Monday, August 1, 2016

Ten Teams and the Conference, Three Questions Each, Part 5

The "skill camps" are quieting down and summer league is almost over. Teams are preparing for (or have just finished up) their European tour. Before our attention is consumed by the Olympics, a last few questions come to mind about Xavier and the Big East Conference going into the 2016-17 season...

With the return of Trevon Bluiett, the X-men losses were limited to Jalen Reynolds and James Farr, two of Xavier's mainstays in the front court, along with wings Remy Abel (a senior) and Larry Austin who transferred to Vanderbilt. Coach Chris Mack anticipated the graduations of Farr and Abel, and knew Reynolds, a junior, would most likely depart at the end of the semester. He has most of those gaps covered by incoming freshmen (Eddie Ekiyor and Tyrique Jones) and transfer (RaShed Gaston).

1. Xavier's front court -- Who's got next? Mack lost seven years of experience with the simultaneous departures of James Farr and Jalen Reynolds. Although he has Sean O'Mara (6'10", 247 pounds), Tim Stainbrook (6'6", 200 pounds) and Kaiser Gates (6'8", 217 pounds) returning, he brought in Ekiyor and Jones with NLIs during the fall as insurance. When Jalen Reynolds made his departure official, Mack also signed Gaston, a fifth year senior out of Norfolk State in the MEAC. The front court starters in November will most likely be O'Mara at center with Gaston and Gates at the #3/#4 (and Bluiett playing up to the #3 at times). As the season goes on expect Ekiyor and Jones to find regular minutes in the rotation as well.

2. Is Edmond Sumner ready to take the next step? Despite a concussion that sidelined him for nearly two weeks at the beginning of conference play last season, Xavier point guard put together the kind of season that earned him five Freshman of the Week nods and one of three unanimous selections to the Big East Conference All-Freshman Team. His end-to-end speed and leaping ability kept opposing defenses off balance and gave the Musketeer offense an edge in transition. According to Sports Illistrated's Luke Winn, Sumner connected on 49.6% of layups and dunks while drawing 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes (with a 73% conversion rate at the line). Already beginning to fill out his 6'6" frame, Sumner's off season To Do List includes improving his jump shot (per Winn, Sumner was identified by multiple pro scouts as the guard with the highest ceiling, but his form on jumpers needed lots of work) where he completed only 29.7% of his two point attempts away from the basket and three point attempts where he converted 30.3% of his attempts. Better shot selection and higher completion rates next season will earn All-Conference First Team honors. Look for a second graduate transfer Malcolm Bernard, a 6'6" guard out of Florida A&M to push Sumner in fall practice.

3. Can Xavier get past the Sweet Sixteen? Since dropping Division 1 football and making basketball the center piece of their athletic programs, Xavier has pursued excellence with a commitment that borders on obsession. Over the past 33 seasons the Musketeers have earned 25 NCAA bids across four different conferences under six different head coaches. In the 44 previous seasons the Muskies earned a single NCAA bid (1961) on a run that ended in the first round. Consistency has been achieved, but Xavier continues to pursue excellence as their ceiling, the Regional Final (Elite Eight), has been reached only once, under coach Sean Miller (now at Arizona). Now that Villanova has won a National Championship, Xavier's recent performance is coming under the microscope. Mack's ceiling has been the Sweet Sixteen, reached three times in six tournament runs as coach at Xavier. As a member of the Big East, Mack has reached a single Sweet Sixteen (2015), and exited the 2016 tournament as a #2 seed, 66-63, on a last second corner three by #7 seed Wisconsin's Bronson Koenig. Xavier will get back to the NCAA tournament, though they may not draw another #2 seed. Sumner, Gates and Bluiett will all show improvement while Myles Davis will continue to provide the experience that anchors the back court. If the front court comes together expect a seed from #2 to #4 which carries a good chance to be among the last 16 teams in the tournament. Match-ups matter here, a good draw would put them back in the hunt.

The Big East Conference
The conference had its most successful season in close to a decade. The conference sent five members (50%) to the NCAAs, while Creighton advanced three rounds into the NIT field before being eliminated by BYU. The conference drew two #2 seeds in the NCAA and Villanova won the National Championship last April. The conference heard the names of two players called in the first round and of the NBA draft June 23, followed by two others who were drafted in the second round. Providence guard Kris Dunn was a lottery pick (5th spot) by Minnesota while freshman Henry Ellenson was drafted in the 18th spot by Detroit. Sophomore Isiah Whitehead (42nd by Utah, traded to the NY Nets) and junior Ben Bentil (51st, Boston) were taken in the second round.

1. Has the conference regained its high-major status? Some would debate the Big East's status, despite losing six programs, was always a high-major. The number of NCAA bids earned since the reformation (16) is more than the SEC (11) and the American Athletic Conference (10). The conference sent 50% of their members to the NCAA in their first (reformed) year (2014), 60% in 2015 and 50% in 2016. That is a slightly better percentage than the Big Ten (50%, 50% and 50%) and the Pac-12 (50%, 33%, 58%) over the same period. Pomeroy ranked the conference 5th, 3rd and 3rd in the seasons since the reformation; the RPI ranks were 4th, 2nd and 4th. Yet in the minds of too many pundits the conference took a major step back when the conference reformed before the 2013-14 season. Villanova, after repeatedly drawing high seeds, won the 2016 National Championship, which, hopefully, puts those whispers to bed. Recalling the Big East of the early 1980s however, it is clear the conference did not draw elite recognition until 1985, when the conference put St. John's, Georgetown and Villanova (all members of the reformed conference...) into the Final Four.

2. Can the conference improve on the four invitational tournament championships they earned last season? Marquette (Legends), Villanova (NIT Tip-Off) and Xavier (AdvoCare Invitational) win their respective invitational tournaments, the conference also had three other members reach their championship games. Those tournaments, most coming during the 2015 Thanksgiving Week, accounted for an attention grabbing 20-3 (0.870) record, which in turn shined a very favorable light on the conference's bid contenders for the post season. This season the prospects are good that Creighton (Paradise Jam), Villanova (Charleston Classic) and Xavier (Puerto Rico Tip-Off) will repeat against so-so fields.

Finding a sure number four is challenging. Seton Hall, slated for the AdvoCare Invitational, may be the best candidate. The Pirates open versus semi-home Florida, and should they win, draw a rematch with Gonzaga (who bounced them from the NCAA's last March) next. Both games should be a challenge, but Stanford, Miami or Iowa State awaiting the winner of the Hall's bracket, would be the last team. Any of them (especially Miami or Stanford) would be difficult opponents. Butler, DePaul and Marquette have interesting match-ups that could work in their favor. Butler, due to appear in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational will face Vanderbilt in the host semi-final, with the chance to meet Arizona if the Bulldogs advance to the championship game. Vanderbilt has a new coach and some significant roster changes, which suggest Marquette might be able to advance. But Arizona, the prohibitive favorite in the other semi-final, will be difficult. DePaul, set to compete in the (also) Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic faces Wyoming in the semi-final and either Missouri State or (most likely) Southern California. Beating Wyoming, also guided by a new coach, is probable, but USC? Not so much as Andy Enfield has a roster that should challenge in the Pac-12. Marquette will face Michigan in the semi-finals of the 2K Classic, and if they win would face either Pittsburgh or SMU, both of which have new head coaches and some roster turnover.

The other tournaments are problematic. Georgetown faces a loaded field in the Maui Invitational that includes UNC, Oregon and Wisconsin. St. John's will participate in the Battle 4 Atlantis whose field includes Baylor, Louisville and Michigan State (or and Wichita State also...). Providence is slated for the Emerald Coast Classic whose field includes Iowa, Virginia and Memphis (which hired Tubby Smith). The Friars will face Memphis first, with either Iowa or Virginia to follow.

3. Will the latest round of realignment, initiated this time by the Big 12, affect the Big East? Ugh, not again. Having left the five FBS members behind in 2013, the seven schools that reformed the Big East dedicated their attention and money to sports other than Bowl Division football. That, it would seem, settled the question that tore at the fabric of the conference for over 20 years. Just when one would have to believe the Big East is immune from the machinations of the 65 Power 5 conference members (plus Notre Dame) and the 64 members of the Group of Five (the other five FBS conferences and independents) ESPN's Andy Katz twitter set off a ripple of nostalgia with his tweet/blurb...

If UConn found a home for football, the Big East would seriously consider the Huskies for all other sports, according to a source with knowledge. The Big East would be a natural fit. So far the 10-team Big East only has all sports members, but doesn't offer Division I (FBS) football. UConn is in all sports in the AAC. If given the choice, the Huskies would want to be in the Big 12 in all sports. But the chances that offer ever comes is still too hard to predict now.
-- Andy Katz, July 20, 2016

The "a source with knowledge..." is of course unidentified leaving the reader with little to judge the value of the information (was the source a UConn insider? A Big East front office insider? One of the members schools? Scott Van Pelt?). Two weeks has cooled the nostalgia and slowly brought conference fans back to reality. UConn is not walking through that door. And even if the Huskies knocked (extremely unlikely) would the conference even answer? Consider that UConn would first have to leave the AAC, a process that would (per agreed upon procedures) take 27 months and a 10 million dollar exit fee (higher if exiting more quickly) to execute. UConn would have to (re)join the Big East before applying to the Big 12 for football only. NCAA regulations prohibit a school from applying to a conference for membership in a sport unless the school's "home conference" does not play that sport. Unwinding the sequence of actions that have to take place can be confusing, but two questions really put this to bed -- Does Connecticut honestly want to move only their football over to the Big 12? Does the Big 12 consider football only status preferable for UConn (or any other program they invite)? If the invitation is tendered it will be for all sports. And UConn will accept eagerly.

Scenarios that involve partial/split memberships are almost always for the benefit of the school who wants to maintain an unaffiliated status for their football program (ie Notre Dame, BYU and maybe Texas). Those arrangements do not promote stability for the conference that buys in. And for anyone connected to the Big East (conference employee, employee of a member school or even a fan) to entertain the notion of taking a school (much less UConn, nostalgia aside) with an FBS program into the conference suggests the entertainer learned nothing from the last three decades. Having put the FBS football issue aside, the only power 5 realignment variations that will impact the Big East would involve imploding conferences or the power 5 alignment leaving the NCAA and declining participation in the NCAA basketball tournament.

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