Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Quick Big East Projection: 2nd Quartile

These teams will finish in the upper division of the conference. They will receive post seasons bids, more likely from the NCAA than from the NIT -- at least those teams that finish in the upper half of the quartile. Caveat emptor -- the lazy scheduler will be penalized.

2006-07 Season
OverallBig EastBET

Thumbnail (in 300 words...more or less)

  • Pittsburgh -- Lost front court players Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall (& guard Antonio Graves) off a squad that went 29-8 and ran to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAAs. Are rotation players Tyrell Biggs and Sam Young ready? They will be joined by freshmen DaJuan Blair (bf/c), Austin Wallace (redshirt freshman) & Gary McGhee (c), along with transfer Cassin Diggs (c). Young and Biggs are more athletic (and not nearly as physically dominant) as Gray (and Kendall). The back court "pipeline" is fully functional with bench players Ronald Ramon and 37 game rotational player Keith Benjamin (senior) ready to step into the spot vacated by Graves. Freshman point guard Bradley Wanamaker will learn the position from junior Levance Fields, as Fields learned it from Carl Krauser (and Krauser from Brandon Knight). The questions are how quickly will the front court rotation be ready to assume it's role in head coach Jaime Dixon's system. And whether Levance Field's off season problems with the law will force the staff to put the ball into Wanamaker's hands before he is ready.

    While Kendall was a very efficient scorer (his ORtg% was 110.9 ranked #406), his possessions and shots (from Ken Pomeroy's Pittsburgh Scout Page indicate he played, despite the minutes (64.1%), a relatively confined role in the offense. Not so with Gray, who served as a "go to" guy (Poss% & Shot% were 26.0 & 26.2 respectively) in the offense. Graves pulled "regular" type Possessions and Shots (18.4 & 19.3 respectively). Transfer Mike Cook, who played about 62.7% of the minutes on the wing (guard/forward) seems poised to pick up even more responsibility in the offensive scheme. And Sam Young, a junior who showed some promise as a freshman, might also pick up minutes and responsibilities (most likely at the #4). Young, Biggs and any others who step into Kendall's and Gray's spots will need to pick up a good many rebounds. Biggs was efficient offensively, but not especially dominant as a rebounder (OR% & DR% were 6.6 and 12.9 respectively). Young, a bit better on the offensive boards (9.2), was very average on the defensive boards (11.7). Pitt has cultivated a reputation for board domination and defense in general, but in the past 3 years the Panthers have lost four of their best front court rebounders (Troutman & Taft in 2005 and Kendall & Gray in 2007).

    The Panthers made progress offensively last season (their Adjusted ORtg went from 113.8/#21 in 2006 to 118.4/#12 in 2007), but they lost ground defensively (Adjusted DRtg declined from 89.8/#12 in 2006 to 90.4/#26 in 2007). The Panthers took better care of the ball on offense (18.2/#32), a trend that should, with several more point guards available, be maintained this season. The Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy believes that redshirt freshman Gilbert Brown may become the Panther's "X Factor" this season. No matter which individual player steps into Gray's (and Kendall's) spot, the loss on offense will most likely have to come from several existing players.

  • Providence - The Friars return the nucleus of their 18-13 squad which went 2 rounds into the NIT last season. Herbert Hill is a significant loss, but junior Randall Hanke, who split time with Hill for two years prior to red shirting last season, has returned and will share time with junior Jon Kale and sophomore Ray Hall. Hanke logged some very impressive offensive stats in 2005-06, including an ORtg of 118.3 and an eFG of 67.7, while getting 54.0% of the available minutes. Having Hanke & Hill split time/responsibilities at the 5 was probably not, though obviously necessary, a particularly good outcome for either Hanke or Hill. With Hanke sidelined Hill prospered, raising his ORtg from 110.7/#373 to 114.2/#227, while simultaneously increasing (dramatically...) his minutes.

    The nucleus of four players, McDermott, Efejuku, Curry and Kale who began as freshmen (and rode the streak down from Ryan Gomes' last season at Providence) did, along with Hill, distribute the touches and shots pretty evenly. Of course Hill emerged as a "go-to guy" while McDermott appeared to be more comfortable distributing the ball much like a point forward. Hanke may well step into Hill's role this season (his 2005-06 possession and shot numbers were similar to Hill's numbers last season...but better), but hopefully McDermott will be a bit more assertive about his shot & scoring role in the offense. He is an efficient scorer (eFG 52.0, higher than Curry's), but despite his minutes, took no more than a distributor/role player-type numbers in the offense.

    This core is not alone. Also returning are sophomores Ray Hall, an Aaron Gray-type #5, Dwain Williams a backup pg who took the team through Sharaud Curry's four game suspension without missing a beat and Brian McKenzie, a wing who saw increasing minutes at the end of last season. Remarkable for a Tim Welsh team, this group, like the juniors did not disolve in the off season, as so many of Welsh's Providence teams had done in the past. The backups will be joined by yet another group of under appreciated, but possibly overlooked freshmen and transfers. Junior guard Jeff Xavier, a Providence native, transfered over from Manhantten when Bobby Gonzolaz moved over to Seton Hall. Xavier had some very decent numbers at Manhatten (117.3 ORtg, 57.5 eFG), apparently specializing in 3 point shooting, who will be looking for a spot on the wing. Three freshmen, Jamine Peterson (a 6-6 undersized #4), Marshon Brooks (6-5 point guard) and Alex Kellogg (a 6-7 forward), add a good deal of depth to the squad. The skills, while well distributed, remain somewhat underdeveloped as the freshmen did not make the Italian Exhibition Trip in August...and Hanke and Xavier played limited roles.

    The big turnaround for Providence came through defense, not offense. While they were not dominant in any category (in fact they were pretty bad at forcing turnovers -- TORate of 20.0/#223 -- and defensive rebounding -- DR% of 66.8/#152), the Friars improved significantly in field goal defense (eFG). In 2006 the Friars' defensive eFG was 50.3/#198; they improved that number last season to 49.2/#129. Their perimeter defense went from a disaster in 2006 (37.5% allowed, ranked #273) to a managable problem in 2007 (34.8/#170 -- that is not terrific, but much better). Similarly the Friars kept opponents off the free throw line better in 2007 (33.4/#101) than they did in 2006 (37.3/#195).

  • Syracuse - The Orange have to replace their entire front court from last season. Gone are starters and mainstays Mookie Watkins, Terrence Roberts and Demetris Nichols along with all-purpose front court backup Matt Gorman. Other casualties from the squad that set out together in the 2006-07 season...
    • Mike Jones - a true freshman forward who left the program after appearing in 11 games. Jones, though he had several promising games, saw congestion at the position (ie Paul Harris) and decided to move on. He later enrolled in at South Carolina, but left before the end of the spring 2007 semester.
    • Andy Rautins - a junior wing who emerged late last season as a reliable 3 point specialist. Rautins, who had the best 3 point shooting percentage (35.6%) of the returning players, was injured when playing for the Canadian National team in August and will redshirt this season.
    Despite the decimation, spirits are soaring in the Dome...the staff has brought in 5 very well regarded true freshmen and a JUCO, augmented by the reactivation of two redshirts. Point guard Jonny Flynn, the early favorite for ROY honors, will most likely start from day one. He will displace junior Josh Wright, a distribute-first, but turnover prone player who was himself well regarded when he came in with the (recruiting) class of 2005. Flynn ran the (DePaul) Jerry Wainwright-coached USA U19 team to a silver place finish this past summer in the FIBA U19 world tournament...one of the better finishes for the U19 team lately. Power forward Donte Greene, another well regarded true freshman will probably step into Terrence Robert's spot. Like Flynn, he will most likely earn the starter's job in preseason practice, though he will have to beat fellow true freshman Rick Jackson and JUCO Kristof Ongenaet for the honor. Greene also played on the U19 team, but his tournament was considerably less impressive than Flynn's. The faithful, fueled by the staff and media, are already comparing Greene to Syracuse great (also a Charm City recruit) Carmelo Anthony. Philadelphians Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson will (most likely) backup starters this season. Redshirt sophomore Arinze Onauaku, who showed promise in limited minutes as a freshman, will most likely start at the #5, backed up by true freshman Sean Williams and sophomore Devon Brennan-McBride.

    Those fans who look for a break from the past will get their wish in the form of this year's squad. Without Rautins & the departed Nichols, the Orange will have to find point production from sources other than those present on the squad last year. Junior Eric Devendorf cannot single handedly carry the team. Sophomore Paul Harris will most likely see more minutes and will, consequently have an opportunity to prove the expectations going into last season were not unfounded. But even if Devendorf and Harris can move beyond co-existence and actually work together they will not be enough to replace the scoring from Nichols, Roberts, Watkins, Gorman & Rautins.

    Syracuse's DRtg (adjusted) was 90.9/#28 in 2006-07, earning the Orange a rank of #6 in the Big East. A look at the Defensive factors reveals that the lofty rank is due entirely to shot defense. The Orange had an outstanding defensive eFG of 43.7/#7 to go along with a decent FTRate of 31.1/#62. Those two factors alone put Syracuse among the top 10% in D1 defense. Their ability to force turnovers (TORate 19.8/#241) and grab defensive rebound (DR% 63.6/#297) pulled their rating down. Whether Boeheim decides to stay with his 2-3 zone (would help eFG) or abandon it in favor of a man-to-man schemes (more suitable to Harris' strengths?) may well influence who (and how much) he plays from among all his available parts.

  • Villanova - The Wildcats lose seniors Mike Nardi (pg), Will Sheridan (bf) and (redshirt senior) Curtis Sumpter (sf/pf) from a 21-11 (not counting the win over NAIA Northwood) squad that went to the NCAAs as a #9 seed. Sophomores (Big East 2005-06 ROY) Scottie Reynolds & Reggie Redding, along with juniors Dante Cunningham & Shane Clark form the core of a junior (Dwayne Anderson & Frank Tschuisi) and sophomore (Casiem Drummond) dominated squad. They will be joined by redshirt freshmen Andrew Ott and Antonio Pena, and true freshmen Corey Fisher (NJ POY 2007), Malcolm Grant (NYC PSAL POY 2006) and Corey Stokes (MDAA 2007). Reynolds (another MDAA) started slowly last season, but assumed "go-to guy" status for the Wildcats as Clark, Sumpter and Nardi struggled through a series of dings & bumps. The 'Cats are healthy again which should reduce significantly the need for a Scottie-centric offense. Clark (2007 ORtg of 106.8 with role-player status), Cunningham 2007 ORtg of 106.8 with role-player status, Drummond (2007 ORtg of 99.1 with very limited minutes) should, along with well regarded guard Reggie Redding (2007 ORtg of 86.5 with role-player status), get touches (and shots) when they are on the court. If the charts Ken Pomeroy published in his recent basketballprospectus.com article "Effective Usage: Putting Individual Efficiency in Context" are accurate, the chances are good (about 50/50) that Scottie will reduce his usage slightly next season (that should actually raise his efficiency) while Cunningham and Clark (about the same odds) obtain a higher percentage of the possessions and shots (thereby assuming a larger role) in the offense. As second and third options in the offense both players should be able to maintain (possibly increase) their efficiencies.

    Villanova fans kept one eye on the high school news last season, following the progress of Stokes, Grant and Fisher, all of whom had committed to the Main Line school in the first half of 2006. Anticipation over an incoming group (plus the redshirted Ott and Pena) has not been this high since Fraser, Foye, Ray and Sumpter enrolled in the fall of 2002. While the three true freshmen will provide help in the back court, Ott or Pena (Pena most likely, accoring to Blue Ribbon) will pull minutes in the front court. Fisher may well earn the starting role in preseason practice, but if the Ottawa Exhibition Tour (4 games in 3 days versus Canadian college teams over the Labor Day Weekend) is any indication, Grant will provide some serious competition for minutes. Corey Stokes a 6-5 MDAA, will join Reggie Redding and junior Dwayne Anderson on the wing. He should also compete for minutes right from the start. Combined with redshirt freshman Antonio Pena, slated to see minutes in the front court with Cunningham, Clark and (maybe) Drummond, the frontcourt should have depth and scoring potential. Having a team on the court with four or five letigimate scorers will be something of a new experience.

    Villanova's defense was the strong point last season, and an ongoing point of emphasis for the staff. Although the team did not excel at any particular element (field goal defense, turnovers, rebounding or free throw/fouling) the 'Cats performed well enough at most to earn an adjusted DRtg of 89.1/#18 -- see Ken Pomeroy's Villanova Scout Page. The best part of the defense was turnovers where Nova was able to force turnovers in about 1 in 5 of their opponent's possessions (TORate 23.1/#60). Villanova also did an adequate job defensing the shot (eFG 48.2/#94 -- 2 point defense was very good, 45.0/#48...their downfall was perimeter defense 35.2/#206) and defensive rebounding (DR% 67.9/#96). Their difficulties involved fouling (FTRate 42.0/#262), an inability to keep their opponents off the free throw line. The staff will no doubt drill defense again this season.

Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Providence, Syracuse and Villanova -- this "upper middle" was difficult to sort out. I could have put any of the 5 in the 1st quartile (and labeled them "Most Likely to Move Down a Quartile"). The nod went to Connecticut because the Huskies return the highest percentage of their minutes from last year. And continuity is an important factor in how much progress a team can make year-over-year. With the talent level in the Big East and expectations rising every year over who will jump, continuity cannot be underrated (though talent counts high as well -- and maybe that is the question to be answered by the Huskies). of the teams in this quartile, Pittsburgh returns 59.1% of last year's minutes along with 4 of the 7 players who recorded at least one start (of the 37 games, Ron Ramon started 1 and Sam Young started 2). Providence returns 84.1% of last year's minutes along with 7 of the 8 players who started at least one game. The Orange return a paltry 38.8% of the minutes and 3 of the 8 players who started at least one game (Paul Harris started a single game last year). Villanova returns 53.0% of last year's minutes. A total of 7 players (Clark, Cunningham, Nardi, Redding, Reynolds, Sheridan and Sumpter) recorded at least one start last year, and 4 of those players (Clark, Cunningham, Redding and Reynolds) return.

Most Likely to...(and why):

  • Move Up a Quartile...
    • Providence -- one team I would like to name here. Tim Welsh's tenure was marked early on by very inconsistent teams, due largely (but not exclusively) to a revolving door on the locker room. Under Welsh the Friars have shown a talent for finding the overlooked (discarded?) talent, but that knack has carried a price. The player who showed promise as a freshman flamed out as a sophomore (and created discord on his way out the door?). The key to the 2005-06 squad's success came because those promising freshmen stayed and progressed as sophomores. If they can carry that forward (and the underclassmen continue to develop as well) for this season very good things will happen. But I really like the continuity developed by the Pittsburgh program going back to the days of Ben Howland. Jaime Dixon has negotiated the transition from Howland's plodding offense while maintaining the Panter's elite status in the conference. Should Connecticut (or Marquette!?) falter, I would not be surprised to see either the Panthers or Friars take the last bye spot in the Big East Tournament.

  • Move Down a Quartile...
    • Syracuse -- see the 2006-07 Connecticut team. Despite arguably the best recruiting class in the Big East (DePaul fans may want to dispute that contention), the Orange have a good deal of ground to make up. Quickly. The two recognized returning leaders, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris (both reputed to have short tempers and don't back down attitudes...) started off badly last year. During recent Midnight Madness festivities the two engaged in a "give away competition" with Harris tossing his shoes into the wildly cheering crowd (he later had to retrieve them so he could compete in the Dunk Contest...) while Devendort shed his practice t-shirt and tossed it into the crowd (no word on whether he ever got it back...). Winning will no doubt paper over any lingering differences and smooth out animousities. But the pressure will be on very early to win. Losing might make this very ugly very early...

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