Friday, October 4, 2013

32 In 32: Big East

With Syracuse, Notre Dame and Louisville out of the picture, Buzz Williams will now finally be recognized as best coach in Big East, as long as Marquette lives up to expectations. (Photo courtesy of Fox Sports Wisconsin)

And on the 32nd day, our series of conference previews comes to an end.

After a journey that started with the American Athletic Conference, we come full circle in closing with the league that helped indirectly spawn the American, that being the Big East. The football divide has come and gone, with the nine football schools being replaced by Butler, Creighton and Xavier to create a distinctly basketball-oriented league. How will the ten-team reincarnation of what was once regarded as the best conference in the nation fare in its first season as a restructured body? Our rankings should give you some kind of an idea:

1) Marquette - As mentioned in the caption for our cover shot, the departures of Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame should vanquish any remaining doubt about Buzz Williams' standing as the best coach in the Big East. In his first five years on the job, no one has been more quiet about remaining a consistent threat to advance deep into March, and there aren't many better personalities in the industry, either. Williams' encore from a regular season championship-winning campaign in which he was wrongfully robbed of Coach of the Year honors will begin without Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett, which means the Golden Eagles will open 2013-14 with an entirely new starting backcourt anchored by Derrick Wilson, a hard-nosed defender who replaces Cadougan at the point guard position for his junior season. Todd Mayo should, in theory, join him in the starting lineup after coming off the bench as a sophomore last year, and a trio of highly touted freshmen will compete for minutes as well. Homegrown talents Duane Wilson and Deonte Burton will have mounds of opportunities to assert themselves, as will Memphis native JaJuan Johnson. Up front, both starters are incumbents, with Chris Otule returning for a sixth year alongside junior Juan Anderson, with Marquette's sixth and seventh men primed for breakout senior seasons in reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year Davante "Ox" Gardner and our pick for Most Improved Player honors this season, swingman Jamil Wilson. Finally, Steve Taylor should see marked improvement during his sophomore year, and Jameel McKay is the third Milwaukee product from Williams' best recruiting class since succeeding Tom Crean at the helm of the former Warriors, who have all the pieces in place to make last year's Elite Eight appearance happen again despite losing three starters in the backcourt.

2) St. John's - Numerous other publications will rank the Red Storm significantly lower, but there is a magical aura about this team when they are firing on all cylinders, especially on their home court at Madison Square Garden as the season goes on. After reaching the round of 16 in the NIT on the heels of a sputtering finish to the regular season, Steve Lavin returns nearly everyone to the corner of Union and Utopia this year, only losing Amir Garrett after he transferred to Cal State Northridge. However, Garrett's loss is made up for with the return of God'sgift Achiuwa after the Nigerian big man redshirted last season, and Dominican import Orlando Sanchez is finally eligible after fighting to be cleared throughout the 2012-13 campaign. The two newcomers up front will join reigning Big East Rookie of the Year JaKarr Sampson and the Johnnies' "Mr. Versatility," junior Sir'Dominic Pointer, in a deceptively strong frontcourt that also includes the imposing presence of shot blocking sensation Chris Obekpa as he enters his sophomore season, as well as reserve spark plug Christian Jones. In the backcourt, leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison returns for his junior season with a clear head and fresh outlook following a season-ending suspension, and a pair of point guards will each have their own turns at the helm of Lavin's halfcourt offense; with Jamal Branch platooning with Philadelphia native Rysheed Jordan, a freshman who has already been hailed as an NBA-caliber talent. Together with Phil Greene and Felix Balamou, coupled with three-point shooting specialists Marc-Antoine Bourgault and Harvard transfer Max Hooper, who becomes eligible this season following the completion of his year in residence, Lavin has his deepest roster and perhaps the most talent in the Big East to make a year he has targeted for a program renaissance since replacing Norm Roberts three years ago into a reality in Queens.

3) Creighton - Arguably the most complete short-term team among the three new arrivals in the Big East, the Bluejays will remind die-hard Big East fans of John Beilein's West Virginia teams of the mid-2000s, as Creighton is built on athleticism and three-point shooting with a roster that returns all but Gregory Echenique from its regular rotation for Greg McDermott. The coach's son Doug, a senior forward who people will know just for being one of the best players in the nation, will finally get to show his talents to the East Coast, or at least those in that region who did not have the opportunity to watch the Missouri Valley over the years. However, there is more to the pride of Omaha than just McDermott, as point guards Grant Gibbs and Austin Chatman give the Bluejays two exceptional ball handlers that combined to average ten assists per game last season. Canadian sharpshooter Jahenns Manigat is the third member of Creighton's backcourt trio, with junior swingman Avery Dingman providing an equally proficient long-range impact off a bench anchored by senior forward Ethan Wragge, who connected at a 45 percent clip from beyond the arc on a Bluejay team that shot 41 percent from three collectively. Junior college transfer and Harlem native Devin Brooks has a chance to crack the rotation, along with 6-11 center Will Artino, on a dark horse contender for a conference championship.

4) Villanova - Jay Wright recovered quickly from a down year to return the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament, where they nearly defeated North Carolina in the round of 64. Despite losing twin towers Mouphtaou Yarou and Maurice Sutton, the optimism on the Main Line is at its usual high, with sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono leading the charge following a rookie year where he averaged nearly twelve points and four assists per game. The homegrown talent will be joined once again by swingmen Darrun Hilliard and James Bell, with sophomore newcomer Dylan Ennis and incoming freshman Josh Hart providing Wright a great deal of opportunities to go with his signature "four quick" sets during games. Up front, expect to see a heavier dose of 6-11 center Daniel Ochefu alongside bruising power forward JayVaughn Pinkston, with a pair of burgeoning freshman forwards in Darryl Reynolds and Kris Jenkins; not to be confused with the former New York Jets defensive tackle, also making significant impacts early and often for Villanova. Senior guard Tony Chennault, who transferred from Wake Forest prior to last season, anchors a strong bench as "'Nova Nation" continues its ascent back up the Big East ladder.

5) Providence - You heard it here first: The Friars could very easily finish higher than this prediction, already considered to be somewhat of an ambitious one, a credit to the underrated coaching and game management of Ed Cooley, who enters his third season at the helm in Rhode Island's capital. Gone are warrior point guard Vincent Council and Ricky Ledo, the latter of whom never saw the court due to eligibility issues, but senior shooting guard Bryce "Ice" Cotton; who led the Big East in scoring in addition to his seemingly endless stream of three-pointers, returns with sophomore Kris Dunn running the show for his first full season at the point guard position, while Josh Fortune is an underrated X-factor on the wing as he enters his sophomore year. The Friar frontcourt is where Providence earns its high rating, though, with a pair of high-level transfers joining the fold in NC State castoff Tyler Harris and seven-foot Wake Forest expatriate Carson Desrosiers, who will join incumbents Kadeem Batts and double-double threat LaDontae Henton, perhaps the most underrated player at his position in the Big East. Finally, remember this name, since you will hear it early and often: Brandon Austin. The 6-6 swingman from Imhotep Charter in Philadelphia was a Top 100 recruit when he signed with Providence last year, and could easily force his way into the starting lineup in a short amount of time. A game-changer who leaves a lasting impression on every play, regardless of whether it is on the offensive or defensive end, this incarnation of Austin 3:16 could be calling himself the Big East Rookie of the Year at the end of the season.

6) Georgetown - We'll be honest in our assessment of the Hoyas, as we are a little skeptical of how Georgetown will fare without reigning Big East Player of the Year Otto Porter, not to mention the six consecutive early exits in either the NCAA Tournament or NIT leave an unfavorable opinion of whether or not John Thompson III can win the big game. However, there are stretches like last year's eleven-game winning streak through the heart of the Big East schedule that leave no doubt of Georgetown being a talented team. This year, not only is Porter a Washington Wizard, junior wing Greg Whittington is out for the season with a torn ACL, forcing Thompson to rely heavily on his backcourt of senior point guard Markel Starks and rising star D'Vauntes (pronounced Da-VON-tay) Smith-Rivera, who enters his sophomore season as a player on the precipice of a massive breakout. Junior swingman Jabril Trawick joins Starks and Smith-Rivera in the backcourt, while Mikael Hopkins and ageless wonder Nate Lubick lead Georgetown inside the paint for their junior and senior seasons, respectively. Freshman Reggie Cameron arrives with mounds of potential and the chance to solidify his standing as a major piece of the future, while UCLA transfer Joshua Smith becomes eligible in December to add to the frontcourt depth.

7) Xavier - Chris Mack brings the Musketeers into the Big East from the Atlantic 10 with one of the conference's most dynamic young talents in sophomore point guard Semaj (pronounced Sem-AH-jay) Christon, who averaged over fifteen points and nearly five assists per game en route to A-10 Rookie of the Year honors. Christon gets the services of junior shooting guard Dee Davis as a running mate once again after the Indiana native had a breakout sophomore season, shooting 37 percent from three-point range. Up front, Justin Martin will continue his progress on the wing as a junior, with one-time Towson transfer Isaiah Philmore establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with on the glass. Pay close attention to freshman guards Brandon Randolph and Myles Davis, both of whom will be integral parts of Xavier's offense as they feel their way through the Big East, with 6-9 forward Jalen Reynolds poised to make an impact in the paint as well.

8) Seton Hall - Now in his fourth season in South Orange, Kevin Willard is riding high off the verbal commitment he received from Isaiah Whitehead, and hopes to build the Pirates into a contender the year before the Lincoln High School superstar arrives. Senior swingman Fuquan Edwin is a potential first team all-Big East selection once again, and will have the opportunity to be more of a facilitator this season in addition to his well-documented scoring ability, as Gene Teague has lost 27 pounds in the offseason on the heels of a near-double-double average in his first season at Seton Hall. Patrik Auda has also fully recovered from a broken foot, and will compete for playing time up front alongside junior forward Brandon Mobley, who has made a full recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. In the backcourt, Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs is now eligible, and will run the point with incoming freshman Jaren Sina poised to follow in the footsteps of Jeremy Hazell during his first year in South Orange. The Pirate bench is deceptively strong as well, with Brian Oliver and Haralds Karlis leading a group that also includes point guard Tom Maayan and Englishman Aaron Geramipoor, as well as junior college transfer Stephane Manga.

9) DePaul - Oliver Purnell enters his fourth season in Chicago on the hot seat, as the Blue Demons have yet to make a significant jump into the middle of the pack in the Big East. Regardless, DePaul remains talented even if their record indicates otherwise, and the inside/outside scoring duo of seniors Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young are a big reason why. A one-time UConn commit, Melvin averaged nearly seventeen points and seven rebounds per game as a junior last season, while Young put up a similar offensive production total to go with five assists per game. The DePaul supporting cast is deceptively strong as well, with swingmen Jamee Crockett and Charles McKinney poised to make greater jumps offensively in their junior seasons, with 6-10 senior Sandi Marcius ready to make an immediate impact as a graduate transfer from Purdue. Finally, the three-man recruiting class of R.J. Curington, Billy Garrett and DeJuan Marrero, the last of whom was ineligible last season, will make DePaul a young team on the upswing if they fulfill even half of their massive potential.

10) Butler - Now in their third conference in as many years, the Bulldogs usher in a new era, as assistant coach Brandon Miller takes the reins of the two-time national runner-up in the wake of Brad Stevens leaving his empire in Indianapolis for the Boston Celtics. To further complicate things for the new head man, Butler was dealt a severe blow when Roosevelt Jones, the Bulldogs' top returning player, suffered a wrist injury that will cause him to miss the season. In his absence, Miller will count on senior forward Khyle Marshall to be a constant source of production inside the paint, with junior wing Kameron Woods on the verge of a breakout season. Erik Fromm will now step into a starting role during his senior season with Jones on the shelf, while the backcourt of point guard Alex Barlow and sophomore sharpshooter Kellen Dunham should see marked improvement.

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