In part one of this three part installment, I outline the teams at the very top of my Big East rankings.
1. Villanova- Following an impressive run to the Final Four, I predict that our Villanova Wildcats- as some polls have speculated- will sit atop the Big East standings this season. Coach Jay Wright has done a tremendous job assembling a team that fits our usual dynamic- a gritty, guard-oriented squad capable of shutting teams down on the defensive end.
Strengths: There are many positive signs coming into this season. Because they are loaded in the backcourt, look for Nova to- at times- utilize the four guard offense of year’s past. Team captain Scottie Reynolds returns for another year at the helm. Just as he made improvements in the past focusing on his jump shooting and shot selection, he has continued to harness other facets of his game in route to a future professional career. Specifically, Scottie is physically faster and stronger than he has ever been. Fellow backcourt mate Corey Fisher also seems to have made significant strides in his development after a summer playing for the US World University Games team. He seems more poised and under control, having faced some of the top team defenses in his age bracket. Corey Stokes, another returning contributor from last year’s Final Four squad, will look to step away from the three point line to display his newfound versatility. And, in spite of his semester long suspension, Reggie Redding should bring his senior leadership and continue progressing as a heady defender. Look for two impact freshman guards to develop over the course of the season. Dominic Cheek should work his way into the starting rotation and could challenge for the All-Big East freshman team. While he may not receive immediate playing time, Maalik Wayns’s hard work in practice should earn him a spot in the rotation.
In the frontcourt, Yarou should be considered one of the best young big men in the nation by year’s end. He is the frontcourt player that Villanova has been sorely lacking throughout Jay Wright’s tenure- one with NBA size and athleticism. Also, look for teammate Antonio Pena to play more on the perimeter this season. Finally, freshman Isaiah Armwood is a tremendous athlete that will be on Villanova highlight reels for years to come.
Possible Concerns: Despite being undersized, Dante Cunningham’s experience and work ethic were invaluable a year ago. His intensity and presence in the paint will surely be missed. While Villanova’s backcourt should be improved from a year ago, there are less frontcourt options. Against bigger, NBA caliber athletes, Villanova’s four guard lineups have historically had some difficulties. And with an inexperienced Yarou anchoring Nova in the paint, foul trouble is a legitimate concern.
2. West Virginia- Bob Huggins is one of the most successful coaches in a conference littered with historical greats. From watching any Huggins-coached team, it becomes clear that the toughness that he preaches in the locker room is exuded in his players’ physicality on the court. This year’s squad is no different, boasting arguably the deepest team he has had as the Mountaineer’s head coach. While a suspension and injuries plagued a tournament bound West Virginia team a year ago, lead guards Darryl Bryant and Joe Mazzulla will finally see action on the court as WVU’s point guard duo. This West Virginia squad is extremely close to the top ranking, with a loaded roster from top to bottom.
Strengths: West Virginia’s starting lineup is packed with athletes. From probable first team all Big East Selection Devin Ebanks to much improved forward Desean Butler, WVU has a one-two punch capable of challenging any team in the country. Look for Ebanks to play stronger inside and demonstrate a nice midrange game. Butler, on the other hand, will probably spend more time on the perimeter this year in an effort to woo scouts. Rounding out the returning frontcourt is experienced big man Wellington Smith, who can score inside or out and block shots in the paint. Newcomers Dan Jennings and Deniz Kilicli will provide considerable girth on the block and should receive immediate playing time.
In the backcourt, WVU has two capable point guards in Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzulla. Mazzulla will probably get the starting nod after significantly improving his jump shot in the offseason. With the loss of Alex Ruoff, the Mountaineers desperately needed long range shooters. Enter Casey Mitchell, the top JUCO shooter in the country. His dynamic scoring presence should make an immediate impact for WVU, probably earning him the newcomer of the year honor. Throw in top 50 shooting guard recruit Dalton Pepper, and Huggins more than compensated for any shooting holes he may have had.
Possible Concerns: The greatest concern I have with WVU is with their chemistry. Despite the impressive depth at virtually every position, WVU will have to come together as a team- which is easier said than done for a team littered with newcomers and players absent a season ago. While I expect Mazzulla to make his impact felt from the beginning of the season, it is going to take some time for his teammates to gel with him. Moreover, interior defense might be a concern if WVU is forced to match up with some power post players. Also, look for Mitchell and Pepper to have some difficulty adjusting defensively in Big East play.
3. Pittsburgh- Don’t be too shocked when you read that Pittsburgh once again will challenge for a Big East title. But how can they do this? Dejuan Blair, Sam Young, and Levance Fields are all gone from a team that reached the Elite Eight- only succumbing to Scottie Reynold’s late-second heroics. Well the answer is that Jamie Dixon is not only one of the most underrated coaches in the country, but he specifically does a tremendous job recruiting. Dixon plugs the right type of prospects into his system in order to fill holes. Thus, it can be said that Pitt does not rebuild, they simply retool.
Strengths: With one of the best point guards in the country gone, it is difficult to say that Pitt’s greatest strength comes at this position. However, I expect Field’s heir, Ashton Gibbs, to have a breakout season. While Gibbs is a capable passer, I also believe that he will score a lot more than Levance Fields ever could. His deadly efficiency from long range will be a key to the Panther’s continued success. Over the summer, Gibbs gained a great deal of experience playing for the USA Under-21 squad, leading the team in minutes. While admittedly Pitt does have some inexperience at the point guard position, they have two other players who are capable of filling in as the lead guard and distributing the ball. Senior transfer Chase Adams (5’10) was the top defender in the Summit Conference a year ago, tallying an average of 2.7 steals per game- good for eighth in the nation. He should fit in well with this hard-nosed defensive squad. And, redshirt freshman Travon Woodall (5’11) could possibly earn some playing time as well. In high school, he led St. Anthony’s, the top team in the nation at the time. Rounding out the backcourt are veterans Brad Wanamaker and starter Jermaine Dixon. Wanamaker is a serviceable defender who can score on occasion. And, Dixon can really fill it up from the perimeter and get out in transition.
Three incoming freshman should make an immediate impact inside and receive playing time right away. Small forward Lamar Patterson will look to replace Sam Young’s production. While I do expect him to require a period of adjustment, Patterson is physically ready to compete in Big East play with his NBA-ready, 6’5, 220 pound frame. Lamar is savvy with the ball in his hands- he is capable of shooting lights out from the perimeter, or seeing the floor and making a remarkable pass. Face-up big man Dante Taylor is probably Pitt’s most prized recruit. Not only is he physically strong enough to bang down low, but he is also a capable perimeter shooter. I surely expect this versatile big man to earn All Big East Newcomer honors. Finally, under hyped forward J.J. Richardson should receive considerable playing time as an aggressive, undersized, back-to-the-basket big man.
Possible Concerns: Pitt’s frontcourt is much weaker than it was a year ago. I honestly do not expect Pitt to come close to the level of dominance on the glass that they achieved a year ago. Dejuan Blair’s rebounding efficiency was unprecedented in the college game. However, the physicality that Jamie Dixon instills in his players should always give them an edge. While they will miss Blair’s considerable muscle inside, look for experienced role player Gary McGhee to crash the glass this year alongside talented freshman Dante Taylor. Foul trouble could be an issue though, with three less experienced frontcourt players- Taylor, McGhee, and Richardson- receiving the vast majority of minutes.