By all accounts, 2009-10 was supposed to be the year for Iowa State. Fourth-year head coach Greg McDermott was fortunate enough to get hypertalented forward Craig Brackins back for his junior season in Ames, despite the fact that he was projected as a mid-first round NBA draft pick. To go with Brackins, McDermott had plenty of surrounding talent and experience with seniors Marquis Gilstrap and Lucca Staiger and junior Diante Garrett. But the Cyclones lost all their up games in the non-conference schedule (although to their credit, they did take care of the teams they were supposed to beat), then proceeded to limp through a pathetic conference season, posting a 4-12 record with only two wins over Nebraska and a win over Colorado to show for their efforts prior to an upset of Kansas State in the season finale. And then things got really bad.
Soon after the season ended, Brackins declared for the NBA draft, Gilstrap lost an appeal to the NCAA for an additional year of eligibility due to an injury early in his career, but Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard announced his intentions to keep McDermott on board for another year. However, center Justin Hamilton announced he would be transferring out of the program in order to be closer to his home in Utah (he wound up in Baton Rouge, which suggests that Hamilton did not take Geography 101 at Iowa State). Next, guard Dominique Buckley announced his intentions to transfer. Then point guard Chris Colvin joined Hamilton and Buckley in jumping ship. All of a sudden, McDermott wasn’t so sure he wanted to stick around and in late April, McDermott resigned in order to head back to the Missouri Valley Conference and take over the Creighton position left vacant by Dana Altman’s move to Oregon. Within 24 hours of the McDermott announcement, Pollard named former Cyclone star Fred Hoiberg the new face of the program. But the bad times were just beginning for the Cyclones. Would-be senior guard Charles Boozer was arrested for assault the following weekend, and he subsequently announced that he would not be returning to the team for his senior season, but instead would be “seeking treatment.” Finally, forward LaRon Dendy announced he would be transferring and guard Antwon Oliver chimed in with the announcement that he would not be returning either.
So, what remains for the Cyclones? There are really just three players of any consequence that return from last season’s squad: Garrett, junior guard Scott Christopherson and senior center Jamie Vanderbeken. Garrett is the key cog, having started every game at the point for Iowa State the last two seasons. He can be a bit out of control at times, but he has coast-to-coast ability, is a great passer, can penetrate and score, and is a good team leader. Christopherson is a transfer from Marquette who got about 25 minutes a game last season, as well as a few starts. He is a deadly shooter (43% from behind the arc, 85% from the line), but doesn’t provide much beyond his shooting ability. And Vanderbeken, who earned a medical redshirt last season with a variety of injuries, is a pick-and-pop center with excellent shooting ability and pretty strong work ethic on the glass. All things considering, not a terrible group of returnees.
Hoiberg’s first bit of success as a coach in Ames was his ability to keep the incoming recruiting class intact, and given the shortness of the bench, all of these guys should get a chance to play immediately. There’s Jordan Railey, a long and thin center with developing post moves and a bit of a jumper. He’ll need to add strength, but he’ll at least provide an energetic body in the middle early in his career. Next up are a couple of power forwards: 6’9 Eric McKnight and 6’8 Calvin Godfrey. Both guys are long and athletic, they run the floor well and can block some shots. Godfrey probably has the more polished offensive game at this point, but McKnight might have more upside. Lastly, there are a couple of backcourt players in the class. Melvin Ejim is a 6’6 wing who can play either the two or the three, has great athleticism and length and a good midrange jumper that should develop into three-point range. He is not much of a threat off the bounce at this stage of his career, but that is something he could add, and he should be an excellent defensive wing. DeMarcus Phillips is a JuCo transfer who can play either guard spot, and will probably be the guy tapped to run the point when Garrett needs a break. He is more of a scoring point guard, with a crafty game, but the Cyclones will definitely need somebody to step up and score the ball, so Phillips could be the counted on to bring offense off the bench.
In addition to the incoming recruits, Hoiberg has also drawn in three transfers, two of whom could see some type of playing time this year. The biggest name is Royce White, a transfer from Minnesota. White never played a minute for the Golden Gophers after an alleged shoplifting incident and later a laptop theft on the Minnesota campus. The end for the White/Minnesota marriage was bizarre, with White releasing a rambling YouTube video which apparently announced his retirement from basketball. Hoiberg has talked with White and is convinced that those troubles are in the past, but it may be White’s immense talent and Iowa State’s equally immense need for a playmaker that helped tip the scales in Hoiberg’s mind. White was a top-20 prospect last season with post skills, the ability to put the ball on the floor and finish and strong defensive capabilities. He is petitioning the NCAA to be eligible immediately, with the answer to that petition expected later this summer. If he is allowed to play for the Cyclones this year, that would be a huge boost for the program, and White would probably be the number one offensive option for the squad and a frequent target of Garrett’s passes.
Off-guard Darion Anderson, an incoming transfer from Northern Illinois, is taking advantage of the NCAA rule allowing players who have completed their undergraduate degree to transfer out of their program to a different program without having to sit out a year, provided the new school offers a post-graduate degree that your old school did not, meaning he will be eligible to play immediately. He is a streaky scorer and a great rebounder for his position who could wind up starting immediately, boosting the team’s athleticism and offering a scoring option that may be very much needed.
The final incoming transfer is Chris Babb, from Penn State, who will not be eligible until next season. The combo-guard will have two remaining years of eligibility and should be ready to take over for Garrett when he graduates.
As bad as things got for the Cyclones in the middle of spring, they are actually not in terrible shape. If White is eligible this season (my guess, the NCAA grants him eligibility at the semester break), he’ll pair nicely with Garrett, and guys like Christopherson, Vanderbeken and Anderson could benefit from the ability of those two to break down defenses. Throw in the bouncy athleticism of McKnight and Godfrey, and this team could surprise some people. Unfortunately, they still play in a very stout Big 12, and making any headway against the powers at the top of the conference is a dicey proposition. But given that Hoiberg is going to get a pass for his first year regardless of what happens, this team will be playing without a lot of pressure on them, and they have enough talent to improve upon the mediocre record last year’s underachieving team produced, but probably not enough to challenge for an NCAA tournament bid.
Generally, finishing in eight place in your conference, four games under .500, is not considered a good year at all. But when it comes following a 1-15 conference record and three straight last place finishes, you’re definitely making progress. Enough progress, apparently, for the head coach to parlay that improvement into a new head coaching job in the ACC, which is exactly what Jeff Bzdelik did, heading out to Wake Forest following the season. After leading scorers Cory Higgins and Alec Burks expressed some initial anger over Bzdelik’s departure, they worked on campaigning for associate head coach Steve McClain to get the job, even hinting that Burks, after a very successful freshman season might decide to transfer if McClain were not named the head man. Well, in the end, Mike Bohn, the CU athletic director, plucked Tad Boyle from Northern Colorado to take over the program, with McClain landing in Indiana as an assistant. Boyle built up the Northern Colorado program from one of the worst in the nation to a 25-8 record last season in just four years, and got off to a pretty strong start in Boulder, convincing Burks and others to stick around, with only little-used freshman Keegan Hornbuckle deciding to transfer out of the program.
What remains is the most talented Buffalo team in some time, headlined by Higgins and Burks, who averaged 19 and 17 points per game, respectively, last season. With Boyle generally regarded as running a more up-tempo offense than Bzdelik (although Bzdelik’s reputation as a slow-it-down coach is more than a little exaggerated), and with an additional year under their belt, expect their offensive success to continue. The problem for the Buffaloes in 2009-10, however, was their inability to guard anybody, ranking in the bottom half of Division I in defensive efficiency. They didn’t rebound well, they didn’t defend the post well, and even though the forced a good amount of turnovers and got some steals, those often came with defenders overreaching for the ball, a tendency that led to Colorado trading a handful of easy hoops scored as a result of the turnovers for even more easy hoops given up by the out-of-position defender. And then there’s the fact that outside of Higgins, Burks and senior Marcus Relphorde, there just isn’t a ton of athleticism here.
To start with the good, the group of Higgins, Burks and Relphorde is a pretty strong trio of wings. The bad part here is that they’re all basically the same position with similar skillsets. Higgins and Burks both convert their offensive opportunities at a high rate, even as the focus of opposing defense, both shooting over 50% from the field last season. Relphorde isn’t quite the shooter that the other two are, but is an effective slasher and can knock down a three, and is generally a pretty strong third-option. The problem is, there is a big drop-off in talent after those three.
Nate Tomlinson got 21 starts at the point for Colorado last season, and while he is a nice little player who can distribute and take care of the ball and shoot the lights out from deep, he is more suited towards being a role player rather than a starter at a BCS school. Likewise, Austin Dufault, who got 26 starts up front for the Buffs, is a nice player, but doesn’t rebound particularly well for a four-man (let alone the center position that he was forced into often) isn’t strong enough to body up to power frontcourt players and isn’t quick enough to handle more athletic forwards. Unfortunately, they’ll probably both have to start again, putting what amounts to a four-guard lineup (with Tomlinson, Burks, Higgins and Relphorde) with the overmatched Dufault manning the middle.
There are some other options up front for Boyle. Incoming freshman Andre Roberson is a bit undersized to play the power forward on most teams, but with this team being thin and underathletic up front, the bouncy Roberson could get some early minutes. Roberson needs to add strength, but he is long, athletic and skilled, with some ballhandling skills and a perimeter game that could mesh well with the rest of the squad. Also in the two-man recruiting class is seven-footer Ben Mills, a solidly skilled big guy who, while not a great athlete, can at least bring some good size to the Colorado frontline. There are also a couple of returning bigs in 6’9 junior Trey Eckloff and 6’10 sophomore Shane Harris-Tunks. Harris-Tunks, a big Aussie, is the brightest prospect of the two. He is big and physical and rebounds the ball well, but was just a mess offensively as a freshman, turning the ball over at an alarming rate, although he did show some flashes of some coherent post moves. Eckloff, on the other hand, is more of a perimeter big guy, possessing a nice looking jumper but missing the strength and tenacity to compete inside. Any contributions Boyle gets from him will be bonus.
Depth on the perimeter will generally fall to 6’4 senior shooter Levi Knutson or 6’0 redshirt freshman Shannon Sharpe. Knutson is another guy who is probably below-average athletically, but makes up for it a bit with his accurate shooting. He’ll never be more than a role player here, but he could make some big shots for the Buffs. Sharpe redshirted last season following microfracture surgery, but before the injury he was regarded as the most explosive athlete the Buffaloes had signed in many years. If he is able to get back to full strength, Sharpe could add a bit of energy of the type this team has lacked, and he may just force his way onto the court, even in a crowded backcourt.
The Buffaloes are certainly headed in the right direction, with their days as basement dwellers in the Big 12 done (and not just because they aren’t going to be in the Big 12 after this season). They’ll need to adjust to their new head coach, and it may take a few games, but they should have the kinks worked out by the time conference play rolls around. Unfortunately, while they may be a better team than they were in 09-10, it is hard to see where they are going to make up much ground on their conference in 10-11, with the top half of the Big 12 (think Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, Missouri, even Oklahoma State) looking pretty impenetrable. But with a little luck and some quick adaptations, they could at least remain in the NCAA at-large picture late into the season. At the very least, this will be a fun team to watch.
Last season was a banner season for the Baylor basketball program. Under seventh-year head coach Scott Drew, the Bears made it to the first ever Elite Eight in the school’s history, a feat made even more astounding by the depths from which the program has risen. Drew took over a program that had been rocked by scandal: the murder of player Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson the most salacious and tragic, but multiple NCAA violations by previous head coach Dave Bliss nearly as damning. But Drew has built the program slowly, surely and cleanly, combining recruiting coups with excellent coaching. And now, not only is Baylor coming off the best season in the school’s history, but there is still plenty of talent and plenty of hope that the team can build upon their accomplishments. While forward Ekpe Udoh has departed for the NBA with a year of eligibility remaining, and point guard Tweety Carter, the first major recruiting get for Drew, has used up his eligibility, plenty of talent remains, and the next big Baylor recruiting steal arrives in the form of 6’9 Perry Jones, a skilled big man who already has NBA scouts drooling.
But the focus of the Baylor offense will continue to be 6’4 guard LaceDarius Dunn, now back for his senior season. Dunn led the team in scoring last season with nearly 20 points a night, and along the way also established a school record for total points in a single season. He is one of the nation’s premiere perimeter players (and one of its most confident), a guy that is not only a great shooter (42% from three, 86% from the line), but a great scorer as well, capable of scoring not only as a bomber, but as a slashing threat as well. Likely ready to take over the starting point guard role is sophomore A.J. Walton, who showed himself to be a capable facilitator in relief of Carter last season. Walton also knocked down perimeter shots at a highly efficient rate (46% from three on limited attempts), was an effective and creative finisher in the lane, and excelled defensively. Walton will have to hold off exciting freshman guard Stargell Love, however. Love is a terrific athlete who excels in the open floor and will fit in nicely with the Baylor running game. While Walton has the edge due to his year of experience, Love may be the brighter prospect overall and he will certainly earn plenty of minutes from Drew.
Jones figures to be the big threat in the frontcourt, and given his NBA Lottery-level talent, he’ll be a force. He is long and skilled, with inside/outside game – a good face-up jumper, the ability to put the ball on the floor, plus plenty of post moves to go along with natural rebounding ability. The one knock on him has been inconsistency, so he’ll need to make sure to bring his hard hat every night in order to get the most out of his amazing talents. But while Jones will have the spotlight in the Baylor frontcourt, there are several other talented players ready to contribute. Quincy Acy returns for his junior season, and he’ll be asked to improve upon the nine points and five rebounds he contributed nightly last season. Acy is another spectacular athlete on a uber-talented Bear squad, capable of wow-inducing dunks and rebounds. Most of his scoring is done from point-blank range, but he converts those chances at a high rate – he made his first 20 field goal attempts in his college career on his way to shooting 66% from the field as a freshman, then improved upon that number by making 70% of his field goal attempts last season. Alongside Jones and Acy up front will likely be 6’9 junior small forward Anthony Jones (no relation to Perry), who started all 36 games for the Bears in his sophomore season. Jones is a long and skinny athlete with a smooth offensive game, ranging from glides along the baseline out to three-point ability. It would be nice to see Jones improve his percentages from downtown, but he contributes on the defensive side as well. Speaking of defense, the Bears relied heavily on the 2-3 zone during last season’s run to the Elite Eight, but with Udoh and departed seven-footer Josh Lomers missing from the inside, there is some doubt as to what type of defense Drew will go with. With a frontline of both Jones’ and Acy, each right around 6’9 with spectacular athleticism to boot, the coaching staff has some flexibility. This lineup would present a long and intimidating zone, but each individual is athletic enough to develop into a strong man-on-man defender. In the end, expect Drew to stick with the zone as the primary defense, but mix in more man defense than they did last year.
The Baylor bench will be made up of a handful of young prospects. Junior wing Fred Ellis is the most experienced (he got about six minutes a night in his 29 appearances last year) of a pretty inexperienced bunch. Ellis is a skinny and solid player off the bench who rebounds well for his size, but seems destined to be a limited role player. Sophomore guard Nolan Dennis got a few more minutes a night than Ellis did last season, but seems to have more upside. While he’ll remain behind Dunn in the rotation, he is a capable offensive player who should see his minutes increase in his second year. Cory Jefferson, a 6’9 sophomore center, also got a handful of minutes last season, but he also figures to have his best days ahead of him. Jefferson has arms that seem to go on forever, and uses them to be a strong shotblocker. He also has some good offensive skills, with a little bit of a midrange jumper, and the ability to put the ball on the floor and go by a defender. Fellow sophomore Givon Crump is a combo-forward with excellent scoring ability, range out to the arc and a rebounding mentality. Finally, there is incoming freshman Bakari Turner, a 6’3 off-guard who is a good athlete with in-the-gym range. Given that Turner sits behind Dunn and Dennis (not to mention the two point guards), he’ll likely play a limited role as a freshman, but could be an important cog down the line.
The Bears’ run to the Elite Eight last year should not be mistaken for a fluke; Drew is definitely building a program here. This Baylor roster is jam-packed with elite athletes who should thrive in the open offense, but replacing Carter, both as the floor general and a leader off the court, will be no easy task. While Walton and Love are both talented guards, they have big shoes to fill, although the presence of Dunn’s dead-eye and Perry Jones’ athletic skill ready to bail them out on bad possessions should ease the transition. There is as much talent on this year’s edition of the Bears as there was last season, but they’ll need one of those guards to help bring everything together for Baylor to match or exceed last season’s successes.
In the last three seasons combined, the Big East has placed 23 teams in the NCAA tournament. Perhaps even more impressively, in the last two seasons, the Big East has had ten teams in the tournament as a three-seed or better. However, with just one of the top ten scorers and just three of the top ten rebounders returning this season, it looks like this season will be slightly down year for the conference. Not that there aren’t very good teams in the league, as the first tier of schools (Villanova, Pittsburgh and Syracuse) are all contenders for preseason national top ten consideration.
In the next tier, there are several teams with big question marks, with Seton Hall’s questions over adjustments to a new head coach and the health of Herb Pope the two most obvious. Georgetown, Marquette and West Virginia each lose key contributors to their recent success, but all three teams have intriguing talent, both the proven variety and the kind still labeled as potential, waiting in the wings. For the four teams in this tier, NCAA Tournament bids are expected, but they’ll need positive answers to their questions.
One tier down, however, there are teams who seem more likely to compete for those three new additional entries into the NCAA Tournament with other bubble teams. St. John’s looks to be at the top of this tier, partly due to their heavily senior-laden roster. Also in this tier are three marquee Big East teams (Connecticut, Louisville and Notre Dame) with more questions than answers on their rosters. Major contributors are gone, and what remains are largely inconsistent performers. If some of that inconsistency disappears with experience for players like Kemba Walker, Terrence Jennings and Scott Martin, these teams could move up into the tier of teams that doesn’t have to sweat out selection Sunday.
The fourth tier of teams is a little mini-tier of a couple of teams that I couldn’t rightly consider as bubble contenders, but also teams I didn’t want to put down with the basement of the league. For South Florida and Cincinnati to compete for NCAA Tournament bids, they’ll need not only veteran players like Gus Gilchrist and Yancy Gates to turn into highly efficient players, but also newcomers to provide heavy assistance right out of the gates.
And at the bottom, there are three teams in varying degrees of disarray. Providence and third-year head coach Keno Davis have endured a horrific offseason, while things haven’t been a whole lot better at DePaul and Rutgers. For DePaul and Rutgers, they at least have new coaches to bring hope of a brand new and more successful direction for the program. At Providence, Davis is almost back to square one. The one thing all these programs have in common is that it would take a near miracle for any of these teams to compete for a postseason bid of any kind, let alone an NCAA Tournament bid.
All-Big East First Team G Austin Freeman, Sr, Georgetown G Kemba Walker, Jr, Connecticut F Kevin Jones, Jr, West Virginia F Herb Pope, Jr, Seton Hall F Kris Joseph, Jr, Syracuse
All-Big East Second Team G Corey Fisher, Sr, Villanova G Jeremy Hazell, Sr, Seton Hall G Ashton Gibbs, Jr, Pittsburgh F D.J. Kennedy, Sr, St. John’s F Tim Abromaitis, Sr, Notre Dame
All-Freshman Team G Vander Blue, Marquette G Gerard Coleman, Providence F Jayvaughn Pinkston, Villanova F Roscoe Smith, Connecticut C Fab Melo, Syracuse
Twenty years from now, if and when you think of the 2009-10 West Virginia basketball team, you’ll likely remember one indelible image, an image both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. You know the image. You’ve got it right there in your mind’s eye as you read this. Da’Sean Butler laying there on the floor in Indianapolis, a mixture of physical and emotional pain on his face following a torn ACL and other injuries in the second half of an increasingly uncompetitive loss to eventual national champion Duke, the usually grumpy head coach Bob Huggins cradling his head and consoling him. Just remembering that image is enough to get most sports fans choked up, a great basketball player, a great person, struck down in the final possible game of a truly great four-year college career. While that wasn’t the end anybody wanted for Butler, it was indeed the end, and so for the first time in four years, the Mountaineers will field a team without the smart, athletic and clutch team leader. Gone also is the steady veteran Wellington Smith and the mercurial Devin Ebanks, who headed off for the NBA after two seasons in Morgantown.
But, of course, the cupboard is far from empty for Huggins and his squad. Ready to take over as a team leader and as the number one option is junior forward Kevin Jones, who emerged last season as a versatile threat for the Mountaineers. He’s a terrific athlete with a varied offense game, capable of strong back-to-the-basket moves, explosive finishes around the rim and even stepping out and knocking down some threes, a facet of his game that took a huge step forward last season. His free throw shooting and his midrange game could still use some work, but it appears for all the world that Jones is ready to pick up where Butler left off. Next to Jones up front for the ‘Eers will likely be sophomore center Deniz Kilicli, who gained eligibility in February last season and who showed flashes of brilliance despite his rustiness. Kilicli is an physical post player with the capability of scoring in several ways down low, whether through his variety of post moves or on putbacks. He’ll give West Virginia a post presence that they haven’t had in some time.
The backcourt isn’t exactly settled, but there are a variety of options there. Senior point guard Joe Mazulla and junior point Darryl Bryant both return as team leaders. Mazulla is a gutty little point who first gained national attention with a sparkling game in West Virginia’s second round upset of Duke in 2008, but he has had injury problems that have limited him severely since then. Bryant is no stranger to injuries either, however, as a broken foot kept him out of the last three games of WVU’s Final Four run. Having both back and healthy would give Huggins plenty of options, including possibly starting them both as a two-headed point. More likely, one of the two will get the nod with the other coming off the bench, while a shooter of some sort mans the off-guard position. Likely candidates for that job include senior Casey Mitchell, who played limited minutes in his first season in Morgantown as a JuCo transfer, or sophomore Dalton Pepper, who played even more limited minutes in his freshman season. Both, however, have the reputation of great shooters, even if their percentages in their initial seasons didn’t quite match up to their billing. Rounding out the starting five could be senior forward John Flowers, a glue guy that is as outstanding defensively as he is average offensively.
Other returning depth for the Mountaineers is highlighted by sophomore power forward Dan Jennings, a physically gifted frontcourt player who could turn into a future big-time contributor for this squad and senior wing Cam Thoroughman, a hustle guy with surprising athletic ability. Additionally, Huggins brought in a solid four-man recruiting class. Noah Cottrill, a 6’1 true point guard type, will have to wait his turn behind the veterans Mazulla and Bryant, but he is a good enough player to force his way onto the court. Kevin Noreen is a 6’10 power forward who fell into West Virginia’s lap after he was granted a release from his Letter of Intent to attend Boston College following their firing of head coach Al Skinner. Noreen is a very skilled big man who will likely see some minutes immediately; he has a polished offensive game, with post moves, a face-up game, a jumper out to about 18 feet and excellent hands. David Nyarsuk is a long and lean 7’1 center with a ton of upside, who may see a year or two of bench time (not to mention time in the weight room) before he meets his potential. And then there’s 6’7 forward Darrious Curry, an athletic lefty who is great in the open floor and has range out the three-point line.
While a repeat Final Four run would certainly be a surprise for this Mountaineer team, this is certainly not a program that is going to fall off the map. There is enough talent here for an upper division Big East finish and a NCAA Tournament berth. Jones will have to get comfortable being “the guy” offensively, but a pair of healthy veteran point guards should ease that transition, as should the presence of a strong post force like Kilicli. If Pepper or Mitchell (or better yet, both) can step into the designated shooter role, while still playing the kind of defense that is demanded of a Huggins player, this has all the makings of a solid offensive team, and certainly Huggins will have this team competing on the defensive end on every possession. Their talent may have taken a hit (and how could it have not, with two players off to the NBA), but this is still a team that will make a splash nationally.
The 2009-10 season for the Wildcats can really only be described as incredibly disappointing. After starting out the season 20-1, looking like a strong possibility for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a national championship contender while once again rallying behind the steady leadership of senior point guard Scottie Reynolds, the Wildcats struggled down the stretch in Big East play, losing four of their last six (albeit against very tough competition), bowed out in their opening game in the Big East tournament, scraped by 15-seed Robert Morris in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, then got sent home early by St. Mary’s in the second round. Reynolds, in particular, struggled down the stretch, at least compared to his stellar play over the course of the rest of his career, making just 13 of his final 52 shots in a Villanova uniform. Reggie Redding, glue-guy extraordinaire for Jay Wright’s squad is also gone to graduation, but they also lose Taylor King who announced in June that he would be leaving the team, although he would remain in school to complete his degree. King, a former McDonald’s All-American with a long and storied history even before his college days, was a three-point bomber and a decent rebounder whose minutes and production declined over the course of the season. While he could have made some contribution to either this Villanova team, or another team at another level of basketball, his college basketball career turned out to be considerably less fruitful than anyone could have expected. Despite those losses, the ‘Cats have absolutely no lack of talent, with four former McDonald’s All-Americans remaining on their roster, and a host of other talented athletes.
The Wildcats return three starters: 6’1 senior point guard Corey Fisher, 6’5 senior off-guard Corey Stokes and 6’8 senior power forward Antonio Pena. Fisher is the team’s leading returning scorer, and will also be the team’s floor general. He is mostly a below-the-rim type point, with tons of quickness, great handles, and absolutely no conscience about shooting the ball, although his shot selection has tightened up over the years. With Reynolds departed, Fisher will have the ball in his hands more often, and that could be a good thing, since Fisher takes better care of the ball than Reynolds did and is better at creating for teammates.Stokes will run alongside Fisher in the backcourt, and he is an excellent scorer who may see his production explode this season in the absence of Reynolds. He is a big guard, a pure spot-up shooter and he rebounds well for his position. Up front, Pena has improved greatly since his early days in the program when he was little more than a garbage man. Pena can surprise with his ability to put the ball on the floor in short bursts, is a good passer, and has turned into a good offensive post threat, all great additions to his already strong rebounding and defending.
While Wright’s teams have historically been guard-heavy, often employing either a three or even four-guard lineup, this Wildcat roster is more balanced, and features some strong young frontcourt talent, at least one of whom should vault into the starting lineup alongside Pena. Big things were expected of 6’9 power forward Mouphtaou Yarou in his freshman season, but it was derailed early by a battle with Hepatitis B. He did return to play in 21 games, and even started eight, but never looked completely comfortable out there, although ‘Nova may well have fallen to Robert Morris in the first round of the Tournament were it not for Yarou’s best game of the season: 17 points, eight rebounds and three blocks on 5/6 shooting. He is a great athlete with a physical style and a strong body, and he figures to be the guy with the inside track for a starting spot. Classmate Isaiah Armwood is another long and athletic rebounder inside for the ‘Cats, but he is not nearly the finished product that Yarou is, and at 6’7 is a little undersized, although he figures to get some time. Redshirt sophomore Maurice Sutton is the biggest of the frontcourt players at 6’10, but he is also the least polished offensively. He needs to add some strength, but he moves very well and is a long and lean defender who is an active rebounder and shotblocker. Then there is 6’6 freshman power forward Jayvaughn Pinkston, a multi-talented addition to the Wildcat roster. His height tells you he is a small forward, and with the range out to the three-point line, the ballhandling skills, the passing ability and the dribble-drive attacks on the rim, he certainly could spend some time at the three. But with his prodigious strength, rebounding ability and bull-like power moves inside, he relishes his time in the paint. It will be near impossible for Wright to keep this guy off of the floor and he figures to be one of the more exciting newcomers in college basketball in 2010-11.
Along with those bigs, there are a couple of wing types who look to challenge for starting spots as well. Dominic Cheek is a 6’5 sophomore who got some good minutes in his rookie year and figures to have just begun to show the depth of his talent. He is a long defender, an at-times spectacular finisher and an effective shooter out to three-point range. While consistency on the jumper is still on the way, he figures to play a big part in the ‘Nova offense. Pushing Cheek for time is incoming freshman James Bell, who is somewhat similar to Cheek. Bell may be a stronger presence, while Cheek’s outstanding physical attribute is his length, and Bell may be a stronger rebounder than Cheek, but Bell has three-point range and tremendous finishing ability as well.
And then, all the way down here at the bottom, I’m just now getting to sophomore point Maalik Wayns, who was the most productive of last year’s freshmen. Wayns was too often out-of-control as a freshman, so he’ll need to reign some of his exuberance in, but he has a sparkling first step, a great crossover, tremendous speed, a nice little floater and if all that blow-by-ability isn’t enough, a developing three-point shot to keep defenders honest. He could wind up in the starting lineup as part of a three-guard attack, but more likely he’ll bring his energy off the bench.
This Wildcat team may have the most talent from top to bottom in a very talented Big East, and should be a very exciting team to watch. However, after those three seniors, this is all underclassmen – very talented underclassmen, for the most part, but still underclassmen. They’ve got enough players to win 25 games or so without getting out of bed, but in order to compete for a Big East title, and contend for a national championship as this program has come to expect, they’ll need at least a couple of those underclassmen to step up and make major contributions for this team, and they’ll need a few more to settle into roles. That’s easier said than done, but a coach like Wright should not be underestimated. While the future is bright for the ‘Nova program, the present is very enticing as well.
For Jim Boeheim’s Orange, the 2009-10 season was supposed to be something of a down year, with stars like Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris all headed out of the program before completing their eligibility. Lowered expectations were further cemented when Syracuse dropped an exhibition game to Division II Le Moyne. However, the Orange then went on to win 13 straight and 30 of their 35 games on the season, before being run out of the tournament prematurely by Butler. Along the way, Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson turned into a National Player of the Year candidate, Andy Rautins cemented his place in Syracuse history and some of the youngsters in the program took their games to the next level, leading to a team that had seven players score more than eight points per game. Now Johnson, Rautins and Arinze Onuaku (comprising three of the team’s four leading scorers) may all be gone, but with a new stable of high quality recruits headed in and key contributors from last year’s team ready to take on even larger roles, this Orange squad will have no chance to fly under the radar.
Junior forward Kris Joseph is the team’s leading returning scorer, and he took a huge leap forward in his sophomore season, just about doubling his minutes played, while more than doubling his scoring, rebounding, and assists, all with skyrocketing shooting percentages both from the field and, perhaps most startlingly, from the line, where he improved from a 40% FT shooter as a freshman to a 75% shooter as a sophomore. That kind of quantum leap in his production is not going to happen again, but Joseph still has a lot of improvement ahead of him. Joseph does so many things well – rebounds, runs the floor well, finishes strong, can drive, a bit of a midrange game – but he can still extend his range out beyond the three-point line, and with more of the offensive focus on his talents, expect to see him get a lot more national attention. Joseph was usually the first guy off the bench last season, but he’ll step right into the starting lineup this season.
Joining him there will be the two returning starters: sophomore guard Brandon Triche and senior forward Rick Jackson. Jackson is a big, grinding competitor inside, getting most of his points off of his offensive rebounding prowess and converting other easy chances, contributing to a 59% clip from the field, but he is a poor free throw shooter, making just half of his 86 attempts last season. Triche started immediately as a freshman and displayed a physical game and composure beyond his years. Not really a true point and not really an off guard, Triche helped run the team and was a very effective defender in Boeheim’s patented zone. A very good shooter, expect Triche’s offensive game to develop over his years with the Orange.
Alongside Triche in the starting backcourt will likely be junior point guard Scoop Jardine, who came back from a redshirt season caused by a stress fracture in his left leg to become a key cog for the Orange, their best (and some would say only) true point. Jardine is effective not only on the drive-and-dish, but is a capable shooter from range, and is excellent in the open floor. He can create both for himself and for his teammates, and now it looks like the keys to the car will belong to him. It is possible that Triche and Jardine will get limited minutes in the backcourt together, since they are the only two returning players capable of running the point on the team, so one of these players could still find themselves in the position of having to contribute off of the bench, although both will get plenty of minutes.
Rounding out the starting lineup will likely be 7’0 freshman center Fab Melo, a Brazilian-born behemoth in the middle. Growing up in Brazil, Melo, of course, played soccer and he’s got the footwork to prove it. While his offensive game is not a finished product, he does have some developing post moves and a nice little jumper. He’ll have to work harder on the glass under Boeheim’s eye, but he has all the tools to be an excellent rebounder and an excellent defender. His stopover in Syracuse may be a short one, but expect the Orange to get the most out of him during his stay.
While that is a pretty imposing starting five, the talent on the roster does not end there. Redshirt sophomore wing Mookie Jones came into college at the same time as Joseph, and was just as highly regarded, but his development has been a bit slower. Injuries have been a part of it, as he took the redshirt season as a freshman after a muscle tear, then broke a finger midway through last season after having been an effective scorer for the Orange early in the season. However, maturity has been an issue for Jones as he had a fairly public disagreement with Boeheim on the sidelines early last season, then tweeted about possibly transferring out of the program after the tournament loss before changing his mind and recommitting himself.Jones is a talented player with good length and a smooth three-point shot, but he’ll need to straighten up to earn minutes, with several other young players ready to fight him for playing time.
Among those fighting Jones for time at the wing are 6’6 sophomore small forward James Southerland, 6’7 freshman small forward C.J. Fair and freshman shooting guard 6’2 Dion Waiters. Southerland played limited minutes in just a couple handfuls of games as a freshman, but has a reputation as a very good shooter, with some excellent athleticism to boot. Perhaps more exciting are the pair of freshmen. Fair, a year removed from an ACL injury, is a long and athletic wing with range out to the arc. While he may not be capable of being a terrific offensive player as a freshman, with his length he can certainly contribute on the defensive end. Waiters is more of a combo guard than a wing, capable of getting some run at the point if necessary, but his main strength is his scoring ability. He is an explosive and acrobatic finisher, capable of getting in the lane with ease and getting to the line or stepping out and knocking down the three.
Rounding out the Orange roster are a couple of big men eyeing playing time behind Jackson and Melo. DaShonte Riley is a 6’10 sophomore center who got some minutes early in his freshman year before settling into a spectator’s role for the bulk of the rest of the season, until he was called upon for some important minutes in the NCAA Tournament in the wake of Onuaku’s knee injury. Riley was startlingly uneffective in those minutes (zero points, two rebounds in 32 minutes over three games), but he is a long and athletic player whose best days are ahead of him. Still unpolished offensively, if he hopes to contribute this season, he’ll need to hustle on the glass. Pressing Riley for the third big-man role will be 6’10 freshman Baye Moussa Keita, a Senegal native, who, like many big young African transplants, is raw offensively, with little more offensive substance than a dunk. However, Keita could contribute right away on the defensive end and on the glass – he is already an excellent shotblocker and strong rebounder – and he has plenty of upside with loads of athleticism and the ability to get up and down the floor very well.
So once again, the Orange lose three major contributors, and yet will still be among the handful of teams competing for a Big East title. However, the team is very young, with just one senior and two juniors among those expected to get serious playing time. On one hand, that means there is a ton of upside on the team, but on the other hand, they’ll need to find some leadership to replace the strong presences of the three departed players. Guys like Jackson, Triche and Jardine seem more than capable of taking over those roles, and with Boeheim’s history of getting the most out of his guys, you’d have to expect the Orange to again be a major contender on the national scene.
The 00’s were a decade of down for the St. John’s basketball program. After capturing the Big East tournament title in March of 2000, the team began a slow slide downhill that went off a cliff in 2003, the season following an NIT Championship. A story circulated that then-head coach Mike Jarvis, or more accurately, a member of his staff, paid a player, and as a result, Jarvis resigned and that NIT Championship and 43 wins were forfeited, and the program hit rock bottom with a dreadful 6-21 season. Norm Roberts was hired to restore the program to its former glories, but despite squeaking out a couple of winning records (both times one game over .500), the Red Storm failed to post a winning conference record under Roberts who was fired after last season’s 17-16 campaign ended with a first-round NIT loss. Into the breach steps Steve Lavin, formerly the head coach of UCLA, and most recently a color commentator with ESPN. Lavin was fired from UCLA after his seventh season, his first losing season in Westwood which came on the heels of six previous NCAA tournament appearances, five Sweet Sixteen appearances (including one trip to the Elite Eight) and one conference championship, a successful string in most college basketball towns. But UCLA fans have higher expectations than most, and many of them will tell you that despite Lavin’s mostly successful tenure there, his teams underachieved. After seven seasons away from the bench, he’ll have his chance to prove himself all over again in New York, another town with plenty of expectations.
Lavin, for his part, has embraced the expectations. He has brought excitement to the program and has already begun flashing his recruiting prowess, snagging a commitment from Dwayne Polee out of Westchester High in the Los Angeles area for this year’s class and adding a relatively unknown Tucson guard Michael Perez as well this week. Lavin still has some feelers out there for other recruits for this year’s class, namely Remi Barry, but the bulk of this year’s roster will be made up of returning players, including nine seniors; Anthony Mason Jr. is the only serious contributor who has moved on, although would-be sophomore swing Omari Lawrence has decided to transfer to Kansas State.
Of the nine seniors, D.J. Kennedy is the team’s leading returning scorer and rebounder (15ppg, 6rpg), a versatile and exciting athlete who will likely once again be the team’s main scoring threat. He can score off penetration or from range, he can handle the ball in the open floor and is a terrific defender, among other talents. Malik Boothe started all but one game last season at the point for the Johnnies, and he’ll be the man there again. He is not a good shooter by any means and not much of a scoring threat, but can facilitate the offense and defend like a mad man. His backcourt mate will likely be Paris Horne, who also started 32 of the Red Storm’s 33 games last season. He is an athletic guard with a good three-point stroke, who for some reason is a terrible free throw shooter. Pushing Horne for a starting spot will be Dwight Hardy, a scoring guard who came to St. John’s last season as a JuCo transfer, and between the two of them, the off-guard spot is covered.
Up front, continuing with the senior theme, Justin Burrell and Sean Evans are both experienced big bodies, each checking in a 6’8. Evans is a terrific rebounder, especially on the offensive glass, and is a good finisher inside. Burrell has a more skilled offensive game, with the ability to put the ball on the floor a bit, and is more of an above-the-rim player than Evans. A starting lineup of the guards with Kennedy, Burrell and Evans would be an athletic and exciting quintet. Another senior option up front is 6’10 center Dele Coker, a defensive post player with a severely limited offensive game who nonetheless will give Lavin a big body to throw out there against more physical opponents. Then there's 6'7 Justin Brownlee, a big body who rebounds well, can defend the post, and has a bit of a face-up game. He shot too many threes (or at the very least, made too few of the ones he did try) as a junior, the JuCo transfer's first at St. John's, but he’s got some upside on the offensive end. Rounding out the group of seniors is Rob Thomas, a good story who has failed to make much of an impact on the court, and of whom little is expected in his senior season.
Despite the senior-laden roster, there are a couple returning underclassmen with a shot at playing time, foremost among them sophomore point guard Malik Stith, who will again back up the point position. He is very similar to Boothe in that he is a bad shooter whose main contributions are facilitating the offense and defending. And there is also Quincy Roberts, an off-guard who red-shirted last season due to ongoing issues following a concussion. Roberts did get some minutes, even a few starts, in his freshman year at the point, mainly due to injuries, but it remains to be seen what role he will play going forward.
Then there are the new freshmen. Polee is a long and athletic wing who is an amazing player above the rim. Unfortunately, his basketball skills have yet to catch up to his runaway athleticism, and with plenty of similar players ahead of him in the frontcourt rotation, his minutes figure to be limited. Perez is a scoring guard who can play both guard positions, but given that he was previously looking at limited scholarship opportunities, he may be a reach for the Big East level. However, if he can consistently knock down open jumpers, he could play a role for a Red Storm team that lacks a pure shooter.
This St. John’s team has plenty of talent and athleticism, but thus far they have been unable to put it all together. If there was ever a team that needed some coaching up, this is that team, which presents an interesting dilemma given Lavin’s history with his teams arguably underachieving. But given that Lavin, despite being away from the coaching profession, has still spent plenty of time around the game, there is a possibility that his coaching style and effectiveness will have matured. Throw in the fact that he has put together a staff with well-respected teachers like Mike Dunlap and Tony Chiles (along with Rico Hines, a former assistant with the Golden State Warriors and also Lavin’s first UCLA recruit), and the Lavin of old may not be the same Lavin we see these days. There is enough talent on this Red Storm roster to compete for an NCAA tournament bid (especially in a year when the Big East may not be as strong as it has been the last couple of years), but they’ll need to show improvement and maturity to get there. Given a roster with eight seniors, there’s plenty of reason to believe maturity won’t be an issue.
The University of South Florida is a fairly young school, founded in 1956. Younger still is its sports programs: they didn’t begin playing football until 1997, while the basketball program got its start in 1971. With the joining of the Big East conference in 2005, the athletic department embarked on a whole new era for their school, and with Stan Heath signing up as the basketball coach in 2007, the new beginnings were complete. Along with new programs come new records and new heroes, and while the Bulls failed to make the NCAA Tournament last season, they had inarguably their best season ever, posting a .500 record in the Big East and a 20-13 overall record, huge steps forward from the days when they were regularly in the bottom bunch of the conference standings. Aside from saying goodbye to the best team in the program’s history, the also say goodbye to likely the best player in its history: Dominique Jones. Jones left after a junior season during which he averaged 21.4 point per game to pursue a career in the NBA (he was selected with the 25th pick), but still leaves the program as its fifth all-time leading scorer, tenth on the all-time assist list and seventh in steals, as well as having posted the highest single game point total, when he dropped 46 on Providence in January.
But it is not just Jones that the Bulls will have to replace, as two other backcourt starters have graduated: point guard Chris Howard and off-guard Mike Mercer, another nearly 20 points of offense between them. Junior Anthony Crater, a transfer from Ohio State who spent last year as Howard’s understudy, will take over the lead guard role, but his running mate remains to be seen, although there are plenty of candidates. The two returnees with a chance to grab the off-guard spot are sophomore Shaun Noriega and Mike Burwell, neither of whom got a whole lot of run last season, but both of whom have reputations as deadly shooter. Noriega in particular has great range and the trust of the coach, but will need to get stronger and better defensively in order to get consistent minutes. More likely, one of three incoming junior college transfers will have the inside track on replacing Jones: 6-0 Shedrick Haynes, 6-4 Jawanza Poland or 6-5 Hugh Robertson. All three are excellent athletes who can penetrate and cause problems in the lane, but none have the reputation as great shooters. Likely some combination of the newcomers and the dead-eye returnees will fill Jones’ large shoes by committee. Backing up Crater at the point will be incoming freshman Lavonte Dority, a strong and physical pure point guard. Between Crater and Dority, neither is anything approaching a good jumpshooter, but both have the ability to be strong floor generals and pesky defenders.
The strength for the Bulls will be their frontcourt, and Heath claims that he’ll match this frontcourt against anyone’s in the country. Well, the fact is, he’ll have to, so at least that much makes sense, but the four-man rotation here is pretty solid. Gus Gilchrist is a 6-8 junior power forward with a somewhat checkered past, at least in terms of his commitment to schools. He originally signed with Virginia Tech, but was then released from that scholarship, after which he signed with Maryland, only to decide to transfer out of there before playing even a minute, eventually winding up at USF. Last season he missed 15 games due to a severe ankle sprain, and after returning late in the season, was just never the same player again. However, he still averaged 13 points and six rebounds for the season, numbers which should improve this year as he will likely be the go-to player offensively. He needs to get more aggressive on the glass, but is a versatile four-man, with a good stroke from three and an excellent midrange jumper. Center Jarrid Famous started 30 games for the Bulls in his junior season, and averaged 10 points and seven rebounds in just under 30 minutes. He is not a particularly effective defender, but is capable of getting on the glass on both ends, and creating points out of hard work. Toarlyn Fitzpatrick fell into the starting lineup when Gilchrist got hurt last season and was decent, notching over four rebounds a game, but he’ll need to improve his offensive game. And the fourth member of the Bulls bigs is junior Ron Anderson, a transfer from Kansas State who has slimmed down from over 300 pounds to a svelte 250. He is a surprisingly skilled player with solid post moves and is a very good passer for a big man, but his biggest contributions will come in defending the post and hitting the glass.
After those four, there is just nothing for the Bulls up front, as 6-10 center Waverly Austin, who had committed to USF, failed to qualify academically and is going the JuCo route, but Heath will have to find a balance between getting those four players on the floor as often as possible (since they are likely the Bulls best four players) and finding a way to get them some rest and keep them out of foul trouble. It is possible the Bulls could start a front line of Famous in the middle, Anderson at power forward and Gilchrist at the three, with Robertson getting some minutes at the three off the bench.
For this Bulls team to match the success of their predecessor, Heath will need to get Gilchrist to take the next step in his development, with Famous and Anderson as secondary options. Having one of the young guards step up and take over the scoring guard role would be a huge bonus too, since it is unlikely that Crater will provide much scoring punch. While the Bull frontcourt could keep it in quite a few games, the lack of a proven backcourt looks like a critical missing element on this squad and it is not unlikely that we’ll see the USF basketball program sink back down towards the bottom of the standings in the Big East again this season.
As divorces go, the Seton Hall/Bobby Gonzalez split was a particularly nasty one. There is a lawsuit and a countersuit, fights over the common assets, each side taking turns dragging the other through the mud, irrational behavior following the breakup, all the classic symptoms. At some point, we expect there to be an argument over who gets to keep the dog – or at least the Pirate. Basically, since March, the Seton Hall basketball program has turned into a bad soap opera, what with the divorce and arrests and frightening health problems and god knows what else. And into this mess steps Kevin Willard, a 35-year old (my god, this guy is younger than me) former Rick Pitino assistant (and son of Louisville associate head coach Ralph Willard) who just finished compiling a 45-49 record over three years at Iona. Willard has established a tough defensive style in his three years as a head coach, a strength which will play nicely in the Big East.
The 09-10 Pirates were an up-tempo, highly efficient offensive team, and were it not for a couple of deadly losing streaks (a four-game dive at the beginning of conference play featuring a couple of home losses and a three-game road slide in the middle), may have been dancing. Those losses were highlighted by an inability to stop their opponents from scoring, a weakness that Willard will work on shoring up immediately. The biggest loss for the Pirates will be point guard Eugene Harvey, but with junior Jordan Theodore waiting in the wings as an able replacement, the biggest concern for the Pirates (both on the court and off) is the health of junior forward Herb Pope, who collapsed during a workout in late April and had to be taken to a hospital where he spent almost a month. While further details are sketchy, Pope does hope to play for the Pirates next season, and his presence will definitely be needed. Pope is one of the nation’s best returning rebounders, an often spectacular shot blocker, a more than capable offensive player with inside-out versatility, and a guy just starting to come into his own who is capable of reaching all-Big East heights.
And Pope isn’t the only Pirate with all-Big East talent; in fact, Jeremy Hazell has already reached that level, taking down second team honors last season after averaging over 20 points a night. While Hazell can be maddeningly inconsistent (witness his two points on 0-10 shooting in the season opening squeaker over St. Peter’s or his two-point 1-7 disappearance in a blowout loss at Pitt, in the middle of that key three-game road slide, as just two instances), he is also capable of spectacular outbursts (such as 79 points over two games against West Virginia and Syracuse at the end of December, oddly in the middle of the other Pirate losing streak). He is a volume shooter (it took him 64 shots to get those 79 points) and prone to taking bad shots on a fairly regular basis, but on the good side he is an athletic leaper and acrobatic finisher who has a bucketful of moves and can score from just about anywhere on the court. If he can tighten up his shot selection a bit and become a more efficient offensive player, the Pirates will be immensely better as a result.
Both Pope and Hazell declared for the NBA Draft before withdrawing their names to return to school, as did small forward Jeff Robinson, a one-time New Jersey High School Player of the Year who found his way to Seton Hall via a small detour to Memphis. Robinson is a big body who may be the most efficient offensive player the Pirates have. He is a very good rebounder for his position, has a strong midrange-and-in game, almost never turns the ball over and doesn’t need a whole lot of offense run for him to make his contributions. While he is a limited perimeter shooter, he knows what he is capable of and takes care of business there.
Then there’s Theodore, who started half of the Seton Hall games last year and will likely slide in as the full-time starter at the point under Willard. Theodore is a quick penetrating guard who is very capable at using his ability to get inside to create opportunities for his teammates, and unlike the departed Harvey, is a solid three-point threat as well. Alongside Theodore in the backcourt will likely be Eniel Polynice, a transfer from Ole Miss who will be eligible to play immediately since he has already received his degree. Polynice is a big guard who handles well, can help out on the glass and is an excellent defender. While he can be a little wild offensively and is generously regarded as a “streaky shooter” (which is little more than a euphemism for a guy who shoots too much and makes too little), if Willard can contain him, he is an excellent pickup for the program who can also move over and run the point in order to give Theodore some rest.
Behind Polynice at the two are a couple of seniors: Keon Lawrence and Jamel Jackson. Lawrence is more of a defensive guard, while Jackson is a pure shooter. Jackson would fit in well with Theodore’s drive-and-dish capabilities, but Lawrence may mesh more with Willard’s commitment to defense. Either way, both figure to get plenty of time for the Pirates.
Frontcourt depth will come from sophomore forward Ferrakohn Hall and a group of freshman frontcourt additions including power forward Patrik Auda, small forwards Fuquan Edwin and Anali Okoloji and their newest signee, center Aaron Geramipoor. Hall got a handful of minutes as a freshman and showed pretty well for himself, converting at a high rate from the field and holding his own on the glass. He’ll need to improve his footwork and add strength, but he has a chance to be a player in the Big East, and will likely get the first look off the bench in the frontcourt. The freshmen, however, are a mixed bag. Edwin is an undersized three who makes up for his stature with his athleticism and non-stop motor. While his jumper isn’t much to look at, he’s got a good handle, can finish well and is a good perimeter defender. Okoloji is more of a combo forward, with the body of a big man but a set of skills that will allow him to play the three. He’s got a versatile offensive game with a combination of some good post moves and a face-up game that is highlighted by a strong midrange jumper. Auda is a Czech big man with a prototypical European big-man’s game: 3pt range, the ability to put the ball on the deck and some good passing skills. His physicality inside on the defensive end is pure bonus. Geramipoor was just signed by Seton Hall this week, and at 6'11, he'll bring plenty of size. However, he is seen as more of work-in-progress and may only get spot minutes as a freshman. Given the relative dearth of returning big guys on this roster, this group will need to see a couple of players step up and eat up some minutes effectively. Luckily, however, the Pirates are blessed with enough offensive talent that scoring from this group of young bigs will not be a necessity.
All things considered, Willard is in a pretty good position. While other new Big East head coaches have rebuilding projects on their hands (Rutgers, DePaul), he inherits a team that can, and should, compete for an NCAA Tournament bid. A lot will depend on the health of Pope (and here’s hoping his doctors make damn sure he is good to go without significant risks), but even if Pope is unable to play for one reason or another this season, the Pirates look like they are capable of big things. If Pope is able to return at anything approaching his previous abilities, Seton Hall should be dancing in March.