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Big East Report

Posted by Zach on November 26, 2008

Connecticut Wisconsin College Basketball

I’ll be writing a Big East report hopefully every week for the rest of the season to keep you updated on the strongest conference in the land. Here’s my first edition:

Power Rankings (Record) Next Three Games and Prediction
1. Connecticut (5-0)
11/29 vs. Bryant University (W),  12/1 vs. Delaware State (W), 12/4 @ Buffalo (W)
2. Louisville (2-0)
11/30 vs. Western Kentucky (W), 12/6 vs. Indiana State (W), 12/7 vs. Ohio (W)
3. Pittsburgh (5-0)
11/28 vs. Texas Tech in NJ (W), 11/29 vs. Wash St/Miss St in NJ (W)
4. Notre Dame (4-0)
11/26 vs. North Carolina in Maui (L), 11/30 vs. Furman (W), 12/2 vs. South Dakota (W)
5. Syracuse (5-0)
11/28 vs. Virginia (W), 12/1 vs. Colgate (W), 12/3 vs. Cornell (W)
6. Marquette (4-0)
11/28 vs. Northern Iowa in Chicago (W), 11/29 vs. Dayton in Chicago (W), 12/2 vs. Central Michigan (W)
7. Georgetown (2-0)
11/27 vs. Wichita State (W), Next two games at the Old Spice Classic
8. Villanova (4-0)
11/28 vs. Towson (W), 12/2 @ Penn (W), 12/4 vs. Houston Baptist (W)
9. West Virginia (3-0)
11/28 vs. Iowa in Vegas (W), 11/29 vs. Kentucky/Kansas State, 12/3 @ Mississippi (L)
10. Seton Hall (4-1)
11/29 vs. Delaware (W), 12/2 vs. Monmouth (W), 12/9 vs. Cal Baptist (W)
11. Cincinnati (4-0)
11/28 vs. Florida State (W), 12/6 vs. UAB (W), 12/13 vs. Xavier (L)
12. Providence (3-1)
11/27 vs. Baylor (L), Next two games at the Anaheim Classic
13. DePaul (2-0)
11/26 vs. Detroit (W), 11/29 vs. Indiana State (W), 12/3 @ California (L)
14. St. John’s (5-1)
12/1 vs. St. Francis (W), 12/8 vs. NJIT (W), 12/14 vs. Bethune Cookman (W)
15. Rutgers (3-1)
11/26 vs. Lehigh (W), 11/30 vs. St. Peter’s (W), 12/3 @ Rider (W)
16. South Florida (2-1)
11/29 vs. Northeastern (L), 12/3 @ UAB (L), 12/6 @ UCF (W)

Final Four Contenders


Connecticut Huskies:
I picked the Huskies to win the national title before the season, and nothing in their play early in the season is suggesting that was a foolish selection. Connecticut won the Paradise Jam in rather easy and proficient fashion after a brief struggle with La Salle in the first round, defeating two ranked teams in Miami and Wisconsin by double digits. The offense hasn’t suffered even as A.J. Price has yet to play at 100%, led by the emergence of Jerome Dyson and overpowering ability of Hasheem Thabeet down low. Defense has been the most encouraging early-season trend for coach Jim Calhoun, though. Other than a poor performance against La Salle, Connecticut has not surrendered more than 63 points in any of their other four games, giving up less than 60 in three of the four. The Huskies don’t face another difficult opponent until December 20 when they make the trek to Seattle and battle Gonzaga.

Star Player: Jerome Dyson: 18.2 PPG, 3.4 APG,  1.8 SPG, 56% FG, 43% 3PT

Louisville Cardinals: Rick Pitino set up an early season schedule in which the Cardinals don’t play in any hyped preseason tournament and instead face more and more difficult opponents as the non-conference season rounds out in December, where they’ll play Mississippi, Minnesota, UNLV, UAB and Kentucky. So far, it’s been total domination for Louisville against both Morehead State and a respectable South Alabama squad, winning by a combined 160-95. Samardo Samuels has carried his huge start over from the preseason, quickly turning into the go-to player in the Cardinal offense. Pitino even called Samuels the second best freshman he’s ever coached behind Jamal Mashburn. Terrence Williams is still getting healthy and Pitino hopes to continue shuffling Terrence McGee and Edgar Sosa at the point guard position, creating competition and changing the lineup based on the specific matchup.

Star Player: Samardo Samuels: 21.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 77% FG, 89% FT

Pittsburgh Panthers: Much like Connecticut and Louisville, the Pitt Panthers have also been overly impressive in the early going, scoring 80+ points and allowing less than 70 in four of five home games. The normally stout Miami (OH) defense that held UCLA and Wright State hostage were completely overwhelmed by the Pitt offensive attack, surrendering 82 points in the contest. Coach Jamie Dixon has to be pleased by the play of his point guard Levance Fields coming off major foot surgery. Dixon knows Field is the most indispensable member of the Panthers (just look at how they played with him sidelined last year) and has certainly played like an elite point guard thus far. DeJuan Blair produced a jaw-dropping line in their latest game against Division II Indiana (PA): 21 minutes, 13/14 FG, 27 points, 18 rebounds.

Star Player: DeJuan Blair: 17.5 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 71% FG

Notre Dame Fighting Irish: The Irish pulled off a nail biting win over Texas in the Maui semifinals last night, winning 81-80 and cementing a victory that could mean the difference between 2 and 3 seed come March. Other than Texas, Notre Dame hasn’t been too tested; they dominated USC Upstate at home and lead throughout against 0-5 Loyola Marymount as a Maui tune-up before crushing flailing Indiana. The epic test will be tonight against #1 North Carolina, who may or may not score 150 points if Notre Dame follows their defensive effort against Texas with more of the same. The ACC Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough and Big East Player of the Year Luke Harangody will do battle in the post. You should probably watch this game.

Star Player: Luke Harangody: 25.0 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 1.3 APG

Sweet 16 Contenders

Syracuse Orange: I wrote about this at length in my Day After post, but this Syracuse team is miles ahead of where they stood last year in November. I watched both of their games in Kansas City and came away very impressed by the point guard play and floor presence of Jonny Flynn, the rebounding/defense of Arinze Onuaku, and their ability to spread the floor with Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins. Paul Harris isn’t a bad weapon himself. We’ll see if Syracuse has the defense to finish in the top five in this loaded conference. They should cruise against the rest of their non-conference schedule (Virginia, Cornell and Cleveland State are their hardest games) before traveling to Memphis in late December.

Star Player: Jonny Flynn: 21.0 PPG, 4.8 APG, 1.8 SPG, 56% FG, 75% FT, 46% 3pt

Marquette Golden Eagles: The Golden Eagles have cruised at home against easy competition, scoring an absurd 386 points in four games against Houston Baptist, Chicago State, Milwaukee and Texas Southern. They have to be encouraged by the aggressive play of Wesley Matthews, Lazar Hayward continuing to develop his inside/outside game, and Dominic James running the offense with more efficiency. The defense could pose a problem for Marquette, though. They’ve given up 298 points in those games against barely D1 competition.

Star Player: Wesley Matthews: 22.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 4.0 APG, 49% FG, 88% FT

Georgetown Hoyas: The Hoyas have played just two games so far this season, saving their November legs for a loaded Old Spice Classic beginning tomorrow in Orlando. Wins over Jacksonville and Drexel don’t really provide one with a barometer of whether Georgetown can continue their success this season, but this tournament surely will. They should handle Wichita State before facing Tennessee/Siena on Friday and possibly Michigan State, Gonzaga, Maryland or Oklahoma State on Saturday. It’ll be our first opportunity to see Greg Monroe on a national stage.

Star Player: Greg Monroe: 17.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 68% FG, 89% FT

Villanova Wildcats:
Jay Wright is allowing his young team to ease into the season with softer non-conference opponents like Fordham, Niagara, Monmouth and Towson while some of his more experienced conference foes face tougher opposition early. The most encouraging early-season trend for Wright has to be the emergence of Dante Cunningham as a potential superstar in the post. He exploded against a weak Fordham team for 31 points and 11 rebounds on 11/17 shooting.

Star Player:
Dante Cunningham: 18.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 63% FG, 73% FT

Bubble Teams


West Virginia Mountaineers
: West Virginia has cruised against Elon, Delaware State and Longwood at home, surrendering just 143 points in those three games. Freshman Darryl Bryant has been a real surprise thus far, making up for the early struggles of Devin Ebanks, who has just 8.0 PPG on 33% shooting.

Seton Hall Pirates
: Two wins over USC and Virginia Tech will go a long way come March if the Pirates are sitting on the bubble. If their defense remains improved and Jeremy Hazell keeps stroking it from the outside, Puerto Rico could prove no fluke.

Cincinnati Bearcats:
Cincinnati has beaten up on inferior opponents at home in the early going to build a 4-0 record. Deonta Vaughn and Alvin Mitchell are playing well, but the real story has been balanced scoring: ten players are averaging 3+ PPG.

Providence Friars:
Keno Davis received a rude welcome in his first home game as head coach of the Friars: losing to hot shooting Matt Janning and Northeastern. They scored 100+ points in their next two against Dartmouth and Sacred Heart, but gave up 80+ in both of those contests.

Bottom Feeders

DePaul Blue Demons:
DePaul has played two games thus far: defeating Albany by 11 at home and squeaking out a road win against UIC 67-63. Will Walker and Dar Tucker, one of my breakout candidates, have been the offensive stars.

St. John’s Red Storm:
St. John’s has received solid play from Stanley Burrell and sophomore D.J. Kennedy, nearly toppling BC in Chestnut Hill. Their happiness was soured when they received the news Roger Mason Jr. will miss the rest of the season.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights:
Freshman point guard Mike Rosario appears to be the real deal. Unfortunately Rutgers slipped up badly on Sunday, losing at home by one to St. Bonaventure.

South Florida Bulls:
USF hung with Virginia on the road last week, losing by two points. That close loss doesn’t look as good now that South Florida lost to Liberty Tuesday night.

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Big East Preview: #5 Marquette

Posted by Zach on October 24, 2008

5. Marquette Golden Eagles– Coach: Buzz Williams (1st season)

PG- Dominic James (SR): After a debut season that culminated in Big East Rookie of the Year honors and a toe dip into the NBA Draft waters, James has yet to live up to the enormous expectations thrown on him after that electrifying first season in Milwaukee. His sophomore year saw a dip in production and an overall sense of disappointment. His junior year became riddled with wrist and ankle injuries while many saw James underachieving as a point guard, with opposing defenses daring him to shoot. James already has the athleticism, drive and man-to-man defensive skills to silence the critics. An improved jump shot from outside and continued progression setting up players like Hayward and Matthews in transition for easy baskets is the challenge this season for James. Whether James wants to play at the next level will largely depend on if scouts see definite improvement in those two facets of his game.

SG- Jerel McNeal (SR): While the Big Three for Marquette the last three years has been James-McNeal-Matthews, nobody of that group has really emerged as the true go-to player offensively. James is inconsistent and Matthews can be overly passive. McNeal decided late February he would vault himself from one of the most feared playmakers in the conference to one of the most feared playmakers in the nation heading into this season. Over Marquette’s last six games, McNeal exploded as the lights got brighter: 23 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 53% FG, 42% 3-PT, all well above his career averages. He came alive in the second round against Stanford, finishing with 30 points and keeping Marquette’s season alive with a series of circus threes. McNeal’s defense is slightly overrated in that he’s a risk-taker that either makes a highlight reel theft or gets burned, but overall his defense is excellent. Add the jump shot we saw late last year and you could have an All-America candidate.

SF- Wesley Matthews (SR): More than anything, Matthews needs to become more dependable offensively for Buzz Williams this season. Stolen from Wisconsin’s backyard in Madison, Matthews has shown glimpses of stardom during his college career, but his production tends to vary from game-to-game or half-to-half, often disappearing for long stretches in the offense. Williams knows Matthews has the body and the tools to be dominant, but whether he can maintain the proper aggressive mentality is the real question. He’ll need to use his 6’5 frame to help Hayward and Burke out with rebounding more this year, and it wouldn’t hurt if Matthews becomes the second scorer behind McNeal, taking pressure off James to make jumpers. Matthews totals in points, rebounds and assists all declined from his sophomore year to his junior year; that same decline cannot happen again if Marquette hopes to reclaim their Final Four glory from 2003.

PF- Lazar Hayward (JR): It wouldn’t shock me if Hayward morphs into the premiere player on this Marquette roster by March. The 6’6 junior does it all: he led Marquette in both rebounds per game and three-point shooting accuracy last season. He runs well in transition and can drain a variety of jump shots. He also shot free throws well (77%) for a big man who plays both the three and four. The strides Hayward made from his freshman to sophomore season were glaring and gives Buzz Williams plenty of hope that the cupboard won’t be left completely bare after this year. Like Matthews, Hayward will need to take on an increased rebounding role. He’ll also need to shore up his shoddy defense, even though it’s difficult when facing Big East power forwards with much more size.

C- Dwight Burke (SR): This is where Marquette could be vulnerable. They certain boast quite a trio on the perimeter, but the amount of frontcourt depth has to be giving Buzz Williams fits. Burke is a big-bodied senior who will likely start at the five this season. While Burke never hesitates to use all five of his fouls at his disposal and really has no offensive game to speak of, Williams just hopes Burke can take up space, rebound consistently and block some shots. Maybe he’ll replicate that stunning performance at Wisconsin last year on more than one occasion. If Marquette can receive any production on offense from Burke, it’s an added bonus. But they likely won’t need it.

Bench:
Once again, the backcourt is not the problem here. David Cubillan is still recovering from two shoulder surgeries this offseason, yet will be ready by the bulk of Marquette’s schedule. His specialty, shooting threes, hit a rough patch last year as his PCT dipped from a team-leading 43% in 2006-07 to 34% in 2007-08. I expect a fully healthy Cubillan to be around 40% this season from deep. Maurice Acker really emerged with McNeal at the end of last season. His shooting has improved drastically and he’s certainly difficult to guard with his dynamic speed. He plays a lot like Dominic James on offense in terms of aggressiveness. Williams lured two JC players from his former recruiting backyard in Texas to Milwaukee this year: guard Jason Butler and forward Joe Fulce. Butler has a quality mid-range game and driving ability who will surely find some minutes. Fulce may emerge as their sixth man if he can show his worth on defense. He has a great nose around the rim both with scoring and rebounding.

Backcourt: A
Frontcourt: B-
Bench: B
Coaching: B-

Bottom Line: The James-McNeal-Matthews trio has yet to reach the heights most expected after their freshman season. Can newly minted coach Buzz Williams lead the way after the departure of Tom Crean to Indiana? Even with the coaching inexperience, this group of backcourt mainstays have plenty of experience to tout. They also have an immense amount of talent, drive and pride for their program. It’s not all that far-fetched to say that Lazar Hayward, who is not even mentioned with the Big Three, could be their most productive player. I expect them to reach the second weekend if they improve on their jump shooting, namely James overall and McNeal bringing some of that late-game magic from a season ago.

Key Non-Conference Games: 12/6 vs. Wisconsin, 12/16 @ Tennessee, 12/22 @ NC State
Key Conference Games: 1/31 vs. Georgetown, 2/25 vs. Connecticut, 3/1 @ Louisville, 3/3 @ Pittsburgh
Most Valuable Player: Jerel McNeal
Projected Postseason Tournament: NCAA (Sweet 16)

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Summer Big East Report, Part II

Posted by Zach on July 25, 2008

Here’s Part II of the summer edition of the Big East Report:

Marquette
– The same core of Dominic James, Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal have starred together for three years now for Marquette, but have yet to reach a regional in the NCAA tournament, a goal new coach Buzz Williams believes is undoubtedly within range this upcoming season. McNeal emerged as the true stud of the group late last season in the Big East Tournament and in his compelling performance vs. Stanford in the second round of the NCAA. Joining McNeal is James, an erratic and still-developing point guard who shows flashes of brilliance but struggles with the jumper, and Wes Matthews, a powerful wing player who can slash and score but disappears all too often. Lazar Hayward is an under-the-radar candidate for all Big East honors this year, while David Cubillian and Maurice Acker help spread the floor with their three-point threats. Marquette will play in the Chicago Invitational and have non-conference games at Tennessee in Nashville and vs. Wisconsin, with multiple conference games against Georgetown, DePaul and Villanova.

Pittsburgh
Ranked #2 in my preseason Top 25, Jamie Dixon returns a squad with the ultimate goal of an NCAA title. The talent Pitt returns both inside and outside is sensational, starting with senior leader Levance Fields at the point guard position, a true outside shooting threat and constant floor presence. Joining Fields is the total package in Sam Young- scoring, rebounding, defense, passing. Also, don’t discount the work of DeJuan Blair in the post, who starred in more than one Big East game as a freshman with his low post scoring ability. The Panthers only lost Ronald Ramon to graduation and may get Mike Cook back for a sixth year depending on an NCAA decision. Pitt will play in the Legends Classic in New Jersey and while also playing at Florida State and still searching for an opponent at their second home, Madison Square Garden, in December. Pitt faces Connecticut in two exciting matchups, while also drawing West Virginia and DePaul twice.

Cincinnati
– The Bearcats and coach Mick Cronin boast one of the best players in the conference and in the nation: 6’1 guard Deonta Vaughn out of Indianapolis. Vaughn showed future stardom as a freshman by scoring at 14.3 per game, but bolted that total up to 17.3 PPG last season and finish with 30 points against the stellar Pitt defense. He could win Big East Player of the Year honors if Cincy can receive any contributions from their role players, specifically Adam Hrycaniuk from Poland and forward Rashard Bishop. Cincy was one of the most erratic teams in the nation last year, losing games vs. Bowling Green and Belmont, but also beating Louisville, Syracuse, Villanova and Pittsburgh, then losing six in a row to end the year. The Bearcats play in a Las Vegas tournament with Cal, UNLV and Florida State and play Memphis, Xavier and Florida State in non-conference. Cincy fortunately drew Georgetown, Providence and Saint John’s twice.

Connecticut
– Once Jim Calhoun recovers from a scary bout with skin cancer, the Huskies can take the floor touting one of the best teams in the nation collectively. Connecticut certainly has the athleticism to match any team in the nation, starting with 7’3 center Hasheem Thabeet, a future lottery pick who is clearly the best shot blocker in the nation, but needs his offensive game to develop leaps and bounds. If A.J. Price can recover fully from his ACL tear, Connecticut has one of the best guards in the conference. One of the most complete players is always efficient Jeff Adrien, a daily double-double candidate who shoots 50% from the floor. Jerome Dyson is an excellent compliment to Price in the backcourt. The Huskies did lose Curtis Kelly and Doug Wiggins to transfer and the status of Stanley Robinson is unknown, although he could return in the second semester. The Huskies will face Notre Dame, Seton Hall and Pittsburgh twice in conference while participating in the Paradise Jam and Gonzaga in Seattle during the non-conference slate.

Providence- The Friars hired Keno Davis away from Drake in a program-changing move after former coach Tim Welsh failed to get Providence over the hump. Jeff Xavier is back for Providence to boost the backcourt. The former Manhattan standout led the Friars in scoring last season at 12.4 PPG and will be joined by Weyinmi Efejuku, another double-digit per game scorer who teamed up with Xavier in a quality win vs. Connecticut in March of last season. Brian McKenzie is back as a junior and contributed with big performances early in the season before fading in Big East play. Lost is Dwain Williams to Oregon State, a stellar presence in the backcourt who shoots 90% from the line. With Providence returning seemingly everyone  from last season, look for Keno Davis to send Providence to the tournament as the Big East’s tenth team. Providence plays at Boston College and in the Anaheim Classic with Arizona State, Wake Forest and Baylor. The Friars will play Cincinnati, Rutgers and Villanova twice in a good draw.

Syracuse– Head coach Jim Boeheim will tell you he feels like the Syracuse basketball team has underachieved greatly the last few seasons, and to avoid any retirement pressure from critics and fans alike, the Cuse needs to excel this upcoming campaign and make the NCAA Tournament. Returning is speedy point guard Johnny Flynn, a true floor leader and dynamic scorer simultaneously who can distribute the basketball with outstanding precision and is a future NBA PG. Syracuse hopes to get contribution from Andy Rautins, a three-point specialist who tore his ACL early last season and is finally recovered. Eric Devendorf scored 17 PPG for the Orange last season in a widely underrated season, also improving his FG% from 41% to 47% along the way. Donte Greene departed too early for the NBA, so players like Scoop Jardine and Arinze Onuaku, along with budding star Paul Harris, will have to step up their games down low. Cuse plays in the CBE Classic with Kansas, Florida and Washington while also hosting Virginia and playing at Memphis. Georgetown, Villanova and Rutgers show up twice on the conference slate.

DePaul
– Superstar Draelon Burns is gone, so freshman standout Dar Tucker has to take the reigns and lead this DePaul squad if they want to make any sort of national splash. Tucker displayed his raw ability by dropping 22 on Louisville, 28 on Notre Dame and 23 on Pitt during conference season, so coach Jerry Wainwright may have a star on his hands. Tucker does need to develop more of a complete floor game, averaging just 1.0 APG in 07-08 and shooting 32% from long range. DePaul also returns big man Mac Koshwal as a double-double candidate straight from DePaul’s backyard in Chicago. They receive former Ohio State guard Eric Wallace as a transfer, as well. The Blue Demons play in the Las Vegas Invitational, at California and against UCLA in the Wooden Classic. Marquette, South Florida and Pittsburgh will be showing up twice on their conference schedule.

South Florida
– Stan Heath lost quite a few players this summer- Aaron Holmes, Solomon Bozeman, Orane Chin and Amu Saaka- but did manage to lure in Augustus Gilchrist from Maryland. The most devastating loss will be of big man Kentrell Gransberry, one of the best scorers (16 PPG) and rebounders (10.8 RPG)  in the conference last season. Dominique Jones was a godsend for USF last year as a 6’4 freshman, averaging 17.1 PPG while shooting 46% and putting up stellar performances all around: 30 in consecutive games in December, 31 vs. Seton Hall and 29 vs. Syracuse and Villanova. They’ll play in the San Juan Shootout with Wright State, Murray State and Oral Roberts, while also facing Virginia, UAB and Vanderbilt all on the road. The Bulls will play Louisville, West Virginia and DePaul twice.

I was going to do player and team rankings but have to gather more and more about each team before finishing a definitive list. Check back later for this.

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