Big East Conference Preview
by Phil Kasiecki
The Big East Conference saw another very competitive season of basketball last season, as the outcome of few games could be accurately predicted with the teams being relatively even. Five Big East teams made the NCAA Tournament, with Connecticut getting as far as the Elite Eight before being knocked off by eventual national champion Maryland. Three teams went to the NIT, including just the second team from the Big Six conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big Twelve, Pacific Ten and SEC) to win 20 or more games and not make the NCAA Tournament (Syracuse). All three NIT teams that had a legitimate chance to make the NCAA Tournament heading into the Big East Tournament.
Last season was not an aberration, as the Big East has been wide open in recent years. The Big East has not had a dominant team or clear favorite heading into the preseason in several years, and that has held up during each season. The fact that several teams were on the NCAA Tournament bubble heading into the Big East Tournament is reflective of how competitive the conference was, as well as how much it lacked a dominant team. In the end, Pittsburgh and Connecticut distinguished themselves as the class of the conference, and appropriately played a terrific championship game in the Big East Tournament.
This coming season looks to be a little different, in that there appears to be a clear favorite entering the preseason. Pittsburgh returns co-Player of the Year Brandin Knight among its five starters, and looks like they may be the class of the conference. But don’t expect the Panthers to run through the conference without a contest; several other teams return key veterans and will give the Panthers and everyone else a run for their money. The conference should again have many teams with a legitimate chance at making the NCAA Tournament, with several heading to the NIT as well.
The Big East saw one coaching change in the offseason. After long-time head coach Gale Catlett retired in February, West Virginia finished the season with an interim head coach, then had an adventure finding a full-time replacement in the offseason. As has happened several times in recent years, many rumors swirled about Cincinnati head coach Bob Huggins going to his alma mater, and some published reports suggested that it was about to happen this time around. Huggins is still at Cincinnati. Dan Dakich of Bowling Green had accepted the job, but then went right back to Bowling Green. Former Richmond head coach John Beilein eventually took the job.
In terms of individual talent, this season looks to be a good step up for the conference. Only three of the seven first-team All Big East players (there were ties in the voting, hence seven instead of five) are gone this season and just one was an underclassman who declared for the NBA Draft. The only other underclassman from all three teams who is gone was dismissed from the school. Nine of the All-Big East players from last season return this year. Additionally, the Big East had a very good year in terms of recruiting, as the conference welcomes many talented freshmen. Villanova welcomes one of the nation’s best classes of newcomers as head coach Jay Wright wasted little time in showcasing his recruiting ability. Connecticut, Notre Dame Syracuse also welcome good classes, and other teams have brought in quality newcomers that will help raise the conference’s talent level. Notable as well is that the Big East has several players who are among the nation’s best at the defensive end.
Without further adieu, here is a look at the 2002-03 Big East Conference.
Despite losing a co-Player of the Year, the Connecticut (27-7, 13-3) Huskies are the pick to come out on top in what should be a very tight East Division race. Caron Butler is now in the NBA, but the cupboard is hardly bare in Storrs as the Huskies again have a very athletic team. Sophomore Ben Gordon is ready to shine this season even though he may not start, which was the case last season. He is very capable at the offensive end, comfortable playing the point in a pinch as well as his natural shooting guard position, and is solid defensively. He joins junior point guard Taliek Brown in a solid, if unspectacular, backcourt. Brown does not shoot the ball well, but generally makes good decisions, knows his shooting limits, and has a knack for clutch shots like the back-breaker against Pittsburgh in the Big East Tournament championship game. Senior Tony Robertson had a good year and should start at shooting guard or small forward in a three-guard set. Up front, the sophomore Emeka Okafor is a tremendous shot-blocker who can control the game, and is a solid rebounder. His offense will have a chance to come alive this season, as more will be asked of him. With Johnnie Selvie gone, the power forward spot is up for grabs between senior role player Mike Hayes and freshmen Marcus White and Hilton Armstrong, two post players with some potential. If the Huskies go with just two guards, small forward may be occupied by freshman Denham Brown, a big-time athlete from Toronto with plenty of potential. Sophomore Scott Hazleton and freshman Rashad Anderson also figure into the picture. Defense is always a staple of Jim Calhoun’s teams, and last season was no different as the Huskies had the fifth-best field goal percentage defense in the nation. The Huskies were also the best shooting team in the Big East, but also had more turnovers than assists and a negative turnover margin since only three Big East teams forced fewer turnovers.
Villanova (19-13, 7-9) defined inconsistency in Jay Wright’s first season at the helm, but with three senior starters and a terrific group of new talent coming in, that may change this season. Senior shooting guard Gary Buchanan led the team in scoring and is one of the conference’s top shooters, but he still disappears all too often. Junior point guard Derrick Snowden, who led the team in steals, returns, but he’ll have to take better care of the ball to fend off talented freshmen Allan Ray and Randy Foye, the former of whom should contend for the starting spot right away. The frontcourt loses Brooks Sales, but returns senior Ricky Wright is back after a nice season. The center position should belong to Jason Fraser, one of the most talented incoming freshmen in the nation. Sophomores Marcus Austin and Chris Charles played limited minutes last season, but at least Austin should see more minutes this season. Senior Andrew Sullivan and freshman Curtis Sumpter, an athletic combo forward, give the Wildcats two players who can draw the toughest defensive assignment. Sumpter has better offensive skills and may unseat Sullivan from the starting lineup. The Wildcats made good strides at the defensive end under Wright, as they were third in the conference in scoring defense and second in field goal percentage defense, while shooting the ball well and being third in rebounding margin. But they led the conference in turnovers while only two Big East teams forced fewer turnovers.
After a season full of inconsistency, Boston College (20-12, 8-8) should be a contender this season. Senior star Troy Bell defined the Eagles last season, but not in the way many had hoped as he did not have the consistency of his superb sophomore season. He struggled shooting from long range and never put it together last season. Having bulked up in the offseason, look for the nation’s best scoring guard to have a resurgence. Junior Ryan Sidney joins him in one of the nation’s finest backcourts. Sidney plays bigger than his height, is solid defensively, and knows how to make things happen on the floor, but he needs to shoot the ball better, especially from the free throw line. Sophomore Jermaine Watson, who struggled at times trying to force the action, is the only proven reserve. With Kenny Walls gone, the Eagles lack a true small forward. Senior Uka Agbai, who continued to develop nicely last season, can face the basket. He became more of a presence on the glass and continued to improve at both ends of the floor. The Eagles are very high on freshman Craig Smith, a 6’7″, 260-pound banger. Sophomore Nate Doornekamp was consistently in foul trouble last season. If he improves, the Eagles may go with a lineup of essentially three post players. Sophomore Andrew Bryant will be in the mix, possibly with minutes at small forward. Though built more for the power forward position, Bryant was often content to stand on the perimeter and shoot three-pointers instead of banging on the post. Freshman Johnnie Jackson could also see minutes at small forward. Besides depth, another issue for the Eagles is offense if Bell and Sidney are out of the game, as they struggled mightily when that happened at times last season since no one else has proven an ability to create. The Eagles are tough to figure statistically: they struggled defensively last season, ranking near the bottom in both scoring and field goal percentage defense. Even with their offensive issues, only Notre Dame turned the ball over less.
As was the case last season, the Miami (24-8, 10-6) Hurricanes are not an easy team to figure entering this season. The Hurricanes have lost three starters, including their entire backcourt after Marcus Barnes was dismissed from the team in late August. The Hurricanes’ strength will be in the frontcourt, starting with 6’9″ junior small forward Darius Rice, a second team All-Big East selection last season. He improved his game nicely last season after not shooting well as a freshman. Senior James Jones has been solid and unspectacular his entire career. He has good all-around skills, but one gets the feeling he could be even better than he has been. The rest of the frontcourt is largely unproven, with the main holdovers being senior Rafael Berumen and juniors Rodrigue Djahue and Will Frisby. Freshman Ismael N’Diaye should figure into the picture as well. With do-everything point guard John Salmons and Barnes gone, the backcourt has just two holdovers in junior Michael Simmons and senior Paulo Coehlo. Look for talented freshmen Eric Wilkins, who has good offensive skills, and Robert Hite, an exceptional leaper, to see plenty of minutes right away, mostly at shooting guard. Another freshman, Armondo Suratt, could see minutes at the point. Miami was near the bottom of the Big East in rebounding margin, but took good care of the ball last season as only three Big East teams turned the ball over less. The Hurricanes also led the Big East’s in free throw shooting.
Mike Jarvis’ St. John’s (20-12, 9-7) Red Storm was another team that lacked consistency last season. About the only constant was first-team All Big East guard Marcus Hatten, who was among the league’s top scorers and is one of the nation’s best defenders. With highly-regarded freshman point guard Elijah Ingram coming in this season, Hatten can now play his more natural shooting guard position. Ingram is a quick lefty who is good at both ends of the floor and one of the nation’s top freshmen. Junior swingman Willie Shaw struggled mightily after a promising freshman season, then was suspended for the NCAA Tournament. Others figuring in the picture are senior Andre Stanley, a part-time starter last season, and sophomore Tristan Smith. Point guard Darryl Hill failed to qualify academically. Up front, Anthony Glover has received another year of eligibility after sitting out as a Prop 48. He is solid on the post and has good skills facing the basket. Junior forward Kyle Cuffe has a lot of talent, but hasn’t put it together on a consistent basis to this point. Sophomore Eric King figures to be the other starter as Jarvis seems content to go with a small team. Skilled small forward Tim Doyle is the top newcomer in the frontcourt. At center, they have 6’10” senior Abe Keita and 6’11’ junior Mohammed Diakite, but both have played relatively limited minutes in their careers and have not contributed much. The need for another consistent scorer is shown in the Red Storm being third-to-last in the Big East in scoring last season, though their 40.1% shooting from the field (only Seton Hall shot worse in the Big East) and a woeful 28.7% on three-pointers (last in the conference by far) certainly contributed to their offensive woes. The Red Storm certainly didn’t lack opportunity, as they had the second-best turnover margin in the Big East thanks largely to forcing more turnovers than every team except Providence.
Providence (15-16, 6-10) looks to have a rebuilding season ahead, as questions abound after a disappointing season. The Friars lose just one starter, but it is a big one in point guard John Linehan, arguably the best defensive guard ever to play college basketball. Senior Abdul Mills is the primary holdover in the backcourt. Mills can play the point but is much better suited to shooting guard, where he can slash to the basket to score. Last season, he tried to be more of a shooter than he is and did not slash to the basket as much, due in part to a nagging injury. When Linehan was injured three years ago, the Friars’ offense lacked direction, so finding a floor leader between Mills, junior Sheiku Kabba and freshman Donnie McGrath will be crucial. Kabba has been a capable backup over the past two seasons, but whether he can be the full-time floor leader is as yet unknown. McGrath has talent, good size (6’4″) and comes with good credentials. The perimeter unit will be bolstered by the return of junior Romauld Augustin from a hip injury that caused him to redshirt last season. He is another offensive weapon and a very good defender. The frontcourt looks to be in better shape after being a disaster last season. The primary reason for the poor showing, junior center Marcus Douthit, played well when the Friars went to Italy in August. He tried to be a small forward at times last season, was often in foul trouble, and made many mental mistakes. Ryan Gomes, whom the Friars originally planned to redshirt, was a pleasant surprise as one of three unanimous Big East All-Rookie selections. He was a consistent offensive force and he led the team in rebounding. Juniors Maris Laksa and Chris Anrin are shooters who will primarily play small forward. Laksa struggled last season while battling injuries. Sophomore forward Rob Sanders will never make headlines, but he makes plays at both ends of the floor and will see plenty of minutes. Freshman Herbert Hill, an athletic combo forward, has good potential and may figure into their frontcourt plans immediately, while junior banger Leland Anderson and sophomore Tuukka Kotti are the other frontcourt holdovers. Defense is normally a staple of Friar teams, and while the Friars forced more turnovers than anyone else in the Big East, only West Virginia allowed teams to shoot better from the floor. The Friars were also last in rebounding margin and had more turnovers than assists.
Virginia Tech (10-18, 4-12) looks to have more struggles ahead as it continues to try to move up to the level of other Big East teams. The Hokies finished last season on a good note and return four starters, so they certainly won’t be easy wins for every team this season. The four returning starters are spearheaded by the excellent shooting backcourt of senior Brian Chase and junior Carlos Dixon, the former of whom has led the Big East in three-point shooting the past two seasons. Senior Eric Branham will be the third guard and should be better with his broken hand healed. Freshmen Markus Sailes and Shawn Harris could see good minutes as well, which certainly bodes well for the future of this team. Up front, junior Bryant Matthews is the primary holdover of the unit that helped the Hokies lead the Big East in rebounding margin last season, as the combo forward scored just under 10 points per game last season. Harding Nana and freshman Fabian Davis will play small forward, while burly senior Terry Taylor returns in the paint. Taylor is not overly mobile, but won’t be moved around easily either. Sophomore Damari Thompkins and 7’3″ JUCO transfer Luke Minor will also see time in the middle. The power forward spot, when Matthews is not playing there, could be occupied by freshmen Allen Calloway or Philip McCandies. The Hokies have room for improvement at both ends of the floor, as they were next-to-last in the conference in both scoring and scoring defense and dead last in turnover margin (led in turnovers and only Notre Dame forced fewer turnovers).
The days of basketball being king at Pittsburgh (29-6, 13-3) are back, as the Panthers look to be the class of the conference this season. Ben Howland, last season’s consensus national Coach of the Year, welcomes back all five starters led by Big East co-Player of the Year Brandin Knight. The senior floor leader, who also won the conference’s Most Improved Player award last season, is among the nation’s top players at both ends of the floor. Already a good distributor and solid defender, Knight developed a jump shot last season to become a more complete player. He combines with junior Julius Page, an exceptional athlete who can make highlight-film dunks, to form one of the conference’s top backcourts. Freshman Carl Krauser, who sat out last season, will be a solid reserve, and sophomore Yuri Demetris should see some minutes as well. Junior Jaron Brown will be the primary small forward, as the honorable mention All-Big East wing plays taller than his 6’4″, 229-pound frame. The frontcourt has no shortage of bodies and especially big ones like senior Ontario Lett (6’6″, 265 pounds) and junior Toree Morris (6’10”, 282). They will likely play most of the minutes at center, with sophomore Mark McCaroll adding depth. At power forward, senior Donatas Zavackas and sophomore Chevon Troutman are the primary players, with freshmen Levan Kendall and Ed Turner also seeing minutes. Defense will again be the emphasis for the Panthers, who were 12th in the nation in scoring defense last season. The Panthers don’t stop there, however, as they were second in the Big East in field goal percentage and rebounding margin.
A young team that struggled down the stretch last season, Syracuse (23-13, 9-7) must replace their top two scorers while their veterans improve with another year under their belt. The Orangemen shouldn’t miss a beat in terms of a go-to guy with small forward Carmelo Anthony, one of the nation’s top freshmen. He is an excellent scorer at the small forward position. He joins a young frontcourt led by junior Jeremy McNeil and sophomores Hakim Warrick and Craig Forth. McNeil remains very foul-prone, a large reason why he played just 14.5 minutes per game last season. Forth, the team’s leader in blocked shots last season, has good size and skills on the post and should get better with more playing time and after attending Pete Newell’s Big Man Camp over the summer. Warrick, an athletic combo forward in the mold of Damone Brown, has good potential and showed flashes of it last season. Freshman Matt Gorman adds depth. The backcourt has question marks all over with the departure of James Thues, one of the conference’s most improved players last season. With him gone, the starting point guard may be up for grabs between talented freshmen Billy Edelin and Gerry McNamara, both of whom are capable of playing shooting guard. Senior Kueth Duany, the team’s top returning scorer, should start at shooting guard and may see time at small forward spelling Anthony. Sophomore Josh Pace will also see time on the wing. The Orangemen will need to improve on the boards, as they were near the bottom in that category last season.
Craig Esherick’s Georgetown (19-11, 9-7) Hoyas were very inconsistent last season, but four returning starters suggest that consistency should be easier to come by. The knock is that the one starter lost is the school’s all-time leader in assists and steals, Kevin Braswell. Junior Mike Sweetney is one of the nation’s top players, as the burly power forward is solid at both ends of the floor. Senior Wesley Wilson returns in the middle after improving nicely last season, giving the Hoyas two solid post players at both ends of the floor. Senior Courtland Freeman can play any frontcourt position, and senior Victor Samnick will also see plenty of minutes in the frontcourt, especially with the departure of talented combo forward Harvey Thomas. Junior Gerald Riley is the small forward, with several players contending to back him up, notably Darrel Owens (Prop 48), junior RaMell Ross and freshman Brandon Bowman. With Braswell gone, Tony Bethel likely inherits the point guard spot. He had a good freshman season and knows how to run a team, while possessing a good shooting stroke. Fellow sophomore Drew Hall can play either guard and should get better with more minutes, and freshman Ashanti Cook, a high school teammate of Bowman’s, can also play either guard. The Hoyas could certainly lead the conference in scoring again with most of their key personnel back, but consistency at both ends will be most important.
Notre Dame (22-11, 10-6) looks to continue its emergence as a consistent contender in the Big East this season despite losing three starters. The biggest losses are first team All-Big East forward Ryan Humphrey and swingman David Graves, but forward Harold Swanagan developed nicely as well over his career. The strength will be in the backcourt, starting with one of the nation’s top guards in sophomore Chris Thomas. Thomas led the Big East in assists and assist/turnover ratio, a prime reason the Irish had the fewest turnovers in the conference, and scored 15.6 points per game. Senior Matt Carroll is a solid shooter who knows how to play the game and lets it come to him, with junior Torrian Jones being a capable backup. Chris Quinn, a talented freshman point guard, will see plenty of minutes backing up Thomas and occasionally playing alongside him. Small forward should belong to Maryland transfer Danny Miller, a senior who was a key role player when the Terrapins made the Final Four two seasons ago. Sophomore Jordan Cornette can play either forward spot. Up front, the key player is freshman Torin Francis, a McDonald’s All-American who should have a big impact right away. Francis has excellent skills at both ends of the floor, but has to shed his tendency to play soft while remaining the consummate finesse player that he always has been. Senior Jere Macura and 7-foot sophomore Tom Timmermans are the primary holdovers, both of whom should get better with more minutes. Rick Cornett is another talented freshman who should see time on the post. The Irish lost a lot of scoring from the Big East’s second-best scoring team, and had the best assist/turnover ratio in the conference. The Irish forced the fewest turnovers in the conference last season while also turning the ball over less than any other team.
Rutgers (18-13, 8-8) flirted with the NCAA Tournament last season, but came up short and went to the NIT instead. They will try again this season on the heels of a strong perimeter unit that features their top two scorers from last season, senior guard Jerome Coleman and sophomore small forward Ricky Shields. Both could stand to improve their shooting, especially Shields from long range, and they need to cut down on turnovers. Junior point guard Mike Sherrod runs the show capably, taking good care of the ball while needing to improve his shooting. Depth is provided by sophomore Juel Wiggan, a quick combo guard who plays good defense, and freshman Calvin Wooten. The frontcourt has questions with the loss of second-team All-Big East forward Rashod Kent, who was immovable in the post and very efficient near the basket. Versatile junior Herve Lamizana will be the key to the frontcourt, as he had his moments and overall played well in under 19 minutes per game last season. He can play either forward, capable of hitting long range jumpers and blocking shots at the defensive end, but he’ll need to do it consistently now. Junior Sean Axani started near the end of last season, while 6’9″ sophomore Jason McCoy and freshman Cortez Davis will also see plenty of minutes up front. Burly senior Kareem Wright and JUCO transfer Harry Good also figure into the mix. The Scarlet Knights were nearly unbeatable at home in going 15-2 there, but struggled mightily on the road. They will need to shoot the ball better (only two Big East teams shot the ball worse) and take better care of the ball (only three teams turned it over more), otherwise their excellent defense (near the top in most defensive categories) may be all for not.
Seton Hall (12-18, 5-11) looked better than expected at times last season, but the Pirates still struggled often. They appear to have less questions on the perimeter despite the loss of shooting guard Darius Lane, as quick junior point guard Andre Barrett is among the conference’s best players. He led the team in scoring and assists and takes very good care of the ball. Sophomore John Allen was among the top newcomers in the Big East last season and should only get better, seeing time at both wing positions this season. Freshman Donald Copeland will back up Barrett at the point, while Allen has some company on the wing. Senior Desmond Herod appears to have the inside track on the other wing position, though junior Marcus Toney-El could get the nod. The frontcourt has senior Greg Morton, a good role player his entire career, and junior Damion Fray among the holdovers, neither of whom puts up big numbers. After that, newcomers dot the landscape, from Duke transfer Andre Sweet to true freshmen Kelly Whitney and Eric Davis and redshirt freshman Alex Gambino, a 7-footer. The Pirates have room for improvement at both ends of the floor, as they were near the bottom in several statistical categories including being dead last in field goal percentage and next-to-last in rebounding margin.
West Virginia (8-20, 1-15) is fresh off a miserable season and an offseason that was not the best of times as they searched for a new head coach. Now they enter this season with a patchwork lineup severely lacking in experience and depth, as only one returnee started more than 10 games last season. That would be senior forward Josh Yeager, who will probably play power forward most of the season. Senior Chaz Briggs figures to be the starting center, but at 6’7″, he will be at a disadvantage on most nights. Sophomore combo forward Tyrone Sally and freshman Kevin Pittsnogle are the others likely to get minutes in the frontcourt. Sophomore Drew Schifino, who played shooting guard most of last season, will probably start at small forward this season. Junior Jay Hewitt likely steps into the starting lineup at shooting guard after relatively limited minutes last season. The point guard position is a major question mark, as Tim Lyles transferred before the start of the season, leaving a gaping hole. The reserves likely to play the most on the perimeter are little-used junior point guard Tobias Seldon and three freshmen. The Mountaineers were near the bottom of the Big East in most defensive statistical categories last season, they aren’t likely to finish in the top half in scoring again this season or duplicate their positive rebounding margin, and only two Big East teams turned the ball over more than the Mountaineers last season.
Troy Bell, Sr. G, Boston College
Marcus Hatten, Sr. G, St. John’s
Brandin Knight, Sr. G, Pittsburgh
Mike Sweetney, Jr. F, Georgetown
Chris Thomas, So. G, Notre Dame
Carmelo Anthony, Fr. F, Syracuse
Gary Buchanan, Sr. G, Villanova
Ben Gordon, So. G, Connecticut
Emeka Okafor, So. C, Connecticut
Darius Rice, Jr. F, Miami
Andre Barrett, Jr. G, Seton Hall
Ryan Gomes, So. F, Providence
James Jones, Sr. F, Miami
Ontario Lett, Sr. F, Pittsburgh
Ryan Sidney, Jr. G, Boston College
Player of the Year
Brandin Knight, Pittsburgh
Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse
Best Defensive Player
Marcus Hatten, St. John’s