Tue Oct 11 09:59am EDT
Our week-long Big East preview continues with conference projections and a look at the league's five most intriguing storylines entering the new season.
1. Could UConn be better this season?
Even though Kemba Walker was the catalyst for UConn's astonishing run to the Big East tournament title and a national championship last season, the Huskies may actually have more talent this season without him.
First of all, they return the rest of last year's key players including budding star Jeremy Lamb, steady point guard Shabazz Napier and double-double threat Alex Oriakhi. And secondly, they add one of the nation's most star-studded recruiting classes highlighted by elite center Andre Drummond and smooth, high-scoring guard Ryan Boatright.
A year ago, UConn was so formidable in non-conference play and in the postseason that it's easy to forget the team finished a pedestrian 9-9 in the Big East. The Huskies may not win another national championship or even a league crown if Lamb doesn't emerge as a go-to scorer or if Oriakhi and Drummond struggle to play alongside one-another, but it's a safe bet they finish with a far superior conference record.
2. Will Pittsburgh finally make a Final Four?
For a program that has achieved the most success in the nation's toughest conference the past few seasons, Pittsburgh still can't seem to parlay those great regular seasons into a long-overdue Final Four appearance. The Panthers have exited the NCAA tournament with three straight losses by three points or fewer, none more painful than last year's loss to Butler in the Round of 32 after Nasir Robinson fouled Matt Howard in a tie game with less than a second to go.
It's difficult to have faith that Pittsburgh will play in a Final Four until it happens, but the Panthers once again have the talent to contend in the Big East and earn another high seed in March. Despite the departures of starters Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee, Pittsburgh returns sweet-shooting All-American candidate Ashton Gibbs and a nice collection of role players who have gained valuable experience the past two years.
In the backcourt, efficient junior Tray Woodall should be at point guard and either J.J. Moore or Lamar Patterson will start at wing, with Moore the most likely candidate since he's the superior scorer of the two. And in the frontcourt, the undersized but scrappy Robinson is a returning starter at power forward and former McDonald's All-American Dante Taylor hopes to follow in the footsteps of McGhee and Aaron Gray as quality Pittsburgh big men who didn't blossom until their junior years.
3. Will the Big East improve its NCAA tournament showing?
Even though the Big East produced a national champion last season and a record 11 NCAA tournament bids, the conference still largely underachieved in the postseason. Only two of those 11 teams − Marquette and UConn − managed to even make it out of the first weekend of the tournament and into the Sweet 16.
Butler waylaid Big East regular-season champion Pittsburgh in a dramatic Round of 32 game. Second-place Notre Dame couldn't even make it close in a dismal Round of 32 showing against a Florida State team whose best player was still recovering from injury. And fellow upper division Big East teams Louisville, St. John's and Georgetown all failed to even win opening-round games in which each was favored.
It's difficult to project how the conference will do in the postseason this year, but it's also hard to envision the Big East faring any worse. It took a near perfect storm of good fortune for the conference to get 11 of its 16 members into the NCAA tournament and it took a near perfect storm of bad luck for nine of them to be eliminated within two games.
4. Can Villanova stop its pattern of poor finishes?
In addition to strong guard play and a dapper head coach, Villanova basketball has become synonymous with something else recently: late-season nosedives.
The Wildcats climbed as high as seventh in the AP Top 25 last January before losing 10 of 15 games to close the regular season and crashing out of the NCAA tournament with an opening-round loss to George Mason. That collapse was preceded by a disappointing finish to the 2009-10 season, when the Wildcats started 20-1 but went 3-6 in their final nine games, nearly falling to Robert Morris in the first round of the NCAA tournament before getting upset by Saint Mary's two days later.
Whereas Villanova was formidable enough to at least make the NCAA tournament despite a poor finish the last two years, this season the Wildcats may not have that luxury. The graduation of mainstays Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena means point guard Maalik Wayns will have to become Villanova's primary weapon, big man Mouphtaou Yarou will have to tap into his immense potential and wings Dominic Cheek and James Bell will have to take a leap forward.
5. Will St. John's be competitive with all newcomers?
The downside to the senior-laden team Steve Lavin inherited in his first season at St. John's is it meant he had to replenish nearly his entire roster. Seldom-used Malik Stith is the lone scholarship player back from last year when the Johnnies upset Duke and surged late in Big East play to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years.
The good news is that Lavin reeled in a nine-man recruiting class that ranked second in the nation behind only Kentucky. The bad news is wings Jakarr Sampson and Amir Garrett and big man Norvel Pelle, three of the Johnnies' six incoming top-100 recruits, were ruled academically ineligible last month by the NCAA's eligibility center.
What that means is St. John's will have to face one of the nation's most daunting schedules with only seven scholarship players and minimal depth in the post behind junior college transfer God's Gift Achiuwa. Unless several of ineligble freshmen miraculously fix their grades in time for the spring semester, it's difficult to envision this being anything more than a rebuilding year for St. John's.
More conference previews from the Dagger:
ACC: Lessons from the pros keep North Carolina humble and hungry, ACC projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Wake Forest star Ish Smith scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league ACC games, Q&A with Florida State junior Michael Snaer
Atlantic 10: Temple's Micheal Eric hopes to seize his chance, A-10 projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Xavier star Byron Larkin scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league A-10 games, Q&A with St. Louis guard Kwamain Mitchell
Big Ten: How Zack Novak became Michigan's emotional leader; Big Ten projections and storylines to watch ; Ex-Ohio State star Jim Jackson scouts the league; Ranking the 15 best non-league Big Ten games; Q&A with Michigan State forward Delvon Roe
Big 12: Big 12 projections and storylines to watch, Iowa State's Royce White aims to capitalize on second chance, Ex-Oklahoma guard Michael Neal projects the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league Big 12 games, Q&A with Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson
Mountain West: San Diego State out to prove it's no one-hit wonder; MWC projections and storylines to watch ; Ex-New Mexico forward Daniel Faris projects the league; Ranking the 12 best non-league MWC games; Q&A with UNLV guard Anthony Marshall