Big East Hoops Preview: Pittsburgh Headlines Balanced, Competitive Conference

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Big East Hoops Preview: Pittsburgh Headlines Balanced, Competitive Conference
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Pittsburgh's Ashton Gibbs

Big East Preview

With the Big East season just around the corner, here are my annual projections.  I’ve looked at each team’s stats, nonconference performance and unbalanced Big East schedules to come up with the following rankings, in reverse order of expected finish in league play.  In the case of a tie, I’ve used official Big East tiebreaking procedures for purposes of ranking the teams below.

16.  DePaul (1-17)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

This is what happens when last season’s worst team loses its two best players.  In the 2009-10 season, DePaul finished 1-17.  Imagine how they will finish without players like Will Walker and Mac Koshwal.  In this young season, the Blue Demons have already lost to Western Carolina, Oklahoma State, Cal State Northridge, Stanford, Indiana State and Ball State.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

New team, new season, new coach.  Is it reasonable to think that DePaul can finish with zero or one conference win for the third season in a row?  Oliver Purnell has a young team, but with players like Brandon Young (13.4 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Tony Freeland (11.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg), the Blue Demons might sneak up on a few teams this year.  At the very least, DePaul needs to figure out a way to improve its 28 percent average from beyond the arc.  If not, this may be the most frustrating season of Oliver Purnell’s career.   

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15.  Providence (3-15)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

The Friars are a very young team.  Of the 15 players on Providence’s roster, 13 of them are freshmen or sophomores.  They lose Sharaud Curry, Kyle Wright and Brian McKenzie from a team that only won four Big East games last year.  Perhaps the biggest blow to this Providence team is the loss of Jamine Peterson, who led the Friars last season with over 19 points and ten rebounds per contest.  Peterson was dismissed from the team last summer and is now playing overseas.    

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Providence may be young, but the cupboard isn’t completely bare.  Senior Marshon Brooks (23.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg) leads a group of guys who will improve over the course of the season.  Keep an eye on 6’2’’ sophomore Vincent Council (16.0 ppg), who averages nearly seven assists per game. 

14.  South Florida (3-15)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Dominique Jones was just that good.  South Florida head coach Stan Heath can boast all he wants about the quality of the Bulls frontcourt, but if USF doesn’t have a backcourt to go along with the big guys, then this team will struggle all season.  South Florida has had one of the more disappointing nonconference performances so far, with losses already to Southern Miss, UCF, BYU, Kent State, James Madison and Cleveland State.  Not all of these losses were “bad” losses, but you wouldn’t expect the Bulls to be off to such a rough start.     

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Rutgers Head Coach Mike Rice

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because South Florida shocked everyone last season by finishing ninth in the conference and competing until the last two weeks of the season for an NCAA bid.  Even without Dominique Jones, this team has talent.  With 6’10’’ junior Augustus Gilchrist (10.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg), 6’11’’ senior Jarrid Famous (9.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and 6’8’’ sophomore Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (4.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg) roaming the middle, South Florida will be tough to stop in the paint.  If the Bulls can continue to get production from improving sophomore Jawanza Poland (10.8 ppg), then they could pose trouble for some smaller teams in the conference.

13.  Rutgers (5-13)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

There’s new hope in Piscataway, thanks to the work ethic and charisma of new head coach Mike Rice and his staff.  But Rice’s top 10 recruiting class for next season won’t do anything to help this year’s squad.  Four or five wins (mostly at home) seems about right for this team.  They have enough players to stay out of the Big East’s basement, but probably not enough to crack the top 12.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

This projection could be off, but if it is, it won’t be off by more than one or two slots.  Mike Rice is not just a solid recruiter; he’s also a very good coach, so Rutgers may turn some heads a little ahead of schedule.  Rutgers has a very good mix of veteran leadership and inexperience, with nine players averaging 10 or more minutes per game.  Jonathan Mitchell (12.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Mike Coburn (10.9 ppg, 3.7 apg) and sophomore Dane Miller (10.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg) form the core for the Scarlet Knights, while guys like freshman Gilvydas Biruta (9.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg) are the future.  Keep an eye on Rutgers, though.  The Knights are better than you think.  

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12.  Seton Hall (6-12)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Seton Hall is just too inconsistent.  They’re experienced and talented, but they just can’t seem to get over the hump, even with new coach Kevin Willard at the helm.  The injuries to Jeremy Hazell haven’t helped either.  Hazell, the Pirates’ leading scorer, injured his wrist in late November and was recently shot under his arm on Christmas Day.  (The latest injury isn’t life-threatening, but Hazell is likely finished for the season.)  Seton Hall has already lost six times.  Although most of these losses aren’t terrible (Xavier, Clemson, Arkansas, Dayton, Richmond), you have to think that Willard expected to win at least half of those games. 

One of Seton Hall’s biggest problems is free-throw shooting—four players averaging 10 or more minutes per game shoot under 69 percent from the free-throw line, and two of those guys shoot under 50 percent.  They’ll have to turn that around if this team has any thoughts of making a run.   

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Can a team with six seniors and three juniors not finish higher than 12th?  The roster is littered with guys who can play, like Jordan Theodore (12.3 ppg, 5.1 apg), Jeff Robinson (12.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Herb Pope (8.1 ppg, 8.0 rpg).  If the Pirates have any chance to finish higher in the conference, they’ll need Keon Lawrence to step up his play—shooting 28 percent just won’t cut it.  Seton Hall is a bit of a wild card because they have a solid cast of role players, but for whatever reason, the chemistry isn’t there.  Seton Hall can finish anywhere between seventh and 15th.   

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St. John's Head Coach Steve Lavin

11.  St. John’s (7-11)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

While it’s true that St. John's returns the most experienced team in the conference (nine seniors), it’s just as true that St. John's finished in 13th place last season.  For all the talk of Steve Lavin’s No. 2 recruiting class in the country, that class will have no impact on this year’s team.  The Johnnies are off to a subpar start this season, with losses already to Saint Mary’s, St. Bonaventure and Fordham, and Lavin still hasn’t discovered the right buttons to push (though the Red Storm did just pick up a nice win over Northwestern). 

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because the nine seniors on this team deserve better—and so do their fans.  St. John’s really could finish in the top eight, or they could plummet to the bottom four.  Don’t be surprised by anything.  If the Red Storm finally finish in the top half of the conference, expect the seniors to perform well—guys like Dwight Hardy (15.5 ppg, 2.6 apg), D.J. Kennedy (12.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Justin Brownlee (14.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Paris Horne (7.2 ppg). 

And don’t sleep on the little guy—5’9’’ senior Malik Boothe—who sets the table for the Johnnies with just under four assists per contest.  If St. John’s hopes to improve, two things need to happen: (1) Justin Burrell needs to assert himself a little more, and (2) the team will need to shoot better than 65 percent from the free-throw line.

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Louisville's Peyton Siva

10.  Louisville (8-10)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Is 10th place in the Big East really that bad?  Louisville lost a lot of talent from a team that finished sixth in the conference last season.  It won’t be easy to replace guys like Edgar Sosa, Samardo Samuels and Jerry Smith.  But Louisville is always deep, and a new crop of players will have to find a way to gel with some of the veteran players like Preston Knowles (13.7 ppg) and Peyton Siva (12.1 ppg, 4.7 apg).

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Rick Pitino knows how to coach, and it’s hard for me to see his team finishing any worse than seventh or eighth in the conference.  The Cardinals run and press and defend very well, and they are tough to beat at home (even though their home is no longer Freedom Hall).  Knowles and Siva should provide the leadership Louisville needs to remain competitive throughout the season, and Terrence Jennings (9.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.5 bpg) will serve as the anchor in the middle of the court. 

The development of guys like sophomore Rakeem Buckles (8.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Mike Marra (9.3 ppg) will determine how far this team can go.  And don’t forget about 6’10’’ freshman Gorgui Dieng, who shoots better than 57 percent from the field and blocks over two shots per game.

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9.  Cincinnati (9-9)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Mick Cronin is on the hot seat, which is probably why he didn’t schedule more than one or two challenging games for the Bearcats in their nonconference schedule.  So really, despite Cincinnati’s undefeated start, we have no idea how good or bad they will be this season.  How much can you really tell about a team whose only good win is against an underperforming Oklahoma team?  For now, let’s assume that Cincy will improve marginally from last year’s 7-11 conference record and 11th place finish.  And it would be nice if they could shoot better than 64 percent from the foul line.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because the Bearcats are experienced and talented.  Cincy returns one of the most veteran lineups in the conference and is extremely balanced.  Cashmere Wright (10.0 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Dion Dixon (12.8 ppg) provide stability in the backcourt, while guys like 6’9’’ junior Yancy Gates (11.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and 6’11’’ senior Ibrahima Thomas (7.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg) lead a solid core of players in the middle.  Throw in role players like Rashad Bishop and Larry Davis (both seniors), and you’ve got a blueprint for success.  Cincy could impress, or they could disappoint.  Take your pick.  Nothing would surprise me.    

8.  Marquette (9-9)

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Marquette's Buzz Williams

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Buzz Williams knows how to coach.  Despite the loss of Lazar Hayward, the Golden Eagles return a solid core of players that should keep this team competitive.  I expect Marquette to be on the bubble for an NCAA tournament berth up until the last few days of the season.  Expectations may be lower this year, but expectations were low last season also, yet somehow Marquette found a way to finish fifth in a very tough conference. 

Jimmy Butler (15.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Darius Johnson-Odom (14.2 ppg) are the two stars on this team, and both will need to contribute heavily for Marquette to be successful.  Seniors Joseph Fulce and Dwight Buycks (9.7 ppg, 4.7 apg) provide the sort of toughness that Buzz Williams expects out of his players.  When Buycks is distributing the ball evenly, Marquette is hard to beat.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Marquette could be a lot better than everyone thinks if guys like 6’6’’ junior Jae Crowder (11.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and 6’4’’ freshman Vander Blue (10.3 ppg) keep performing at such a high level.  Marquette still doesn’t have an impressive win (they fell short against Duke, Gonzaga and Wisconsin), so it’s still unclear just how good this team can be.  Even in their losses, though, Marquette fought hard and proved that an undersized frontcourt probably won’t prevent the team from competing with the best of the Big East.

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Notre Dame's Tim Abromaitis

7.  Notre Dame (11-7)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

The Irish return six seniors from a team that finished eighth in the conference last season.  Sure, it won’t be easy replacing four-year starters like Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson, but Notre Dame certainly returns enough of its core to compete at a high level.  Led by seniors Tim Abromaitis (16,1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.4 apg), Ben Hansbrough (15.3 ppg, 4.0 apg) and Carleton Scott (12.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg), the Irish should be just fine.  The early part of the season has been impressive, with key wins against Georgia, Cal, Wisconsin and Gonzaga.  Mike Brey’s “slow burn” offense continues to be effective.  (His mock turtlenecks, on the other hand, continue to disappoint.)

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Notre Dame can finish anywhere between fourth and 10th in the conference, and it all depends on the kind of production the Irish can get from their role players.  Seniors Tyrone Nash (10.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Scott Martin (9.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg) will need to keep contributing in the paint, while 6’1’’ freshman Eric Atkins has to keep improving.  Notre Dame will go to the Tournament again this year.  Their ability to bang with some of the bigger teams in the conference will decide whether they can finish higher than seventh. 

6.  West Virginia (12-6)

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West Virginia's Bob Huggins

Why this projection is probably accurate:

The defending Big East champions lost a lot of talent from last year’s team, most notably Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks.  But eight guys who contributed regularly are back, and Bob Huggins can still coach, so West Virginia will be right there at season’s end.  Kevin Jones (12.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Casey Mitchell (17.5 ppg) and Truck Bryant (11.4 ppg, 3.7 apg) form the core of this experienced team.  John Flowers and Cam Thoroughman continue to bang with the big boys down low, while Joe Mazzulla provides some steady leadership in the backcourt.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Much of this year’s success will depend on the production and leadership of Kevin Jones.  Many assumed that Jones would naturally fill the void left by Butler and Ebanks, but it hasn’t been as easy for Jones as expected, and WVU has needed Casey Mitchell to step up his game.  But Jones needs to be the leader if this team hopes to finish in the top four of the conference.  Jones is shooting a woeful 26 percent from beyond the arc; he’ll need to work on his shot selection as Big East play begins.  And watch out for Deniz Kilicli—he may emerge as more than just a big body in the middle as the season progresses.

5.  Connecticut (12-6)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
UConn's Kemba Walker

Because Kemba Walker (26.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.0 apg) is really good, and UConn has a nice mix of veterans and young players.  With early season victories over Michigan State and Kentucky, UConn has catapulted to the top of the polls and everyone is talking about Kemba Walker as the frontrunner for national player of the year.  But UConn is more than just Kemba.  Sophomore Alex Oriakhi is averaging close to a double-double (11.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg), and sophomore Jamal Coombs-McDaniel has been a steadying force on the wing.

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Because the key to this team is the development of the freshmen.  UConn could win the conference or finish in 10th.  Considering the Huskies finished 12th last year, we really don’t know how good or consistent this team will be.  Everything depends on the freshmen.  Remember names like Shabazz Napier (8.6 ppg, 2.8 apg), Jeremy Lamb (7.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Roscoe Smith (7.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg).  These guys are not just the future—they will be the ones who determine how far the Huskies will go this season.

4.  Georgetown (14-4)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Georgetown’s big three—preseason player of the year Austin Freeman (18.9 ppg), Chris Wright (13.7 ppg, 6.3 apg) and Jason Clark (13.7 ppg) form the best backcourt in the Big East, and their continued success will give the Hoyas a chance to win every game this season.  With impressive victories at Old Dominion, Missouri and Memphis already, and the No. 2 RPI in the country, Georgetown is off to another solid start. 

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Georgetown's Chris Wright

Credit JTIII with adjusting his system to fit the personnel.  We’ve seen the Hoyas run a little more often than usual and, for the first time since Thompson’s arrival in 2004, Georgetown now uses a press.  Chris Wright has emerged as a more well-rounded player and one of the best point guards in the country.  His play is one of the main reasons why the Hoyas have one of the most efficient offenses in the nation.    

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Replacing Greg Monroe will be difficult, and Georgetown may struggle against some of the bigger teams in the conference.  Against Temple, the Hoyas’ interior defense was exposed for stretches of the game.  Georgetown can count on Wright, Freeman and Clark to keep them in every game, but the continued development of the frontcourt will be the key to Georgetown’s success this season. 

Senior Julian Vaughn (9.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg) offers a steady presence in the middle, but the most encouraging sign for the Hoyas has been the development of junior Henry Sims.  If Sims can continue to play at a high level, and role players like Vee Sanford, Nate Lubick and Jerrelle Benimon can chip in when needed, Georgetown will challenge at the top.  If not, the Hoyas could get exposed in the paint and finish as low as eighth in the conference.

3.  Syracuse (14-4)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Syracuse's Jim Boeheim

Because Syracuse is probably the most balanced team in the conference.  With Scoop Jardine (13.3 ppg, 5.9 apg) and Brandon Triche (9.2 ppg, 3.8 apg) in the backcourt, and Kris Joseph (14.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Rick Jackson (13.9 ppg, 11.8 rpg) up front, the Orange return a lot of weapons from a team that finished first after conference play last year.  Jackson, in particular, has been a huge part of Syracuse’s success in the early part of the season and has gone from being a good rebounder to a real force in the paint. 

The key to the season will be the development of the freshmen—Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair, Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita.  Of the four, Waiters looks like the biggest scoring threat, while Keita has been the best rebounder.  As their minutes increase, expect Syracuse to start coming together.  

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Syracuse may be undefeated, but the Orange haven’t exactly looked pretty.  In victories against Michigan, Georgia Tech and NC State, the games all came down to the wire.  Maybe the losses of Wesley Johnson, Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku will be too much for this team to overcome, or maybe the freshmen just need more time to work with the veterans. 

Either way, it’s clear that this team is already deeper than last year’s team.  Ten players average 10 or more minutes per contest, so Boeheim has a lot of pieces to play with.  (Another potential pitfall for the Orange could be free-throw shooting—65 percent may not be good enough.)     

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Villanova's Maalik Wayns

2.  Villanova (14-4)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Because of the two Coreys—Corey Fisher (15.5 ppg, 4.9 apg) and Corey Stokes (15.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg).  As always, Villanova’s guard play is exceptional.  Throw in Maalik Wayns (12.4 ppg, 4.8 apg) and Dominic Cheek and ‘Nova returns a formidable core of backcourt players.  Up front, guys like Antonio Pena (10.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and Mouphtaou Yarou (8.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg) should provide just enough presence in the paint to keep the ‘Cats competitive in most games. 

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Scottie Reynolds was a star.  He was always the man to take the big shot at the end of every game.  Without Reynolds, ‘Nova has a handful of guys who could step up and fill the void, most notably the two Coreys and Maalik Wayns.  The only problem is that Fisher and Wayns have struggled mightily from the perimeter this season.  Both shoot below 38 percent from the field and below 24 percent from three-point range.  (As a team, Villanova only shoots 31 percent from beyond the arc.) How will they respond when all of the pressure is on them?  And what happens if Yarou does not experience the sophomore jump that many expect he will?

1.  Pittsburgh (15-3)

Why this projection is probably accurate:

Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Pittsburgh's Gary Mcghee

Because Pitt returns one of the deepest, most experienced teams in the country.  Guys like Ashton Gibbs (16.5 ppg, 3.4 apg), Brad Wanamaker (12.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 5.6 apg) and Gilbert Brown (11.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg) form a solid core for a team that is looking to improve upon its fourth place finish last year. What makes Pitt so good is more than the rebounding and toughness that Jamie Dixon preaches year after year; it’s also the little things. 

Wanamaker and Brown are multi-dimensional players, who defend very well.  Throw in Travon Woodall (4.2 apg) on the outside and Gary McGhee (6.8 rpg) in the middle and you have a very balanced team that should compete at the very top of the conference.  Keep an eye on 6’9’’ freshman Talib Zanna—he’s been turning some heads in the early part of this season.    

Why this projection is probably inaccurate:

Two reasons: free-throw shooting (only 64 percent) and expectations.  Last year, Pitt entered conference play with low expectations and used that to its advantage; this season, expectations are through the roof.  How will Pitt perform with a target on its back?  And who will take the big shot when the game is on the line?  We’ll soon find out.

 

Big East play begins on Monday night with a big matchup between Pitt and UConn.  Get ready for another exciting season.

 

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