The Beasts Are Back!

by Cub Buenning

I already miss the carefree days of the Pac-10 Preview. I saw the teams play plenty of times and there were only 10 teams to break down. Then there is the Big East, 16 teams representing states from just below the Canadian Border down to the deep south of Florida (although, USF is in Tampa, hardly, “southern.”) The Top 10 teams are well within my “wheelhouse,” but it is some of the other teams that I wasn’t quite prepared to preview. Luckily for all of us, my good friend, ESPN College Basketball Analyst Allen Hopkins, covers the League on a regular basis and was willing to help Cub Scouts out. Hopkins’ thoughts are scattered amongst my ramblings and be sure to check out Allen’s stellar work through out the season.

Like previous previews, the teams will appear in order of their finish last year.

Georgetown (27-5, 15-3) Regular season conference champions
The Hoyas will come into this year with a much different look than the one we have seen for the past few years. The names that have put Georgetown “back” on the map are gone, but that is not to say that they won’t stay competitive. A large bulk of their scoring and leadership are gone with the departures of Jonathan Wallace, Roy Hibbert and Patrick Ewing Jr. The trio gave the Hoya faithful years of production and achievement, but without these key pieces, the team might struggle to threaten double-digit, let alone 15 wins again in conference.

Guards Austin Freeman and Jessie Sapp and forward DaJuan Summer return as the team’s backbone. Sapp, in particular, will be integral as he not only will spend a lot of minutes running the team (with Wallace’s graduation) but looks to build on his impressive 3-point shooting of a year ago (41 percent, up from 29 percent a year prior).

John Thompson III was able to make some big recruiting moves when he landed Louisiana strongman, Greg Monroe late in the recruiting period. The 6-10 stud should play nicely alongside Summer down low and the pair should get additional help from fellow freshmen, Henry Sims.

A year after winning the regular season crown, the Hoyas have been picked to finish seventh by the coaches. While I’ll agree that a drop is surely imminent, I would not Notre Damecount out this staff or their system.

Notre Dame (24-7, 14-4)
A team that finishes second in the League, returns 84 percent of its scoring, and boasts the Conference Player of the Year should not be picked to finish fourth. Such is the life in this year’s Big East. The Golden Domers lose just Rob Kurz and will roll out almost the entire same team from last year. Luke Harangody does nothing flashy, but has become one of the best first-half performers in recent history. The 6-8 250-pound beast finished with averages of 20 and 11 and often staked his team to early leads.

The backcourt is experienced and battle-tested with point guard Tory Jackson and long-range bomber Kyle McAlarney. The former is probably one of the best rebounding guards bar none, and the latter might be the most lethal marksman in the nation. Getting up almost 250 three’s and hitting at a 44 percent clip is what McAlarney accomplished, but he is actually out-done on his own team by senior, Ryan Ayers who finished at 45 percent from long-range. Luke Zeller and Zach Hillesland are long, crafty pieces that give great support off the bench for Head Coach Mike Brey.

Hopkins sees the Joyce Center in South Bend as one of the best home-court advantages in the nation and the Irish have taken advantage with their ability to hold serve at home over the past few years.

One of the interesting items for this team will be the addition of Mississippi State transfer, Ben Hansborough, brother of Carolina’s Psycho-T. The 6-3 guard plays with a similar motor to that of his brother, but Ben is a combo-guard that will do a little bit of everything and should be a great luxury for the Irish staff.

Louisville (24-8, 14-4)
In a conference as loaded as the Big East, it is surprising that only one team made it past the Sweet 16 of last season’s NCAA Tournament. Louisville lost in the Elite Eight to North Carolina but returns all but center David Padgett. The do-it-all Terrance Williams returns for his final season in Bluegrass Country, but has been recently sidelined with a minor knee injury. The 6-6 guard, who ran the team for portions of last season, should miss the start of the season but should still be ready for the bulk of the schedule.

Alongside Williams is power forward stud, Earl Clark. The 6-9 junior shot an unbelievable 65 percent from the field while also controlling the glass and proving to be a stiff defensive presence.

Head Coach Rick Pitino has the fortune of ushering out the Derrick Caracter era while simultaneously welcoming in freshmen Semardo Samuels. Much has been made of the similarities and more importantly the differences between the former and future Cardinal big men. The early returns on Samuels have been smashing and look for him to combine with Clark to present a frontline as formidable as the one found in Connecticut.

Expectations are through the roof in the basketball crazed town of Louisville. If Pitino can make along run and take two Kentucky teams to national championships, his name will be forever etched among the state’s greats including the legendary Denny Crum and Adolph Rupp.

Connecticut (24-8, 13-5)
This appears to be the team to beat this year. They return one of the nation’s top frontcourt tandems in 7-3 center, Hasheem Thabeet and the ultra-productive power Hasheem Thabeetforward Jeff Adrien. Not only are these two both developing stronger offensive games (they combined for 26 points and 17 rebounds) but they also represent one of the country’s stingiest back lines of defense. Last year the Huskies led the nation averaging 8.6 blocks a game.

Last seen tearing his ACL in UConn’s first-round defeat to San Diego, senior point guard AJ Price accounts for almost 30 points with his 15 points and 6 assists per game. Not to be outdone by their taller teammates, the Husky backcourt ain’t too shabby, either, with Jerome Dyson and senior Craig Austrie returning. Doug Wiggins bounced to UMass, but the cupboard was instantly replenished when New York City point, Kemba Walker inked to play his college ball up in Storrs. Don’t be surprised if Head Coach Jim Calhoun finds a way to get Price and Walker on the court together.

Due to constant obsessing by our Aussie pal, Hursty, I feel obligated to mention freshman Ater Majok, who I have never seen play but who appears to have the game and the timing to be in a perfect spot to get minutes while spelling the Husky frontcourt leaders.

With experience up and down the line-up, to go along with “ready made” freshmen, UConn should be able to hold down a top ten national ranking for most of the year.

Marquette (24-9, 11-7)
This team from the heart of Milwaukee has quite possibly the most entertaining backcourt in the nation. Between Jerel McNeal, Dominic James, and Wes Matthews, the Golden Eagles press the issue and the pace on every possession. All three are combo guards at the core (with each able to lead the team depending on the situation) and each can put the team on their shoulders and score big. McNeal is one of the nation’s toughest defenders, who last year made huge progress on the offensive end. The lightning-quick James has had an up-and-down career. At times, he has proven to be one of the nation’s best guards, and at others he has seemed ordinary.

The cherry on the top of this guard heavy team is one of the country’s most underrated and unknown players, in junior forward Lazar Hayward. At just 6-6, Hayward is a bit undersized as a power forward, but his game is becoming more and more like that of an NBA swingman. He is a great rebounder, is crafty around the hoop, and has a nose for the ball.

With so much returning talent, new coach Buzz Williams had great timing when Tom Crean bolted for that train wreck in Indiana. He’s going to need it for the Golden Eagles to compete for the conference crown. It’s going to take more than 11 wins, but this team just might sneak up on the top dogs.

West Virginia (24-10, 11-7)
When losing a lottery caliber player from a Sweet 16 team, the doubters tend to be more vocal than normal. But this Mountaineer team could be right back in the mix despite the departure of now Milwaukee Buck, Joe Alexander. Bob Huggins can obviously recruit with the best and his ability to land the New York trio of Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones, and Darryl Bryant proves his national recruiting mettle even from the charming Appalachian hamlet of Morgantown. The point guard Bryant should serve Huggins well from the start, as their team was “run by committee” in some respects last year, with out a true floor general.

But the secret to this team’s success can be found in the very same line-up that paced WVU to 24 wins a year ago. As Hopkins noted, “Alexander’s departure hurts, but their success last year was more predicated on the play of Alex Ruoff, Da’Sean Butler, and Joe Mazzulla.”

The juniors Mazzulla and Butler return as the “guts” of this team but expect the latter to take a major leap forward stepping in the spot vacated by Alexander. Butler should provide the perfect role model for Ebanks and the wing duo should strike fear in the hearts of coaches around the league. The 6-6 Ruoff returns as not only the team’s lone senior, but also as one of the nation’s deadliest long-range threats. Hitting around 100 threes while shooting over 40 percent will qualify you for that type of mention.

Don’t expect the drop that has been largely predicted for the Mountaineers. If the young guys mesh well with the experienced trio, then Huggins should be able to make another deep run in March.

Pittsburgh (27-9, 10-8) Big East Conference tournament champions
This year might be the breakout year for the Panthers. The national pundits have already made their obsessions public record, so to predict a Final Four run wouldn’t be that out of the question. Last year was a bit of a tough one to read last year, as there was plenty to be happy about (27 wins, 5 over top 25 teams, Big East Tourney Champs) DeJuan Blairbut with just ten wins in conference and a second-round NCAA exit, Head Coach Jamie Dixon has plenty more to improve upon. This year, however, there can’t be any excuses.

Back is the senior tandem of Levance Fields and Sam Young to go alongside the vibrant play of sophomore big man DeJuan Blair. Returning 42 points and almost 20 rebounds between the three should give Dixon plenty of space and time to be patient with his strong freshmen class, which features guard Nasir Robinson and Travon Woddall, who is already struggling to recover from a preseason concussion.

Big picture, the road to the Final Four does look favorable for Pitt. An early season schedule which features several cupcakes should help with their national ranking as they enter the brutal conference run. If they can play as they did at Madison Square Garden last spring, the Panthers should be a prime candidate for a top spot come national seeding time.

Villanova (20-12, 9-9)
Jay Wright might be bringing back the most experienced team in the conference this year. Dante Cunningham, Shane Clark, Scottie Reynolds all seem to have been playing for the Wildcats since the turn of the century. The bulk of the expectation load will be placed on Reynolds shoulders as he looks to expand on his already exciting game. Back for his second season in Philly is sophomore guard Corey Fisher who had a “mixed review” first year, but showed several signs about why he was so highly regarded out of St. Patrick’s (N.J.).

Unfortunately, this team still lacks major size. In a league with the behemoth likes of Thabeet, Blair, Clark, and Harangody, Nova will rely largely on the guards to push the pace and make easy opportunities for Cunnhingham, Clark, and sophomore forward Antonio Pena who gave solid contribution in limited minutes last year.

The Wildcats weren’t supposed to make it to the Sweet 16 last year, but they did. If there is a team that might flirt with the big boys, Wright’s group might be as good a choice as any.

Syracuse (19-13, 9-9)
This is one of the more intriguing Orange teams since their national championship run of 2003. The Niagra Falls tandem of Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris are back and should again give the ‘Cuse consistent and solid play from the backcourt. Hopkins and I are in full agreement about this pair, “Flynn and Harris are going to be tough to play against this season. Easily the biggest and most physical pairing, they’re on the all-workout team, as both are thick and country strong. If you were playing shirts and skins you’d want them on your squad.”

This year should also bring an emergence of sophomore Scoop Jardine who watched much of last year, but showed flashes of why he was so highly considered coming out of high school.

Donte Green was the team’s only exodus, and in addition to welcoming in a couple stud young freshmen, Head Coach Jim Boeheim has the luxury of getting back two key guys that missed last year for different reasons. Former SLAM High School Diary keeper, Eric Devendorf was given an extra year of eligibility and still somehow has two left Jonny Flynnin upstate New York. Arinze Onuahu is back after a year gone from the court and the bruiser will add grit to a relatively inexperienced frontcourt.

The natives are beginning to get restless as the Orange have missed back-to-back NCAA Tourney for only the second time in Boeheim’s regime. Expect Harris and Flynn to make sure that statistic is old news.

Cincinnati (13-18, 8-10)
In addition to my work here with this illustrious publication, I work full-time for a legal news journal. My editor there is Adam Angione, a local from the Natty, and a BearCat himself, now living in NYC. I asked for some thoughts on this year’s team.

“UC’s going to be tougher than they’ve been the past two years. They have Deonta Vaughn, 1st team all Big East last year, coming back and a strong big man coming, in Yancy Gates, a hometown guy. Mick (Cronin) is a good coach and he too is a Cincinnati guy so I think there’s a lot of pride in the program this year, whereas before it was just a bunch of JuCo transfers that he was trying to field a team with. They should be exciting to watch. And what’s better is living in NYC, almost every Big East game is on TV somewhere, there are like four different regional sports networks here and they all show Big East basketball games.”

Enjoy the season, boss!

Seton Hall (17-15, 7-11)
With the loss of star Brian Laing, Bobby Gonzales’ Pirates will be struggling just to keep their heads above water. Returning is the backcourt tandem of point guard Eugene Harvey and Jeremy Hazell, who is fresh off an impressive freshmen campaign.

The junior Harvey has been solid since he first stepped foot on campus, and his eventual departure will be softened by the current arrival of Paterson (N.J.) point guard Jordan Theodore.

It will be tough for the Hall to get back to seven wins with out the services of Laing, who scored over 1000 points in his last two collegiate seasons.

Providence (15-16, 6-12)
I studied and played college ball in this mid-sized New England metropolis. A game at the Providence Civic Center (now I believe, the Dunkin Donuts Arena?) was the site of my first ever college game, but I have little feel on my old buddies, the Friars from down the hill. When I was there, the names of Dickey Simpkins, Austin Croshere, and God Shammgod were around, now… Well.

Luckily, my boy Allen did a few of their games last year…

“New coach Keno Davis will realize that the Missouri Valley Conference is way different than the Big East. Getting a healthy Sharaud Curry at point guard will help tons (the leader played in only one game last year.) His play will take lots of pressure of Geoff McDermott, who is perhaps the best passing forward in college hoops. Senior guard Weyinmi Efejuku is a nasty athlete, but the team is soft inside and that will be their undoing in the rough and tumble Big East.”

DePaul (11-19, 6-12)
Dallas Comegys, Mark Aguirre, and Terry Cummings are long gone. I used to love the Blue Demons as a kid when they were fielding teams with the aforementioned likes.

Currently, however, our friend Cliff Clinkscales has graduated as well as his backcourt mate, Draelon Burns. Their top returning players are 6-10 240-pound big man Mac Koshwal and Dar Tucker. To help out, freshmen center and LA native Krys Faber might be asked to help out sooner rather than later.

Do they still play in the Rosemont Horizon?

St. John’s (11-19, 5-13)
This is an old-timer team from this conference that has unfortunately not been relevant in several years. Again, I must defer to Hopkins on whether the Redmen/Red Storm can make a positive step this year.

“St. John’s won five games in conference last season and their best player is Justin Burrell. He’s got talent like it was back in the (Lou) Carneseca days. The problem is that he’s the only guy. They do have Anthony Mason Jr. which should help. However, don’t expect much from the Red Storm in a stacked conference but they do play spoiler a couple of times a season it seems.”

South Florida (12-19, 3-15)
I saw the Bulls play a couple times last year and came away really impressed with (then) freshman, Dominique James. He returns as the top scorer for second-year Head Coach Stan Heath and is a player that most will not be familiar with when it comes time to call his name at a future NBA Draft.

Kentrell Gansberry and his hoards of rebounds are now gone from the team. To help out, USF was fortunate to have landed Georgia-transfer, guard Mike Mercer, who had two double-digit scoring seasons in the ultra-competitive SEC. If he can step up and play well alongside James, the Bulls might be able to avoid that last-place finish that the coaches have predicted.

Rutgers (11-20, 3-15)
The State University of New Jersey has been given the best chance to pull themselves out of the League’s cellar. The very same year the Scarlet Knights brought home just three conference wins they were able to ink Jersey stud guard, Mike Rosario from St. Anthony’s. Up front should be held down by senior forward J.R. Inman who has put up identical numbers of 12 and 7 over the past two seasons.

On a side note, I had my career high in college against Rutgers at the RAC. Every time I see highlights from that gym, I get flashbacks to that infamous seven-point outburst late in garbage time. The local Jersey TV announcers that called that game were a bit rough on me.

Cub Scouts the Big East: I am riding early and often with the Huskies from Connecticut. Although this season will be one of the most competitive in years, I just feel that the combination of depth, dominate big men, and experienced guard play will be too much for the remainder of the conference. Personally I would actually put Notre Dame as the team that will give UConn the biggest challenge, even over Pitt and Louisville.

Eight teams this year into the tournament seems like a safe bet. My boy, AHops even wants to think nine could get in, but he does raise an interesting change in the tournament dynamic that might affect this total.

“One thing to consider is the selection committee department chair is now UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, who replaces Tom Hathaway (George Mason AD). It (the tournament) could be more of a ‘west coast’ feel when it comes to selection consideration as Guerrero will be hip to the West Coast groove.”

Next Week: Is it time? Are there actual games? YES! The remainder of the conference previews might get shelved as we breakdown some live games. Duke got the season crackin’ last night!

Check Cub Buenning’s scouting website for weekly player reports. Many players highlighted in Cub Scouts are thoroughly covered on the site.