Sunday, October 18, 2015

Big East Roundtable

While many expect Kris Dunn to repeat as Big East Player of the Year, prevailing opinions still have Villanova finishing atop the conference once again. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Big East media day was held this past Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, with Villanova the consensus top choice among the league's ten coaches, while St. John's was picked at the other end of the pool as new head coach Chris Mullin attempts to rebuild his alma mater from scratch following the graduation of last year's senior core and departure of emerging talents in Rysheed Jordan and Chris Obekpa.

Aside from the two bookends, the next eight spots are as wide open as ever before. Georgetown, Butler, and even Xavier are expected to contend for a league championship, while Providence and Marquette should take a significant step forward. Seton Hall is looking to put last season's ugly end to rest once and for all, DePaul is eager to build off last season's improvement with a returning pilot in Dave Leitao, and Creighton now has experience in living without Doug McDermott, something that will serve the Bluejays well as they continue their road back to the upper echelon.

Before the ball is tipped for the first time, we will help make sense of what lies ahead in our third annual roundtable panel, featuring four men who know the conference inside and out as they offer insights on the league as a whole as well as the specific teams they cover. Our Jaden Daly once again serves as moderator for the following quintet of scribes:

Jaden Daly: Who is this year's Big East champion, and why?

Brad Dobney: Still Villanova. They haven't lost enough and everyone else hasn't gained enough to make me think we're looking at a change at the top.

Andrei Greska: Villanova will continue to be the standard to which all Big East teams aspire to. Having had a few friends from college cover Jalen Brunson on a daily basis, they vouch that he is the real deal in all aspects. Add in Josh Hart and 17th year senior Ryan Arcidiacono, and that backcourt will be second to none not just in the Big East, but the country. I don’t think it will be a runaway, but the Wildcats have enough talent and experience to hold on.    

Patrick Marshall: Xavier. Yes, the Big East co-players of the year return for Villanova (Ryan Arcidiacono) and Providence (Kris Dunn), and while Georgetown has D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera back, it will be the Musketeers that will navigate their way to a Big East title due to the sheer number of contributors back this season.  The full backcourt returns with Remy Abell and Trevon Bluiett, but it will be Jalen Reynolds who will be the breakout player to help carry this veteran team. Villanova, Georgetown, and Providence will struggle at times while opponents focus on their stars. Xavier will be able to sneak in around them all to get the title at this point.

Brendan Reilly: I'm going to be a homer and stick with Villanova to repeat as conference champion. While they're losing three starters, the depth and talent on this team is enough that they shouldn't miss a beat. Freshman Jalen Brunson will be a stud, Phil Booth should take on a much larger role, and Josh Hart could become the teams new leading scorer. Villanova will be tough on both ends of the court and will again be the favorite going into the season.

Dan Stack: Villanova. It was not a slam dunk selection to pick the Wildcats, as I see Xavier, Georgetown and Butler all with about equal chances of winning the Big East. However, with Villanova's experience, fantastic backcourt (Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and frosh Jalen Brunson) and Daniel Ochefu as an anchor down low, they still get the edge here.

JD: In your opinion, which teams are the most overrated and underrated?

BD: Overrated: St. John's. There's an awful lot of wishful thinking circling about the Red Storm right now. 

Underrated: I think Creighton could surprise people. You look at the close games they lost last year and the way they played and you see a team that should have had a better record than they did. Of course, it's possible they are poorly coached and Doug the Lesser was papering over the cracks, but I don't think that's the case.

AG: Overrated: St. John’s. It’s exciting to be under the helm of a new coach with great pedigree and all sorts of media attention, but take it from experience, that transition is a load to bear. And Marquette didn’t have nearly the roster turnover of the Johnnies. This team has basement written all over it.

Underrated: Georgetown. It seems counterintuitive to put a team everyone has pegged for a top three finish and another NCAA berth as underrated, but the Hoyas strike me as a team that will be top-15 by the end of the year and pushing Villanova for the top spot. Talking D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera off the ledge that was the NBA Draft was the single biggest non-recruiting story for the Big East this spring/summer. Again, I’ll draw on experience because it’s what I know best. If you put Vander Blue back on the 2013-2014 Marquette team that everyone pegged to win the Big East, they would have won the Big East. No one will ever convince me otherwise.  Having a proven, experienced scorer who can create and distribute as well as these players can frees up the rest of the team to excel in their roles, making for a much more dangerous unit.    

PM: Overrated: Marquette. The media seems quite interested to see how the Golden Eagles rebound after Steve Wojciechowski’s first season as head coach. I guess just getting a highly rated recruiting class is all that is needed after finishing almost last in the league last season. The problem with Marquette is that everyone will be fooled in the non-conference season with a schedule that has pretty much every sub-300 RPI team that Woj could get to come to Milwaukee. While they may be on a high headed into Big East play, most will be fooled. They may not finish last, but they won’t be in the top half of the Big East either.

Underrated: Creighton. Yes, get the bias meter out, but Greg McDermott and Creighton had a very uncharacteristic year last season finishing last in the conference and missing the postseason for the first time in almost two decades.  Then take into consideration about 6-8 conference games lost in the final seconds and you go from a team that had a miserable season to one that survived the first season after Doug McDermott and another postseason team. Let’s just say that the impact Mo Watson (transfer from Boston University) and Cole Huff (transfer from Nevada) will be more than many realize and you could see a team that could finish in the top five of the Big East.

BR: Overrated: Marquette will be much improved this season with the addition of a vaunted freshman class, but I think the hype has gone too far. I take more of a "I'll believe it when I see it" approach when a team takes on such a massive identity change, especially with the loss of leading scorer Matt Carlino. While Marquette will be in the top five of the Big East, they've still got a lot to prove against teams like Butler, Georgetown, and Villanova.

Underrated: I think Providence could surprise some people. They've definitely lost some talent and will need some of the younger guys to step up in a big way. But when you return a player like Kris Dunn who can carry a team on his back, there's reason to be optimistic.

DS: Overrated: Providence. Let me preface in saying I really don't see a team in the Big East that is truly overrated, but if I had a gun to my head, I would answer with Providence here. We know Kris Dunn is a phenomenal player, but it seems that's all the Friars have this season. Ben Bentil is a nice player in the post, but the Friars will be a bubble team at best. Put simply, they have holes to fill.

Underrated: Seton Hall. Kevin Willard is on the hot seat, but there is no denying the sheer talent on the Pirates. For better or worse, Willard's fate is tied to his emerging sophomore class. True, it can all fall apart, but people are sleeping on the Pirates this season. If Isaiah Whitehead and Angel Delgado mature, the Pirates can go places.

JD: Which game on the schedule do you feel has the most "game of the year" potential?

BD: It could be taking the easy way out, but I'm saying that Georgetown at Villanova on March 5th is going to be good. Villanova at Xavier on February 24th could also carry major implications.

AG: If you read my previous two responses, this is self-explanatory.

PM: Georgetown at Villanova, March 5. These two teams are the two big anchors for the Big East Conference and they will get to shine on network television in what may likely be for the conference championship (of course if Xavier isn’t right there due to my other prediction.) March Madness will be in full swing leading into the conference tournaments and the Big Dance. This game will be great to kick things off.

BR: It's a historic rivalry. It features the two best teams in the conference.  It could decide the Big East Regular Season Champion. It's the last game of the regular season. It's Georgetown at Villanova.

DS: Villanova at Georgetown (Saturday, January 16)

JD: How many teams will hear their names called on Selection Sunday this season?

BD: Six, again.

AG: 5. My heart tells me six, but my mind can’t quite pull the trigger. The key to getting six seeds last year were not just tremendous results from the non-con as a whole, but outstanding results from a team that became quite awful in-season. Seton Hall was ranked 41 in KenPom going into the Big East last year with two good losses, allowing them to still finish in the top-100 at the end of the season when the bottom had dropped out and the heels of Sterling Gibbs were being scraped along the concrete. Having a good non-con team with an awful conference season  does wonders for league-wide metrics (ask the Big-12 about TCU). Long story short, I don’t foresee that happening this year with DePaul/St. John’s, so one team (Marquette/Providence/Creighton) will be left feeling the pain.

PM: 5. This number seems about right as an average for the conference every year to get at least half the conference into the NCAA Tournament. You already have some preseason Top 25 buzz for Villanova and Butler. Then you have the high expectations for Georgetown and Xavier. That is four teams right there. The fifth one will be the surprise of the season with Creighton, Providence, and yes, Marquette. St. John’s and DePaul will be in rebuild mode and there is no telling how Seton Hall will do with the way they imploded last season. But you never know.

BR: Five. While I think the Big East gets the same number of teams into the dance this season, I think they'll be more successful. Villanova, Georgetown, Butler, Marquette, and Providence all get in. Three of the five will make the second weekend.

DS: 4 (Villanova, Georgetown, Xavier and Butler)

JD: So, who wins the hardware? Give us your predictions for Player, Rookie, and Coach of the Year.

BD: POY: D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera. I think this is the year he puts it all together.
ROY: Jalen Brunson.
COY: Jay Wright, again.

AG: POY: Kris Dunn. He has the skills and the media attention. Barring an injury, it’s a #DunnDeal
ROY: Henry Ellenson. As much as I love Jalen Brunson, I love Ellenson even more. Plus, he’s going to score twice as much as Brunson, which doesn’t mean he is twice as good, just that it will be eye-popping and too difficult to ignore.
COY: JT3. I’m all in on the Hoyas, can’t you tell?

PM: POY: D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown. Kris Dunn seems to be everyone else’s pick, but if Georgetown pulls out a Big East title, Smith-Rivera will be the main reason. Dunn will be great, but he will be overshadowed by the bubble talk of Providence all season and may not get the award unless the Friars finish in the top two.
ROY: Henry Ellenson, Marquette. Everything I hear about him is that he is the next best thing tosliced bread (is that even a saying anymore?). If Marquette expects to surprise people, his performance will take them there.
COY: Since I picked Xavier to win the Big East, I’ll have to go with Chris Mack getting Coach of the Year.

BR: POY: Kris Dunn. He's the most talented player in the conference, and now he's going to be relied on to do a majority of the scoring. His numbers are going to be HUGE.
ROY: Henry Ellenson. He's going to be the focal point of a much improved Marquette team. His numbers will edge out Jalen Brunson at Villanova, where there will be more balanced scoring.
COY: Jay Wright. He's the face of the conference, and a pretty one at that. If he can repeat again as the conference regular season and tournament champions after losing three starters, this award will be well deserved.

DS: POY: Kris Dunn- Who else? Expect a monster season.
ROY: Henry Ellenson- He will make the Golden Eagles immediate contenders again. 
COY: John Thompson III- I see a special season for the Hoyas this season. Even if Georgetown does not win the Big East, I see him having the biggest effect.

JD: What are your thoughts on the two newcomers to the Big East? How do you think Chris Mullin and Dave Leitao will fare in their first seasons (in Leitao's case, first season back) at St. John's and DePaul?

BD: Mullin: I think he'll struggle this year. Yes, he's a flash name and yes, he's from New York. None of that is going to matter when he gets into a game against coaches who have been scheming for college basketball for the last several years. I think St. John's will lose games this year where he just gets outcoached.

Leitao: I mean, it's DePaul, will anyone notice if he flounders? If a mediocre tree falls in an excellent forest, does anyone know?

AG: Mullin will struggle because he has a roster full of new players playing against some very high quality, heavily experienced teams on a nightly basis. And it takes time to adjust to coaching at this level, which he is new to. There should be no expectation for his first year, let’s talk again in 12 months.

Leitao will be better than Purnell, not that it’s a high bar to clear. Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% against his hiring and that administration which has proven time and again it has no vision. This is a program that needs a Bruce Pearl type, someone who will cut corners and flirt with danger. I advocated for him before he went to Auburn. Heck, I still think Buzz Williams would thrive there. Leitao will get them to play defense, something unheard of under Purnell, but outside of Garrett, the rest of the roster is nothing special. It starts with recruiting. It doesn’t start this year. It may not for a few more.

PM: I think both will have some adjusting to do, but Mullin may actually struggle more initially. Leitao basically gets to come back to the school he left ten years ago, and not much has changed since he left for what was supposed to be greener pastures. Now he comes back and can reacquaint himself with fans and not have to necessarily regain their trust. Mullin has a lot of rebuilding to do with basically a brand new roster as well as working as a college head coach. That is a lot different than the NBA and he will take some lumps before he will be successful, but the bigger advantage to him is recruiting. He is already getting some top recruits to commit to St. John’s and are setting themselves up to be successful in the sooner than later wheelhouse.

BR: St. John's will still be a talented team, but they will probably end up in the 6-8 range when all is said and done in the Big East. A return to the NCAA tourney in Mullin's first season wouldn't be required for it to be considered successful, but it's unlikely. Leitao gets a pass in year one.  Simply not being Oliver Purnell means his season is a success.

DS: I think Mullin was a great hire, but he is no miracle worker and I see him struggling in his first season, as he simply does not have the firepower to compete. However, with the wonders he is doing on the recruiting trail (the commitment of Shamorie Ponds being the latest example), he is laying a great foundation and he'll have the Red Storm in the mix in no time. As for Leitao, while the hiring was not sexy per se, he could be the swift kick in the rear end DePaul needs. In his first tour of duty with the Demons, his teams played hard, defended and rebounded the ball well. He does not take kindly to complacency, which is something that permeated under the last two regimes. He has a solid, veteran squad to work with and he'll adjust just fine.

JD: This has always been the fun part: Word association. In as few words, or hashtags like Dan did last year, as possible, describe each team in a nutshell.

BD: Villanova: Sustained excellence
Butler: Barn
Georgetown: New rival
Providence: Live and die with Dunn
St. John's: Fading power
Seton Hall: Clown show
DePaul: They still play?
Creighton: Midwest
Marquette: On the rise

AG: Villanova: #WatchTheThrone
Georgetown: #CantTellMeNothing
Butler: #Grit
Xavier: #AllTheyDoIsWin
Marquette: #KingHenry
Providence: #DunnDeal
Creighton: #TheyForgotAboutJays
Seton Hall: #DeadCoachWalking
DePaul: #LOL
St. John’s: #MULLigan

PM: Butler: Surprising
Creighton: Sneaky
DePaul: Recycled
Georgetown: Confidence
Marquette: Rookies
Providence: One & Dunn
Seton Hall: Implosion, Part II
St. John’s: Rebuilding
Villanova: Consistent
Xavier: Complete

BR: Butler: #GrindItOut
Creighton: #StillMissingDougie
DePaul: #NewEra
Georgetown: #TheChallenger
Marquette: #YoungGuns
Providence: #EnterTheDUNNk
Seton Hall: #Rebuilding
St. John's: #MullinsHomecoming
Villanova: #TheChampIsHere
Xavier: #LostALotOfTalent

DS: Butler: #SystemWorks
Creighton: #DougMcDermottHangoverFading
DePaul: #DefenseHoldsKey
Georgetown: #ExtremelyVersatile
Marquette: #YoungButDangerous
Providence: #DunnDunnDunn
St. John’s: #WaitTilNextYear
Seton Hall: #SophomoreSuccessOrBust
Villanova: #TheStandard
Xavier: #GutsAndAttitude

JD: Finally, gentlemen, how about a shameless plug for the teams you cover?

BD: Xavier returns an excellent core, grabs Edmond Sumner to run the point, and has one of the best young coaches in the nation. The Musketeers were eight minutes away from an Elite Eight last year, and they've gotten better. This season will come down to whether or not they can finally beat Villanova.

AG: Marquette hasn’t been fun to watch since 2012. That includes a team that made the Elite 8, one that completely underwhelmed and one that didn’t have enough players to scrimmage in practice. So this isn’t a win-loss or expectations thing. In general, there has been no reason for a non-Marquette fan to tune in in the FS1 era. That all changes. You would think it would start with the 6’-11” recruit Kentucky and Michigan State were fighting over, and although he is part of the reason, it does not start with him. It starts with a less heralded freshman, but one whose impact will have even larger consequences, Traci Carter. You see, the last two years, the offense was run by a player who wasn’t guarded most possessions.  If you’ve ever been to a Marquette forum, you know dropping Derrick Wilson into a conversation is sure to turn into a 10-page thread. I’m actually on Team Derrick, but there is no debate whatsoever that he was the source of stagnation. With a new point guard that has shown flashes not seen around these parts since the late 2000’s the offense is about to return to respectability. Add in Ellenson (and trust me, he’s better than the hype), a healthy Luke Fischer, and a more experienced Duane Wilson, the results will be immediate. That’s not to say the defense will be there to make this a tournament team, but from a pure watchability standpoint, Marquette will be lightyears ahead.

PM: The Bluejays are unknown heading into the season. When you look at Creighton, they are basically a new team compared to last year, but yet have all the tools in place to make a direct impact. Mo Watson and Cole Huff will automatically be inserted into the starting lineup. The year off during their transfer seasons have done quite a bit to improve their game to a higher level. Then you look to the middle, where Geoffrey Groselle emerged during Big East play as a solid center that could make an impact. James Milliken, after getting suspended at the beginning of Big East play last season, bounced back to continually improve. It is even possible that Toby Hegner, who started a majority of the games last season for the Bluejays, may end up having a role off the bench based on the upgrade in talent waiting in the wings to play. Ronnie Harrell, Khyri Thomas, Malik Albert, and Martin Krampelj bring some athleticism that was not on the team last season and had great performances in the summer Italy trip, while Zach Hanson provides an inside presence that is waiting to explode. Isaiah Zierden has two seasons of experience, (and a redshirt year) and if he is able to fully recover from the knee that has sidelined him for the majority of Big East play the past two seasons, then his shooting and basketball IQ will add a lot. What is crazy is that Top 50 big man Justin Patton may almost be an afterthought, but could make an impact. I think the fact that there are so many unknowns, but also team that is a lot deeper compared to last season, a lot of the outsiders don’t really know what to think of Creighton. That is fine. The Bluejays can fly under the radar to miss the preseason hype and then get the attention during the season, when Greg McDermott puts all the pieces together and shows everyone that he knew what he was doing. I don’t expect Creighton to finish at the top of the Big East, but they could definitely land in the upper half and get back into the NCAA Tournament again.

BR: With three new starters, this Villanova team will have a new look, but with the same balance and depth as last year. It starts with Big East Co-Player of the Year Ryan Arcidiacono, the team's senior captain. Star freshman Jalen Brunson will be an instant contributor and will be in contention for rookie of the year. Josh Hart should build off of his Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player award last season and step into a starting role. Phil Booth and Kris Jenkins will also take on larger contributing roles as efficient outside shooters who can also score inside the arc. Daniel Ochefu should be a double-double machine and unmatched rim protector in conference play. Redshirt freshman Mikal Bridges could be the dark horse for breakout player of the season with freak athleticism and size. The problem defending Villanova will be the same as last season: Five players on the floor can beat you, and you'll never know before the game which one it's going to be. Add to that the traditional strength of a Jay Wright defense, and Villanova will be the clear favorites in an improved Big East.

DS: When it comes to DePaul, one word will define their season: Defense, Defense, Defense! (OK that's three words, but it was said three times to emphasize importance). In any event, we know DePaul can score, but if Leitao can get this group to buy into defense, while giving max effort, this team can surprise. After all, this team started out 5-2 in the Big East last season before the season spiraled out of control. The team does return three of its four top scorers in Billy Garrett Jr, Myke Henry and Tommy Hamilton. Based on how this team did in France and and the early results on how they adapted to Leitao thus far, there is hope DePaul can challenge for a postseason berth, even if it's just the NIT.

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