Big East Basketball Report

Although football preseason hype is beginning to gear up, Big East basketball teams are also working hard in summer sessions to prepare for the upcoming 2004-05 season. Today, we look at the current status of six teams in the league.

BOSTON COLLEGE

GETTING INSIDE

Boston College already has one foot out the door of the Big East, and would like nothing better than to win the conference title in its final season in the league.

With almost everybody of note back from last year's 24-10 squad that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, it has to be considered among the favorites to do so.

Four starters return for Al Skinner, the lone exception being team leader Uka Agbai. The Eagles lost three other players -- sophomore Johnnie Jackson, freshman Devon Evertsen and walk-on Tavio Hobson, who all decided to transfer. But none was a part of the core rotation.

Team MVP Craig Smith, an All-Big East performer as a sophomore last season who led the team in scoring and rebounding, will once again be the team's rock on both ends of the court. Jared Dudley, Sean Marshall and Louis Hinnant also return, as do sixth man Jermaine Watson, backup center Nate Doornekamp and reserve point guard Steve Hailey.

There's definitely some work to do this offseason for Skinner's crew. Last year, the Eagles won by shutting down opponents on the defensive end, but they often struggled with dry spells on offense. This was particularly true when Smith was on the bench with foul trouble.

In addition, foul shooting was far from a strength -- particularly when Smith was at the line. He shot just 51.3 percent from the charity stripe.

Skinner's big task will be to find a replacement for Agbai, who provided 10.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, strong defense and a steady hand when the team desperately needed one.

NOTES, QUOTES

PROGRAM OVERVIEW: It was a big step forward for the Eagles last season. Despite their youth and inexperience, the team overcame a disappointing trip to the NIT the previous year to return to the NCAA Tournament. Now, Boston College looks to take that next step to the Sweet 16 and beyond.

Apart from an inside presence to replace Uka Agbai, this team doesn't have a lot of personnel needs. It does, however, need for a couple of people to emerge as scoring threats to complement Craig Smith.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We try to wear and tear opponents down. That's part of our strategy going into each game, trying to beat people down." -- Boston College forward Craig Smith, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

KEY RECRUITS AND TRANSFERS: Forward Sean Williams -- At 6-9, Williams will have a chance to contribute early, particularly with his shot-blocking skills on the defensive end. Boston College brought him in for a visit before he had even played in a varsity game.

Forward Akida McLain -- The 6-7 forward starred on the summer circuit last year before picking the Eagles over Arizona, Virginia and Penn State. He may be able to provide an offensive spark off the bench.

INJURY IMPACT: Boston College had a slew of minor injuries last year. Everyone looks to be healthy heading into 2004-05, though Craig Smith's back issues last season may be a lingering concern.


CONNECTICUT

GETTING INSIDE

For the second time in six seasons, the Huskies are the kings of college basketball. There is now reloading to do.

In addition to senior Taliek Brown, a four-year starter at the point, coach Jim Calhoun lost juniors Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon to the NBA.

For most programs -- even the elite ones -- such losses would lead to reduced expectations. But while all three departed Huskies leave big shoes to fill, the talent is definitely there in Storrs to make another title run.

Start with returning starters Rashad Anderson and Josh Boone. Anderson starred once he became a starter in midseason, and he is poised to be the team's new go-to guy on the outside. Boone is less of an offensive threat, but he rebounds and plays defense in the paint, a big bruiser that's tough for the opposition to move.

Sixth man Charlie Villanueva certainly didn't look ready for the NBA, despite his flirting with the pros as a high school senior, but he still showed signs that he's ready to make a big impact as a sophomore. Denham Brown is also back, as is backup center Hilton Armstrong.

Add incoming freshman Rudy Gay -- perhaps the most highly touted high schooler to turn down the NBA this offseason -- and fellow freshman A.J. Price. Top it off with Georgia Tech transfer Ed Nelson, eligible after sitting out a year per NCAA regulations, and Jim Calhoun has a team that can once again dream of cutting down the nets.

NOTES, QUOTES

PROGRAM OVERVIEW: The Huskies are among the top programs in the NCAA. To stay at that level for this season, the biggest obstacle may be finding a new point guard. Taliek Brown wasn't flashy, but he got the job done for four seasons. If sophomore Marcus Williams -- who sat out most of last season for academic reasons -- can't get it done, freshman A.J. Price may get a baptism by fire.

The Huskies lost a lot of talent, but reloaded in the offseason. They'll be ready for the opening tip.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It will enhance (the recruiting efforts) nationally, not only now, but down the line. I started calling recruits and for the first time that I can remember I had five players call me back. They included a top five player, the eighth-rated player, the 12th-rated player and the 18th-rated player." -- Coach Jim Calhoun, in the New Britain Herald, on the impact of an NCAA title and an offseason that saw two Huskies among the top three picks in the NBA draft.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

KEY RECRUITS AND TRANSFERS: Forward Rudy Gay -- The highly touted small forward from Baltimore will challenge for a starting spot right away. He came on strong in his final high school season and can do it all.

Guard A.J. Price -- This 6-0 point guard will get immediate playing time, and a chance to fill Taliek Brown's shoes as a four-year starter.

Forward Ed Nelson -- The Georgia Tech transfer starred for the Yellow Jackets before deciding to try his luck in the Big East. He'll compete with Charlie Villanueva for a starting spot in the Huskies frontcourt.

INJURY IMPACT: Josh Boone is a little banged up, having gone through a pair of surgeries on his right knee. He's expected to be ready for the start of practice. Forward Marcus White also expects to be ready after having back surgery in April.


GEORGETOWN

GETTING INSIDE

Craig Esherick always had big shoes to fill as Georgetown's coach. Literally and figuratively, Esherick was unable to make Hoyas fans forget about the John Thompson era, and last year's 13-15 finish was simply the final straw.

It ended the Hoyas 27-year streak of postseason invitations, and also the brief Esherick era.

Replacing Esherick is a familiar name; John Thompson III.

The son of the legendary former Hoya coach (and current Washington radio talk-show host) inherits his father's old program, but it's hardly in tip-top shape. A series of player departures and poor recruiting have left the cupboard all but bare.

Brandon Bowman, who almost transferred before last season, will be the rock upon which Thompson will likely build his offense. The 6-8 forward led last year's team in rebounding and was second in scoring. Indeed, alongside the departed Gerald Riley, he was often the only offense the Hoyas had, although rising junior Ashanti Cook had his moments as well. Matt Causey may be ready to take advantage of more minutes in the upcoming campaign, and Darrel Owens provides some points, rebounds, and leadership.

An encouraging sign is that the returning players seem very happy with the coaching change, and his message of a return to the glory days. Bowman in particular hopes he'll get to play more on the wing and not have to trade elbows with the big men of the Big East.

Still, Thompson is taking over a program in a marquee league -- one now without perennial bottom-dwellers Virginia Tech and Miami -- with a lineup that would probably be underdogs against the Princeton team he left behind.

NOTES, QUOTES

PROGRAM OVERVIEW: Georgetown now has a coach that evokes the memories of the glory days of Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson. Unfortunately, what it doesn't have are the players. Brandon Bowman is a nice player, and will fill up the stat sheet in the upcoming season, but nobody is mistaking him for a Georgetown star of old.

And with Gerald Riley gone, there's nobody else who appears to be able to carry the load.

Even discounting the power of his name, John Thompson III is a fine coach with an excellent track record. But this is a program with fans and alumni who know how far they've fallen and are determined to get back to their accustomed berth in the NCAA Tournament. It's a new era at Georgetown, and Thompson will get every opportunity to succeed under the intense microscope.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I am John Thompson's son. I've been John Thompson's son for 38 years. And I'm pretty comfortable being John Thompson's son. No one's going to put more pressure on me than myself. At Princeton I was John Thompson's son, and that's who I am. So if you guys can deal with that, I think I'll be OK." -- New Georgetown coach John Thompson III

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

KEY RECRUITS AND TRANSFERS: Forward Cornelio Guibunda -- A talented swingman, he'll get to play right away. The Hoyas will look for him to address some of the team's weaknesses on the offensive end.

Center Roy Hibbert -- He's a project, but he's 7-2. Thus Hibbert will likely get the opportunity to learn from the best, butting heads against the legendary former Hoyas who return to the area during the summer months. He'll need to overcome the injury bug that plagued him during his high school career.

INJURY IMPACT: Georgetown doesn't have any particular injury concerns this offseason.


NOTRE DAME

GETTING INSIDE

It was not a year to remember for the Fighting Irish. A preseason Top 25 team struggled in the early season, then saw injuries derail a late-season surge that returned Notre Dame to the NCAA Tournament bubble. But an early loss in the Big East tournament dropped the team to the NIT, and a quarterfinal loss to Oregon ended the season early.

If there was a silver lining, though, it was that the lack of success has everyone eligible committed to coming back for the upcoming season.

Two years ago, Chris Thomas made coach Mike Brey sweat out the spring while he attended NBA pre-draft camps. He ultimately elected to come back for another season, only to find himself fighting through injuries throughout his junior year. Highly touted big man Torin Francis was also rumored to have considered a jump to the NBA, but had his sophomore season cut short by back surgery.

In Francis' absence, Rick Cornet emerged as a rebounding threat down low. The duo will join Jordan Cornette, Arizona transfer Dennis Latimore and redshirt freshman Omari Israel to form an imposing frontcourt. Thomas, Chris Quinn and Colin Falls lead the guards.

The Fighting Irish had to be tough simply to survive a season in which 53 man-games were lost to injuries. That toughness, and the increased depth added by those who took on expanded roles last season, leaves the team in excellent shape to rebound in 2004-05.

NOTES, QUOTES

PROGRAM OVERVIEW: After the Fighting Irish were relegated to the NIT, Mike Brey commented that only a few elite programs could expect to make the NCAA Tournament every year, and that Notre Dame might not be one of those schools. True or not, that didn't sit well with some Irish fans.

With Notre Dame's fan base that transcends the school's boundaries, there's reason to expect the team to be very good nearly every year.

The program is clearly moving in that direction. Brey already has four commitments for next year's recruiting class. With the ability to reload instead of rebuild, Notre Dame is building a program that can compete for the Big East crown every year.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't foresee us losing as many games next year because we have some good guys coming back. You have to learn from a season like this. Not making it into the tournament is just fuel for next year. It shows us where we want to get to next year and where we don't want to be." -- Notre Dame forward Jordan Cornette.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

KEY RECRUITS AND TRANSFERS: Forward Dennis Latimore -- The 6-8 Arizona transfer sat out last season under NCAA rules. He'll give the team points and toughness this season, and will likely be a starter by the first day of practice.

Forward Rob Kurz -- The 6-8 power forward will get a chance to help the team immediately on the inside, particularly on the defensive end.

INJURY IMPACT: Torin Francis underwent back surgery to repair a herniated disk in March. He'll be ready for conditioning drills this summer. Chris Thomas underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee at the end of the season, and is likewise expected to be ready for the season. Omari Israel is ready to play after missing all of last season recovering from knee surgery.


PITTSBURGH

GETTING INSIDE

Jamie Dixon is already a hero of anonymous assistants everywhere. After serving under Ben Howland, the Panthers tabbed the unknown assistant to continue Howland's work after the former Pitt coach departed for UCLA. He responded to the school's show of faith with a 31-5 record and a trip to the Sweet 16.

Though the record was impressive, Pitt basketball wasn't pretty. The Panthers were not a team that shone on the offensive end. In fact, it was often a team that looked like it couldn't throw the ball in the ocean. It won with defense and experience, and a lot of that experience left at the end of the season when Julius Page and Jaron Brown used up their eligibility.

The cupboard, however, is far from bare. Carl Krauser returns to run the point, a season after he filled the considerable shoes of Brandin Knight to continue the recent tradition of stellar guard play at Pittsburgh. Krauser is particularly important on the offensive end, since the team tends to struggle even more when he's out of the game or hobbled by injury or foul problems.

Big East Rookie of the Year Chris Taft anchors the middle. He's only a sophomore, but he may be NBA-bound at the end of the season if he improves as much this season as he did in the second half last year.

Chevon Troutman and Mark McCarroll also return for their senior seasons, meaning the Panthers will once again be among the biggest teams in college basketball.

Redshirt freshman Ed Turner elected to transfer in order to get more playing time, but some of the newcomers appear ready to step in and contribute early. If everyone adjusts to their new roles and Krauser and Taft continue to improve, this team can once again find itself atop the conference and playing deep into March.

NOTES, QUOTES

PROGRAM OVERVIEW: So far, Jamie Dixon has not appeared to be a big fan of the unknown. He stuck to essentially a seven-man rotation through much of last season, and valued defensive stars over others who may have been able to contribute more on the offensive end. Defensive and rebounding has been the key.

At some point, though, Dixon will have to start recruiting players with more offensive weapons. He may have already signed one in John DeGroat, a junior college transfer who's eligible for the coming season. He has a reputation as a shooter, making 44 percent of his three-point attempts last season.

If not him, expect someone else to crack the rotation who's an offensive threat, since it will be difficult to duplicate the team defense Pitt showed last season now that top defenders Julius Page and Jaron Brown are gone.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "A lot of times there could be a ripple effect if there was somebody else who came in and tried to do something different. There would be head-butting. We didn't think that kind of change would be good for the program. We wanted somebody who was already here." -- Panthers forward Chevon Troutman, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on the decision to name Jamie Dixon head coach before last season.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

KEY RECRUITS AND TRANSFERS: Forward John DeGroat -- This 6-6 swingman has a reputation as a scorer, putting up strong numbers in junior college. If he's as good as advertised, he'll play a lot right away.

Guard Keith Benjamin -- Another scorer, Benjamin is a 6-2 shooting guard who can light it up from three-point range.

INJURY IMPACT: The Panthers have no major injuries heading into the upcoming campaign.


PROVIDENCE

GETTING INSIDE

The first big step toward a return trip to the NCAA Tournament has gone as well as coach Tim Welsh could possibly have hoped for.

All-American Ryan Gomes declared for the NBA draft, but couldn't get the kind of guarantees he was looking for from the scouts. His return helps mitigate the considerable losses the Friars suffered this offseason: junior Rob Sanders left the team in April, and fellow starters Marcus Douthit and Sheiku Kabba graduated.

The Friars have a lot of new faces coming in, and Gomes and point guard Donnie McGrath will be counted on heavily to indoctrinate the newcomers into the nature of Big East basketball.

Also returning are Tuukka Kotti, a rising senior who contributed in a reserve roll, and Dwight Brewington, who played well in his first season and started six games when Sanders was injured in midseason. But that's pretty much it. This was not a team that played very many guys on a regular basis, and thus it will need some newcomers and reserves to take on key roles in a hurry.

Welsh got a year extended onto his contract, locking him up through the 2008-09 season. He's been with the program for six years, and despite rumors that he was a candidate for the St. John's job, he provides stability to a program usually seen as a stepping-stone to greener pastures.

NOTES, QUOTES

PROGRAM OVERVIEW: This was just one of those teams that managed to have a satisfying season, but in a dissatisfying way. A 20-9 record and an NCAA berth would have been greeted like a triumph had they been guaranteed in October, but expectations were considerably higher by the time March rolled around.

Ryan Gomes is one of the best there is, as his All-America honors suggest. But if he thought teams were keying on him last season, that's nothing compared to the defenses he'll see over the coming year. Teams will focus on stopping Gomes and making the rest of the Friars beat them, and another NCAA berth hinges on whether his teammates can come through.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "In just six seasons, Tim Welsh has brought great stability and leadership to the Friar basketball program. Tim is the perfect person to be guiding our basketball program and we are excited that he will be coaching the Friars as we head into a new era in the Big East." -- Providence athletic director Bob Driscoll, after giving Welsh a one-year extension through 2008-09.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

KEY RECRUITS AND TRANSFERS: Forward Quinten Hosley -- A 6-7 swingman, Hosley transferred in from Lamar Community College, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. He'll be counted on to be an immediate scoring threat.

Forward Charles Burch -- The 6-7 bruiser is undersized, but is capable of guarding opposing big men. He originally signed with St. Bonaventure, but backed out of his letter of intent with the Bonnies. He is expected to add some badly needed bulk inside.

Guard JaJuan Robinson -- Robinson is a guard from Baltimore who can flat-out score. His high school coach told the Providence Journal that "I don't see anybody in the Big East that can cover him. He can handle the ball real well and has great court vision."

INJURY IMPACT: Providence signee Robert McKiver missed his entire senior high school season with an ankle injury, but will be ready for practice in the fall.

Up next, a look at the other half of the Big East conference.


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