Here are five things I can't wait to see in the Big East:
1. Can Ashton Gibbs deliver while everyone is watching?
Gibbs served as the poster boy for surprise Pittsburgh last season, a seemingly out-of-nowhere star who earned the league’s most improved honors. The guard averaged 15.7 points per game and reached double figures in 28 out of 34 games a year after coming off the bench to chip in just 4.8 points a game. Gibbs’ play wasn’t the only reason the Panthers soared to a 25-9 record and earned the 2-seed in the Big East tourney, but it was a big part of it. Pitt needed a star after saying goodbye to three of them in the form of Levance Fields, DeJuan Blair and Sam Young. Gibbs provided it.
But the junior won’t surprise anyone this year. They know he’s coming, and they know he’s bringing a very talented Pitt team with him. The Panthers were tabbed preseason Big East favorites on Wednesday thanks to the return of Gibbs, Brad Wanamker, Gilbert Brown, Gary McGhee, Nasir Robinson and Travon Woodall. The Panthers long have been a team known for their grit, teamwork and intensity, so Gibbs won’t be working alone. But he is the star now, and for teams to have real success, stars have to shine.
2. Hudson River Relevance?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: St. John’s, Seton Hall and Rutgers are headed to bigger and better things. I know, I know. They’ve only been promising that since Louie retired, since P.J. went to the NBA and since 1983 (the last NCAA tourney win for Rutgers). So this year, with all three welcoming new coaches, I want to see if there truly is reason for optimism or if this is just another round of empty promises.
St. John’s would appear the most poised to make a significant jump. Steve Lavin brings virtually his entire roster back, plus a talented freshman in Dwayne Polee, to a team that won 17 games last season. But those players only own six games in the Big East, and in a league where ladder-climbing is nearly impossible, what’s to say they’re capable of more? I’d say the future looks bright for the Red Storm, but in terms of the immediate future, I’m crossing the river.
Seton Hall won 19 games and nine in the conference last season. From that crew, Jeremy Hazell, Jeff Robinson, Keon Lawrence and a healthy Herb Pope all return. Plus the Pirates get immediate help in the form of Ole Miss transfer Eniel Polynice. The Pirates didn’t lack talent last season. They lacked discipline. If Kevin Willard can restore a little order and instill a little defense, the Hall could make big strides. Seton Hall ranked 313th (out of 334 teams) in scoring defense last season. Willard’s Iona team pulled in at eighth. If the two sides can even meet in the middle, that will mean major improvements for the Pirates.
As for Rutgers? Anyone expecting miracles out of Mike Rice right now hasn’t been paying attention to the Scarlet Knights’ history. He already has made a big splash in recruiting and a long-term future is what Rutgers needs to build.
3. The lineup at Louisville
There’s an old Bugs Bunny episode where Bugs single-handedly handles the Gashouse Gorillas. Bugs meet Peyton Siva, who may have to pass the ball to himself, rebound his miss and go up for the putback for the Cardinals in the early going. Instead of a who’s who, Louisville has a who’s not. Who’s not playing:
Roburt Sallie: The Memphis transfer’s hope to play immediately didn’t come to fruition.
Justin Coleman: The Cards’ top freshman did not qualify academically.
Gorgui Dieng: The NCAA ruled the rookie from Senegal ineligible. Louisville is appealing.
Jared Swopshire: He has an injured hernia and is out at least six weeks.
Russ Smith: The freshman guard is out 12 weeks with an ankle injury.
Preston Knowles: He’s been suspended for at least the two exhibition games.
After a summer of upheaval and turmoil during the Karen Sypher trial, this isn’t exactly the smooth sailing into the normalcy of basketball that Rick Pitino needed. The good news: The Cardinals have a brand-spanking new arena to draw fans and Butler on tap to open it on Nov. 16. Here’s hoping the concessions at the KFC Yum! Center are delicious.
4. Role Reversal
The understudies move to center stage at two of the league’s premier programs and another will shift how it does business. Just how smooth the transitions go will tell just how good Syracuse, Villanova and Georgetown can be.
For the Orange, Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph were perhaps the best off-the-bench tandem in the country, game-changers who added zip and energy to Syracuse when they entered the game. With the departure of Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku, it’s their time to shine. The burden falls heaviest on Joseph, the Big East’s sixth man of the year last season after averaging 10.8 points and 5.5 boards per game. He slides most naturally into the spot vacated by Johnson.
At Villanova, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes are no strangers to starting but they’ve spent their careers as willing and able backup singers, mostly to Scottie Reynolds. If the Wildcats had one fatal flaw last season, it was they counted on Reynolds too much, waiting for him to bail them out in a pinch. So now when endgame time comes around and Reynolds is off in Italy making money, who will want the ball? My money is on Fisher. A hard-nosed guard who has no problem getting to the hoop, the New Yorker is not exactly shy when it comes to the spotlight.
Georgetown, in the meantime, is undergoing a changing of the guard. Or more accurately, a changing to the guards. Greg Monroe is gone and an offense predicated on the center instead turns to a savvy backcourt manned by Chris Wright and Austin Freeman. I seriously doubt John Thompson III will scrap his Princeton offense in favor of say, dribble-drive-motion, but the backcourt is going to be what makes the Hoyas go.
5. The regulars
Thanks to its behemoth size and its cannibalistic attacks on one another, the Big East can be the most difficult league to predict. But there are some things that you can count on, old reliables as comfortable as a pair of old slippers, that let you know it’s Big East basketball:
Bob Huggins’ track suit and Billy Hahn’s black turtleneck.
Jim Boeheim shrugging his shoulders, opening his hands and looking at the officials like they’re speaking Swahili.
Jay Wright pacing, screaming, gesturing and his suit somehow not wrinkling.
Jim Calhoun calling a timeout and never actually talking to his team.
The Garden in March.
And someone telling official Tim Higgins he stinks (or some variation of that word)