College basketball fans couldn’t escape the common "wisdom" that the Big East was the best conference of all time in 2008-2009. Perhaps it was the prestige of the name-brand coaches in the league.
Or perhaps it's the influence of being the big basketball conference in the northeast. Or the audacity of the Big East to create a 16-team mega-conference filled with hyped name-brand players from the east, where the best high schools regularly get national hype.
Whatever it is, the Big East picked up a whole lot of hype last year, even if some of the numbers don’t quite speak to up and down quality (by RPI, this table and graphic speaks to how top-heavy the Big East was). I'm sure it was great for the ratings, and that relentless media hype was rewarded by two Final Four teams.
There were also 5 Sweet Sixteen squads: Louisville, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Villanova, and Syracuse, and one of the best games of the tournament's second weekend, a 78-76 thrill ride between Pittsburgh and Villanova. It was a good year for the basketball teams in the conference, tipsy with fame and accolades.
Does the hangover come next?
The summer has not (yet) been heavy with pre-emptive Big East college basketball hype. Jamie Dixon has come out so far and stated that next year the Big East is ripe for standings upheaval as younger squads come of age, as experienced squads turn over playing time to talented freshmen and sophomores. Will this be one of those years where one team runs roughshod over the rest of the conference? Will every night no longer be "a battle," as so many coaches said in their post-game news conferences? Will the Big East not have a candidate for number 1 team in the country?
Oh, what will become of the league?
Before the DePauls, Cincinnatis, St. John's, the South Floridas and Seton Halls of the world start entertaining visions of basketball sugar plums, confetti, and cutting down nets, it's important to remember that the other teams in the conference have been stocking up talent. It's not proven talent, but Kemba Walker is out there, working on his game. Greg Monroe and Georgetown still have a lot of talent. Louisville brought in a really good recruiting class who got to sit and watch for a year.
And for those teams hoping to rise, players don't suddenly become great shooters overnight. They don't become that much more defensively aware or shuffle their feet in their third year in a program. Some players "get it" late, but most college ballers tweak their games after their first year of basketball training/ conditioning.
Maturity and experience alone won’t win games. Skill improves with familiarity, awareness, repetition, for sure; but less talented squads do not suddenly become great just by starting juniors and seniors. Contending has to start with their raw talent. Without that talent, experience might get you to the NIT. Might.
And if you disagree, feel free to talk on it with examples in the comments. But here are three things I have found to be true:
1. Players do not drastically improve in efficiency after their second year in college basketball. There are always exceptions, but fantasizing that Corey Chandler is going to become a superstar will leave you with a lot of unfulfilled fantasies.
2. Without a coaching change, a change in philosophy, or a seriously talented recruit, a team’s efficiency is not going to change wildly; a coaching staff often does what it does, like a baseball managerial staff – some coaches are great at coaching defensive principles, others are good at coaching offensive rebounding. Et cetera.
3. Talent is the most important aspect in college basketball. Coaching (along with decent offensive and defensive skills) will get you some wins, but you don’t get past the Sweet Sixteen without talent.
So, a quick look at some factors affecting the Big East's men's basketball teams. With an emphasis on "quick" - this is not a statistical look at possible progressions, a deep look minutes returned or quality thereof, or a look of how much the incoming recruits will contribute. That's for later on in the summer, and perhaps for a roundtable with other Big East bloggers.
Without further ado, a team-by-team look after the jump:
CIN: A young team returns most of its talent except for senior F Mike Williams and G/F Alvin Mitchell, who was dismissed from the team. They bring in a redshirted point guard in Cashmere Wright who will allow Deonta Vaughn to concentrate on scoring; a transfer center in Ibrahima Thomas (from Oklahoma State); and freshman shooter Sean Kilpatrick who will try to improve the Bearcats' outside shooting. They need to force some turnovers and rebound on the defensive end with more vigor.
There is some talent here to compete with the marquee names in the conference, and the Bearcat fans will have high expectations from Mick Cronin’s squad. Hopefully his players will work the ball inside a little more instead of taking outside jumpers; a little more balance and a little less predictability, and this team could contend.
CONN: While it seems like the end of an era with Hasheem Thabeet leaving, and the graduations of Jeff Adrien, AJ Price, and Craig Austrie, the Huskies still have Kemba Walker who will be a star, and Stanley Robinson who has talent. And they have some players who didn't get much time last year (Charles Okwandu, Jon Mandelove, Donnell Beverly, Scottie Haralson), an excellent recruiting class headlined by Alex Oriakhi and Darius Smith. Somehow, I don't think the Huskies are going to want for competitive talent, and Jim Calhoun can still get a lot out of that talent, even if they do not have the same kind of defensive force in the middle. But the newcomers will need to rebound.
I suppose there is the question about how much longer Coach Calhoun wants to coach, but barring his missing games due to illness, that's a question for another year.
|DePaul||DEP: The 1-19 DePaul Blue Demons graduate two minor contributors, Jabari Currie and Matija Poscic, from an extremely inexperienced team. The big offseason question for the Blue Demons is whether Mac Koswal and Dar Tucker will come back or not. Tucker took a lot of shots and Koshwal picked up a lot of rebounds. Tucker took so many low-percentage shots that he might not be a loss despite his talent, but Koshwal would be painful to lose. A trio of 6'5 - 6'7 replacements - one frosh, one transfer, and one JUCO - play next year. Growth from PG Jeremiah Kelly, Krys Faber and Devin Hill is entirely possible. And when he's rolling, Will Walker can really shoot the ball. Well, so could Dar Tucker, but Will's shots actually fall into the orange cylinder. A reasonable facsimile of defense would help this team compete with the rest of the league.|
GT: Coming off a year that was far below expectations, an inexperienced but tall and talented team will return for the Hoyas. Will they play a more cohesive style and run their offense through Greg Monroe in the high post? Will the electric perimeter players take smarter (inside the arc) shots? Even with the losses of seniors DaJuan Summers and Jessie Sapp, there is a lot of talent that needs to develop. Consider, for example, that Henry Sims hardly played, and Chris Wright and Jason Clark were getting their first real run in the Princeton Offense. Some of the freshmen coming in will complement the current players while in reserve roles.
Here, I can see a year of familiarity paying some dividends – learning how to manage the pace of the game to their liking (VERY slow), making smart plays to finish off weaker teams, and running the full offense through Monroe instead of breaking the sets to take a shot that the player could get at any time.
LOU: Now, a list of some things that Rick Pitino does well: recruit talent. Get his teams to harass opponents. Tweak his players in the media. The losses of Earl Clark, Terrence Williams and Andre McGee will hurt… on the defensive side of the ball. The length of Clark and Williams is hard to replace. But the inconsistency and shot selection can go, and someone will have to step up to cover the rebounding. Samardo Samuels has a lot of growth to do - especially on the boards. Incoming freshman Peyton Siva could be a more consistent floor leader than Edgar Sosa, who butts heads with Pitino often. And then there are the guys who didn't get much time - Preston Knowles, Terrence Jennings, Jared Swopshire, Reggie Delk, Kyle Kuric.
There's a lot of talent here. Pitino does not often run out of solid players; the new jacks will simply have to defend well and finish with authority.
MARQ: Tom Crean's core of Wes Matthews, Dominic James, and Jerel McNeal left their NCAA playing days with a tense loss to Missouri (at least for Mizzou watchers, like myself). The oft-stated problem with these teams was that they had little height and rebounded out of hustle. While not filled with height, many of Buzz Williams' newcomers last year and this year are taller - redshirted (I believe) Chris Otule, Jimmy Butler, Brett Roseboro, Youssopha Mbao, and Jeronne Maymon. Combined with the aggressive Lazar Hayward, I daresay the Golden Eagles have a front line, even if it is very young. The guards include senior holdovers Maurice Acker and David Cubillan, who aren't particularly impressive but have talent, and JUCO Dwight Buycks and highly-rated frosh PG Junior Cadougan.
Buzz Williams has been a smart, tireless coach who uses statistics to prepare for teams; even if the Golden Eagles are no longer a top 5 team, the woe-filled sounds of pundits going on about the loss of chemistry does not doom this team to a bottom-4 finish at all. We don't know what they will look like, but they might just be aggressive, draw fouls, and defend with energy. This isn't the 1970's - highly talented kids can win.
ND: A tough year from the Irish was hard to watch, as their defensive issues doomed them to tough loss after tough loss. And now, they lose McAlarney, Luke Zeller, Ryan Ayers, and Zach Hillesland, with Luke Harangody getting to know NBA scouts, and trying to get them to call him in the morning, so to speak. There are some recruits coming in - not highly rated, but seem like they would be effective in Mike Brey's system. Tory Jackson returns, as does Tyrone Nash. And then they have a pair of transfers: Scott Martin from Purdue, who was a decent shot blocker and ball-thief with range and passing ability; and Ben Hansbrough, who will take McAlarney's role as sniper while picking up the name "Psycho B" after his brother.
The Irish won't be young; and Mike Brey can coach an effective offense. If he can get the team scoring like they have been, and add a splash of defense, they will compete... and surprise.
|Pittsburgh||PITT: Jamie Dixon's Pitt Panthers are a big reason why I started this post. Yes, Pittsburgh is losing some big names that we associate with Pitt basketball in the last two years. But Aaron Gray was a big part of Pitt ball too, and that year, Dixon's team just reloaded. Blair was a singular talent, Levance Fields was toughness personified, and Sam Young has more talent than he knows what to do with. But passing aside - where Travon Woodall, Jermaine Dixon, or even Ashton Gibbs will need to step up - there's some shooting on this team in Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker. There's toughness in Dixon and Nasir Robinson. Gilbert Brown is a player. Dwight Miller rode the pine last year and should be a player. Incoming freshman Lamar Patterson can make an impact; while Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna might just impress down low. Add in good coaching, and I think the Big East will know some new names by January 1st, 2010.|
PROV: Keno Davis coaxed a senior-laden team to 19 wins, but now loses some significant talent - Geoff McDermott, Jeff Xavier, Weyinmi Efejuku, Randall Hanke, and Jonathan Kale. That's a lot, and this is the one team that I think could suffer a drop-off next year. They return Sharaud Curry, Brian McKenzie, and Marshon Brooks at the guards/ wings; Bilal Dixon and Jamine "Greedy" Peterson will do some work up front. And 7 new recruits will step in and hopefully speed up the pace as Davis wants; Vincent Council and Jonnie Lacy will get some playing time, as will forwards Kadeem Batts, James Still, and JUCO Russ Permenter.
A lot of turnover, but in a coach's second year, the style might be quite different - faster, with solid outside shooting. This team is harder to gauge; their talent is less heralded, even if their coach seems top-notch.
RUT: Rutgers also hopes to make a move in the standings with more of Fred Hill's players - only Hamady N'Diaye remains from the previous regime. That leaves a guard core of shooting guards in Corey Chandler, Mike Coburn, and Mike Rosario, Pat Jackson and incoming freshman Dane Miller at the wings, and the transfer Jonathan Mitchell, freshman Austin Johnson, freshman Brian Okam, and Gregory Echenique up front. Supposedly walk-on Mike Kuhn might be worked in at the point, and the team is waiting to hear from JUCO point guard James Beatty.
The Scarlet Knights need some serious improvement in the ball handling to improve in the standings; they are taking a hit with Anthony Farmer leaving and Coburn and Chandler as human turnover machines. And they have to get the ball to Echinique, who took a woefully low (5.75 over the course of the season) number of shots per game last year.
SHU: Seton Hall wasn't just thin last year… they were skinny. Emaciated. They dug in the roster for some meat, playing Brandon Walters and a walk-on, Mike Cajuste when John Garcia and Robert Mitchell got into foul trouble. The guards carried the team, with Hazell emerging as a star. This year, depth is the name of the game. Three recruits will join the team after sitting out their transfer year and practicing with the Pirates: Herb Pope, talented forward from New Mexico State; Jeff Robinson, talented forward from Memphis; and Keon Lawrence, talented guard from Missouri. All come closer to home to play for Bobby Gonzalez. Melvin Oliver should be eligible to play after sitting out; he is the opposite of skinny.
Seton Hall hopes to make a move up in the standings, and not having to play iron man basketball goes a long way towards that goal. More depth means more pressing, more athletes in space... Bobby G's squad might harass their way to the top.
USF: It's a struggle to get players into the South Florida program, apparently; right now Jarrid Famous wants to get out of his Letter of Intent. Mike Mercer, Gaby Belardo, and Eladio Espinosa left from last year's squad; and shooter Jesus Verdejo and forwards Aris Williams and Moboloji (BJ) Ajayi also depart the Tampa campus.
The Bulls bring in some shooters, however; Jordan Dumars (Joe's son), Mike Burwell and Shaun Noriega. Those three go along with a point guard transfer Anthony Crater from Ohio State, and a forward, Toarlyn Fitzpatrick. And the team returns the dynamic Dominique Jones, the steady Chris Howard at point, and Gus Gilchrist in the middle. There are also Alex Rivas-Sanchez and Justin Leemow returning as role players.
Perhaps some consistency, some offseason improvement/ desire to bang in the paint from Gilchrist and some open lanes created by shooters can help South Florida improve their poor field goal percentage.
STJ: The Red Storm will be a great study in consistency of roster vs. highly ranked talent… and also vs. player development. St. John's only loses part time players: senior Tomas Jasiulionis, freshman guard TyShwan Edmondson, and center Phil Wait. They return 7 sophomores, a freshman (Quincy Roberts), and a senior coming off of injury (Anthony Mason Jr.). Most of these players should be the main rotation, but with a few breathers provided by MORE juniors, JUCO F Justin Brownlee, JUCO guard Dwight Hardy, and a pair of freshmen, guard Omari Lawrence and point guard Malik Stith.
The coach and athletic director have always talked about the importance of having juniors and seniors, using the "players who know how to win" concept. They're juniors now, how will they do? There is reasonable room to improve on the defensive end, in free throw shooting, and with turnovers. But a serious improvement in shooting skill and getting the ball to players where they can make plays needs to happen, and sometimes players, a coaching staff, and a team just is what it is. But if the defense gells and fewer minutes for the stars means more efficient shots and forcing more turnovers, the Red Storm could be better than they have been in years.
SYR: Here's another one of those schools who lose noted players - Eric Devendorf, Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris, along with Kris Ongenaet. But haven't they been recruiting talent - center Sean Williams, Scoop Jardine, Mookie Jones, Kris Joseph? Don't they still have Arinze Onuaku, a bull down low? And Andy Rautins, a solid outside shooter? Didn't Rick Jackson hold his own out there last year? Coach Jim Boeheim is high on Brandon Triche, even stating that he expects him to be the starting point guard. And DaShonte Riley is quite tall and does those tall-man things like reject shots and rebound. Plus, the Orange welcome the transfer Wesley Johnson from Iowa State, who can shoot a little bit and has some athleticism.
There might be early hiccups, but this team will get rolling with that wealth of talent. Expect a return to a more effective 2-3 zone as well, without the gambling of the departed players.
NOVA: Villanova loses Dante Cunningham, their active, do-it-all forward, along with Dwayne Anderson, Frank Tuischi and Shane Clark. But they return a number of similar sized players who can take those roles (Antonio Pena for example), along with their contingent of Coreys and Scottie Reynolds... and then they add on to it with redshirted freshman C Maurice Sutton, post players Mouphtaou Yarou and Isaiah Armwood, sharpshooter Dominic Cheek, and PG Maalik Wayns.
The recruiting class is the envy of all but Kentucky and maybe a few others (UNC?) and these players will contribute to an already-lethal attack. This team is sick, and will have the weight of expectations on them; but they already defend, they can run, and if they shoot more consistently and continue to be a threat in the paint...
WVU: West Virginia was very good last year, even if their component statistics didn't quite match the lofty ratings bestowed on them by Pomeroy's site. They lose shooter Alex Ruoff, but bring back everyone else (dependent on Joe Mazzulla's off court troubles). There is a lot of room for improvement for each individual player; and many - Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant, New Yorkers all - are going into their first offseason in college. They may come out the other side more in shape and more skilled. The Mountaineers will also be joined by bruising center Dan Jennings, Deniz Kilicli (another center) shooter Dalton Pepper, and JUCO guard Casey Mitchell to a long and tenacious set of athletes.
Every year, West Virginia gets tougher to play. It won't always be pretty, but the length and fierceness of Huggins' athletes will wear down opponents; I expect them to be a top-4 team in the league next year.