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Big East Preview / Projections

Big East Preview: Syracuse, UConn Lead the Way

With the Big East season kicking off tonight, now is the perfect time for a quick preview and projections. I've looked at each team's stats, nonconference performance and unbalanced Big East schedules to come up with the following rankings, in reverse order of expected finish in league play.

Last year, the Big East finished with an unprecedented 11 teams in the NCAA Tourney, as well as a national champion. Connecticut was good enough to win 10 consecutive postseason games, but was only able to finish ninth during Big East conference play.

This year, things aren't looking as rosy for the Big East. Sure, there are still a number of talented teams, but I doubt more than seven or eight teams will have a legitimate chance to make the Tourney. With an overall conference RPI at #4, Big East teams have fared worse than usual during nonconference play. Although several teams have excelled, most notably Syracuse and Louisville (still undefeated) and UConn, Georgetown, Marquette and Seton Hall (only one loss), the rest of the conference has stumbled at the outset. Still, in what will likely be the last season of the Big East as we know it, I expect nothing short of an uber-competitive, entertaining season.

16. DePaul (3-15)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Coming off another 16th place finish in conference play, which included only a single win during the regular season, Oliver Purnell's Blue Demons are looking to improve. Two sophomores lead the way: 6'8'' forward Cleveland Melvin (18.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and 6'3'' guard Brandon Young (17.4 ppg, 4.8 apg). The Blue Demons should improve, and three conference wins is definitely a low estimate, DePaul may not be consistent enough to stay out of the Big East basement.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Is it reasonable to think that DePaul can finish with zero or one conference wins for the fourth season in a row? DePaul had a mere seven total wins last year; this season, it already has nine (with wins against Texas Tech and Arizona State). And despite losing Tony Freeland, the Blue Demons have a core of young players, including nine guys averaging ten or more minutes per game. Senior guard Jeremiah Kelly (10.6 ppg, 4.1 apg) should provide steady leadership. With so many mediocre teams in the conference this year, this has to be the season when DePaul breaks out of the cellar. Right?

15. South Florida (4-14)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

After finishing 15th in conference play last season, South Florida hasn't changed all that much. Despite having one of the better frontcourts in the Big East, led by 6'10'' senior Augustus Gilchrist (11.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and 6'8'' junior Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (9.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg), the Bulls struggle from the perimeter (31.9% from three-point range). South Florida has already lost to Old Dominion, Penn State, VCU, Kansas, Auburn and Southern Miss.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because South Florida is deep and improving, with ten players averaging at least ten minutes per game. If guys like 6'4'' junior Jawanza Poland (10.0 ppg) and 6'7'' sophomore Victor Rudd (9.4 ppg) can limit their turnovers and do more to complement USF's veteran frontcourt, then this team can finish as high as 12th in the conference.

14. Notre Dame (4-14)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because Ben Hansbrough and Carleton Scott are gone and first-team player Tim Abromaitis tore his ACL and will miss the rest of the season. Despite finishing second in the conference last year, the Irish already have non-conference losses to Missouri, Georgia, Gonzaga, Maryland and Indiana (and a few of them were blowouts). This is clearly a rebuilding year for Mike Brey's team (and hopefully for his wardrobe as well). Rebounding will likely plague this team all season.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because Notre Dame always seems to exceed expectations. Year after year, the Irish are projected to finish in the middle of the conference, and yet they always seem to finish in the top 4. This year will certainly be a challenge, but a decent core of players is still in place. Guys like 6'1'' sophomore Eric Atkins (13.5 ppg, 4.0 apg) and 6'8'' senior Scott Martin (9.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg) should provide veteran leadership, while 6'5'' sophomore Jerian Grant (12.7 ppg, 4.4 apg) tries to assert himself a little more this season. Don't be shocked if this team finishes in the top 8. Unlikely, but given this team's track record, you never know.

13. St. John's (5-13)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because the Johnnies are the most inexperienced team in the conference. Without a single quality victory this season, St. John's already has losses to Arizona, Texas A&M, Northeastern and Detroit. At least three freshmen from Steve Lavin's star-studded recruiting class are ineligible, and guard Nurideen Lindsey transferred earlier this year. St. John's struggles from the field (43%) and the perimeter (26.1% on threes) and averages over 14 turnovers per contest. Those numbers will have to improve if the Johnnies are going to get better.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Despite being so young, St. John's is still very talented. Led by a trio of freshmen: 6'8'' forward Moe Harkless (14.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg), 6'3'' guard D'Angelo Harrison (14.2 ppg), and 6'6'' forward Sir'Dominic Pointer (6.5 ppg), St. John's could sneak up on some teams. God's Gift Achiuwa (12.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg) is one of the hardest working players on the court. And don't forget that another heralded freshman - Amir Garrett - just became eligible. As is the case with many young teams, the Red Storm should only get better throughout the season.

12. Providence (5-13)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

For a team that finished 14th last season, this projection seems about right. New coach Ed Cooley has led the Friars to nice wins over South Carolina and BC, and Providence has a good core of younger talent. Led by do-everything junior Vincent Council (16.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 6.9 apg), Providence has a potential first-team All Big East player to go along with several key role players like 6'4'' sophomore Gerard Coleman (15.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and 6'1'' sophomore Bryce Cotton (15.7 ppg).

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

If this projection turns out to be too generous, it will be because of too many turnovers and a lack of rebounding. Vincent Council (3.2 tpg) and Gerard Coleman (2.8 tpg) turn the ball over too often, and the lack of a solid inside presence could really hurt the Friars. If this projection turns out to be too conservative, it will be because of 6'6'' freshman LaDontae Henton (13.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg), who is already off to a tremendous start in his first season. And don't forget about 6'9'' sophomore Kadeem Batts. Batts, who was suspended indefinitely by Cooley, was recently reinstated. He should really help out on the inside.

11. Rutgers (6-12)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because despite losing so many veterans, Rutgers has a bevy of talented freshmen guards, including Myles Mack (10.5 ppg), Eli Carter (11.3 ppg) and Jerome Seagears (7.8 ppg, 2.5 apg). As these guys gain confidence, the Scarlet Knights will only get better. Sophomore Gil Biruta (11.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg) had a solid first season, and if he can get some help on the inside, or if RU's guards can start hitting perimeter shots on a more consistent basis, things should open up for Biruta. And fortunately for Rutgers, help is on the way, as freshmen big guys Malick Kone and Kadeem Jack soon return from injuries. Mike Rice and his staff have done a tremendous job so far.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because despite having one of the better recruiting classes in the conference, Rutgers enters this season without any veteran leadership. After losing Jonathan Mitchell, James Beatty, Mike Coburn and Robert Lumpkins to graduation, Rutgers doesn't have a single senior who plays meaningful minutes. Heading into the New Year, Rutgers still doesn't have a notable win, and already has losses against Miami, Illinois State, Richmond, LSU and Princeton. If things are going to turn around, it has to happen soon. The freshmen need to lead the way, which is never an easy task in the Big East. If the young guys lose confidence, it could be a long season for the Knights.

10. Seton Hall (7-11)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because 6'8'' senior Herb Pope (20.3 ppg, 11.4 rpg) is playing like the best frontcourt player in the conference. Now that Jeremy Hazell is gone, Seton Hall's half-court sets have improved, as sophomore forwards Fuquan Edwin (14.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Patrik Auda (9.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg) have been solid contributors in the paint. The Pirates are 11-1 and have solid wins against VCU, St. Joe's, Auburn, Wake Forest, and at Dayton. Surprising as it may be, Seton Hall looks good this season. Credit Kevin Willard for changing his game strategies to accommodate a different cast of players.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because Seton Hall struggles from the perimeter and lacks depth. Senior Jordan Theodore (15.8 ppg, 7.3 apg) is one of the best passers in the conference, but he's not a great shooter and, outside of Aaron Cosby, he doesn't have a lot of support. Don't forget that there are ten freshmen and sophomores on this team. It's a bit of a surprise that the Pirates are off to such a good start, but at some point, you have to wonder whether inexperience and a short bench might hurt them.

9. Villanova (9-9)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because it just seems like ‘Nova will have an up and down year as guys try to adjust their games in the absence of stars like Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher and Antonio Pena. Led by a trio of juniors - 6'2'' guard Maalik Wayns (17.4 ppg, 5.2 apg), 6'6'' forward Dominic Cheek (11.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and 6'10'' center Mouphtaou Yarou (12.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg) - Villanova has the talent to compete in the Big East. But without any notable nonconference wins, it remains to be seen whether this team can start putting it together.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

If this projection is too generous, it will be because of shooting. Perimeter shooting has been a staple of Jay Wright's teams over the years, but this team seems to be the exception. Wayns (41%) and Cheek (39%) both struggle from the field. Both will need to improve their shots if this team has a chance to finish in the top half of the conference. If this projection is too conservative, it will be because I am not giving enough credit to the young guys. Keep an eye on freshman JayVaughn Pinkston, who could see his role expand as the season progresses.

8. Cincinnati (10-8)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because Cincy returns a solid core of players from a team that went to the Sweet 16 last year. Senior Yancy Gates (13.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg) anchors the middle for the Bearcats, while sophomore Sean Kilpatrick (15.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg) joins 6'3'' senior Dion Dixon (13.3 ppg) and 6'0'' junior Cashmere Wright (11.7, 5.1 apg) in the backcourt. Although the suspensions to Gates and others for their roles in the brawl against Xavier may have put a black eye on the program, the suspensions have allowed young guys like Jaquon Parker and Cheikh Mbodj to receive some quality minutes. Expect Mbodj, a 6'10'' freshman from Senegal, to be a major contributor down the stretch for the Bearcats.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because Cincy is an undisciplined team which has already lost to Presbyterian and Marshall. For a team that has a lot of veteran leadership, Cincy often struggles in end-of-game situations. Cincy is not a very good perimeter shooting team, which puts a bit more pressure on Gates and others to score in the paint. What's perhaps most surprising is that Cincy was out-rebounded by Marshall by 13 rebounds. For a team that prides itself on its blue-collar mindset, that's not a good sign. Maybe the Bearcats miss departing seniors Rashad Bishop and Ibrahima Thomas more than they realize.

7. Louisville (11-7)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because even though Louisville has a deep and balanced squad, they don't particularly excel at any one thing. While it's true that the Cardinals have nine players averaging at least ten minutes per game, they struggle from the perimeter and average over 15 turnovers per contest. Louisville may be undefeated, but its best two games have been home wins against Vandy and Memphis (and both of those games came down to the wire). Sophomore Gorgui Dieng has been solid in the middle (10.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 2.9 bpg) and he's shooting an incredible 58.1% from the field. He's probably the only player in the country who has just as many offensive rebounds (61) as defensive rebounds. That's impressive. But against the bigger teams of the Big East, Louisville may struggle in the paint unless its frontcourt depth improves.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Rick Pitino always performs better in the second half of the season, and Louisville is undefeated, so many of you will think this projection is ridiculous. And you may be right. With steady leadership provided by seniors Peyton Siva (9.0 ppg, 6.4 apg) and Kyle Kuric (13.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Louisville could challenge for the title. (Freshman Chane Behanan (8.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg) has already boldly declared that Louisville will go undefeated this year.) And maybe it's good that this team doesn't have one true "star". It will make it all the more difficult to figure out who to stop. Guys like Russ Smith (10.5 ppg) and Chris Smith (10.4 ppg, 2.9 apg) have really looked good in the early part of this season. And watch out for 6'5'' freshman Wayne Blackshear, who has unexpectedly returned for the Cardinals after it was initially thought that he'd miss the year with a shoulder injury.

6. West Virginia (12-6)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because West Virginia is led by a pair of savvy senior veterans: 6'8'' forward Kevin Jones (21.0 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 56% from field) and Darryl "Truck" Bryant (16.3 ppg, 3.3 apg). The Mountaineers have been a bit up-and-down this season, with wins against Kansas State, Miami and Missouri State, and losses to Kent State, Mississippi State and Baylor (an overtime thriller). Junior Deniz Kilicli has been a solid force in the middle (11.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg), while freshman Jabarie Hinds (8.3 ppg, 3.8 apg) has proven to be one of the rising stars of the conference. His outside shooting can really make a huge difference this season.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

For a variety of reasons, most notably turnovers, a lack of depth and poor free throw shooting. Averaging over 15 turnovers per game, West Virginia will need to cut down on that mark if it is going to compete against the better teams in the conference. Truck Bryant (3.1 tpg), in particular, will need to protect the ball. For a team that likes to bang and score in the paint, it's also particularly disconcerting that WVU only shoots 61.6% from the charity stripe. Pittsburgh was able to overcome its weak free throw shooting to win the conference last year, but WVU isn't as deep or talented as last year's Pitt squad.

5. Pittsburgh (12-6)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

With nine players averaging ten or more minutes, Pitt is a deep and balanced squad led by all-conference player Ashton Gibbs (17.2 ppg, 3.3 apg) and savvy veterans like Nasir Robinson (12.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 68.3% from the field) and 6'9'' junior Dante Taylor (8.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 63.5 % from the field). Surprising losses against Long Beach State and Wagner are anomalies, and the loss to Wagner can probably be explained away by the absence of Travon Woodall (14.1 ppg, 8.3 apg), who has missed the last few weeks with groin and abdominal injuries. The 5'11'' Woodall is the engine that makes this offense go, and without his presence on the floor, Pitt struggles to get open looks. This Pitt team won't win the conference, but a fifth place finish seems reasonable.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because maybe this isn't the same Pitt team. Wins against Tennessee and Oklahoma State are decent, but not as eye-opening as those two losses. Even though Pitt has a lot of depth, Gibbs is really the only senior who plays any meaningful minutes. Outside of Gibbs, Pitt struggles to hit outside shots. With the recent transfer of highly touted freshman Khem Birch, maybe Pitt won't be as dominant as it usually is in the paint. And maybe the departures of role players like Gilbert Brown, Gary McGhee and Brad Wanamaker will negatively impact this Pitt team more than we think.

4. Marquette (12-6)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because Marquette is one of the most athletic and experienced teams in the conference. After a number of close conference losses last season, Marquette is primed to make a run this year. Led by a pair of seniors - 6'2'' guard Darius Johnson-Odom (17.7 ppg, 2.8 apg) and 6'6'' forward Jae Crowder (17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) - Marquette has recovered nicely from the departure of Jimmy Butler with wins against Ole Miss, Washington and at Wisconsin. Marquette has the talent and athleticism to run with the best teams in the conference. Guys like 6'4'' sophomore Vander Blue (10.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.4 apg) and Junior Cadougan (7.6 ppg, 5.5 apg) have looked solid in the backcourt, while 6'8'' sophomore Davante Gardner has been a nice contributor in the paint (8.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg).

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because Marquette doesn't shoot very well from the perimeter (zero 40% three-point shooters) and may not have enough depth in the frontcourt. Despite having a bevy of athletic players, Marquette is still a little undersized in the middle and will likely struggle against bigger teams. Still, while Marquette may not finish in the top four, it's hard to see this team dropping lower than seventh in the Big East.

3. Georgetown (13-5)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because Georgetown has the perfect combination of experience and youth to make some noise this season. With wins already at Alabama and against Memphis (twice), the Hoyas have been one of the surprise teams in the conference thus far. Led by 6'2'' senior Jason Clark (15.7 ppg) and 6'8'' junior Hollis Thompson (14.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 47.8% from three), Georgetown has a solid core of returning players. And with eight players averaging ten or more minutes, this Hoyas team has much more depth than in previous years. Perhaps the biggest feel-good story of the season has been the development of 6'10'' senior Henry Sims (12.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.7 apg), who has not only given the Hoyas some quality minutes in the paint, but has also emerged as perhaps the best passing big man in the country. Not surprising, given JTIII's history of developing big guys like Roy Hibbert, Jeff Green and Greg Monroe, but a bit unusual that Sims' biggest development has come between his junior and senior years of college. Despite the losses of veteran leaders like Austin Freeman and Chris Wright, this Georgetown team has the chance to go farther because of its length and team defense.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because Georgetown has started 10-1 the last five years and yet always seems to taper off as the season winds down. The Hoyas typically excel in the non-conference portion of their schedule, against teams that are less familiar with their Princeton-hybrid offense, and then settle down a bit once more familiar Big East foes are the competition. First-round exits against VCU and Ohio in the last two NCAA Tourneys haven't done much to inspire the Hoya faithful. The 2011-12 Hoyas are definitely young, but some of their younger guys, like 6'2'' sophomore Markel Starks (9.7 ppg) and 6'8'' freshman Otto Porter (8.3 ppg), are very talented. The key to this season for Georgetown will be the development of the young guys, and its lack of inside depth. Injuries to Tyler Adams and Moses Ayegba mean that forwards Nate Lubick and Mikael Hopkins could be called on to provide major minutes in the paint.

2. Connecticut (15-3)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because, despite the loss of Kemba Walker, UConn has the best starting five in the conference. Sophomores Jeremy Lamb (18.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Shabazz Napier (15.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6.7 apg) play like savvy veterans, while 6'0'' freshman Ryan Boatright (13.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.0 apg) may eventually be better than both of them. It's hard to believe, but Boatright already looks more polished and assertive than Kemba Walker did during his first two seasons. And let's not forget possible #1 overall pick in the NBA - the highly touted 6'11'' freshman Andre Drummond (10.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.9 bpg) - who has been a force for the Huskies in the paint. This UConn team also has more depth and length, surprisingly, than last year's squad. With Tyler Olander (7 ppg, 6rpg), Alex Oriakhi (7.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and role players like Roscoe Smith and DeAndre Daniels, UConn has arguably the best frontcourt in the conference. This team is that good.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because despite the talent, this team is still very young and already has a shocking loss to Central Florida. A solid group of eleven freshmen and sophomores combine to play almost all meaningful minutes for the Huskies. Alex Oriakhi, a junior, is the only upperclassman in the regular rotation. Can a team without any seniors win the conference? Another thing to watch out for is turnovers. Lamb and Napier average a combined 5.8 turnovers per game. That's too many.

1. Syracuse (16-2)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because Syracuse has the deepest and most experienced team in the conference, and likely the deepest team in the country. Led by a pair of seniors - 6'7'' forward Kris Joseph (14.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and 6'2'' guard Scoop Jardine (9.2 ppg, 3.9 apg) - the Orange boast one of the more talented backcourts in the conference with sophomore Dion Waiters (12.3 ppg, 2.7 apg, 2.1 spg) and junior Brandon Triche (9.8 ppg, 3.1 apg). Anchoring the middle is much-improved seven-foot sophomore Fab Melo (5.4 rpg, 2.4 bpg) and freshman standout Rakeem Christmas. Injuries won't be a problem for the team that is currently #1 in the country, as role players like James Southerland, C.J. Fair and freshman Michael Carter-Williams can step in to get the job done. This is quite possibly the best team Jim Boeheim has had.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

It's tough to see Syracuse finishing outside the top three, but if they do, it'll be because of a lack of interior scoring. Fab Melo and Rakeem Christmas are good defenders, but they aren't very polished offensively. Teams may start daring the Orange to throw the ball inside. (With 6'8'' guys like Southerland and Fair, though, Syracuse should have a decent amount of scoring in the post). It's also worth nothing that, despite its unblemished record, Syracuse hasn't really been tested yet. A home game against Florida aside, the Orange have only ventured outside New York once all season (a win at NC State). Things will not be so easy for the Orange once they leave home. Also, don't forget that this may very well be Syracuse's last year in the Big East. Unhappy rivals will be more than happy to take down the ‘Cuse in their final conference head-to-head matchups. Circle February 8th and 25th on your calendars.

Big East play begins tonight. Get ready for another exciting season.

Stay Casual, my friends.

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