Big East Preview: The Final Chapter?
It's that time of year again. Although this season will likely be the last hurrah for the Big East conference as we know it, we still have one more regular season's worth of conference games to get excited about. The matinee showdown between Cincy and Pittsburgh on December 31 and last night's slugfest between Marquette and UConn have marked the start of another grueling slate of conference games.
Below are the annual projections, including a quick and dirty look at each team and a series of fun facts. The projections are in reverse order of expected finish. With the departure of West Virginia, there are only fifteen teams in the Big East this year, which means that each team now plays four opponents twice (instead of the usual three). Because UConn is ineligible for postseason play, only fourteen teams will compete in the final BET; the top ten teams will receive a single bye, while the top four teams will receive a double bye. Here's one final preview before the allure of money, football and television destroys everything. Away we go....
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against Auburn and Arizona State. Losses to Gardner-Webb, Wichita State, Western Kentucky, Loyola-Illinois.
Play Twice: Connecticut, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, St. John's
Key Personnel Losses: N/A
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because the Blue Demons have finished in the Big East basement in each of the last two seasons and they don't appear to bethat much better this season. Despite continued speculation that this could be the year that DePaul breaks into the middle of the pack, including from ESPN's Dana O'Neil, who predicts a ninth place finish, I just don't see it. There's no doubt thatplayers like Cleveland Melvin (17.1 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and Brandon Young (16.2 ppg, 4,5 apg) are talented, there are just too many other good teams in this conference. Put me in the "I'll believe it when I see it" category. Losses to Gardner-Webb and Loyola-Illinois don't exactly inspire confidence.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because DePaul is more than just Melvin and Young. Players like Jamee Crockett and Moses Morgan have stepped up. In a conference that is very young, DePaul's top returning players include three juniors and one senior. And if DePaul really will have a breakthrough season, why not this year? Outside of the top three or four teams in the conference, is there any team that the Blue Demons definitely won't have a chance to beat? If anything, this is the year for mediocre teams to break through the glass ceiling.
Fun fact: Brandon Young's cousin is Kim English, a former standout at Missouri.
14. Seton Hall
Non-Conference Roundup: A win against Wake Forest. Losses to Washington and LSU.
Play Twice: Rutgers, Louisville, Providence, Marquette
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because Seton Hall lost its two best players and will need more time to figure out new roles. It's not easy to replace your leading scorers, including your nest rebounder and distributor. Fuquan Edwin (18.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg) is a good player, but he'll need help from others. The one-point victory against Stony Brook was telling. This team is in a transition year. Don't expect big things.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because Seton Hall has a bevy of talented players other than Edwin, including Eugene Teague (12.7 ppg), Aaron Cosby (11.1 ppg) and Brandon Mobley (9.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg). Given Seton Hall's recent history, perhaps a middle-of-the-pack finish should be expected, especially when you consider how mediocre the bottom half of this conference may be.
Fun fact: Kevin Willard is only 37 years old.
13. St. John's
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against Detroit and South Carolina. Losses to Murray State, Baylor, San Francisco and UNC Asheville.
Play Twice: DePaul, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Rutgers
Key Personnel Losses: Mo Harkless, God's Gift Achiuwa (redshirting this season)
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because St. John's may have the youngest team in the conference. Losing its best player, Mo Harkless, to the NBA doesn't help. And the decision to redshirt Achiuwa will mean that someone else will need to step up in the frontcourt. Sophomore D'Angelo Harrison is one of the best returning players in the league, but he can't win games on his own, especially nowthat he knows opposing defenses will target him.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because despite its youth, St. John's has enough talent to turn some heads and possibly finish in the middle of the pack. Freshman Jakarr Sampson (14.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg) is one of the best freshmen in the conference, while Phil Greene IV (10.0 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Amir Garrett will get a real chance to show what they can do. Watch out for 6'9'' freshman Chris Obekpa, who is a blocking machine. The kid is averaging over five blocks per contest.
Fun fact: Steve Lavin often goes by the nickname "Daddy Lavs".
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against Purdue and Vanderbilt. Losses to Alabama, Columbia, LaSalle and Temple.
Play Twice: Pittsburgh, Providence, South Florida, Syracuse
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because Nova loses two of its best players from a team that finished near the bottom of the conference last season. Sure, JayVaughn Pinkston (12.2 ppg) is back, and he should be one of the better players in the conference, but the rest of the team is a work in progress. Nova has already lost to teams like LaSalle and Columbia. Is it really that unreasonable to think they will struggle again during conference play? I expect to see many long scoring droughts, especially when Pinkston is off his game.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because this team has a lot more experience than you think, particularly in the frontcourt. With seniors Mouph Yarou (7.8 ppg) and Maurice Sutton, along with junior James Bell (10.7 ppg), Nova will have more frontcourt experience than most teams in the conference. Freshman Ryan Arcidiacono (11.5 ppg, 3.5 apg) has looked good early this season, and 6'11'' freshman Daniel Ochefu may see his minutes increase as conference play begins. This team won't finish in the top half of the conference, but twelfth place may be a little low. I can see Nova finishing as high as eighth or ninth.
Fun fact: Jay Wright is married to a former Villanova cheerleader.
11. South Florida
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against Georgia and George Mason. Losses to Oklahoma State, Central Florida and Western Michigan.
Play Twice: Connecticut, Louisville, Marquette, Villanova
Key Personnel Losses: Augustus Gilchrist, Ron Anderson Jr.
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because South Florida returns most of its players from a team that went to the NCAA Tournament last season and looked really good in February and March. Despite losing Gilchrist, USF has lots of frontcourt depth, with players like Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (11.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Victor Rudd (11.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Jawanza Poland. And with the return of sophomore point guard Anthony Collins (7.6 apg), the Bulls should have nice balance. The nonconference results, which include a win against George Mason, but losses to UCF and Western Michigan, confirm that it could be an up and down season.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because South Florida is one of the most experienced teams in the league and has a solid core of players that finished 12-6 in conference play last year. Everything I wrote in the paragraph above is reason to believe that USF can once against finish in the top half of the conference. Don't sleep on them.
Fun fact: South Florida hasn't always been the South Florida Bulls. They were known as the Golden Brahmans until the early 80s, when Rocky D. Bull made his first appearance.
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against GW, UAB. Losses to Ole Miss and St. Peter's.
Play Twice: Georgetown, Seton Hall, Cincinnati, St. John's
Key Personnel Losses: Gilvydas Biruta (transferred to URI)
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because Rutgers has one of the most dynamic backcourts in the conference, with sophomores Eli Carter (16.9 ppg, 2.7 apg) and Myles Mack (14.5 ppg, 2.7 apg). In the early part of the season, Mack has been shooting the lights out (51% from three). Throw in transfer Wally Judge, a former McDonald's All-American, and senior Dane Miller (8.7 ppg), and the Scarlet Knights seem to have the right combination of players to turn some heads this year. This may be their best chance in ten years to break into the middle of the pack.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because of inconsistent frontcourt play. Wally Judge provides much-needed talent, Austin Johnson provides leadership, and sophomore Kadeem Jack has improved tremendously; but it's still an open question whether these guys can perform well against Big East teams with strong frontcourts. If Judge gets into foul trouble (which has sometimes been an issue), Rutgers may not have the frontcourt depth to keep games close, especially on nights when Carter or Mack struggles to hit shots. Rutgers can probably finish as high as ninth, but it can also finish as low as fifteenth. I expect this team to show some flashes, particularly at home, but it may be too tough of a challenge to get over the hump and erase the Rutgers stigma.
Fun fact: Rutgers hasn't played in the NCAA Tournament since 1991, the longest current drought in the conference.
Non-Conference Roundup: Win against Mississippi State. Losses to UMass, Penn State, BC and Brown.
Play Twice: Syracuse, Villanova, Connecticut, Seton Hall
Key Personnel Losses: N/A
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because Providence has one of the best backcourts in the conference. The combination of Bryce Cotton (22.0 ppg), Vincent Council, and freshman phenom Kris Dunn (6.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 7.0 apg) is impressive. While it may be true that the Friars have lost to some middling teams already during nonconference play, it's important to keep in mind that their best playmaker, Vincent Council, has been sidelined for several weeks with a hamstring injury. When Council returns, Providence will be a completely different team. Down low, Providence has one of the better big men in the conference, LaDontae Henton (17.3 ppg, 7.9 rpg), in addition to Kadeem Batts (16.1 ppg) and freshman Josh Fortune. I expect Providence to get better as the season goes on.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because although Providence has a nice core of players, it still hasn't been able to put all of the pieces together. Even without Council, if Providence is ready to take the next step, it needs to beat teams like UMass, BC and Brown. One early season hiccup is understandable, but four losses to mediocre competition is not going to get it done. If Council's hamstring injury lingers, or if Council and Dunn take a long time to gel, things could get ugly for the Friars. Finishing ninth may turn out to be a ceiling for this team; they could also finish in the basement.
Fun fact: Kris Dunn tore his labrum in June 2012. He played high school ball in New London, Connecticut. His team's mascot? The Whalers.
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against Wisconsin, Mississippi State, USC and LSU. Losses to Green Bay, Butler and Florida.
Play Twice: Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Seton Hall, South Florida
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because even without Jae Crowder and DJO, Marquette still has a lot of balance and experience this year. Five of its six best players are either juniors or seniors. Led by Vander Blue (13.4 ppg) and Junior Cadougan (9.5 ppg, 4.6 apg) on the perimeter, and Davante Gardner (12.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg) in the middle, the Golden Eagles are already off to a good start. They should get even better now that Todd Mayo has just returned from an injury. It's hard for me to see Marquette finishing in the bottom half of the conference. With the way this team has played in the last five years, and the way Buzz Williams coaches, if you think Marquette will end up in the basement, you're probably wrong.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because Marquette didn't just lose its two best players; it lost two of the best players in the conference. It won't be easy trying to replace Crowder and DJO. Guys will have to figure out new roles and, more often than not, Marquette may struggle to score. Wins against Wisconsin and LSU look nice, but that loss to Green Bay (not the NFL team) kind of stings. Marquette has a handful of good players, but will that be enough in the rugged Big East? Perhaps it's not a stretch to say this will be a rebuilding year and Marquette may finish as low as twelfth.
Fun fact: Vander Blue's mom's name is Rita.
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against Iowa State, Oregon, Alabama and Xavier. Loss to New Mexico.
Play Twice: Connecticut, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Rutgers
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because even though the Bearcats have one of the more dominant backcourts in the league, their frontcourt is still a work in progress. Sean Kilpatrick (18.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Cashmere Wright (14.0 ppg, 3.5 apg) and JaQuon Parker (11.8 ppg) provide a nice core of talent for Cincy, and the Bearcats may very well compete for a top four finish. But the two biggest weapons in the frontcourt - Cheikh Mbodj and Justin Jackson - will have to make great strides this season if Cincy is going to meet or exceed this year's lofty expectations. Most analysts have this team finishing in the top three of the conference, but until I see more production in the middle, I think a middle of the pack finish is more likely. The loss of Yancy Gates will sting more than most people think.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because Cincy returns most players from a team that went to the Big East championship game and the Sweet 16 last year. Yancy Gates may be gone, but he was never as important as Kilpatrick or Wright. With guards like those, Cincy can compete with any team in the conference, including Louisville. Early in the season, the Bearcats have looked good, but not great. But Cincy has one of the deepest teams in the conference (ten players average ten or more minutes per game). Maybe all the experts are right. Maybe Cincy is for real this year.
Fun fact: Mick Cronin is the only Cincinnati head coach to ever lead the Bearcats to a victory against a better seed in the NCAA Tourney.
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against several mediocre teams, including Mount St. Mary's, Bethune-Cookman, Fordham, Lehigh, Delaware, Howard, Delaware State, North Florida and Kennesaw State. Loss to Michigan (by only five points).
Play Twice: Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette, Villanova
Why this projection is probably accurate: With ten players averaging ten minutes or more, Pittsburgh has a deep and balanced team. Looking to bounce back from a disappointing season, the Panthers are led by improving junior Talib Zanna (13.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and senior point guard Tray Woodall (11.7 ppg, 5.8 apg). Throw in veteran role players like J.J. Moore, Lamar Patterson and Dante Taylor, along with promising freshmen like Steven Adams, a seven-footer, and James Bell, and the Panthers seem to have the right combination of players. If Pitt hovers somewhere in the middle of the conference, I think they'll end up near the top of the middle because they don't have to play Louisville, Syracuse, UConn, Georgetown or Notre Dame twice.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because Pitt loses two players - Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson -- from a team that wasn't even that good last year. Sure, Pitt is off to a good start, but it's impossible to know how good they really are. Pitt has enough wins against cupcakes to host a children's birthday party. Pitt has a couple of tough matchups early in the season. We'll find out very quickly whether this team is for real.
Fun fact: In the 1987 NBA draft, the Washington Bullets selected Muggsy Bogues and Jamie Dixon.
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against Michigan State, Harvard and Washington. Losses to New Mexico and NC State.
Play Twice: Cincinnati, Providence, South Florida, DePaul
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because Shabazz Napier (16.5 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Ryan Boatright (15.8 ppg, 4.6 apg) form one of the best backcourts in the conference (and perhaps even the country). Sure, UConn will miss Lamb and Drummond and Roscoe Smith; but guys like DeAndre Daniels (10.0 ppg) and Omar Calhoun (11.2 ppg), a 6'5'' freshman, can also play. And role players such as Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander are more than serviceable. Without any hope of advancing to the postseason, every conference game will be that much more meaningful for a proud UConn team that remains bitter about all of the conference defections. I expect that Kevin Ollie, in his first year as head coach, will have this team ready to compete every night. As for why I put UConn slightly ahead of Pitt and Cincy, it's because of the schedules. Compared to those schools, the Huskies have a relatively easier conference schedule.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because UConn simply lost too much talent. Without Lamb in the backcourt and Drummond in the frontcourt, UConn will struggle. Napier is not a great shooter and Boatright can be erratic at times. With so many quality backcourts in the Big East this year, the Huskies' guards might be neutralized, especially against teams with bigger guards on the perimeter. Also, it's still unclear whether the lack of a postseason will help or hurt UConn's performance. If the Huskies get off to a bad start, will the players just start to pack it in?
Fun fact: During his professional career, Kevin Ollie played for thirteen different NBA teams.
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against UCLA, Texas and Tennessee. Lost in overtime to Indiana.
Play Twice: Rutgers, St. John's, Syracuse, Marquette
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because even though Georgetown loses its three leading scorers from last season, it still has enough talent to stay competitive near the top of the conference. Led by do-everything sophomore Otto Porter (13.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.2 apg, 2.2 spg), the Hoyas have one of the best players in the conference. Throw in Greg Whittington (12.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg), the Hoyas' best defender, and Markel Starks (10.1 ppg), an experienced guard, and Georgetown boasts an impressive core of players. Wins against UCLA, Texas and Tennessee, and a close loss to then-#1 Indiana are a testament to how strong this team can be when it is clicking on all cylinders, as it frequently is under John Thompson III. With a starting lineup that includes four players 6'8'' or taller, Georgetown will be a tough matchup for most teams, especially when its press is effective. When Markel Starks plays well, this team can beat anyone.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because this team is still very young (no seniors, only two juniors). And because the Hoyas often struggle to hit perimeter shots, and they lack a true center. During JTIII's tenure, the Hoyas have always had a skilled center in the middle of the action (Roy Hibbert, Greg Monroe, Henry Sims); this year, Georgetown relies on a combination of Nate Lubick and Mikael Hopkins. The development of Hopkins, in particular, will go a long way in determining how far Georgetown can go. It's worth noting that against Towson and Tennessee, the Hoyas went through long scoring droughts; in the absence of a reliable perimeter scoring threat, when the Hoyas' defense is not creating turnovers, Georgetown's offensive futility may lead to a few losses against lesser opponents.
Fun fact: The Hoyas have four players averaging over two assists per game. I'm too lazy to determine whether other teams boast similar balance when it comes to sharing the ball; my guess is that this statistic is pretty unique.
3. Notre Dame
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against Kentucky, BYU and Purdue. Lost to St. Joe's.
Play Twice: Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, St. John's
Key Personnel Losses: Tim Abromaitis
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because the Irish are probably the most experienced team in the league and return several key players from a team thatperformed very well last season. In what feels like his 18th year in the conference, Luke Harangody's little brother, Jack Cooley (15.2 ppg, 11.3 rpg), leads ND in the frontcourt, along with senior Scott Martin (8.5 ppg) and improving 6'10'' junior Garrick Sherman (9.9 ppg). Two juniors, Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins, will once again anchor the backcourt; together, Grant and Atkins combine for over 12.5 assists pergame. Cameron Biedscheid, a 6'7'' freshman, has come along nicely in his first two months of action. Every year I underrate this team, and every year Mike Brey's team overachieves (until the inevitable early loss in the postseason). I guess the "slow burn" offense works. Either way, in a conference with lots of young guys, Notre Dame certainly seems to have the most veterans.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because Notre Dame's defense isn't always that strong, and because the Irish tend to perform poorly against teams thatguard the perimeter well. When Notre Dame isn't knocking down perimeter shots, it typically struggles to score. I can see the Irish finishing as high as first (yes, I believe that) or as low as seventh, so third feels about right.
Fun fact: Mike Brey has been named Big East Coach of the Year three times. Mike Brey taught high school history for five years. Apparently, Mike Brey wears mock turtlenecks because when he was the head coach at Delaware, the nights were cold and the bus rides were long. I hate Mike Brey.
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against San Diego State and Arkansas. Lost to Temple.
Play Twice: Georgetown, Louisville, Providence, Villanova
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because the Orange once again have one of the deepest and most talented teams in the conference. Even though Syracuse loses four key players from a team that advanced to the Elite Eight last year, there are still plenty of guys who are back. With guys like James Southerland (14.0 ppg), Brandon Triche (13.9 ppg, 3.5 apg) and C.J. Fair (12.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg), the Orange have three veteran guys who have played lots of minutes. Throw in Michael Carter-Williams (11.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 9.9 apg), arguably one of the best pure point guards in the country, and Syracuse has as much depth as any team out there.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because the frontcourt is good, but it's not great. Rakeem Christmas (7.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg) looks better this year, and Baye Keita and DaJuan Coleman should provide some quality minutes, but Syracuse will no longer have Fab Melo's big defensive presence in the middle. And let's not forget the fact that Syracuse loses a lot of talent. It won't be easy to replace Jardine, Waiters, Joseph and Melo. The Orange had a nice win against San Diego State, but do we really know that much about a team whose second best win may have been against Canisius? Also, for as good as Carter-Williams has been, he's also been erratic. He averages 3.3 steals per game, but also averages 3.8 turnovers per game. And he's shooting only 37% from the floor. MCW needs to shoot less and pass more if Syracuse will meet this year's lofty expectations.
Fun fact: Freshman Jerami Grant is the son of former NBA player Harvey Grant (and the nephew of Horace Grant). One of his brothers, Holdyn Jerian, currently plays for Notre Dame. Back in 2005, two of Jim Boeheim's favorite shows were ER and CSI:Miami.
Non-Conference Roundup: Wins against Kentucky, Missouri (by 23 points) and Memphis. Lost to Duke.
Play Twice: Syracuse, Notre Dame, Seton Hall, South Florida
Key Personnel Losses: Kyle Kuric, Chris Smith
Why this projection is probably accurate: Because Louisville returns a core of players that advanced all the way to the Final Four last season. With Peyton Siva (12.0 ppg, 5.8 apg) and Russ Smith (19.8 ppg) leading one of the best backcourts in the country, the Cardinals have enough veterans to steer Louisville past any potential bumps in the road. And with Chane Behanan (11.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and Gorgui Dieng (7.8 rpg) anchoring the middle, Louisville also boasts one of the better frontcourts in the conference (in a year when there are only a few teams in the Big East that can say they have solid frontcourts). Also keep an eye on Montrezl Harrell, a 6'8''freshman who keeps getting better. If you need another reason, take a look at Louisville's defense. It may be the best defense in the country.
Why this projection is probably inaccurate: Because when Louisville isn't generating easy baskets off of turnovers (thanks to its full-court pressure), it sometimes struggles to score. Russ Smith is really the only consistent perimeter shooter on this team, so if some of the better teams in the conference can limit turnovers and use a zone, Louisville is vulnerable. Still, Louisville won't finish below third in the conference. They're just too talented.
Fun fact: Rick Pitino owns a horse named Russdiculous, named after star guard Russ Smith. The horse has earned over $12,000 since 2010.
If this is going to be the last real season of the Big East, then it be the last real season. Let's get this nonsense started. Make Dave Gavitt proud.