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Big East Preview

November 28, 2001 Conference Notes No Comments



2001-02 Big East Conference Preview

by Brian Seymour


Syracuse and Georgetown picked to be at the top of the Big East? It’s like the mid-1980s – heaven for hoops nostalgics.

Of course, you have to expect some shockwaves now and then – the question is which team will provide the shocks as Boston College did to a surprising Big East title last season. Pittsburgh? West Virginia? Miami? All three teams are remarkably improved.

What should remain constant in the Big East is that the division winners won’t run roughshod through the conference schedule – don’t expect either division winner to have three losses or less in the league.

EAST DIVISION

1. Boston College: The element of surprise will be lost for Boston College. The Eagles surprised the nation en route to the Big East Championship last season, but were tabbed to win the East by media this year.

To be sure, the Eagles will still be quite talented, but if they’ll be able to conquer a very improved conference remains to be seen.

Troy Bell and Ryan Sidney could end up being among the best backcourts in the country. Both are averaging near 20 points per game, but Sidney’s early consistency bodes well for continued success in Beantown. The sophomore scored 26 in a victory over Penn State, but added eight rebounds, six assists and four steals.

2. Connecticut: Could this be the year UConn returns to the national elite? Only two years removed from the national title, the Huskies are a very, very young team, but no one in the Big East has as much raw talent.

Coach Jim Calhoun, who notched his 600th win already early in the season, has quite a coaching job ahead of him.

A pair of sophomores are the only returning starters from last year’s team. Caron Butler, a 6-foot-7 forward led the team in scoring (15.3 points per game) and rebounding (7.6 per game) last season. Point guard Taliek Brown also returns and look for his consistency and growth to have a lot to do with UConn’s success.

3. Miami (Fla.): A twist on an old riddle – If a tree fell in the middle of the Miami Arena during a Hurricanes basketball game, would there be anyone in the arena to hear it?

Miami has long been a laughingstock around the country, mostly because for much of the past 20 years, it hasn’t been any good. Now that the Hurricanes are starting to put together a pretty decent program, the question becomes – when are the fans going to show up?

To be sure, Florida is a football state, but to draw 1,600 people in a 16,000-seat arena, as the Hurricanes did for their season opener is pathetic. In any event, everyone loves a winner and Miami is starting to win – more often and against better teams.

In winning the season-opening Virgin Islands Paradise Jam tournament, the Hurricanes were led by guard John Salmons, who averaged just over 17 points per game for the three contests. Sophomore forward Darius Rice is starting to live up the promise shown as one of the nation’s top recruits last year and averaged 22 points for the first two games before struggling in the championship. Still, with more seasoning, he’ll be among the most dominant big men in the conference by the end of the season.

4. St. John’s: The good news is the Red Storm have four starters returning from last year’s squad. The bad news is that team was 14-15. But coach Mike Jarvis is pinning his hopes for a better campaign this time around on senior Anthony Glover and some newcomers.

Glover, a 6-foot-6 forward, averaged 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last year. Sophomore Willie Shaw started last year as a freshman and will be joined in the backcourt by freshman Tristan Smith and junior college transfer Marcus Hatten.

5. Providence: The Friars have a tough act to follow after ringing up a school-record 11 wins in conference play last season, helping the Friars to their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1997.

This season, they’ll likely go as far as senior guard John Linehan can take them. Linehan, only 5-foot-9, was the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year last year and scored 10.7 points per game. His backcourt mate, Abdul Mills, will be the other key player for the Friars.

6. Villanova: The loss of center Michael Bradley to the NBA is going to hurt Villanova a great deal, especially early in the season. New coach Jay Wright starts over after building a mid-major program at Hofstra and has a young team led by senior center Brooks Sales.

Sales averaged more than 10 rebounds a game in two exhibition games and will be the Wildcats’ main weapon in the paint. Wright will also likely start a pair of sophomores from Baltimore in the backcourt – Derrick Snowden and Reggie Bryant.

7. Virginia Tech: About the nicest thing you can say about Virginia Tech is that they have a nice football program, but their second season as a member of the Big East will likely be as difficult as the first.

Still, the Hokies will look to turn things around this season with all five starters returning. Mibindo Dongo, a senior center from Zaire, has only four years of basketball experience, but has been progessing rapidly and could be a presence down low for Virginia Tech.

WEST DIVISION

1. Syracuse: Expectations were raised a great deal in upstate New York when the Orangemen stormed to the Preseason NIT championship. Unranked in the preseason polls, Syracuse has now vaulted toward the top ten and has to be considered a front-runner for the Big East title.

Much of the credit for Syracuse rapid ascent has to go to the Big Three of DeShaun Williams, Preston Shumpert and Kueth Duany. The trio is averaging almost 60 points a game and keeping defenses off-balance. Shumpert was named the Big East’s Most Improved Player last season and will be among the candidates for Player of the Year this season.

2. Georgetown: A pair of John Wooden Award candidates lead the Hoyas, who were selected by media in the preseason to win the West Division title.

Senior point guard Kevin Braswell needs only 87 steals to become the NCAA’s all-time leader and can light up the scoreboard when he needs to, scoring 40 in a game last season against Virginia.

Sophomore forward Michael Sweetney scored 28 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in an early-season contest and should continue to light up opposing defenses.

3. Notre Dame: No Troy Murphy means no repeat of their West Division championship for the Fighting Irish this season, but they’ll still have an imposing team, as their championship in the Hawaii Pacific Tournament proves.

Ryan Humphrey takes over the scoring reins for Notre Dame and will Murphy gone will likely improve on his 14.1 points and nine rebounds per game from a year ago.

Freshman Chris Thomas has seen significant playing time and will contend for Newcomer of the Year honors in the conference.

4. Pittsburgh: Pitt could surprise some people this season and posted an impressive performance in the University Hoops Classic to prove it. The Panthers placed second in the tournament, losing a close final to a good South Florida team. The tournament featured several good teams and will help Pitt with some early-season momentum and RPI points.

More impressively, the Panthers are young and should improve throughout the season. Lithuanian Donatas Zavackas has averaged more 14 points and seven rebounds and point guard Brandin Knight is also playing well.

5. West Virginia: The Mountaineers are also playing well early in the season, led by freshman Jonathan Hargett’s 19 points per game. He led West Virginia to a 88-85 upset of New Mexico at the Pit, never an easy task. Don’t expect it to be the last upset of the season for the plucky Mountaineers.

6. Seton Hall: With coach Tommy Amaker off to try and revive Michigan’s basketball program, the Pirates are left with a new coach and a few question marks, despite some outstanding recruiting classes.

The Pirates looked good in a narrow Maui Classic loss to top-ranked Duke, but were pounded by Kansas in one of the consolation games.

Seniors Darius Lane and Ty Shine will lead what is generally a very young team.

7. Rutgers: Good old Rutgers. You can always count on the Scarlet Knights to play the patsy to the rest of the Big East, but those days may be at an end with new coach Gary Waters. Waters built a powerhouse at Kent State and if he can convince kids to go to Kent, Ohio, getting them to go to New Jersey ought to be a breeze.

There will be growing pains, but Waters is counting on junior guard Jerome Coleman to lead the team to upsets like the early season win over Auburn. A few more of those type wins ought to make the rebuilding project go much faster.

CONFERENCE NOTES

NCAA Tournament teams: You can more or less pencil in Syracuse, Georgetown and Boston College already. I also like UConn and Miami to get bids. West Virginia, St. John’s, Providence, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh will get bids to the NIT.

Best player: I like Preston Shumpert of Syracuse. He’s not flashy, but he gets the job done. When Syracuse stays in the top ten all season, his name will be thrown around for All-America consideration.

Only 400 calories per seat: Providence plays its home games in the newly renamed Dunkin’ Donuts Center (The Building Formerly Known As The Providence Civic Center). What’s next, the Krispy Kreme Koliseum?

On the hot seat: Strangely enough, I doubt any Big East coaches are going to lose their jobs this year. The programs most likely to struggle this season all have new coaches and the established programs should do well enough to keep any heat off their coaches. Only a total meltdown at a place like Providence (Tim Welsh) or Pittsburgh (Ben Howland) would be enough for a coach to get pink slipped.

A guarantee: No matter how good the Orangemen do this season, they won’t be placed in the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament. Syracuse University is hosting the regional finals at the Carrier Dome.

Attendance woes: Not only is attendance pitiful at Miami, but several other schools are not doing well at the gate early in the season. BC is averaging 5,528 per game in a 8,600-seat arena, Virginia Tech is averaging 1,528 per game in a 10,000-seat arena and West Virginia drew 8,735 for their season opener in the 14,000-seat WVU Coliseum.

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