Monday, July 23, 2012
Best-case/Worst-case: Big East
By Eamonn Brennan
Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series catches up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For more on the Big East, click here:
Best-case scenario: With the exception of Yancy Gates' haymakers, the 2012 Bearcats had a banner season: 26-11, 12-6 in the Big East, a Sweet 16 appearance -- the best sign yet of the programmatic momentum Mick Cronin has built toward in his two most recent seasons at the school. Little should change in 2012-13. The starting backcourt of Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright and Jaquon Parker is all back. It would be surprising if Cincinnati didn't at least live up to last season's progress.
Worst-case scenario: Then again, the 2012 Bearcats did have flaws. They ranked No. 203 in the country in effective field-goal percentage, No. 263 in defensive rebounding rate, and No. 322 in free-throw rate. Why? A lack of easy interior buckets. Gates was really the Bearcats' only true interior player; now that he's gone, it's unclear what combination of players Cronin will use to shore up some of those deficiencies. Without some measure of effective size on the low block, it's not unthinkable that Cincinnati could worsen in all the wrong places.
Best-case scenario: Well, it won't be a trip to the NCAA tournament. Departures and defections left guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright and little else. Joining them is freshman Omar Calhoun, a four-star shooting guard. How Jim Calhoun (no relation!) will get these guys to fit together is anyone's guess, even if the ultimate end to the season isn't.
Worst-case scenario: What could be worse than already knowing you'll miss March Madness? Providing a poor account of yourself along the way. That was the main thrust of the 2012 season, in which two lottery picks and a team full of defending national champions appeared totally nonplussed by the triviality of Big East games. And those games actually counted! I'd worry about those guards co-existing in the backcourt, but I'm more worried about the ultimate meaninglessness of the season creeping into UConn's huddles, Inception-style.
Best-case scenario: Could it be a place in the NCAA tournament? That's probably too optimistic: This is, after all, a team that won just three Big East games in 2012, and which welcomes just one top-50 player at his position (small forward DeJuan Marrero) in the new freshman class. Still, some steady improvement -- coach Oliver Purnell's trademark -- should be expected.
Worst-case scenario: For a program like DePaul, which is seemingly always rebuilding, the worst-case scenario for the upcoming season is stagnancy. They finished ranked No. 235 in defensive efficiency. If the team defense improves, so should the team (duh). But if Purnell's young charges are as permissive in 2012-13 as they were last season, 12-19 might be the right ballpark yet again.
Best-case scenario: In 2011-12, freshman Otto Porter -- a relatively unknown top-50 recruit from a small Missouri town, who never played AAU basketball -- burst onto the scene, a skilled and versatile do-everything small forward in a 6-foot, 8-inch package. As a sophomore, Porter could become a star. He'll be surrounded by plenty of remaining talent from last season's strong Hoyas group and will be joined by four-star recruits D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Stephen Domingo. It will be a pretty young but very talented bunch, one that should take to John Thompson III's Princeton system in spades.
Worst-case scenario: There's a lot of young talent here, sure, but let's not forget the Hoyas are losing Hollis Thompson, Jason Clark and Henry Sims -- the lynchpins to 2012's success. Sims was especially crucial; not only was he Georgetown's only true low-post scorer, but he was the best passing big man (assist rate: 27.3 percent) in the country. Losing Clark and Thompson means losing deadly outside shooting, but the Hoyas will really miss Sims, and could take a (brief) step back without him.
Best-case scenario: Why shouldn't expectations be running high? The Cardinals bring back point guard Peyton Siva, "Russdiculous" Russ Smith, a developing Gorgui Dieng, a healthyWayne Blackshear and, best of all, Chane Behanan, who looks every bit a breakout sophomore All-America candidate. The Cardinals won't always look pretty on offense, but they'll defend like crazy. That's the best reason to like their national title chances.
Worst-case scenario: Lest we forget, this was a very streaky team. For large stretches of the season, it simply could not score. The additions of Blackshear and top-100 recruits Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell will add energy and athleticism, but little in the way of outside touch, and if the Cardinals go especially cold at the wrong time, they'll be vulnerable.
Best-case scenario: It isn't often that one team has two worthy candidates for Big East Player of the Year honors, but that was precisely the situation at Marquette last season, when seniors Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom both submitted stellar seasons. But Marquette's supporting cast -- Junior Cadougan, Vander Blue, Davante Gardner, Jamil Wilson, Todd Mayo -- wasn't too shabby, either, and there's reason to think many of those players will shine with more touches and a bigger stage. Blue in particular has the chance to be a force, and Marquette will be targeting another NCAA tournament appearance at the minimum.
Worst-case scenario: That said, "reason to think" and "has a chance" are far from guarantees of anything, and there's no escaping the fact that it is very difficult to replace two players who respectively took 28.9 percent (Johnson-Odom) and 26.0 percent (Crowder) of Marquette's shots in 2012. If Marquette struggles to find its footing in 2012-13, the reasons will be obvious.
Best-case scenario: At first glance, the loss of Tim Abromaitis feels like a bigger hit than it is. In fact, the Irish should be just fine. The confidence has much to do with the emergence of forward Jack Cooley, who as a junior morphed into one of the best rebounders and most efficient big men in all of college hoops. He's a Big East Player of the Year candidate (if not the favorite), and he'll be surrounded by more than capable guards and the No. 15-ranked small forward in the incoming class, Cameron Biedscheid. The Irish have been a steady force in this league in recent seasons, and that won't change in 2012-13.
Worst-case scenario: But what is Notre Dame's ceiling, really? That's the question fans are rightfully asking after back-to-back early tournament exits, and maybe that's the worst-case scenario for this team: Another hope-inspiring, good-to-very-good year, followed by another early NCAA tournament exit.
Best-case scenario: It's time for the Panthers to reboot after an uncharacteristically bad season. The good news? The No. 4-ranked center in the class of 2012, New Zealand-born Steven Adams, has been enlisted in the cause, as has No. 4-ranked point guard James Robinson, both of whom should be ready to contribute right away. Point guard Tray Woodall is back and healthy, while Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor form a fearsome offensive rebounding force -- the one redeeming aspect of Pitt's 2012 season. This team may not compete for the Big East title, but with all this talent, a return to the normalcy of the NCAA tournament is well within reach.
Worst-case scenario: The Panthers have incoming talent, sure, but freshmen are rarely great defenders out of the box, and what the Panthers need is defense: They finished ranked just No. 151 the country in defensive efficiency last season. If Pitt doesn't guard someone, its fans may have to swallow a foundation-building transition year, which is a polite way of saying a bad one.
Best-case scenario: Providence knows all too well about rebuilding; it has been rebuilding for what feels like decades. But second-year coach Ed Cooley may be on to something now: His recruiting haul features two of the best guards in the class, Providence native Ricardo Ledo and No. 2-ranked point guard Kris Dunn. Providence's current cast features two workhorse players (Vincent Council, who this offseason Cooley too-enthusiastically called the "best guard in the Big East," and Bryce Cotton) who finished in the top 10 in the country in available minutes played last season. Ledo and Dunn have the sheer talent to lift that lineup to heights unseen in quite some time, and if all goes well the Friars may consider themselves rebuilt far ahead of schedule.
Worst-case scenario: The only problem? Things haven't gone well, at least not yet. In late June, Providence's doctors diagnosed Dunn with a right shoulder injury, which required surgery and could sideline Dunn until December, if not longer. Meanwhile, Ledo still hasn't been cleared by the NCAA eligibility center. Without those two players, Cooley's vaunted recruiting class looks decidedly mediocre, and his team would essentially be the same one that fell just shy of .500 (15-17) in 2012.
Best-case scenario: Rutgers coach Mike Rice lured a barrel full of talent to New Brunswick, N.J., last season, the result of top-10 recruiting class seven prospects deep, but the immediate implementation didn't take. This season, it may be time. Myles Mack, Eli Carterand Jerome Seagears posted promising freshman seasons, and talented sophomore power forward Kadeem Jack will be (ahem) jacked for a full season after missing much of last season with a foot injury. Meanwhile, junior college transfer Vincent Garrett should give this young group some maturity and physicality on the wing. On paper, at least, this group is capable of major strides, and, at the outside, even a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Worst-case scenario: We haven't had the chance to see Jack play full strength, so we just don't know how good he can be. In general, the reasonable expectation with young teams is improvement. But how much? And how fast? Those are major questions.
Best-case scenario: Of any team in the Big East, including those who are obviously in some stage of rebuilding, Seton Hall's project is the most textbook. Last season, Kevin Willard got career years from point guard Jordan Theodore and forward Herb Pope; both graduated this spring. Replacing them won't be easy. Willard hoped to get Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs eligible this season, but the NCAA denied his hardship waiver, meaning the Pirates will face the rigors of the Big East with last season's remainders, one newcomer (junior college forward Raymon Austin) and not much else.
Worst-case scenario: This is a rebuilding season no matter what, so the best case (as with all such rebuilding seasons, probably) is for Willard to see what he has, particularly in Austin. Worst case is learning there's not much there, and that the Pirates find themselves at the bottom of the Big East as a result.
Best-case scenario: Given South Florida's ignominious basketball history -- just three NCAA tournament appearances total -- last season couldn't have gone much better. Coach Stan Heath did two key things: He developed a slow-paced, defensive style that flummoxed opponents, and he found a star freshman guard in Anthony Collins to rely on when the Bulls' oft-ugly offense broke down. Collins looks like a big-time four-year player in the making. The Bulls defend. Now, if Heath can find some offense, USF may not be so thrilled with just making the NCAA tournament. They'll rightly be hoping for more.
Worst-case scenario: Will the loss of senior forward Augustus Gilchrist, one of the better shot-blockers in the Big East, take a toll on USF's vaunted half-court defense? If it does, the Bulls may find that their system -- slowing the game to a crawl, letting Collins attack, and hoping for 55-54 wins -- isn't quite so effective.
Best-case scenario: In the best-case scenario, this is the season it comes together for St. John's and the sophomores turn from talented pieces into a cohesive unit. There is more talent arriving, too, including small forward Jakarr Sampson and center Christopher Obekpa; at its Platonic best, this could be one of the deepest and most dynamic teams in the league.
Worst-case scenario: Even with Steve Lavin's absence last season taken into consideration, even given all the above talent St. John's was a team with deep abiding flaws in 2011-12, including nonexistent interior offense and downright dreadful defensive board work. (Opponents rebounded the ball against St. John's more effectively than all but three Division I teams last season.) There's reason to expect plenty of improvement, but if the flaws are endemic to the personnel, that improvement might not arrive on schedule.
Best-case scenario: It is a testament to the insane depth on Jim Boeheim's 2011-12 Orange that Michael Carter-Williams, one of the most talented incoming shooting guards in the country, was barely able to crack the rotation. Carter-Williams looks primed for a large sophomore season, when he'll step into the lineup alongside point guard Brandon Triche, stretch wing James Southerland, and a deep batch of forwards. Syracuse lost much of its starting lineup and the fourth overall draft pick (Dion Waiters), and yet their best case remains a Big East title and a deep NCAA tournament run. Such is life with Boeheim at the helm.
Worst-case scenario: If Carter-Williams isn't the scoring force he has been billed as, and Coleman needs time to adjust to college hoops (see: Fab Melo) then Syracuse's attack, one of the nation's best in 2011-12, could suffer from a lack of similar punch in the backcourt, and a merely good season could be the result.
Best-case scenario: The phrase addition-by-subtraction is a pejorative, and it has never very nice to use, but one can't help but think Villanova could experience that very sensation in 2011-12, now that guard Maalik Wayns has left the school to chase the NBA dream. Replacing him will be Ryan Arcidiacono, the No. 6-ranked point guard in the class of 2012. Some fresh blood handling the ball may be just what the doctor ordered.
Worst-case scenario: Or maybe we're blaming Wayns too much for this team's disappointing 2010 and 2011 seasons, and in fact it just isn't very good. If that's the case, expect another season like the last -- occasionally tantalizing but mostly forgettable.