A Big East Feast

Irish Eyes weighs in on the league's best players and coaches and more important, its hottest players entering post-season play.

Big East Most Valuable Player Rankings

There was little doubt that Ben Hasnbrough was the league's best over the course of the season, but there were at least seven more team leaders that deserved recognition after strong campaigns.

  1. G – Ben Hansbrough (Notre Dame): His numbers in 18 Big East games are top-notch: second in scoring (20.7), 12th in assists (4.3), 5th in FT percentage (84.9%), 9th in steals (1.6), and 8th in 3-PT percentage (43.0%) and 10th in overall field goal percentage (50.9% - the only true guard to appear among the league's Top 10). His will to win is unquestioned and his ability to produce in the clutch is without peer at the program over the last decade. Hansbrough was the Conference's only unanimous All-Big East selection and the Big East's Player of the Year. He was our hands-down choice for the honor and that of any entity that watched league games from beginning to end this season. There's no clear-cut runner-up to designate.

    Hansbrough, one of two Irish players that can slow league guards off the dribble (Ty Nash the other), limited St. John's high-scoring Dwight Hardy to 20 points over a two-game span (1-1 record) this season and helped the Irish win 14 games in myriad ways: clutch free throws (41 for 46 in wins over Georgetown, Cincinnati, Rutgers and Providence); penetrating drives (Pittsburgh and Marquette); and dead-eye three-point shooting (Louisville, Villanova, UConn: 17 of 26 from long range).

    The question wasn't if Hansbrough should have been named the Player of the Year, but if he should take home the Big East's Most Improved Player award, as well?

  2. G – Dwight Hardy (St. John's): Finished 5th in league scoring (18.1) though he increased his production at season's end, averaging 24.6 per game over the last nine contests (eight St. John's wins). He finished sixth in FT percentage (82.4%), and 14th in 3-PT percentage (38.6%), hitting 21 of 40 shots from long-range over a seven game stretch and shooting better than 50 percent overall over the aforementioned 9-game span.

    Though he committed more turnovers (64) than assists registered (57), Hardy keyed the Red Storm's late-season winning streak and boost in national ranking and esteem. He's one of two players (along with UConn's Walker, below) that could carry his squad through a four-game Big East Tourney run with an unstoppable perimeter game.

    Hardy is our choice as runner-up to Hansbrough for the Big East's Player of the Year award on the strength of his clutch play for a 12-win, 5th-place team.

  3. G – Kemba Walker (UConn): The league's non-conference MVP, Walker was a national player of the year candidate entering mid-January. His play, along with that of his young team, proved inconsistent throughout the Big East season as the high-volume shooter and scorer missed at least 10 shots in 14 league contests. Walker scored 21.7 per game in league play (2nd) and finished second in assist-to-turnover ration (2.1 per game) – a difficult feat considering he dominated the basketball while leading all Big East players in minutes played (more than 38 per contest).

    Blessed with an old school and nearly unstoppable pull-up jump shot in transition, Walker finished 8th in steals (1.7) and 9th in assists (4.5) and drew enough fouls to shoot 124 free throws in 18 league games (18 more than Hansbrough and 30 more than Hardy) while connecting at nearly an 80 percent clip on the season. Walker carried a team with five freshmen in its rotation to nine league wins and four huge non-conference victories.

  4. G/F – Marshon Brooks (Providence): The league's top scorer managed to shoot a shade under 49 percent on the season despite a staggering 553 field goal attempts. Brooks torched Notre Dame for a collegiate season high 52 points; Georgetown for 43; and managed in excess of 25 points in nine more league contests. The Friars, however, finished 2-9 in those games, rendering Brooks more of a curiosity and candidate for the league's Most Improved Award rather than its most valuable player.

    As an aside, his 52-point outburst – on 20-28 shooting, no less – was the greatest individual show I've seen vs. the Irish since Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson's sublime 32-point, game-changing performance as a true freshman in South Bend in 1990.

Next in line

Just outside the top four:

G/F – Brad Wanamaker (Pittsburgh): Numbers don't tell the story for the toughest omission from the MVP list above. Wanamaker ranks second only to Ben Hansbrough in terms of a player you'd choose to help you win one basketball game.

He delivers on the mid-range jump shot and at the rim; protects and distributes the basketball; ranks as a top-tier rebounder at his position, defends point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards, and ranks among the best of three Pittsburgh players worthy of Big East honors this season.

C– Rick Jackson (Syracuse): If there's an all-underrated team, Jackson would be the charter member. The Orange endured an uneven 2011 but Jackson remained constant, producing eight double-doubles in league play while leading the Big East in rebounding 9.9 per game in Big East contests) and finishing second in field goal percentage (61.2%).

Jackson anchored the back of Syracuse's 2-3 zone while averaging a league-best 2.8 blocks per contest for the league's third-best field goal percentage defense and scoring defense.

Jackson finished fourth among all Big East players in offensive rebounds (3.1 per game) and first on the defensive glass (6.8). His 36.6 minutes per league game tied for first (Marquette's Jimmy Butler) among non-guards in the conference.

Underrated Player of the Year:
Jimmy Butler (Marquette): Possesses a swingman's size at 6'7", Butler finished as a top 10 scorer (16.8), and top 20 rebounder (6.2) that was forced to guard the opposing team's best F/C for the bulk of the season. He connected on nearly 50 percent of his shots, 80 percent of his free throws, and finished among the league's top 15 in steals.

Late-Season Surges

Not all were consistent throughout conference play, but few are playing better than this collection of talent entering the post-season tournaments…and that's all that matters in mid-March.

Ben Hansbrough: 1st Team All Big East every month in 2011 and scored 104 points in four wins to conclude the season, shooting a ridiculous 33 of 49 from the field in the process.

Dwight Hardy (St. John's): His numbers are listed above, but Hardy's true strength is he feels no defender can possibly contain him heading into tournament action.

Kevin Jones (West Virginia): A monster on the offensive glass and he's begun to assert himself as a scorer.

Kyle Kuric (Louisville): Connected on 18 of his last 27 shots while scoring 46 points in two season-ending contests…Posted rebound totals of 8, 7, 7, and 9 among his last six league games.

Ashton Gibbs (Pittsburgh): Is he hot or just consistent? Has hit 26 of 52 shots from the floor including 15 of 31 from long range and 16 of 18 free throws since returning from injury for the season's final five contests.

Yancey Gates (Cincinnati): Has 76 points and 43 boards during the team's 4-1 finish. Gates was benched in mid-February and has since taken over as one of the league's four best big men along with Jackson, Jones, and Pittsburgh's Gary McGhee.

Jimmy Butler (Marquette): Produced 50 points including a 26-30 effort from the foul line in the final two league games. 30 free throws in two (losses)? Added 19 points, 10 boards, and 8 assists in a blowout win over Providence in the Tournament's first-round.

Tim Abromaitis (Notre Dame): Hit for 91 points and 24 boards in four season-ending victories while knocking down 32 of his 61 shots from the floor.

Joe Mazzulla (West Virginia): 51 assists, 15 turnovers in his last nine contests with top-notch on-the-ball defense. If Mazzulla is able to find room in your lane, it's a guaranteed flight home that evening.

Scoop Jardine (Syracuse): Hit 12 of his last 28 three-point shots while producing 55 assists vs. 22 turnovers in the team's 7-2 second-half conference finish. Jardine led the conference in assists with a better than 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Jeremy Hazell (Seton Hall): Hit 8 of his last 11 three-point shots in back-to-back final week upsets over St. John's and Marquette. Hazell added 27 last night vs. Rutgers but it wasn't enough as the Pirates disappointing conference season ended with a loss to Rutgers in overtime.

Peyton Siva (Louisville): 47 assists vs. 19 turnovers in the last nine contests with 16 steals over that same span. Siva's my early choice for the league's top point guard in 2012.

Irish Eyes' Coach of the Year Rankings

  1. Mike Brey (Notre Dame) – The best choice among a pool of qualified candidates this season. Brey's Irish were expected to be better than last season by those close to the program, but a 14-4 finish and 12-5 mark vs. the RPI Top 50 was simply a fantastic accomplishment.
  2. Rick Pitino (Louisville) – The talent drain experienced by the Cardinals over the last two seasons – and subsequent injuries overcome this year – makes Pitino's third-place squad (projected No. 9 by a vote of the conference coaches) our easy second choice.
  3. Jamie Dixon (Pittsburgh) – Picked first…finished first, from wire-to-wire in a conference with no peer.
  4. Bob Huggins (West Virginia) – The Mountaineers lost their best (Da'Sean Butler) and most talented players (Devin Ebanks) from a Big East Championship and Final Four squad in 2010. An 11-7, 6th-place slotting, and hot finish shouldn't go unnoticed. No one wants to play West Virginia in March, and isn't that the goal of any program/coach?
  5. Steve Lavin (St. John's) – Picked sixth, finished fifth, with a huge non-conference beating of Duke along the way. Lavin took 10 talented but disjointed seniors and turned them into a basketball team this season.
  6. Mick Cronin (Cincinnati) – His substitution patterns would drive me crazy, but ask yourself this: How in the world did they finish 11-7 in this league?

Honorable Mention: Mike Rice (Rutgers) – The first-year coach only coaxed five league wins (plus a first-round tournament upset) from a talent-poor team – one that now plays defense and with a purpose.

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