Tuesday , Nov , 09 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Big East Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Big East Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Gregg Xenakes, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: The Big East Conference may be lacking in marquee names this season,
but there’s no denying that the league is still one of the strongest in the
nation. The last two national champions and three of the last six title
holders have emerged from the Big East, so there’s always something exciting
going on. The Big East finished up postseason play in the NCAA Tournament with
a record of 12-5, 20-7 overall when the NIT was taken into account in 2003-04.
Three teams (UConn, Pittsburgh and Syracuse) all made it to the Sweet 16 and
there’s no reason to believe that those same teams can’t turn the trick again,
although most doubt that the Huskies will repeat as national champions. As far
as the coaches and the media are concerned heading into 2004-05, the Orange
are the odds on favorite to bring home the regular season crown, but the
Panthers and Huskies cannot be overlooked. Notre Dame and Boston College both
have some quality returning players, but the schools just don’t have the push
up front that it takes to compete with the more physical programs. Providence
is in the same boat as the two aforementioned schools, while Villanova could
have been a contender were it not for another set of rules violations
recently. Seton Hall, West Virginia and Rutgers are all going to win their
share of games this season, but not enough to contend. Then there’s the bottom
feeders in the Big East, Georgetown and St. John’s. Both of these prominent
and previous successful programs have fallen on such hard times that it’s
going to take quite some time for the Hoyas and Red Storm to get turned back
around. A conference in a state of flux, the Big East lost Virginia Tech and
Miami this year and will add five schools from Conference USA next season.


PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Syracuse; 2. Connecticut; 3. Pittsburgh;
4. Notre Dame; 5. Providence; 6. Boston College; 7. Seton Hall; 8. West
Virginia; 9. Villanova; 10. Rutgers; 11. Georgetown; 12. St. John’s


SYRACUSE: Up until two seasons ago the Orange were always the bridesmaids and
never the bride, but coach Jim Boeheim finally broke through in his 27th
season with the program in 2002-03. Last year the team took a few steps back
with a 23-8 record because Carmelo Anthony opted to make the jump to the pros
after winning that elusive championship in Syracuse. Except for guard Billy
Edelin who had his share of strong efforts for the Orange last season, the
heart of the team is still intact and that’s why the Orange are favored to
bring the regular season title in the Big East Conference back home to upstate
New York. Forward Hakim Warrick could have made his move to the NBA, but he
understands that getting a little more tutelage at this level will go a long
way in extending his longevity in the pros, and that’s why he has returned to
the Carrier Dome ,after averaging 19.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game last
season. He will team with Gerry McNamara once again to form a potent one-two
punch. The pair was the most productive duo in the league last season,
combining for 37 ppg and 200 of the unit’s 465 assists. McNamara took the bulk
of his shots from behind the three-point line, hitting on 105-of-270 chances,
his 87.2 percent accuracy at the free-throw line usually preventing opponents
from getting too physical with him in desperate times. Fellow guard Josh Pace
provided a competent outlet for McNamara when he ran into trouble, while
senior center Craig Forth picked his spots to score and crash the boards.

CONNECTICUT: For the second time since 1999 the Huskies were national
champions after galloping through the rest of the tournament field last
season. It’s not going to be all that easy in 2004-05 however, especially now
that household names like Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon are no longer on the
roster. Combined those two players posted better than 36 points and 16
rebounds per contest, while Okafor was an All-American, the Big East Player of
the Year and the Final Four MVP and Gordon made the Final Four All-Tournament
Team and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Big East Tournament. So
with those two now having moved on to the NBA, the only question is who will
take their places? Junior guard/forward Rashad Anderson is the top returning
scorer for the Jim Calhoun-coached program, hitting for 11.2 ppg last season.
Anderson shot 43.7 percent from the field but knocked down an impressive 41
percent beyond the arc a year ago. Few people were expecting now-sophomore
Josh Boone to have that much of an impact last year, but there were times when
he was brilliant in Okafor’s absence, even though he averaged just 5.9 ppg.
The one player that the Huskies and the fans are expecting a lot from this
season is Charlie Villanueva who started just four games last year and put up
8.9 ppg. Villanueva, who flirted with jumping to the NBA right out of high
school, played far too timid in the presence of Okafor and Gordon, so perhaps
their absence will open the door for him to be more aggressive this season.
Throw in incoming freshman Rudy Gay (6-9, 220) and the Huskies are once again
stocked and ready to make a postseason run.

PITTSBURGH: For the longest time last year the Panthers were the talk of the
Big East Conference, ripping off 18 straight wins before their first loss of
the season to UConn on January 19. Pittsburgh, which was under the direction
of first-year head coach Jamie Dixon, turned in a season for the ages, at
least as far as the regular season is concerned, posting an overall record of
31-5 to register its highest win total in school history. The squad was a
healthy 19-1 at the Peterson Event Center and could have similar numbers this
year with teams like Howard, Robert Morris and Loyola-Maryland stopping by in
the early going. Junior guard Carl Krauser started all 32 games in which he
played for the Panthers and is the top returning scorer for the group with his
15.4 ppg. If that were not enough, Krauser was also responsible for a team-
best 145 assists and registered 52 steals. Dixon, who was named the Big East
Coach of the Year to no one’s surprise, sees a lot of potential in sophomore
forward Chris Taft who came on late in 2003-04 and finished up with 10.9 ppg,
13.3 ppg against the rest of the conference. While Taft was clearing more than
eight rebounds a game against league opponents, forward Chevon Troutman added
6.6 rpg and another 10 ppg in Big East matchups. Unfortunately, aside from
those three players, the rest of the roster for the Panthers is a bit thin on
experience, which means there’s plenty of room for someone to step up and make
a name for himself this year.

NOTRE DAME: The Fighting Irish lost a couple of important players from last
season’s roster (Torrian Jones and Tom Timmermans), but for the most part the
core of the team remains intact. Head coach Mike Brey, who recently signed a
two-year contract extension that will take him through the 2010-11 campaign,
is ready to build on last year’s 19-13 record (9-7 in conference). Everyone,
including Brey, is waiting for guard Chris Thomas to lead his teammates to the
late rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but that just hasn’t happened yet. Thomas
will become one of the top three scorers in school history this year at the
very least since he is actively the top scoring player in the Big East with an
average of 18.4 ppg over three seasons. Thomas is a warrior who plays nearly
every minute of every game, but that also means that once March rolls around
he could be a bit fatigued, which is why fellow guard Chris Quinn (14.3 ppg)
and forward Torin Francis (14.2 ppg) have to take on more responsibility in
order to cut Thomas some slack and ease his pain. In addition, Arizona
transfer Dennis Latimore (6-8, 253) could be one of the real surprises this
season and provide immediate frontcourt help for the Irish.

PROVIDENCE: As an All-Big East Conference First Team choice, forward Ryan
Gomes made the rest of the league stand up and take notice of his exceptional
play both inside and out on the perimeter. While Gomes, who averaged a team-
high 18.9 ppg, was clearing a team-high 9.4 rebounds per contest for the
Friars in his 29 games, he was also dragging defenses out to the perimeter
where he was knocking down 40.4 percent of his three-point attempts in
conference play. Few teams, if any, had a defender that could cover the floor
as they tried to attach themselves to Gomes, which is why he is a favorite to
win the Big East Player of the Year award for 2004-05. As the only other
senior on the squad, aside from Gomes, forward Tuukka Kotti averaged less than
22 minutes per game last season, so expect his time on the floor to grow with
his scoring average from 6.1 ppg. Junior guard Donnie McGrath, who led the
unit with 100 assists and is the only other double-digit scorer (10.0 ppg)
returning for Providence, takes the gameplan from head coach Tim Welsh and
tries to make it a reality on the court. However, with so many newcomers and
underclassmen vying for time this season, that might be easier said than done.
Dwight Brewington, who shot just 28.6 percent from three-point range and a
meager 56.8 percent at the free-throw line, represents the last of the truly
experienced players for the Friars, and that spells trouble for the team if
they think that they are going to do much better than last season’s 20-9 mark.

BOSTON COLLEGE: Last year head coach Al Skinner was tasked with finding a
replacement for super guard Troy Bell in order to stay competitive in the Big
East Conference. He never did find a player to take Bell’s place, but the team
still finished with a record of 24-10, including two rounds of action in the
NCAA Tournament. As the team’s leading scorer from a year ago, forward Craig
Smith is back again to help lead BC to the Promised Land. Smith put up
staggering numbers for the Eagles in 2003-04 as he shot 55.3 percent from the
floor and dropped in 16.9 ppg as a result. If opponents thought all that was
impressive, when it came to Big East foes Smith turned his game up a notch
with 17.4 ppg on 60.2 percent shooting. Smith, who also cleared better than
eight rebounds per game last season, is a preseason All-Big East First Team
selection. Having started all 34 games for the Eagles last season, both Jared
Dudley and Sean Marshall provide plenty of support in the scoring department
after they produced 11.9 and 8.0 ppg, respectively. Junior guard Louis Hinnant
only averaged 5.2 ppg on the year, but his job was to distribute the ball for
BC, which turned into a team-high 102 assists. Senior Nate Doornekamp is being
penciled in as the starting center for the squad, but after averaging just 3.1
points and 3.1 rebounds per game last year, the seven footer might be finding
his way to the bench if someone else steps up and plays tougher in the paint
for the Eagles.

SETON HALL: Gone is the team’s floor leader in Andre Barrett, but not all is
lost in South Orange as the Pirates prepare for yet another season of Big East
basketball. Seton Hall still has four players who averaged double-digit
scoring a year ago, the high man being junior forward/center Kelly Whitney,
which is why there is still hope at Seton Hall. Whitney, who also led the team
in rebounding (6.9 rpg) and blocked shots (29), shot an impressive 56.2
percent from the field for the team a season ago, as the Pirates finished
21-10 and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The one knock
against Whitney is that he shot just 61.3 percent at the free-throw line,
considerably less than the 71.4 percent put up by Seton Hall as a team. John
Allen (12.4 ppg) helped to balance some of that out by connecting on 80
percent of his chances at the stripe, while his 71 assists and 36 steals were
second only to Barrett, who now leaves the program in the capable hands of
head coach Louis Orr. Guards Andre Sweet and J.R. Morris each averaged 10.1
ppg for the Pirates, the difference being that the former started all 31 games
for the team and Morris was a reserve each and every contest. In an offense
that is often predicated on the play of speedy guards and aggressive forwards,
the center position is often overlooked, and that will be a problem this
season for the Pirates.

WEST VIRGINIA: In his second season with the Mountaineers, head coach John
Beilein had a lot of housekeeping to take care of, and it wasn’t very pretty.
The team actually surprised a lot of folks by going 17-14 and making it to the
third round of the NIT before being sent home to Morgantown. A year earlier
WVU was in the midst of an absolute mess that had players coming and going,
resulting in a record of just 14-15 and an eighth-place finish in the Big East
Conference. Guard Drew Schifino, who was supposed to be the savior for the
team in 2003-04, played in just 11 games before being sent away, which opened
the door for now-senior center D’or Fischer to assume command of the program
on the floor. Fischer, one of the top shot blockers in the entire nation with
four rejections per contest, was an intimidating presence on the defensive end
of the floor, but his offensive repertoire could still use some work to get
him motivated at the other end of the court as well. He averaged only 10.8
ppg, one of three returning players to hit for at least 10 points per contest,
the other two being Tyrone Sally and Kevin Pittsnogle. The latter is an enigma
in that he has a good feel for the game both outside the three-point line
where he shot 36.8 percent, or on the inside around the basket with his 6-11
frame. Height in the post is not a concern for the Mountaineers as they have
three players listed at 6-11, and now the guard play should be of higher
quality now that St. Bonaventure transfer Mike Gansey is eligible to take the
floor after sitting out for a season.

VILLANOVA: First things first with the Wildcats and that’s that head coach Jay
Wright is perched firmly on the hot seat in the Philadelphia suburbs this
season. Sure, he has a record of 52-46 in three years with Villanova, but when
he arrived on the mainline he was expected to bring the program back from the
brink and into the national spotlight again. Things got off to a shaky
start in 2003-04 when the ‘Cats fell to Chaminade in the Maui Invitational.
There were wins over weak opponents like La Salle, Penn, Northeastern and
Columbia, but there was also a stretch towards the end of the campaign when
the team won just once in eight games. Allegations of NCAA rules violations
hurt the integrity of the already fragile program which had just survived a
phone card scandal. And now, just weeks before the opening game for the
Wildcats, it turns out that junior forward/center Jason Fraser is out for the
time being after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in late October. All
that means is that junior guard Allen Ray now has even more responsibility
when it comes to getting this team ready for Big East play. Ray led all
scorers last season with 17.3 ppg, while Fraser paced the squad with a team-
high 7.1 rpg as well as 39 blocks in 27 games. Junior forward Curtis Sumpter,
who was selected to compete with the USA Basketball squad at the World
Championships in Nova Scotia over the summer, also added seven rebounds and
14.3 ppg to the Villanova attack. With injury being the topic of choice for
the Wildcats, it is also worthy to mention that the lone newcomer to the
program, local product Kyle Lowry tore his left ACL in late August and is now
sidelined indefinitely.

RUTGERS: For the first time in more than two decades the Scarlet Knights
enjoyed a 20-win season in 2003-04, but chances are head coach Gary Waters and
company are going to have some trouble making that happen again this year.
Rutgers achieved its record of 20-13 after finishing as runner-up in the
postseason NIT, but was just 7-9 against the rest of the Big East in
conference matchups. Senior guard Ricky Shields led the team with his 15.5 ppg
and actually shot better from three-point range (.374) in league affairs than
he did overall from the field (.373) during those 16 games. As a team the
Knights established a new school standard with 239 three-pointers made,
hitting 36.4 percent of their attempts overall while opponents converted just
31.2 percent. Also shooting better beyond the arc on the entire season was
guard Quincy Douby who, when combined with Shields, accounted for more than
400 three-point attempts. The team will need to have similar success this year
in order to make its way through the league schedule, while also having to
play non-conference opponents like Charlotte, Wisconsin, Princeton, Kansas
State and Air Force. This will not be an easy year by any stretch of the
imagination for the Scarlet Knights, but it should still be an exciting one.
With their tallest player, 6-11 Dan Waterstradt, just a freshman, the Knights
will have trouble banging in the paint with bigger and more seasoned

GEORGETOWN: With just 13 overall wins in 28 games and a record of 4-12 against
the rest of the Big East, the Hoyas were becoming the butt of many a joke in
the league last season. Because of that, the institution made a change at
head coach once again, bringing in John Thompson. No, not that John Thompson
that led them to success throughout the 1980’s, but John Thompson the III.
This coach is coming over from Princeton where he led his alma mater over four
campaigns and is bringing a new attitude with him to Maryland. The 52-year old
coach loses standout forward Gerald Riley and his team-high 17 ppg, but
Brandon Bowman should be able to shoulder the load as he adds to his 15.9
points and 8.1 rebounds per contest from 2003-04. Like Bowman, guard Ashanti
Cook started every game for the team and produced 9.2 points and a team-best
106 assists in the process, making him the perfect setup man for newcomers
like Cornelio Guibunda and local product Roy Hibbert who need a strong leader
on the court in order to develop properly at the college level. Hibbert is a
7-2 giant in the paint who in his senior year of high school did it all while
Guibunda, an import from Mozambique, played high school ball in Connecticut
where he averaged 21 points, 15 boards and nine blocks last year. Even though
there are some promising prospects making their way through the system, the
fact remains that there are only two seniors on the roster for the Hoyas this
season and one of them (RaMell Ross) appeared in just one game for four
minutes last season.

ST. JOHN’S: Where does one begin when talking about the Red Storm? By December
of last year the coach was canned and then it was just a short time later that
suspensions began to rain down on the program due to issues with conduct. The
team, which is now under the watchful eye of head coach Norm Roberts, has just
five returning players from a disastrous 6-21 campaign in 2003-04. St. John’s
won only once in 16 tries against the rest of the Big East, that lone victory
coming against Georgetown. Junior guard Daryll Hill is the only player on this
year’s squad that has started more than 10 games for the Storm, so in terms of
experience, the team is bare this season. Hill averaged 14.8 ppg during the
entire season and dialed it up a notch to 18.3 ppg in Big East action, but
without anyone else to take the burden of being the go-to-guy, Hill is going
to get burned out rather quickly. Sophomore forward Lamont Hamilton showed
some scoring punch here and there (6.4 ppg in Big East) but having just five
assists against 27 turnovers in 19 games showed that he is still far from
being ready to handle the speed of the college game. The five newcomers that
are now part of the St. John’s squad all came from the state of New York,
except for Cedric Jackson who makes the trek from New Jersey.