Originally Published: August 8, 2013

Five Biggest Offseason Storylines

By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Val AckermanAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesIt took awhile, but this summer the new Big East found its new commissioner: Val Ackerman.

1. Existence: What's the biggest Big East storyline from this offseason? How about the fact that the league is beginning? The conference's stops and starts, both furious and slow, have been well documented for the past several months but it officially was born on July 1, 2013 and that in and of itself is a victory. The road getting here wasn't pretty at times and it wasn't easy -- the bickering and in-fighting among the presidents and athletic directors would make middle school girls blanch -- but at least it's here. There are still questions to answer. The partnership with Fox Sports 1 will be worth watching, just to see if the startup league and startup network can gain a foothold in the crowded television block, especially with ACC games moving into the Big East's old Big Monday slot on ESPN.

An office would be nice. Maybe a staff would be a good thing. But let's face it. This could have been a disaster. Most of these schools easily could have been conference realignment roadkill, left on the side of the road by the football bus. Instead, the league has been reborn mostly in its own image. These are basketball-first programs, and there is little to quibble with the additions of Creighton, Xavier and Butler. The league did the wise and prudent thing to stop at 10 members now and reconsider later.

2. The new boss in town: The last piece of the Big East puzzle fell into place, albeit belatedly, when the league announced Val Ackerman as its new (or is it first?) commissioner in late June. For most of the summer, she's been a one-woman show. The Big East still needs to round out its staff. Heck, the league really could use an office. Most rightly applauded the hire. There is no denying Ackerman's basketball chops, from her playing days at Virginia through her experience at USA Basketball, the NBA and WNBA. She knows the game and has a lifelong commitment to it.

Still, it's an interesting, borderline risky hire for a fledgling conference. She has little experience in the college game and right now, the league commissioners run this little pocket of the world. Her charge, sans football, is different than her peers but she still has to elbow her way in to the gilded circle, especially now with the cries to find a new division for college football. That's all good and well, but someone will be asked to fight the basketball fight and Ackerman will have to be the woman to do it.

Brandon Miller
AP Photo/Michael ConroyBrandon Miller takes over Butler just as the school transitions to a new league.

3. A new face at Butler: The most stunning bit of news out of this offseason came with the firework announcement that Brad Stevens was bolting Butler for the Boston Celtics. The hush-hush shocker shook up what had been a pretty quiet offseason. Into the pretty big loafers walks new head coach Brandon Miller. The assistant coach follows Butler's long-standing tradition of hiring from within (Thad Matta, Todd Lickliter and Stevens), a tradition that has served the school extremely well. But Miller's job, few would argue, is a little tougher than his predecessor's. As good as the Bulldogs have been, they have long been the big dog in the show. Now Butler will tango with some of the biggest names and traditions in college basketball and it will be up to Miller, a first-year head coach, to lead the program through it. Betting against Butler has been seriously bad advice for a long time now so those counting Miller out would probably be wise to change their thinking. Still, there is no denying that the most surprising departure of the offseason has led to one of the more intriguing situations to monitor this season.

4. The game's best walk-on: Whether Creighton has the best team in the Big East and the best player in the nation will be determined. There's no arguing the Bluejays have the best walk-on in the country. After the NCAA agreed to give Grant Gibbs his sixth year of eligibility, coach Greg McDermott tabbed son, Doug, a non-scholarship player. With no scholarships left to offer, someone had to take the financial hit and the coach, arguing he could afford the tuition, chose his son. It's a funny twist but also big news for Creighton because McDermott now has his wingman back. Gibbs, a Gonzaga transfer whose career has been hamstrung by injuries, petitioned the NCAA for the extra year, arguing that microfracture surgery prevented from playing in his first year at Creighton. Buoyed by the support of his ex-coach, Mark Few, Gibbs got the year. A superb leader, he also is a terrific playmaker, the kind of guy who will have no problem setting up the prolific McDermott for points. And the walk-on likely will deliver.

5. A nice way to start off the New Year: Lost in all of the start-up news this offseason was the Big East's announcement about how it is actually going to start the conference. It's tremendous. The league will officially debut with a five-game, all league marathon of games on Dec. 31: St. John's at Xavier at noon ET; Seton Hall at Providence at 2:30; DePaul at Georgetown at 5 p.m.; Villanova at Butler at 7:30 p.m.; and Marquette at Creighton at 10 p.m. Rare do I fall for marketing gimmicks as big news but this one is too good to pass up. If you're going to start a league, start it with a bang.

Dana O'Neil | email

ESPN Senior Writer

Best-case/worst-case scenarios

By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com


Best case: Butler fans were shocked when wunderkind coach Brad Stevens bolted for the Celtics this summer, but some small part of their reaction had to include gratitude: In a half-decade, Stevens not only guided Butler to two Final Fours but to a spot in the Atlantic 10, and then the new Big East, a far cry from the tiny Horizon League role he inherited. He also left behind some talent, most notably hot-shooting guard Kellen Dunham, who could return more well-rounded and ready for a monster sophomore season.

Worst case: The long-term strength of the program is secured, but the Bulldogs could struggle a bit in their first Big East season. Losing stalwart forward Andrew Smith hurts, as Butler's roster still looks much more like its old undersized Horizon editions, to say nothing of leading scorer and (makeshift) point guard Rotnei Clarke. Dunham, Roosevelt Jones and Khyle Marshall represent a good place to start, but without a true point and some bigs, the Big East transition could be rocky. If that happens, expect the Stevens-related laments to amplify. That sounds like a worst case to me.

Doug McDermott
Dave Weaver/USA TODAY SportsThe nation's second-leading scorer last season, national POY candidate Doug McDermott hopes to lead Creighton to a Big East title.


Best case:

Getting Doug McDermott back for Creighton's inaugural Big East season was massive; he has a chance to be the first three-time, first-team All-American since Patrick Ewing. The return of sixth-year senior guard Grant Gibbs (following an NCAA appeal) and his lights-out passing might be just as important. After two years of good offense and bad defense, the Bluejays have to be sturdier on the defensive end. If they are, they're a league title contender -- and then some.

Worst case: I suppose you could worry about playing in a tougher league, but the realistic nightmare scenario isn't some slap in the face; it's the risk that Creighton still plays great offense and bad defense, and in some sense squanders McDermott and Gibbs' final years with another merely good campaign.


Best case: Winning six league games in three seasons is bad enough, but far worse was the idea that coach Oliver Purnell would never earn the respect of a bruising local recruiting scene. Major progress in the latter is evident in the arrival of Morgan Park product Billy Garrett Jr., a four-star point guard who should help solid seniors Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin get DePaul somewhere closer to respectability this season.

Worst case: New conference, a new Chicago arena in the works, a promising local prospect, two tenured seniors -- the worst case is that all of the natural momentum these facts imply is squandered, and the new DePaul that Purnell is so eager to build is nowhere to be found this season.


Best case: Few teams in the new Big East have recruited and developed as well in the past half-decade or so as the Hoyas under coach John Thompson III, which is why, despite losing Otto Porter, they belong on the short list of league title contenders as a baseline. The ceiling is even higher if sophomores Stephen Domingo (a sweet-shooting 6-foot-7 wing who joined the Hoyas a year early last summer) and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera improve. If UCLA transfer Josh Smith gives the Hoyas anything remotely approaching his potential, that's all icing.

Worst case: There's a lot returning here, and plenty of talent ready for larger roles, but there is no downplaying the loss of Porter, the college game's most versatile player on both ends of the floor last season. Forget production; filling the psychological gap of not having Porter to fall back on (see both regular-season games against Syracuse, for instance) may take time.


Best case: Buzz Williams has a gravel pit for a voice and suits that make Sinatra look like a hobo, but don't let the style overshadow the substance -- Williams hasn't missed a tournament in his five-year tenure, nor a Sweet 16 in the past three years. With Davante Gardner in line for a monster season, there's little reason to expect change, even if the Eagles' ceiling might not be quite as high.

Worst case: Gardner is going to be very good again, and having Jamil Wilson and Todd Mayo in larger roles sounds promising. But even for a coach who specializes at wringing good seasons out of unheralded prospects and hard-nosed junior college transfers, losing Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett all at once could force a step-back sort of year.


Best case: Elite prospect Ricardo Ledo was supposed to take the Friars out of the cellar this season, but after being ruled academically ineligible as a freshman, Ledo decided to leave for the NBA draft before playing a minute for his hometown school. That's not ideal, but it's OK, because 2013's No. 2-ranked point guard Kris Dunn is back and getting better; immensely underrated guard Bryce Cotton is still in the building; and four-star small forward Brandon Austin arrives this summer. Providence was much better than its 19-15 record last season; a tournament bid would be just scratching the surface in 2013-14.

Worst case: The bullishness you just read was not a put-on for the sake of a best-case argument; it really is difficult to imagine how Providence won't be at least as good as it was last season. Failing to follow up on 2012-13's promise is the biggest risk here.

St. John's

Best case: If you had to project teams based on recent recruiting rankings, St. John's might be the Big East title favorite. Few coaches in the country have stockpiled well-regarded preps as Steve Lavin has in recent seasons. The hope is that this underachieving group of former four-stars -- which is adding another stud, No. 3-ranked point guard Rysheed Jordan, this season -- finally coalesces into something formidable.

Fuquan Edwin
Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY SportsFuquan Edwin has done his part, but Seton Hall hasn't had a winning league record since 2006.

Worst case: The other option is more of the same: Super-talented guys who notice each other only slightly more often than they notice their defensive responsibilities, which is to say not very often at all. This team has too much talent to go 17-16 again, but basketball, as always, is so much more than talent.

Seton Hall

Best case: The Pirates limped to a 3-15 finish in the Big East last season. Can they do more in a new league? Seniors Fuquan Edwin and Eugene Teague provide skill and experience in varied measure, and a crew of sophomores and juniors should fill in around the edges. Let's call the best case "make some noise." That would be an improvement, at least.

Worst case: Tom Maayan has to get better. The sophomore point guard played big minutes for coach Kevin Willard last season despite turning the ball over on 54.1 percent of his possessions. That has to stop. The Pirates have the pieces, but the question is whether they are talented enough to weather that kind of sloppiness.


Best case: After an extended swoon -- which followed a period of consistent, almost routine, excellence -- coach Jay Wright appears to have his Wildcats on the upward track once again. Juniors JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard played quality defensive minutes last season; Ryan Arcidiacono appears to be a credible career point guard type, and fellow sophomore Daniel Ochefu has the tools to dominate on the interior. Throw four-star prospects Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart into this mix, and Villanova should be able to build on last season's impressive defensive foundation and get back to the tournament, at the very least.

Worst case: The Wildcats did two things well last season. They guarded people and they got to the foul line. If those limits exist in 2013-14, they'll still be decent, but unless they find some perimeter shooting at the absolute minimum, it's hard to project much more.


Best case: Xavier is not a program accustomed to down years, but after waves of standard turnover in recent seasons, coach Chris Mack had to rebuild slightly around intriguing but incomplete guard Semaj Christon last season. Christon, a sophomore this fall, got better as the season progressed and could be a star if he shores up his shooting. Incoming four-star point guard Brandon Randolph should be able to assist in this regard.

Worst case: For a program that went to the Sweet 16 four times between 2008-12, missing the tournament two seasons in a row seems unthinkable. But it's still within the realm of possibility here.


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