Ah, yes. Big East basketball is back for its best season ever.
The intensity, quality and talent level in this conference is unmatched in college basketball. The publicity from an extensive TV contract with ESPN allows the best of the Big East to be shown Monday nights, Wednesday nights and Saturday’s more often than any other BCS conference in the nation. The storied programs are endless, from Georgetown to Syracuse to Connecticut to Saint John’s and Notre Dame. The spirited rivalries are hotly contested year in and year out, from Marquette-Louisville to Seton Hall-Rutgers to Connecticut-Syracuse. The top players in the nation, the best games, the most publicity…what else could you ask for in a 16-team conference?
This year is especially unusual in that you can make a compelling argument for 11 or 12 teams to make the NCAA Tournament this season. Yes, I’m even including Cincinnati, Seton Hall and DePaul as crazier things have happened in this conference. More realistically, an unprecedented 9 or 10 teams may reach the plateau. Not only that, but the consensus top-four teams in the conference- Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame- could be preseason top-ten teams in the nation. Marquette, Syracuse, Georgetown, Villanova and West Virginia fans can also make arguments for their team to start in the top-25. Never before has the upper echelon of a conference had such high expectations.
The bottom half? Well, let’s just say parity from top to bottom doesn’t describe the Big East this season. My lower three teams all have potential, but look even weaker in such a loaded conference. In other words: expect quite a few blowouts. We start our Big East Preview looking into teams 13-16 in the Big East, with each weekday coming up previewing a single team until we reach #1.
16. St. John’s Red Storm- Coach: Norm Roberts (5th season)
Backcourt: Unless one of the freshman can step up at guard for the Red Storm, there is clearly a lack of Big East-caliber talent at the start of the season. St. John’s lost two key cogs in their backcourt as assist leader Eugene Lawrence graduated and reserve guard Larry Wright opted to transfer. Much like the frontcourt, the backcourt is extremely young. Freshman Quincy Roberts is an athletic scorer while fellow rookie TyShwan Edmondson will also compete for the starting point guard spot. Sophomore Malik Boothe started at point guard last year, but isn’t much of a scorer and is more suited as a shooting guard. Paris Horne, even at just 5.1 PPG, has the potential to score in double-digits on any given night.
Frontcourt: Anthony Mason Jr. will lead the Johnnies frontcourt. Mason shone in two 29-point games against defensive stalwarts Louisville and Pittsburgh last season, showing off his outstanding athleticism and improved outside shooting. For an offense that ranked in the bottom 60 in all of Divison I basketball last season, coach Roberts hopes to find a nice complimentary piece for Mason this year. Wing D.J. Kennedy emerged as a potential option, averaging nearly eight points and six rebounds as a freshman. They also hope for either Rob Thomas or Sean Evans, both sophomores, to make the leap and join Mason as scoring options. Center is a question mark with the likely favorite being Dele Coker, who started multiple games in 07-08 but seemed to wear down quickly. Track the progress of sophomore Justin Burrell, a 10.8 per game scorer from a year ago who has bulked up this summer and could explode onto the scene.
Bottom Line: While Norm Roberts received a puzzling five-year extension from the program and is in the running for top ten recruit Lance Stephenson for 2009-10, this year is going to be another frustrating campaign for loyal St. John’s fans. Anthony Mason is the lone bright spot on a young and inexperienced team that will simply be overmatched by their Big East competition. They may squeeze out a win or two in Madison Square Garden, but they pose absolutely no threat to any team in the top ten of this conference.
G- Justin Burrell (SO)
G- Malik Boothe (SO)
F- D.J. Kennedy (SO)
F- Anthony Mason Jr. (SR)
C- Dele Coker (SO)
Key Non-Conference Games: 11/17-18 (Preseason NIT at BC), 12/27 vs. Miami, 2/19 vs. Duke
Key Conference Games: 1/22 vs. Cincinnati, 2/1 vs. USF, 2/5 @ Seton Hall, 2/28 @ DePaul
Most Valuable Player: Anthony Mason Jr.
Projected Postseason Tournament: None
15. South Florida Bulls- Coach: Stan Heath (2nd season)
Backcourt: The star of the backcourt, and the entire USF roster, is sophomore guard Dominique Jones. He became the first Big East freshman since Allen Iverson to notch 30 points in back-to-back contests and ended up scoring 18.3 PPG in conference play. Jones is a versatile player who shoots from the outside with efficiency while also displaying excellent athleticism getting to the rim. Jesus Verdejo will join him in the backcourt, another solid outside shooter who finished as a double-digit scorer for Stan Heath last season. Once the first semester ends, the USF backcourt gets a huge boost from Georgia transfer Mike Mercer, who averaged 12.1 PPG in 51 games for the Bulldogs over two seasons and is one of seven newcomers on the Bulls roster for 08-09. Freshman Gaby Belardo will see enhanced playing time in his debut season. Grade: C+
Frontcourt: The Bulls will clearly miss All Big East member Kentrell Gransberry, a box-score filler who led the Big East in rebounding twice in Tampa to go along with 16.0 PPG. Attempting to replace Gransberry is hard enough for any program, but USF has no clear replacement at this point. 6’9 senior Mobolaji Ajayi improved over the course of last season, starting the final 13 games for Stan Heath. They hope to get prized transfer Gus Gilchrist available for the season after his request for an eligibility waiver. Gilchrist, a Maryland transfer, could contribute double-digit scoring and quality rebounding immediately for South Florida, a much needed addition to what appears to be clearly missing pieces up front. They also hope Eladio Espinosa and JC transfer Alex Rivas-Sanchez will turn rebounding from a weakness into a strength. Grade: C-
Bottom Line: Stan Heath’s second year at the helm of the South Florida program won’t be any easier than the first. While the offense could revolve around Gransberry in the paint to give Jones more looks from outside, opposing defenses can key on Jones and force the Bulls weak secondary cast to win games. They’ll be able to steal some from weaker Big East teams at home, but it won’t be enough for USF to climb out of the bottom two this season.
G- Jesus Verdejo (SR)
G- Dominique Jones (SO)
G- Mike Mercer (JR)
F- Mobolaji Ajayi (SR)
F- Alex Rivas-Sanchez (JR)
Key Non-Conference Games: 11/19 @ Virginia, 11/29 vs. Northeastern, 12/16 @ Vanderbilt, 12/22 vs. Oral Roberts
Key Conference Games: 1/10 vs. DePaul, 1/24 vs. Villanova, 2/1 @ St. John’s, 2/25 @ Seton Hall
Most Valuable Player: Dominique Jones
Projected Postseason Tournament: None
14. Seton Hall Pirates- Coach: Bobby Gonzalez (3rd season)
Backcourt: Eugene Harvey busted onto the scene as a freshman and many Seton Hall fans were drooling at the prospect of this kid taking off to national levels as an elite point guard. The sophomore slump kicked in for the local kid Harvey, who saw his FG% drop six points, FT% drop 11 points and 3PT% fall to a horrific 23% last season. Taking over as the primary outside shooter last year was freshman Jeremy Hazell, who made 11 FG vs. West Virginia and 8 threes vs. Louisville but would go 1-10 the following night from outside. Providing a consistent presence could be freshman Jordan Theodore, the highlight of Gonzalez’s recruiting class. Paul Gause could average three steals per game with his quick hands and ability to jump passing lanes for thefts and easy baskets. The strength of the backcourt depends on Harvey going back to playing like he did as a freshman. Grade: B-
Frontcourt: The Pirates head into this season with some intriguing pieces in their frontcourt. Duquesne transfer Robert Mitchell is two years removed from winning Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year while averaging 16.4 PPG. Mitchell is handed the difficult role of replacing the uber-productive Brian Laing and may need an adjusting period for Big East play. Still, the expectations for Mitchell are very high. John Garcia looks to keep his knees healthy enough to contribute on a regular basis for Gonzalez. Garcia has an excellent post-up game and rebounds well when he’s on the floor and not caught up in foul trouble. 6’11, 340 pound freshman center Melvyn Oliver could make an immediate impact. Trimmed down to 310, Oliver is surprisingly athletic for his size with soft hands and touch around the basket. Losing Laing for both scoring and rebounding will be hard to overcome. Grade: C-
Bottom Line: I had a difficult time pegging Seton Hall this low in the conference. Harvey and Hazell show potential, the team scores in bunches, and Mitchell could be Newcomer of the Year. I don’t like the erratic behavior of Bobby Gonzalez on the sidelines, though, and his lack of temperament could cost him his job soon enough. His constant press works at times, but the Pirates also tend to give up easy baskets and play atrocious defense. Keeping Garcia healthy and seeing progress for Eugene Harvey are the keys.
G- Eugene Harvey (JR)
G- Jeremy Hazell (SO)
G- Paul Gause (SR)
F- Robert Mitchell (JR)
F- John Garcia (JR)
Key Non-Conference Games: 11/20-23 (Paradise Jam)
Key Conference Games: 1/3 vs. West Virginia, 1/6 vs. Villanova, 2/8 @ Rutgers, 2/10 @ DePaul
Most Valuable Player: Eugene Harvey
Projected Postseason Tournament: None
13. Rutgers Scarlet Knights- Coach: Fred Hill (3rd season)
Backcourt: Rutgers fans began envisioning a bright future when Greg Rosario committed to play in Piscataway. Rosario, who played in the McDonalds All-American game and started at point guard for the top prep team in the nation at St. Anthony’s, could instantly mold himself into the go-to scorer in crunch time situations and, ultimately, the most consistent scorer on the roster when the season concludes. Corey Chandler is another Rutgers player with a high ceiling after scoring 11.1 PPG in his freshman season. Returning starter Mike Coburn notched nearly 10 PPG against Big East competition but may find his minutes drop with the addition of Rosario and return of Anthony Farmer, an emerging senior who found his FG% bolt up from 32% to 42% last season. Hill has plenty of options to mix and match if Rosario were to struggle early in his college career, although I don’t see that occurring. Grade: B
Frontcourt: Fred Hill’s frontcourt received a huge boost when four-star recruit Greg Echenique graduated early and enrolled at Rutgers to gain eligibility for this season. Echenique spent the summer playing for the Venezuelan Junior National Team and could be the scoring center that Rutgers has lacked for so long. Complimenting Echenique well is returning center Hamady N’Diaye, a truly special defensive player with great instincts to go along with rebounding and shot-blocking qualities. Also joining the Scarlet Knights is Christian Morris who will provide intensity and interior scoring off the bench. J.R. Inman, the leading scorer on Rutgers’ last place team of 07-08, also returns to provide versatility and another rebounding presence. He joins freshman Patrick Jackson and small forward Jaron Griffin, who may be relegated to a more limited role this season. Grade: C+
Bottom Line: Rutgers is undoubtedly improved from their disastrous 07-08 campaign. Fred Hill reeled in the best recruiting class in years headed by Rosario and Echenique and they could be much more competitive than previous seasons against high quality opponents. With any young group, they’ll experience growing pains in the Big East, but Rutgers fans know they should be patient. Corey Chandler may prove to be an all-conference contributor if he builds off of his freshman season. Rosario is the real future star, though.
G- Mike Rosario (FR)
G- Corey Chandler (SO)
G- Anthony Farmer (SR)
F- J.R. Inman (SR)
F- Hamady N’Diaye (JR)
Key Non-Conference Games: 12/3 @ Rider, 12/10 @ Princeton, 12/28 @ North Carolina
Key Conference Games: 1/10 vs. Syracuse, 1/24 @ St. John’s, 1/31 vs. DePaul, 3/1 vs. Providence
Most Valuable Player: Corey Chandler
Projected Postseason Tournament: None
#12 DePaul and #11 Cincinnati will be up either Thursday night or Friday afternoon.