By Jon Rothstein
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FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING THE BIG EAST
1. HOW MANY BIDS WILL THE CONFERENCE WIND UP GETTING IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT?
It’s a question that’s on the mind of every coach in the league, especially since the old version of the conference was a lock to receive eight or nine annual invitations to the field of 68. It’s safe to say this league will have at least five teams in the NCAA Tournament, but anything more than that depends on what happens elsewhere. With Louisville’s presence in the American Athletic Conference for one year, and the Atlantic 10 becoming more and more of a battle, the Big East has legitimate competition for bids next season with other leagues that are operating in a non-BCS type of setting. That all means that the the non-conference portion of the schedule will get exceptionally more important for every school in the Big East because they won’t have as many in-conference opportunities to boost their RPI or potential NCAA standing. Almost every team in the league will have multiple opportunities to prove themselves nationally before they begin conference play in December, and every one of those games will play a big role in whether or not the new Big East puts more than four or five teams in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
2. IS VILLANOVA BACK?
It certainly feels that way. The Wildcats were filled with questions at this juncture last year, but Jay Wright rallied Villanova with the best coaching job of his career en route to 20 wins and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats return four starters from last season’s team, and add several key newcomers highlighted by Rice transfer Dylan Ennis. Ennis, who averaged 8.5 PPG during the 2011-12 campaign with the Owls, will give Wright a combo guard who can get his own shot, and provide Villanova with an isolation option they didn’t have last season. His presence should augment the production of veterans like Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard and Jayvaughn Pinkston. Another name to remember for the Wildcats? Kris Jenkins. The stocky, 6-foot-5 freshman doesn’t necessarily look the part, but possesses a high basketball IQ and overall feel that extends beyond his years. Keep an eye on Jenkins as a pivotal reserve for Villanova up front.
3. HOW WILL GEORGETOWN PERFORM WITHOUT GREG WHITTINGTON?
Just fine. The Hoyas would have been a better team with Whittington — who tore his ACL about a month ago — but John Thompson III has shown that he’s one of the best coaches around in terms of replenishing talent. Georgetown will have arguably the Big East’s best backcourt with Markel Starks, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Jabril Trawick while still possessing a pair of veteran big men up front in Nate Lubick and Mikael Hopkins. A real wildcard for the Hoyas is UCLA transfer Josh Smith, who is expected to be eligible for next season’s second semester. Two reserves to keep an eye on next year for Georgetown? Stephen Domingo and Reggie Cameron. The 6-foot-7 Domingo could emerge as a long-distance threat off the bench, while Cameron is a sharpshooting stretch power forward who is a perfect fit for the Hoyas’ system.
4. CAN ST. JOHN’S PUT IT ALL TOGETHER?
If they do, it’s bad news for the rest of the conference. Other than Kentucky’s John Calipari or Arizona’s Sean Miller, no coach in America has recruited better than Steve Lavin over the past few seasons. The California native has brought an influx of talent to New York that is rivaled by few, but it will be interesting to see if it all comes together during the upcoming year. The Red Storm looked like they were on their way to being a bubble team last February before leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison was suspended with four games remaining in the regular season. If Harrison returns, he’ll be part of a loaded perimeter along with Phil Greene, Jamal Branch and highly-touted freshman Rysheed Jordan, who could wind up being one of the more talented guards Lavin has ever coached. That quartet along with sophomore forward JaKarr Sampson should give St. John’s enough offense to compete with anyone they’ll face. The Red Storm are also expecting to get mileage out of JUCO forward Orlando Sanchez, who will make his highly anticipated debut after sitting out all of last season. The two underrated keys for this team are the two guys who bring the highest level of intangibles — Dom Pointer and Chris Obekpa. The 6-foot-6 Pointer filled the box score at will during the second half of last season, proving that he can be one of the better glue guys in college basketball if he gets the opportunity. When Pointer played more minutes, St. John’s went to a different level. Don’t be shocked to see Lavin regularly go with a smaller lineup and use Pointer at the four.
5. WHO IS THE SLEEPER?
Providence. The Friars return the bulk of a team that reached the NIT last season, and add three impact newcomers in freshman Brandon Austin along with transfers Tyler Harris (NC State) and Carson Derosiers (Wake Forest). Sophomore point guard Kris Dunn is ready to assume full-time point guard responsibilities after Vincent Council’s graduation, while the combination of LaDontae Henton and Kadeem Batts should be as good as any power forward/center tandem in the Big East. Not many people are talking about Providence with the formation of the new-look conference, but they should. Ed Cooley has quietly recruited at a high level since he took over the Friars’ program, and has a team that should contend for the school’s first NCAA berth since 2004.
BIG EAST PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS
THE SKINNY: Buzz Williams will blend arguably his most talented recruiting class with a strong core of veterans.
THE SKINNY: Rice transfer Dylan Ennis gives the Cats a guard who can make a play at the end of the shot clock.
THE SKINNY: The Hoyas will be right in the mix for a Big East title.
4. ST. JOHN’S
THE SKINNY: The Red Storm are clearly the conference’s most talented team, but how will they mesh?
THE SKINNY: Ed Cooley has a strong, balanced nine-man rotation.
THE SKINNY: Freshman sharpshooter Myles Davis will take immense pressure off Semaj Christon.
THE SKINNY: Doug McDermott returns along with a strong supporting cast, but who replaces Gregory Echenique?
THE SKINNY: Even with Brad Stevens, this was going to be a transitional year for the Bulldogs.
9. SETON HALL
THE SKINNY: The Pirates could be a nuisance for teams to play if they remain healthy.
THE SKINNY: Freshman point guard Billy Garrett Jr. is the Blue Demons’ X-Factor.
BIG EAST PRESEASON FIRST TEAM
Markel Starks, Georgetown
Bryce Cotton, Providence
JaKarr Sampson, St. John’s
Doug McDermott, Creighton
Davante Gardner, Marquette
BIG EAST PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Doug McDermott, Creighton
TEN THAT HAVE WAITED AND WILL MAKE A MAJOR IMPACT
Jameel McKay, Marquette (JUCO)
Dylan Ennis, Villanova (transfer)
Josh Smith, Georgetown (transfer)
Orlando Sanchez, St. John’s (JUCO)
Tyler Harris, Providence (transfer)
Carson Derosiers, Providence (transfer)
Devin Brooks, Creighton (JUCO)
Sterling Gibbs, Seton Hall (transfer)
DeJuan Marrero, DePaul (red shirt)
Matt Stainbrook, Xavier (transfer)
TEN IMPACT FRESHMEN
Deonte Burton, Marquette
Duane Wilson, Marquette
JaJuan Johnson, Marquette
Kris Jenkins, Villanova
Reggie Cameron, Georgetown
Rysheed Jordan, St. John’s
Brandon Austin, Providence
Myles Davis, Xavier
Brandon Randolph, Xavier
Billy Garrett Jr., DePaul
FIVE UNDER-THE-RADAR- FRESHMEN
Josh Hart, Villanova
Rodney Bullock, Providence
Jalen Reynolds, Xavier
Kamall Richards, Xavier
Rene Castro, Butler
FIVE BREAKOUT PLAYERS
Daniel Ochefu, Villanova
D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown
Kris Dunn, Providence
Kellen Dunham, Butler
Brandon Mobley, Seton Hall
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