College basketball conference previews: Big East
With the start of college basketball season less than a month away, we're previewing each team in nine conferences. Using a statistical projection system developed by economist Dan Hanner and SI's Luke Winn -- read more about it here -- we've projected the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. Today we look at the Big East, where Villanova enters the season as a heavy favorite.
Projected Conference Race
Coach of the Year: Steve Lavin, St. John's
Should any middle-tier team with tons of questions leap into the thick of the league race, the coach of that club becomes an instant favorite for this honor. But there probably won’t be the necessary separation with so many programs filling so many holes. So it should be neck-and-neck between Lavin and Georgetown’s John Thompson III, but the Red Storm’s fifth-year coach will benefit from taking the program to only its second NCAA tournament since 2002.
Player of the Year: D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown
His offensive rating as a sophomore was 124.2, third in the league. Smith-Rivera’s Win Shares total of 5.4 – a measure of how many victories were attributable his offensive and defensive contributions – ranked third as well in 2013-14. He was underrated as a rebounder (5.0 per game) and now the 6-3 guard should have more help all over the floor with talented freshmen added to returnees like Mikael Hopkins and Jabril Trawick. But he’ll be the unquestioned go-to scoring outlet, so look for Smith-Rivera’s numbers to remain steady while the Hoyas enjoy an upward trajectory as a team.
Freshman of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
There will be other productive freshman contributors for likely better teams, such as Georgetown’s Isaac Copeland and Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett. But no one will have the ball in his hands as much as Whitehead. He averaged 23.6 points per game as a high school senior and may crack 20 in many games as a college freshman simply due to shot volume. Or, the 6-4 guard could emerge a relatively high-efficiency scorer who gets others involved, which probably only increases his chances for winning this honor.
Jay Wright’s operation flows off interchangeable parts, but there’s little to replace. Five of the top six scorers are back, led by forwards Darrun Hilliard II (14.3 ppg) JayVaughn Pinkston (14.1). The point guard, Ryan Arcidiacono, has 67 career starts. Two top-100 freshmen, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges, will battle for time. The goal extends beyond winning the league to reaching the Sweet 16 or better.
After a yawn of an 18-15 season, the Hoyas need a jolt. Isaac Copeland may offer it. The 6-9 five-star freshman can provide instant offense for a team that already returns D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (17.6 ppg last season) but no one else who averaged double-digits besides the unreliable Josh Smith, who played in 13 games last year. Some new blood should get the program’s pulse up.
The thought here is, essentially, Xavier gonna Xavier. Gone are Semaj Christon (NBA draft) and Justin Martin (transfer to SMU). But you anchor everything with Matt Stainbrook (10.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and a table-setting point guard in Dee Davis (4.7 apg). Then you add a top-50 freshman in 6-6 Trevon Bluiett. Then fill in the rest and, ho-hum, another 20-win season and possible NCAA invite.
There’s a lot to like about what the Red Storm brings back, not least an inside-outside combo or D’Angelo Harrison (17.5 ppg in 2013-14) and shot-block specialist Chris Obekpa (2.9 bpg in 2013-14). But Harrison can be more efficient after shooting just 38 percent, and a reliable secondary scorer must emerge from a group including Rysheed Jordan, Phil Greene IV and Sir’Dominic Pointer.
The roster isn’t gutted so much as overhauled. Do-it-all guard Bryce Cotton is gone, but building blocks like LaDontae Henton (14 ppg, 7.9 rpg in 2013-14) and Tyler Harris (11.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg in 2013-14) return. The rest is hope. Can former top recruit Kris Dunn, with 106 career minutes in two years, remain healthy and fulfill his potential? Three of the roster’s seven freshmen were four-star prospects. Can they contribute immediately?
First-year coach Steve Wojciechowski needs clarity from a bunch of unknowns. Is former top-50 recruit Duane Wilson healthy after a leg injury? Can transfer Luke Fischer fill his top-100 recruit promise? Can transfer guard Matt Carlino offer steadiness, not just volume-shooting? The roster features two players with more than three career starts (forward Juan Anderson and guard Derrick Wilson). It features questions everywhere.
Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina are the only returnees who saw action in 30 or more games last year, but it’s not about what happened. It’s about who’s coming. Five-star freshman guard Isaiah Whitehead essentially embodies the last gasps of the Kevin Willard regime after one winning record in four seasons. Whitehead has to lead a program revival, not a one-year skill showcase for himself.
You might have heard Doug McDermott graduated. But the Bluejays lost three other starters, too, leaving Austin Chatman (8.1 ppg in 2013-14) to lead a team that wants to spread the scoring load but also make up for lost points with better defense and offensive rebounding. JUCO transfer James Milliken is seen as a fresh scoring threat. But, basically, everyone must have career years, immediately.
After a 14-17 year, coach Brandon Miller’s health-related leave of absence was news the Bulldogs simply did not need. The optimistic view involves building on returnees like Kellen Dunham (16.4 ppg in 2013-14) and Kameron Woods (7.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg in 2013-14). But Dunham can’t do it all. And Butler needs to improve vastly after its offense ranked 178th in efficiency last year, per kenpom.com.
|Tommy Hamilton IV||F||So||9.7||5.7||0.9||100.5|
The cornerstones are guard Billy Garrett Jr., the reigning Big East freshman of the year, and sophomore center Tommy Hamilton (7.7 ppg). Oliver Purnell went the JUCO route for incoming three-star players Rashaun Stimage and Darrick Wood. But, overall, this looks less like a solid plan and more like flailing for answers after 42 wins in Purnell’s four seasons on the job.