Tuesday, November 8, 2011

2011-12 Preview -- Fourth Quartile

A Casting Call...
The four teams that make up the Big East's bottom quartile share a common feature -- they have talent, just not enough of it. DePaul, Providence and Rutgers have each replaced their head coach and staff within the last 18 months. South Florida will most likely follow suit next spring. The Demons, Friars and Knights were in various stages of decomposition when their Athletic Directors forced a change of direction. DePaul and Rutgers are in Year Two of their rebuilding process, while Ed Cooley is just getting started. The challenges have to be daunting.

2010-11 Season
OverallBig EastBETPost
South Florida10230.3033150.16715BET

Together these teams matched Pittsburgh's conference win total. Lacking 11 bid-worthy teams this season, expect these four to do better in the win column...by a combined two or three wins.

Team Thumbnail (in 300 words...more or less)
DePaul -- The Purnell Era, Year Two
Coach Oliver Purnell has a pair of solid stars in Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young. Those two, both sophomores, will be the pillars around which he will rebuild the Blue Demon program. Cleveland (14.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) who was named Conference Rookie of the Year last March, will anchor the front court, while Young (30.4 mpg, 12.6 ppg, 3.7 apg), who made the All-Rookie First Team along with Cleveland, will man the point and anchor the back court. Returning guards/wings starting off guard Jeremiah Kelly, Edwind McGhee and Joe Belcaster will be joined by 5-11 JUCO Worrel Clahar and freshmen Charles McKinney (a 6-3 local from suburban Evanston who prepped at Quality Education Academy in North Carolina). Baltimore native Macari Brooks was a NCAA Clearing House casualty. Front court veterans include 2010-10 starting center Krys Faber and sophomore forward Moses Morgan. Junior Tony Freeland will red shirt this season after surgey to stabilize his right shoulder. Joining Freeland as a red shirt will be Montray Clemons, another Baltimore native who ruptured the patellar tendon in his left knee in late October. Entering freshmen Jamee Crockett and transfer Donnavan Kirk (when he is eligible after the Autumn quarter) will round out the forward rotation, with freshman Derrell Robertson pushing Fabers in the low post. In the wake of the roster shakeup (Clemons, Freeland and Macari), DePaul's new basektball blog, Under the El posted a a breakdown of Purnell's rotations for his last three Clemson teams to assess whether DePaul's suddenly shallow(er) rotation would torpedoe Purnell's timetable to implement his high-pressure offensive and defensive system. There are (still) enough bodies, but are they athletic and conditioned well enough to withstand an 18 game conference schedule?

The Blue Demons' 2010-11 offensive efficiency (points per possession scored) was low (about 0.95), but they turned in an especially porous defensive efficiency (opponents' points per possession) of 1.17 in conference play. Handing out the highest points per possession in conference play did not by itself condemn the Demons to their 1-17 record, but the resulting difference margin (offensive efficiency - defensive efficiency) was, at -0.214, nearly double that of the next nearest conference team. Purnell's charges will have to work on field goal defense (cut into their opponents' conversion rate) and turnovers (get them up, something Clahar was particularly adept at doing) this season. The thin rotation may be especially vulnerable at the end of the season when DePaul will host Providence and Seton Hall within a fortnight to close out the regular season. The Friars and Pirates (along with guests St. John's and South Florida near midseason) are the best candidates for wins. Will the Blue Demons have enough gas in the tank to take them? Progress in 2011-12 will be measured in a smaller efficiency margin (and one or two additional wins).

Providence -- Ed Cooley! Come on Down!!!
The Keno Davis Era ended on an especially flat 1-8 note. Providence Athletic Director Robert Callahan, with a much clearer idea of what he wanted as a head coach, turned to Rhode Island native Ed Cooley, a five year veteran head coach who resurrected the Fairfield program, and closed out this search three weeks earlier than his 2008 search (which brought Davis to Friartown in the first place). Without Marshon Brooks to supply 788 points this season, where will Cooley turn for the points? The best of the lot is returning guard Vincent Council, with guards Bryce Cotton and Gerard Coleman providing second and third scoring options. The roster lists 13 players, but of the 11 who checked into the Assumption College exhibition game, five shot a combined 0-3 with none of those five, despite averaging over seven minutes apiece, attempting more than a single field goal. The shallow rotation was even shallower with the news that junior forward Kadeem Batts was a DNP versus Assumption -- coach's decision (indefinite suspension it turns out, that could run into the regular season) -- and freshman guard Kiwi Gardner was ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA (Providence will appeal). True Coach Cooley decided to go with a revamped front court, starting two freshmen, red shirt Brice Kofane (6-8, 205 lbs) and LaDontae Henton (6-6, 220 lbs, Lansing, MI) and bringing junior Bilal Dixon in off the bench (Dixon scored 13 points in 22 minutes, on a very efficient 71.4% eFG% and 1.32 PPWS). But the overall offensive efficiency, an anemic 0.97 points per possession (PPP), was masked by the 13 point winning margin (64-51). The other disquieting note was rebounding, Coach Cooley's squad grabbed a meager 25% of their own misses, while Assumption was able to take a second chance shot on 35% of their misses. Those numbers will kill Providence in conference play.

The South Padre Island Invitational field will pit both Iowa State and Northern Iowa against the Friars could be cause for Thanksgiving (and optimism) should Providence sweep those two on a neutral court. Most of Providence's regional opponents (Holy Cross, Rhode Island and Boston College) will come to the Dunkin Donuts Center this season, an advantage for the home team to be sure. Drawing South Florida as a mirror is small consolation for the Syracuse/Georgetown combination (will the Hoyas hold up on the road?). Hosting Rutger and Seton Hall may offer the best possibilities for additional wins if the Friars' lack of depth is not exposed by early February.

Rutgers -- Meet the All New Scarlet Knights
Second year coach Mike Rice recruited a whopping seven man class, which means the 2011-12 season should begin a total makeover process for the Scalet Knight program. The changes begin appropriately enough at the #1, with newcomers Myles Mack, a 5-9 All-State player out of St. Anthony's will take the point, probably backed by senior Tyree Graham, a JUCO who took a red shirt last season. Sophomore Austin Carroll will be pushed at the off guard by newcomer combo guards Eli Carter, a 6-2 prep who committed to St. Bonaventure before taking a fifth year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, and Jerome Seagears (6-3, 175 lbs), who prepped in Maryland. The front court may have to wait a while for the "names" to make an impact. Kadeem Jack enrolled last January and took a red shirt to practice with the team. Jack was injured just before fall practice and after surgery to his right foot will require 3-4 months of rehabilitation. Kansas State transfer Wally Judge (6-9, 245 lbs) will sit this season per NCAA transfer rules. In the meantime, returning sophomore Gilvydas Biruta, an All-Conference Rookie Teamer from 2011 will make due with junior Austin Johnson and a pair of freshmen, 6-8 Derrick Randall and 6-9 Greg Lewis. Look for freshman Malick Kone, an athletic 6-5 guard/forward to join a wing rotation that includes junior All-Conference prospect (and most likely starter) Dane Miller and sophomore Mike Poole. Rice has bodies this season, Carter or Seagears can move over to the point should Mack falter; Lewis and Randall will pick up minutes they would not get if Jack and Judge were available. The learning curve may prove to be the squad's greatest challenge. The Scarlet Knights' 2011 conference defense was porous, allowing 1.08 points per possession. Shot defense (a generous 49.7% eFG%), rebounding (allowed opponents a 35.5% rate on their missed field goals) and fouling (51.1% FTA/FGA) the three areas that need improvement.

The Cancun Challenge slate facing Rutgers is hardly overpowering. Illinois State is projected to finish in the MVC's lower division, while Illinois and Richmond are a year away from their peaks. Losing to any of the three (or two of the three) would suggest the Scarlet Knights will be on track to settle into the bottom of the conference. Florida will be the Scarlet Knights' marquee out of conference matchup. Beating the Gators would be great, but keeping it close is more realistic. Rutgers drew Seton Hall, Notre Dame and West Virginia as mirror opponents; a 3-3 record would be great, a sign the Knights may well finish out of the bottom quartile, but 2-4 or 1-5 might be more realistic. 0-6 would be a strong suggestion Rice's team is more than a year away. Among the conference visitors this season, DePaul, Villanova and St. John's offer the best opportunities for a win. Among the road conference opponents, South Florida and Providence are possible wins. To get out of the bottom quartile, Rutgers would need at least 5-6 wins. One or two from the mirrors, combined with two or three from the home slate would still require the Knights to take a game or two on the road...a very narrow margin of error.

South Florida -- the Perpetual Rebuilding Project
Counting the additions to the 2011-12 roster, Coach Stan Heath has coached 38 players in his five years in Tampa. Of the 38 players (a thirty-ninth, Brock Martino is a transfer from South Alabama who will sit this season), 19 played a single season for Heath, the average "stay" being 1.7 seasons. This season's squad will average 2.0 seasons with the coach, but even chalking the eight who left or finished after Heath's first season (three graduated or exhausted their eligibility and five transferred) to "housekeeping", that still leaves 30 players in four seasons, or just under eight new players each season, way too much turnover to establish a stable program. Of the 13 players on this season's roster, six were JUCO (three) or transfers (three). The Bulls' front court will feature two returning starters from last season, August Gilchrist (28.4 MPG, 14.4 PPG, 6.0 RPG) and Ron Anderson (22.5 MPG, 7.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG), both transfers. Gilchrist who sat a year at (and never suited up for) Maryland, will team with Anderson who transferred in from Kansas State after one season. This is the last season for both. Junior Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (14.2 MPG, 4.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG) will rejoin the rotation. Newcomers include Arizona State transfer Victor Rudd and freshman center Jordan Omogbehin. Senior (two year walkon) Alberto Damour will see a few minutes. A rotation of returners, Jawanza Poland (27.0 MPG, 9.1 PPG, 1.06 SPG), Shaun Noriega (16.5 MPG, 6.4 PPG) and Hugh Robertson (30.1 MPG, 8.3 PPG, 1.8 APG) will man the wings with help from newcomer Victor Rudd from Arizona State. Look for JUCO Blake Nash (6-0, 185 lbs) to get first crack at the point, with bench player LaVonte Dority and true freshman Anthony Collins (6-1, 175 lbs) to back him up. Heath has to solve problems on both sides of the ball. While the defense yielded a horrible 1.09 points per possession, the offense countered with a very anemic 0.97 points per possession of it's own. Heath needs points on offense, as their 46.0% eFG% conversion rate in conference play would suggest. The Bulls must also staunch a 22.5% turnover rate in conference play was the highest in the conference. A good point guard should help, so if Nash struggles, the Bulls may well flounder.

An out of conference slate that includes a VCU rematch (in Richmond, VA) and three road games, two with power conference opponents (Kansas and Auburn) and non-BCS Southern Mississippi of CUSA, is not overwhelming, but should offer the Bulls faithful a chance to see their team compete against solid competition. VCU and Kansas should contend for conference honors (and may well return to the NCAAs), while Auburn and Southern Mississippi will finish in lower halves of their respective conferences. Beating the Jayhawks or Rams would force a re-evaluation, but losing to the Tigers or Golden Eagles could foretell a pattern that should play out in the conference season. The Bulls drew Pittsburgh, Providence and Villanova as conference mirrors which, Pitt aside, could have raised interesting prospects for Heath's program. 0-6 would be a disaster, but 2-4 might be the ceiling, with the Bulls dropping two to the Panthers, and either splitting with the other two or sweeping one of Villanova or Providence. 1-5 is a real possibility, especially if South Florida cannot stop the bleeding on either side of the ball. Among the conference teams they host, the best opportunities for wins would include Rutgres, Seton Hall and St. John's, all of whom they see before the third week in January. Picking through the road slate, DePaul offers the best opportunity for a win, which suggests a ceiling of maybe five conference wins. The Bulls could collect fewer.

Most Likely to...(and why):
Move up a Quartile -- Rutgers. Coach Rice's recruiting has been energetic, but few would know it given the job (and headlines) done by St. John's Steve Lavin. If the veterans produce and the freshmen get with the program (and do not develop a case of freshman fatigue), look for the Scarlet Knights to surprise a few teams and close out with a florish. The greatest uncertainty continues to be depth and whether the players they have can be competitive in the Big East Conference.

To Draw #16 Seed... -- South Florida It is tough to win when the roster turns overs as much as the Bulls' has the past few seasons. Coach Heath's tendency to favor JUCOs and transfers (too often problem children...) over freshmen trades quick wins for a stable roster that offered freshmen players the opportunity to develop.

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