With the majority of teams wrapping up their non conference schedules, and conference play set to start up, it’s time for TSHQ’s conference previews. In the next couple of weeks the TSHQ will break down every major conference and also tell you what to look out for in terms of teams outside the major six conferences. I will breakdown the team by team rankings, best players, top coaches and best match ups from all the major conferences in college basketball. To tip off my series of Previews, here is a conference breakdown of the always deep Big East.
Pittsburgh- The Panthers are led by one of the best young coaches in college basketball in Jamie Dixon and are known for their tough defense and scrappy junkyard dog mentality. This year is no different as the 6th ranked Panthers have jumped out to a 11-1 start, and rank 2nd nationally in rebounding per game. The Panthers have maybe the best shooter in college basketball in Ashton Gibbs and and two capable senior scorers in Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown. The Panthers also have the biggest home court advantage in the Big East at the Peterson Events Center (even tougher than my Carrier Dome) and are built on defense and rebounding, two ingredients that should mean Big East success. This team is by far the toughest and most physical team in the conference and in the most physical conference in the country, the aggressor and the bully Pittsburgh will come out on top over younger teams like Syracuse and Villanova.
Syracuse-The Orange lost three key cogs from the team that earned a #1 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament but returned 4 players who logged major minutes and brought in a top 5 recruiting class. The Orange have played a light non conference schedule with the exception of an impressive win over Michigan State, but have struggled against opponents such as Detroit,William and Mary and Iona. Syracuse is probably a deeper team than Pittsburgh but seem to have problems scoring the ball and shooting the 3. With freshman Fab Melo struggling to produce like he was predicted to and Kris Joseph still adjusting to his new role as the go to scorer, Syracuse will continue to struggle but when this team irons out the kinks, they are as talented as anyone in the Big East and maybe the country. If Rick Jackson continues to play like an All-American, and Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph become more consistent scorers as the season goes on, Syracuse will be neck and neck with Pittsburgh and Villanova for the Big East Title.
Villanova- Scottie Reynolds is gone, so the Wildcat’s are now Corey Fisher’s team and that is not so bad when you consider that Fisher averaged 13 points and 4 assists last season. Fisher made news this off season when it was reported that he scored 105 points in a pickup game in a New York City summer league, a supposed NYC record for points scored. This game does not mean Corey will go out and score 100 in a college game but exhibits the kind of ability and kind of scorer Fisher can be at his best. Teaming up with Fisher, is Corey Stokes another talented scorer who can flat out shoot and a trio of highly touted sophomores who enter there sophomore season with lofty expectations. Mouphtaou Yarou, Dominic Cheek and Maalik Wayns hold the key for ‘Nova as these three sophomores will be called on for more production in the absence of Reynolds and fellow graduate Reggie Redding. Villanova has gotten off to a nice start but their youth will be tested in the Big East as the team will be forced to lean heavily on Fisher and Stokes for veteran leadership.
Georgetown- Yes, Greg Monroe is gone and UConn is ranked higher in the current polls but Georgetown will be right in the thick of the Big East conversation going into March. The Hoyas are a dangerous team because they have three very talented upperclassmen in Freeman, Wright and Clark who are disappointed in the way last season ended (loss to Ohio in 1st round of NCAA’s). I think the Hoyas are going largely unnoticed because of the other 4 top 10 teams in the conference which makes them a scary team considering all the talent they have in the backcourt. The Hoyas come in with only 1 loss, a 3 point defeat at Temple, but with Memphis coming up later in the week and their Big East opener at the tough Joyce Center against 20th ranked Notre Dame just a week away, we should have a better idea about how good John Thompson’s team really is in a weeks time. Their balanced scoring and toughness personified by point guard Chris Wright gives them the slight edge over rising Connecticut.
Connecticut- The early season darling of college basketball continues to go unblemished behind scoring machine Kemba Walker. The Maui Invitational Champs were picked to finish middle of the pack preseason but with Walker, the emergence of center Alex Oriakhi and the always exciting Shabazz Napier, Coach Calhoun has his Huskies thinking Big East Title. The Huskies still have to play 10 teams currently ranked in the top 25 and have to play at West Virginia and Marquette so expect the Huskies to drop a few games coming up but to be well inside the top half of the Big East come seasons end. This team will go as far as Kemba Walker takes them and I think that is the top 4 or 5 in the Big East but not far enough to win the regular season championship due to a lack of balance and a murderous remaining schedule. Nevertheless Coach Calhoun has a very exciting team in Storrs, one that could easily make a run to in the conference tournament at MSG in March based on their performance in Maui over the Thanksgiving weekend.
West Virginia-People forget that this team made it all the way to the Final Four last season before losing to eventual champion Duke. Yes, the team lost stars Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks to the NBA, but still return 8 rotation players headlined by Kevin Jones and Casey Mitchell. Mitchell has been lights out shooting the ball this season as the Mountaineers have gotten out to an 8-2 start for Bob Huggins. West Virginia no longer has that star player but with tremendous depth and 4 players averaging double figures, WV should highlight the second tier of teams in the Big East. West Virginia always play with toughness, something engrained in them by their coach Bob Huggins and expect this year to be no different as the Mountaineers will go dancing again because of their defense and ability to win close games in the always tough Big East.
Notre Dame- The Fighting Irish were ranked as low as 10th in the Big East by some publications,which was shocking to me considering they returned 4 of their key contributors from last year’s tournament team. Luke Harangody moving on to the NBA is misleading as Notre Dame played their best basketball down the stretch last season when Harangody was regulated to the bench in favor of a more defensive lineup. Harangody was the teams best scorer but the team was able to win their last 6 Big East contests without him in thr starting lineup allowing an average of just 53 points a game over that strecth. Tim Abromaitis along with Ben Hansbrough give Notre Dame two go to scorers and with the continued development of Carleton Scott and Tyrone Nash, the 10-1 Irish are making a seamless transition without former point guard Tory Jackson and their beloved ‘Gody.
Marquette- Like West Virginia another team that was written off this year because of the publicity surrounding the top 4 teams in the conference. The Golden Eagles lose leading scorer Lazar Hayward to graduation but return their next two leading scorers Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom. Marquette also brings in a top recruiting class and have received nice contributions from freshmen Vander Blue(9.8ppg) and Davante Gardner(7.4 ppg). Marquette still play at Vanderbilt before starting Big East play but have lost three games by a combined 13 points so far this season. Losses to #1 Duke, #18 Gonzaga and in state rival Wisconsin are far from bad losses, as Marquette has performed admirably in their three toughest contests so far. Marquette does not have any good out of conference wins to show for their performances and even with a win at Vandy their tournament fate will be dependent on their Big East record, which was 11-7 last season. Marquette’s consistency keeps them in the top half of the Big East ahead of enigmatic or unproven teams like Louisville, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Cincinnati.
St. John’s -Steve Lavin inherited a team that returned all but Anthony Mason Jr. but early on the Johnnies have struggled to carve out their identity with early season losses to lowly Fordham and St Bonaventure. The Red Storm have the talent to reach their first NCAA tournament since 2002 but early on have disappointed in Coach Lavin’s first season. Dwight Hardy, Justin Brownlee and D.J. Kennedy have all scored like expected but St. John’s needs Paris Horne(8ppg) and Justin Burrell(4.7ppg) to return to the form they enjoyed as sophomores when the two combined for almost 25 points a game. I think the Johnnies are just struggling to find a consistent rotation, and once they do settle on a rotation will improve their play and make a run at the NCAA’s. I give St. John’s the edge over Louisville because of the presence of 7 key seniors and their ability to go 10 deep without any drop off.
Louisville- The Cardinals have gotten off to a 9-1 start with wins against Butler and UNLV but also have an early season loss to upstart Drexel. The Cardinals leading returning scorer Jared Swopshire averaged just 7.5 ppg last season and went down before the season with a groin injury. That leaves Preston Knowles and former McDonald’s All -American Peyton Siva to fill a huge scoring void vacated by the loss of Samardo Samuels, Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith. Louisville is always talented but I don’t see this team competing with the elite in the Big East because of their inexperience and lack of scoring ability. I didn’t expect that much out of Louisville because of their key personnel losses but they have surprised me early in this season and will be competing for a tournament spot come March.
Seton Hall- I was high on the Pirates coming into the season because of the inside outside scoring combination of Jeremy Hazell and forward Herb Pope. The Pirates also hired Kevin Willard as head coach removing former coach and huge distraction Bobby Gonzalez from the position. Unfortunately for “The Hall” Jeremy Hazell suffered a wrist injury early in the season limiting him to three games so far this season as Seton Hall has limped out to just a 6-4 start. Hazell will be out until at least early January after undergoing wrist surgery, so it will be interesting to see if the Pirates can weather the storm until the return of their star Hazell. The Pirates will rely heavily on Jeff Robinson and Jordan Theodore to score during Hazell’s absence but if the Pirates can stay relevant until Hazell returns, the senior might be able to carry them into the NCAA’s. The NCAA committee takes injuries into consideration when selecting the field of 68 so if the Pirates were to get hot in Big East play with Hazell in the lineup, Seton Hall may have a chance to squeak in the newly expanded field.
Cincinnati- The Bearcats are 10-0 but their only win of any note so far is a blowout win over a so-so Dayton squad. Cincy lost their two best players in Lance Stephenson and Deonta Vaughn but do return forward Yancy Gates along with guard Dion Dixon. The Bearcats may be better suited without Vaughn and Stephenson as their egos sometimes got in the way of the team concept last season for coach Mick Cronin. Yancy Gates is the key as they need the junior forward to continue his development and to compete on the glass with Big East forwards like Rick Jackson, Herb Pope and Antonio Pena. The Bearcats have yet to play anyone and I think will face a rude awakening once their schedule picks up in early January. Cincinnati is no better than the 10th best team in the Big East, so don’t expect to see the Bearcats undefeated much longer or for their name to be called on Selection Sunday.
Providence-The Friars were dealt a tough blow when their leading scorer and rebounder Jamine Peterson was dismissed from the team for violation of team rules. The Friars still have Marshon Brooks and Vincent Council and have gotten off to a nice 10-2 start for coach Keno Davis. The Friars have some talent but are in the wrong conference as they are just too young and flat out over matched in comparison to the top teams in the Big East. Many picked Providence last or 2nd last during the preseason but with the emergence of Marshon Brooks, I think the Friars can top USF, Rutgers and the Blue Demons of DePaul.
Rutgers- Mike Rosario, the schools most highly touted recruit in 10 years and leading scorer transferred to Florida in the off-season leaving new coach Mike Rice with a lot of question marks in Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights are led by two seniors in Jonathon Mitchell and Mike Coburn and also have a rising star in sophomore Dane Miller. Mike Rice who was known for his defensive mindset at Robert Morris will bring a new attitude to Rutgers and if his players buy in Rutgers could be better than expected considering the loss of Rosario and shot blocker Hamady Ndiaye.
South Florida- USF will be an exciting team led by Augustus Gilchrist and community college transfer Jawanza Poland, who leads the Bulls in scoring at 11 points a game. The Bulls are very young with only one senior on the roster, so this year will be a rebuilding year in comparison to last years 20-13 squad , but this is a team that is capable of playing spoiler on an given night.
DePaul- The Blue Demons made a great move this season hiring a proven winner at head coach in former Clemson boss Oliver Purnell. Purnell has turned around programs before take Old Dominion, Dayton and Clemson for instance and in a basketball hotbed like Chicago, I expect DePaul to turn it around once Purnell gets a chance to recruit. This year will be tough for DePaul as they lost Will Walker and Mac Koshwal and return very little from a team that only won 1 game in conference last season. The Blue Demons have played around .500 ball for most of the early season led by freshman Brandon Young and sophomore Tony Freeland, two signs of the young talent that exists in Chicago. Give Purnell three years to recruit in an area like Chicago and the Demons will be back in contention in the Big East faster than many think.
Big East Awards
1st Team All Big East
Tim Abromaitis-Notre Dame
Rick Jackson – Syracuse
Jeremy Hazell-Seton Hall
Player of the Year- Kemba Walker, Connecticut
If he produces half of what he’s produced so far he will win the award easily as Walker has taken Connecticut from a preseason afterthought and made them into a serious Big East contender. Walker is averaging 27 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists a game for the unbeaten Huskies.
Also considered: Austin Freeman, Ashton Gibbs and Rick Jackson.
Coach of the Year- Jim Calhoun, Connecticut
This is always a tough call considering the coaching names within this conference, but Connecticut has been the biggest surprise so far this season and Coach Calhoun has to be given some credit for their hot start.
Also considered :Mike Brey, Jamie Dixon, Steve Lavin, Rick Pitino.
Freshman of the Year-Dion Waiters, Syracuse
While fellow freshman Fab Melo has struggled Waiters has been a key contributor for the 12-0 Orange. Waiters is averaging almost 8 points a game in just 16 minutes of playing time a night. The freshman from Philly has become the first option off of the bench for coach Boeheim and the Orange.
Also Considered: Vander Blue, Brandon Young, C.J. Fair, Shabazz Napier.
Most Improved Player of the Year- Alex Oriakhi, Connecticut
The center from Uconn looked lost most of last season but has really stepped his game thus far this season, averaging a double-double for the Huskies, while blocking over 2 shots a game on the defensive end.
Also Considered: Ben Hansbrough, Casey Mitchell, Marshon Brooks, Peyton Siva.
Best Game: January 17th Syracuse @ Pittsburgh.
This game could determine the Big East regular season champion and with the game being played at the Zoo in Pittsburgh the Panthers have to be the favorite.
By Gus Elvin