The Bottom Half of the Top Half
The teams who finish in this quartile will have won at least 10 games and almost certainly (if they were not too cute with their out of conference schedule) have an NCAA bid in hand when they leave Madison Square Garden after the Big East Tournament. The quartile will have (by my projection) two new teams, Notre Dame sliding down from a first quartile finish last season, and Marquette, sliding up from the 2011 third quartile.
Marquette, Notre Dame and West Virginia have established themselves as upper division (at times elite) programs in conference play, no small feat in the Big East. Cincinnati is back. Labeled a Dead Man Walking when Andy Kennedy, the last vestage of the Bob Huggins Era, stormed out of Fifth Third after a first round NIT loss back in 2006, Mick Cronin has revived the program and has them within striking distance of the conference penthouse.
Team Thumbnail (in 300 words...more or less)
Cincinnati -- Bearcat Rising?
The offensive and defensive efficiencies (points per possession), along with the difference margin for the past three seasons...
...if the trendline holds Coach Mick Cronin's squad should better their 11-7 record by one or two wins this season. Lance Stephenson came and went as did Ibrahima Thomas; Deonta Vaughn lifted the Bearcats a bit and moved on; Rashad Bishop took his 15 minutes on the great stage, but the constant over the past three seasons has been Yancy Gates (27.8 MPG, 11.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG) -- with a nod to Dion Dixon (26.8 MPG, 11.6 PPG, 1.5:1.0 ATO). Those two were the squad's leading scorers last season, and without a doubt Coach Mick Cronin is happy to have both back again this season. Though Thomas and Bishop (& Darnell Wilkes) are gone, the Bearcats return 59% of their 2010-11 minutes (four points above the conference average of 55%) and 66% of their scoring. As usual, the Cincinnati team starts with the front court where Gates will be joined by returning rotation player Justin Jackson. Red shirt freshman Kelvin Gaines will compete with 6-10 JUCO big Cheikh Mbodj for starts and minutes in the low post. A trio of freshmen fowards, Octavius Ellis, Jermaine Sanders and Shaquille Thomas will find work on the wing, giving Cronin a "going big" option. Thomas is especially well regarded in that group, though Ellis is an interesting 6-9 in height. The back court will have two year starter Cashmere Wright again manning the point and pair up with Dixon, a senior off guard. Sean Kilpatrick started a single game in 2011-12, but played an average of 20.5 minutes while appearing in all 35 of the Bearcats' games. Kilpatrick will get a bit of competition from JaQuan Parker, a 6-3 junior who saw more minutes as a freshman. With freshmen guards Jeremiah Davis (a 6-3 native of Muncie, IN who prepped at Huntington Prep last year) and Ge'Lawn Guyn, a Kentucky native who prepped at South Kent last season pushing the rotation, there will competition for minutes at virtually every position.
A road trip to Georgia, a Cross Town randezvous at the Cintas Center and a visit from Oklahoma highlight the out of conference slate, not, Xavier aside, the most challenging preparation for conference play. The Xavier game will be billed a Top 10/15 matchup, and should be closer than last season's 22 point Bearcat beatdown of the Musketeers. If 'Nati is 14-0 for their New Years Day (2012) game with Pittsburgh, count on this game as a Top 10 matchup. Drawing mirrors with Marquette, St. John's and Villanova should be interesting. 6-0 may not be likely (but possible), 5-1 with sweeps of Villanova and St. John's is, if the offense gels, within reach, though 4-2 would be a modest bump in the road. Top conference contenders Louisville, Notre Dame and Syracuse will all visit Fifth Third, an advantage for Cronin's charges. Going 3-0 against those three should cushion against a road slate that includes Connecticut, Georgetown, Pittsburgh and West Virginia. Going 4-0 against that slate would probably net them the regular season crown, not realistic, but 2-2, even 1-3 would be keep them in the hunt for a bye seed for the year-end Garden party.
Marquette -- Tom Crean's Best Recruit...
|Which Warrior/Golden Eagle|
|was Tom Crean's Best Recruit?|
If you answered (A) you are clearly a (Wisconsin) homer; (B) is a logical response at this point; (C) and you probably did not pay attention to Marquette until they joined the Big East (hint, there was life before 2006); in another three seasons, (D) might be the new no brainer. The best news for Marquette in an otherwise bad news (for the Big East) off season was that Buzz Williams turned aside talk of the Oklahoma job quickly and focused on the job at hand in Milwaukee. True the Sooners are in pretty bad shape but Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione asked Buzz first, and the three year veteran, coming off of his first Sweet Sixteen run looked at the Sooners, and took a pass. Which leads me to think he, looking over the Golden Eagle 2011-12 roster and prospects (and a new contract?), had to like what he saw in Milwaukee more than Norman, a huge development given Williams' southwest roots. Though he (the Williams with a B) was out coached by Williams (the one with an R) last March, chalk that up to inexperience, something I suspect will happen less the longer he stays and the more notebooks he fills.
Oklahoma did find a good match in a very experienced Lon Kruger, but Marquette fans have to feel good going into this season. They lost NBA draftee Jimmy Butler, and a couple of other seniors (not to mention a promising front court player in Erik Williams), but return 62% of their 2010-11 minutes and 61.8% of the scoring, strong hints about the balance on the roster. Starters Darius Johnson-Odom (off guard...30.0 MPG, 15.8 PPG, 2.4 APG), Jae Crowder (#4, 27.6 MPG, 11.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG) and Chris Otule (#5, 17.6 MPG, 5.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG) are back, along with center Devante Gardner whose role and involvement grew as the season progressed. Expect the sophomore to challenge Otule for a larger role in the low post this season. DJO will be joined in the Marquette back court by junior Junior Cadougan (19.8 MPG, 4.0 PPG, 3.2 APG) who, along with sophomore Vander Blue (19.0 MPG, 5.1 PPG, 1.6 APG), have logged starts in their time at Marquette. Freshmen prospects Derrick Wilson, a 6-0 product of The Hotchkiss School will be Cadougan's back up at the #1, while Todd Mayo, a 6-3 guard out of Huntington, WV by way of Notre Dame Prep in Massachusetts (and younger brother of OJ Mayo) will join Blue and DJO in an off guard/wing rotation. Crowder along with Otule and Gardner will anchor the front court, but expect Oregon transfer Jamil Wilson to fill Butler's shoes on the wing. If he can become a consistent contributor and improve his outside shot, the Golden Eagles will not write this off as a "rebuilding" year. Expect freshman forward, 6-6 Juan Anderson (after he returns from his three game, NCAA-imposed suspension) and junior Jamail Jones to share time in the wing/forward rotation.
Marquette will headline a Paradis Jam field that also includes fellow power conference members Mississippi (SEC, the probable second round opponent) and Virginia (ACC, the probable Finals opponent). Though the field is augmented with CAA representative Drexel and MVC contender Drake, Marquette should win out. The balance of the out of conference slate features games with state rival Wisconsin (at Madison), Washington (Jimmy V Classic, New York City), at LSU (SEC) and Vanderbilt, an SEC contender. A one (even two) loss record going into conference play should not dampen the enthusiasm among fans (or on the Selection Committee). Mirror games with Cincinnati, Georgetown and Villanova means Marquette drew a more competitive-than-usual slate. 3-3 against that field would not be cause for alarm, 4-2 or 5-1 would be a very good sign. The Warriors will get home court advantage against Louisville and Pittsburgh two teams who should challenge for the conference regular season title. Beating at least one of the two would put Williams' crew on the path to a 7-2/8-1 conference home record, a prerequisite for a bye seed and serious run at the title. Their road opponents include Connecticut, Notre Dame, Syracuse and West Virginia, a tough draw that requires a dominating performance at home as a counter to a poor road showing. A 5-4 or better record away from the Bradley would be good news for Willliams' team.
Notre Dame -- Brey For the Defense?
Want to know how the Irish will do in conference play this season? Watch their defensive efficiency (points per possession allowed). Their winning percentage "moves" in the opposite direction as their defensive efficiency, as the table below suggests. Book it.
Understand that Notre Dame's defense will not win any awards soon. The Irish defensive points per possession (ppp) did not rank higher than 10 in any of the seasons listed above. They were ranked as low as #13 in 2008-09.
Coach Brey's squad returns 54.4% of Notre Dame's 2011 minutes and 49.5% of that squad's scoring. Though he will start the season on the bench, Tim Abromaitis (34.2 MPG, 15.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG) won't be benched for the second game. The staff used the fifth year wing/forward in an exhibition game his sophomore season and then red shirted him, a minor NCAA violation that should have no impact on Notre Dame's season -- Mississippi Valley State should offer little resistence. Eric Atkins (25.4 MPG, 5.8 PPG, 3.2 APG) will start at the point, much as he did last season, with fellow sophomore Joey Brooks (7.6 MPG, 1.6 PPG, 0.4 APG) along side him in the back court and senior Scott Martin (30.5 MPG, 9.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG) -- when his ankle is ready -- along side Abro on the wing. Brey will have the option of starting four guards (unlikely outside of the exhibition season), in which case he can call sophomore Alex Dragicevich or his classmate Jerian Grant, both of whom will fit into the regular rotation this season. Brey will go big and Jack Cooley (10.3 MPG, 3.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG), a Luke Harangody look-alike who appeared in all 34 games last season as Tyronne Nash's back up will get the nod. Freshman guard/forward Pat Connaughton (6-5, 206 pounds out of St. John's Prep in Arlington, Mass) will see time in the regular rotaton, while junior front court players Mike Broghammer and Tom Knight will draw situational minutes.
Notre Dame will compete in the CBE Classic, a mixed format invitational which provides two home games and a two round "championship" bracket against two BCS-level opponents on a neutral court (Kansas City, MO). The "regional" visitors are Detroit and Sam Houston State, while the Irish will face Missouri (Big 12) and one of California (Pac-12) or Georgia (SEC) in the second game. Missouri and California could be contenders in their respective conferences, while Georgia will finish somewhere in the middle of the SEC East. The Irish will travel to Washington state for a game with Gonzaga, then take a return engagement at the BB&T Classic to play Maryland (a strong showing in 2006-07 brought national exposure to the Kurz/Harangody front court combination). The out of conference scehcule winds down with a game in the Crossroads Classic versus Big Ten (and in state rival) Indiana. The Irish draw mirror games with Connecticut, Rutgers and West Virginia. If Notre Dame can perform on the road (an intermittent problem the past few seasons), they should log no worse than a 4-2 record (sweep Rutgers and split with UConn and WVU), with a ceiling of five wins, especially if West Virginia struggles. 3-3 signals a big problem with the 2012 edition of the program. If Notre Dame are "feeling normal", they Joyce Center will be a problem for everyone on their home slate (DePaul, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Providence, South Florida and Syracuse), though several (Pitt? Cuse? Marquette?) should be able to overcome the considerable advantage the Irish muster on their home court...4-2 perhaps? More likely 5-1 only if they are very, very good. The road slate as implemented may be less imposing than it looks on paper (Cincinnati, Georgetown, Louisville, Seton Hall, St. John's, Villanova). The Irish catch Cincinnati and Louisville early (Coach Pitino's teams tend to gel later in the season), while visiting both Georgetown and Villanova in February, a time when the Hoyas and Wildcats tend to fade. On paper 2-4 might look reasonable, but should Coach Brey's squad catch all the breaks, look for a ceiling of 5-1 -- in which case the Irish will be in serious pursuit of a bye seed to Madison Square Garden next March.
West Virginia -- Old Reliable?
The Big East coaches projected a #7 finish for the 'Eers with good reason -- West Virginia has not logged a losing conference record or a lower division finish in Bob Huggins four year tenure in Morgantown...
While the program returns only 39.3% of their 2010-11 minutes, the group will have nearly 45% of those points back.
Coach Huggins will bring back an inside-outside combination that should anchor both the front and back court contingents. Senior point guard Darryl Bryant (26.6 MPG, 11.6 PPG, 3.0 APG) will team with senior forward Kevin Jones (34.9 MPG, 13.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG) to bring experience to the lineup. Bryant, who had a period of adjustment between his freshman and sophomore seasons, has settled into the program and may be poised to have the season the Mountaineer Nation has anticipated since his All-Conference Rookie Team days. Huggins loves forwards and he will have several to look to this season, including returning junior rotation player Deniz Kilicli (16.4 MPG, 6.6 PPG, 4.0 RPG), a 6-9 bfc who was well regarded when he arrived in Morgantown (after a few delays) two seasons ago, red shirt freshman Kevin Noreen, a 6-10 245 pound bfc who played less than 40 minutes last season, 6-8, 240 pound JUCO junior Dominique Rutledge, a New Jersey native who made stops at Hutchenson CC (Kansas), Miami-Dade CC (Florida) and Western Texas College before landing in Morgantown. Rutledge, having played ball for Hutchenson and Miami-Dade, will be available immediately and has two years of eligibility. Those four will (barring injury) carrying the large portion of minutes (Jones, possibly Klicli -- sidelined with a ding to his knee and/or Noreen will start) though the freshman class also has several players to contribute to the front court rotation. Keaton Miles, a 6-6 'tweener out of Dallas, Texas started in West Virginia's exhibition loss to Northern Kentucky last weekend, while Pat Forsythe, a 6-11 240 pound center out of Brunswick High School in Ohio, Aaron Brown and Tommie McCune are also available (they combined for 26 minutes versus Northern Kentucky). In the back court, expect a starting tandem of Bryant and 5-11 Mount Vernon, NY native Jabari Hinds a veru well-regarded point guard. Include Paul Williamson (6-3, 195 lbs), Gary Browne (6-1, 185 lbs) and Aric Dickerson (6-5, 180 lbs) among the other freshmen who fill out the 2011-12 roster. A-10 refugees Aaric Murray (La Salle) and Juwan Statten (Dayton) will sit this season and continue their collegiate careers next season.
The out of conference schedule includes trips to Mississippi State (the Big East/SEC Challenge), a semi-neutral meeting with Kansas State, Miami in Morgantown and (pre)Christmas in Las Vegas that includes meetings with Missouri State and Baylor on consecutive nights. Getting to the conference regular season with a 12-0 record is not realistic, especially with the number of freshmen on the squad...11-1/10-2 however, is probable and would earn WVU a few votes in the polls. In addition to Backyard Brawl rival Pittsburgh, West Virginia drew Notre Dame and Rutgers as mirrors. 4-2 (sweep Rutgers, split with Pitt and NDU) seems reasonable, but given the early season road trip through the New York City metro area (Seton Hall and then Rutgers), the 'Eers may end up with three splits and 3-3 with the mirrors. Hosting Cincinnati, DePaul, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette and Villanova is especially fortuitous, given that 'Nati, GTown the Ville, Marquette and Nova should be WVU's nearest rivals in conference standings and the Coliseum is one of the least hospitable venues in the conference. 6-0/5-1 would put Huggins' squad in line for a bye seed. The road slate includes Connecticut, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's, South Florida and Syracuse. Another very amenable slate for the 'Eers, 4-2 is probably the ceiling. 3-3, irrespective of the home and mirror records, is probably the floor...anything lower and WVU is probably not going to post a 0.500 or better record in conference play.
Elements They Share
Each of these four squads have an all-conference player or two. And if each has a question or two that will influence how their season plays out, none has an obvious hole in the roster that must be plugged to stay in the upper half of the conference. Their rotations are deep enough that a single injury would not derail the season. Two injuries on the other hand...
Most Likely to...(and why):
To Move Up a Quartile -- Cincinnati (or Marquette). Cronin and Williams are younger coaches whose players seem to respond to their passionate approach to basketball, game management and coaching. Each is a player (or a player-and-a-half) away from a Top 10 team. If Gates can hold down the low post with Thomas or Ellis emerging (along with Kilpatrick) on the wing or if Mbodj can improve over Thomas' contribution in the low post (and let Gates ad lib), then the Bearcats will be hard to stop. Can the Warriors' Wilson continue to work hard and stay focused? If the transfer can do that, and the Cadougan/Blue/Wilson combination make the point guard position work again for Marquette, then the Golden Eagles will pull a few upsets before the season's final gun.
Move Down a Quartile -- West Virginia. The 'Eers have a lot of questions to answer. If things break badly they may have problems holding the slide to 9-9. Notre Dame is another wildcatd. The Irish offense will be good -- it always is. Their standing will resolve over their defense.