2014-15 NCAA Basketball Preview: The Big East

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It is upon us. We’re exactly one week away from 40and0.com, the Crean Face picture, and @KUBoobs all being relevant again. We’re a week away from conversations about whether Wichita State or Gonzaga could score 20 points against the worst team in the ACC. We’re a week away from watching Big Ten fans tell everyone their conference is the best as their teams maul each other, and then watching them look deep into their souls for answers as none of their teams win the national title. We’re a week away from staying up till 3 a.m. to watch Pac-12 and Mountain West games that probably won’t mean much in the big picture. We’re a week away from Roy Williams stockpiling his timeouts so he can take them to Time Out and cash them in for free chicken cheddar biscuits.

That’s right! College basketball is back!

Best of all, we’re a week away from seeing those before-and-after shots of guys who got in great shape this summer. Remember how last year we saw shirtless pics of Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert every time Michigan played? Well, be prepared this year to see these pictures of Kennedy Meeks, Georges Niang, and Sam Dekker 10 million times. And then be prepared for TV commentators to react like this:

So, to ready myself and all college basketball fans for another season of the most powerful power rankings in the sport, I’ve put together some conference previews. A couple of notes, before you ask:

1. No, I’m not previewing mid-major conferences. If you really need one, here it is: All the usual suspects (Gonzaga, Wichita State, VCU, and San Diego State) are going to be good.

2. Yes, I’m including the American and the Big East as power conferences. They’re both a step down from the real Power 5 and should probably be part of an “upper mid-major” category with the A-10, Mountain West, West Coast Conference, and Missouri Valley. But the defending national champions are from the American. And both the Big East and the AAC have multiple schools with post-WWII national championships, which is something no mid-major conference has. So until another wave of conference realignment jacks everything up in five years, or until mid-majors start winning national titles, this is how it’s gonna be.

Let’s start with the Big East.

The Top Three Teams

wright-jay-villanovaJared Wickerham/Getty Images

1. Villanova
2. Georgetown
3. Xavier

Throughout the second half of last season, I pointed out that Villanova’s gaudy record, balanced scoring, and solid defense weren’t enough to outweigh their blowout losses in the three marquee games the Wildcats played after Christmas: at Syracuse, at Creighton, and home against Creighton.1 Nova had no problem beating up on the decent teams, but those three losses against elite competition made me question whether they had the extra gear it would take to win three or four straight NCAA tournament games, let alone the six it takes to win a national title.

And lo and behold, Villanova was bounced in the second round2 by UConn when Shabazz Napier staged a full-blown Shabazz takeover, put up 25 points in just 25 minutes, and finished out the 12-point win on a bum leg. Nova fans might argue that this didn’t prove me right, it just proved that Villanova is cursed.3 Plus, upsets happen in every tournament; the Wildcats aren’t the only team that’s had a run of tough March Madness breaks in recent years. I would counter by saying that I don’t think it’s a coincidence that UConn beat Villanova by a larger margin than any other team during the Huskies’ championship run.

But you know what, Nova fans? Let’s let the past be the past. I doubt that we’ll be arguing much this season, because I think this year’s Villanova team will be better than last year’s. That’s to say that I expect Dylan Ennis, Daniel Ochefu, Josh Hart, and Kris Jenkins to all make significant improvements this season that will more than make up for the loss of James Bell. Yes, Bell was the Wildcats’ leading scorer and third-leading rebounder last year, but Villanova has such a deep and experienced roster returning that it’s not hard to imagine other players stepping up in Bell’s place.

Jay Wright likes to spread out his team’s minutes, and the Villanova rotation will probably go nine deep again this season. If I were him, however, I’d tighten the rotation in big games and let the Wildcats veterans suffocate the opposition. Here’s what I’m thinking: Even though Ryan Arcidiacono has been the franchise point guard for years, what if Villanova moved him to the 2 to make space for Dylan Ennis? I’d still have Arcidiacono control the offense, because he’s a great passer with superb instincts. I want him to be the one getting the high ball screen when the shot clock gets low, but earlier in possessions I’d like to see him run off more screens and play the two-man game with JayVaughn Pinkston. Arcidiacono will still be the quarterback; just give Ennis the point guard label, let him bring the ball up the floor, and let him defend the other team’s lead guard so Arcidiacono doesn’t wear himself out trying to stay in front of quicker guys all the time.

If Wright goes this route  and it should be noted that he almost certainly won’t  Villanova can start Pinkston at the 4, Darrun Hilliard at the 3, and Daniel Ochefu at center. That would give Wright two seniors and three juniors in his starting five and a level of experience that very few good college basketball teams can match. Even more importantly, this starting lineup would allow Wright to bring Josh Hart off the bench. Hart is one of Villanova’s five best players, but he’s also a high-energy guy who could torch other teams’ second units. If I were Wright, I’d tell Hart that he’ll be the best sixth man in the nation, that he’ll play starter’s minutes no matter what, and that I want him coming off the bench because he can replace any of the five starters. For example, if Ennis needs a sub, then Arcidiacono can slide to the point and Hart can play the 2; or, if Ochefu is in foul trouble, Villanova can shift Pinkston to the paint and run a four-out offense around him in which Hart is technically the power forward. This energy and flexibility off the bench could be a major advantage.

Even if Wright doesn’t follow my infallible advice, he will still have a ton of options and a roster that’s loaded with talent and experience. Plus, this team will have something to prove, as they’ll want to wash out the bad taste that an early 2014 tournament exit left in their mouths. Besides a late-November trip to Brooklyn for a four-way tournament with VCU, Michigan, and Oregon, Villanova’s nonconference schedule isn’t very difficult (sorry, Syracuse and Illinois fans), and their conference schedule isn’t that tough, either, since the Big East is awful this year. That’s why this is my first bold prediction of the 2014-15 NCAA basketball season: Villanova will be the last undefeated team in the nation.

There’s a Joshua Smith–size gap between Villanova and the rest of the Big East, which is why picking the conference’s second-best team feels like picking my second-favorite Psy song. But I’ll go with Georgetown because I love Hoya guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and the team has a great recruiting class. Plus, if Joshua Smith can actually stay on the court for more than half of each game, he and Smith-Rivera could be a deadly combination (remember how Smith dominated Oregon in last year’s opener?).

From there, the third-best team is probably Xavier. I like Butler more than any sane person should, but the Bulldogs are still a year away,4 and their coach has been missing for so long that even Liam Neeson might not be able to find him at this point. St. John’s looks decent, and Creighton and Providence have some potential. But Xavier should be better than all of them. Losing Semaj Christon will hurt, but the Musketeers will still be deep thanks to solid newcomers like Trevon Bluiett, Edmond Sumner, and Remy Abell and the senior leadership of Matt Stainbrook and Dee Davis.

Best College Player: D’Angelo Harrison (St. John’s)

harrison-d'angelo-st-johnsNate Shron/Getty Images

If you need an idea of what Harrison’s game is like, I’ll just start with “Shabazz Napier” and work from there. Sure, I will probably end up comparing no fewer than 274 guards to Napier over the course of the season,5 but it’s an apt comparison in Harrison’s case.

OK, so Harrison doesn’t have Shabazz’s handle or first step. And while the mixtape might lead you to believe otherwise, Harrison doesn’t set up his teammates as well as Shabazz did (mostly because Harrison isn’t a point guard). And it should be noted that Napier has two more national titles on his résumé than Harrison has NCAA tournament appearances.

But can we talk about the sack on this guy? Can we talk about how he will pull up from anywhere at any time with any number of defenders in his face? Can we talk about how he’s dripping with swagger? And it’s not the in-your-face posturing kind of swag, it’s the steely-confidence kind. What about how he dribbles with no real purpose, probes the defense, and then ultimately says “screw it” and bombs a contested 25-foot fadeaway that often goes in? Harrison even kicks his legs on his jumper, for god’s sake.

In all seriousness, Harrison isn’t going to be Shabazz this year. Shabazz was a college basketball legend who carried his team to a national title on an empty stomach. Harrison is a shooting guard who scores a ton of points,6 and his team sometimes wins as a result. So, yes, Harrison has a long way to go before he can even sniff Shabazz territory.

But I’ll be damned if Harrison isn’t the type of talent who can take over games and lead the Red Storm to a few upset wins. Just ask Creighton about how the 12th-ranked Bluejays were up one at St. John’s with 2:18 to play last season before Harrison rattled off his team’s final eight points en route to a five-point Red Storm win. Or ask Villanova about how Harrison has averaged 25.3 points against the Wildcats in his career. He hasn’t gotten a win over Nova yet, but Harrison’s teams have taken the Wildcats to overtime twice and have lost by an average margin of just 6.3 points.

I don’t know if Harrison is good enough to lead St. John’s to the NCAA tournament. But I do know that he’ll score a ton of points, and I know that there will be several nights this season when he’ll be unguardable, and I know that he’s the best player in the Big East.

Best Pro Prospect: Darrun Hilliard (Villanova)

hilliard-darrunJoe Robbins/Getty Images

There’s a fair chance that none of the Big East players in the 2015 NBA draft class will ever play a meaningful pro minute. That’s insane. I’ve held out hope that the Big East would get its mojo back after conference realignment. I mean, it’s still called the Big East and DePaul is still at the bottom of the standings, so it can’t be that different, right? Well, yes, it can be. There are no noteworthy NBA prospects in the Big East. That is the world we live in. Dave Gavitt is rolling in his grave.

If any Big East player this year has a chance to carve out an NBA career, it’s Darrun Hilliard. Before we explain why he has a shot, let’s start with the bad side of Hilliard’s scouting report. Even though he was Villanova’s second-leading scorer and was named the conference’s co-most improved player last season, Hilliard isn’t making NBA waves yet because he’s not that explosive and he needs to tighten up his ballhandling. Hilliard has great range on his shot and can consistently score in a variety of ways, but isolation, using ball screens, and finishing at/above the rim don’t seem to be included on that list. NBA wings separate themselves with their ability to make something out of nothing. Hilliard’s not there yet.

There is good news: Hilliard has an NBA body (6-foot-6, 215 pounds) to go with a smooth and reliable outside stroke. With just those attributes, he’ll be able to play professional basketball overseas for a long time. And Hilliard still has a good chance to develop into an NBA player. He’s a solid defender, and even though 3-point shooting is his bread and butter, he’s not one-dimensional on offense. In fact, he aced my “Is This Shooter One-Dimensional?” test last season, the lone criterion for passing being that he managed to have good games even when his shots weren’t falling.

Last season, Hilliard was like a poor man’s version of Kentucky guard James Young, all the way down to the left-handedness and the sleeve on the left arm. (But thankfully not Young’s Cheetos or Wanda Sykes hair.) This year, Hilliard will carry more of Villanova’s offensive load, which also means that defenses will focus more on stopping him. The extra attention may shine a spotlight on his weaknesses and snuff out any interest from NBA scouts. But if he made huge strides in the offseason like he’s done every other summer he’s been at Villanova, Hilliard could prove to NBA teams that he belongs in the league.

Most Underrated Player: D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (Georgetown)

rivera-smith-d'vauntes-georgetownEric Francis/Getty Images

Smith-Rivera was named the Big East Preseason Player of the Year, so he isn’t exactly an unknown in the world of college basketball. But if you ask a college hoops fan who doesn’t follow the Big East closely to name someone from last year’s Georgetown team, and then you remind them that Otto Porter wasn’t on that team, my guess is that their answer would be either Markel Starks or Joshua Smith. Starks, after all, was the senior point guard who was first-team all-conference last season, and Smith was … well, we’ll get to Smith in a bit. In the meantime, check out this blind player comparison from last season:

PPG RPG Steals/gm TO/gm FG% FT% 3PT%
Player A 17.6 5.0 1.2 1.7 44.5 87.3 39.3
Player B 17.3 2.3 0.9 2.3 41.2 87.0 32.6

One of those players is Starks and the other is Smith-Rivera. I left out assists per game, because with Starks playing point guard, his assist numbers would have been a dead giveaway. Even so, knowing that Starks was first-team all-conference and that Smith-Rivera made the second team should lead you to the conclusion that Starks is Player A and Smith-Rivera is Player B, right? The point wasn’t to make you guess which player was which, but rather to show that Smith-Rivera was just a tiny bit worse than Starks last seas— 

Wait, what? Starks is Player B and Smith-Rivera is Player A?

[Double-checking last season’s stats.]

Huh. That’s weird. Starks averaged 4.1 assists per game, while Smith-Rivera averaged 2.7, but every other meaningful statistic says that Smith-Rivera had the better year? And he ended up on the Big East second team? Well, OK then.

I don’t mean to disparage Starks. He was Georgetown’s leader and the kind of four-year athlete that NCAA traditionalists love to rave about. But Smith-Rivera matched him statistically, and he did it as a sophomore playing second fiddle. Now that Smith-Rivera is the Hoyas’ no. 1 guy, Lord have mercy on the rest of the Big East.

Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career: JayVaughn Pinkston (Villanova)

pinskton-jayvaughn-villanovaJared Wickerham/Getty Images

Halfway through last season, I thought JayVaughn Pinkston might have a shot to be named Big East Player of the Year over Doug McDermott. McBuckets had the national POY award locked up almost as soon as the season started. But, I wondered, what if Villanova dominated Creighton both times they faced each other (they didn’t), and what if Pinkston maintained his pace of 18 points and seven boards per game in Big East play (he didn’t)? Pinkston eventually wound up on the all-conference second team when his scoring numbers dipped over the second half of the season, and my hypothetical ended up looking ridiculous. But back in January, I swear you could’ve said, “JayVaughn Pinkston is better than Doug McDermott” and I wouldn’t have necessarily laughed you out of the room.

So what happened to Pinkston? Well, nothing. Aside from dealing with occasional foul trouble, he rarely had a bad game. In fact, Pinkston’s rebounds per game and field goal percentage both improved as the season wore on, and his scoring dropped because Villanova had so many offensive weapons and only one ball to share. The Wildcats will have tons of scoring options again this year, but getting the rock to Pinkston should be more of a consistent offensive priority for Villanova.

As much as I want to believe that Pinkston can join Jared Sullinger in the “Overweight 2010 McDonald’s All-Americans who cut a ton of weight in college and then made the NBA” club, I’m afraid most American basketball fans won’t be seeing Pinkston play after this season. He lacks NBA athleticism, and at 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds, he’s basically a power forward/center stuck in a small forward’s body. He’s too small to play in the paint, but he shoots only 26 percent on 3-pointers and he’s turnover-prone.

So Pinkston’s NBA prospects look bleak. Let him deal with that later. For now, he’s the best player on one of the best teams in the country, and I’ll enjoy watching him as long as he’s around. And besides, even if he never makes a dime in the world of professional basketball, Pinkston’s five-year journey at Villanova is one he should be proud of.

Hey, speaking of 2010 McDonald’s All-Americans with weight problems …

Most Frustrating Player: Joshua Smith (Georgetown)

smith-joshua-georgetownMitchell Layton/Getty Images

Before I offer my thoughts, let’s check in with the Georgetown fans to see how they felt about year one of the Joshua Smith Experience:

georgetownfingers

Yep, pretty much what I expected.

What makes Smith so frustrating is that he’s so freaking good. Well, he’s good at being immovable, catching the ball, and putting it into the basket. Outside of that, he can be a huge liability. He’s an awful defender (especially at hedging on ball screens), he doesn’t rebound as well as he should, it takes him half the shot clock to get down the floor, he’s almost always in foul trouble, and he doesn’t have the stamina to play for more than half of the game. But holy smokes: When Smith has it going, he’s unstoppable. That’s why it’s so hard to give up on him. His game has plenty of warts, but underneath those blemishes there’s an unparalleled beauty that leaves your mind full of possibilities, almost all of which begin with If he could just …

But what if he can’t? I mean, it’s been more than four years now. Why should we believe that this year will be different? I know, I know. Smith has finally gotten himself into shape. Yeah, we say that every year, but this time we mean it! Just look at this Hoya Madness promo pic. You can almost see his muscles! There’s no way he would ever let himself fall back out of shape between the time that picture was taken and the beginning of the season. Like, there’s no way he would ever weigh around 310 pounds in the offseason but then look well over 350 pounds once the games started. That would never happen!

In all seriousness, I hope like hell that Smith can figure it out. The Hoyas started 10-3 last season before Smith was ruled academically ineligible. They went 8-12 with him out of the lineup. Sure, their early success probably had as much to do with an easy nonconference schedule as anything else, but there’s no denying that Smith’s presence  especially when he was on his game  made the Hoyas a far more dangerous team. With D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Jabril Trawick on the perimeter, if Smith can bring it down low 20 to 25 times this season like he brought it against Oregon last year, Georgetown is a Sweet 16 team at the very least.

Again: If.

Most Intriguing New Coach: Steve Wojciechowski (Marquette)

wojciechowski-steve-marquette-duke-wojoKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I’ve been critical of how Coach K disciples receive automatic praise from the college basketball world, even though they’ve combined to coach more than 110 seasons and they don’t have a single Final Four to show for it. Mike Krzyzewski is the best college basketball coach ever. We can give him credit for that while also acknowledging that his coaching tree has a lot of proving left to do. Yet, like clockwork, another Coach K disciple has been hired  this time at Marquette  and, like Pavlov’s dogs, another fan base is salivating over the thought of having a Coach K Jr. running its program. Well, I’ve got news for you, Marquette fans: After reading this Wojo profile from Jim Owczarski, you should know that …

… I’M ALL IN ON WOJO!!!

How could anyone who reads that article come to any other conclusion? I understand that for millions of college basketball fans, Wojo will always be that little shit who slapped the floor, got irrational love from Dick Vitale, and was “probably the most overrated college basketball player ever.” Steve Wojciechowski was basically Aaron Craft on steroids when Aaron Craft was in diapers.

But now?

“Wojciechowski is Marquette.”

Wojo is Marquette! I have no idea what that means, but I’m onboard! Just look at what this article taught us:

  • Wojo dove into pools when he was 18 months old. Eighteen months!
  • He dove into bleachers for a ball he was never going to save when he was in seventh grade, not unlike a certain someone.
  • The dude pulled his teammates off the court during pregame warm-ups because they weren’t going hard enough. After yelling at them, he put his fist through a wall. And this was when he was in high school.

Talk about taking basketball seriously. Can you imagine being in high school and having a teammate yell at you for coasting through layup lines? I bet half of the guys on the team were like, “Whoa, cool your jets, Steve. I’m only here for the chicks. Win or lose, I’m gonna be posted at The Max in three hours with my letter jacket on, a water bottle full of vodka in one hand and a sophomore named Brianna in the other.”

Seriously, though, all signs point to Wojo being a super-intense coach (shocking, I know) who loves his players, knows how to develop talent,7 and has a savvy basketball mind. Everything that made Wojo easy to hate as a player seems likely to make him a great coach. Even though Marquette will be awful this year, Wojo’s competitive nature, his experience, and the ability he has already shown to land huge recruits have me convinced that he will be the coach who makes me believe in Krzyzewski disciples.

Coach on the Hot Seat: Oliver Purnell (DePaul)

purnell-oliver-depaulEric Francis/Getty Images

Oliver Purnell has been a Division I head coach since 1988. He has zero career NCAA tournament wins. He has won 42 games in four years at DePaul, which is only six more games than Billy Donovan won last season. He has won nine conference games in those four years, which is half as many conference games as Donovan won last season. The best that DePaul has finished in the Big East standings since Purnell took over is dead last. The only top-100 recruit he has signed at DePaul is Billy Garrett, whom ESPN ranked no. 94 in the class of 2013. His tenure has been the worst four-year stretch in the school’s 90-year basketball history. The best moment in Oliver Purnell’s DePaul tenure came when Cliff Alexander had a Blue Demons hat on the table as he announced he was going to Kansas.

Oliver Purnell will be paid around $2 million this year.

That is all.

Something to Keep an Eye On: Greg McDermott’s Next Chapter

mcdermott-greg-creighton-coachRonald Martinez/Getty Images

Is Greg McDermott a good coach?

On one hand, his pre-Creighton résumé is unimpressive: zero NCAA tournament wins, four straight losing seasons at Iowa State, and zero regular-season conference championships at the D-I level. Hell, one could argue that his Creighton tenure has also been lackluster, since his Bluejays couldn’t even make the Sweet 16 with one of the best college players of this generation. I’m not in that camp (no matter the circumstances, 107 wins in four years ain’t easy), but I get it. It’s easy to think that Gregg Marshall, Shaka Smart, or Brad Stevens would have done more with Doug McDermott.

Then again, since Doug is Greg’s son, Greg must have done a good job coaching Doug into the player he is today. And let’s be real here  it’s not like Creighton had much talent surrounding Doug. I mean, Ethan Wragge played like he was wearing an electro-shock collar that buzzed him anytime he got within 30 feet of either rim, and Grant Gibbs was so old that I’m pretty sure his medical redshirt year was due to gout. The 2014 Creighton team was a house of cards that was built to shoot a billion 3s and play no defense. Maybe Greg McDermott should have tried to construct a more well-rounded team, but Creighton also doesn’t have the status and cachet to lure the kind of talent that ends up at Kentucky or Kansas. Those Bluejays were fun to watch, they could bury any opponent if they all got hot at the same time, and they won a slew of basketball games. But they were always destined to crash and burn in the NCAA tournament, even with Doug McDermott leading them.

With Doug off to the NBA, it should be fascinating to see what Greg does next at Creighton. This, of course, is assuming that he doesn’t decide to walk away in mid-January when the Bluejays are .500 and just move to Chicago to follow Doug’s NBA career.

Five Pressing Questions

1. Can Isaiah Whitehead make Seton Hall relevant for the first time since the Pirates’ 2000 Sweet 16 run?

2. Over/under: 2.5 NCAA tournament bids for the Big East?

3. Is Todd Mayo or Buzz Williams the more baffling Marquette departure?

4. Where did Ethan Wragge and Nate Lubick end up after graduation, and how do I get them on my church league team?

5. What if Butler coach Brandon Miller pulls a George Costanza by showing up at Hinkle Fieldhouse like nothing happened after five years of his mysterious leave of absence? And speaking of Brandon Miller: What in the world is going on with Brandon Miller? Feel better, coach, and then come back to us!

Filed Under: College Basketball, NCAA Basketball Preview, Big East, Villanova, Georgetown, Xavier, St. Johns, Darrun Hilliard, JayVaughn Pinkston, Joshua Smith, Steve Wojciechowski, Marquette, 2014-15 NCAA Basketball Preview

mark-titus-dont-put-me-in-coach

Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In, Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is on sale now.

Archive @ clubtrillion