Big East Primer: Minus many stars, familiar names again look dominant
Lack of star power in Big East has thrown Player of the Year race wide open
Gary McGhee is shot-blocking presence that will anchor strong Pitt interior defense
UConn's Kemba Walker most NBA-ready prospect but will need scoring help
Player of the year: Corey Fisher, Villanova
The Big East was drained of its star power in last June's NBA draft, and this could be the first year since 1998 that the conference doesn't produce a Lottery pick. Partially as a result, the Player of the Year race is wide open, with four lead guards -- Fisher, Georgetown's Austin Freeman, Pitt's Ashton Gibbs and UConn's Kemba Walker -- as the early favorites. Fisher isn't the pick because he scored 105 points in a streetball game this summer, although it was reassuring to hear that he's still capable of taking over an offense. He's the choice because he's a high-efficiency guard (116.2 offensive rating in '09-10) who can score by getting to the line (drawing 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes) or shooting from long range (39.6 percent), and he's being handed a much bigger role after the departure of Scottie Reynolds.
Impact Freshman: Fab Melo, Syracuse
Orange coach Jim Boeheim, who correctly predicted that Wes Johnson would be Big East Player of the Year last season, has said that Melo will contend for the league's Freshman of the Year honors ... so be advised. "How many 7-footers out there have good hands, can shoot, and are good passers?" Boeheim told me in August. "[Melo] is a not a project." The Brazilian big man will likely start at center and patrol the middle of Syracuse's zone.
Breakout Candidate: Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette
The Golden Eagles have two breakout candidates in their first year without Lazar Hayward: senior forward Jimmy Butler, a Scott Hattieberg-like character in college hoops (beloved by tempo-free statheads for his 128.5 ORating, unknown to average fans) ... and Johnson-Odom, a junior who could emerge as one of the league's best all-around guards. He's already one of the nation's most accurate three-point shooters (at 47.4 percent), and is developing into a formidable, physical perimeter defender. If he learns to finish more effectively around the rim, he'll be a star.
Inside the Numbers: 41.8.
That's the percentage of its own missed shots that West Virginia rebounded last season. Only one team in the country (Bob Huggins' previous squad, Kansas State) was better at offensive rebounding. That, in large part, was the reason the Mountaineers were a good enough offensive team to win the Big East tournament and reach the Final Four. The glasswork was done mostly by three forwards: Kevin Jones (who grabbed 12.0 percent of misses), Wellington Smith (10.8 percent) and Devin Ebanks (9.5 percent). With Smith and Ebanks gone, West Virginia is a difficult team to rank. It'll only crack the top 25 if Jones and role players John Flowers, Cam Thoroughman and Deniz Kilicli can collectively rebound at a similar rate.
The Panthers defended well inside the arc last season, holding opponents to just 43.6 percent (ranking 26th in the country in that category). Gary McGhee, a punishing, 6-foot-10 center, gets very little attention nationally, but deserves a lot of credit for Pitt's defensive success. He's a shot-blocking and rebounding force who's content to play a minuscule role on offense -- essentially, the perfect role player.
Maalik Wayns is just as good of a breakout candidate as Johnson-Odom; I included the Wildcats' sophomore on my Breakout Formula team, and expect big things from him in 2010-11. He's a heady point guard who should form a scary 1-2 tandem with Fisher -- and may very well be a bigger NBA prospect than Fisher is.
There's plenty of excitement over the arrival of Melo, and sixth man Kris Joseph is expected to morph from super-sub to go-to-guy as a junior, but the two-headed point guard of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche is what makes me most bullish about the Orange. Jardine was an efficient scorer and assist man as a sophomore, and Triche often played well beyond his years in high-pressure moments as a freshman.
As the Hoyas attempt a rare conversion from a center-dominated to guard-dominated offense, it's nice to know they have guards who can score on the interior. The two-point percentages of junior Jason Clark (55.7) and senior Austin Freeman (56.8) were actually higher than Greg Monroe's (54.5) last season.
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