Big East Basketball: 15 Most Important Players in the Conference

Ethan BackCorrespondent IJanuary 4, 2012

Big East Basketball: 15 Most Important Players in the Conference

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    Some of college basketball's best teams play in the Big East, including the nation's top-ranked Syracuse Orange. Along with the Orange, there are four other ranked teams in the conference, and it looks like as many as 11 teams could have a strong case for an NCAA tournament bid.

    There are plenty of talented players on the 16 Big East teams. Some players have been on the national stage for a few years, whereas others are first really making their impacts felt this season.

    Tall and short, new and old, these 15 players are the most important in all of the Big East, and many of the following players are some of the most important in the country.

Honorable Mention

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    Darryl Bryant (West Virginia)

    Eli Carter (Rutgers)

    Jack Cooley (Notre Dame)

    Gorgui Dieng (Louisville)

    Andre Drummond (Connecticut)

    Scoop Jardine (Syracuse)

    Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati)

    Otto Porter (Georgetown)

    Nasir Robinson (Pittsburgh)

    Henry Sims (Georgetown)

    Russ Smith (Louisville)

    Jordan Theodore (Seton Hall)

    Hollis Thompson (Georgetown)

    Dion Waiters (Syracuse)

    Maalik Wayns (Villanova) 

Jason Clark (Georgetown)

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    Georgetown has begun the season 12-1, with its only loss coming to the hands of a strong Kansas team, and Jason Clark has been a huge reason for the outstanding start. With the departure of both Austin Freeman and Chris Wright, the Hoyas senior has stepped up to average 15.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game.

    Georgetown has a legitimate shot at a top-four finish in the Big East, and if Clark can keep up his current pace, he will have a chance at ending up on the All-Big East first team.

Vincent Council (Providence)

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    Vincent Council was the second option last season for Providence behind MarShon Brooks, but this season, the 6'2" junior is running the show as Brooks plays for the New Jersey Nets.

    Council is leading the Friars in scoring and assists at 16.1 and 6.6 per game, respectively, and he is one of four Providence players to average more than 34.8 minutes per contest.

    Given the lack of depth on the roster, Providence will struggle in the Big East, but Council could end up with some individual accolades at the end of the season.

Jae Crowder (Marquette)

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    Jae Crowder is in just his second season at Marquette (he transferred from JUCO before the 2010-11 campaign), but his impact has been immediate and profound. The diverse big man can make his impact felt on the glass, where he averages 7.3 rebounds per game, or behind the three-point line, where he has connected on 27 attempts.

    Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, along with a strong supporting cast, have high aspirations for this season, and Marquette could achieve goals that the program has never achieved before.

Yancy Gates (Cincinnati)

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    Even though Cincinnati is 6-0 without Yancy Gates, who was suspended after his actions against Xavier, the Bearcats will need his inside presence during Big East play. He is a double-double threat every time he steps onto the court (13.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game), and his 6'9", 260-pound frame can cause problems for opposing big men.

    Gates struggles immensely at the free-throw line, but his moves in the post can be effective against almost any defender. In order for the Bearcats to continue their winning ways, they will need him to be solid against some of the other elite big men in the conference.

Ashton Gibbs (Pittsburgh)

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    Pittsburgh has had a tumultuous season thus far to say the least. The Panthers lost highly recruited Khem Birch just 10 games into his career, and have already dropped games to Long Beach State and Wagner.

    Even though they have started conference play with two straight losses, expect Ashton Gibbs to lead Pitt to some wins in the near future.

    Gibbs, an experienced senior, has All-America potential. His numbers aren't much different from what they were a year ago, but his shooting percentages are down significantly from the field, three-point land and even the charity stripe.

    If Pitt plans on turning its season around, Gibbs will need to become more efficient, something he is more than capable of doing.

Moe Harkless (St. John's)

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    Moe Harkless has been St. John's most impressive freshman this season, averaging 15.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.8 steals per game. The averages are impressive, as was the 32-13-4-2-4 game he put up against the Providence Friars.

    Harkless could be the National Freshman of the Year, and if he stays around for a few seasons for the Red Storm, he could really be a special player.

Darius Johnson-Odom (Marquette)

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    Darius Johnson-Odom, affectionately known as DJO to Marquette fans, is having a phenomenal senior season. The Golden Eagles' leader is averaging 17.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals per game. He is efficient and he has been an integral part of Marquette's recent success.

    At 12-2, the Golden Eagles again look primed to contend for a Big East title. This just could be the magical year for Marquette, as DJO and his teammates look good heading into conference play.

Kevin Jones (West Virginia)

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    While the season may be young, it is clear that Kevin Jones means business. The senior big man has exceeded all expectations coming into the season, averaging 20 points and 11.4 rebounds per game, both tops in the Big East.

    Jones had a monster 28-point, 17-rebound game against Baylor's formidable frontline, and he has the Mountaineers at 10-4. As usual, West Virginia will make plenty of noise come March.

Kris Joseph (Syracuse)

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    Kris Joseph has been outstanding on a Syracuse team that is probably the deepest squad in the nation this season, averaging 14 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. His impact goes beyond the box score, as he is the Orange's undisputed leader.

    Syracuse is undefeated and the nation's top-ranked team, but it would be beyond impressive if the Orange went through Big East play unscathed. A loss here and there won't really damage 'Cuse's chances at a top seed in the NCAA tournament, where Joseph and his teammates will look to cut down the nets.

Jeremy Lamb (Connecticut)

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    No Kemba Walker? No problem! Jeremy Lamb has UConn off to a 12-1 start this season, and he has lived up to all of the preseason hype he received. Connecticut's only loss came against a strong Central Florida team, and the Huskies will undoubtedly contend for a Big East title.

    Lamb is averaging 18.9 points and 1.8 steals per game to go along with stellar shooting numbers. In 36.7 minutes per game, he is shooting an outstanding 51.8 percent from the field, 41.6 percent from beyond the arc and 82.6 percent from the free-throw line.

    Expect some serious hardware to be coming Lamb's way, both in the Big East and nationally, at the season's end.

Fab Melo (Syracuse)

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    Syracuse fans were ready to declare Fab Melo a bust after a freshman campaign in which he averaged a meager 2.3 points and 1.9 rebounds per game. One year later and he has made a large impact, especially on the defensive end, for the top-ranked Orange.

    Melo is averaging 7.1 points per game on 56 percent shooting, but he is a true force on the defensive side of the ball. He is averaging 3.1 blocks per game, including 10 against Seton Hall and six against DePaul in his first two conference games of the season. The seven-foot center could end up saving a few games for the Orange with his long arms and overall great play on defense.

Cleveland Melvin (DePaul)

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    While DePaul has been less than stellar (to say the least) over the past few seasons, sophomore Cleveland Melvin is a true stud. The 6'8" wing led the Blue Demons to a 9-3 non-conference record, including a one-point loss and a two-point loss.

    While DePaul won't finish in the top half of the Big East, Oliver Purnell's squad will win some games this year. The games they do win will be due to the strong play of Melvin, who is averaging a team-best 18.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

Shabazz Napier (Connecticut)

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    Jeremy Lamb is UConn's go-to scorer, but Shabazz Napier is the best all-around player on the Huskies. He is averaging 14.7 points, 6.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game, all very impressive numbers for the sophomore who has seen his minutes increase by nearly 12 per game from his freshman season.

    Napier needs to turn the ball over less, as his 3.2 turnovers per game won't fly in the Big East, but other than that, he has been a very effective lead guard for UConn this year. He and Lamb could very well be the best backcourt in the entire conference.

Herb Pope (Seton Hall)

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    Coming off of a modest 2010-11 campaign, Herb Pope has absolutely exploded onto the scene this season. Okay, maybe he hasn't quite exploded onto the scene, but if he can keep up his stellar play throughout the Big East schedule, he will get more national attention.

    Pope has Seton Hall sitting at 12-2, and he has averaged 18.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, placing him amongst the conference's leaders. The Pirates are playing a more team-oriented game this season, and it has certainly paid off.

    It will be interesting to see if both Pope and Seton Hall can continue to play at such high levels in the brutal and unforgiving Big East.

Peyton Siva (Louisville)

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    Peyton Siva is one of the most frustrating players in all of college basketball, but if Louisville plans on making a deep run in March, the junior point guard will have to play well. His shot selection often makes you wonder, and his 3.5 turnovers per game need to be reduced.

    Despite the negatives, Siva averages 6.2 assists and two steals per game, which demonstrate his abilities as a passer and defender. He is shooting a paltry 33 percent from the field this season, and the Cardinals will only have great success in the Big East if he can raise that number to the low-40s.