Alright- here it is. The Grand Finale of the Really Early Big East Preview! Due to that nagging annoyance called college, I was too sleepy last night to type this, but a good night's sleep did me a world of good.
Before we get to the preview, Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com reports that some players have yet to be cleared (including two from St. John's and one from DePaul). What, Jeff- no Kevin Johnson? Do you know something?!
Anyway, here's the Top 4:
2010-11 record: 28-6 (15-3 Big East)
Welcome to Campus: Khem Birch, Malcolm Gilbert, Durand Johnson,
The Panthers last year were something else. With a loaded veteran roster, the Panthers, who are always tough and always well-coached, finished first in the conference. This year's squad loses much more than last year's did, with super-glue guy Brad Wanamaker, defensive tough guy Gary McGhee, and athletic and skilled wing Gilbert Brown having exhausted their eligibility.
Ashton Gibbs toyed with the NBA, but made the right decision to return to campus. A solid veteran group including Travon Woodall, Dante Taylor, and Nasir Robinson joins him. This Pittsburgh team is solid at all positions (except maybe the wing). They have guards with Gibbs, Woodall, JJ Moore, and redshirt freshmen (yes, both) Isiah Epps and Cameron Wright. In the post, Taylor, Robinson, and Talib Zanna are all legit with toughness and defensive ability.
The infusion of youth brings two ESPN-100 bigs in Khem Birch and Malcolm Gilbert. Birch is a great athlete and a terrific shot-blocker. He can also knock down a mid-range jumper, but could improve his strength and his halfcourt game. He's a keeper for sure because of his athletic ability. Gilbert is more built than Birch, and a very good post defender, covering another area that Birch is not as strong in. Gilbert is not much of an offensive threat at this point, but he's a quality piece to add to the current post core.
Then there are the two guards. Durand Johnson is 6'7" (and thus the only true wing on the roster), and has a good mid-range game and enough lift to hit tough shots over his defender. He also has a good motor and is a good defender, but tends to settle for jumpers from time to time. John Johnson generated some buzz this offseason- he's a scoring point guard by nature, but improved the true-point side of his game. He's a quick guy who can get into the lane, although he struggles with the jumper from time to time.
The team lost a good deal of talent (and scoring ability) with the departures of the three seniors, so even more of the offensive burden will fall on Gibbs. But Pitt is still extremely well-coached and a good defensive team, especially in the post. They almost never lose at home, and will be top-4 yet again. The thing with Pitt is that they've never made a Final Four despite coming very close a number of times. This team, unlike last year's, is no sure thing to make it that far, but don't ever count them out.
2010-11 record: 25-10 (12-6 Big East)
Welcome to Campus: Wayne Blackshear, Chane Behanan, Zach Price, Kevin Ware, Angel Nunez
Rick Pitino said last year that he would have to play faster than ever to accommodate a lack of talent. Well, it worked, and even better than expected. Preston Knowles transformed into a go-to guy, Peyton Siva improved, and the team got great minutes from Stephan Van Treese and Gorgui Dieng after both Jared Swopshire (who red-shirted), and Rakeem Buckles ended up missing significant time. Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith were capable in the backcourt, and Louisville surprised me. They even went into Gampel Pavillion and knocked off UConn thanks to a virtuoso performance by Siva, albeit in double-OT.
This year, Knowles is gone, but an infusion of talent, including 4 ESPN-100 guys, gives Pitino and Co. a solid team. Wayne Blackshear is a physical perimeter player who can also rebound well and defend well. His deep shot is inconsistent, which is not typical of a Pitino guard, but that should come with time. Chane Behanan has good size and athletic ability as well as passing skills. He can hit a midrange jumper, but is not that good in the post. Zach Price is another long post player that can score on the block and block shots, but who can also disappear at times and is not a plus rebounder. Kevin Ware is strictly an athlete on the wing- he excels in transition and on defense (watch out for him in that full-court press Pitino loves to use), but his jumper and ballhandling are both not very good. Angel Nunez has good size on the wing, and can shoot it from three, but is a little soft.
If you notice the list above, it adds up to 14, so someone's gotta redshirt. I don't know who it will be, but regardless, the Cardinals should be near the top of the league.
2010-11 record: 27-8 (12-6 Big East)
Key loss: Rick Jackson
Welcome to Campus: Rakeem Christmas, Michael Carter-Williams, Trevor Cooney
I picked the Orange first last year because I thought Kris Joseph would follow a logical production line and have a breakout year. Joseph had a good year, but not the great year I envisioned. Freshman center Fab Melo was the preseason Rookie of the Year, and was a colossal disappointment given that constraint. The Orange got solid seasons from Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche, but a great year from Rick Jackson, and some good contributions from Dion Waiters, CJ Fair, James Southerland and Baye Moussa Keita. That, and that 2-3 zone that confounds opponent after opponent, allowed the Orange to still have a very good year.
This year, Syracuse loses Jackson, but adds Rakeem Christmas, and excellent defender, rebounder, and shot-blocker who can also score from the block and the high post from time to time. He's also an emotional player, and that can get him in trouble at times in terms of attitude when things go bad for him, but adding him to Keita down low could be deadly in that zone. Melo, until he shows something good, is just legit size at this point.
Coming into the backcourt are Michael Carter- Willams and Trevor Cooney. MCW is a great scorer with a consistent deep jumper and a deadly stroke from the free throw line. He attacks the basket with abandon as well, but struggles to finish through contact because he is very skinny right now. Cooney is the next Andy Rautins- he's a terrific shooter who at the moment can't really create his own shot. But that's not necessary for him with Triche and Jardine on the roster anyway.
The Orange are going to be very, very good. That upset in the Carrier Dome by Seton Hall was memorable to Pirate fans, but don't expect one this year when the Pirates open Big East play up there. With even more length added, Syracuse should give everyone a problem, even the number one team in this preview.
2010-11 record: 32-9 (9-9 Big East- won National Championship)
Welcome to Campus: Andre Drummond, DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright
I said in this preview last year that UConn would go as far as Kemba Walker took them. Well, that just happened to be all the way, as the Huskie captured their second national title. Walker's brilliance carried them through the Big East Tournament as a 9-seed to win it, but it was UConn's defense that carried them to the title. They got every big stop they needed, and it helped that Butler couldn't hit anything (regardless of being open or not) in the title game.
Kemba Walker is gone, as is backup center Charles Okwandu and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who transferred to Hofstra.
But in a late offseason ambush, Jim Calhoun somehow reeled in Andre Drummond, who was originally committed to the Class of 2012, but reassigned himself to the Class of 2011, scrapping an earlier plan to prep a year. Drummond can do everything- he has great size and athletic ability, he can score in the post traditionally, or facing up, he's a good passer, a good rebounder, and an intimidating presence on defense. He has not been as consistent as he should be, but this guy gives UConn a legit shot at repeating in the Big East.
The other two recruits now get to operate out of the spotlight, but they are both very good as well. DeAndre Daniels has good size and athleticism on the wing, and he can hit a three or drive to the basket as well. He needs to add strength to help him finish in the lane, and he's sometimes a little too aggressive to the point where he starts making bad decisions. Ryan Boatright is the second coming of Kemba- a super-quick point guard who can get into the paint, but is a streaky perimeter shooter as well as a gambler (too often) on defense. He should also add strength and jumper consistency, but it sounds like a freshman Walker, and we all know how that worked out.
Without Drummond, I had UConn 3rd. With Drummond, they're number 1 on my list. And the Pirates get to face them twice. Mazel Tov.
That's it, guys! Thanks for reading, and for commenting. The season starts sooner than you think, so keep locked in to South Orange Juice for all your Seton Hall Basketball news!