Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ten Teams and the Conference, Three Questions Each, Part 3

The NBA draft is done, summer league games are winding down and the transfers have made their moves. As July turns up the heat and we all look for air conditioning, a few questions come to mind about each Big East program going into the 2016-17 season...

By headcount (and starters), the The Golden Eagles personnel loss appears minimal. Appearances can be deceiving. The Ellenson brothers, along with senior Michael Mache departed. Starter Henry Ellenson put his name in for the NBA draft, brother Wally, recruited as much for track as basketball (and his 5 star brother) lost his scholarship in a numbers crunch that reverberated through the Ellenson clan back in April. With 5'11" transfer Andrew Rowsey ready to play and fifth year senior Katin Reinhardt waiting in the wings, expect Marquette to up the long range feature of Wojo's offense.

1. Steve Wojciechowski -- What can fans expect in year 3? Wojo returns 80% of the minutes, 75% of the possessions and 76% of the points from the squad that went 20-13 last season. Year one to year two of the Wojciechowski Era saw the Golden Eagles improve by seven wins. Another seven win bump in 2016-17 is a stretch, but the back court rotation is promising. Headed by Duane Wilson, Traci Carter, Haanif Cheatham, Sandy Cohen and JaJuan Johnson will all get time. Johnson and Cheatham can hit the three consistently while Carter showed a good instinct for passing and stealing the ball. Wojo bolstered the wings this off season by bringing in Reinhardt, a fifth year senior who, despite starting 18 games for the Trojans in 2015-16, foresaw a diminished role with the 2016-17 Trojans. Reinhardt and Johnson will mentor freshman wing Sam Hauser, a 6'6" consensus Top 100 recruit out of Green Bay Wisconsin. The question marks come in the front court, where Luke Fischer (6'11") and Matt Heldt (6'10") are the roster's only players taller than 6'6". Both will have to stay healthy and contribute if Marquette is to improve on last season's 8-10 conference record. Assuming MU brings 10-11 wins into conference play, a 9-9 or better record should yield another 20 win season albeit versus a stronger slate of opponents. A post season invitation should be forthcoming.

2. Will the Ellenson breakup damage recruiting? In need of a third scholarship, Wojo pulled Wally Ellenson's, which led to some social media "unfriending" in the days that followed. Henry maintains contact with Marquette and the staff while Wally will most like continue to run track for Marquette. Given that Wojo managed a commitment from Hauser, Wisconsin's Gatorade Player of the Year, along with Marcus Howard, another consensus Top 100 guard out of Arizona by way of Findley Prep in Las Vegas, the damage looks minimal at this point. Henry Ellenson's name was called June 23, just as expected, but having the opportunity to sign Reinhardt, a proficient and experienced scorer with stops at UNLV (as a freshman) and USC (two season), was too good to pass on. Wojo received an early verbal for the 2017-18 season from three star power forward Ikechukwu Eke, a Nigerian out of University of Detroit Jesuit High School in Michigan.

3. Will Wojo upgrade the competition this season? Despite winning 20 games before being eliminated in the Big East Tournament, Marquette made no post season tournaments last March. The Golden Eagles out of conference schedule featured matchups with NCAA participants Iowa (a loss) and Wisconsin (a win), NIT invitee Belmont (a loss) to go with LSU and Arizona State (both wins). Five sub 300 RPI ranked teams devalued their 10-2 record going into conference play. Marquette will not participate in the Gavitt Games this season, but if tradition holds Marquette can count on a game with in state rival Wisconsin (at the Bradley Center). The out of conference schedule is taking shape as opponents and dates have been announced via twitter and news release. They will open versus Vanderbilt at a neutral site, return to Milwaukee to host Howard (2016 RPI #331) in their home opener, play Michigan (2016 RPI #58) in the semi-final of their early season invitational tournament (the 2K Classic Benefiting the Wounded Warriors Project this year), with a second game versus either Pitt (2016 RPI #51) or SMU (2016 RPI #13). Three home games follow -- IUPUI (2016 RPI #189), Houston Baptist (2016 RPI #224) and Western Carolina (2016 RPI #167) in that order. They return a date with Georgia (away -- 2016 RPI #62) and head back to the Bradley Center to host Fresno State (2016 RPI #69), in-state rival Wisconsin (2016 RPI #41) and St. Francis, PA (2016 RPI #267). That takes MU to Christmas Week and accounts for 11 of their 13 out of conference games. Howard, the lone #300+ ranked team, will most likely not improve its RPI much next season while St. Francis (PA) and Houston Baptist are worrisome. There is no guarantee that those RPIs will carryover through all of next season, but by the numbers, should Marquette log 10/11 wins versus that slate, post season conversations going into Big East play will include the Golden Eagles. With 11 of 13 out of conference opponents (more or less) identified, let's hope the remaining two are about the same quality.

Junior guard Kris Dunn, twice Big East Player of the Year, and sophomore Ben Bentil were both drafted by the NBA in June, taking the Friars top two scorers (and top rebounder in Bentil) to the league. Also losing rotation guard Junior Lomomba, Coach Ed Cooley returns 54% of the Friars minutes, 42% of the points scored, 43% of the possessions and 47% of the rebounds from last season's squad. There will be plenty of scoring opportunities available, the question is whether the 2016-17 version of the Friars has a player or players who can step into the role.

1. Who will be the next Council/Cotton/Dunn? Cooley has managed to find a backcourt headliner in every one of his four seasons in Friartown. This time around the candidates his three returning guards, Kyron Cartwright, Drew Edwards and Vincent Council II, along with a true freshman point Maliek White and a transfer, Isaiah Jackson (George Mason, 3 years of eligibility). Cartwright, who connected on 36% of his shots, both short and long range, is the best candidate from the 2015-16 squad. He takes, however, nearly three two point attempts for every three point attempt. Jackson, a well regarded bballer out of Florida, took his first stop at George Mason, coached at the time by Paul Hewitt. Hewitt was considered more skilled at identifying and recruiting talent than developing it once on the roster, was fired in March of 2015, leading to Jackson's move to Friartown and Ed Cooley's roster. While at GMU Jackson took a major role in the Patriots' offense and rebounded well for a guard. White, a 6' 2", two time conference player of the year, lead guard out of Richmond, Virginia, has a profile similar to Dunn's. Though two inches shorter than Dunn and only 170 pounds, White averaged 19.3 points, 6.3 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game last season for George Wythe High School. He might be Cooley's best bet.

2. Is Reggie Bullock ready for prime time? The junior forward is the Friars' lead returning scorer from last season's squad. Cooley has two freshmen wings, Khalif Young out of Ontario, Canada who was selected to play in the Biosteel All-Canadian Games -- the Canadian equivalent of the McDonald's All-Star game and Alpha Diallo, a consensus Top 100 recruit from Brewster Academy. Cooley's fourth option is Indiana (by way of Indian Hill CC) transfer Emmitt Holt, a 6'7" 230 pound power forward who ran afoul of Tom Crean when he struck a teammate with his car (and in a later incident picked up for achohol consumption). Those four will, unless Cooley gets a late signing (he hosted a number of fifth year seniors and JUCOs during the late spring), will be the nucleus of the Friar front court rotation.

3. Can the roster (and Cooley) get the Friars back to the NCAAs? PC lacks a traditional big man to function as a #5 on defense and that will be a problem. Historically Cooley's teams have played a high possession, quick paced game that relies on a well conditioned short rotation that presents an array of inside/outside threats designed to keep defenses honest. The out of conference schedule, as always, is weighted with traditional in state and regional rivals. Given that Rhode Island and Massachusetts should have good seasons, PC's SOS will benefit. Wins versus their Gavitt Games opponent (Ohio State) and Emerald Coast Invitational opponents (Memphis followed by Iowa or Virginia) will establish the Friars as credible challengers going into conference play.

Seton Hall
The Pirates lose a starter and their sixth man, a fifth year guard. While that seems minimal, consider they return 72% of the minutes played, but only 65% of the points scored, 63% of the possessions and 50% of the assists from last season's 25-9 team that won its first Big East Tournament in 24 seasons and made its first NCAA appearance since 2006. Such was the impact of Isaiah Whitehead, who was selected by the Utah Jazz (and traded to the New York Nets) in last months NBA draft. Though relegated to the bench, UMass transfer Derrick Gordon became the Pirate's glue guy and was a crucial part of the Pirates' run to the Big East championship and NCAA bid. Despite the first round elimination by Gonzaga, the run was the second in Gordon's career. Three of the more pressing questions that confront Willard during this off season include:

1. Who will lead the Pirates? Willard handed Whitehead the ball and the point guard spot in May of 2015, a symbolic nod to Whitehead's defacto standing among his peers and a practical step to help Whitehead develop skills he would need for the NBA. Whitehead could put the ball in the basket, but could he run an offense and get his teammates involved? The chemistry developed over the 2015 off season was one key to the Hall's revival in 2015-16, and Willard may have to decide whether to actively promote a successor now that Whitehead has moved on. The early leaders include Desi Rodriguez, another wing nearly as talented -- but more mercurial than Whitehead -- and Ishmael Sanogo, a forward whose work ethic and evolving talents have drawn favorable comments from Willard multiple times over the past two seasons. Rodriguez's demonstrativeness has made him a fan favorite, but also landed him in the coach's dog house a few times last season, Sanogo has developed as a solid defensive, but not an especially assertive offensive, #4. Those two are part of a now four man junior class that also includes Angel Delgado and Kadeem Carrington. The four appear to have a tight bond and may simply lead by committee.

2. Where will the lost points come from? Whitehead accounted for nearly one in four of the Hall's points scored last season. Taking his assists into account, he had a hand in nearly 400 additional points scored. With no obvious scoring machine in the wings, Willard will have to fashion a (large?) committee to close that gap. Rodriguez was efficient at scoring both close and long range, but he will draw more defensive attention. Willard must convince him to share the ball when he draws the extra defender. Among his teammates both Delgado, a traditional low post player and Carrington on the perimeter should be able to exploit any defensive cheating on Rodriguez. Sanogo and rotation player Michael Nzei were reliable inside scorers. Whitehead's absence should provide them with additional opportunities. If Veer Singh can improve his accuracy from the three point line, he may earn a sizable chunk of the available minutes left by whitehead and Gordon. Two freshmen off guards, Myles Powell and (especially) Eron Gordon, should get long looks from Willard.

3. Who runs the offense? Willard may have up to four back court players waiting in the wings. Two transfers were point guards at their previous stops and the two true freshmen were shooting guards. The high schoolers are expected to get to campus this fall, but there may be a glitch with Jevon Thomas, the more promising of transfers. A 6'1", 185 pound rising junior out of Kansas State Thomas is a Queens, NY native and former teammate of Marcus Foster (transferred to Creighton). He was involved in an altercation during an intramural game on the West Orange campus last February and subsequently slipped off the radar. In two seasons with Webber, Thomas showed a good aptitude for passing the ball and setting up his teammates. Rising senior Madison Jones improved his assist rate in each of his three seasons at Wake Forest, but drew a second team suspension in August of 2015 and transferred to the Hall. Unlike Whitehead, neither Thomas nor Jones showed an aptitude for scoring, so Willard will have to look elsewhere. He could, much as he did Whitehead, attempt to convert one of the freshmen off guards, most likely Gordon -- who has been described as an excellent passer and good play maker -- into a serviceable point guard.

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