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
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.