Here is Part 2 of my 3 part preview of the Big East Conference. For Part 1, click here.
This section will cover spots 10-6. And heeeeeerrrrreee they are!
Last Year: 18-16, 7-11 BE
Gains: Roscoe Smith, Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier, Tyler Olander, Michael Bradley
Besides the Providence Friars, UConn lost more players from last year's team than any squad in the conference. Seniors Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson, and Gavin Edwards were not only critical players for Jim Calhoun, they were oftentimes the only players, as Calhoun was reluctant to go into his bench much. Due to a weak bench, much of the team ended up burning out at the season came to an end. Now that those 3 are gone, Calhoun has some mighty big holes to fill.
And this year, he'll have to do it with a very young team, one of the youngest in the conference. 5 freshmen are coming in (make that 7 if you include 2 outstanding verbal commitments, according to ESPN). The potential 7-man freshmen class will join 3 sophomores, 1 junior and 3 seniors (of which, Charles Okwandu has the most upside) and it’s easy to see that this season really depends on these pups overcoming their respective learning curves and quickly. Calhoun himself is going to need a lot of patience with this team and its youth, something that really isn't in his nature to begin with.
Luckily for him, his best player is his point guard. Kemba Walker (the lone junior) is one hell of a lightning bug on the court that can get to the rim with ease, knock down an open 3 and is one of the toughest players in the conference. He too has room to improve as he has not been defending up to his potential. He must excel defensively this season considering the Huskies don't have many shot-blocking threats as they’ve had in years past. Nevertheless, Walker is the unquestioned alpha-dog (pardon the pun), and this team will go wherever he takes them.
This freshmen class for Calhoun is very talented and possesses a ton of upside. Smith is a great shooter and defender who can drive to the basket or pull up and hit a midrange shot; in short, he's the total package and if he improves consistency, watch out. The UConn brass is raving about Napier, the likely successor to Kemba Walker, as a similar do-it-all type of player who needs to work on his defensive consistency, much like Walker, but Napier has the better jumper. Lamb is on the thin side, but he's a talented scorer with a huge 7'4" wingspan (he's 6'4" in height) and can also drain open looks. Olander has an all-around game as a power forward and looks like he could be a Gavin Edwards-lite with range out to the 3-point line, and Bradley is also on the thin side, but has great upside.
Again, the key is how these freshmen adapt to the Big East, but if they do, UConn will challenge for the top-8 after an off year in 2009-10.
Follow the jump for team previews on Marquette, Louisville, Seton Hall & Notre Dame.
Last Year: 22-12, 11-7 BE
Gains: Vander Blue, Jamail Jones, Jae Crowder, Reggie Smith, Davonte Gardner
The Golden Eagles were another team that people thought would fall off a bit last season after losing Wesley Matthews, Dominic James and Jerel McNeal. They went on to surprise a few, as little guy Maurice Acker and breakout star Jimmy Butler stepped up alongside the consistent Lazar Hayward, making the Golden Eagles a tough out.
Now Hayward and Acker are gone, but boy, oh boy, does Buzz Williams have a recruiting class coming in. It is led by Vander Blue, a slasher extraordinaire who can get to the rim with the best of them and can also defend both guard positions. Jamail Jones is not only an outstanding shooter, but he's got great shot selection to go with his smooth-as-silk jumper. Davonte Gardner and Reggie Smith are solid players who have some upside at the center and power forward positions, respectively.
And then there's Crowder, who just happens to be the reigning JUCO National Player of the Year. Crowder is built- 6'6"/215 pounds and is an outstanding offensive player. Combined with the ultra-efficient Butler, they should be one heck of a forward duo.
For a team that shot an amazing 41.3 percent from deep last year, including Acker and Darius Johnson-Odom (above), the top two deep shooters, having more options on offense should make this team a fun one to watch. The one concern surrounding Marquette is who will step up and replace Hayward's presence? All of their big men are on the green side, so if they get quality production from those players, they should be even more fun to watch.
Last Year: 20-13, 11-7 BE
Gains: Roburt Sallie, Justin Coleman (ineligible- academics), Gorgui Sy-Dieng, Russell Smith, Elisha Justice
Some may disagree with this pick, but hear me out. I think some of the reason why Louisville struggled last season was because they did not play at their customary breakneck speed, and this was due to Samuels. Losing athletes like Earl Clark and Terrence Williams was not only tough, but it made Samuels the focal point of the offense. He was big and strong, yet not the quickest guy in the world and Rick Pitino was forced to slow the pace down a bit to accommodate his star player.
This year, Samuels is gone and the Cardinals have no one on their roster that can really fill up the scoring void left by his, Sosa's and Smith's departures. Pitino is not only going to get back to playing fast, he's going to play faster than fast.
I believe that this team will excel in getting back to Pitino's frenetic pace and the chief reason is that Peyton Siva (above, center) is now the starting point guard. Siva had his moments coming off the bench as a freshman last season, but trust me, this guy is the perfect point guard for Pitino. He is lightning-quick, an excellent defender and tough as they come. With Siva now at the helm leading that fast(er)-break offense that the Cards are sure to run this season, things will kick into overdrive.
The big men (Terrence Jennings and newcomer Gorgui Sy Dieng along with Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles) are all more athletic than Samuels was, which should also help. The key is whether or not the shooters on this team shoot the 3-ball better than they did last year. Memphis transfer Roburt Sallie is the main threat and the other shooters from last season's squad (Preston Knowles and Mike Marra) are good shooters who are coming off of bad years. Goodness knows there are many 3-point shots hoisted by a Pitino coached team, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see another shooter emerge (Kyle Kuric? Siva? Swopshire?).
Due to the style the Cardinals play, I think they will do quite well, surprising many. I also think that the team is tough enough to ignore what happened with their head coach this offseason.
7. Seton Hall
Last Year: 19-13, 9-9 BE
Gains: Fuquan Edwin, Patrik Auda, Anali Okoloji, Aaron Geramipoor, Eniel Polynice
OK, now on to the Pirates. I really should have included Bobby Gonzalez in the "Losses" section, because getting rid of him was the best thing that Seton Hall did this offseason. After the disgraceful way the season ended, a season with so much promise at its beginning, it was time for a change.
And his name is Kevin Willard. A Rick Pitino protege, Willard blew me away at the introductory press conference with his confidence and fantastic, albeit quiet, drive. He said the Pirates would play an intense defense under him, and honestly, I believe him.
Seton Hall is also a team with a boatload of returning talent, and unlike what we saw at the beginning of Bobby Gonzalez's tenure, Willard will use this talent to win, instead of using the returning players as an excuse for not winning.
Coming back to South Orange are the top-3 scorers from a year ago in seniors: Jeremy Hazell (above) and Jeff Robinson, along with junior and the Big East leading rebounder, Herb Pope. All of them declared for the draft, and all of them decided to return, instantly making the Pirates a contender for the top 8 in the conference this year.
Jordan Theodore is now running the show, and the former Paterson Catholic point guard has the chops to step into that role this season with gusto. His strong defense will be a great fit for Willard's defense-first style.
Coming in to surround that "core four" is a very good recruiting class that gives the Pirates depth in the frontcourt. Fuquan Edwin is a Gonzalez recruit whom Willard convinced to stay. He is an outstanding athlete/slasher who has the tools to succeed under the new regime. Patrik Auda and Aaron Geramipoor are both from overseas. Auda is a multi-skilled power forward-type while Geramipoor is 6'11" and gives Seton Hall some options at the center position. Okoloji is another skilled forward who can play either forward position, and whose averages at prep school a year ago are eye-popping. Polynice, a transfer from Ole Miss is also versatile, able to play the 1 or 2 and even the 3 if the need ever arose (Jon Rothstein of MSG and ESPN radio tweeted that they plan to use Polynice as a backup point guard behind Theodore).
Willard has found himself with a very talented team, but the X-factor (if Pope completely recovers from his collapse in the spring, which I believe he will) is Hazell. He has a reputation as a chucker, and rightfully so, but he has the ability to make shots that literally no one else in the conference can make (look up what he did against West Virginia the day after Christmas this past season). If he shows better shot selection this season and plays a little better on the defensive end than what he did under Gonzalez, the Pirates may be in for a season that extends further into March than they’ve reached in the last 5 years. A new coach and the feeling of a fresh start that surrounds this program truly makes Seton Hall one of the more intriguing teams in the Big East.
6. Notre Dame
Last Year: 23-12, 10-8 BE
Gains: Scott Martin, Jerian Grant, Eric Atkins, Alex Dragicevich
I have a real difficult time figuring out where to rank the Irish. On one hand, they lost one of the greatest players in the history of the program in Luke Harangody and their underrated starting point guard Tory Jackson. That's a lot of talent to lose.
But on the other hand, they still have solid players. Tyrone Nash, Carleton Scott, Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis all return for Mike Brey this season and all were major players for ND last year. Added to the current roster are Purdue- transfer Scott Martin, slasher Jerian Grant, slashing point guard Eric Atkins, and Alex Dragicevich, a big guard who can shoot lights-out when open.
Brey is expecting Martin, who missed all of last year with a torn ACL, to have a big impact. His game is Harangody-esque in the sense that he can step out and hit midrange jumpers with ease, although he doesn't possess 'Gody's sturdy frame. Adding the slashers Grant and Atkins gives the Irish something they didn't quite have last year.
With their main shooters (Abromaitis and Hansbrough, above) still there to fill it up, and this year, off more penetration, the Irish have enough talent in their frontcourt to compete with anyone. Although they don't have Harangody, they have his look-alike, Jack Cooley, who can provide a big body against the bigger men in the Big East. They sure won't be an easy out and they certainly have enough talent to finish here, but this is the spot in the rankings where things get a bit difficult.
Honestly, figuring out where to rank teams 6-10 was the toughest task of this preview. In the final section of this preview, I'll rank my top 5 teams. Keep those eyes peeled!