Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Georgetown, Marquette are likeliest contenders in Big East
By Andy Glockner ESPN.com
When was the last time we headed into conference play and every Big East team had significant questions? With the league as deep as it is and with no one looking like the clear pick to win it all, it should make for a very entertaining conference season.
(Teams listed alphabetically in each category)
We think the Hoyas are good, but we can't be sure after they flunked their only big test of nonconference play. Still, there is a lot to like about this team. Personnel-wise, there are veteran guards Jonathan Wallace and Jessie Sapp, a rare true big man in Roy Hibbert, a talented young forward in DaJuan Summers and nice perimeter depth with players like Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jeremiah Rivers. Statistically, the Hoyas are in the nation's top 10 in making and defending 2-point field goals, strong indicators of success. Losing at Memphis this season is no disgrace, and the Hoyas probably have the fewest questions of any contender.
The perimeter trio of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews gets all the hype, but this Golden Eagles team is better this season because of the contributions of guys like Lazar Hayward, David Cubillan and Ousmane Barro. Like Georgetown, Marquette has good statistical balance on both ends, and it has better performances in hand (a close loss to Duke and an impressive win at Wisconsin). The lack of quality size will be a problem some nights, but a lack of overall talent and depth won't be. One thing to watch: The defense was below average against both the Blue Devils and the Badgers, so there is a question of how it will hold up over 18 mostly tough Big East games.
Has any team's fortune changed more in just more than one game's time? First, the Panthers lost forward Mike Cook for the season in overtime against Duke. After they stole the win on a late Levance Fields 3, they lost Fields for perhaps the rest of the regular season while getting destroyed at Dayton. The Panthers still have one of the best frontcourt tandems in the country with freshman forward DeJuan Blair and junior Sam Young, as well as a lot of grit, but these losses are two big blows any team would struggle to overcome. The loss of Fields might short-circuit Pitt's conference-title hopes.
Louisville: 9-4, 0-1
The Cardinals were overrated in the preseason. And they have been banged up (and suspended) in the frontcourt, leading to an up-and-down nonconference run. Juan Palacios is back from injury, though. Derrick Caracter is back (again), and David Padgett was feared to have been lost for the season but returned Tuesday against Cincinnati. Edgar Sosa's big sophomore slump hasn't helped matters, though. In the interim, Terrence Williams and especially Earl Clark have been doing the heavy lifting. The RPI (currently at 75) could be a concern. At this point, the Cardinals might have the conference's widest range of possible outcomes. Anything from a top-three finish to the NIT seems possible.
Best of the rest
The young Orange were up and down even before losing Eric Devendorf for the season to an ACL tear. Now, their fortunes rest on freshmen stars Jonny Flynn and Donte Greene and sophomore jack-of-all-trades Paul Harris. They are down to seven scholarship players, so wear and tear could be an issue. Like last season, the Orange lost two home nonconference games, but that wasn't nearly as damaging as last season because of the good overall schedule. Last season, Syracuse's nonconference RPI was 77. It currently sits 12th, and the Orange are in good shape to get back to the NCAAs.
The Wildcats would be unbeaten if not for the questionable foul call in the final seconds against NC State. The schedule has been modest, although the triumph over George Mason was a solid neutral-site win and the crazy rally against LSU helped. Scottie Reynolds is the main scorer, but the contributions of Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark have been a real boost. Much of the preseason attention was paid to freshmen Corey Fisher, who has been solid, and Corey Stokes, who has been less so. The big loss might have been big man Casiem Drummond, who was a rebounding machine but now is out indefinitely with a stress fracture.
West Virginia: 10-2
The Mountaineers have been one of the season's relative surprises as John Beilein's former troops have taken to Bob Huggins' system. They lack size and depth, which could be an issue in league play, but they certainly don't lack shooting. In D-I games, they are shooting 55.3 percent inside the arc and 40.9 percent outside it. Alex Ruoff has been the biggest revelation, but Joe Alexander, Darris Nichols and Da'Sean Butler are talented and athletic as well. Get them on the wrong night, and this team will make you look very bad. The key will be the defense and rebounding holding up better in league play than last season.
Notre Dame: 10-2
Hard to tell too much about the Irish so far. They had two so-so losses (Baylor, Georgia Tech) and a decent win (Kansas State), all on neutral floors. The offense has been running much more through beefy Luke Harangody inside, which usually is a good thing. And the return of guard Kyle McAlarney from last season's marijuana-related suspension has really helped, especially with Tory Jackson struggling. The Irish have been terrific at shooting the 3 and defending the 2, and not so good at defending the 3 and shooting the 2. Whether they can live by the 3 in league play will help determine ND's eventual upside.
The Huskies lost to the only two good teams (Memphis and Gonzaga) they played on neutral courts, so who knows? Their first two Big East games (at Seton Hall, at Notre Dame) will say something, although it's hard to guess what at this point. Once again, the Huskies are defending well. The offense is somewhat better than last season, although it would have been hard not to improve. A.J. Price finally is playing like the guard UConn expected three seasons ago, and Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet make for a formidable frontcourt pairing. The Huskies need more from explosive wing Jerome Dyson.
The Friars have some nice individual pieces but probably not enough overall to get to the NCAAs. They definitely need a healthy Sharaud Curry back. Geoff McDermott, Jeff Xavier, Weyinmi Efejuku and Co. can hurt you offensively on the right night, but the Friars don't defend well consistently, which will be a problem in Big East play. They do have a good RPI (21) at the moment, but it's more a fluke of the system; two of their losses were to Miami and Rhode Island, which are a combined 25-2. Could the Friars make an NCAA run? Sure, but the hard numbers make it seem less likely at this point.
Seton Hall: 9-3
The disappointing home loss to NC State dampened possible at-large hopes. The Pirates have some good pieces in their backcourt with Brian Laing, Eugene Harvey, Jamar Nutter and Jeremy Hazell, but they get little from their frontcourt, and they likely don't defend well enough to survive 18 Big East games. While they maintain one of the best turnover differentials in the nation, they don't shoot well enough to take full advantage. Fun team to watch, but probably in the NIT or CBI.
South Florida: 9-4
The Bulls have some dangerous weapons in leading scorer Dominique Jones, double-double machine Kentrell Gransberry and do-it-all guard Chris Howard. Overall, USF is adequate on both ends of the court. The Bulls shoot and rebound decently, and they do a good job of getting to the line and keeping foes off it. After losing their first three games of the season, the Bulls won nine of their past 10, including victories over Florida State and UAB. Their first five conference games will give them a few chances for wins, so we'll have a better sense of the Bulls in a couple of weeks.
Maybe next season
Cincinnati: 6-7, 1-0
Mick Cronin has the Bearcats playing hard, and sophomore guard Deonta Vaughn is a nice piece to build around. They have solid wins over Miami (Ohio) and at Louisville. UC looks far more competitive than it did last season, when the Bearcats finished last in the conference at 2-14. Their biggest problem is that they are a poor shooting team that never turns anyone over defensively, so they don't get any easy baskets.
The rebuilding Blue Demons have been a bit disappointing, but the play of freshmen Mac Koshwal and Dar Tucker hasn't. Draelon Burns has been an effective leading scorer, but he takes more than 31 percent of the Demons' shots when he is on the floor. They might be better served if a few more of those ended up with Koshwal or senior Karron Clarke.
Statistically, the Scarlet Knights actually defend pretty well. They just can't score at all. Freshman point Corey Chandler will be quite good, but he's taking a ton of shots right now and not making enough of them. He also is averaging only 1.5 assists while committing 3.2 turnovers a game. If Chandler can get the ball more to J.R. Inman and Anthony Farmer, two capable offensive players, the Knights might take a few more steps forward.
St. John's: 6-5
The Red Storm have good balance -- they have five guys in double figures in scoring, and each of the quintet uses about the same percentage of possessions -- but no one on their roster really scares you. They defend fairly well but overall are below average offensively. Their first eight games in conference play include road trips to Syracuse, UConn, West Virginia and Louisville with home games against Pitt and Georgetown. Ouch.
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at email@example.com .