Jamie Dixon may be regarded as a saint here in Pittsburgh, but his actions are far from saintly on the basketball court. After compiling 13 conference wins a year ago, Dixon will try to lead the Pittsburgh Panthers to their first Big East Championship of any kind since the 2007-08 season.
The 16-team conference has been a powerhouse over the last several years, but after five underclassmen, and 11 total players, left for the NBA, the Big East is looking a little less intimidating. Apparently the AP still believes there is some bite left though, ranking three teams in the pre-season top 10. So what players and teams will finish on top at the end of the year?
Player of the year
Austin Freeman (GTown): I realize that it might be lame to pick the most hyped player in the conference, but what is not to like? With Greg Monroe opting for the NBA draft, the senior will be the focal point of JT3′s offense. Thanks to his 44% from 3-point range, Freeman finished last season as the leading scorer on a team that featured Monroe. He also shoots 85% from the free throw line and can take it to the rack if defenses lock down the perimeter. Also with an averagie 19.3 ppg against Duke, Butler, and the Big East’s top six teams, Freeman has showed that he brings his best games against the best competition. Perhaps the most likable thing about Freeman this season is that he has options around him. Chris Wright, Jason Clark, and Julian Vaughn all return in what should be a stellar year for the Hoyas.
-Corey Fisher (Nova): An explosive guard who has range and grit. He can take almost any defender to the hoop or step back and knock down the outside jumper. He falls short of the Freeman in the player of the year race because of the loss of Scottie Reynolds. At the end of the game the ball was always in Reynolds hands and the opposing team’s best defender was always focused on the senior. This year Fisher will attract more attention and will have to be the leader of a very young squad. Throw in the losses of Reggie Redding and Taylor King and I like Villanova to fall short of expectations this year.
-Gil Brown (Pitt): I think this is the year he finally breaks out. Brown averaged 10.7 ppg last year and was the Panthers top 3-point shooter at almost 40%. He is the only player on the Panthers talented at all facets of the game to take over a contest. As a lock down defender and explosive ball handler, Brown is the most important player on Pitt’s squad. Consistency has been his issue in the past for the forward. If he can boost his rebounding numbers and play his best game every night, Brown will be taking his player of the year honors to the NBA.
Most improved player
Peyton Siva (LVille): This is the toughest award to pick thanks to so much change in the Big East. Siva was one of the most talent freshman entering last season and with Edgar Sosa and Samardo Samuels gone, Siva will be relied upon by Rick Pitino. Much like Sosa, he is a sharp-shooter from range but he also has lightning fast speed. The glaring flaw in Siva’s game though, turnovers. He averaged 1.5 tpg last season in only 11.3 minutes per game. Out Siva, Preston Knowles, and Terrence Jennings, one of them must step up to keep the Cardinals out of the basement. Knowles and Jennings have had their chances and not capitalized. Neither of them are as skilled as Siva either, which is why I think the 5’11″ sophomore will have a breakout year.
-Hollis Thompson (GTown): John Thompson III has made (and ate) his bread and butter from going inside to a dominant force. Monroe has left an absence of a powerful low-post presence and Vaughn may not be his answer. Look for JTIII to use the sophomore as his stud inside. Someone in the front-court is going to get a lot of love from Thompson–and I think it is going to be Thompson.
-Dominic Cheek (Nova): Skilled in virtually every facet, Cheek is like many of the players already mentioned. He is a good shooter and solid ball-handler. He also rebounds well and is Jay Wright’s next lock-down defender. His length and outside skill set make him a tough matchup. However, last year he was a freshman and he looked like it. Many players make the jump after their sophomore year and I think Cheek is still one year away from dominance.
Newcomer of the year
Fab Melo (Cuse): There are no real honorable mentions here. Melo is the real deal and he is most likely a one and done player. The Brazilian native is a rebounding machine and is a surprisingly good passer. Like most seven-footers, his defensive game is far ahead of his offensive game. Melo’s shot-blocking will be a force in Big East play and if he becomes a little smoother in his offensive game he could lead Syracuse to another conference title.
-Jayvaughn Pinkston (Nova); Vander Blue (Marq): Two of the highest recruited players in the conference, Pinkston and Blue should make immediate impacts for their teams. It is hard to evaluate either of these players before they every play college game but both will be featured players from day one. Look for Blue to have the bigger season because of his position. Many guards reach their potential before bigger players because they do not necessarily need the strength or coaching of frontcourt players. Blue hasn’t shown consistency in his 3-point shot but he is strong in the lane and an elite defender. Look for Blue to have an outstanding year.
Big East Prediction
16) DePaul: Rupaul would have a better shot at winning a Big East game.
15) Rutgers: After losing three starters the Scarlet Knights will try and stay out of the Big East cellar. Heavy losses and a tough schedule them peg them behind other struggling teams such as Providence.
14) Providence: The dismissal of Jamain Peterson and loss of Sharaud Curry will keep what would have been a scary Friars team to nothing more than another 3-4 win squad. Aided by a solid recruiting class, Vincent Council will help Providence fend off the bottom feeders.
13) Cincinnati: Troublemaker Lance Stephenson is gone from Bearcats, but so is the underrated Deonta Vaughn. This is now Yancy Gates team. However, the 6’9″ big man has only shown flashes of what his talents suggests he can be. The lack of talent around Gates is the real reason why I see Cincinnati finishing 13th this year though.
12) USF: The bottom of the Big East is filled with teams who lost star players–South Florida is no exception. Dominique Jones has departed and so has is 21.3 ppg average. Left behind are Gus Gilchrist and Jarrid Famous. The Bulls have a top 3 backcourt in the Big East, but they also have a bottom 3 frontcourt.
11) Seton Hall: There is so much returning talent for Seton Hall but they just never seem to put it together. This could be the year they piece together a NCAA tournament team, but the Pirates have done little over the past three years to foreshadow such a result.
10) Louisville: The Cardinals didn’t have a top 15 scorer or top 10 rebounder last season. Samardo Samuels, who led them in both categories, left for the NBA and sharpshooter Edgar Sosa was lost to graduation. After a sixth place finish last year, Rick Pitino will look to finish in the top 10 this year.
9) Notre Dame: Most are looking at the Irish’s strong finish last year without Luke Harangody and expecting a big season this year. While they have compiled a strong team led by Tim Abromaitis, I don’t think anyone realizes how much Tory Jackson meant to Mike Brey. Notre Dame looks to be a solid team lacking any real stars.
Connecticut: Basically the same as Seton Hall here. They have some talent and experience so instead of putting them at the bottom of the spectrum I’m placing them at the top. I see an eighth place finish as the Huskies ceiling. Kemba Walker is electric and there is a small pool of talent around him. It doesn’t hurt that they play Notre Dame and Louisville twice instead of more dangerous teams.
7) St. Johns: Yet another coaching change for a Big East team as former UCLA head Steve Lavin will take the helm at St. Johns. Lavin will try and lead a group of experienced seniors to the Red Storm’s first NCAA tournament since 1999. Eight of their top nine scorers return
6) Marquette: Always a dangerous team at home, Buzz Williams’ squad is a crew of gritty, under-appreciated hard workers. They are potent from beyond the arc as they led the Big East in three point percentage last year. St. Johns and Marquette are not good enough to be elite conference teams but they are a step above the bottom nine teams.
5) West Virginia: Kevin Jones is a star in the making. Extremely versatile, Jones battles underneath but also has nice range for a big man. Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzula are back and there is rising talent in Turkish forward Deniz Kilicli.
4) Villanova: With so much young talent it is nearly impossible to predict where the Wildcats will finish. Ultimately, I don’t see Fisher filling Reynolds shoes or Corey Stokes having a strong enough season to take pressure off Fisher. Villanova’s wealth of talent will bring the Wildcats multiple Big East Championships, but the streak will start next year–not this year.
3) Syracuse: Even with the losses of Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins, and Arinze Onuaku, the Orange will be a force this season. Rick Jackson hasn’t shown enough offensive prowess to provide the scoring punch which Syracuse lost and Melo is not polished enough to be a dominant scorer. Expect Kris Joseph to contend for first-team all Big East and the combination of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche to help the Orange finish in the top three again this year. If not for a tough schedule that includes games at Pittsburgh and multiple dates with Georgetown and Villanova, Syracuse could easily take the regular season title again.
2) Pittsburgh: There are so many weapons on this team that it is tough to put them behind any team in the conference. The Panthers have sound defense, outside scoring, slashing guards, and a transition game. There are two reasons why I am predicting Pitt to finish as the second best team in the league.
-A tough schedule which features a trip to Georgetown and four total games against West Virginia and Villanova
-This team was predicted to finish first in the league based off of experience and not skill. The Panthers are more skilled this year with the additions of talented freshmen J.J. Moore and Talib Zanna. They return every significant player but one from last year’s 25 win team, and every one of them will be better. However, Pitt does not have a player that can simply take over a game–which is necessary come tournament time. Ashton Gibbs lacks the athleticism, Brad Wannamaker lacks the strength, height, and defense, and Gary Mcgee isn’t an offensive threat. Brown is the only player on the roster that possesses the physical tools necessary to become that take-over player. He has never put together a total season though. If the fifth year senior can become a consistent player then Pitt will be able to beat out Georgetown, who does have a take-over player in Freeman.
1) Georgetown: Perhaps a sleeper, but the combination of a favorable schedule and the conference’s top player will lead the Hoya’s to a Big East Championship. Freeman has the ability to take control of a game and keep control of it. He is not alone though. There is enough talent around the senior to take the pressure off him including a future star in Thompson down low.
One issue with the Hoya’s is depth though. Assuming everybody stays healthy, Georgetown will feature the most talented starting backcourt in the Big East. You can also be sure that JT3 develop a serious low post threat.
Three of the last five conference champions have featured the league’s player of the year, and this year will be no different.