Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Ten Teams and the Conference, Three Questions Each, Part 1

After the NBA deadline and initial flurry of fifth year transfers, the rosters have settled down. With news of the out of conference schedules trickling out, it is time to look at some of the questions facing each Big East program going into the 2016-17 season...

The Bulldogs graduated Kellen Dunham, Roosevelt Jones and Austin Etherington, three solid contributors during coach Chris Holtmann's two years. Also departed, sophomore Jackson Davis a rotation forward and Jordan Gaithers, a graduate transfer who filled out the Bulldog backcourt rotation last season.

1. Butler's Backcourt -- Who's Got Next? The Bulldogs' largest productivity losses came in their backcourt as Dunham, a 43% shooter from beyond the arc last season (38.5% career) and Jones, a 230 pound linebacker disguised as an off guard/wing moved on. Holtmann returns 53% of the minutes, 51% of the scoring and 50% of the possessions from last season, but Dunham and Jones account for most of those missing minutes and points. Holtmann has two transfers, red shirt senior Kethan Savage (George Washington) and graduate transfer Avery Woodson (Memphis), to team up with likely starting point guard, senior Tyler Lewis. Savage, a slasher who posted a 48% completion rate inside the arc in three seasons at George Washington, compliments Woodson who matched Dunham's long range productivity last season playing for Josh Pastner. This combination should help the Bulldogs post a third consecutive winning conference record and upper division finish. Those three should give freshman Kamar Baldwin time to get up to speed.

2. Can Holtmann recruit at the Big East level? In his two years the coach logged hits and misses on the trail. He can identify and attract good transfers, while sophomores Tyler Wideman (a #4/#5) and (#3/#4) Kelan Martin, significant contributors at both ends of the court this past season, confirm that he can scout and recruit high school talent. This seasons three entering freshmen, #2/#3 Henry Baddley, a 6'6", 190 pound wing from St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School in Akron, Ohio, 6'11" 240 pound #5 Joey Brunk from Indianapolis' Southport High School and Kamar Baldwin, a 6'2" 175 pound combo-guard out of Winder, Georgia (Apalachee High School) do appear to be more projects than impact players. Red shirt freshman Sean McDermott, a 6'6" 'tweener has had the benefit of practicing with the team last season. Among the transfers, Austin Etherington (Indiana) did not have the anticipated impact, but fifth year senior Jordan Gaithers (St. Bonaventure) and two year transfer Tyler Lewis (North Carolina State) were consistent, solid backcourt contributors last season. Holtmann will look to two more transfers, Savage and Woodson to play expanded roles on this season's team. Another GWU transfer, Paul Jorgensen, will be available for two seasons starting in 2017-18.

3. Can Butler get out of the NCAA's first weekend? The question that haunted Villanova for the past three seasons will no doubt dog coach Holtmann's squad as they face the press on Media Day next October. Their records for 2014-2016 need no apology as they tallied wins over North Carolina, Purdue, Temple, Cincinnati, Texas, Texas Tech and Tennessee over that span. While the draw and match-ups will play a big role in how they do next March, do not minimize the experience gained by the staff and the returning members of the squad.

Geoffrey Groselle and James Milliken have exhausted their eligibility, but Maurice Watson, fresh off of an outstanding junior season, tested the NBA waters before returning for his senior season. Meanwhile guards Marcus Foster, a 6'2" transfer from Kansas State and 6'4" freshman Davion Mintz, are ready to compete for minutes. Coach Greg McDermott will have some interesting decisions to make about his backcourt.

1. How good is Creighton's back court? Potentially the best backcourt in the Big East according to many who cover the conference regularly. Foster (who, according to Jon Rothstein, reduced his body fat from 14% to 8% during his NCAA required sitting period) will pair with senior Maurice Watson Jr. to provide a 1-2 scoring and passing combination that should stretch opposing defenses next season. McDermott will have the option to run a long or a quick rotation as the Bluejays, returning 76% of the minutes and possessions and 74% of the scoring from last season's 20-15 squad, are deep at the wing and low post. The key will be the chemistry that Watson and Foster can develop and maintain, as they have similar skills. Their versatility will either enhance scoring opportunities for their teammates -- a healthy mix of seniors and sophomores -- or freeze them to setting picks and rebounding. The line however fine, should be easily recognized by McDermott, a Division 2 and Division 1 head coach for 22 years with stops at Northern Iowa, Iowa State before Creighton. If McDermott can fine tune the Bluejays they should shake up the Xavier/Villanova hegemony at the top of the conference.

2. Will McDermott upgrade the Bluejays' out of conference schedule? A 9-9 conference record that featured wins over Georgetown, Seton Hall, Butler, Xavier and Marquette (road) coupled with five losses by five or fewer points drew favorable comments from fans. The Bluejays, doomed by a so-so 9-4 out of conference record versus a #305 (RPI) ranked slate of opponents, were never in a serious NCAA bracket discussion. Their loss to #238 RPI ranked Loyola of Chicago rendered their pospects DOA by New Year's Eve. McDermott cannot control Creighton's draw in early season invitational tournaments. Stinkers like Rutgers (RPI #294) are inevitable, but he can control CenturyLink Center visitors and home-away contracts, five of whom last season were with teams ranked below #250. McDermott has an experienced squad that can post 20+ wins against a much stronger slate this season. The Bluejays are set to face in state opponent Nebraska, will kick off the Paradise Jam with Washington State (with either North Carolina State or Montana their second opponent) and have a return date with Arizona State (away). With five of 14 opponents set, McDermott can assemble a solid slate with (rumored) Akron (#36 RPI last season) and others in the #50 to #130 range. Rumors that Longwood (#324 last season) and Tennessee-Martin (#215 last season) are on tap -- let's hope McDermott can control his sweet tooth.

3. Has Creighton's recuiting pipeline made the trasition to the Big East? Yes, McDermott's annual additions usually include a healthy mix of freshmen and transfers/JUCOs. He appears to have many of his wing and front court needs for the next two years already in works. A pair of four star wings, Ty-Shon Alexander and Mitchell Ballock, are set to enter in 2017. This reduces McDermott's 2017-18 need list to #4s and #5s, the two areas where the heaviest attrition will take place. With Watson's departure timetable known, McDermott already has Syracusse transfer Kaleb Joseph waiting in the wings. Joseph will school Mintz in practice as he works out with the team during his NCAA-mandated red shirt season. Marcus Foster's plans could be the wild card (what else is new?). If he jumps after a single season in Omaha and disrupts McDermott's anticipated point guard line of succession (Watson-Foster-Joseph-Mintz), McDermott will have another spot to cover in the Jay's backcourt rotation.

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