The realigned Big East will likely never be the basketball powerhouse that we think of when we hear “Big East,” but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered a power conference. Four different schools have made a Final Four in the last decade (Marquette, Butler, Georgetown, and Villanova), one has made two Elite Eights in that time (Xavier), four more have made Final Fours at some point in their history (Providence, St. John’s, DePaul, and Seton Hall), and one is Creighton (Creighton).
The point is this: Think of the new Big East as a reboot of a show like, say, Whose Line Is It Anyway? Sure, the U.S. run with Drew Carey peeing his pants every five minutes was better than the current show, but that doesn’t mean the reboot isn’t worth watching.
Top Three Teams
Let’s see how well you remember last season. Louisville won the national championship, Syracuse made the Final Four and beat Indiana rather easily in the NCAA tournament, and Georgetown had a first-team All-American and earned a 2-seed in the tournament. Based on that information, where would you guess Marquette finished in the Big East? Probably fourth, right? Maybe Pitt, Notre Dame, or UConn sneaked ahead of them? Marquette fans are probably reading this with scowls on their faces, thinking, Are you serious? We won a share of the conference title and made the Elite Eight! Who doesn’t know this?
Well, my guess is that a significant number of people don’t remember. Think about it. Louisville, Georgetown, Syracuse, and even Pitt all had first-round draft picks. Marquette’s best player, Vander Blue, went undrafted and wasn’t even an All-American honorable mention. On top of that, how many marquee wins did Marquette have last year? By that, I mean how many times did Marquette win a game that was a must-watch for college basketball fans? How many times did people watch SportsCenter, see the Marquette score from the night before, and think, Oh, wow, I didn’t realize Marquette was that good? Maybe its win over Syracuse, but not much other than that, right? (Stick with me, Marquette fans. This is all leading to something positive.)
Hell, even Marquette’s NCAA tournament run was more about its opponents than about the Golden Eagles. When they beat Butler in the second round, the story was that Butler’s NCAA tournament magic finally came to an end. When they beat Miami in the Sweet 16, it was that Miami was overrated. And when they lost to Syracuse in the Elite Eight, the lesson was “Holy balls, Syracuse’s defense is great!” Hardly ever last season was the narrative about Marquette, and when it was, the theme seemed to always be a backhanded compliment along the lines of “How are these guys winning?”
My reason for bringing this up is to mention that Buzz Williams is turning Marquette into a consistent winner, and he’s doing it rather quietly. As someone who never passes up an opportunity to crap on Tom Crean,1 it should be noted that Crean’s best Big East record was 11-7, which is a mark that Williams has eclipsed in three of his five seasons. Most impressively, the highest Marquette draft picks under Williams were Jimmy Butler and Lazar Hayward, who were each selected with the final pick of the first round in their respective drafts, so it’s not like Williams has had an abundance of elite talent.
This season will be more of the same for Williams. He’ll have a bunch of good-but-not-great players. I don’t expect the Golden Eagles to be as good as last year because they’ll have to replace their two best players in Blue and Junior Cadougan. But with guys like Davante Gardner, Jamil Wilson, Chris Otule, and Todd “Oh yeah, I forgot O.J. Mayo’s brother plays at Marquette” Mayo coming back, a pretty solid recruiting class, a weaker Big East, and Williams’s ability to squeeze the most out of his players, I expect Marquette to win the first Big East 2.0 title.
Meanwhile, the only significant loss on Creighton’s roster was big man Gregory Echenique, who was the Bluejays’ second-leading scorer and rebounder a season ago. But let’s not kid ourselves — the last two seasons Creighton has basically been Doug McDermott & Co., and with McDermott coming back for his senior year to be a walk-on (more on this later), as long as the “Co.” part of McDermott & Co. isn’t entirely incompetent, Creighton should be fine. And, for the record, the Co. part consists of three other returning starters and a slew of upperclassmen who have logged a ton of career minutes.
Lastly, Georgetown’s attempt to replace the most versatile player in the country from a year ago, Otto Porter, is going to be an even greater challenge with Greg Whittington suffering an offseason ACL tear. But I still like the Hoyas to finish third because I’m high on Markel Starks, I love Georgetown’s physicality and defense, and John Thompson III is a solid regular-season coach. Plus, I’ll always have a soft spot for Georgetown as long as Nate Lubick plays for them, if for no other reason than it’s impossible to watch him and not think of Brian Scalabrine.
Best College Player — Doug McDermott (Creighton)
Are you prepared to live in a world where a white walk-on named Doug who wears a T-shirt under his jersey is the best player in college basketball? Because there’s a good chance it will happen. I don’t want to speak for all walk-ons, but I’m thinking this is kind of like the Zach Braff/Kickstarter situation. On one hand, I’m excited for what McDermott can do for the walk-on community. He’s good enough to do for walk-ons what Billy Madison did for kids who pee their pants. Then again, McDermott is almost certainly going to steal the walk-on spotlight from those anonymous faces on the end of the bench whose stories deserve to be told. I’m sure I’ll end up leading the McDermott for Player of the Year campaign, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about the consequences.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let me explain why McDermott is going to be a walk-on this year. Basically, all of Creighton’s scholarships were accounted for before it received the surprising news that Grant Gibbs would be granted a sixth year of eligibility. Upon hearing this news, McDermott presumably went into his dad’s office, put his jersey on his dad’s desk, and said, “This one’s for Grant, Coach.” Whatever the case, McDermott gave up his scholarship for Gibbs and will now have to find a way to pay the full $44,000 to attend Creighton. And before you ask, the answer is no — even though he doesn’t have a scholarship, he still can’t make money off of his name to help alleviate the cost of college, even though literally every other non-athlete on Creighton’s campus who’s paying 40 grand could do so if they wanted. I can’t wait to hear Dan Dakich try to explain why this isn’t a colossal load of shit.
Best Pro Prospect — Semaj Christon (Xavier)
Xavier probably won’t be all that great this season, but I still suggest you find a way to watch at least one of its games just to see Christon play. He’s a 6-foot-3 point guard with long arms who dunks on defenders, sees the floor pretty well, and possesses a great feel for the game. But that’s not what matters. What’s important is that he averaged 15.2 points, 4.6 assists, and 1.5 steals per game as a freshman last season. Knowing that, think about this: Excluding last season, since Chris Mack replaced Sean Miller as the Musketeers’ coach, the team’s leading scorers have averaged 20.5 ppg (Jordan Crawford), 19.7 ppg (Tu Holloway), and 17.5 ppg (Holloway). Mack clearly has no problem giving his guards free rein to get buckets, and I’m hoping he doubles down on that philosophy this season.
In my dreams, Christon realized this summer that this is his last season at Xavier and that if the Musketeers have any chance at making the NCAA tournament, he’ll have to carry them. Then, Mack called Christon into his office and told him: “You’re going to play every minute of every game and I want the ball in your hands 90 percent of the time we’re on offense. Let’s be honest — we’re not going to be very good this season. So I’m thinking you and I can make an agreement that will benefit both of us. You get to use this season to do whatever you want on offense, and when you put up ridiculous numbers and win all sorts of awards, I get to use it as a recruiting tool to get kids to come to Xavier to be the next Semaj Christon. That work for you?”
Christon says yes, shakes Mack’s hand, then leaves the office licking his lips like Glen Davis.
Most Underrated Player — Grant Gibbs (Creighton)
Gibbs is properly rated in that he’s not the kind of guy who can take over a game and he doesn’t put up huge numbers. But he’s underrated in another way: The average college basketball fan probably can’t name a single Creighton player other than Doug McDermott, but Gibbs’s play is one of the factors that allows McDermott to be so good. Although Gibbs is Creighton’s starting shooting guard, he has led the Bluejays in assists each of the last two years, primarily because, as Eamonn Brennan pointed out, he’s Creighton’s best post feeder and he knows how to get the rock to McDermott when and where he wants it. Beyond that, as a 24-year-old sixth-year senior, Gibbs plays an important leadership role for Creighton, and his 8.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game from last season show how versatile he is. He’ll never be a star, and I’m guessing most fans still won’t know much about him this season, but if Creighton gets over the hump and makes a run to the Sweet Sixteen or deeper this season, Gibbs will be a big reason why.
Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career — Markel Starks (Georgetown)
Syracuse fans might disagree with me, but Starks is the kind of guy who is impossible to cheer against. He’s the epitome of what makes college basketball great. He’s a D.C. kid who went to Georgetown’s prep school for four years before enrolling at the university. As a freshman, he barely played, he wasn’t very productive in the few minutes he got, and he was a self-described know-it-all. In his defense, just about all freshmen (athletes or not) think they have all the answers, but it’s still worth mentioning that Starks had a bit of an attitude problem early in his career. Instead of sulking, though, he put in the work in the offseason and became Georgetown’s starting point guard as a sophomore. It was an up-and-down season for Starks, but he had another great summer of practice, and as a result played consistently well last season, as he and Otto Porter led the Hoyas to a Big East title. Across the board his numbers have significantly improved each year, and best of all he’s now the undisputed team leader.
We hear coaches talk all the time about how a huge part of their job is turning boys into men over the course of four years. It’s easy to be a cynic and dismiss this talk as a clichéd way for coaches to deceive the public into thinking they care about anything but winning basketball games and collecting their seven-figure salaries. But then guys like Starks come along and remind you that there is a virtuous side to college basketball. Even in the One And Done Era and the Every Coach At A Halfway-Decent Program Makes Millions Era, there are still players who stay in school four years and become much better players, leaders, students, citizens, and overall people than they were when they arrived on campus. That’s what makes this sport great.
Player Who Best Fits the Label “Loose Cannon” — Joshua Smith (Georgetown)
The sole purpose of this category is to give me an excuse to write about Marshall Henderson in my SEC preview, and although Smith isn’t in the same league as Henderson when it comes to being a loose cannon, he’s certainly unpredictable. For the unaware, Smith was heavily recruited out of high school, and he made the Pac-10’s all-freshman team at UCLA in 2011. But six games into last season he left UCLA, either because he wasn’t getting much playing time or because he was sick of losing to some straight bums. He had a hard time earning minutes in Ben Howland’s rotation because Smith, who is listed at 350 pounds, couldn’t maintain the pace and pressure of Howland’s man-to-man defense. In all honesty, he could barely function on the court for more than a couple minutes at a time. Even during his successful sophomore year, Smith averaged only 17 minutes per game, so when he gained 10 pounds over the offseason instead of shedding weight like many expected he’d do, it made perfect sense that he wasn’t going to play more.
Smith has reportedly lost 40 pounds since arriving at Georgetown, so Hoya fans can hold on to a shred of hope even though he is still having problems with conditioning. Maybe the change of scenery will do him good and coach John Thompson III will be able to reach Smith in a way that Howland apparently never could. Maybe not. Whatever the case, the fact that it’s impossible to discuss Smith without mentioning the word “potential” is exactly what makes him so unpredictable. Sure, he could potentially get down to a healthy weight and wreak absolute havoc on the Big East. But he’s potentially just as likely to play the first four minutes of every game, collapse onto the bench during the first media timeout, never get up, and just sit there the rest of the game ripping hits out of an oxygen tank and eating buckets of Skittles.
Most Intriguing New Coach — Brandon Miller (Butler)
Miller was on staff at Ohio State during three of my four years in Columbus, so I know him pretty well. Honestly, I don’t have a bad word to say about the guy. He’s passionate about the game, he relates well to players, and he knows his stuff. Does all of this mean he’s going to have success at Butler? I don’t know. From an unbiased perspective, it’s hard not to think that now would’ve been a good time for Butler to abandon its policy of hiring “Butler guys.” Miller might prove to be a great coach, but Butler’s playing in the big leagues now. Gone are the days of loading up on the guys from Indiana that IU, Purdue, and Notre Dame didn’t want, preaching The Butler Way, then going out and beating the snot out of the UW-Milwaukees and Detroits of the world. Butler is playing in a conference with historically great programs and has to deal with astronomical expectations that didn’t exist as recently as five years ago. Relying on The Butler Way to magically get the most out of guys isn’t going to be enough. This is why I thought the Miller hire was surprising. But then I remembered that Miller surely knows that he won’t be able to sustain success by relying heavily on the New Castle, Indiana–Butler pipeline2 and that Butler has yet to make a hiring mistake in my lifetime.3
Coach on the Hot Seat — Oliver Purnell (DePaul)
I know. You’re surprised that Purnell is still coaching at DePaul. I was, too. I remember him confusing the college basketball world when he left Clemson for DePaul in 2010. Since I haven’t heard anything about him in three years, I figured he arrived in Lincoln Park, realized he made a huge mistake, immediately resigned, and spent the last three years fishing. But nope — DePaul’s website still has him listed as the head coach, even though no coach in DePaul basketball history has ever gone through a worse three-year stretch than than Purnell has in the past three.
I’m only half-joking about not knowing Purnell was still at DePaul. What’s not a joke, though, is that I had no idea until I recently saw it on Wikipedia that Purnell has the same number of NCAA tournament head coaching wins as I do. Even as I read that back it makes no sense. Oliver Purnell has been a Division I head basketball coach since 1988 and he has zero NCAA tournament wins?! ZERO?! As in five less than Steve Alford and one less than Frank Haith? How is that possible? More importantly, why don’t DePaul fans hold up signs that read “Oliver Purnell Has 0 NCAA Wins” at games? Why is there not a “Has Oliver Purnell won an NCAA tournament game?” website like HasMarioBalotelliMissedAPenalty.com that just reads “NO” when you go to it? I was planning on using this space to talk about how the Blue Demons somehow aren’t even the best team in Chicago anymore and how Purnell makes $1.8 million a year even though he finished last in the Big East in each of his three seasons at DePaul. But finding out Purnell has zero NCAA tournament wins changed all that. This is my new favorite college basketball statistic. I’m now cheering for DePaul to make the tourney this year just so Purnell can add to his 0-for-6 total.
Most Compelling Story Line — Butler’s Losses
Brad Stevens leaving to coach the Celtics grabbed all the headlines, but that’s far from the only loss Butler fans had to endure this summer. Aside from Stevens’s NBA adventure, Butler fans learned that their best returning player, Roosevelt Jones, will miss the entire season with a wrist injury, and that their live bulldog mascot, Blue II, died of congestive heart failure. And if that weren’t bad enough, every Butler fan’s all-time favorite player, Gordon Hayward, got the shaft in NBA 2K14 with an overall rating of 70, which is somehow worse than the rating Austin Rivers’s Punchable Face received. It’s like the basketball gods are collecting on Butler’s debt all at once after the program’s recent stretch of seemingly everything going right for the program.
Of course, there are probably some Bulldogs fans who have grown so accustomed to being the underdog that they’re trying to convince themselves that all of this adversity will be good for Butler this year. This might turn out to be true because we are talking about Butler, after all. Still, I can’t help but think that the challenges it faces this year — new coach, tougher conference, lost its three best players from last season — is not just “adversity.” Adversity is your spouse getting laid off or one of your kids getting diagnosed with a disease. When you come home from work to find that your house is in ashes, your entire family has been murdered, and you’ve been framed for it, you’re no longer facing adversity — you’re facing a catastrophe.
Watercooler Comment That Will Make You Sound Like You Really Know What You’re Talking About
“Senior walk-on Taylor Stormberg won the Club Trillion National Player of the Year Belt last year, which means if Doug McDermott wins the Naismith Award, Creighton would be the first school in history to have two walk-ons on their roster with national player of the year awards.”