Reviewing the Big East's Top Returnees

The Big East lost a lot of talent after a strong first season that ended with a whimper in the NCAA Tournament. Doug McDermott, Bryce Cotton, Markel Starks, Semaj Christon, Brandon Young, Khyle Marshall, Davante Gardner, James Bell, Kadeem Batts, JaKarr Sampson, Jamil Wilson and Fuquan Edwin are all gone.

In this column, I’ll consider who’s still here to step into the vacuum left by those players, looking strictly from an offensive standpoint.

To determine the overall offensive impact of a player, I’ve mashed together several key KenPom.com stats (minutes played, offensive rating, possessions) to create a metric I’m calling “Points/100,” which basically describes how many points a player is worth to his team’s offense per 100 possessions. I’m using this not to rate or rank players but simply to create a cohort of returning players who made a large impact last season (and likely will again this winter).

To give you an idea, players with a Points/100 below 10 have a limited impact on their team’s offense either due to not playing much or not being active on offense (with shots, assists, etc.). Players at 10-20 are moderate-to-high impact guys (Josh Fortune with his high minutes but infrequent involvement in the offense was a 12; Batts checked in at 19). Anyone above 20 is usually a team’s No. 1 options or perhaps a strong second option – there were 11 of these in the Big East last year. Anyone above 30 is probably a contender for National Player of the Year.

In the Big East last year, the top three players by this measure have all graduated. Their names are well known to the reader. McDermott (35) and Cotton (32) finished 1-2. No. 3 was Georgetown’s Starks (26).

After that is a mix of Big East returners and the dearly departed. Below I consider the league’s top 11, players sure to have a major impact on the conference this season. I went to 11 to include players from nine different teams. The only team without a representative is Marquette, which lost its top three players in Points/100. I aim to describe where each player excels or struggles and how he might impact his team this season.

D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown (25): Smith-Rivera’s place atop this list might surprise you – he wasn’t named first-team All-Big East last year, although only one returner was. He’s played second fiddle to Starks but was the more efficient scorer, shooting better on 2-pointers (48.3 percent), 3-pointers (39.3 percent) and free throws (87.3 percent) while getting to the line more often. Smith-Rivera is not the creator Starks was, but his assists rates are similar to Cotton’s in the seasons before he made the transition to lead ball-handler. It’s a transition Smith-Rivera is expected to make this season.

D’Angelo Harrison, St. John’s (23): Harrison, the only returner from the All-Big East first team, was the most effective scorer on a bad St. John’s offense mostly because he got to the line often (45.6 free-throw attempts per 100 field-goal attempts – national average was 40.5) and was deadly once there (86.1 percent). St. John’s fans needed to take the good with the bad, though, since a lot of the drives that didn’t turn into free throws became missed shots (38.9 percent on 2-pointers, worst of any of the 11 here). He’s not even at the level of Smith-Rivera as a creator but will be a terrific first option off the ball assuming Rysheed Jordan can handle the point as a sophomore.

Kellen Dunham, Butler (22): Last summer’s wrist injury to Roosevelt Jones forced Dunham into a role for which he probably wasn’t quite ready, but he still did fine as the lead dog. Like most of the guys at the top of this list, he took a lot of shots and played a lot of minutes. He did so while maintaining a passable if unexceptional efficiency, although he was the worst at getting to the line of this group. Butler’s ninth-rated Big East offense should improve with Jones’ return to health and the added load that the efficient Andrew Chrabascz should be able to carry as a sophomore in the post.

LaDontae Henton, Providence (20): I covered Henton in depth in http://providence.scout.com/story/1423453-can-ladontae-henton-man-the-2?s=425#/story/1423453-can-ladontae-henton-man-the-2?s=425.

Sterling Gibbs, Seton Hall (20): The first true point guard on this list carried a heavy load and was still quite efficient in his first season since transferring from Texas. Gibbs stands out for his ability to get to the foul line -- he attempted 86 free throws for every 100 field-goal attempts, 20 more than the next player on this list, Jayvaughn Pinkston, who was second. Despite Gibbs’ play, the Seton Hall offense still didn’t land in the top half of the league. That could change this year if he can learn to play nice with incoming freshman Isaiah Whitehead, who is the odds-on favorite to lead all Big East freshmen in scoring. As the player on this list with the best assist rate, Gibbs would appear uniquely suited to the challenge.

JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova (20): The Wildcats’ whirling low-post dervish combines a terrific ability to finish around the rim (55.1 percent on 2-pointers) with a knack for getting to the line (66 free throws per 100 field-goal attempts and 74.4 percent from the stripe). Pinkston is the league’s most difficult player in the league to guard in the paint, and he’s the first of many reasons why the Wildcats are the conference favorites.

Darrun Hilliard, Villanova (19): This wing is probably the best all-around shooter in the league, despite a surprisingly low 71.8 percent free-throw percentage. He and McDermott were the only players in the league with more than a dozen 2-point attempts who made at least 40 percent of 3-pointers and 55 percent of 2-pointers. He took 52 percent of his field-goal attempts from beyond the 3-point arc, the highest percentage of anyone on this list – just fractionally higher than Dunham. Oh, and he’s also a good passer for a 6-foot-6 wing.

Billy Garrett, DePaul (17): The Blue Demons appear set for a seventh straight last-place finish in the Big East, but at least their fans will get to watch Garrett, who’s on this list because he takes a lot of shots, gets to the line (55 free-throw attempts per 100 field-goal attempts) and nails his free throws. He was relatively efficient despite 1) playing on the league’s worst offense, and 2) not shooting well (he ranks last among this group of players in both effective and true shooting percentage). With Brandon Young, Cleveland Melvin and Oliver Purnell’s entire 2014 freshman class gone, it will be up to Garrett and Tommy Hamilton to carry the load.

Tyler Harris, Providence (17): The second Friar on this list is here as a testament to how much he was on the floor last season. He was actually a slightly bigger part of the offense when on the floor than Henton (largely due to his many turnovers), and he was just shy of being a shooting threat from all three areas. His free-thrown shooting was terrific (84 percent) and his 2-point shooting was fine (48 percent), though his 3-point shooting was inconsistent (32 percent – 37 percent through Feb. 1; 21 percent thereafter). Harris had the highest turnover rate of anyone on this while also having the lowest assist rate.

Matt Stainbrook, Xavier (16): This Musketeers team has an intriguing mix of six freshmen, six returners and a transfer. Stainbrook is the biggest piece among the returners (literally and metaphorically). The (listed) 270-pound center is great at finishing inside and a terrific-passing big man, but Stainbrook doesn’t get to the line as much you’d expect for a player with his skill set -- indeed only Dunham gets to the line less often of the players featured here. With the departures of the three teammates most adept at drawing fouls – Christon, Isaiah Philmore and Justin Martin – that could be a problem.

Austin Chatman, Creighton (15): Of these 11, Chatman was far and away the least aggressive offensive player.That’s what happens when you share the floor with the best college scorer in a generation. Now that McDermott, Grant Gibbs, Jahenns Manigat and Ethan Wragge are all gone, it will likely be on the backcourt of Chatman and Devin Brooks to lead the offense. As a junior, Chatman was solid in all phases. He hit 38.9 percent of his 3’s and 75 percent of his free throws in a decent number of attempts for a player his size (6-foot, 180 pounds). He was also the second best distributor on this list, behind just Sterling Gibbs.

Thoughts? Questions? Story ideas? Contact UltimateCranston on Twitter: @UltimateCrans.

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