Yesterday’s discussion about Luke Harangody’s return to college basketball had me wondering where ND stood alongside the rest of the Big East. I did a little fishing around on some of the major websites and found a couple top 25 lists to peek at for the upcoming season. Now that the draft is over, the rosters are set, and we can start to take a look at who looks strong and who is facing a major rebuilding project. I like to take a look at these lists after the draft deadline because it's tough to really gauge teams until we know who is going to be on the rosters.
First, a quick national overview. The consensus top three teams coming back next year are Kentucky, Kansas, and Michigan State. No big surprises there. For my money, Kansas is the clear favorite heading into next year. When you are bringing back two All-American type players, a slew of talented wings, and a monster recruiting class, you’re in pretty good shape. Kansas hit the jackpot with Collins and Aldrich—two elite college players who don’t quite have the “measurables” to be lured into the NBA after a year or two.
It’s amazing how quickly Bill Self went from a perceived “choker” to a guy who is now universally regarded as one of the elite coaches in the game. They were an eyelash from going to the Final Four last year in a rebuilding year, and now he’s stockpiled even more talent to go with that group.
Kentucky is going to be a very interesting story next year. Even without Jodie Meeks, they are going to be as talented as anyone on paper. Patterson, Wall, Cousins, Bledsoe, Orton. There are probably 4-5 NBA players on the roster. Still, there’s a lot of things that need to be sorted out in that program before they get it rolling, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kentucky is a bit of a “disappointment” next year. It’s never easy to have everyone on the same page with a brand new coach. Unfortunately for Calipari, his transition year is going to come when he already has a loaded roster in place, and guys like Wall and Patterson will not be around in 2010 when Calipari has full control of his program.
Michigan State is a borderline lock for the Final Four in my mind. In fact, I’ll bet anyone who reads this post that Sparty is playing in Indy in the Final Four next year. I have that much faith in Tom Izzo. With an experienced roster coming back and plenty of depth, they’re definitely a contender to win it all. MSU is sort of like the Pittsburgh Steelers of college basketball. You know what you’re getting, and they are always going to be a contender.
Anyway, that brings me to the Big East and how the league is shaping up as we stand today. The league is going to be down, but the Big East is like the SEC these days. A lot of these teams just reload.
I looked at a couple top twenty five polls, and here’s how the Big East teams fared.
Nova – 6, 4
Uconn – 8, 17
WVU – 10, 9
Louisville – 15, 23
Georgetown – 24, 24
Five teams ranked in each poll, and two teams that appear to be consensus top 10 teams. I agree with the Nova pick. As far as I’m concerned, they are the clear favorites in the Big East next year. The lose Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark, but they have far and away the best backcourt in the league next year (if not the nation) with Reynolds, Fisher, Redding, and Stokes. I’m a huge Scottie Reynolds fan. So smooth, great defender, good team player. He’s not a classic point guard (which seems to hurt his NBA value), but he can handle the role of being a lead guard in a college offense. Interesting that he decided to come back to college. Maybe I’m wrong on these early entries. Maybe these guys figure that they’re going to be a second rounder anyway, so they might as well stick around in college, hang out with the fellas, and try to make a run at the Final Four one last time.
The only concern for Nova is going to be on the interior. Guess we’ll see what Antonio Pena can do as the go to guy inside. They also have a top five recruiting class coming in next year. Jay Wright is really turning Nova into a powerhouse.
If there’s one team I could see being a little overrated out of the Big East next year, it’s probably West Virginia. I think they'll be good, but top 10 good?? Wow. Butler is great, Ebanks is great, I like Truck Bryant, even Mazzulla. But I think Ruoff will be a pretty big loss as their main perimeter threat. Either way, if WVU is the second best team in the Big East next year, it's not going to be a very strong league. I think WVU will settle in somewhere around 3rd-4th in the league.
The two wildcards are probably going to be UConn and Louisville. On paper, UConn probably has the most raw talent in the league. They have Kemba Walker back as a five star point guard, Dyson will be back, and they have Stanley Robinson back after his monster performance in the NCAA Tournament. Who else has that type of personnel?? Plus, UConn has brought in multiple stud recruits in the last couple years. I could see them being much better than talked about at this point.
Louisville lost a ton last year with Earl Clark, T-Will, and Andre McGee all moving on, but let's be honest. Richard Pitino is pacing that sideline, and it's not like Louisville isn't recruiting well. That frontcourt with Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings will be as talented as any in the league, and they still have Jerry Smith and Ed Sosa in the backcourt. I'm guessing that Louisville will be a factor again next year.
Georgetown is the other team that has been getting some preseason top 25 buzz. Interesting. I could see it. Everyone sort of forgot about them, but it's still Georgetown. I'd be shocked to see JTIII put up another subpar year. Between Greg Monroe, Austin Freeman, and Chris Wright, the Hoyas have a nucleus to get right back toward the top of the Big East in a hurry. Getting Monroe to come back next year could be huge. We'll have to see if last year was a blip on the radar or a sign of bigger problems at Georgetown. My gut instinct tells me that Gtown will be back next year.
So those are the five teams from the Big East that are considered top 25 teams going into next year, and I think all of them look like safe bets to be NCAA teams. Joe Lunardi is predicting right now that there will be 9 teams from the Big East in the Big Dance next year, so that leaves four others. Lunardi includes ND among that group.
Of the remaining teams, I'd actually say that ND has a chance to be the "best of the rest." Pitt loses Blair, Young, and Fields and doesn't have many returning guys back. The Cuse got bludgeoned by the early entry draft with Flynn, Devendorf, and Harris all leaving. Who do they have left?? Rautins and Onganaet?? Doesn't look like the Orange brought in a monster recruiting class or anything, so I see them taking a step back to the NIT this year.
Marquette also got crushed by graduation. McNeal, Matthews, and James all are gone. They're basically going with Hayward and young guys next year. Should be interesting to see what Buzz Williams does next year now that he doesn't have a bunch of seniors. Is he Tom Crean, Jr. or Larry Coker??
Of the teams that stunk last year, I'd say that Cincy has the best shot to move up toward NCAA contention. They basically have their whole team back next year. They imploded down the stretch last year, but it's pretty much make or break for Mick Cronin next year. If he can't make the NCAA Tournament with a team full of juniors and seniors, he's probably not going make it at Cincinnati.
After looking through all of these teams, I think ND is in much better shape going into next year and definitely looking like an NCAA Tournament team. The talent is way down in the Big East, and there's only one team next year that I would characterize as "elite" going into the season: Villanova. Everyone else is either raw or decimated by graduation. The powerhouses of the league (UConn and Louisville) each lost their three best players, and two of the other two premier programs (Syracuse and Pitt) are returning NIT type talent next year.
Our talent and recruiting deficiencies will not be as problematic when everyone else in the league is either young or inexperienced. Harangody and Jackson are four year starters, and Hansborough and Martin have started for BCS schools. That's good enough to be a top 6 team in this league next year (if not better).
Here's how I would rank the Big East teams as I see them three days after the early entry deadline (obviously this is a very rough guess at this point):
3) West Virginia
6) Notre Dame
11) Seton Hall
12) St. Johns
14) South Florida
Should be interesting to see where the Irish end up in the standings next year. If we get the right schedule, maybe we end up cracking the top 5. With Harangody back, I think Mike Brey has a great shot to lead this team back to the NCAA Tournament.