for the Blue Demons.
15. Seton Hall
After a heartbreaking recruiting battle loss to UCLA in the Kyle Anderson sweepstakes, where does Kevin Willard go from here? He plugs away with what he has while continuing to try to upgrade the talent in South Orange. Easier said than done, but cat-quick senior point guard Jordan Theodore should give his coach one less thing to worry about.
16. South Florida
Ah, the Bulls. South Florida had its moment when future lottery pick Dominique Jones torched Big East foes two seasons ago. But for the climbers in the Big East, if you’re unable to capitalize on positive momentum, you risk plunging even deeper into the league’s abyss than you were before. The fact that the other traditional bottom-feeders are improving doesn’t bode well for Stan Heath.