Monday, November 8, 2010

Big East Season Preview

1. Pittsburgh- At the top of this list, you have to rank the Pittsburgh Panthers amongst the top ten teams in the nation. Their team defense and overall chemistry on this end were remarkable a season ago. In order to be in top form, Ashton Gibbs will have to continue his productive shooting and improve as a facilitator. Further, the early season playing time that Travon Woodall received a year ago should allow him to shoulder much of the point guard responsibilities. Gibbs will see some looks as the lead guard as well. Also returning in the backcourt are senior wings Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown. Look for Gary McGhee to lock down opposing bigs, and Dante Taylor to develop into a solid post option.

2. Villanova- This team's season starts and stops with its point guard play. Maalik Wayns and Corey Fisher look to really push the tempo and dominate slashing to the basket. Fisher has improved most aspects of his game including his jump shot. Wayns has bulked up over the summer in order to better absorb contact in the lane. Look for both to compete for all Big East awards. Also returning for Villanova is senior Corey Stokes, who can fill it up from beyond the arc. Look for Stokes to pound the ball inside more frequently this season. Athletic sophomore wing Dominic Cheek has also begun to fill out his frame, and should be a much more dynamic slashing presence. On the interior, Antonio Pena brings his usual post production. Rounding out the starting lineup is Mouphtaou Yarou, who will build on his productivity late last season. Wildcards Isaiah Armwood and James Bell should be impact players off the bench. This team clearly possesses the most upside in the Big East. The development of Fisher and Wayns should guarantee a top 4 spot in this conference. But, the development of Yarou as a viable NBA prospect should determine how far in the tournament this team goes.

3. Syracuse- While this team lost a lot in Rautins, Wes Johnson, and Onuaku, they bring in two of the top freshman recruits in the Big East- Dion Waiters and big man Fab Melo. Look for Fab to be in contention for freshman of the year, with his developing post game and huge frame. Couple this new big man with rugged senior Rick Jackson, and you have all the pieces for a successful Big East run. The Syracuse backcourt is extremely talented as well, and possesses a lot more depth. Backcourt mates Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche return for another shot at a Big East title. And, you can expect Brandon Triche to undergo a notable transformation this year following a promising freshman campaign. Despite these solid supporting parts, look for wings Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph to provide the most significant contribution for this team. Joseph will look to shoot the ball more efficiently, and Waiters will look to attack the basket with reckless abandon. All in all, the development of their wings and freshman big man Melo will determine how high this team finishes in the Big East.

4. Marquette- This ranking may come as a surprise to some due to the loss of do-it-all forward Lazar Hayward, who is now with the TWolves. However, the return of sharpshooting guards Darius Johnson-Odom and Jimmy Butler means that Marquette's three point onslaughts will continue to plague Big East opponents. Johnson-Odom should experience an increased role in the offense, and Dwight Buycks may also receive more touches. Promising freshman Vander Blue's development will really be the X factor for this team at the point guard position. His ability to distribute the ball and mature as a Big East guard will determine how far this Golden Eagles squad can go. Also key to this team's success will be the improved Marquette frontcourt, which features Joseph Fulce, Erik Williams, and newcomers Jamail Jones and Jae Crowder. Their ability to rebound the basketball is going to be critical following the loss of Hayward.

5. West Virginia- At the number five slot, there is somewhat of a drop-off in terms of quality. While this team does return the vast majority of its core, they did lose their two best players. The losses of Butler and Ebanks relegate this team to a lower position in the Big East standings. Despite this, WVU returns their two experienced point guards for another year- Joe Mazzula and Darryl Bryant. Throw in improved star big man Kevin Jones and a fine supporting cast and you have another top 5 Big East team. Look for the success of this squad to depend on the health at the point guard position, and the improvements offensively on the wing. Jonnie West and Dalton Pepper should see adequate minutes, and thereby must put points on the board. Sharpshooter Casey Mitchell must play consistent defense, or Huggins will continue to sit him regardless of his offensive prowess. Look for freshman guard Noah Cottrill to see some minutes off the bench. In the frontcourt, Deniz Kilicli should improve his offensive output. His increased production alongside star big man Kevin Jones would once again give WVU one of the most formidable frontcourts in the Big East.

6. Seton Hall- After suffering major setbacks in Big East play a year ago, the Pirates return the vast majority of their talent. Standout big man Herb Pope should once again average a double double with this year's thinner frontcourt. Expect him to have an impact on both ends and really demonstrate that he is an all Big East talent. Following SHU's coaching change, look for Jeremy Hazell to play a little bit more under control, but continue to score in spurts. His heroics will determine how far this team can go once again. Also, Seton Hall's point guard responsibilities will be shared by veteran transfer Keon Lawrence and improving Jordan Theodore. Jamel Jackson and newcomer Fuquan Edwin will make their presences felt off the bench. Finally, transfer Eniel Polynice will see a good deal of floor time, and should serve as another offensive weapon. And, look for chiseled, undersized forward Jeff Robinson to continue to hit midrange shots and attack the glass. This Seton Hall team is the same squad as from a year ago. Look for them to initially struggle with the coaching change, but to adapt come the Big East season.

7. St. John's- The Johnies return virtually everyone with the exception of Norm Roberts and oft-injured Anthony Mason Jr., who was recently competing at an NBA training camp. The heart and soul of this team rests with standout DJ Kennedy who should vie for all Big East awards by season's end. This experienced squad returns nine quality seniors, who should all see some action at one point or another. Diminutive point guard Malik Boothe is the floor general, who will do a solid job of distributing the ball to wings Kennedy, Paris Horne and Quincy Roberts. At the forward spots, Justin Brownlee and a healthy Justin Burrell should score in the paint and be a factor on the glass. Sean Evans and Dele Coker will also see time inside at the center position. Evans' shot selection and defense will determine how the Johnies fair against opponents with a strong frontcourt. If he plays poorly on this end, however, Lavin may opt to sacrifice offense for defense and put Coker in the game. If this team can remain healthy and buy into coach Lavin's system, they should be headed back to the NCAA tournament.

8. Georgetown- While this Georgetown team looks the same at its guard slots, it is going to miss NBA forward Greg Monroe, who was clearly their most valuable player. Given their collapse in the tournament a season ago and their off season during Greg Monroe's freshman campaign, I think that it is fair to assume that the Hoyas are a bubble team come March. Chris Wright, Jason Clark, and Austin Freeman make up one of the most versatile backcourts in the Big East. In the frontcourt, the development of Hollis Thompson is going to be the most critical for Georgetown's success this year. If Henry Sims and Julian Vaughn can provide some offense inside, this team may exceed expectations.

9. Notre Dame- This Notre Dame team is very similar to the Harangody-less squad that went on a pivotal run at the end of the season to secure an NCAA tournament bid. They feature an improved super senior in Tim Abromitis, sharp shooter/point guard Ben Hansbrough, and a healthy Scott Martin. These three will shoulder the majority of the offensive output this year. Newcomer Jerian Grant should also see some time off the bench. On the interior, Carleton Scott and Tyrone Nash will have to play solid defense against some of the bigger post threats in the Big East conference. All in all, their successes on the defensive end coupled with Hansbrough's point guard play will determine how high Notre Dame can reach in the standings.

10. Cincinnati- The Bearcats are clearly the most unpredictable team in the Big East conference. While they lost their steady, go-to point guard and their star freshman from a year ago, they also return the vast majority of their team. Inside bruiser Yancy Gates is going to have to play more consistently this time round if the Bearcats are going to have a sniff at the NCAA tournament. Point guard Cashmere Wright is going to have to distribute the ball effectively and take over some scoring duties as well. Shooting guards Larry Davis and Dion Dixon should provide an effective scoring punch on the wings. And, Rashad Bishop will have to double his scoring output and improve his shooting efficiency for the Bearcats to be successful. Given, their ranking only stands if defensive standout Rashad Bishop is eligible to play. In the frontcourt, Gates will have to consistently put points on the board and Ibrahima Thomas will have to continue to hit jumpers and collect rebounds. Cincinnati added some muscle inside with freshman forwards Justin Jackson and Kelvin Gaines. It is my suspicion that this year's version of the Bearcats will evince greater team chemistry on both ends of the floor because they will be able to share the ball more and will not have such a heavy reliance on iso plays for Vaughn and Stephenson. Look for them to improve as the season carries on. They could either surprise everyone and make the tournament or sink to the bottom of the standings. It all depends on whether or not certain players can step up and carry this team on offense.

11. Connecticut- This year's biggest disappointment is going to be the UConn Huskies. Despite the chemistry issues Jerome Dyson brought to this team, his scoring output was needed for the Huskies' success. Now with his and Stanley Robinson's departure, Kemba Walker is the sole standout remaining. Walker should be one of the most dynamic players in the Big East this season, and his team is going to heavily rely on his ability to penetrate and dish. Look for freshman Jeremy Lamb to see significant time and contribute offensively. Also, look for Alex Oriakhi to improve considerably from a year ago, particularly in the post. Despite these other options, UConn places too much responsibility in the hands of Walker. While he should have a breakout season, this team's youth and lack of depth should contribute to their downfall. Finally, their team's postseason ban should at least partially inhibit their motivation in games.

12. Louisville- This Louisville squad has the best chance to prove me wrong of all the teams ranked. They should be solid defensively, especially on the perimeter. However, the losses of Jerry Smith, point guard Edgar Sosa, and star big man Samardo Samuels will probably be too much for this team to overcome. Expect Jared Swopshire and Peyton Silva to both have breakout seasons on the offensive end. And, experienced guard Preston Knowles should continue to fill it up from beyond the arc. However, the biggest question marks remain for their interior players- Terrance Jennings and Rakeem Buckles. If either of them can increase their offensive output and play solid interior defense, Lousville will exceed expectations.

13. South Florida- This South Florida team features solid interior play from forwards Jarrid Famous and Gus Gilchrist. Together they form one of the best front lines in the Big East. Despite this strength, South Florida lacks experience at the guard spots. The loss of Dominique Jones cannot be understated for a team that once firmly sat on the bubble a year ago. Look for freshman LaVonte Dority, Ohio St. transfer Anthony Crater, and JUCO transfers Shedrick Haynes and wing Hugh Robertson to try to fill this void.

14. Providence- This young Providence team does possess some talent. Freshman guard Gerard Coleman should contend for freshman of the year honors. He will be relied upon heavily on both ends of the floor to provide an immediate impact. Sophomore guard Vincent Council should see some time at the point guard slot. And, wing Marshon Brooks will be asked to do a little bit of everything- to score and rebound the ball for this undersized Providence squad. Overall, the dismissal of Jamine Peterson is going to be too difficult to overcome, especially in this transition season.

15. Rutgers- Mike Coburn remains the one permanent fixture amid the wave of transfers that Rutgers has experienced over the past four years. His steady play alongside guard James Beatty should help Rutgers to survive its non conference schedule. Despite Coburn's longevity, Dane Miller is an all Big East talent who will be the fact of Rutgers basketball in upcoming seasons. If sophomore Austin Johnson and freshman Gilvydas Biruta can control the paint and provide some offensive input, the future of Rutgers basketball will be bright.

16. Depaul- This team is far and away the worst squad the Big East has to offer. Guards Jeremiah Kelly, Mike Stovall, Tony Freeland, and Brandon Young should all make an impact, but come conference time, this team should not win a game.

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