Big East basketball will be among those getting some airtime tonight on ESPN2, offering an alternative if the KC-New England Monday Night football game turns into a laugher. Notre Dame plays Missouri in the CBE Classic (7:30 ET), while Georgetown hooks up with Kansas at 11:50 PM ET out on the first day of the Maui Invitational in Hawaii. The Notebook will take this opportunity to get a November overview of the entire Big East.
Last year this conference was all the rage, producing a record 11 teams for the NCAA Tournament, but while UConn kept it going all the way to a national title, the rest of the conference flamed out on the tournament’s first weekend. A lot of rebuilding is ahead, and most everyone loses name players. The good news is that recruiting remains strong and in this age where freshman grow up rapidly, this league could be in position to redeem itself in March. Here’s how things are shaking out…
THE UPPER CRUST
UConn: The incomparable Kemba Walker is gone and the question of how much one player means to a team will be tested. Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier played plenty last season, and Alex Oriahkhi and Roscoe Smith need to be more consistent in the frontcourt. That consistency, along with the development of stud freshman center Andre Drummond will tell us if Jim Calhoun has another contender on his hands.
Pitt: Panther fans shouldn’t have to endure the pain of raised hopes followed by March agony, because there are too many holes to justify hopes getting high. While Ashton Gibbs is one of the best scoring guards in the conference, the departure of Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee up front rob Jamie Dixon’s team of its customary edge in physicality.
Louisville: Rick Pitino did a great job getting the Cards to stay in the hunt last year before an early NCAA exit left a bad taste in their mouths. This year’s team still has the deep backcourt, with Kyle Kuric, Peyton Siva and Chris Smith leading the way. But someone has to step up and replace Terrence Jennings on the blocks. The candidate who must emerge is sophomore forward Rakeem Buckles.
Georgetown: A whole lot of rebuilding to do in D.C, as John Thompson III builds around a returning backcourt of Jason Clark and Nate Lubick—the duo isn’t bad, but loses its most explosive player in Austin Freeman. Thompson needs freshman wingman Otto Porter to step up and contribute starters minutes in his first year.
Notre Dame: The Irish finished second to Pitt in regular season last year and guard Ben Hansbrough was second to UConn’s Walker in the Player of the Year race. A Round of 32 tournament loss to Florida State in front of a partisan crowd in Chicago was a tough way to end it, and most of the frontcourt help is gone, as is Hansborough.
Marquette: Buzz Williams led the Golden Eagles to the Sweet 16, but has to replace the immensely talented forward Jimmy Butler. The backcourt is plenty good with Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. They can shoot the trey, run the floor, distribute and drive the paint, but who’s going to anchor this offense down low? Williams is relying on 6’7” transfer Jamil Wilson to help a program very short on frontcourt depth.
Villanova: Another place with a lot of rebuilding to do. Jay Wright puts the Wildcats back together around guard Malik Wayns and center Mouphtao Yarou. That’s a nice duo to start with, but without help, they’ll be ground up over the long haul in this league.
Syracuse: The abuse allegations against assistant coach Bernie Fine are overshadowing this program right now. If Jim Boeheim keeps the Orange focused on the basketball court they have a shot to compete, with Scoop Jardine running the show, Brandon Triche as his running mate and a solid Kris Joseph on the blocks. Some help from freshman Rakeem Christmas would help. The Orange will be in action on Wednesday night against Virginia Tech (9 ET, ESPN) in the preseason NIT.
St. John’s: I thought about putting St. John’s in the upper crust, but they need more than one good year to do it and no team has more rebuilding ahead of them than the Red Storm who lose every contributor to last year’s NCAA Tournament team. Steve Lavin has brought the excitement back to Madison Square Garden though and he cashed it on the recruiting trail, bringing in a class that ranks in the Top 5 nationally. The names to keep an early eye on are California kids Norvelle Pelle and Amir Garrett, along with homegrown Maurice Harkess from Queen. St. John’s lost to Arizona and Texas A&M in the Coaches vs. Cancer games last week, but the road to lasting contention is well underway.
West Virginia: An early loss to Kent State signals some trouble on the horizon for Bob Huggins. He needs freshman point guard Jabarie Hinds to grow up quickly and even that may not be enough this season.
Cincinnati: They lost frontcourt contributors Ibrahima Thomas and Rashard Bishop from a team that made the NCAAs a year ago. More alarmingly, they lost to Presbyterian this past weekend. Mick Cronin’s team has a nice backcourt with Dion Dixon and Sean Kilpatrick, but it isn’t dominant, and up-and-down forward Yancey Gates needs to consistently score and rebound.
Rutgers: Like St. John’s, the better days are ahead, but new coach Mike Rice finally tapped the local New Jersey market for high school talent and pulled in a Top 10 class. The ones to watch right away are Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack, forwards who join with returnee Dane Miller. Had the Scarlet Knights not lost guard Mike Rosario to a transfer, they might have contended much quicker.
South Florida: An outstanding talent in 6’10” post man Augustus Gilchrist has no help from anywhere.
Providence: The returning backcourt of Vincent Council and Gerard Coleman is decent, but the loss of star forward Marshon Brooks is too much to overcome.
DePaul: Brandon Young is a nice talent, but one good off-guard isn’t going to get you anywhere in any conference.
Seton Hall: The loss of Jeremy Hazell in the backcourt and Jeff Robinson up front is a tough blow for any team and the Pirates had problems competing with them in the lineup. Herb Pope is the building block at forward and his rebounding must become more consistent.
I don’t know about you, but from my vantage point, it looks like UConn’s still the team to beat.