Sports

Rothstein Files: Big East Offseason Notebook, Power Rankings And Players To Watch

Rick Pitino (credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Rick Pitino (credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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By Jon Rothstein
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FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING THE BIG EAST

1. JUST HOW GOOD IS LOUISVILLE?

Really, really good. This has the potential to be Rick Pitino’s best team since he stepped back into the Commonwealth 11 years ago. The Cardinals return most of their key components from last year’s Final Four team and add a terrific all-around talent in George Mason transfer Luke Hancock as well as a brute rebounder in freshman power forward Montrezl Harrell. The combination of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith did wonders for Louisville during the NCAA Tournament but don’t discount 6-4 sophomore Kevin Ware from having a major role in the Cardinals’ back court. Word is Ware has made big time strides during the off season and has even taken reps with Louisville’s first unit. With Ware, Hancock, Siva, Smith plus a healthy Wayne Blackshear, Louisville’s perimeter combined with their physical power forward-center combo of Chane Behanan and Gorgui Dieng make them the odds on favorite to win the Big East — and maybe even the National Championship. A return trip to the Final Four? Anything less would be a disappointment.

2. WILL CINCINNATI EVER GET ANY RESPECT?

We certainly hope so. The Bearcats have won 52 games the past two seasons and advanced to the Sweet 16 last year before being eliminated by Ohio State. This team has talented players, plays stifling defense, and is exceptionally well coached by Mick Cronin — yet they’re rarely mentioned among the Big East’s elite. At this point, it’s no longer an oversight — it’s an insult. Cronin will have a dynamite perimeter of Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick, and Jaquon Parker and that alone should give the Bearcats a chance to remain at the top of the conference. That trio plus bouncy forward Justin Jackson and slimmed down big man Cheikh Mbodj should comprise a starting five that is good enough to beat anyone in the Big East. A big wild card for Cincinnati is Titus Rubles, a 6-foot-7, 220 pound junior college transfer who could be a valuable reserve due to his versatility.

3. HOW WILL NOTRE DAME HANDLE EXPECTATIONS?

We don’t know because they’ve never really had them. Year after year, the Irish are picked in the middle of the Big East preseason poll, then deal with an injury or two before overachieving thanks to a brilliant coaching job by Mike Brey. This year figures to be a little different since Notre Dame isn’t going to sneak up on anyone. Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant comprise a back court that can trade hay makers with any guard tandem in the Big East and Jack Cooley proved last season he’s capable of getting a double-double whenever he steps on the floor. Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman should help this team’s depth as Brey leans on 6th year forward Scott Martin to take the Irish to where they always seem to wind up — the NCAA Tournament.

4. CAN VILLANOVA WEATHER THE STORM?

If they do, they’re going to have to shoot the basketball better from deep. The Wildcats don’t have a perimeter player returning that shot over 37% from three point range and whomever starts at guard, either freshman Ryan Arcidiacono, sophomore Ty Johnson, or Wake Forest transfer Tony Chennault will have to become a capable open shot shooter. With all that said, our money is on junior James Bell to have a big time season. During the first two years of his career, the 6-foot-5 Bell has never been healthy but he’s shown flashes of being a Dwayne Anderson type that could really stabilize Villanova’s perimeter. If Bell has a breakout season and Jayvaughn Pinkston makes the type of jump people are expecting, the Wildcats will be better than people are anticipating.

5. WHO IS THE SLEEPER?

St. John’s. The Red Storm don’t have any players on their team with any sort of winning experience but they’re really, really talented. JaKarr Sampson has the ability to be one of the better players in the Big East and he could form a potentially lethal front line with junior college transfer Orlando Sanchez and freshman shot blocker Chris Obekpa. Sophomore D’Angelo Harrison will play more point guard and should be one of the better perimeter players in the conference. A major key for Steve Lavin’s team? Production off the bench. St. John’s has star power with Harrison and Sampson but they need a few valuable reserves to step to the forefront. Keep an eye on burly freshman forward Christian Jones. The 6-foot-7 Jones wasn’t highly recruited but he’s got all the tools to be an effective piece to Lavin’s puzzle.

BIG EAST PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS

1. LOUISVILLE

THE SKINNY: This could be Rick Pitino’s best Cardinals team yet.

2. SYRACUSE

THE SKINNY: The Orange lost three starters and are still loaded.

3. CINCINNATI

THE SKINNY: The Bearcats will play faster without Yancy Gates.

4. NOTRE DAME

THE SKINNY: It feels weird seeing the Irish this high in the preseason.

5. MARQUETTE

THE SKINNY: Another year, another NCAA bid for Buzz Williams.

6. SOUTH FLORIDA

THE SKINNY: Musa Abdul-Aleem will drastically help the Bulls’ offense.

7. PITT

THE SKINNY: A strong influx of talent will ensure the Panthers return to the NCAA Tournament.

8. GEORGETOWN

THE SKINNY: Lanky forward Greg Whittington will make a major jump as a sophomore.

9. RUTGERS

THE SKINNY: The Scarlet Knights look like an 18-20 win team.

10. ST. JOHN’S

THE SKINNY: Steve Lavin is back and so is the Red Storm’s overall team depth.

11. UCONN

THE SKINNY: The Huskies can’t play in the postseason but their perimeter is still incredibly capable.

12. PROVIDENCE

THE SKINNY: Ricky Ledo could be the top individual talent in the conference.

13. VILLANOVA

THE SKINNY: Jayvaughn Pinkston is primed for a monster season but who’s going to help him?

14. SETON HALL

THE SKINNY: The Pirates’ point guard situation is still a bit of a mystery.

15. DEPAUL

THE SKINNY: The Blue Demons are improving but still have to shore things up defensively.

BIG EAST PRESEASON FIRST TEAM

Vincent Council, Providence

Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati

Cleveland Melvin, DePaul

Otto Porter, Georgetown

Gorgui Dieng, Louisville

BIG EAST PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Peyton Siva, Louisville

TEN THAT HAVE WAITED AND WILL MAKE AN INSTANT IMPACT

1. Musa Abdul-Aleem, South Florida (JUCO)
2. Shaquille Thomas, Cincinnati (red shirt)
3. Wally Judge, Rutgers (transfer)
4. Luke Hancock, Louisville (transfer)
5. Brian Oliver, Seton Hall (transfer)
6. Orlando Sanchez, St. John’s (JUCO)
7. Vincent Garrett, Rutgers (JUCO)
8. Garrick Sherman, Notre Dame (transfer)
9. Trevor Cooney, Syracuse (red shirt)
10. Titus Rubles, Cincinnati (JUCO)

TEN BREAKOUT PLAYERS

1. Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse
2. Jerome Seagers, Rutgers
3. Greg Whittington, Georgetown
4. Jamil Wilson, Marquette
5. James Southerland, Syracuse
6. Wayne Blackshear, Louisville
7. Deandre Daniels, UCONN
8. Jayvaughn Pinkston, Villanova
9. Jamee Crockett, DePaul
10. Kevin Ware, Louisville

TEN FRESHMEN TO WATCH

1. JaKarr Sampson, St. John’s
2. Steven Adams, Pitt
3. Omar Calhoun, UCONN
4. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown
5. DaJuan Coleman, Syracuse
6. Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
7. Ricky Ledo, Providence
8. James Robinson, Pitt
9. Jerami Grant, Syracuse
10. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

FIVE UNDER-THE-RADAR FRESHMEN

1. Zach Auguste, Notre Dame
2. Steve Taylor, Marquette
3. Stephen Domingo, Georgetown
4. Christian Jones, St. John’s
5. DeJuan Marrero, DePaul

Which team is your favorite to take the Big East? Make your prediction in the comments below…