If you're like me, there are only two sports seasons that matter- basketball season and the basketball off-season. While most sports fans preoccupy themselves with baseball and football (and yes, even college football), the true hoop-o-phile lives and breathes roundball year-round.
It is this simple reason why I have been thinking about the coming basketball season in the Big East ever since last season ended with one whale of a title game, in which Butler's Gordan Hayward (now of the Utah Jazz) came about 2 inches shy of becoming the real-life Jimmy Chitwood. And because I have been thinking about it for so long, I feel like if I don't write something about it, I'll go insane. How insane? There are 60 days until basketball season starts up for Seton Hall. And yes, I count the days.
So, without further ado, here is Part 1 of my extremely preliminary preview of the Big East Conference, in predicted order of finish, spots 11-16. Comments are appreciated, but remember: these are my opinions RIGHT NOW. They are liable to be changed. Plus, the Big East is such a tough conference to predict, being the best hoops conference in the nation and all.
Enough with the talking. Here it is, starting with Number 16:
Last Year: 12-19, 4-14 BE
Gains: Gerard Coleman, Brice Kofane, Ron Giplaye, Dre Evans
Boy, has the Providence program been taken for a loop.
First, the Friars lost their final 11 games after knocking off UConn on January 27th. Then, Johnny Lacy and James Still were brought up on charges of felony assault (both pled not guilty and were suspended; Lacy actually left the school). Then Russ Permenter and Kyle Wright (both of whom were not used much) transferred out. THEN leading scorer and rebounder Jamine Peterson was dismissed from the team. And finally, ESPN100 recruit Joseph Young de-committed while French import Alex Gavrilovic was ruled ineligible.
That's a ton of turmoil for a program to go through in one year, especially since it leaves the Friars with only 9 total players, including the 4-man recruiting class. For a team that is basically the Phoenix Suns/New York Knicks of the Big East, this severe lack of depth is not good in the least.
The recruiting class includes a lean scorer in Coleman, an athletic shot-blocker in Kofane, a physical post player in Giplaye, and a diminutive but skilled point guard in Evans. They are added to returnees Duke Mondy, Marshon Brooks, Bilal Dixon (above), Vincent Council and Chris Carter (who played all of 5 minutes last season). It's a roster long on guards, but woefully short on big men and experience. Teams will attack them relentlessly, looking to get the roster in foul trouble. Once that happens (and it will), the Friars will not win many games this year. Because of the need to stay out of foul trouble, it will be tough for the Friars to play a very strong defense next season, but that's nothing new. It just might be even worse than last year, which is scary.
It looks like Keno Davis has another rebuilding job on his hands, if he's even around to do it.
Follow the jump for JP's preview of DePaul, Rutgers, Cincinnati, South Florida and St. John's
Last Year: 8-23, 1-17 BE
Gains: Moses Morgan, Brandon Young, Cleveland Melvin
What? DePaul finishing in a place other than last?
You bet. Yes, DePaul is dreadfully short on talent and skill. Yes, they have won exactly ONE Big East regular season game in the past two years.
But things are looking up. The Blue Demons fired Jerry Wainwright and replaced him with Oliver Purnell (above), formerly of Clemson. Purnell then went out and landed Cleveland Melvin, a long and athletic power forward who can run the floor and rebound his position. Whether Purnell manages to turn around the once-proud program is another story.
But hey, it's better than it's been for DePaul the past two years. Also coming in are Moses Morgan, a wing who can knock down a shot, and (this is the big thing) a leader to play the point in Brandon Young. Young is best in the fast break where he can use his speed, and is an excellent defender on the perimeter, something the Blue Demons could use.
They join a roster that is remarkably still rebuilding. It's a roster than lacks size and skill, but a new coach should at least make the mindset of the team better. Among the critical returnees who will be major rotation players are Mike Stovall, Krys Faber, Tony Freeland, Jeremiah Kelly, and Michael Bizoukas.
I don't blame you if you don't know who those guys are. But I have a feeling that the Demons are going to be at least better than Providence.
Last Year: 15-17, 5-13 BE
Gains: Gilvydas Biruta, Austin Carroll, Mike Poole, Tyree Graham
Rutgers and Seton Hall did similar things in the offseason, in that their best move didn't involve any players. The Scarlet Knights canned Fred Hill and hired Mike Rice (above, left), the coach who took Robert Morris to OT against Villanova in the NCAA Tournament. Rice was able to convince Hill's two recruits, Gil Biruta and Austin Carroll, to stay, and added two more, including Biruta's high school teammate Mike Poole and junior college transfer Tyree Graham.
Although Biruta will help, he won't quite fill the enormous void left by the departure of Hamady N'diaye. N'diaye was the heart and soul of the team last year, and losing him not only means losing his infectious energy, it also means the Scarlet Knights have no real center. The Scarlet Knights lost their only true center on the roster as Brian Okam transferred to ASU, leaving Rutgers with a serious dearth of size.
A St. Benedict's product, Biruta is a big, athletic forward who is strong down low and can also hit a jump shot and is aggressive on both ends, a good fit for Rice, who is aggressive himself. Carroll is an excellent shooter from the wing (the only such player on Rutgers' roster), he’s also a good passer and an ideal compliment to point guard James Beatty and uber-athletic small forward Dane Miller. Poole is another athletic wing who needs to work on his skills, and Graham is a combo guard who Rice is hoping can fill it up off the bench.
These are solid gets for Rice so late in the signing period, but the roster still needs work. They have a solid developing core of Miller, Jonathan Mitchell, Beatty and Biruta, but there isn't much depth on the roster yet. To be able to compete, Rutgers is going to need to hustle like no tomorrow while having its key parts stay out of foul trouble.
The latter is tough, but Rice's intensity on the sidelines should keep his squad on their toes.
UPDATE: I'm told that Okam has transferred out. It seems that Rutgers will have even more of a size problem than initially expressed.
Last Year: 19-16, 7-11 BE
Gains: Justin Jackson, Kelvin Gaines, Sean Kilpatrick (redshirted last year)
The Bearcats this year return much of last year's team, meaning they certainly have depth. But they also lost their two most skilled players in one-and-done Lance Stephenson and 4-year starter Deonta Vaughn, plus a solid contributor down low in Steve Toyloy. This makes them rather talent-deficient in a loaded conference, something that isn't very favorable.
The ‘Cats have good players, absolutely, but what is missing from their roster is a great player, an alpha-dog, a guy who you would feel comfortable going to in the clutch. Vaughn was that player for 4 years, and with him gone, it leaves a void there.
The guards are solid (Cashmere Wright, Dion Dixon, Larry Davis, Jaquon Parker, and redshirt freshman Sean Kilpatrick), and the forwards are solid (Rashad Bishop (above), Darnell Wilks). I think that Mick Cronin will use Wright and Davis at the point, with the other four guys in rotation on the wing. But the Bearcats' biggest asset is their post depth- Yancy Gates, Ibrahima Thomas, Anthony McClain and two new recruits, Justin Jackson and Kelvin Gaines make for quite the unit down low. The recruits are going to get their minutes, especially Jackson because of his high motor, but the word that comes to mind with both of them is 'upside.'
The Bearcats really need both Bishop (who I am a fan of as he might be their best player right now) and Gates to step up their games dramatically if Cincy wants to compete with the better teams in the conference.
12. South Florida
Last Year: 20-13, 9-9 BE
Losses: Dominique Jones, Chris Howard, Mike Mercer
Gains: Lavonte Dority, Shedrick Haynes, Jawanza Poland, Hugh Robertson
Did anyone mean more to his team last year than Dominique Jones meant to the Bulls? Jones absolutely took over games at times and was the main reason why the Bulls competed for the top-8 in the conference last year without a true 3-point threat. Now, Jones is gone, along with fellow backcourt mates Howard and Mercer, meaning USF will almost certainly have to rely on their post game and defense to beat teams.
Stan Heath adds 1 high school recruit and 3 junior college transfers to the mix this year (sound familiar, Pirate fans?). There’s little information available about the transfers- Haynes, Poland and Robertson other than their heights/weights (no YouTube videos, no ESPN profiles, and no access into USF's brain trust). All of them are 6'5" or under, so they are guards (Haynes is a point guard, the other two are more wing-type players), and their listed weights suggest they are on the built side, and we know that's the way Heath likes it.
The one high school recruit, Dority, is the same way. He's a tough guard who needs some work on his skills (shooting, footwork on defense), but who will be a solid floor leader for the Bulls this season.
The frontcourt shouldn't be an issue for USF: Jarrid Famous, Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, and a recovering Augustus Gilchrist (above) will all pull their weight in the middle, with Gilchrist being the focus of the offense. Still, if there is still no one who can make a 3 to space the floor for the Bulls, teams will pack the middle on USF and that could spell trouble. Actually, the top 3-point shooter last year was Gilchrist, so that may increase his importance even further.
One or more of the transfers could be a shooter, but again, I just don't know. The Bulls are a mystery.
11. St. John's
Last Year: 17-16, 6-12 BE
Losses: Anthony Mason, Jr.
Gains: Dwayne Polee
The perpetually young Red Storm have grown up in more ways than one. First, while the school and the fans respect what Norm Roberts did to rebuild the program, he just didn't win fast enough, and was let go. Replacing him is former UCLA coach Steve Lavin, who was successful in Westwood, but who hasn't coached for seven years.
They also happen to have a whopping NINE seniors in their regular rotation, the fruition of Roberts' recruiting efforts 4 years ago when he started to rebuild the once-proud Red Storm. The most important of those seniors is forward D.J. Kennedy, who is St. John's best player and possesses a versatile game. He is joined by familiar faces Malik Boothe, Dwight Hardy, Paris Horne, and Justin Burrell (above) to name a few of the senior class.
With the high number of seniors, right now there is only one signed recruit coming to Queens this fall and he is familiar with Lavin. Dwayne Polee is instantly the best athlete on the team despite him having not played a single minute for the "Johnnies." He is long and athletic, but like everyone on the team except for Hardy, he lacks a 3-point shot in his arsenal. St. John's cannot space the floor well, and they haven't really been able to do it for a while, as they've had to rely on solid execution of offensive sets without turnovers to be successful. I expect that Lavin will try to tap into the veteran status of his roster for help in this regard, basing much of the offense around team chemistry.
When it comes to Lavin, I'm not really sold on him as a coach. He was great for most of his tenure at UCLA, winning 20 or more games each year until his last year there (which happened to be UCLA's worst season in 50 years to that point, but I digress). Usually, that would be good enough to keep a job. The trouble is that Lavin's Bruins consistently had enough talent to win 30 games. He recruited the top class in the nation twice ('98 and '01) and signed 7 total McDonald's All-Americans, including 3 in one year. Despite the recruiting success, his teams never made it to a single Final Four (and made the Elite 8 only once). To underachieve with that much talent leads me to believe that he really won't do much with the good (but not great) talent that St. John's already has. He hired a staff to help him recruit the area, but I’ll have a better idea on who they are, next year, when they fill some of the enormous void that will be left by the graduating seniors.
What makes this slot perfect for the Red Storm? They have more talent than the teams below them, but not enough as the teams ahead of them. Considering they had pretty much the same team last year, I wouldn't be thrilled if I were a St. John's fan, but experience has to count for something, right?
That's it for Part 1! Part 2 will cover spots 6-10. It drops soon, so keep your eyes peeled!