Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Big East Roundtable

Jay Wright and Villanova are popular choice to repeat as regular season Big East champions. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Globe)

Big East media day returns to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday following a four-year absence, and in addition to the familiar venue, there is an equally recognizable face atop the conference, that being Jay Wright's Villanova Wildcats, the consensus choice as the pick to emerge victorious from league play in March.

Behind Villanova is where things will get interesting, however. Mounds of question marks surround everyone from Georgetown all the way down to Butler and DePaul, and the pressure on local outfits such as Seton Hall and St. John's may be higher than it has ever been.

Fear not, though, because for the second consecutive year, our panel of experts will attempt to give you a primer of what was once regarded as the best conference in college basketball, and still remains one to this day. Sadly, representatives from Butler, Georgetown, Marquette and Providence could not be reached in time, but Jaden Daly serves as moderator for a roundtable panel featuring six Big East media members who share insights on their own teams, and also the Big East as a whole:

Creighton: Patrick Marshall, White & Blue Review (Twitter: @wildjays)
DePaul: Dan Stack, WeAreDepaul.com (Twitter: @WeAreDePaul, @stacdemon)
St. John's: Norman Rose, Rumble In The Garden (Twitter: @ECoastBias, @rumbleSBN)
Seton Hall: Jason Guerette, South Orange Juice/New Jersey Newsroom (Twitter: @JPGuerette)
Villanova: Chris Lane, VUhoops.com (Twitter: @VUhoops, @chrisjjlane)
Xavier: Brad Dobney, Banners on the Parkway (Twitter: @BannersParkway)

1) Who is the likely Big East champion, and why?

Brad Dobney: It has to be Villanova, right? They lost James Bell, but JayVaughn Pinkston returns and it's not as if they didn't recruit anyone. Until someone consistently beats them, they stay at the top.

Jason Guerette: Going with Villanova here because it's hard to argue against who they have returning. However, all preseason polls/predictions are based on two things- who you return and what they did last year, and who you don't return and what they did last year. Nova happens to have a lot of key pieces back, so they certainly belong up here.

Although...... STERLING GIBBS, Y'ALL!!!

Chris Lane: Villanova - I think the issue here is that the 'Cats are the most sure thing in the conference because of how much talent they are bringing back. While Creighton, Xavier, Georgetown, Providence and St. John's lost a lot of star power, Villanova is bringing back 2-3 of the best players in the conference. While they may not run through the conference sans-Creighton again, they have to be considered the overwhelming favorite.

Patrick Marshall: Villanova--Many said the success that Villanova had last season was a year early and winning the Big East regular season. If you ask Creighton fans, they weren't impressed. For whatever reason, and maybe Doug McDermott and Ethan Wragge were two of those reasons, the Bluejays had the Wildcats number giving them two of their most lopsided losses of the season. Although there are are several teams that may try to make a run, and a couple more losses from Creighton, it will be hard to stop 'Nova and they are the clear favorites. The team is a year older and a year better already tasting some great success. The other options will likely stumble too many times and Wildcats will likely be at the top.

Norman Rose: Villanova - brings back pretty much the whole squad, has sophomores ready to emerge, and the Wildcats were very good. Lots of continuity here.

Dan Stack: Villanova- Why not? They possess the most talent with the return of JayVaughn Pinkston, Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard II and Josh Hart. Combine the experience they have with one of the best coaches in the Big East in Jay Wright and they have what it takes to go the distance. After the key personnel losses Creighton, Providence and Xavier endured, Villanova has to be considered the heavy favorites this year.

2) In your opinion, who are the league's most overrated and underrated teams?

BD: Most overrated team- St. John's. Until they learn to shoot the ball, they'll keeping having the 2013-14 season over and over.

Most underrated team- Is Seton Hall still considered underrated? If so, I'll go with them.

JG: Overrated: St. John's. This is my pick almost every year. Every year people have hyped up the Red Storm as favorites in the conference, and every year they fail to live up to that hype. The question has never been talent- Steve Lavin has always had oodles of talent. The question has always been translating that talent into consistently high levels of play. Until they show that they can put it all together (which falls on Lavin, who I'm STILL not sold on as an in-game coach and haven't been since he was hired), they're going to be my pick for this slot.

Underrated: Couldn't come up with one. After the generally-approved-upon top few teams (Hoyas, VU, Xavier), the league is once again wide-open.

CL: It pains me to say this because they've flopped more often than not, but I think St. John's is flying under the radar. There's a lot backcourt talent returning in Harrison, Jordan, and Greene and Chris Obekpa's change of heart is massive for them. Seton Hall jumps out as overrated. The recruiting class is massive, but it's not on the level of Kentucky in terms of talent and we've seen how destructive it can be when a bunch of massive ego's show up on campus. They'll be good enough to score some big wins, but I don't think they are built for long-term success just yet.

PM: Overrated--Georgetown--Honestly for the Big East to be prominent this year and years from now, the Hoyas have to be at the top of the league.  Last season with the Bluejays first season in the Big East, I had really high expectations for Georgetown and expected them to win the league. The first round NCAA Tournament loss to Florida Gulf Coast was a fluke and thought they would have the horses to make the new Big East look like it was supposed to. Well, I was sorely disappointed last season and really felt like they underachieved. They had too many distractions, suspensions, and other things that it ultimately brought them down. While they are looking to be towards the top of the Big East this season, I'm not going to take that carrot this time. They need to prove they belong at the top, so for now they are overrated.  

Underrated--Seton Hall--Looking up and down the league, you could sort of make a case for every other team besides Georgetown and Villanova to be considered underrated. Yes, Creighton is underrated, but I'll get to that later. This is almost a random pick, but I'm going with Seton Hall. They are in the middle of the pack with most predictions and they have some good things going on there. With 10 losses last season by seven or fewer points, they were on the cusp of doing something great. With one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, the Pirates could surprise some people by the time conference play arrives.

NR: Overrated: Providence loses Bryce Cotton and some think the team will finish third. Consider that despite an NCAA berth, the Friars were on the outside looking in before a dream run to the Big East Tournament finals, where their one impressive win was over Creighton. Seton Hall took out Villanova for them. Other than that, the Friars' best win was... over Creighton. This is to say that the Friars, maybe, had good matchups against the shooting Bluejays with all of their length and lucked into an NCAA Tournament bid. So, thinking of their NCAA berth as kind of a fluke, consider that the Friars lose the guy who did all the efficient scoring, their toughest rebounder in Kadeem Batts, and Josh Fortune, a shooter who emerged. I love their toughness. But the Friars need to return to a level of play that wasn't Tournament-level, against a league that's improved, and with freshmen and the hopefully-awesome return of Kris Dunn. 

Underrated: Xavier. Is Chris Mack as excellent a coach as his predecessors? Hard to know, yet. Can the defense get better? Hard to know, yet. But I do think that the team he has returning has a great mix of talent. The Musketeers lose Semaj Christon, but return guards who might complement each other better - Dee Davis at the point, Remy Abell's all-around game, Myles Davis' shooting, and freshman wings who can get buckets in Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura. I think the Musketeers lacked outside shooting (309th in the NCAA in three-pointers taken as a percentage of all field goals) and the newcomers can really help with that.

DS: Most Overrated: St. John's - While Steve Lavin consistently brings in top-notch talent, he has yet to fully harness it. I think SJU will sneak into the tournament this year, but they have the talent, depth and experience to be a lot better. 

Must Underrated: Butler - While they had an uneasy transition to the Big East last year, they now return Roosevelt Jones and with him alongside Kellen Dunham, they will now have a well-balanced offense. With Brandon Miller now having a year of experience under his belt in this league, he'll be better prepared for the rigors of this league. (Update, while Miller may be out for a while, my pick still stands).

3) Which game do you feel is an early contender for the "game of the year" in the Big East?

BD: Villanova at Georgetown on the 19th of January.

JG: January 19th - Villanova @ Georgetown. The Wildcats and Hoyas appear to be the two favorites this year in the conference, and this is one of the two games they will play against each other. The return trip to the Pavilion is in the afternoon, however. This one is a 9 p.m.tip. With the natural rivalry, the primetime tipoff, and the fact that they have January 19th all to themselves in conference play, this should be an excellent mid-schedule test.

CL: The Villanova-Xavier game on February 28 could have Big East title implications.

PM: I'm sure everyone has Georgetown at Villanova on February 7th circled on their calendars. It is expected that the Hoyas and the Wildcats will be at the top of the league and showcased on the biggest stage (FOX over the air TV). They have had many great battles in the past and there is no reason it will not happen again if everything goes as expected.

NR: Georgetown at Xavier. (December 31)

DS: Villanova at St. John's on January 6.

4) How many NCAA Tournament bids do you see the Big East receiving?

BD: Four: Villanova, Georgetown, Xavier, Seton Hall. I think St. John's could sneak as well.

CL: Four feels right, though I think five can be had. Villanova, Georgetown and Xavier seem like they'll be good enough to secure at-large bids and then I'd expect one or two of St. John's, Seton Hall, Butler and Providence to be sniffing around.

PM: I'm going to go with four. The 2015-16 is probably the season that the Big East will be very powerful and get in more than half of the league, but this season, I'm going conservative with four. There are a lot of high profile games in the non-conference for the Big East and enough big wins could set the stage for solid RPI numbers once conference play arrives. Villanova should be a lock, but then I would be pretty confident at this point with Georgetown, Xavier and then either St. John's, Seton Hall, and Creighton being on the bubble to be that fourth team. 

NR: Four - and I can't believe I'm saying it. I'm betting on a team with a solid non-conference win sneaks in to the First Four games on Tuesday/ Wednesday of the Tourney.

DS: I've got the Big East getting four invitations again with Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's and Providence making it in this year.

5) Award predictions for Big East Player, Rookie, and Coach of the Year:

BD: Player of the Year: JayVaughn Pinkston- Villanova. This will be much closer than last year. 
Rookie of the Year: Trevon Bluiett- Xavier
Coach of the Year: Buzz Williams. He's a genius, right? Oh, wait... Steve Lavin if the Red Storm go dancing, Chris Mack if Xavier is higher than a six seed, Jay Wright in all other contingencies.

JG: Player of the Year: Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
Coach of the Year: Jay Wright, Villanova (as an aside, the coach of the team that finishes first tends to win CotY in sports. I don't necessarily think that should be the case. I think a coach that leads his team to heights the furthest above where they were predicted should win this award. But I'm probably in the minority. I just feel that if you're the favorite, and you finish first, then why win Coach of the Year over a guy who was predicted low, but finished high? But I digress...)
Rookie of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
The Big East has a lot of talented rookies coming in this year to try and replace a lot of valuable senior leadership across the league. From what I've heard about Whitehead, he may be a freshman but he sure doesn't carry himself like one. Early reports are that the first McDonald's All-American to come to South Orange since the late Eddie Griffin is mature beyond his years. The Hall has perhaps the best backcourt in the conference, and Whitehead will certainly get his chance to shine.

CL: Player of the Year: Darrun Hilliard, Villanova 
Rookie of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall 
Coach of the Year: John Thompson III, Georgetown

PM: Player of the Year: JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova-- It is tough without Doug McDermott as a slam dunk. Villanova was very balanced last season, but I am looking for Pinkston to step up even more this season and lead the way.  He could average a double-double every night.  
Rookie of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall---I have heard enough about him all summer that he will be the next sliced bread mention.  
Coach of the Year:  Chris Mack, Xavier--The Musketeers are quietly in the top three this season, but they could be the actual surprise team that gives Villanova a run. If that happens, the Mack deserves it.

NR: D`Angelo Harrison, St. John's - POY
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier - ROY
Chris Mack, Xavier - COY

DS: POY: D'Angelo Harrison, St. John's- Most established scorer in the league on his last go round to make tournament. Slight edge over Kellen Dunham.
ROY: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall- Slam dunk here, as Whitehead is the Big East's lone McDonald's All American. Will make the Hall a much-improved team.
COY: John Thompson III, Georgetown- After not making it to the tournament last year, JTIII will rally his squad while his Hoyas contend for the Big East title. 

6) Word association (One word, if possible, to describe every team)

BD: Villanova- Class
Creighton- Struggling
Providence- Young
Xavier- Rising
St. John's- Overhyped
Marquette- Tarnished
Georgetown- Solid
Seton Hall- Dangerous
Butler- Barn
Depaul- AAC

JG: Butler: scrappy
Creighton: Doug-less
DePaul: Miserable
Georgetown: methodical
Marquette: Buzz-less (note the capital B- MU hoops is always popular in Milwaukee)
Providence: driven
Seton Hall: Youthful
St. John's: Mercurial
Villanova: favorites
Xavier: dark horse (ok, two words, so sue me)

CL: Villanova - Champs
Georgetown - 1985
Xavier - Stain-Train
Butler - Bounceback
Creighton - Dougie
Providence - Overtime
St. John's - MSG
Seton Hall - Freshmen
DePaul - Why
Marquette - Buzz

PM: Butler--Worried
Creighton--Sneaky
DePaul--Last
Georgetown--Historic
Marquette--Reborn
Providence--Rebuilding
Seton Hall--Hyped
St. John's--Ignored
Villanova--Leaders
Xavier--Likeable

DS: (since Twitter is so popular, I chose to combine words and give them neat hash tags
Butler:#MajorSleeper
Creighton: #McDermottHangover
DePaul: #NotAsBadAsYouThink
Georgetown: #BackToTheNCAA's
Marquette: #WaitOnWojo
Providence:#OnUpswing
Seton Hall: #ThisYear'sProvidence?
St. John's: #TalentedButStagnant
Villanova: #TeamToBeat
Xavier: #TakingAStepBackAfterChriston

7) Shameless plug for the team each panelist represents:

BD: Xavier has recently been defined by backcourt talent (Semaj Christon, Mark Lyons, Tu Holloway). This year, the backcourt is loaded with skill again, but the big men are going to take center stage. Matt Stainbrook was excellent last year and should be again and James Farr almost broke out as a stretch four. The real story is going to be Jalen Reynolds, though, he's a 6'10" truck of human being who can run and jump like a guard. By February, he'll be in the player of the year conversation.

JG: Seton Hall played in more 1-point games (NINE of them, going 4-5) than any other team in the last 30 years in 2013-14 (thanks to Gary Cohen for that nugget, by the way- he mentioned it on the radio broadcast right before SHU beat Nova at MSG), plus six more games decided by five points or less, and if some of them would have broken their way, they would have been postseason-bound. Killer losses (@ Mercer in 2OT, vs Oklahoma in Brooklyn, @ Marquette, @ Creighton, @ DePaul- *GAG*- and BOTH matchups vs St. John's) and two god-awful losses that I don't ever wish to speak of again (at home to Fairleigh Dickinson and Saint Peter's- *GAG*) spoiled their season. Every team has close games, but when nearly half your season (15 out of 34 games) is close, and you go 5-10 in those games, you get a season defined by those results. This year, the Pirates have a tremendous recruiting class that brings Whitehead as well as rebounding machine Angel Delgado and underrated scorer Khadeen Carrington as well as forwards Desi Rodriguez and Michael Nzei and athletic wing Ismael Sanogo. Obviously, losing Fuquan Edwin (one of the best defenders in the conference all four of his years) and a horse down low in Gene Teague will hurt, as does the departure of Patrik Auda. The Hall is thin in the frontcourt, and they MUST get a healthy season from Delgado and Brandon Mobley to have success. They do get a 7'1" body eligible for conference play in Northwestern transfer Chier Ajou, and that will help, but if foul trouble or injury forces Kevin Willard to play Rodriguez, Nzei and/or Steph Manga too many minutes, things likely won't go smoothly for the Hall. That being said, Whitehead and Carrington along with Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina give the Hall one of the best backcourts in the conference, and it could be the best by the time all is said and done. High hoops IQ is very prevalent among the guards, as is scoring ability. If everything breaks right, with the wide-open middle of the pack once again in the Big East, I can see the Pirates finishing in the top half of the conference for the first time in what feels like forever. They are young, but boy are they talented.

CL: I know it feels like Ryan Arcidiacono should have graduated already, but you get to see him lead one of the better offenses in the country yet again. It's pick your poison stopping either Darrun Hilliard or JayVaughn Pinkston on offense, and both should be on the All-Big East team at the end of the year. If Jay Wright can get more balance (i.e. don't rely on jumpers) out of this year's team, expect another high seed come March and hopefully an appearance during the second weekend and beyond. 

PM: 
Creighton, although losing Doug McDermott and three other impact seniors, will be better than most think. The season will be on the shoulders of point guard Austin Chatman, who is the only returning starter. His offseason has been active. He had surgery late in the summer on a thumb ligament and then found  out this past week that he will be out for about 10 days after getting his knee cleaned up as about result of a minor injury in the early season workouts.  Chatman will be expected to score more this season, distribute the ball, and be that team leader for everyone to look for. With four starters gone, there is still plenty of experience in the fold. Seniors Avery Dingman and Will Artino have been in the mix heavily the past few seasons, while Devin Brooks made his own impact backing up Chatman. He may be expected to play a little more shooting guard. Then the Bluejays add a veteran in fifth year transfer Ricky Kreklow from Cal. Zach Hanson has the potential to be a great player as he gets more minutes and becomes a presence down low. Isaiah Zierden is coming off of a knee injury that shortened last season but it did not require surgery. He is ready to go this season and has a high basketball IQ like Grant Gibbs had. JUCO transfer James Milliken ended up redshirting last year and could have an impact right away, and would have played last season if Gibbs had not received that 6th season. Geoffrey Groselle, the 7-footer, is finally healthy and looked very good in Summer League. Toby Hegner will never be Doug McDermott, but there are flashes Doug in him if he works for it. It is hard to tell exactly where freshmen Leon Gilmore III and Ronnie Harrell will fit in but could make an impact right away. I think that mentions almost everyone on the roster, meaning they could be deeper than most think. Overall, Creighton heads into the season with a deep team and could finish in the top half of the league surpassing the national media expectations this season where they expect them to be towards the bottom of the other half. If everything works out like it should, they could finish fourth or higher. Like I said above, the Bluejays could be really sneaky this season. 

NR: St. John's is and was an enigma. But I think that the roster has fewer players who think they should be creating their own jump-shot offense and a few more players who will fit roles. Can the front court be better than competent? Can they handle the dirty-work job of rebounding in a way last year's front court could not? If they can, and there's reason to believe, there's no reason this team shouldn't go to the NCAA Tournament.


DS: As I said in the word association game, DePaul is not as bad as you think. With the reigning Big East Rookie of the Year in Billy Garrett Jr. and another all-Big East freshman team member Tommy Hamilton to work with, DePaul has a nice youthful core to lean on. This year they add a few key transfers with Myke Henry joining them from Illinois, while also adding three high-profile JUCO transfers in Rashaun Stimage, Aaron Simpson and ex-St. John's commit Darrick Wood. With an infusion of some experienced new talent along with Garrett and Hamilton, the hope here is Oliver Purnell has the horses necessary to get out of the basement and make a move up the standings. After all, they showed some moxie knocking off Georgetown in the Big East Tournament last year. I have them escaping the basement at minimum.

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