The NBA Draft Blog Conference Season Previews continue with a look at one of the toughest conferences in the country – the Big East. As always, there is plenty of talent, but a 16 team conference takes its toll on the members come February and March. As usual, Pitt and
The Good: Coach Mick Cronin’s squad lost its 2 top players from last season and will most likely be a much better team. Lance Stephenson and Deonta Vaughn will be missed, but the voids will be filled by a variety of players who are ready to show what they can do. This year’s group will be led by big man Yancy Gates, who will be debuting a new, slimmer look. Gates has very good size and uses his body well. Around the rim, he has improved his footwork and his finishing skills. He needs to become a better rebounder for his size, and hopefully will be able to go after balls quicker with less weight on him. It will be important for him to play aggressive this season for the Bearcats to get the most out of him. Gates will be joined in the frontcourt by fellow returning starters Rashad Bishop and Ibrahima Thomas. Bishop is a solid swingman, who showed an improved jumper last season. He is also a good defender who can guard multiple positions. Thomas is a long, lean, athletic forward who is very good at altering shots and using his athleticism to grab offensive boards. Cashmere Wright takes over for Vaughn at the point and has the potential to be one of the best point guards in the Big East. He has a great first step and can get out in transition or take his man off the dribble. He sees the court well and his decision-making improved as the season went on. He needs to improve finishing at the basket and becoming consistent with his jumper. This season will also be the debut of Sean Kilpatrick, a smooth combo-guard who is capable of scoring from anywhere on the court. Hopefully he has improved his defense during his redshirt season. Freshman Justin Jackson will provide another strong option in the post. He is a great athlete and very active around the basket. He runs the court well, though he needs to improve his ballhandling and his jumper.
The Not-So-Good: Perimeter shooting, especially from behind the 3 point line, will need to be improved. There is also a need for a go-to guy, with both Vaughn and Stephenson gone. Wright has the attitude and demeanor to fill this role, though it is yet to be seen if he can hit the shots when it matters. Also, outside of Gates, there isn’t much post production. Freshman Kelvin Gaines is talented, though raw and will be hard-pressed to contribute immediately.
The Question Mark: Can Gates take the next step in his progress to become a dominant big man? Gates made great progress last season, though he seemed to be a step slow at times and lacked that aggressive streak which the best big men have. This season he has lost some weight, and gained some muscle and speed. Look for him to be one of the best big men in the Big East.
What Will March Bring?: Losing Stephenson and Vaughn is going to be a blessing in disguise for this team. I expect Gates to make the jump that everyone anticipates, and the addition of Kilpatrick to the backcourt will be big. This is a 20 win team and should be in the Top 7 in the Big East. I expect them to be in the NCAA barring a horrible end of the season collapse.
The Good: Though off-court distractions have seemed to take their toll on Coach Calhoun and the Husky program, UConn will still field a talented team, including potential All-American Kemba Walker.
The Not-So-Good: This is a very young team, with Kemba Walker being the sole player expected to be a major contributor who is not a freshman or sophomore. There will be a lot of growing pains, though the Huskies are lucky to have the experience of
The Question Mark: This is the same issue that we discussed with
What Will March Bring?: As I said, there is a lot of talent, but it is young and I think it would be best to temper expectations. They have enough here for a 20-22 win team, though the Big East season may be a tad rough for them. Most likely a 8-10th place finish and on the outside of the Tournament this season. If
The Good: Another team hit hard by graduation and early defections, DePaul is looking to rebuild under new coach Oliver Purnell. Will Walker and Mac Koshwal accounted for almost half of the team’s points last year, but look for Purnell to install a more up-tempo system to take advantage of the team’s athleticism. The players to watch from this year’s team are all freshmen – Moses Morgan, Cleveland Melvin, and Brandon Young. Morgan is a scorer, does a great job getting to the basket, has a decent mid-range game, and is active on the boards. He will need to improve his defense, and work hard on adding muscle, but he has the ability to be the Blue Demons’ top scorer right away. Young has good size for a point guard at 6’3, does a good job running a half-court offense and can push the ball in transition. He needs to work on cutting down his mistakes, especially his tendency to be a bit slow in his decision-making. Defensively, he does a good job, though his effort can be inconsistent. Melvin is a long, athletic forward, who plays much better at this stage with his back to the basket, though his long-term future will probably be on the perimeter. Watch for him to slowly transition to working on the perimeter as Purnell brings in bigger players to fill the front line positions. Of the returnees, Mike Stovall and Eric Wallace both have the ability to score in a variety of ways and will provide leadership under the new coach.
The Not-So-Good: The loss of Koshwal is going to be tough, especially as he was starting o come into his own as a player. Krys Faber played decently in limited time last season, but he will need to make a big leap this year to provide some semblance of a post game for the Blue Demons. Perimeter shooting, especially from 18 feet out hampered DePaul last season and unless one of the young players comes out of the gate firing this season, it will continue to be a sore spot. Defensively, Purnell prefers to pressure the ball, though he may not have the athletes to play defense the way he wants. Jeremiah Kelly at the point guard position plays well in spurts, though is inconsistent on both sides of the ball.
The Question Mark: How will the players from the previous regime adjust to Coach Purnell’s no-nonsense approach? Purnell has a reputation from making a lot out of little talent-wise, and that is owed to his approach mixing discipline and effort. While Jerry Wainwright was a good coach, he often lost his players, and brought in guys who weren’t exactly the best fit. One thing is for sure, if the holdovers don’t give Purnell what he wants, he will not hesitate to keep them off the court.
What Will March Bring?: I would be stunned in the Blue Demons don’t finish 15th or 16th in the Big East, though they should be able to break the 10 win mark this season. 12-14 wins overall seems like the ceiling for this group.
The Good: The Hoyas’ season came to a shocking end in March with a First Round NCAA loss to
The Question Mark: How efficient will the
What Will March Bring?: This team is most likely in the Top 5 in the Big East, and if the defense holds, could finish 1 or 2. Look for them to get over last year’s first round exit, and win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. Freeman and Wright are both potential draft picks next season – Freeman as early as the late first round and Wright in the mid to late second. Vaughn should also get a few looks in NBA training camps for his strength in the post.
The Good: First, Coach Rick Pitino’s personal scandal may be behind him at this point and should not have much of an effect on this year’s team. While he lost team leader Edgar Sosa and enigmatic Samardo Samuels, he has a solid group of athletes who should be able to play the full-court style Pitino prefers. Returning in the frontcourt are two players who have yet to live up to their potential – Jared Swopshire and Terrence Jennings. Swopshire has great length and showed a good ability to get after rebounds in spurts. He runs the court well, though his shot is very inconsistent and he often shies away from contact.
The Not-So-Good: Shooting was a problem last season, and unless some players made some improvements over the summer, it could be rough again. Outside of Kuric and Mike Marra, there isn’t much in terms of long-distance shooters who can stretch the court. Defensively, the team had way too many lapses to play the style of ball that Coach Pitino wants. It will be a back-to-basics approach with this group, even if it means sacrificing some of the pace.
The Question Mark: Is there anyone in this group who will take their game to the next level this season?
What Will March Bring?: It is going to be a tough season for Coach Pitino and it will take its toll. 15 or 16 wins would be about right for this group and certainly in that 10-13 range in the Big East.
The Good: Team leader Lazar Hayward has moved on to the NBA, but Buzz Williams will still have a very competitive team this season. Darius Johnson-Odom will be the go-to guy this season, and last year he showed a good ability to score in bunches. He does a good job getting into the lane with an excellent first step, and was almost a 50% 3pt shooter last season. The main concern will be seeing how he handles being the leader of this team after a few seasons with
The Not-So-Good: This a solid team top to bottom, but the lack of size in the middle could be a problem. It will be important for the perimeter defense to step up and pressure the ball, or for Williams to find creative ways to clog the middle. The lack of a solid big man will also make perimeter scoring more important, so shot selection and consistency will need to be improved.
The Question Mark: How will Johnson-Odom handle leadership of the Golden Eagles? The one key to the last few
What Will March Bring?: Most likely a Top 5 or 6 Big East Team – probably 22-25 wins and a solid NCAA seed.
The Good: With Luke Harangody finally of to the NBA, Mike Brey will rely on Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough to guide the Irish back to the NCAA Tournament next March. Abromaitis is an excellent shooter, but will need to be a much bigger force on the boards to help alleviate the loss of Harangody. Hopefully he has added some muscle in the off-season. Hansbrough plays the game like his brother, taking no possessions off and doing whatever the team needs to win. While he doesn’t to any one thing very well, he is good at a lot of little things. Unless someone steps up to be a post presence, Hansbrough may need to get used to shooting with a hand in his face. He does have a quick release and good range, so he may be able to help stretch defenses, though I would expect him to spend more time running the offense. Tyrone Nash will start the season as the main big man though he is undersized and will need to spend most of his energy guarding bigger and stronger players. Freshman shooting guard Jerian Grant goes strong to the hoop, though he needs to add some muscle to his frame to be able to finish in the Big East. He can help push the ball in transition, and plays tough defense out on the wings.
The Not-So-Good: The Irish roster looks familiar with undersized big men playing in the post, big wings who can shoot the ball and solid, but unspectacular, point guard play. Nash, Tom Knight and Carelton Scott will need to work the boards as hard as Harangody did to keep the Irish in games, especially if the long ball isn’t falling. This is also not the most athletic group in the conference, and can be severely outmanned against up-tempo squads. Coach Brey will need to scheme ways to get his shooters open looks consistently.
The Question Mark: Who will pick up Harangody’s production in points and rebounds? This is a tough question, and in the immediate future, it may take 3 or 4 guys to put up his same numbers. Even more a challenge is the instimidation factor that Harangody gave the Irish, with teams knowing he will be going hard after every rebound on both ends of the floor. Right now, there doesn’t look to be a player with that potential.
What Will March Bring?: The Irish will be hard pressed to break the Top 8 in the conference this season, and will likely not be heading to the NCAA Tournament. As with all ND shooters, Abromaitis will most likely get a look from some NBA teams looking for big men who can shoot from 3.
The Good: No coach gets more out of his players than Jamie Dixon. Expect this season to be no different. Led by Ashton Gibbs, the Panthers will battle every night against any team. Gibbs exploded on the Big East scene last season, averaging almost 16 points a game, up from 4 the year before. He has good range on his jumper, an effective first step, and is not afraid to take a hit on his way to the basket. Gilbert Brown will also be back to provide scoring and rebounding support. Brown has the ability to hit the perimeter jumper and is very effective grabbing a scoring off of offensive rebounds. He is very athletic and uses it well on the defensive end. Dante Taylor should have a breakout sophomore season to become one of the better big men in the Big East. He has a wide body, good footwork, and makes quick, powerful moves in the post. On defense, I would like to see him be more aggressive, especially contesting shots. The guy who is the glue to the Pitt team, and easily their most valuable player, is Brad Wanamaker. A tough shooting guard with the ability to hit from long and mid-range, Wanamaker is also very good defender, rebounder, and has excellent court-vision. Gary McGhee always seems to save his best games for big occasions and should be a force on the boards again this season. A talented group of hard-playing freshmen should provide excellent depth for Coach Dixon. Wings JJ Moore and Cameron Wright, and point guard Isaiah Epps will all gain valuable minutes this season and will be prepared to step up when they need to.
The Question Mark: There aren’t many on this team, and the season will come down to how
What Will March Bring?: It will be a major surprise if Pitt doesn’t finish in the Top 2 or 3 in the Big East, and grab a top 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
That wraps up Part 1 of the Big East preview. Make sure to check back tomorrow for Part II – with looks at Providence, Rutgers, St Johns, Seton Hall, South Florida, Syracuse, Villanova and West Virginia. As always, leave your comments, feel free to contact me at