By Jon Rothstein
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The expectations of a freshman basketball player in the Big East should be as low as possible.
It’s a league that’s a built for the experienced and the grizzled. The young and naive just don’t seem to survive.
For Villanova, their talented freshmen class is a symbol of a new era and a fresh start. It’s also a reminder that their veterans will have to help mold the Wildcats into a cohesive unit, something that began in August during a team trip to Europe that featured several exhibition games against top quality competition.
“The trip to Europe really helped us,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said this past week at the Jimmy V Dinner at Chelsea Piers. “It gives us a better feel going into the season. I’m excited for every season but I’m really excited for this particular one because our freshmen don’t play like freshmen. They’re a little more seasoned.”
They’ll have to be.
After losing seniors Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, and Antonio Pena, the Wildcats will have five first-year players — all of whom figure to have a prominent role in Wright’s rotation.
The most highly touted member of the group is Jayvaughn Pinkston, a bruising forward with point guard skills who should immediately make fans on the Main Line remember a player from the past.
“A lot of the same attributes I saw in Curtis Sumpter I saw in Jayvaughn Pinkston,” Wright said. “They both went to Bishop Loughlin in Brooklyn and they’re both versatile forwards who can face the basket and be a mismatch.”
Pinkston’s ability to use his individual skills should be enhanced by all three of the Wildcats first-year perimeter players, each of whom add a little wrinkle that should make them able to contribute instantly.
Achraf Yacoubou is an effective shooter than can bury shots from deep off screens. Tyrone Johnson is a big, sturdy guard that Wright said will be used in a role similar to the one Shabazz Napier filled last year for UCONN, and Darrun Hilliard might have been the biggest unknown of the three coming out of high school but has impressed early with his steadiness and decision making.
“We might have gotten a steal with him,” Wright said of Hilliard.
Meanwhile, freshman big man Markus Kennedy adds a legitimate low post presence, something Wright’s teams have lacked throughout his tenure at Villanova.
“The only other traditional big guy we had was Brooke Sales in my first year here,” Wright said. “Markus is a true low post, back to the basket scorer. He’s going to add a lot on the interior.”
The early indications seem to be that Kennedy will spell Mouphtaou Yarou at the pivot with Pinkston and potentially James Bell playing minutes at the “four” if Wright opts to play multiple guard sets to maximize this team’s ability to break people down off the bounce.
Enhancing that will be the Wildcats’ outside shooting, which is without question this team’s biggest question mark heading into the season after losing Stokes after last season.
The likeliest candidate to aid that situation is junior Dominic Cheek, who began his career with monumental expectations but has yet to develop into a reliable contributor.
“His time is now,” Wright said of Cheek. “No one wants to see him have a great season more than me.”
Except for maybe Maalik Wayns. The lightning quick junior floor general returns with near complete autonomy after deferring during his first two years in the back court to upperclassmen like Fisher and Scottie Reynolds.
A break out season from Cheek will help Wayns get into the paint and create for others, something he figures to do with regularity as many expect him to be one of the better guards in the Big East, and potentially the country.
“I’ve talked a lot to Maalik about the type of leader he needs to be and the type of distributor he needs to be,” Wright said. “No matter where we go, he’s got to be one of the guys who leads us.”
THIS AND THAT:
– I really believed that Rutgers coach Mike Rice had a chance to squeeze out 16 or 17 wins this season if everything broke right and right foot injury to freshman big man Kadeem Jack drastically alters that hope. Jack, a first-year power forward with bounds of energy could return for the start of the Big East season but it remains to be seen if fellow first-year big men Greg Lewis and Derrick Randall can effectively fill his void in the mean time. Lewis is a sturdy low post defender but is somewhat limited offensively while Randall is a ferocious offensive rebounder who could be a force if he can finish with more regularity at the rim. When Rice was at Robert Morris, he was known for using a deep bench to constantly wear down opponents and now as he enters his second season as head coach of the Scarlet Knights, he’ll attempt to use the same philosophy — but he’ll have to do it with unproven freshmen. In the Big East, that’s not always a welcomed remedy.
– Xavier guard Tu Holloway might be getting most of the Musketeers’ preseason hype but he’ll be the first one to tell you that freshman guard Dee Davis will have an impact this year for Chris Mack’s team. “He’s really impressed me,” Holloway said of Davis this past week at A-10 Media Day in Brooklyn. “He’s going to really help Mark Lyons and I in the back court. It’s important to have capable guards off the bench and I think we have that with Dee.”
– Marquette coach Buzz Williams raved about the off season development of Golden Eagles big men Chris Otule and Davante Gardner this past week and admitted either of the two could be on the floor in end of game situations. “They’ve made it harder for me to take them out down the stretch,” Williams said this past week. “They’re both vastly improved.”
– No situation may be as pressing for a team awaiting word on a player’s NCAA eligibility than the one Arizona State has with freshman point guard Jahii Carson. The dynamic floor general is still awaiting word as to whether or not he’ll be able to play during the upcoming season and quite frankly, Herb Sendek’s team desperately needs him. The Sun Devils struggled last season and hoped Carson could give them instantly give them a jolt and augment the games of teammates Trent Lockett and Keala King. With Carson, the Sun Devils have a chance to surprise in the PAC-12. Without him, it could be an uphill climb all season in Tempe.
– St. Peter’s coach John Dunne sent a major message this past week by dismissing guard Steven Samuels from the Peacocks for disciplinary reasons. Samuels was one of two returning starters from last year’s team that made the NCAA Tournament and was set to fill the perimeter scoring void left behind by Wesley Jenkins’ graduation. His dismissal proves that Dunne isn’t afraid to put his foot down if things are going the way he wants them to in Jersey City. Without Samuels look for Dunne to start defensive ace Yvon Raymond on the perimeter along with St. Joseph’s transfer Chris Prescott and freshman Lamin Fulton at the point.
– Clemson freshman guard T.J. Sapp has been ultra impressive in early season play and could be the Tigers best bet to replace the departed Demontez Stitt at the point guard during the upcoming season. “He looks like to be a little ahead of everyone else at that position,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said of Sapp. “I like the way he’s embraced things.” Look for Sapp to start immediately with seasoned veterans Andre Young and Tanner Smith joining him on the wings.
– DePaul coach Oliver Purnell suffered some bad news last week when forward Tony Freeland was sidelined for the entire 2011-12 season with a shoulder injury. Freeland had the ability to face the basket and score at 6-foot-6 and would have blended nicely with the Blue Demons’ rising sophomore Cleveland Melvin. Without Freeland, it will be interesting to see who Purnell pairs with Melvin on the baseline as the DePaul hopes to finally make a jump in the Big East standings.
– Keep an eye on St. Bonaventure point guard Charlon Kloof. A 6-foot-3 JUCO transfer with good size, Kloof’s emergence could be the perfect complement to Andrew Nicholson on the interior and Michael Daventport on the wing as the Bonnies hope for a top-four finish in the A-10.