Big East Primer (cont.)
Freshman Vander Blue was an impressive third guard -- alongside Duke's Kyrie Irving and high school senior Austin Rivers -- in the starting lineup of the U.S.' gold medal-winning entry in the FIBA Americas U18 tournament this summer. Blue, who should start for the Eagles from Day 1, was strong in transition, with good finishing skills and a pretty pull-up jumper, and he aggressively jumped passing lanes on D. By 2011-12, he'll be one of the Big East's most exciting players to watch.
6. Seton Hall
The Pirates were dysfunctional last season, but they have a talented core of veterans returning in Jeremy Hazell, Herb Pope and Jeff Robinson. New coach Kevin Willard, who was hired from Iona in the offseason, has the defensive mindset to elevate the Hall from an NIT team to an NCAA team. A key will be the continued dominance of Pope on the glass. He was among the nation's best all-around rebounders last season, and the Pirates are hoping he's fully recovered from surgery following a scary, post-practice collapse in April.
7. West Virginia
Junior forward Kevin Jones was perhaps the most glaring omission from the Wooden Award's preseason Top 50. He might be the most versatile 250-plus pound player in the country, having made 40.4 percent of his threes, 56.5 percent of his twos, and offensive-rebounded at a 12.0-percent rate last season. He'll emerge as a major star now that Da'Sean Butler has moved on to the pros.
8. St. John's
New coach Steve Lavin has been tearing up the recruiting trail, amassing a phenomenal class of 2011 recruits, but what he inherited from Norm Roberts isn't bad, either: 10 seniors, including the backcourt scoring trio of D.J. Kennedy, Dwight Hardy and Paris Horne. Forward Sean Evans is an underrated asset (he ranked 34th in the country in offensive rebounding last season) who should earn some of Anthony Mason Jr.'s vacated minutes in the frontcourt.
The Cardinals are capable of making the NCAA tournament, especially if junior center Terrence Jennings -- who made 61.7 percent of his twos and blocked 10.7 percent of opponents shots in limited action as a sophomore -- has a breakout season. But they'll have to overcome a messy offseason that included the embarrassment of the Karen Sypher trial, freshman Justin Coleman being ruled ineligible, Roburt Sallie failing to secure a transfer waiver, Jared Swopshire and Russ Smith's injuries and Preston Knowles' suspension.
Kemba Walker, arguably the Big East's best pro prospect, has been dominating Huskies practices, which is good to hear ... but UConn desperately needs a few scorers to step up around him if it's going to reach the NCAA tournament. The best candidate may be 6-8 freshman Roscoe Smith, an excellent shooter who'll start on the wing and be the beneficiary of all the defensive attention put on Walker.
11. Notre Dame
Senior forward Tim Abromaitis emerged from anonymity last season and earned a starting spot by making 42.9 percent of his threes. In him and senior guard Ben Hansbrough (a 41.4 percent long-range shooter) the Irish have some serious perimeter firepower. Can their offense thrive without point guard Tory Jackson, though? The four-year starter was the heart and soul of the team and rarely left the court in '09-10, playing 92.7 percent of minutes.
12. South Florida
Coach Stan Heath recently proclaimed that the Bulls "have the best front line in the league." Syracuse would probably beg to differ, but Heath isn't far off in his praise of 6-10 junior Augustus Gilchrist (13.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and 6-11 senior Jarrid Famous (10.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg). They need Gilchrist to take a commanding role of the offense after losing scoring machine Dominique Jones, who took 30.5 percent of their shots.
It's possible that the Bearcats will benefit from not having Lance Stephenson around to take 26.2 percent of their shots in 2010-11, as he did last season while posting a sub-par efficiency rating (98.6). This is Yancy Gates' team now, and the junior power forward (10.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg in '09-10) will need to have a monster season to put Cincy in consideration for the NCAAs. He's bound to face constant double-teams given the Bearcats' lack of perimeter scorers, though.
The Friars were the only Big East team with an offseason worse than Louisville's. Jamine "Greedy" Peterson, who was blossoming into a Big East star (19.6 ppg, 10.2 rpg), was dismissed from the team and left to play in Europe, and three other players faced disciplinary action. Look for sophomore forward Bilal Dixon to emerge as a force on the glass (his offensive/defensive rebounding percentages as a rookie were 11.9/16.7), but it's unlikely this team will finish anywhere near .500 in the league.
Scarlet Knights fans are willing to endure a rough 2010-11 -- in which they have no clear go-to-guy after Mike Rosario transferred, and no size after losing center Gregory Echenique -- because they know what's coming in '11-12. New coach Mike Rice has assembled a strong first recruiting class that includes four-star power forward Kadeem Jack and four-star point guard Jerome Seagears.
In September, I called Oliver Purnell's situation at DePaul the "least favorable" of any new coach; he inherits a bare cupboard of talent and the difficulty of recruiting talent to play in the way-way-way off-campus Allstate Arena. Purnell did land one top-100 recruit for 2011, though: point guard Shane Larkin, the son of ex-Reds shortstop Barry Larkin. He should earn immediate playing time when he arrives next season, because the Blue Demons -- led, presumably, by senior Mike Stovall, who averaged 7.0 points last season -- aren't liable to win many games in the meantime.
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