Big East ShootAround: Supersized league faces supersized tournament
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Who's afraid of the big, bad tourney?
By Dana O'Neil
It won't have the same significance. It can't.
--Mike Tranghese, Big East commissioner
Five things to watch in '08-09
By Dana O'Neil
Keno Davis knows the knock on Providence by heart -- you can't win there, not with Syracuse and Connecticut breathing down your recruiting neck, not with subpar facilities, not with a Catholic non-football budget in the world of power basketball. He knows it because he's living it now and because he lived it before; just insert the word Drake for Providence. "All we heard was how strong the [Missouri] Valley was, how we were lucky to be in the conversation with Creighton and Southern Illinois," said Davis, tabbed to replace Tim Welsh in April. "I don't think we're in that situation at Providence. There are some doubters, I know, but the people around here -- the administration, everyone -- they want a strong academic college and successful athletic programs. Hopefully I can benefit from being in the right place at the right time." Davis, the easy choice for coach of the year honors last season, certainly knows the formula well. At Drake he used seasoned veterans to turn the Valley on its ear and make the previously unknown school the story of the year. At Providence he has an entire roster returning, including injured point guard Sharaud Curry. Davis isn't kidding himself. He knows the Big East isn't the Valley and turning around Providence, in a jammed, top-heavy league, will be a lot more work than it was to turn around Drake. The Friars haven't been a factor since 2004, the last time they made the NCAA tournament. They haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 1997. "These guys are very open and excited about their senior year," Davis said. "Sometimes with players, it takes until their senior years for them to understand how to motivate themselves. That's what I have now. We have seniors, but they don't think anything is guaranteed. No one feels like it's their turn. They want to work and they want to win.'' • Will A.J. Price return to form?
Just how vital the Connecticut point guard is to the Huskies was made painfully obvious during the NCAA tournament. Price tore his ACL minutes into UConn's first-round game against 13th-seeded San Diego, and the Huskies promptly exited the tournament. Now the Huskies' top 10 ranking seems to hinge on Price's health. Price, who has endured more than Job in his collegiate career, is on track for a September return, but the question is whether he'll be the same guard this year as he was before the injury. By March, Price was averaging 14.5 points and 5.8 assists per game, the kind of numbers Jim Calhoun expected when he first recruited the point guard out of Amityville, N.Y. The good news for Price is that he has some help so he doesn't have to rush. Rookie Kemba Walker, who starred for the Under-18 team, is a more than capable temporary replacement and could, in the long run, allow Price to slide over to his more natural 2-guard spot. Price shot 37 percent from beyond the arc last season, and the combination of the two guards together might be even more powerful than Price all by himself. • Can a team climb out of the Big East basement?
Yes, but not overnight. Fred Hill sat on the bench when Villanova, never a Big East basement dweller, brought in a top recruiting class in Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser. Everyone expected instant results. Those Wildcats took two trips to the NIT before reaching the NCAA tournament as juniors and the Elite Eight in their final season. Hill, now the Rutgers head coach, believes there's a lesson to be learned there, and it's not necessarily a popular one: Patience is rewarded in the Big East. Other leagues can enjoy one-hit wonders, teams that come from nowhere to sudden success. Not so, Hill said, in a league that boasts some of greatest basketball traditions in the country, benches filled with Hall of Fame coaches and recruiting that is every bit as competitive as the games on the court. "It's very difficult to climb the ladder,'' Hill said. "Everyone in this league has great players. If you have a great recruiting class, so does everyone else. That just puts you on a level playing field. What you have to do is have back-to-back classes and let them grow together and develop. It's very hard to win with freshmen in this league. Even Carmelo Anthony was surrounded by great players." Hill, who knows fans that have been waiting since 1991 for a Rutgers NCAA tournament bid are itchy, believes he's close to making that sort of turnaround in New Jersey. He has savvy veterans (J.R. Inman) and talented rookies (McDonald's All-American Mike Rosario), but he also knows that a great year for his program still could equate to nothing better than an 11th-place finish. "Eleventh place, 10th place, that could be a very good year for us," Hill said. "Believe me, no one wants to accelerate the process more than a coach. I would love to turn things around overnight, but in this conference it's impossible." • Will Luke Harangody repeat as Big East Player of the Year?
It's gonna be tough. Harangody deservedly earned the honors over preseason favorite Roy Hibbert last season. Harangody's numbers -- 23.3 points and 11.3 rebounds in conference play -- not only were ridiculously impressive, but what Harangody meant to the Irish's success couldn't be measured.
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Can Luke Harangody continue to thrive despite facing a season of double-teams?
The tournament was Big East top heavy last season, with eight teams earning bids and three making it to the Sweet 16. That could be chump change. Granted, judging teams by their preseason rosters is as flimsy as the paper the rosters are printed on, but it's still easy to make an argument for nine NCAA-worthy teams (and even nine preseason Top 25 worthy teams) without breaking a sweat: Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Villanova and West Virginia. What separates the Big East is that unlike a lot of leagues, the conference wasn't decimated by a mass exodus to the NBA. Thabeet came back to UConn; Williams and Clark remained at Louisville; Harangody is back with Notre Dame; McNeal, Dominic James and Wesley Matthews will suit up for Marquette again; West Virginia might have lost Joe Alexander, but added Devin Ebanks; Georgetown mixes Greg Monroe in with Austin Freeman; Villanova has its entire roster back; and Syracuse, despite losing Donte Greene, still can count on Jonny Flynn. When the league first expanded to 16 teams, coaches fretted they'd be punished for their size, losing spots on the NCAA tournament bracket. Turns out, bigger can be better.
If I were commish
By Andy Katz
2007-08 Big East Standings
|Overall record||Big East record|
^NIT berth For all the Big East news and notes, check out the league page.
2008-09 Team Capsules
The Bearcats were a surprising success story last season, posting six more conference wins than the year before. Deonta Vaughn proved to be a great scorer, putting up 30 against a Pitt team not exactly known for giving up tons of points. Vaughn finally should get some help this season. Mick Cronin adds transfer Mike Williams from Texas and a talented freshman class, but Cincinnati has to learn how to win over the course of a season. The Bearcats crashed and burned their way to seven consecutive losses at the end of the season. Connecticut
Everyone is talking about Hasheem Thabeet's return to Storrs and A.J. Price's knee, but the real key to the Huskies is Jeff Adrien. The senior deservedly earned All-Big East first-team honors for the Huskies after he led the league in double-doubles (17). He's the perfect inside partner for Thabeet. Assuming Price, who proved his value after blowing out his knee against San Diego in the NCAA tournament, is OK, UConn appears poised to right last season's early exodus from both the Big East and NCAA tournaments. DePaul
No matter how good the young talent is, it's impossible to win if you can't keep the opposing team from scoring, and DePaul simply could not. Opponents shot better than 45 percent against the Blue Demons and averaged nearly 76 points a game. That's not going to get it done in the Big East and to no surprise, DePaul watched the Big East tournament from home. If they can learn to play better defense, the Demons have some players. Mac Koshwal averaged 10.7 ppg and 8.4 rpg, and Dar Tucker put up 13.6 ppg despite averaging only 23.6 minutes as a sub. Georgetown
It's DaJuan Summers' turn. Is he ready? With Roy Hibbert and Patrick Ewing Jr. gone, this team now belongs to Summers. And with the way John Thompson III likes to run his offense through the paint, Summers' play will be crucial. Fortunately he won't have to go it entirely alone. Austin Freeman was terrific in his rookie season and former McDonald's All-American Chris Wright should improve now that he's healthy. There's also the matter of a nice little addition in the form of Greg Monroe. The power forward is the 20th-ranked player coming out of high school. Louisville
It's hard not to love a team loaded with the talent that the Cardinals have coming back -- Terrence Williams, Earl Clark and Edgar Sosa -- and coming in (Samardo Samuels), but don't discount the loss of David Padgett. Rick Pitino ran his offense through Padgett, whose keen decision-making helped find the talented players on the wings. And he was the solid head on the shoulders that this team of chronic misbehavers sorely needed. Getting Derrick Caracter back will be good if he gets in shape, but it would be a disaster if he becomes the suspended distraction he's been for most of his career. Marquette
Tom Crean might not be universally loved by the fan base in Milwaukee, but former assistant Buzz Williams has to like the man. Crean left Williams a loaded team that should contend for Big East honors. By season's end, Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James were as tough a backcourt as you could find in the country. McNeal was arguably one of the best players in the conference by season's end. Just how much better the Golden Eagles can get will depend a lot on whether James can get out of the injury-plagued funk that ailed him last season. He wasn't bad by any means, but he was nowhere near as good as he was two years earlier when he took the league's top rookie trophy. Notre Dame
Yet another team that is hard not to like as a preseason favorite, the Irish return the surprise (but deserving) Big East Player of the Year in Luke Harangody, 3-point shooter extreme Kyle McAlarney and improving point guard Tory Jackson. Keeping Jackson, who slumped some midseason, on track will be key for a team that took a somewhat disappointing second-round exit from the NCAA tournament. Pittsburgh
It's hard not to envision the Panthers as a top five team nationally. Overwhelmed by injuries all season, Pittsburgh rolled to an improbable Big East tournament title on the emerging stardom of Sam Young. Unassuming off the court, he was a beast on it and his decision to return to campus should have been greeted with hosannas and hallelujahs. Mix in a healthy Levance Fields, powerful DeJuan Blair and the Panthers' trademark nasty defense, and you have to give them the slightest of edges to win the league. Providence
Just how healthy Sharaud Curry is could determine the Friars' future. Curry missed nearly all of last season with a broken foot, and his absence was painfully obvious. The Friars limped to a 12th-place finish in the league, looking nothing better than wayward in the backcourt. Now with Dwain Williams gone, Curry's even more vital. Despite a roster filled with returning players, the Friars have no one else on the roster with much experience at the point. Rutgers
Fred Hill is bringing the talent to New Jersey. Now it's time to see what he can do with it. A good recruiting class coupled with a nucleus of young returning players (including all-rookie guard Corey Chandler) should help pull the Scarlet Knights out of the Big East basement. Paramount among Hill's duties, though, is managing J.R. Inman. The most talented player on Rutgers, but also the most disruptive. Despite leading the team in scoring and rebounding, he lost his starting job for a time and with new blood coming in. Hill will need to somehow keep Inman happy without upsetting the balance with the rest of his roster. St. John's
The seat is burning beneath Norm Roberts. Losses, compounded with disinterest and empty seats at the Garden are putting heavy pressure on the coach to produce this season. Anthony Mason Jr. hindered much of the year with an ankle injury, averaged a solid 15.7 ppg in conference play, but needs to become a force in his final season. More of the pressure, though, lies with the development of key sophomores such as Malik Boothe (3.0 ppg) and Rob Thomas, who struggled to recover from a knee injury. Seton Hall
Jeremy Hazell and Eugene Harvey should provide plenty of scoring punch for the Pirates, but Harvey needs to be a better ballhandler if Seton Hall wants to survive. Inconsistent at the point, Harvey contributed to the Pirates' late-season skid. The return of Paul Gause, who missed a bulk of the season with injuries, should help, but perhaps the most important thing for Seton Hall is to make sure its coach's season goes smoothly. Bobby Gonzalez will be suspended for the first conference game after a postgame run-in with Rutgers' coach Fred Hill last season, and Gonzalez's fiery temperament has made him the subject of intense speculation about his job security and relationship with his athletic director. South Florida
One piece of paper will have a lot to say about the Bulls' success. If Gus Gilcrhist's appeal is heard and the freshman is granted immediate eligibility, South Florida suddenly has an inside game to make up for the graduation of Kentrell Gransberry. If the NCAA nixes the appeal, Dominique Jones is going to be one busy dude. The guard scored 30 in back-to-back games last year, the first rookie in the league to do that since Allen Iverson. He'll get some help from Georgia transfer, Mike Mercer, but it will be Jones' show all the way. Syracuse
Jim Boeheim has a nice problem. Fabulous rookie point guard Jonny Flynn is back, but so are guards Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins, who both missed the last season with knee injuries. Making the rotation work will be Boeheim's trickiest problem, but not his only one. As talented as that trio is, replacing Donte Greene, who made the jump to the NBA, will be equally tough. Boeheim will need Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson to be more productive to help ease the scoring void left by Greene's departure. Still this figures to be a team to get the Orange out of the NIT bracket. Villanova
The last team into last season's NCAA tournament, the Wildcats legitimized their selection with a run to the Sweet 16. Everyone is back, including 2006-07 Rookie of the Year Scottie Reynolds. Corey Stokes needs to continue to score as he did last season, and Corey Fisher has to improve as a ballhandler, but Villanova will be picked high. An unforgivable conference schedule -- the Cats have Syracuse, Providence and Marquette twice and have to go to West Virginia, Notre Dame and Connecticut -- won't make it easy. West Virginia
Bob Huggins nearly made it to the Elite Eight last season with players who he didn't recruit and who weren't accustomed to his style. Scary to imagine what he can do with a full offseason and some of his own recruits. Losing Joe Alexander is a huge blow, but the Mountaineers proved they could win when he didn't have his A game when they beat Duke in the second round despite Alexander's struggles. Saying goodbye to Darris Nichols is equally tough, but Joe Mazzulla proved to be a more than capable replacement. And the real intrigue will be rookie Devin Ebanks, a late pickup from the Kelvin Sampson-Indiana ruins, who should battle Georgetown's Monroe for rookie of the year honors.
Big East's BestBy Jay Bilas
ESPN Jay Bilas counts down the best teams in the Big East: 1. Connecticut: Jim Calhoun always has built toward title-contending teams, and this season, the bulk of the roster that made the NCAA tournament returns, with the addition of a great prospect, Kemba Walker. 2. Louisville: Rick Pitino loses David Padgett, but Terrence Williams and Earl Clark are ready to take off. 3. Pittsburgh: Jamie Dixon returns a star with a chip on his shoulder in Sam Young, an undersized interior stud in DeJuan Blair and one of the top point guards in the country in Levance Fields. 4. Notre Dame: Luke Harangody returns as player of the year, and Mike Brey has really good guard play with Kyle McAlarney and Tory Jackson. 5. Marquette: Few have guards as good as Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wesley Matthews, and Lazar Hayward is ready for the next step. 6. Villanova: Jay Wright's young guards should be more grown up, and the Wildcats should be a Top 25 team. 7. Syracuse: Jim Boeheim will get Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf back from torn ACLs to team with point guard Jonny Flynn, and that will be the difference between NIT and NCAA. 8. West Virginia: Bob Huggins will have this team competitive in the Big East, which will get the Mountaineers into the postseason. 9. Georgetown: While others will focus on what the Hoyas don't have, this is an NCAA tournament team. 10. Providence: Keno Davis inherits a very good crop of players, and if the Friars stay healthy, this can be an NCAA tournament team. 11. Seton Hall: The Pirates will be better this season than last, but that may not be enough to gain entry into the NCAA tournament. 12. Cincinnati: Mick Cronin made the Bearcats into fighters, and Deonta Vaughn should help Cincy take another step forward. 13. St. John's: The Red Storm can show improvement this season, but still not move up in the Big East standings. 14. DePaul: Mac Koshwal has to take over, and DePaul has to learn how to win fast. 15. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights won only three league games last season, but showed some flashes by beating Villanova, Pitt and Seton Hall. 16. South Florida: Dominique Jones is one of the best unknowns in the Big East, but that won't be enough.
Top Returning Scorers
|Luke Harangody, Notre Dame, Junior||20.4|
|Sam Young, Pittsburgh, Senior||18.1|
|Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati, Junior||17.3|
|Dominique Jones, South Florida, Sophomore||17.1|
|Scottie Reynolds, Villanova, Junior||15.9|
Top Returning Rebounders
|Luke Harangody, Notre Dame, Junior||10.6|
|Jeff Adrien, UConn, Senior||9.2|
|DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh, Sophomore||9.1|
|Mac Koshwal, DePaul, Sophomore||8.4|
|Paul Harris, Syracuse, Junior||8.2|
Top Returning Assist Leaders
|Tory Jackson, Notre Dame, Junior||5.9|
|A.J. Price, UConn, Senior||5.8|
|Jonny Flynn, Syracuse, Sophomore||5.3|
|Eugene Harvey, Seton Hall, Junior||4.9|
|Geoff McDermott, Providence, Senior||4.9|