Wednesday, 8 November 2006

College Basketball Preview: Big East

This conference may not have the star power it had last year, but it's still extremely deep and extremely talented. And with all the varying styles from these 16 teams, should be a lot of fun to watch.

Player of the Year: After the departure of a lot of good players, this race is pretty open. The frontrunner is probably Aaron Gray, the big man for Pittsburgh. He gave serious thought about declaring for the draft before returning for his senior year, and Pitt reaps all the benefits. He's about a 20-10 guy, which is real rare in college basketball. He's also solid defensively and a good passer down low. Next there are a couple of big men from Georgetown. Roy Hibbert is huge at 7'3'', and can be a great scorer down low. However, Jeff Green is the more complete player. He can score down low, take his game outside a little more, and is one of the top passing big men in the country. But there's more to the conference than just big men. Dominic James was the Freshman of the Year for Marquette last year, and should be even better this year with a bigger role. He's lightning quick off the dribble, which allows him to consistently get by his man and finish strong at the basket.

There are also some darkhorses for Player of the Year. One is Curtis Sumpter of Villanova. Coming off of major knee injuries, he will be a candidate if he can stay healthy. He's very skilled for his size, and can play inside or hit the outside shot. If he had been healthy last year, Jay Wright's squad may have been the ones cutting down the nets. Another, bigger darkhorse is Juan Palacios of Louisville, a guy I really like. He's got great versatility offensively, and should see his stature rise on a Louisville team that will be improved this year. But in the end, I'm a sucker for the little man, and I think Dominic James will be the best player in the conference, and the Big East Player of the Year.

Freshmen to Watch: The guy that everyone seems to be most high on is Paul Harris of Syracuse. Jim Boeheim's been relentless in his praise of Harris, even saying that Cuse will run some man-to-man this year because of Harris' defensive prowess.. Harris is very versatile, very good defensively, and should contribute immediately to a deep Syracuse squad. Connecticut lost a lot of talent this offseason, but don't feel sorry for them, as they've got freshmen that can step in immediately. First is 7'3'' Hasheem Thabeet, a defensive force down low. There's also Jerome Dyson, who could be the Day 1 starter at SG for the Huskies. Elsewhere, Scottie Reynolds should help in some way offset the loss of the 3 guards for Villanova, and Derrick Caracter can be a nice weapon inside for Louisville if he can stay out of trouble.

Breakout Players: First, let's start with the big guys. Jeff Adrien didn't get to play a ton last year for that deep Connecticut team, but he made the most of it when he did. He's a tough inside scorer, and a good rebounder for his size. Only a sophomore, he's the leader of UConn. If DePaul is going to make it to the Tourney, they will need solid play from sophomore Wilson Chandler, who's a rock down low.

But while the biggest stars play in the post, a lot of the emerging threats are guards. AJ Price has missed the last 2 years for UConn for various reasons, but with Marcus Williams gone, the PG spot is all his. For the Orange, Eric Devendorf started as a freshman, and showed he's got the attitude to be a star in the Big East. He'll be more of a scoring threat this year with G-Mac gone, and should excel in that role. For Villanova, Mike Nardi had to take a backseat to Foye, Allen, and Lowry last year, but he'll have a bigger job as playmaker in addition to his outside shooting. And finally, now that Carl Krauser is gone, that should put LeVance Fields in the starting role. He was very good off the bench last year, and as a sophomore he'll be a very capable starter.

Predicted Order of Finish
1. Pittsburgh
2. Syracuse
3. Marquette
4. Georgetown
5. Connecticut
6. Villanova
7. Louisville
8. DePaul
9. West Virginia
10. St. John's
11. Notre Dame
12. Providence
13. Cincinnati
14. Rutgers
15. Seton Hall
16. South Florida