Last year the Big East dominated college basketball conversation all season and put 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament. Ten of them flamed out, but the fact UConn won the national title saved the conference’s reputation and it’s again got one team on top of the polls (Syracuse), another in the top five (Louisville) and a host of others ready to challenge for either the conference championship or a ticket to March Madness. League play started yesterday and the Notebook takes today to lay out how the conference landscape looks. The 16-team conference is best broken down into four segments. The first two are the championship front-runners (3) and potential challengers (2). The next group is the six other teams who made last year’s NCAA Tournament, and then the five hoping to displace them.
Syracuse: Jim Boeheim has good depth up front. Kris Joseph leads the way both scoring and rebounding, but he gets key help on the glass from C.J. Fair and Fab Melo. The backcourt is led up by Dion Waiters, with veteran holdovers Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, both serviceable if not spectacular, running alongside him. The Orange’s best win is over Florida and overall, while I see a pretty good well-coached team, I don’t see the best team in the country or one that will be a #1 seed in March.
Louisville: The Cards had tough fights against Vanderbilt and Memphis, two teams who haven’t lived up to high preseason expectations, but they have the depth and balance in their lineup necessary to make a strong push for the top spot in this league. At center, Gorgui Deng goes to the glass very hard, as does power forward Chase Behanan, while Kyle Kuric scores and rebounds from his swingman spot. Add a good backcourt led by Chris Smith and Rick Pitino has all the pieces in place to continue a big season when he plays his first conference game tonight against Georgetown.
UConn: Kemba Walker may be in the NBA, but the Huskies have a group of younger players picking up the slack and developing as a team. Jeremy Lamb has taken on the scoring load in the backcourt, Shabazz Napier is distributing the ball and Jim Calhoun fields a very deep front line, led by holdover Alex Oriahki. UConn hasn’t really been tested yet, so this is an unknown commodity right now, but I think they’re going to acquit themselves very well in the Big East and edge out Louisville for first place.
Georgetown: In a conference where you have to be physical to win, Georgetown is stacked with quality frontline players. Hollis Thompson is the man who controls the paint and the glass, while Henry Smith, Otto Porter and Nate Lubick are forwards who don’t shy from the glass. Jason Clark can loosen defenses up with his scoring in the backcourt. If the Hoyas get a playmaker, they’ll be right in the mix for the conference championship. But if they don’t, they will struggle with inconsistency. Their big men pass the ball very well, with Smith and Lubick being the two assist leaders on the team, but that’s no substitute for a true quarterback on the floor.
Marquette: The Golden Eagles are ranked only two spots behind Georgetown at #14, and Marquette’s beaten archrival Wisconsin on the road. Darius Johnson-Odom is a big-time scorer in the backcourt, as is sophomore swingman Jae Crowder. What Marquette needs is more muscle up front and 6’8” forward Davantae Gardner needs to step up and earn more minutes if his team is going to be a factor in this race.
LOOKING FOR A RETURN TO THE DANCE
Pitt: Jamie Dixon’s club might have been in the upper echelon, but a loss to Wagner to close out early non-conference play followed by a blowout to Notre Dame have squelched that thought. The presence of backcourt leader Ashton Gibbs and off-guard Travon Woodall, along with reliable post man Nasir Robinson will continue to make Pitt a team that no one should overlook. But unless big men Lamar Patterson and Dante Taylor grow up fast, there won’t be any run at the conference’s best.
Notre Dame: A season-ending knee injury to forward Tim Abromaitis, the team’s leading scorer, has shifted virtually the entire offensive burden onto the backcourt. Notre Dame’s got plenty there with Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, both of who distribute to go with their scoring. Mike Brey needs forwards Jack Cooley and Scott Martin to contribute more offensively. Both are tough rebounders, especially Cooley, and prior to Abromaitis’ injury that would have been enough. Now Coach Brey needs to squeeze more out of his remaining personnel.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats never fail to underachieve, as a talented team loses to Presbyterian and Marshall, while a fight in another loss to Xavier put several players on the bench until January 4. One of those players is forward Yancey Gates, as good an all-around player as there is in the Big East. Without him, there’s no one who can really do any damage on the frontline. Cincy has a good backcourt, with playmaker Cashmere Wright leading up a deep group, but that alone won’t be enough to get them back to the Dance.
West Virginia: Bob Huggins needs some depth. He’s got a trio of players to work with, with forward Kevin Jones averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds and deserving of attention as writers watch the Player of the Year races unfold in different conferences. Turkish import Deniz Kilicli is productive up front, as is guard Darryl Bryant. But Huggins needs a few more to help with the chores.
Villanova: This program is on hard times right now and the 2012 Wildcats are terrible. They still have a great guard in Malik Wayns, continuing a recent trend in Philadelphia and they have a nice center in Mouphtao Yaro. What they don’t have are any notable wins, having loss to St. Louis, Missouri, Temple and St. Joe’s, along with Santa Clara. Yaro needs to play big against quality opponents of we’re looking at 4-5 more wins at best.
St. John’s: Steve Lavin had to replace virtually everyone from last year’s team that returned the Red Storm to the NCAA Tournament and to public consciousness. Like ‘Nova, they haven’t beaten anybody yet. Unlike ‘Nova they have a roster starting to grow together and making you feel good about their chances. The star of the show is forward Moe Harkless, a 6’8” freshman product from right there in Queens. Harkless had 32 in last night’s win over Providence.
HOPING TO MOVE UP
Seton Hall: The Hall is 11-1 and is 4-1 against respectable competition. Playing VCU, St. Joe’s, Wake Forest, Dayton and Northwestern might not be murderer’s row, but for Seton Hall to win four of those five says some good things about Pirate prospects. Herb Pope is averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds at forward and needs to finally be a consistent producer. Jordan Theodore averages 16 a game and is a reliable ball distributor. Success in the Big East is predicated on the improvement of Fuquan Edwin and Patrick Auda, both capable of helping this lineup get more physical.
DePaul: Chicago’s Jesuit entry has been terrible for a while now and this year looks like more of the same. Cleveland Melvin is as a productive a forward as any, while Brandon Young and Jeremiah Kelly make up a credible backcourt. The problem? Losses to Minnesota, Ole Miss and UW-Milwaukee make it hard to be optimistic about the team’s immediate future.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights have lost five games against a mediocre schedule with only forward Gilvydas Birutas being a remotely competent player, the Knights look headed for a last-place finish.
South Florida: This is a team like DePaul in that the talent tells you they should be a little better, but actual on-court performance tells something else. Augustus Gilchrist is another forward who can play, along with Toarlyn Fitzpatrick and the playmaker Anthony Collins. But the losses included games to Old Dominion, Penn State, VCU, Auburn and Southern Miss.
Providence: The Friars have played no one of consequence so there’s not much read we can give on their December results. We can get a read on their first Big East game and they were buried by St. John’s. Providence has a good backcourt in Vincent Council and Gerard Coleman, but they need help for La Dontae Henton.