Player of the Year: Ashton Gibbs, Sr., Pitt
Gibbs deserves all the love he is going to get this preseason, as he is quite possibly the best all-around shooter in the country. What makes him so dangerous is his incredible ability to get open by using screens off-the-ball. He’s Pitt’s go-to player and really the only guy on the team that can create their own shot, but he does it in such a unique way. There are few guards in the country that are better at reading a defender and using a screen to get space for himself. Gibbs is the model of efficiency, but there is room for improvement in his game. As defenses continue to key on his jump shot, developing his mid-range game and his ability to attack a close-out will help. Regardless, Gibbs is a big time shot-maker that is a huge reason Pitt will once again be a top ten team and compete for the Big East title.
And a close second goes to…: Darius Johnson-Odom, Sr., Marquette
Admittedly, I’m a little biased on this pick, as DJO is one of my favorite players in the country to watch. A 6’2″ lefty, DJO is an explosive athlete and one of the best perimeter scorers in the conference. He’s at his best when he is slashing to the basket, where he is a crafty finisher with the ability to throw down monster dunks upon occasion. He’s good at drawing fouls and doesn’t turn the ball over. The most interesting aspect of DJO’s game is how much his jump shot fell off last season. He went from being a 47.4% three-point shooter as a sophomore to a 36.3% shooter as a junior, while also struggling in the mid-range. Despite that, he still managed to up his scoring from 13.0 ppg to 15.8 ppg. He’s the clear-cut go-to guy on the offensive end for a Marquette that is expected to finish in the top six in the Big East this season.
Breakout Star: Maalik Wayns and Mouphtaou Yarou, Jrs, Villanova
The obvious pick here is Jeremy Lamb of UConn. The trendy pick is Sean Kilpatrick of Cincinnati. So in order to buck that trend, I’ll go with Villanova’s two elder statesmen. The Wildcats have almost no hype heading into this season. Having flamed out in the postseason the past two years and losing four key pieces from that team, you wouldn’t be wrong to ignore Villanova heading into the year. But I like the makeup of this team. I think they have similar pieces at the two, three and four to the group that made the Final Four run in 2009, but I also think that with the opportunity to take over the role of the star, both Wayns and Yarou will shine. Both players are impressive talents that were forced to play third and fourth fiddle to the two Coreys last season. If Wayns has gotten his jumper more consistent and Yarou has become a better low-post scorer, I think those two will carry a Villanova team that will rely more heavily on the defensive end of the floor than we are used to.
– POY: Ashton Gibbs, Sr., Pitt
– G: Scoop Jardine, Sr., Syracuse
– G: Darius Johnson-Odom, Sr., Marquette
– F: Jeremy Lamb, So., UConn
– F: Tim Abromaitis, Sr., Notre Dame
– C: Yancy Gates, Sr., Cincinnati
– G: Peyton Siva, Jr., Louisville
– G: Jason Clark, Sr., Georgetown
– F: Kris Joseph, Sr., Syraucse
– F: Kevin Jones, Sr., West Virginia
– C: Alex Oriakhi, Jr., UConn
Newcomer of the Year: Andre Drummond, UConn
There shouldn’t be much argument when I say that Drummond is the most talented freshman in the Big East, because its quite possible that he is the most talented freshman in the country. Drummond is, simply put, a physical specimen. He’s 6-11 and 270 lb with the ability to score in the post and while facing up, he’s got the mobility and the handle to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, he’s a high IQ player, a terrific passer and has a 41-inch vertical. The issue with Drummond in high school was getting him to display his ability every time he stepped onto the court. Against the competition in the Big East, if he doesn’t have the desire to give 100 percent effort, Jim Calhoun won’t be playing him.
– G: Myles Mack, Rutgers
– G: Jabarie Hinds, West Virginia
– F: Sir’Dominic Pointer, St. John’s
– F: Moe Harkless, St. John’s
– C: Andre Drummond, UConn
Five summer storylines
– Conference realignment: The tragedy and instability of conference realignment began as an issue that the Big 12 had to deal with, but with the decision of two members schools to hop to the ACC, the Big East became the league sitting squarely on the chopping block. Pitt and Syracuse, two of the best programs in the Big East when it comes to both football and basketball, accepted offers from the ACC to become members. Making matters worse was UConn all but begging the ACC to allow them to join along with, well, any other team the ACC wanted. That seems unlikely, however, as Boston College, who is still pissed about UConn’s comments when they left for the ACC six years ago, is prepared to squash any attempt the Huskies make at switching leagues.
The most recent move was the Big 12’s decision to add TCU, which not only made their league much sturdier, it kicked out one of the legs the Big East was standing on. Once Pitt and Syracuse leave, the Big East will be left with just six football teams, which is not enough to earn an automatic BCS bid.
– Andre Drummond heads to UConn: Andre Drummond did a terrific job of keeping his intentions out of earshot of the media. After officially graduating high school and putting himself in a position to enter the collegiate ranks back in May, Drummond — who had been a member of the Class of 2012 — kept the recruiting world at bay throughout the summer as he consider his intentions for next season. Eventually, he announced that he would be attending Wilbraham & Monson along with his good friend Kris Dunn, the top point guard in the Class of 2012. But after Dunn announced he was committing to Providence and returning to New London High School, Drummond shocked everyone at 7:30 pm on a Friday night when he suddenly announced his decision to become a Husky, immediately making UConn a favorite to win the national title.
– Fab Melo’s run-ins with the law: Melo was the most disappointing freshman in the country in 2010-2011. The seven-footer was out of shape, didn’t give consistent effort throughout the year and was extremely uncoachable. It all amounted to an embarrassing season in which Melo would start only to be pulled from the game two minutes in, never to return to the court again. He was also suspended during the year, which became an issue after Melo was arrested over the summer as the result of an ugly altercation with his girlfriend. This apparently wasn’t the first time something like this happened, as there were reports over the summer that a similar incident was the reason for Melo’s midseason suspension.
– The Georgetown Brawl: During a trip to China to play a series of exhibitions, the Hoyas found themselves in an incredibly scary situation. Late in the second half of a physical contest, Jason Clark of Georgetown gets jumped by four Chinese players, setting off one of the most insane in-game brawls I’ve ever seen. Punches are thrown, chair are swung and bottles come flying at the Hoyas from the crowd. Luckily, no one was hurt in the incident. I’d even go so far as to argue that the fight was a good thing for Georgetown. There has been a disconnect somewhere within this program the past three or four years. Part of it was a lack of cohesion within the team. This is a new, younger group. What better way to bring this team together than to have them go through a potentially dangerous situation like this?
– Steve Lavin has prostate cancer: The St. John’s head coach was diagnosed over the summer. He had surgery earlier this month, and while it may cost him some exhibition games, the surgery was deemed a success.
Five storylines to follow this season
– Even more realignment talk: While the Big 12 was able to add TCU to replace Texas A&M, they are still in danger of losing Missouri to the SEC, a move that looks more and more likely by the day. If they do, most people expect the Big 12 to look east, bringing in Louisville, West Virginia or both, a move that could essentially kill the Big East as we know it. In an effort to replace the teams that they lost, the Big East will be reeling in powerhouses like SMU, Houston and Central Florida. That’s less than ideal for the basketball side of things.
So is this the last Big East Tournament? There’s a very good chance that this season will end up being the last Big East Tournament as we know it and love it. Syracuse and Pitt cannot leave the conference until 2014 unless the Big East opts to allow them out. If they are allowed out early and the Big East adds who they have been rumored to be courting, this conference could end up with as many as 18 teams in it, fewer than half of which probably should be playing in the Big East. Everything changes in college sports with team. The Big East Tournament, as amazing as it was and still is, is a requirement for every college hoops fan.
– Can UConn repeat?: There is no question that the Huskies have the talent to do so. With stars-in-the-making like Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier in the back court and a front court with some absurd size and athleticism, it would be disingenuous to say this group doesn’t have the tools to win the whole thing.
– Will Syracuse and Pitt handle playing the role of the villain?: Regardless of who you root for in the Big East, the villain this season will be Syracuse and Pitt. Why? Because they are the programs that set the fate of the Big East in motion. Not that their move wasn’t understandable — if they didn’t take the offer, someone else would have given the relative stability of the ACC — but it was a preemptive strike. Both the Orange and the Panthers have a number of veterans on their roster, especially in the back court, and should be impervious to the taunts of rival fan bases. Its nothing they haven’t heard before.
– Louisville-first: That’s the motto of Rick Pitino’s program this season, and its the team’s biggest ex-factor heading into the year. You see, the Cardinals legitimately have 16 players on their roster capable of playing in any rotation in the Big East; 16 guys that could make a case to start this season at Louisville. The team unity is so impressive that two of the club’s starters opted to take redshirts heading into the season — Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith — while a third — Elisha Justice — didn’t exactly have a decision to make. Will that level of unselfishness carry throughout the year, or will some of the players that aren’t getting minutes or touches create chemistry issues?
– How many teams make the tournament this season?: Last year, the Big East sent 11, which seems virtually impossible to repeat this season. Why? Because there are six Big East teams that are currently in — or still in? — full-blown rebuilding mode. The top ten, however, all have a very real chance at earning an at-large bid. I’ll set the over-under at eight. Whaddya you got?
1. UConn: Everyone in the country knows the story about UConn last season. Predicted to finish 10th in the Big East in the preseason, the Huskies were carried by Kemba Walker throughout the regular season, finishing an up and down year right about were they were predicted — 9th in the league standings. But something clicked in March, as UConn went on a sensational five-day run through the Big East Tournament before carrying that momentum into the NCAA Tournament. When it was all said and done, Kemba was the most popular person in the state of Connecticut and Jim Calhoun had his third title in the past 12 years.
Believe it or not, the reigning national champs will actually be a better team, as they will be significantly more balanced than last year. All those freshmen that developed into consistent contributors during March? They will be starters and, potentially, stars this year. We’ll start with the back court, where sophomores Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb will start. The lanky, 6’6″ Lamb is going to be a guy that shows up on a lot of breakout players lists. He really came on in March, playing the sidekick that made it impossible for teams to double Kemba. Lamb, whose at his best when he’s a slasher that scores in the mid-range, should become a star this year. Napier didn’t start as a freshman, but he played starters minutes, running the team while allowing Kemba to work off-the-ball as a scorer. He’s a solid creator with three-point range that can get out in transition, but he’s a bit too aggressive at times and has a tendency to make some bad decisions. Freshman Ryan Boatright will push for minutes at the point as well. If UConn does have a weakness this season, it is their perimeter depth and their outside shooting. The Huskies don’t really have a sniper, and Lamb is essentially their only shooting guard.
UConn’s front court will look like the Huskies of old. They are big, they are long and they are athletic. It starts with Alex Oriakhi, who is the anchor of the Husky interior. A burly, 6-9 power forward, Oriakhi blocks a lot of shots and is a terror to try and box out. His back-to-the-basket game was improved last year and he should be to the point that he can be a threat on the block. He’ll be joined by freshman phenom Andre Drummond, who is biding his time in Storrs before he heads off to the NBA Draft’s lottery. Drummond has the total package — he’s a 6’11”, 270 lb post with a face-up game, the ability to handle the ball on the perimeter and a 41-inch vertical. The question with Drummond is simply how good does he want to be? Roscoe Smith, an athletic combo-forward, and Tyler Olander, a Storrs-native that plays a blue-collar style, will provide depth. The small forward spot will be handled by DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey. I’d expect Daniels, a talented-but-enigmatic freshman who had a wild recruitment, to start, but Giffey is an athlete and a defender that can hit threes. UConn was a top ten team before Drummond committed. With him in the fold, the Huskies will be a favorite to win the Big East and make a run to the Final Four.
2. Syracuse: The 2010-2011 season was a bit of a disappointment for Syracuse fans. After winning their first 18 games of the season and climbing as high as No. 3 in the rankings, the Orange lost four straight and six of eight, ending the year tied for third in the league standings. And while that is far from what you would consider a bad season, considering the amount of talent of the Syracuse roster, a second round exit in the NCAA Tournament is not what the die hards of upstate New York were hoping for. The good news, however, is that Syracuse returns the majority of their roster, giving Jim Boeheim what is arguably his most talented team since the group that won the 2003 national title.
Much will be expected out of this Syracuse team, who will likely be the Big East favorites along with UConn. What they lack in star power, the Orange make up for in depth and balance. Their back court will be as experienced as any in the country. Scoop Jardine will be a popular pick for first team all-conference. Jardine is a big-time playmaker that finished second in the conference in assists last season. The knock on Jardine is consistency and decision-making, but when he plays well he is one of the best point guards in the country. He’ll be joined by junior Brandon Triche, who can be a steadying influence in the back court. Triche is more of a natural point guard than an off-guard, giving Boeheim two playmakers in his back court. Kris Joseph will once again start at the small forward spot. An ultra-athletic, 6’7″ wing, much was expected out of Joseph last season, to the point that his junior season — 14.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.5 spg — was a bit of a disappointment. The bench may actually be more talented than the Cuse starters. Sophomore Dion Waiters was thought to be destined to transfer this season, but he opted to return to school and should provide a big-time scoring boost off the bench. Freshmen Michael Carter-Williams is another talented scorer coming off the bench. He became more of a playmaker throughout his high school career. Trevor Cooney will also see minutes as a sharp-shooter off the bench.
Up front, the key for Syracuse will be finding a way to replace the toughness, the rebounding and the shot-blocking of Rick Jackson. The guy that everyone will have their eye on is Fab Melo. Melo was one of the premiere recruits nationally last season, but he struggled with his focus and his conditioning. While he started a majority of the time, far too often he would head to the bench and never make it back into the game. Melo will be pushed for the starting center spot by Rakeem Christmas, another lauded freshman that is known for his ability to block shots and rebound the ball. The x-factor up front will be CJ Fair. Fair was the least touted of the Syracuse freshmen last season, but he had the biggest impact. He came on strong late in the season, and the athletic combo-forward will push for the starting power forward spot this year. James Southerland, who had a couple of big games in the middle of the year, is a perfect fit for Boeheim’s system given his size, length and ability to shoot the ball. All the pieces are in place for the Orange to have a big year in 2011-2012. They’ll have a very real shot at not only winning the Big East title, but making a run to the Final Four as well.
3. Louisville: There might not be a program in the country that is more team-oriented than Louisville. The Cardinals barely have a star on their roster, unless you consider Peyton Siva a star. Two of their senior starters — Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith — are walk-ons by choice. Rick Pitino’s team is one of the few in the nation that can legitimately claim that every single player in the program is talented enough to be a rotation player. The key lies in the recruiting for Pitino — he brings in players that he knows will fit his system. That system? Defensively, they run pressuring, aggressive 2-3 zone designed to force turnovers. Louisville loves to push the ball in transition, spreading the floor and looking to locate a mismatch on the perimeter, allowing the ability of the team’s perimeter players to shine through. It worked last season, as Louisville surprised everyone and finished third in the Big East standings.
We’ll start in the back court with Louisville, where Pitino won’t even feel the loss of the ineligible Kevin Ware. Peyton Siva will get to start at the point. Siva is one of the most explosive players in the country, a lightening bolt from end-to-end that can finish well-above the rim despite being 5’11”. He’s by far the best shot-creator on the Cardinals and was a huge reason for their surprise finish last year. He’s joined by Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith in the back court. Kuric is the better shooter while Smith is better creating off the dribble, but as a duo they compliment Siva very well on the perimeter. It will be important for one of them to step up and become the kind of on-ball defender Preston Knowles was last season. Talented freshman Wayne Blackshear will be an x-factor for this group, as he can really fill it up when he’s healthy. Russ Smith and Elisha Justice will provide depth at the point, while Mike Marra, Mark Jackson Jr. and Angel Nunez will fill out the rotation on the perimeter.
Terrence Jennings decision to leave school early will leave Louisville with a lack of experience up front, but the Cardinals will certainly be loaded with talent. Gorgui Dieng is a guy to keep an eye on at the center position. The 6’11” native of Senegal is an excellent shot-blocker that had some impressive performances as a freshman. At the power forward spot, both Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles are coming off of seasons where they were banged up. Swopshire battled through a potentially career-ending injury where the groin muscle pulled away from his bone while Buckles dealt with a severely broken finger and a torn acl. Both should be healthy this year. Sophomore Stephen Van Treese started 10 games last season, but his minutes may be cut into by talented freshmen Zach Price and Chane Behanan. Louisville is the deepest team in the Big East, and they needed that depth last season as they fought through a rash of injuries. The biggest key for Pitino this season will be managing egos. Will a guy like Wayne Blackshear have a problem with being the third guard off the bench?
4. Pitt: The Panthers are the Big East’s standard-bearer when it comes to running a successful basketball program. Because under Jamie Dixon they are, quite literally, a program. Every year that Dixon has been the head coach of the Panthers, they have won 20 games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. In eight seasons he was won three Big East titles (two regular season, one conference tournament) and the only time his team has finished worse than second in the Big East the past five years, they won the Big East Tournament. And Dixon has accomplished all of that without ending a player to the first round of the NBA Draft. Its incredible the job he has done with the Panthers. Pitt will once again head into the year with the target on their backs, not only because they are the reigning Big East champs, but because they made the decision to jump to the ACC alongside Syracuse. The Panthers should be equipped to handle it, however.
It starts with Ashton Gibbs, one of the favorites to win the Big East player of the year award. Gibbs is quite possibly the best all-around shooter in the country. He’s sensational coming off of screens, to the point that Pitt uses him as their go-to guy through off-the-ball screening. Gibbs is the best in the country at what he does. He’ll be joined in the back court by Travon Woodall, a talented playmaker that was second in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio last season. Woodall will be taking over full-time for Brad Wanamaker, and while he’s not as big or as good of an all-around player, he should be able to provide more defensive pressure and a more dangerous penetrator. Beyond Woodall and Gibbs, however, Pitt is going to have an inexperienced back court. Three freshmen — Cameron Wright, Isaiah Epps, and John Johnson — will provide the depth. It will be interesting to see who ends up replacing Gilbert Brown and starting at the small forward spot for Pitt as there are a number of candidates. The most likely seems to be Lamar Patterson, a versatile, 6’5″ sophomore that can play any position, shooting guard to power forward. He’s the best defender of the group, although he’s not nearly the athlete or the shooter that Brown was. Freshman Durand Johnson, a 6’6″ native of Baltimore, is, but he’s also a freshman, which makes it seems unlikely that he’ll start immediately. JJ Moore, another sophomore small forward, will also see time at that position.
Up front, Pitt is once again going to be loaded. Other than Gibbs, the only other starter that returns is Nasir Robinson, an undersized power forward that does all the little things for the Panthers. He’ll be out early in the season as he deals with a minor knee surgery, opening the door for the rest of the Panther bigs to earn some playing time. I expect Dante Taylor to start at center, filling in admirably for the graduated Gary McGhee. Taylor was a top 20 recruit when he left high school and should finally begin to live up to that hype this season. In Robinson’s absence, expect sophomore Talib Zanna to get minutes as a starter. Zanna started when Robinson was injured last season and did an excellent job. Freshman Khem Birch, who is one of the top ten recruits in the country, and Malcolm Gilbert will also see quite a bit of time. For Pitt, their front court is less about the name on the back of the jersey as it is about the fact that there are four or five 6’10” players capable of attacking the glass and blocking shots. The performance as a unit is the reason the Panthers are consistently in the top five in offensive rebounding percentage.
5. Cincinnati: Its safe to say that Mick Cronin has finally gotten the Cincinnati program to return to national relevancy after leading this group to a six seed in the NCAA Tournament last season, their first trip since 2005, and taking them to the second round. It took a while for the masses to be convinced, however. The Bearcats played one of the weakest non-conference schedules in the country, and while they did manage to head into Big East play undefeated, the only win that had more sustenance than Fluffernutter was a 20 point shellacking of Crosstown Shootout rival Xavier. There were many doubters, and those doubters remained pretty much up until Cincinnati won five of their last six games, which included wins over Louisville, Marquette and Georgetown twice.
The biggest catalyst for change on Cincinnati’s team was Yancy Gates, who responded well to a mid-season benching. After being kept home from a trip to Pittsburgh stemming from a verbal altercation with a coach in practice, Gates completely changed his attitude and his effort level. He averaged 15.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 1.3 bpg over the final 10 games of the season, and that renewed effort he showed late in the year has continued into the offseason. He’s lost 20 pounds, he’s taken conditioning and weightlifting workouts seriously, and by all accounts Gates finally appears to have matured enough mentally to be able to reach his full potential as a player. With his size, strength, athleticism and skill set, Gates is the most influential player in the Big East this season. If he lives up to his potential, Cincinnati is going to be a top six team in the Big East. Part of the reason Gates is so important is that the rest of the Bearcat front line is young and unproven. JuCo transfer Cheikh Mbodj is expected to start along side Gates. Sophomore Justin Jackson, a blue-collar energy guy that will rebound and defend, will likely be the first guy off the bench while freshmen Kelvin Gaines and Octavius Ellis will provide depth.
The perimeter will be strong for Cronin next season. Cashmere Wright, a junior point guard, has proven to be a capable playmaker and a solid facilitator. Dion Dixon will join Wright in the back court. Dixon is a do-it-all senior, a guy that can get you 15-20 points when you need it but is also the team’s best defender. The x-factor will be sophomore Sean Kilpatrick, a guy most people are predicting to have a big season. Playing the role of sparkplug off the bench, Kilpatrick was the team’s third-leading scorer, a high-volume/high-efficiency guard that was able to put up points in a hurry. He shoots the ball well from deep, he doesn’t turn it over and he can get to the foul line, all the qualities that will make a player adored by the stat-heads. It will be interesting to see how he handles becoming a go-to guy this year. Cronin will be counting on junior JaQuan Parker to regain his confidence. After a solid freshman year, Parker shot a dreadful 18.4% from the floor and losing his spot in the rotation by the time Big East play rolled around. Freshmen Jeremiah Davis, Ge’Lawn Guyn and Jermaine Sanders round out the rotation. The Bearcats have some question marks and players assuming new roles this year, but if Gates and Kilpatrick both develop the way folks are predicting they will, Cincinnati has a chance at competing for the top four in the Big East.
6. Marquette: The Big East sent 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, but only two made it past the first weekend. One was UConn, who went on to win the national title. The other? Marquette. And while the Golden Eagles saw their season end in demoralizing fashion when North Carolina obliterated them in the Sweet 16, the tournament success masked what was a very up-and-down season. Marquette lost a number of close games throughout the year — most notably, when they blew an 18-point lead to Louisville in the final 6:15 — and needed two wins in the Big East Tournament just to get themselves an at-large bid despite the bubble being as weak as it has been in recent memory.
The biggest victory of the year for the Golden Eagles didn’t come until after their season had ended, when Marquette was able to convince their head coach Buzz Williams to resign with their program instead of jumping to one of the Big 12 jobs that opened up during the spring. And Williams will, once again, have a roster that is capable of winning a couple games in the NCAA Tournament. It starts with Darius Johnson-Odom, an athletic left-handed scoring guard that will likely end up as a first team all-Big East performer. DJO is a very capable perimeter shooter, but he is at his best when he uses his ability to slash to the basket to set up that jumper. He’ll be joined in the back court by Junior Cadougan, a talented playmaker at the point. He’s not as good of a shooter as Dwight Buycks, who graduated, but he protects the ball better. Sophomore Vander Blue should be able to contribute on the perimeter, especially if his offensive game comes around this season. He’ll be competing for a starting spot with Oregon transfer Jamil Wilson. Expect freshman Derrick Wilson to back-up Cadougan at the point and Todd Mayo (OJ’s little brother) to contribute on the perimeter as well.
What’s interesting about this Marquette team is that they actually have some solid threats in their front court. Jae Crowder, who is one of the most underrated players in the country, is the next in the line of talented combo-forwards for the Golden Eagles. Crowder should, theoretically, be able to thrive next season simply because he does some many things well. He defends, he attacks the glass, he’ll knock down a three if you give him space, he’ll put the ball on the floor if you crowd him and he doesn’t turn the ball over. Juan Anderson and Jamail Jones will also see minutes at forward. Marquette also has a couple of legitimate low-post threats this year. Chris Otule started last season and appears to finally be healthy heading into his junior year. Otule, who was born with one eye, has trouble catching quick, dump-off passes, but that’s really the only issue he has with his vision. He’s a bid-body inside that takes up space and will block a couple of shots. Davante Garnder will end up being an x-factor for Marquette. The 6’9″ sophomore has some terrific moves around the rim, which is why he was so productive last season in the limited minutes that he played. It appears he has bought into the idea of getting into shape — he was pushing 300 lb last year — and being a 20 mpg player, which should finally give Buzz Williams a low-post threat. The Golden Eagles should have their most balanced attack to date. Expect them to compete for a top four finish in the league.
7. Villanova: Villanova is slowly becoming synonymous with late-season collapses, and 2010-2011 was no different. After starting out the year 18-1 and 4-0 in the Big East, the Wildcats lost 11 of their last 16 games, including their final six. If it wasn’t for a three point win over South Florida and an overtime win over DePaul, Nova would have lost their final 10 games. They were knocked out in the first round of the Big East Tournament by USF and lost to George Mason in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Making matters worse (or better, depending on your view of the leadership provided by the two Coreys) is that Villanova will lose three of their starters from last season’s team. With Isaiah Armwood making the decision to transfer to George Washington, the Wildcats will be left with exactly half of their rotation from a year ago.
This Villanova team will be young and, hopefully, intact for two full seasons as there isn’t a scholarship senior anywhere on the roster. Maalik Wayns will likely be the guy that carries the torch as the standout in the Villanova back court. A talented penetrator and creator, Wayns made strides with his ability as a passer last season, but there is still room for him to cut down on his turnovers. Villanova will need a go-to scorer this year, and Wayns should be primed to take over that role. His effectiveness will end up being determined by how well he improved his shooting; he can finish in the lane well for someone his size, but defense don’t exactly make it a priority to take away his jump shot. Joining Wayns on the perimeter this year will be Dominic Cheek, an athletic wing who will finally have a chance to start after two years of coming off the bench. Cheek was a highly-touted kid coming out of high school, but he has yet to find any consistency at the college level. Beyond that, there are plenty of minutes available on the perimeter. Sophomore James Bell will probably get first crack at the shooting guard spot, but freshmen Tyrone Johnson, Achraf Yacoubou and Darrun Hilliard will all make a push for playing time.
The front court will be anchored by Mouphtaou Yarou, a physical center that has already made a mark as a rebounder and a defender in the lane. It will be interesting to see if Yarou can develop as a scorer on the block. He has had a fairly significant amount of hype heading into this, his junior, year and it will be interesting to see if he can live up to it. Maurice Sutton, a 6’11” center, will have a shot to play significant minutes this year, but he’ll need to prove that he is deserving of those minutes. Freshman JayVaughn Pinkston, who sat out last season due to legal issues, should be able to make an impact as a combo-forward. He’s a burly, 6’6″ kid that has an impressive face-up game. Another freshman, Markus Kennedy, should see time as well. This Villanova team is intriguing. What made the 2009 Wildcats, their Final Four team, so good is the versatility they had defensively with players like Shane Clark, Dwayne Anderson and Reggie Redding. Can Pinkston, Bell and Cheek embrace those roles? If so, having them bookended with talents like Wayns and Yarou could make the Wildcats a sleeper in the Big East.
8. Notre Dame: The Fighting surprised a lot of people last season. After losing Luke Harangody to graduation, Notre Dame got better. Ben Hansbrough turned into a certified star, Carleton Scott and Scott Martin became dangerous weapons at the forward spot, and the Irish won 10 of their last 11 conference games to finished 14-4 in league play, which put them all alone in second place in the conference. But the Irish are going to have quite a bit to replace this year. They lose three starters from a team that only went seven deep last season, and that includes the graduation of Hansbrough, who won the Big East player of the year award over Kemba Walker last season.
The good news for the Irish is that they return Big East player of the year candidate Tim Abromaitis. Abro is a lights-out shooter who, at 6’8″, is able to play multiple positions. The fifth-year senior, who will have to sit out for the first four games of the year stemming from a couple of exhibitions games he played during his redshirt season, has become more than just a jump-shooter during his time in South Bend. He’s able to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim when defenders close out too hard, and he’s also become a solid rebounder on the defensive end of the floor. Abro will be joined by Scott Martin, who is a similar player. Martin is more a front-court player than Abro, but he also is a dangerous three-point shooter with the ability to create off the dribble. Throw in Jack Cooley, a big, 6’10” center that is tough on the glass and has a soft-touch around the basket, and the Irish have a solid front line. Junior Tom Knight, who saw limited minutes last season, will have to boost his production this year, particularly if Eric Katenda is unable to play due to the eye injury he suffered over the summer.
The back court will be anchored by sophomore point guard Eric Atkins. Atkins has a chance to be a breakout performer as the primary ball-handler on the roster this season. In a complimentary and facilitatory role as a freshman, Atkins still managed to average 3.2 apg and lead the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio. He’ll be one of, if not the only player on the Irish capable of creating his own shot. The off-guard spot will be a battle between redshirt-freshman Jerian Grant and true freshman Pat Connaughton. Connaughton is a knock-down shooter that is able to create off the dribble. He’s just 6’4″, but his length (6’10”) and sneaky athleticism make him an ideal candidate to play alongside Abro and Atkins. Grant is more of an athletic slasher who will likely be the best defender on the Notre Dame perimeter. Joey Brooks and Alex Dragicevich will also see time on the perimeter for Notre Dame. The Irish should have no problem scoring the basketball next season, their issue is going to be defensive and rebounding the basketball. This is not a team with an over-abundance of toughness and physicality. They’ll likely finish somewhere in the middle of the league, but an NCAA Tournament berth is not out of the question.
9. Georgetown: Austin Freeman and Chris Wright will graduate Georgetown as two of the greatest guards to set foot on the DC campus. But as impressive as the numbers were that they put up, the lasting legacy of their recruiting class will be the inability to get the Hoyas past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Under the leadership of Freeman and Wright, Georgetown seemingly was never quite able to put it all together. Whether that was the result of running into Stephen Curry, Chris Wright’s broken hand or the inability to compete in a top-heavy Big East, the Hoyas always seemed to be missing something come March. 2010-2011 was no different, as Georgetown lost four of their last five Big East games before being bounced in the first round of both the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.
This year’s Hoya team is going to look quite different, as there will be a changing of the guard in the back court. With Wright and Freeman gone, look for Markel Starks to step into the starting lineup and Jason Clark to take on a much more significant role as a scorer. Starks will officially be the point guard — Clark is much better suited to being a score-first player — but they are both going to have to carry the burden of running the Hoyas offense. When Georgetown struggled last season, it was because they lost their threat to create at the end of a clock (Wright’s injury). The Hoyas will get their open shots and they back door cuts running JT III’s system, but the ability of Starks and Clark to create when the offense stagnates will be critical. Junior Hollis Thompson will also be forced into a much bigger role this year. He was forced to play out of position at times last season, but he’s a dangerous shooter with impressive length and athleticism that can really get to the glass. I’m expecting him to have a big year. Two freshmen — Jabril Trawick and Aaron Bowen — will provide the perimeter depth.
Up front, the Hoyas are going to be quite young, but also quite talented. Henry Sims will be the veteran leader for this group. Sims was a joke amongst Big East fans for the first two years of his career, but he slowly became a relevant factor as a passer at the high post for the Hoyas last season. This year, he’ll need to take on some of the rebounding and interior defense Georgetown loses with Julian Vaughn’s graduation. After that, the Hoyas will have loads of unproved and youthful talent. Nate Lubick moved into the starting lineup by the end of last season, but he’ll need to develop more as a rebounder and a scorer. Georgetown’s quartet of freshmen bigs will be counted on to make an impact as well. 6’9″ combo-forward Otto Porter is the most-hyped of the group, but Mikael Hopkins, Tyler Adams and Greg Whittington are going to be counted on to produce as well. I think Georgetown could end up being a sleeper in the league this season, particularly if they are able to come together based on what happened in China this summer. Worst case scenario is that this group is a year away, but the future is promising.
10. West Virginia: Bob Huggins had a trying year in 2010-2011. Between the inconsistency of Casey Mitchell, the issues with his players learning his sets and the disappearance of their freshmen class, West Virginia went through numerous starting lineups and different rotations. As a testament to the program he is running at West Virginia, that group was still able to make the NCAA Tournament and win a game. This year promises to be more difficult for Huggy Bear, as he graduates threes starters and a key bench player while also losing two important pieces to transfer.
The strength of this year’s team will be on their front line. It starts with Kevin Jones, a senior that had a bit of a disappointing junior season after playing such an important role as a sophomore. Jones thrived as Da’Sean Butler’s sidekick, but when he was asked to play more of a central role in the offense, he struggled. Jones couldn’t find the same consistency with his perimeter stroke. His rebounding numbers remained fairly consistent, however, and that’s where his strength is. Jones needs to build off the end of the season, as he played his best basketball of the year down the stretch. He’ll be joined up front by Deniz Kilicli, a burly, 6’9″ Turk with a surprisingly soft touch in the lane. When Kilicli gets into a rhythm, his lefty jump hook is unstoppable, but he needs to improve his rebounding. There has been talk that Jones could end up starting at the three this season, making room for redshirt freshman Kevin Noreen to slide into the starting lineup. Noreen played seven games last year before being sidelined with a knee injury. He’s another big man with a nice outside touch, but he’ll be asked to get more physical in the paint. Four newcomers — freshmen Tommie McCune, Pat Forsythe and Keaton Miles and JuCo transfer Dominic Rutledge — will provide depth.
The back court will be anchored by Truck Bryant, who will likely spend the majority of his time playing off the ball this season. Bryant is a four-year starter in the program and will be the team’s best perimeter shooter. He’s at his best when he is able to set his feet and be a spot-up shooter, and by moving him to the off-guard Huggins hopes to get him to improve on that 32.3% three point shooting. Bryant gets into trouble when he puts the ball on the floor and forces the issue. With Bryant, you want to see selective aggressiveness. He needs to know when to pick his spots. The point guard spot will be a battle between freshmen Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne. Hinds is probably the most highly-regarded member of this recruiting class. Another freshman, Aaron Brown, should also see time on the perimeter. West Virginia does have some talented pieces, but it is never easy to rely heavily on freshmen, especially in the Big East. The Mountaineers should be in the mix for an NCAA Tournament berth, but a lot of that will depend on how well this team can hit the defensive glass and what kind of play they get out of the point guard spot.
11. Seton Hall: Last season was supposed to be a big year for new head coach Kevin Willard, but due to a pair of life-threatening issues beyond his control — Jeremy Hazell was shot was while recovering from a broken hand and Herb Pope nearly died last summer when his heart stopped after a workout — SHU battled through yet another disappointing season. They finished the year 13-18 overall and 7-11 in the Big East, bowing out of the conference tournament in the first round to in-state rival Rutgers. Making matters more difficult, Seton Hall loses six players from last season’s rotation, including their two best scorers in Hazell and Jeremy Robinson.
This year’s team will be based around the front court, as Willard has a number of pieces at his disposal. It starts with Herb Pope, 6’8″ boulder of a power forward. Pope struggled last season as he fought to get back into shape after having his heart stop during a workout the previous summer. By the end of the year, he was starting to round back into form. It will be interesting to see what Pope can produce this season, as he averaged a double-double as a sophomore and will be asked to anchor a front line with a couple of talented youngsters on it. Freshman Kevin Johnson, a California native, is expected to compete for a spot in the starting lineup if he is cleared by the NCAA, although that is looking less and less likely. If he’s not, sophomore Patrick Auda showed some promise last season, as did classmate Aaron Geramipoor. Freshman Brandon Mobley will get minutes as well.
The back court will be headlined by Jordan Theodore, who has been one of the most underrated point guards in the conference throughout his career. Theodore is at his best when he is penetrating and creating, which will be all the more important for the Pirates this season. Seton Hall is a very good defensive team, but they struggled to score the ball last season and, as we mentioned, will be losing their top two scorers from that team. Theodore will have to become the go-to guy this season. Sophomore Fuquan Edwin will likely get to start in the back court again. He’s a solid defender with some size that will slot in nicely at the small forward spot. The rest of the perimeter rotation will be stocked with freshmen. Aaron Cosby and Haralds Karlis seem to have the upper hand in terms of earning the last starting spot on the perimeter. Both players were on campus all summer long. Freddie Wilson and Sean Grennan will also see time. Seton Hall has a young group supporting Pope and Theodore. This will be a rebuilding year for them, but Willard has a solid base for which to build on.
12. Rutgers: Mike Rice certainly has the Scarlet Knights pointed in the right direction. After Fred Hill’s ugly tenure came to a conclusion at the end of the 2009-2010, Rutgers opted to hire the fiery Robert Morris head coach, and it paid off. Rutgers, despite having a roster with a number of seniors on it, completely changed the feel of their program. While they were on the short-end of the talent stick seemingly every night in league play, this group competed. They defended, they battled on the glass and they earned quite a bit of respect from a number of folks around the league. It paid off in small doses as well, as RU took Syracuse to overtime on the road, knocked off Villanova on one of the most memorable plays of the season and then went on to beat rival Seton Hall in the first round of the Big East Tournament before losing to St. John’s in semi-controversial fashion.
Rutgers does graduate three starters from last year’s team, however, which will make the rebuilding process take just that much longer. The good news? Both Dane Miller and Gil Biruta are back. Biruta is a tough, physical 6’8″ post presence that can score and get on the glass. He was named newcomer of the year in the Big East last season and is the perfect player for a Mike Rice-coached team. The only issue he has is foul trouble. He was limited to just 22 mpg last season because he couldn’t stay on the floor. If he can solve those fouling issues, expect a big year from the Lithuanian. Miller should have won the Big East newcomer of the year award in 2010. He struggled a bit on the offensive end of the floor as a sophomore, but that Miller’s best attribute is his ability to defend. The 6’6″ small forward can make things happen defensively. Junior Austin Johnson is another big body that Rice can trot out there, but his front court depth took a major hit when Kadeem Jack, a freshman that was expected to start this season, broke his foot. He should be back by the middle of Big East play. A couple of other freshmen — Derrick Randall and Greg Lewis will provide Rice with front court depth.
The back court will be a bit more of an issue for Rutgers. Sophomores Mike Poole and Austin Carroll are the only two players that saw significant playing time that return. Carroll is one of the best perimeter shooters that Rice will have at his disposal while Poole, like Miller, is a small forward known more for his ability to defend than his ability to score. Rice does have quite a bit of talent entering the program, however. It starts with Myles Mack, a 5’9″ point guard out of St. Patrick’s that will have a chance to start immediately. He’s not the only newcomer that Rice will have in the back court, either, as freshmen Jerome Seagears, Malick Kone and Eli Carter both enter the program along with Texas Tech transfer Tyree Graham. The Scarlet Knights are on their way up as a program, but they are a couple of years away from truly competing in the league.
13. St. John’s: It didn’t take long for Steve Lavin to get the Johnnies back to the NCAA Tournament. Coaching a team that was made up of virtually all seniors, Lavin’s team put together one of the most impressive runs in the Big East last year. After a couple of embarrassing non-conference losses — to St. Bonaventure and Fordham — and a 1-5 stretch at the start Big East play, St. John’s used a blowout win over Duke at the Garden to spark a seven game Big East winning streak. It was enough to earn the Johnnies an at-large bid to the tournament. They lost their opening game, but that was partly due to DJ Kennedy blowing out his knee in the Big East Tournament.
The problem? St. John’s literally loses their entire team. Nine seniors graduated from last year’s team and Dwayne Polee transferred out of the program and into San Diego State. And while Lavin brought in one of the deepest and most talented recruiting classes in the country, he lost three of those freshmen — Amir Garrett, JaKarr Sampson, and Norvel Pelle — when they couldn’t get through the NCAA’s Clearinghouse. What that means is that St. John’s is left with a roster that consists of just eight scholarship players, only one of whom was a member of last season’s team.
There is some talent on the roster, however. Junior returner Malik Stith will team with high-scoring JuCo transfer Nurideen Lindsay to share the ball-handling duties while D’Angelo Harrison and Phil Greene will share minutes at the shooting guard spot. Sir’Dominic Pointer and Moe Harkless, who are probably the two most talented recruits that Lavin brought in, will man the forward spots while God’s Gift Achiuwa will be the team’s interior presence. With that much inexperience on the roster, its difficult to expect much out of St. John’s this year. But how much could we have expected out of this group if all nine newcomers were eligible? This was going to be a rebuilding year for St. John’s regardless of who is on the roster. The guys that did get cleared will be gaining experience while Lavin continues to flex his muscles on the recruiting trail. The future is still bright in Queens even if the chances of making noise this season are significantly slimmer.
14. South Florida: Once again, South Florida struggled to a disappointing finish in the Big East. Coming off of a year where the Bulls finished .500 in the league and made a run at earning an at-large bid, USF won just 10 games last season and went 3-15 in Big East play. They lost to Florida Atlantic and James Madison in non-conference play. Their only Big East wins? Against DePaul and Providence. Any progress that Stan Heath’s club made in 2010 completely went out the window last season.
This season, if the Bulls have any chance at competing in the Big East, its going to be the result of their front line playing well. Gus Gilchrist is one of the most talented big men in the league with the talent to be a major force in the league, the issue is whether or not he buys into the team concept. He was suspended for portions of last season due to “philosophical differences” with Heath. He won’t be alone on the front line, either. Kansas State transfer Ron Anderson, Arizona State transfer Victor Rudd and junior Toarlyn Fitzpatrick will all see minutes up front. There is also some talent on the perimeter. Shaun Noriega is one of the better shooters in the conference when he gets hot, Hugh Robertson had a couple big games last season and should fill in well until Jawanza Poland, the uber-athletic junior scoring guard, returns from a back injury that will keep him sidelined until December. The point guard spot will be a major question mark, however, as Juco transfer Blake Nash and freshman Anthony Collins will be competing for the starting spot. USF has some pieces this season, but they are the same pieces that struggled all year a season ago. If Gilchrist doesn’t correct his attitude and Poland doesn’t get back to 100%, it will be another long year in Tampa.
15. Providence: Keno Davis has a disastrous tenure with the Friars. On the court, his product stunk. His team scored points by the bucketful, but they couldn’t stop anyone defensively. When you’re playing in the powerhouse Big East, you have to be able to get stops when you need them. Off the court, the Friars may have been even worse. Davis couldn’t keep his players out of the police blotter, and the boosters and athletic department quickly soured on Davis. Just three years after being the hottest young coach in america, Davis lost his job at Providence. In steps Ed Cooley, who spent the last five years running the Fairfield program. Cooley, a Providence native, is tasked with rebuilding a school that doesn’t have 1-A football into the powerhouse they were during his high school days in the late 80’s.
That won’t be an easy, or a quick, task. Cooley will be completely remodeling a team that went 4-14 last season and loses a first round pick to the NBA Draft. There are some pieces at his disposal, however. Vincent Council can hang with any point guard in the conference, and his back-up — freshman Kiwi Gardner — is tiny but will be one of the most exciting players in the league. Sophomores Gerald Coleman and Bryce Cotton both had promising freshman campaigns, as did big man Kadeem Betts. He’ll join junior Bilal Dixon on the Friar frontline. This is an extremely young group — two junior, seven sophomores, three freshmen — that will have to learn a completely different system this year. Davis preached the run-and-gun; Cooley loves defense stalwarts. It will take a while for him to ingrain that mindset into a team that finished 150th in defensive efficiency last year. But with the youth on the roster, and with a loaded recruiting class on the way in 2012, the future is bright in Rhode Island. But that future may come at the expense of success this year.
16. DePaul: The Blue Demons struggled mightily during the 2010-2011 season, but that is no different than what we have come to expect out of the once-powerful DePaul program. The Blue Demons struggled mightily under head coach Jerry Wainwright, so its no surprise that those struggles continued under new head coach Oliver Purnell. Playing Purnell’s typical, full court style, DePaul showed some flashes of potential, battling with some of the better teams in the Big East — taking Villanova to overtime, losing by four at Louisville, losing by two to West Virginia. But its clear that Purnell’s team still has a way to go.
The good news is that he has built the foundation for a promising future. Sophomore Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young, both Baltimore natives, led the team in scoring and were named to the league’s all-freshmen team. With point guard Jeremiah Kelly and big man Krys Faber both returning as well, there was reason for optimism heading into this season. But that was until DePaul started losing players by the handful. First, Shane Larkin decided not to enroll at DePaul and instead headed to Miami. Then freshman Macari Brooks was ruled ineligible for this season because he couldn’t get through the NCAA’s Clearinghouse. He’ll be available next year and have four seasons of eligibility. Tony Freeland, who started at small forward last year, will miss the year after undergoing surgery on his balky right shoulder and Montray Clemons suffered a patella injury while warming up for Midnight Madness. Purnell now will struggle to have enough bodies to go 5-on-5 in practice. Miami transfer Donnavan Kirk will provide a boost when he gets eligible in December, and freshmen Charles McKinney and Derrell Robertson will have an impact, but its going to be another long year for the Blue Demons. The good news? There was hope. And there still is for the future. Its just not happening this year.