Big East Exodus Not So Big This Time: Watch 'Nova, G'town
The theme of the Big East entering the just-concluded season was that, after two teams reached the 2009 Final Four in Detroit and after most of the top programs suffered defections galore, the conference couldn't help but hit a speed bump.
That theme held true all season, right up until the start of the 2010 NCAA tournament, when the speed bump that had barely slowed eight teams from reaching the field of 65 turned into a wall that brought six of those teams' seasons to a crashing halt after one weekend.
And the defections have begun already, from departing seniors (Scottie Reynolds) to NBA-ready underclassmen (Wesley Johnson) to three head coaches.
Yet this time, even with a week and a half left for players to declare for the June 24 NBA Draft (and with a May 8 deadline to change their minds), the league won't be nearly as stripped as it had appeared to be last season. The rosters of the contenders, and the three All-Big East teams, were loaded with underclassmen, most of whom are sticking around. Which means that the arguments -- and they were heated, right up until the Final Four -- over the strength of the Big East in comparison to other leagues will begin anew.
There is a chance, as well, that the Big East will have a representative on the final weekend to state its case, for a third straight season. (If not, hey, it's the Internet, you'll probably have forgotten about this in 11 3/4 months.)
Up until about the last month of the regular season, coach Jay Wright (above) kept insisting that Villanova wasn't supposed to be that good until the following year. When the Wildcats reached No. 3 in the country, and Reynolds seemed a shoo-in for conference player of the year, it appeared time to acknowledge that Villanova was way ahead of schedule -- and just then, the bottom dropped out. Reynolds, crazy as it sounds (except when you look at his NCAA tournament numbers), can and will be replaced; it was, and is, a guard-heavy team, and Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes should be able to take on more responsibility. So will Mouphtaou Yarou, who showed flashes at the end of the season to convince people that he'll be a force in the middle as a sophomore.
Also coming back from a promising freshman year are forward Isaiah Armwood and guards Dominic Cheek and Maalik Wayns, and entering is top recruit Jayvaughn Pinkston, a forward from Brooklyn. A repeat of 13-5 is likely, and that could be enough to win the regular season.
What, after the late-season collapses the last two seasons? Yes, because as of right now, the team that was so shorthanded late this past season and was devoid of seniors, is on schedule to bring back its backcourt of Austin Freeman and Chris Wright for their final seasons. The Hoyas also return swingman Jason Clark and big man Julian Vaughn for their junior years.
A trio of top-notch recruits will help enormously: guard Markel Starks and forwards Nate Lubick and Moses Abraham. Seeing as how players have played themselves out of John Thompson III's (right) rotation before, the freshman should contribute. This is the core of the team that did lose to Rutgers and Ohio, but also throttled defending champion Duke -- and odds are that the one that beat Duke will show up more. Pencil them in at 13-5 as well.
The No. 1 returnee? Jim Calhoun, of course, with contract extension in hand. Even if it is now prudent to anticipate a health-related absence at some point and of some length, both he and the program apparently feel he is strong enough to move forward. They should feel good -- certainly better than last season -- about the players coming back; they're talented enough, especially point guard Kemba Walker. The frontcourt (Alex Oriakhi, Charles Okwandu) and perimeter (Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, Donnell Beverly) are loaded with players with golden opportunities to capitalize on expanded roles. A solid recruiting class is led by forward Roscoe Smith from prep power Oak Hill.
Why should a team losing three seniors be expected to make a leap? Something was very amiss last year when those three (Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson, Gavin Edwards) were there, and while nothing specific should be pinned solely on them, it might just be time for something of a fresh start. Another 7-11 season seems implausible. Try more like 12-6.
If Pitt did not fall off last season after losing the bulk of its Elite Eight team, then it shouldn't dip far next season, if at all. The Panthers' biggest loss, guard Jermaine Dixon, was someone who missed the first month-plus with a broken foot, and they still soldiered on. Ashton Gibbs emerged in the backcourt as a sophomore. Gilbert Brown presumably will be around the full season up front, as will fellow rising senior forward Brad Wanamaker. Freshmen Travon Woodall (who did well filling in for Dixon early), Dante Taylor and Dwight Miller will be a year older. Also, throw highly rated small forward recruit J.J. Moore into the mix.
Jamie Dixon (right) won one of the few coach-of-the-year awards that Jim Boeheim did not collect, and it was well-deserved. He should have more to work with, some firepower to add to his usual defense-first approach. Of the six early NCAA exits, Pitt was closest to reaching the Sweet 16, with a narrow loss to Xavier. The Panthers also should be good for 12 wins.
Out goes one monster addition that took them to the Sweet 16 (Johnson, the conference player of the year), and one that could do it again (incoming 7-foot freshman center Fabricio Melo, from Florida by way of Brazil). Not to say Arinze Onuaku, whose career ended on the bench with a quad injury, won't be missed in the middle, but ... Melo will be an effective addition to a frontline in which Kris Joseph seems ready to become a go-to player and Rick Jackson and his bulk return. Another 7-footer who could only manage spot minutes as a freshman, DaShonte Riley, comes back as well; expect him to play more.
The backcourt gets a little less crowded with Andy Rautins departing; that will mean that Scoop Jardine gets a full run, probably next to Brandon Triche, who fought the sophomore slump nicely in the NCAAs until the Orange ran into Butler. Top recruit guard Dion Waiters will get a chance to crack that set. As well as Syracuse adjusted to its losses in this past season, it raised the bar for this edition of the team. It won't be easy -- thus a prediction only one spot higher than the preseason pick the Orange defied a year ago. Looking at 11-7.
6. West Virginia
Da'Sean Butler is gone (and not on a high note, either, thanks to the torn knee ligament in the semifinal against Duke), and now, so is the sophomore Devin Ebanks. Wellington Smith also was a senior. The player most likely to rise from the returnees is Kevin Jones, who was something of a combination of the three aforementioned -- ability to score inside and outside, rebound at both ends and defend inside and away from the lane. Two returnees critical to the Mountaineers' continued success both have to prove they're healthy, and they play the same position: Joe Mazzulla, capping a tumultuous career as senior year approaches, and Darryl Bryant, both point guards. Bryant, however, was a star two-way guard in high school; maybe they'll play a lot together.
The top recruits are locals, guard Noah Cottrill and center David Nyarsuk -- where they fit in remains to be seen. And Jerry West's kid is there for another year, and Jonnie, a 6-3 guard, can hit from long distance when open. It doesn't hurt. But collectively, it will be rough. Give them an 11-7 mark.
Rick Pitino (right) is signed up again long-term, likely a preemptive strike since it happened just when the jobs started opening up around the league. The upcoming season has to be better, certainly more stable, than the one that just ended. Pitino let a lot of people down in the previous offseason, and then his team did much of the same, losing some unforgivable games that ended up dooming the Cardinals in the NCAA tournament (which they exited immediately). They also lose Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith from the backcourt, which takes out two of the top three scorers and two of the three with the most three-point attempts.
So depending on how much of a green light the three-happy Pitino gives the whole squad, there might be a shift inside: Samardo Samuels, Terrence Jennings and Jared Swopshire will all be juniors, and all are 6-8 or bigger. Preston Knowles will be a senior and will shore up the backcourt; so will a pair of incoming freshmen, Justin Coleman and Russell Smith. It appears to be a less chaotic season ahead for Louisville, but still one that will keep them right around .500 -- say, 10-8. [Update: Samuels has actually declared for the draft and is there to stay, so the Cardinals will have to move on without him]
8. Seton Hall
This could be addition by subtraction, thanks to the administration essentially grabbing the program by the ankles and shaking until anything unwanted fell out. That, of course, was led by coach Bobby Gonzalez, who was replaced by ex-Iona head man Kevin Willard. He has no track record of aggravating everyone he comes across or recruiting players who might, for example, end up under arrest for kidnapping and robbery on the eve of the NCAA tournament. (Farewell, Robert Mitchell). Also heading out, possibly to the NBA, is one of Gonzalez's more controversial recruits, forward Herb Pope, whose exclamation point on his first season at the school was a punch to the groin of an opposing player in an NIT game.
Less refreshing is the news that guard Jeremy Hazell is testing the draft waters -- like Pope and teammate Jeff Robinson, he is not hiring an agent and can withdraw. Willard could use him; he's established himself as a player who gives the Pirates a fighting chance most nights. And since the news around the program is destined to stay bad for a while, its top recruit, Paterson, N.J., forward Fuquan Edwin, had yet to academically qualify, and guard Eugene McCrory, from the D.C. area, had verbally committed but had not officially signed. Plus there is still a handful of players from Gonzalez's regime (such as Keon Lawrence, who began the season on suspension after a drunk-driving arrest) that might not be good fits under new management. Nevertheless, the fresh start in South Orange seems welcome, and should get them to 9-9 in the league.
[Update: Hazell, Pope and Robinson have all withdrawn their names from the NBA Draft and have decided to return to Seton Hall]
Buzz Williams' visibility and popularity grew as the season wore on, as the retooling on the fly of Marquette's program seemed inexplicable. The Golden Eagles were as hot as any Big East team down the stretch, and they made it to the semifinals of the conference tournament before running out of gas, first against Georgetown at Madison Square Garden, then against Washington in the first round of the NCAAs. And now, they lose Lazar Hayward, David Cubillan and Maurice Acker.
Marquette does have a nice core coming back with Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom. It also has five recruits coming in, including two in the top-15 (depending on whose list is considered) of their respective positions. It is now getting to the point where Williams has the benefit of the doubt if coaching is the deciding factor. That bodes well for them -- but probably not well enough for a winning conference record. Likely 9-9.
It probably would have been worth it to put Keno Davis (right) on the list of coaches who deserve the benefit of the doubt, as well -- until two of his players, freshmen last season, were arrested earlier this week on charges that they attacked another student. (James Still has been suspended indefinitely; Johnnie Lacy was already planning to transfer, the school said.) Actually, that's no reason not to give Davis credit for his coaching acumen, but it doesn't bode well for the direction of the program, which hasn't noticeably turned back upward yet. As of right now, the Friars are on an 11-game losing streak, and its best (and last) win last season, over Connecticut in late January, looked better at the time than it does now.
The core of the team that was the highest-scoring in the conference last season (but which also gave up the most points) returns, and most will still be underclassmen. Forward Jamine Peterson just missed being the league's only 20-10 player, averaging 19.6 points and 10.2 rebounds. Davis is adding a pair of elite recruits, guard Gerald Coleman, one of the top players in Massachusetts, and guard Joseph Young from the top-ranked Yates High team in Houston. But what the Friars need is ways to stop people. This is where the level falls off: 7-11, if they catch fire. [Update: Peterson has been booted from the team, so downgrade the Friars]
11. Notre Dame
The Irish will miss Luke Harangody -- but they did pretty well down the stretch of the regular season and Big East tournament without him, playing themselves into the NCAA tournament. They will miss guard Tory Jackson even more, because his contributions are harder to duplicate, and adding their departure to Ben Hansbrough's (and his 3-point range) as well, and it's not easy to see Notre Dame and Mike Brey getting their heads above water.
Not that Notre Dame's cupboard is bare. Tim Abromaitis returns, as do a pair of forwards who emerged in Harangody's injury absence and will also be seniors, Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott. And their three recruits, swingman Jerian Grant (Harvey's son and Horace's nephew) and guards Eric Atkins and Alex Dragicevic, come from powerhouse prep programs (respectively, DeMatha in the D.C. suburbs, Mount St. Joseph's in Baltimore, Glenbrook North near Chicago). Yet all of that will be a challenge to replace what will be departing. Notre Dame might wind up one of the bigger beneficiaries of the expanded NCAA field, with a 7-11 conference mark.
The Bearcats' renaissance might last just one year; they came from rock-bottom in the league into contention for an NCAA berth and piled up impressive wins along the way. But now, senior Deonta Vaughn is gone, and to the surprise of absolutely nobody in America, so is guard Lance Stephenson, the Big East Freshman of the Year. Mick Cronin gets some size coming in, with 6-10 Kelvin Gaines and 6-8 Justin Jackson, but those are large holes to fill, and as good as Cronin has proven to be, getting back to the level of this past season seems less likely than sliding back to where Cincinnati was the year before. Probably 6-12.
Oliver Purnell (right) has his work cut out for him, but obviously he's not afraid, since he barely hesitated getting out of the cocoon of Clemson, off the beaten path of Tobacco Road and the elite of the ACC. He can only go up at DePaul, where to call it a shadow of its former self is an insult to shadows. Is it too late to pick off a few stragglers either from ACC country or from DePaul's central base of Chicago? He does have a nice point guard from the D.C. area in Brandon Young coming in, but it's being added to ... what, exactly? Find a team statistic, and DePaul was at or near the bottom of the league rankings; find an individual one, and no player was near the top. The Blue Demons were 1-17 in the Big East. They might, however, find a few more wins in 2010-11, because other programs are in more turmoil than theirs. Let's say 4-14. [Update: Mac Koshwal has elected to leave early for the NBA]
The word is that it's just a matter of time before Dominique Jones declares he's heading to the NBA, which would put a pin in the hopes that South Florida could take another step up. [Update: Jones is gone, as he's declared with no intention of backtracking] The challenge only grows for Stan Heath, who should be commended more than he has been for breathing life into a fairly overmatched program and for overcoming a handful of high-profile recruiting busts. (Anyone heard from Gus Gilchrist lately?) Jones is the kind of player who can, and did, take over games, and that's a tough skill to replicate. Senior point guard Chris Howard also departs. It looks as if the Bulls are back in four-win territory.
15. St. John's
Steve Lavin, huh? To his credit, he apparently gives great interviews, and predecessor Norm Roberts left him a much healthier, cleaner program than Roberts had inherited. It is still devoid of players, though, and increasingly irrelevant (if not completely so) in the Big East and in New York, where it only plays in a legendary building which also hosts the conference tournament every year. Making St. John's relevant again doesn't seem like such an insurmountable challenge, but whether Lavin can shake off seven years in analyst chairs and off sidelines (and recruiting trails) to do it is the big question. Whatever he does, don't bet on him doing it overnight. This might be a three-conference-win team.
So ... who's gonna be the coach? A month ago, Rutgers insisted it would be Fred Hill for a fifth season, because he and the athletic director had had a "productive meeting'' post-season. Then came reports that Mike Rosario, one of two players at most this past season about whom opponents had to really worry, was either thinking about transferring or was being lured away by other schools. (The other, Big East defensive player of the year Hamady Ndiaye, was a senior.) Gregory Echenique transferred in midseason, and Patrick Jackson bailed at season's end, so if fellow sophomore Rosario does leave it essentially wipes out an entire recruiting class. Two other current players are reportedly contemplating leaving. Top in-state recruit Gil Biruta reportedly has asked to be released from his commitment. There was no movement on Hill's potential departure after a shouting match at a recent baseball game; reports describe the situation as a "stalemate,'' and as one extra element, alumnus Eddie Jordan, expected to be fired as coach of the 76ers as soon as the NBA season ends, is surfacing as a candidate to replace Hill.
Jordan is a fine coach who deserves better than what he's been handed over the years (he was fired by the Wizards last season because, basically, Gilbert Arenas' knee hadn't healed) -- but if he does take this job, he might have to swallow a winless Big East season.