Continuing my posting of FCP's conference reviews. Sooner or later they'll get around to the Mountain West.
The story's the same in the Big East
By By Jim Clark
Correspondent, Full Court Press
Posted Nov 30, 2008
If the Big East were half its size, it would be the most competitive league in the country. Of course, the “most competitive” label only fits if you choose the right eight teams.
A few seem always to be in that group: Connecticut, Rutgers, and Notre Dame are nationally ranked every year. Recently, Louisville and Pittsburgh also have shown signs of continuing excellence. DePaul is middle of the pack after several really good years, Syracuse and Marquette are once more in the middle group of competitive teams, and West Virginia, although rebuilding this season, can be expected to return to quality play. Sadly, one-time contender Villanova may have fallen permanently into the group of also-rans that make up the bottom seven teams.
But remember: Six of ESPN’s ten pre-season all-Americans are from the Big East, so there’s definitely some talent on the court in some of the games.
The cream of the crop nationally, and in this league, is UConn, which returns four starters from the Final Four team, along with a former starter who might be the most athletic of them all. Only Louisville, which also returns the bulk of its talented squad, and Rutgers, which does not, are likely to test the Huskies this year.
1. Connecticut (36-2 overall; 15-1 Big East)
National Coach of the Year Geno Auriemma (also Big East Co-Coach of the Year) is a little less cocky in his old age than he used to be. He has refused to guarantee a national champion as he did in 2002, when his returning roster was possibly the best team ever to play college basketball. But the coach has many reasons to be confident, and pundits have universally picked Connecticut the pre-season national number one.
The accolades all begin with the best player in college basketball, Maya Moore, Big East Player and Freshman of the Year, and only the second freshman all-American ever. Enough has been written about Moore that little needs to be added here. Moore simply does everything well, and she will shift to forward from shooting guard this year now that the Huskies have several options at the two. Very few threes or fours can hope to guard her, as she scores in so many different ways. And she has worked hard (as she always does) in the offseason to improve her already adequate defense. “Believe it or not, she’s gotten a lot better,” according to her point guard and co-captain Renee Montgomery. Although not surprising given Moore’s unparalleled dedication to the game, that statement should strike fear into her opponents, and bring joy to her fans.
This team, however, belongs to senior Renee Montgomery, possibly the best point guard in the nation, who picked up her scoring dramatically after injuries robbed the Huskies of both shooting guards. Her 4.2 assists per game came with a 2.4 assist/turnover ratio. Expect Montgomery to play the point most of the time. The speedy, and “most improved” (Auriemma) Lorin Dixon will assume the backup role.
Inside, junior Tina Charles averaged 15.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg, and hit over 60% of her field goals. She considers herself to have been a disappointment, though, largely because she played passively in the Final Four. Observers have seen a different look in her eyes this year: the look she had before neutralizing Sylvia Fowles in their matchup last February. If that look, and that kind of play, becomes the norm, UConn will be very hard to beat.
Kaili McLaren is the primary backup, but her continued inability to practice hard has limited her to times when she must be used. Freshman and Connecticut Player of the Year Heather Buck is also in reserve, but began the year in street clothes with mononucleosis . Any foul trouble could spell big trouble in the post for Connecticut.
Redshirt junior Kalana Greene has returned from complete destruction of her knee in the eighth game last year, and should be at 100% for league play. Connecticut’s best defender and most pure athlete before her injury will start and play a major role in the pressure defense Auriemma hopes to employ this season. Freshmen guards Tiffany Hayes and Caroline Doty, who has started so far, should see immediate playing time.
2. Rutgers (27-7; 14-2)
Rutgers lost a lot (Matee Ajavon, Essence Carson), but gained some outstanding freshmen. After an Elite Eight loss that unfairly matched a depleted Rutgers (Myia McCurdy’s injury really hurt the press) against UConn for the third time in a month, Rutgers hopes to rebound with a healthy team combining experience and extreme youth.
Junior guard Epiphanny Prince is one of the great scoring guards in the nation (15.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg), and will be expected, at least early, to be both point guard and team leader. Coach C.Vivian Stringer is hoping freshman Nikki Speed (my new favorite BE name) can eventually take over at the point to allow Prince to roam free. Speed, a 5-8 guard from California, is a McDonald’s All-American and member of the USA U-18 team from last summer. She will be brought along gradually, as is Stringer’s style. The other possibility at point will be redshirt freshman Kadijah Rushdan, the leading scorer in Delaware high school history, who averaged 21.8 points, 6.1 assists and 5.7 steals a game as a senior. She tore her ACL in December last year, but appears healthy.
Also returning is senior center Kia Vaughn, an intimidating athlete and physical presence in the paint who averaged 10 points and 8.2 boards a game last season. Despite those impressive stats, however, Vaughn has been a regular underperformer. Whether it is Stringer’s overly conservative offense, or whether Vaughn lacks confidence, she has never dominated the floor in a way that her athletic abilities would presage. With both of last year’s leaders gone, Vaughn and Prince will have to assume the role. Supporting Vaughn in the post will be 6-2 Florida freshman Chesley Lee, another McDonald’s A-A, and the physical but inconsistent junior Rashidat Junaid.
Stringer also has a wealth of guard/forwards, including junior McCurdy, a lock-down athletic defender who led the Rutgers press before her injury, but has shown little offense. Three outstanding freshmen will compete for the three spot on the floor. Brooklyn Pope (another pretty good name) is the most likely to shine early. At 6-0, she can leap out of the building, and was ranked first among forwards by Scout.com. In the first regular season game, Pope scored ten points and grabbed eight boards in just ten minutes. Jasmine Dixon, California Player of the Year and a McDonald’s A-A has outstanding skills, and will also compete at the three with April Sykes, Mississippi’s POY and yet another McD’s A-A.
Rutgers has the athletes to employ the suffocating press Stringer has perfected, and enough scorers to compete with anyone. The only offensive limitation seems to be beyond the arc, where only Prince and reserve Brittany Ray have shown ability. It will take some time to work in the freshmen, but by the Big East season, Rutgers should be ready to dominate most of the league, and challenge Connecticut and Louisville.
3. Louisville (26-10; 10-6)
Angel McCoughtry was probably the best player in the Big East last season, but lost that award to the publicity storm surrounding Maya Moore. McCoughtry, who won the award as a sophomore, once more led conference games in both scoring (23.3) and rebounding (9.5), while also filling the role of team leader for the Cardinals.
Louisville reached the conference final, and nearly defeated Connecticut, which needed outstanding performances from bench players Ketia Swanier and Charde Houston to prevail. McCoughtry played all 40 minutes, scoring 22 and grabbing 11 boards. Sophomore Candyce Bingham dominated the glass with 14 rebounds, and added 11 points. McCoughtry, for all her offensive prowess, proved herself late in the year to have developed into an excellent defender. If she plays hard at both ends, the Cardinal have a chance to win a lot of games.
These two and outside shooter Brande Radde will lead a team that will have little depth after the preseason loss of center Chauntise Wright to a knee injury. The vacancy in the post will fall to 6-2 junior reserve Keisha Hines, who showed promise and versatility in the Big East tournament last year. The loss of Wright moves our ranking of Louisville to number three in the league from the preseason expectation of second.
Three freshmen forwards are led by Kentucky player of the Year Monique Reid, who averaged a remarkable 31.6 ppg her senior year. She should see playing time in the post immediately, but her 6-1 frame will not clog the lane, leaving Hines to play extended minutes as the team’s tallest player. Radde will need to shoot more, as she is the only proven outside threat, but averaged just eight points a game.
Second-year coach Jeff Walz made the most of the players he inherited, and Louisville improved throughout the year, reaching the Sweet 16, and losing by just four points to Final Four participant North Carolina, behind 35 points from McCoughtry. Despite some whining after losing the Big East final, Walz is another fine addition to the Big East coaching group, and will try to establish Louisville as a permanent member of the conference elite.
4. Notre Dame (25-9; 11-5)
The last few years, a look at Notre Dame’s roster seemed to be a look at a good but not outstanding team. Yet once again in 2007-08 the Irish made the Sweet 16, and were fourth in the Big East.
This year, in a league that is increasingly separating a good half from an awful half, the Irish look to repeat last season’s success. A lot of this has to do with the great coaching of Muffet McGraw, who will someday be recognized nationally despite her relatively low-profile bench decorum. This season, McGraw needs to overcome the graduation of Charel Allen, the athletic scorer who led the team for the past two seasons, and four-year point guard Tulyah Gaines.
Returning to lead the team are three starters, all guards and co-captains: Senior Lindsay Schrader, a tough, savvy player who averaged 10.2 ppg and a team leading 6.2 rpg (do we see a problem here?). Joining her are the dynamic junior Ashley Barlow, only an honorable mention Big East pick, but who should be among the leagues better scoring guards (12.1ppg) this season, and junior Melissa Lechleitner, who will take over at the point. The greatest weakness in this guard corps is the inability to hit the three: Barlow’s 30% led the team last season, and no one else was close. Freshman Natalie Novosel is likely to contribute at the two. The Kentucky native averaged 19 points her senior season.
The post group has lots of potential but whether that means they will shine is yet to be seen. Erica Williamson, at 6-4 has had one great game, against UConn two years ago, in which she showed an ability to score with either hand using some pretty nifty post moves. Since then, she has been only ordinary (6.4 ppg/4.4rpg; .468). Williamson will need to play strongly and aggressively if the Irish are to be more than just good.
Devereux Peters is expected to return to power forward from a knee injury, and, if recovered, should provide athleticism and rebounding in the paint. She did not play in preseason games, but dominated during Notre Dame’s victory over LSU in the season opener. Also expected to start is sophomore Rebeccah Bruszewski, who came out of nowhere in the NCAA tournament, with two 16-point games against SMU and Tennessee. She will need to continue that level of performance this year. Michigan’s class B co-players of the year, Kellie Watson and Erica Solomon, both 6-2, will be available in the post, and one of them will need to perform well from the start, especially if Peters is slow to return.
Notre Dame has experienced leadership, but poor rebounding and poor outside shooting, though McGraw’s teams have often covered the holes in their game by precise execution and great team play. The hopes for Irish success depend on improvement from the veterans and a few freshman contributing quickly.
5. Syracuse (22-9; 10-6)
Big East Co-Coach of the Year Quentin Hillsman continues the rebuilding of Syracuse this season, but with a difference: The Orange return four starters and 12 players from a very good team. Center may be an issue, but this group will score, and if they learn to defend better, could be a surprise in the league. Senior Chandrea Jones, who shocked the league last season as a JC transfer by pouring in 15 points a game and grabbing nearly eight boards despite her 5-9 stature, is sure to be even better this year. She is joined by Nicole Michael, who was down slightly in her sophomore season after an all-BE debut, but still managed 11.6 points and 7.4 boards per game. Also returning are the young frontcourt duo of point guard Tasha Harris, with her 1.7 assist/turnover ratio, and shooter Erica Morrow (114 assists, .379 from three-point range). Junior Vionca Murray will probably start in the post, while Hillman will hope to mix newcomers Troya Berry, Shakeya Leary and Tyler Ash into the post rotation. Each offers height (6-2 or more) in the paint, and each has a winning background.
As one of the league’s youngest but most experienced teams, Syracuse is poised for a very strong season, and should compete well with even the top teams.
6. Pittsburgh (24-11; 10-6)
Pittsburgh lost three crucial elements of its recent success in the offseason, and recovering from those losses will be an uphill battle. Mercedes Walker, the dominant center in the league for her four seasons, is gone, with no obvious replacement in sight. Mallorie Winn, the team leader and point guard, has graduated as well.
Less obvious, but of an importance only to be seen as time goes on, is assistant coach Shea Ralph’s departure for UConn. Ralph was one of college basketball’s most intense competitors, and she brought Pitt to a new level of effort by example and force of will. Coach Agnes Beranato is far more laid back, and needed the intensity of Ralph to help drive the team.
All is not lost, however, as the dynamic Shavonte Zellous returns for her final campaign. Her 18.2 ppg led the team, and she can dominate a game at times, but her defense is suspect for such an athletic player, and she can be limited by very good defenses. Joining her at guard will be senior Xenia Stewart, an aggressive and talented, but inconsistent, senior who needs to play under control more often, and junior Jania Sims, who will need to improve her scoring to be of much help.
Local Pittsburgh freshman Shaunice Wilson will necessarily take over at center, where her 6-6 height is a good starting point. In preseason action, she has been aggressive, mobile, and confident, a very good sign for the Panthers. Sophomore Chelsea Cole has experience and height (she’s listed at an optimistic 6-3), but will need to prove herself after managing just 4.5 points and five rebounds in 16 minutes last season.
Pittsburgh has a lot of rebuilding to do, and the preseason ranking at #23 is almost certainly too high. In a slightly down Big East, the five through nine teams are basically interchangeable this season, and a win or two will be all that separates them.
7. Marquette (21-14; 8-8)
Marquette comes to this season as WNIT champions, returning four starters and ten players from that surprising squad. The talent begins with Krystal Ellis, WNIT MVP and the Big East’s second leading scorer last season at 19.4 ppg. The development of Angel Robinson at the point (11.4 ppg, 3.85 apg) freed Ellis to become an unstoppable offensive player. She led the team in threes (67 made, .379) and shots (510, 150 more than any teammate), but managed to keep up her average despite defenses keying on her. This season, coach Terri Mitchell has worked with her team on spreading the ball around, and not waiting for Ellis to do it all.
Robinson and redshirt sophomore forward Jocelyn Mellen are most poised to help with the scoring. Mellen moved into the starting rotation at the end of last season, and showed some ability to use her 6-3 height to advantage in the paint. Her development could relieve the pressure on the guards, helping to make the Eagles more balanced overall. Janelle Harris is the other returning starter, at the three. She hopes to improve on her 6.9 ppg. Senior Erin Monfre will probably continue to contribute solid minutes off the bench.
The fifth starter will be an experiment, and only four starters are designated in Marquette’s season opener game notes. A likely candidate is 6-0 freshman Jessica Pachko, who has been a tough and solid (wide-body) rebounder in the preseason. Georgie Jones, at 6-2, will also have opportunities in the paint as she makes the transition to college play.
Marquette continues to have a few stars and a bunch of role players. If the scoring comes mostly from the frontcourt, however, the Eagles will not improve their standing very much. The balancing of the offense must be a priority.
8. DePaul (20-12; 8-8)
DePaul lost five seniors, three starters, and the soul of the team to graduation. Replacing Allie Quigley’s excellence, Missy Mitidiero’s leadership and timely shooting, and Caprice Smith’s toughness, is too much to ask of the remaining group.
So expect DePaul to have a year of struggle, as coach Doug Bruno tries to rebuild. The team does return half of its scoring and rebounding, and decent big game experience, but leadership is a major issue.
Dierdre Naughton returns at the point. Her steady improvement is the Blue Demons’ best hope for a strong season. Naughton averaged 15 points and two threes (67 made, .379) per game last year, and grew into a reliable late-game asset. She averaged four assists a game, and had an enviable 2:1 assist:turnover ratio. Junior China Threatt, injured late in the season, is an able outside shooter (.357) and averaged 5.7 ppg off the bench. She should be a solid player, and should improve her scoring in a starter’s role. After that, however, will be freshmen at the guard spots.
Natasha Williams returns to the center position. The athletic Williams manages ten points and 6.4 boards, shooting almost 60% from the field for DePaul. She will be backed up by transfer Rachel Pierson, a solid 6-3 player who was a decent bench player at Iowa State. Senior Erin Catell brings experience but not much else to the forward position, and will be backed up by freshmen Keisha Hampton (who has played well in the exhibitions) and Danielle Havel, both standing 6-2.
Point and center are set for Coach Bruno and the Blue Demons. In between he will use a mix of experienced role-players and energetic freshmen and the result will likely be middle-of-the-pack again.
9. South Florida (16-16; 5-11)
USF returns an experienced core of players, and adds three more JC players who the coaching staff can hope work out as well as senior Jasmine Sepulveda did last year. The guard averaged ten points and five boards a year ago, and will provide leadership while splitting the assists with returning backcourt mate Shantia Grace, a dynamic scorer at 19.1 ppg.
Six-three twin towers Brittany Denson and Melissa Dalembert provide size in the paint, and Denson at least is ready to step up her play in her final year. With only two freshmen on the squad, playing experience is not an issue for coach Jose Fernandez, and USF is likely to play as many as ten deep for most of the season. In early games, the Bulls have been scoring prolifically, trashing Central Connecticut in the season opener 100-41. USF always plays tough, physical basketball, and the Bulls seem to have the shooters to make the season interesting. They could become a mid-conference surprise.
10. Villanova (17-16; 5-11)
Villanova has four starters returning: Is that one hand clapping? This was a mediocre team last season, and will be only slightly better this year.
Of course, down here in Big East Light territory, that could put the Wildcats near the top half of the league. Duke transfer Laura Kurz was a welcome addition last season, becoming the leading scorer (14.4 ppg) and rebounder (6.4 rpg) on the club. She will probably be joined at the forward spot by Lisa Karcic, who tore her ACL late in the year, and may not be fully recovered. She scored 12.2 points and grabbed a team-second 4.9 boards. Also returning are guards Maria Getty and Siobahn O’Connor. These four all shot 40% or better from three-point range.
There is little doubt that coach Harry Perretta will again employ the use-28-seconds-and-shoot-a-three offense which is his hallmark. Villanova took two-and-a-half times as many threes as its opponents in 2007-08, and exactly half of the team’s field goal attempts were from beyond the arc, accounting for 48% of the points.
Sophomore Heather Scanlon returns after a redshirt year, and is rumored to be in top shape. Having a 6-3 center could help balance the offense a bit. Three freshmen join the team, but none has credentials to expect a marked change in the fate of the Wildcats.
11. West Virginia (25-8; 12-4)
Senior Ashley Powell played 22 mpg last season -- no other player on this year’s squad played eight. Eleven players left, including every starter and 95% of the scoring and rebounding from a team that went to the second round of the NCAAs two years running.
Five JC transfers and five freshmen join four non-entities and Powell on the Mountaineers’ roster. Powell is the point guard, and had 142 assists last season, but scored just 2.9 ppg. Her 1.5 assist: turnover ratio is not among the league’s best. West Virginia lost too much, and imports too little, to be competitive this season. The Mountaineers will play hard and tough as always, but they will lose often.
12. Georgetown (15-14; 5-11)
It will be all about the freshmen for coach Terri Williams-Flournoy, who has finally recruited top level players to Georgetown. The incoming class of seven is considered a top-ten class, and has someone for each position.
Given that the Hoyas lost 30 of the 62 points they averaged last year to graduation, these youngsters will need to contribute immediately. Juniors Meredith Cox, Kenya Kirkland and Shauntice Fuller will have to lead the freshmen, although none was a regular starter last season.
Given the lack of experience, it is inexplicable that the Hoyas played no preseason ganes. Georgetown has no real center, and will likely present a three- or even four-guard offense, with rebounding at a premium.
The freshmen are led by 5-3 point guard Ruby Lee Wright, South Carolina’s Player of the Year, who is an dynamo of a player who can score, dish and even rebound. Even as good as she and the other freshmen might be, however, this is a building year for the Hoyas. Don’t expect them to rise from the basement of the league this season.
13. St. Johns (18-15; 7-9)
The guards will lead a depleted Red Storm into the season, and hope that the frontcourt improves through age or addition. Senior Monique McLean led the team in scoring (14.9 ppg) and was second in rebounding (4.9 rpg). Sister senior Kelly McManmon and sophomore Sky Lindsay are solid contributors who will work to replace the points of departed Big East first-teamer Kia Wright. Freshman Britney Murphy could see playing time off the bench.
The frontcourt features junior Joy McCorvey, an excellent defender and the leading rebounder (just 5.5) a year ago. She is joined by sophomores Cynthia Hart and Recee Mitchell, bench players who could see extended playing time. Freshman Da’Sheena Stevens could get on the court as well. The Connecticut resident scored more than 2,000 points in high school, and averaged a double-double for her career.
St. John’s actually could benefit from the graduation of Wright, who all too often made the game about “me” and regularly played out of control. A more balanced and self-less offense could improve coach Kim Barnes-Arico’s team.
14. Cincinnati (12-16; 3-13)
Coach J. Kelly Hall pushed a team of nine hard and fast last season, with mixed results. This year, he has brought in four freshmen and a transfer, and hopes to run some more.
The team, however, still has lots of holdovers from the old style, and those eight returning players have had little success in the Big East. They shoot the three a lot, and they run a lot. They rebound reasonably well, and they managed to beat Xavier last season.
The high point for the Bearcats is the return of Shelley Bellman from injury. She averaged 10.4 ppg and 6.6 rpg two years ago, and had 18 and eight in the season opener against Detroit. Guard Kahla Roudebush and center Jill Stephens, both double-digit scorers, also return to an experienced club. Florida freshman Shanasa Saunders should back up the point, and Wisconsin AAU teammates Val Schuster and Katie Bushman could contribute off the bench. There is room for optimism at Cincinnati, but Big East success has been rare for this team, so hopes should not be too high.
15. Seton Hall (13-15; 3-13)
Seton Hall was dragged down by injury last season, and perhaps good health can yield some wins for an experienced but unsuccessful group. Ten players return from a bad team, and that is rarely a recipe for success.
Sophomore guard Ebonie Williams led the team in scoring last season with just 11 ppg. Juniors Ashley Booker and Shantel Brown expect to share the point duties, if either can remain healthy all year. Noteisha Womack led the Big East in rebounding at 10.5 a game last season, but was injured several times late in the season, and did not qualify for the award, won by Angel McCoughtry. Womack did not play in the season opener this year. If she does not recover, the frontcourt will be weak, and subject to change on a game-to-game basis. Kashmere Joseph and Ashley Booker have the experience, but freshmen Kandice Green and Whitney Wood could see minutes early in the season.
16. Providence (12-17; 2-14)
Poor Providence. It looked at first as if coach Phil Seymore would make something of this sad team, but his early success was fleeting, and his teams have won only eight Big East games in three seasons. This year’s team is mostly last year’s team, and they will be just as futile: which is to say, last in the league, and likely to remain so unless Providence changes its lack of commitment to basketball (men’s and women’s) to revive the program.
The only hopeful point for the Friars is the return from injury of senior guards Chelsea Marandola and Catherine Bove, both Big East second team selections from 2007 who missed all but a few of last year’s games. They have so little help, however, that the difference is likely to be only a game or two, not a victorious season or anything close.
Jim Clark is a career prosecutor in the New Haven Connecticut State’s Attorney’s Office, and a professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT. He has tried 34 murder cases, and dozens of other felonies. He officiates high school volleyball and basketball, and recently completed The Nation’s Triathlon in Washington, D.C. in September to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
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