Monday, December 26, 2011

My Fearless Big East Forecast

The Big East season officially kicks off tonight, with Pitt playing at Notre Dame and Providence at St. John’s. UConn’s conference season gets underway tomorrow night at South Florida.

As always, it’s going to be a fun couple of months keeping tabs on what I still think is the best conference in America. Some believe the Big East is a bit down this year, but I remember people saying that before last season, as well. The result: a record 11 teams invited to the Big Dance, with UConn, of course, emerging as national champion.

Not saying there will be 11 Big East invites this year, but the conference certainly has Final Four contenders in Syracuse, UConn, Louisville and possibly Marquette and Georgetown. Perennial contenders like Pitt and Villanova appear a little down, but we could see vast improvement from teams like Seton Hall, Providence and even DePaul.

And when it’s all said and done ... I like the Huskies to come out on top. Call me a homer, but I really like what I see here. They’re nine-deep (which is more than what you really need in college hoops), and that’s with Niels Giffey seeing sparse minutes lately and Michael Bradley yet to return from injury. They’ve got great size and athleticism up front (Alex Oriakhi really needs to step it up, however), they play suffocating defense and, more so than in years past, they can actually shoot the ball – fifth in the Big East at 49 percent, up from last year’s 43 percent. Heck, the Huskies lead the conference in 3-point shooting, as well, at 41 percent.

They’ve got a superstar (Jeremy Lamb) and a standout point guard (Shabazz Napier) to help make up for the loss of Kemba Walker. And they’ve got Andre Drummond, whose potential is limitless and who should only get better as the year progresses.

Anyway, here are my fearless predictions for the upcoming Big East season:

1. UConn (14-4) The potential to repeat is there, people. It really is.
2. Syracuse (14-4) I could tell you Syracuse isn’t a national title contender, but then Jim Boeheim might call me a liar who’s only out for money.

3. Louisville (13-5) Remember when Rick Pitino-Karen Sypher was the Big East’s most seedy scandal?
4. Marquette (13-5) Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder may be Big East’s best 1-2 punch.
5. Georgetown (12-6) Hoyas have won at Alabama, beaten Memphis twice already.
6. West Virginia (12-6) Think there’ll be some trash-talking when Jabari Hinds goes up against Ryan Boatright?
7. Seton Hall (10-8) New Haven’s Freddie Wilson (1.1 ppg) hasn’t had much of an impact thus far.
8. Pittsburgh (10-8) Remember when Pitt never lost at The Pete? It’s already lost there to Long Beach State and (gulp!) Wagner.
9. Cincinnati (9-9) If only Yancy Gates always played as hard as he punches.
10. Villanova (8-10) Wildcats still don’t have much up front. Now, even guard play is iffy.
11. Providence (7-11) People close to the program were bracing for the worst season in years this season. Looks like that won't happen.
12. South Florida (5-13) There’s some talent here, but it doesn’t seem to be coached very well.
13. DePaul (5-13) Who’s the better ex-UConn commit, Cleveland Melvin (18.5 ppg) …
14. St. John’s (5-13) … or Moe Harkless (14.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg)?
15. Notre Dame (4-14) Looks like loss of Tim Abromaitis for season is similar to Colts losing Peyton Manning.
16. Rutgers (3-15) Most non-descript team in Big East -- by far. But it does have the best team website in the conference, so there's that.

ALL-BIG EAST

FIRST TEAM
Jeremy Lamb, UConn
Darius Johson-Odom, Marquette
Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh
Kris Joseph, Syracuse
Herb Pope, Seton Hall
Kevin Jones, West Virginia

SECOND TEAM
Peyton Siva, Louisville
Kyle Kuric, Louisville
Jae Crowder, Marquette
Shabazz Napier, UConn
Andre Drummond, UConn

THIRD TEAM
Jason Clark, Georgetown
Scoop Jardine, Syracuse
Dion Waiters, Syracuse
Cleveland Melvin, DePaul
Malik Wayns, Villanova

HONORABLE MENTION
Hollis Thompson, Georgetown
Vincent Council, Providence
Gorgui Dieng, Louisville

ALL-ROOKIE
Andre Drummond, UConn
Moe Harkless, St. John’s
LaDontae Henton, Providence
Chane Behanan, Louisville
Ryan Boatright, UConn
Jabari Hinds, West Virginia

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Jeremy Lamb, UConn: I don’t see a candidate from either Syracuse or Louisville. West Virginia’s Kevin Jones and Seton Hall’s Herb Pope are 1-2 in the Big East in both scoring and rebounding, respectively, but let’s see if that lasts during conference play. Ashton Gibbs was the pre-season pick, but Pitt appears down this year. This could come down to Lamb and Johnson-Odom, and in the end, Lamb’s got the better team.

COACH OF THE YEAR
Kevin Willard, Seton Hall: We’ll find out fast if the Hall’s 11-1 start is legit (it opens at Syracuse, then home vs. West Virginia and UConn), but Willard certainly seems to have the Pirates on the right track. Cooley will win this award someday ... soon.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Andre Drummond, UConn: Yes, he’s still very raw in spots, but if he’s not the most gifted athletic specimen in the league, I don’t know who is. And here’s another thing: he just turned 18 in August, making him one of the youngest players in the entire conference!

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Fuquan Edwin, Seton Hall: I wouldn’t completely rule out Drummond in this category, either, but we’ll go with this 6-foot-6 swingman who leads the Big East in steals.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Herb Pope, Seton Hall: After a near-fatal collapse in the summer of 2010, Pope never got back on track last season. But he’s been dominant so far this year and could be a shoo-in for this award. Nice story, really.

SIXTH MAN AWARD
Dion Waiters, Syracuse: There are some (Jim Calhoun included) who believe Waiters is the Orange’s best player. Only thing keeping him from this award is if Boeheim decides to put him in the starting lineup.

A few more things I think I think:

*** Syracuse and Louisville are both deep and talented, but I don't see that superstar player on either roster that's going to lead them to the promised land. Wouldn't be surprised to see either team get popped earlier than expected from the NCAA tournament.

*** With Steve Lavin back healthy and on the sidelines, and with Amir Garrett now eligible, St. John's will progressively get better, despite having just eight scholarship players. I could be very wrong about this, though.

*** Cincinnati is 4-0 since the brawl with Xavier and seems to be playing better without Gates. I wasn't too high on the Bearcats to begin with, however, and don't see them doing much this season after he returns on Jan. 4.

*** It's really too bad Farmington's Tim Abromaitis has to miss his final season after tearing his ACL. Can he still win the postseason Scholar-Athlete Award? (I'd say not, because I don't believe he's taking courses this year).

*** Another (sort of) local kid is also out for the season: Louisville's Mike Marra -- like myself, a native Rhode Islander. Can see why his family wanted him to play for Pitino.

*** As if there wasn't enough disinterest in South Florida already down in Tampa, the Bulls won't even play in their home gym this season as it's under repairs. USF is playing all its home games this season in the St. Pete Times Forum -- site of UConn's stunning first-round loss to No. 13 seed San Diego in 2008. I'm guessing there'll be as many if not more snow-bird UConn fans in the building Wednesday night than USF fans.

*** Why 14-4 for UConn? I see the Huskies losing at Syracuse and Louisville, and there'll probably be at least one home loss along the way -- maybe vs. Marquette on Feb. 19, or Syracuse on Feb. 25. Wouldn't be shocked to see them get upset at Seton Hall on Jan. 3 in their final game without Jim Calhoun, either.

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