As we continue our conference previews, we turn our attention to the Big East and Big XII. No conference may have more tournament caliber teams than the Big East, with ten teams having reasonable expectations of playing past their schedule and three of those holding Final Four aspirations that need to be taken seriously. Needless to say, the Big East is stacked. The conference’s torch was carried by Georgetown last season, as they advanced all the way to the Final Four. This season, Louisville and Marquette hope to join the Hoyas in taking the next step to Atlanta. The Cardinals and Golden Eagles both return experienced squads whereas Georgetown will need some help from its incoming freshmen. However, it was a freshman who was the main attraction in the Big XII last season.
Kevin Durant took the nation by storm and carried Texas on his back throughout the season. Once again it could be another freshman who becomes the key to how the Big XII will shakeout when Michael Beasley first takes the court in Manhattan in November. Beasley will look to guide Kansas State back into the NCAA Tournament as the most heralded freshman in the country. Looking to make Beasley’s rookie campaign a rough road will be a stacked Kansas team, a Durant-less Texas team, along with Texas A&M, making up what looks to be an extremely competitive Big XII conference.
What To Watch For
Jim Beilein was putting together a basketball tradition at football-crazed West Virginia over the past several years, but decided to leave and try to rebuild the even more football-crazed Michigan into a basketball power once again. Taking his place is Bob Huggins, who seemed to be righting the ship at Kansas State. Huggins will always be able to recruit, and now that he is in the Big East, West Virginia will be a team to look out for in a few years. But what to look for this season is how Huggins and his rugged style will mesh with Beilein’s group of athletic finesse players. Another coach to keep an eye on is Stan Heath at South Florida. Heath had five mediocre seasons at Arkansas, capped by a tournament appearance last season. As usual, Heath should be able to recruit talent to Tampa, but getting skilled players has never been a problem; coaching them is an entirely different story.
While the Big East welcomes several big name coaches, it will also lose its fair share of top talent on the court. Jeff Green, formerly of Georgetown, will be doing his damage in the NBA this season, leaving a vacancy for an All-American who could do a little bit of everything down in the capital. Green may have been the best player to depart the Big East during the off-season, but the biggest voids may be noticed in the paint where Aaron Gray (Pitt), Terrence Roberts (Syracuse), Herbert Hill (Providence), Curtis Sumpter (Villanova), and the versatile Wilson Chandler (DePaul) are all on NBA rosters. On the perimeter, Russell Carter and Colin Falls (Notre Dame), Sammy Mejia (DePaul), Demetris Nichols (Syracuse), and Antonio Graves (Pitt) also have moved on from the college ranks.
Many of the departed players will need to be replaced by new additions to the conference, the most notable of which is Donte Green, an extremely talented and versatile player who Orange fans will hope brings back shades of 'Melo. Green will be joined by a talented group of freshmen in point guard Jonny Flynn, as well as high school teammates Rick Jackson and Antonio Jardine. Syracuse’s class is rivaled by both Georgetown and Villanova. The Hoyas bring in big-time guards Chris Wright and Austin Freeman, while Nova enters a pair of Coreys (not of License to Drive fame), Fisher and Stokes. Pittsburgh and Marquette will both get help inside with DeJuan Blair and Damian Saunders coming to their respective campuses.
Arguably the most talented team in the country, UL has athleticism and depth throughout a roster that will rival any team, and they have the ability to play any style. A balanced attack prevents defenses from keying in on any particular player. Terrence Williams and Edgar Sosa are the top returning scorers, while Juan Palacios, David Padgett, and Derrick Caracter compose one of the best frontcourts in the country. The trio is dangerous thanks to their ability to play a physical style in the paint, while also stepping out and putting the ball on the floor. One question heading into the season is the health of Palacios, who was injured in mid-October.
Coming off of a Final Four appearance, Georgetown comes into the season hoping to advance even further, but will have to do so without all-everything Jeff Green. Returning is center Roy Hibbert, a post-player who opponents typically will not have to worry about drifting too far from the basket, but with his 7’2, 285 pound frame, there is no need. Hibbert will be a top ten pick when the next NBA Draft rolls around. The All-America candidate will get help from 6’8 forward DaJuan Summers, but the backcourt will be the key to the Hoyas’ season. Returning is Jesse Sapp and Jonathan Wallace, both all-conference caliber players, but the development of Austin Freeman and Chris Wright very well could determine Georgetown’s postseason success.
While Louisville and Georgetown get all of the headlines, Marquette returns all of its key players from a 24 win team, and adds two talented freshmen in Damian Saunders and Trevor Mbakwe. The starting backcourt is one the Big East’s best, if not the best. Dominic James did not have a great year by his standards, but earned an All-Big East selection and is joined by Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews in the backcourt. McNeal, a defensive standout who happened to chip-in nearly 15 points per game, along with Matthews, a double-digit scorer still realizing his potential, need to continue their development to make up for a lack of a feared and proven inside presence.
One of the most disappointing teams to take the court last season may have just been a year away from handling the large expectations bestowed upon them. Five key sophomores combine with three juniors making up a still young, but experienced core. Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet man the frontcourt, while A.J. Price, Jerome Dyson, and Craig Austrie will welcome a heavy load of the work on the perimeter.
Jamie Dixon will once again have a gritty group of players who should find their fair share of victories by simply outworking their opponents. Mike Cook, Levance Fields, and Ronald Ramon run the Panthers and will have to help with the development of Sam Young and DaJuan Blair in order to replace the losses of Aaron Gray, Levon Kendall, and Antonio Graves. Pitt appears to be a tournament team yet again.
Syracuse felt slighted last season when the NCAA Tournament field was announced, but a solid backcourt hopes to leave its postseason fate out of the selection committee’s hands. Eric Devendorf is a dynamic scorer, but also can be extremely erratic at times. Paul Harris is an all-around solid player with the exception of his inability to put the ball in the basket. These two need to improve their game to guide a fantastic freshmen class if a berth and deep tournament run are in the cards.
Villanova has produced top-notch guards since Jay Wright has taken over the program and the tradition will continue this season behind Scottie Reynolds, a conference player of the year candidate. In addition to Reynolds, there are freshmen Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes. Fisher more than likely will step right in and be a starter from day one, while Stokes has the ability to play both guard positions, making him valuable off of the bench. The frontcourt will rely heavily on the development of Shane Clark and Dante Cunningham, both of whom need to find a way to replace Curtis Sumpter. If they can be solid, this is a tournament team that will be dangerous come March.
Providence, West Virginia, and Notre Dame all have a reasonable chance of making the NCAA Tournament, but also could easily find themselves playing in the NIT should their preseason questions not be solidified. A player to keep an eye on for the Irish will be Kyle McAlarney, a double-digit scorer who was showing great progress before his suspension for drug use.
Cincinnati, DePaul, Saint John’s, Rutgers, Seton Hall, and South Florida will have trouble working their way out of the bottom half of the large and deep Big East. South Florida has a wonderful interior player in Kentrell Gransberry, but may have trouble due to a lack of experience and a backcourt that simply cannot play with the collection of great backcourts found in the Big East.
G: Scottie Reynolds, Villanova
G: Jerel McNeal, Marquette
Preseason Player of the Year: Dominic James, Marquette
The Big East will more than likely lead all conferences in tournament berths; seven to eight might actually be expected. With a slew of great backcourts, a deep run or two could also come from the conference considering how important steady guard play is come March and April.
What To Watch For
As mentioned before, Bob Huggins bolted for the Big East leaving a talented roster at Kansas State. The team will now turn to first year coach Frank Martin to push the Wildcats into the NCAA Tournament. Also after twirling around in the non-BCS conference ranks for years, highly-regarded coaches Mark Turgeon and Jeff Bzdelik enter the conference to lead Texas A&M and Colorado respectively. Bzdelik will look to guide the Buffs back to postseason play, while Turgeon inherits a solid Aggie roster that needs to prove that they can win post-Acie Law.
Law may have been the most important player on any roster last season and is now in the NBA. Others may argue Kevin Durant’s void is the largest. Durant did everything for a Texas team that basically needed a player of Durant’s caliber to succeed; this year however, they are a year older and look poised for similar success. Julian Wright is another freshman who left for the money and fame of the NBA, while Oklahoma State loses JamesOn Curry and Mario Boggan. Bobby Knight will surely miss Jarius Jackson, the heart of last year’s Texas Tech team.
Kansas State brings in one of the top recruiting classes in the country headlined by Michael Beasley, a fluid offensive standout who will be the best player Kansas State has seen in quite some time. Joining Beasley in Manhattan will be Dominique Sutton and Jamar Samuels, and both are expected to contribute immediately. Texas A&M welcomes an interior force in DeAndre Jordan who is a physical freak that will not back down from any post-player in the Big XII. Jordan has a large frame that can still add weight without hurting his athleticism. Other newcomers to watch will be James Anderson of Oklahoma State, Blake Griffin at Oklahoma, Iowa State’s Craig Brackins, and Lacedarius Dunn of Baylor.
As usual, Kansas has as much talent as any team in the country, but will this be the year the Jayhawks make their way back to the Final Four in the question. Brandon Rush’s recovery from a knee injury will be a major factor in this determination. Returning along with Rush is Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, and Sherron Collins in the backcourt. Sasha Kaun and Darrell Arthur will combine with Rush as the front three. Replacing Julian Wright will be necessary, and Tyrel Reed is a highly touted freshman who could help ease the loss of Wright’s ball-handling and passing ability.
Acie Law IV and Billy Gillespie put Texas A&M basketball on the map. Now that both are gone, Mark Turgeon will need Joseph Jones and Jeff Carter to establish themselves as leaders and fill the void left by Law. Freshman DeAndre Jordan will give Aggie fans a force in the post that College Station has never seen before. It may just be a one year stopover before heading to the NBA, but Jordan is a physical freak capable of playing with any player in the country and will compete with Aleks Maric of Nebraska for the conference’s best big-man honors.
Last year the Big XII was dominated by a freshman, and the league may be in for an encore with Michael Beasley entering the league. Beasley, with his 6’10, 235 pound frame, will cause mismatches every time he steps onto the court. Returning and joining Beasley on the frontline will be All-Big XII David Hoskins and Bill Walker. Walker is a lockdown defensive player who also will chip-in 12-15 points each game. This is a team that needs steady play from its backcourt, which Walker has the ability to help with if it expects to reach the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. The talent is certainly there; the question will be whether the chemistry will arrive in time.
Kevin Durant came and left, so now it is time for D.J. Augustin to step into the big-time. He is playmaker who made great decisions last season and is joined by A.J. Abrams, the team’s top scorer, to form one of the best backcourts in the country. The duo is capable of carrying Texas into the tournament, but they will need the frontcourt to emerge if the Longhorns plan on making any noise in March.
The Tigers return their top five scorers, welcome a top-notch transfer, and have a year under their belt with Mike Anderson’s system, and this all after an 18 win season. A stellar backcourt led by Stefhon Hannah will be the key to Missouri’s success. DeMarre Carroll, a 6’8 forward who transferred from Vanderbilt, will need to supply help on the inside in order for a trip to the NCAA Tournament to take place for the first time since 2004.
After faltering down the stretch last season, coach Jeff Capel and his Sooners will need to rely on a balanced attack to improve on last year’s 16 win season and be on the right side of the bubble. A welcome addition will be freshman Blake Griffin, who will band with senior Longar Longar to make a big and athletic frontline capable of holding its own against the talented frontcourts of the Big XII.
After Oklahoma, there is a pretty large dip in talent, although Iowa State and its potentially dynamite frontcourt do possess the ability to receive an at-large berth. Following the Cyclones, look for Baylor to surprise some people and make a push to finish towards the middle of the conference, even ahead of Bobby Knight who will need to work some magic in order for Texas Tech to reach the postseason.
Oklahoma State, Colorado, and Nebraska round out the Big XII and should finish in the bottom three. Sean Sutton and his Cowboys lost a lot of talent from an underachieving team last season, while Colorado will have to rely on a very good backcourt for any type of achievement. Nebraska features one of the top centers in the nation, but also lacks any significant experience at the point to get Maric the touches he needs.
G: D.J. Augustin, Texas
G: A.J. Abrams, Texas
Preseason Player of the Year: D.J. Augustin, Texas
The Big XII could receive as many as six or seven bids if everything breaks accordingly, but five seems like a much safer number. With some of the most versatile players in the country and an abnormally hefty amount of talent in the paint, this is a conference that will have a size advantage over many of its opponents during March Madness.