College basketball season began 46 days ago. Feels like longer, doesn't it? There are lots of reasons to remain optimistic about the Hoyas' chances heading into Big East play. However, you already know what our team has been up to. Now it’s time to take a look at what the preseason has shown about our conference-mates. Moving from West to East, this morning’s chapter covered the midwestern contingent.
Now, we look at the four remaining teams along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor...
Villanova Wildcats (12-0) - #1 (W12)
Best Win: Notre Dame (#23)
Worst Loss: N/A
Grads/Departures: Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu
New Kids on the Block? Omari Spellman (Fr. - academically ineligible, not playing), Eric Paschall (transfer), Tim Delaney (RS Fr.), Dylan Painter (Fr.)
Tearjerker Award for making Hoyas fans sob into their post-game lunch? Jalen Brunson. He is a hard-working, agile guard whose ability to penetrate then shoot or make the tough pass will wreak havoc with opponents’ defensive rotations, particularly if they focus strongly on blanketing Hart. Being even a single step slow every time he gets the ball will let the deficit grow all too quickly. Additionally, the sophomore has something to prove after playing a complementary backup role last season. He could have been in the starting lineup at nearly any other school, yet the idea of team success was compelling enough to bring him to the Main Line. This season, he is not only a part of the team - he gets to run the show.
Expectations: Jay Wright has coached the Wildcats into an efficient and unselfish unit, capable of adapting their attack to best target opponents’ weaknesses. Scoring was not foreseen as a problem area for the defending National Champions. Josh Hart, preseason BEPOY and strong candidate for National Player of the Year, is performing at a level where those predictions are looking very accurate. (NB: Those last two sentences were painful to write.) Kris Jenkins brought his shot back for senior year and transfer Eric Paschall has integrated himself effectively. On the other hand, the defensive abilities of 4-year players are much harder to replicate with a less experienced roster, as Jalen Brunson and Darryl Reynolds take over key roles. Until he was ruled ineligible on a (dubious) NCAA technicality, it was expected that 5-star recruit Omari Spellman would be the primary center. Villanova has allowed three opponents to shoot >55% from inside the arc this season, so the frontcourt-by-committee is not without some hiccups when faced with a dominant interior presence. The Wildcats are still the team to beat.
Seton Hall Pirates (10-2) - RV (W6)
Best Win: South Carolina (#16)
Worst Loss: Florida and Stanford both have a top-50 RPI.
Grads/Departures: Isaiah Whitehead (draft), Derrick Gordon
New Kids? Jevon Thomas (transfer), Myles Powell (Fr.), Eron Gordon (Fr.)
Tearjerker: Ismael Sanogo. He is the epitome of the “balance” that Seton Hall’s coach named as the defining characteristic for this season’s band of Pirates. The entire squad’s defense is planned around his activity, relying on his blocks, steals and drawn charges to prevent opponents from developing any offensive momentum. When handling the ball, he is natural facilitator with great court awareness who will adapt his game quickly to focus on creating opportunities for teammates if he is not scoring. Characterizing Sanogo as a sidekick is wrong. He’s the one pulling the strings.
Expectations: Whitehead’s decision to enter the NBA draft after his sophomore season had two distinct impacts on the Seton Hall program. First, it meant that last season’s Big East Tournament champs would not find themselves in the AP Top 25 when play began. Second, Kevin Willard immediately referenced his group’s depth and said, “Our team will be much more balanced this year." Opponents should be particularly concerned with the improved outside shooting of Khadeen Carrington and tenacious rebounding of Angel Delgado, who is averaging nearly 12 boards per game. The big man struggled with fouls as an underclassman, but has gotten smarter and more assertive on the offensive end. On his wing is Dunkin’ Desi Rodriguez, whose nickname undersells his ability to attack the opponent’s defense in a variety of ways. If the Pirates can maintain equilibrium, they will be dangerous.
St. John’s Red Storm (6-7) - NR (W1)
Best Win: Syracuse. By 33 points. In the Carrier Dome.
Worst Loss: Delaware State
Grads/Departures: Durand Johnson, Ron Mvouika, Christian Jones, Felix Balamou, Yankuba Sima (transfer)
New Kids? Marcus LoVett (RS Fr.), Bashir Ahmed (transfer), Shamorie Ponds (Fr.), Tariq Owens (transfer)
Tearjerker: Shamorie Ponds. Named the preseason Freshman of the Year at Big East media day, the first-year player from Brooklyn looks like he’ll hang onto that title through March. With PG Marcus LoVett sidelined by an ankle injury early in December, Ponds has stepped up and provided leadership both on the stat sheet and with his calm demeanor. In last week’s win over the Orange, he had 21 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists and four steals. When his teammates are not scoring, the freshman can drop 20 points all by himself and demand respectability from the opposing team.
Expectations: The Red Storm are have the skill and personnel to perform better than last season. Chris Mullin was a first-time head coach starting with an effectively decimated roster, so the rebuilding job was never going to be completed overnight. They have shown the ability to hang with teams like Michigan State and VCU, a definitive step up from a stretch last season where SJU went 1-22 with the only win coming against DePaul. A 33-point win at the Carrier Dome that featured 27 assists was not a fluke. Tariq Owens is an instinctual shot-blocker and the combo of a healthy LoVett with Ponds will make for a formidable backcourt. What the Red Storm need to work on in consistency of both personnel and performance. Complicating matters, at least for the next couple of weeks, is the loss of starting guard Federico Mussini to an unspecified infection and forward Amar Alibegovic with a knee injury. St. John’s fans need to be patient, but it’s hard to blame them for being frustrated with the obstacles their program has faced over the past few years.
Providence Friars (10-3) - NR (L1)
Best Win: Rhode Island (#21)
Worst Loss: Boston College. It’s always bad to lose to them, right?
Grads/Departures: Kris Dunn (draft), Ben Bentil (draft), Junior Lomomba (grad transfer)
New Kids? Alpha Diallo (Fr.), Maliek White (Fr.), Isaiah Jackson (transfer), Emmitt Holt (transfer)
Tearjerker: Emmitt Holt. The former Indiana player’s most consistent attribute is his efficiency. He takes smart shots and makes them more than 50% of the time. A cerebral player who sizes up his opponent’s sets and develops a plan is going to challenge the Hoyas to make adjustments on the fly, which is not always their strong suit. With the height of a power forward and the 7’3” wingspan of a center, his combination of mobility and pull-up shooting is difficult to neutralize. He often receives the tall defensive order of guarding big men, but exploits the mismatch with his versatile skillset at the other end of the court. And if you’re ever looking for a bonus reason to complain about Holt, he played on the same AAU team as Syracuse’s Tyler Lydon.
Expectations: On Big East media day, the coaches collectively predicted that the Friars would finish 9th in the conference. This decision was likely made on the grounds that replacing the impact of Dunn and Bentil at both ends of the court was going to be very hard. They underestimated Ed Cooley’s coaching abilities and overlooked the quality of play that facilitated the performance of the two stars. Senior Rodney Bullock has doubled his scoring figures from last season and leads the team with nearly 20 ppg. Kyron Cartwright has matured nicely into the point guard role and Jalen Lindsey’s sudden consistency alongside him adds depth (as well as double-digit scoring ability). Even with a strong Big East, the Friars are likely to secure their fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. It is also worth noting that Shaquille O’Neal acted as DJ for Providence’s version of Midnight Madness. No analysis here, just use your imagination.
That’s all, folks. The countdown is almost over. Georgetown kicks off conference play tomorrow night at 8:30pm on FS1, meeting the Marquette Golden Eagles in Milwaukee.