By John Celestand
(Editor's Note: John Celestand was an All-BIG EAST guard at Villanova from 1995-99. Currently, he broadcasts games for the ESPN family of networks.)
To use the word `underrated' and the BIG EAST Conference in the same sentence should almost be seen as an oxymoron. Yet, early in this 2010-11 college basketball season, this was as close to fact as any sentence could be. By all the writers, announcers and so-called experts, the BIG EAST Conference has been overlooked, undervalued and maybe even disrespected. Again, with its back against the wall the Big East Conference has come out swinging, connecting and now may even again be the best and most complete conference in college basketball.
Let's take a look at the storylines as the conference schedule gets going.
Although their mascots are cats, the Wildcat and the Panther, respectively, many believed coming into the season that Villanova and Pittsburgh were the top dogs of the conference. Villanova sits on a 10-1 record with its only loss coming to Tennessee in the title game of the NIT Tip-Off. In this day and age of the one and done player, the underclassmen declaring for the draft, or some just skipping college altogether to pursue jobs in Europe, it is an added luxury when you can place talented seniors out on the court. Villanova has two of the more proven guards in the conference in Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes. Fisher may be the most innovative guard off the dribble in the BIG EAST and maybe even the country. While Stokes, known in New Jersey as the Bayonne Bomber, is a pure shooter who can use his size and strength to defend many perimeter players. Add in senior Antonio Pena and you have serious experience. Don't forget about local product Maalik Wayns, a guard who fears no one and will take the ball to rim without hesitation.
The Pittsburgh Panthers are the epitome of grit and toughness. There is nothing sexy about their style of play. They're not flashy and you'll be hard pressed to find too many Pitt fans outside of the city of Pittsburgh. But once on campus in the Oakland section of town and inside the Petersen Events Center you will find one of the most intimidating places to play in the country. Even if you don't scare easy and the atmosphere doesn't move you, then Pitt's defense and rebounding will. Ashton Gibbs is one of the most efficient 3-point shooters in the conference. Add in his size and strength and he becomes an imposing guard in the BIG EAST. Guard Brad Wanamaker has continually improved and forward Gilbert Brown is a high-flying acrobat. The Panthers are tough. Take notice, Jamie Dixon rarely smiles -- until the game is over and Pitt has won again.
When speaking about the UConn Huskies the first thing that comes to mind is `Who knew?' The media sure didn't, the fans sure didn't. Well now the country sure does. The Huskies have stormed on the scene and worked their way all the way up to No. 4 in the country. Guard Kemba Walker is a human stick shift, the way he can change gears in the blink of an eye. Currently, he's the best player in the country. Center Alex Oriakhi has become a reliable workhorse. The real key has been the play of the freshmen. Jeremy Lamb is long and athletic, Niels Giffey is fundamentally solid, Roscoe Smith has shown he can shoot the long ball and I think Shabazz Napier can be a star in this league. Seems as if Jim Calhoun has done it again. We doubted him and inside he's laughing at us all.
The Syracuse Orange over the years almost always find a way to sit atop the BIG EAST Conference. This is where they seem comfortable. Who wouldn't? They do this by recruiting long, rangy players while sitting back in a 2-3 zone, which always makes their opponents extremely uncomfortable. Kris Joseph is another wing player in a long line of great small forwards to play at Syracuse. He may arguably be the most NBA-ready player in the league. Guard Scoop Jardine, in my opinion, is the most underrated player in the conference. He's big, he can score, dish and really orchestrates the offense. It would not surprise me if he's an All-BIG EAST player. Rick Jackson is again quietly controlling the paint. He is the best big man in the BIG EAST. And with all this said, I still feel like there isn't enough hoopla surrounding the `Cuse. Not sure if they mind, though. They'll just force you into another deep 3-point shot and march on to victory.
It seems only right to follow Syracuse with the Georgetown Hoyas. I am going to go out on a limb and say they may be the best team in the BIG EAST. Guard Austin Freeman, the Preseason Player of the Year, is a nightmare to prepare for. The senior is third in the conference in scoring averaging 18.9 ppg while shooting a blistering 49 percent from behind the arc. Chris Wright has finally become the player that everyone expected him to be. He had 21 points and 11 assists in that great win against Missouri. Wright is strong, he runs the show and he has that senior look in his eye. It's a dangerous look. Jason Clark rounds out the perimeter, which I think may be the best in college basketball. Look out, don't turn you head, Georgetown may back door you.
There was no way Notre Dame could survive the loss of one of the greatest players in the history of their school, Luke Harangody. But wait, they played well without him down the stretch last year. Why wouldn't we think they could do the same this year? The Fighting Irish, so far, are well balanced with four guys in double figures. Ben Hansbrough can shoot, Tim Abromaitis broke out of his shell right before our eyes last year. Notre Dame is second in the conference in 3-point shooting. We always know they can score. The question is usually, who can they guard? But so far, so good for Mike Brey's club.
Louisville was supposed to be a non-factor. A rebuilding year as they move into their new KFC Yum! Center. But the facts are they've already beat ranked teams Butler and UNLV this year against only one loss. They don't have one superstar. For some reason, I think coach Rick Pitino likes it that way.
Wait a minute. How is Cincinnati undefeated? They're 11-0 and they lost their best player from last year in Lance Stephenson. Okay, let's be honest, their schedule has been somewhat weak with their best victory being against Oklahoma. But they lead the league in scoring defense only giving up 54.0 ppg. Like Louisville, their roster is absent of superstars. They're just scrap and scrape for victories, Mick Cronin style.
Marquette will again be undersized. But it doesn't seem to bother them as year in and year out they compete in this beast of a conference. Keep an eye on forward Jimmy Butler and guard Darius Johnson-Odom this year. And don't forget freshman Vander Blue, the best high school player in the state of Wisconsin last year who chose to do battle for the Golden Eagles in the Big East. He will get the usual freshman welcome from the league's veterans once conference play commences, but Blue looks ready.
West Virginia has a new leading scorer this year in Casey Mitchell who is punching in 17.5 ppg. He has always been one of their best scorers but was stuck on the bench behind some of their great, departed players like Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks. One concern for the Mountaineers has been leadership and right now they are still trying to find the person who will fill that void. Look for Kevin Jones, Darryl "Truck" Bryant, or maybe even fifth-year senior Joe Mazzulla to step up.
The BIG EAST Conference has three new coaches at the New York Metropolitan area schools. In North Jersey, Kevin Willard has taken the reins at Seton Hall and will try to get the Pirates back to the NCAA tournament, somewhere they haven't been since 2006. He needs Jeremy Hazell healthy and back on the hardwood soon. I'm not sure what to make of the Pirates, but when Hazell is healthy he can be one of the most exciting players to watch in the BIG EAST. Rutgers new head coach Mike Rice has arrived with a bang in Piscataway. It's not about now for Rutgers, as there is no doubt they will struggle this year in conference play. But the class that Rice had already recruited for the 2011-2012 in my opinion will set the foundation to bring the program at least back to respectability. This is the highest ranked recruiting class in school history and four of the seven recruits are from the New York Metro area. Rice seems to understand that in order to climb out of the league basement it all starts in the fertile soil of the five New York boroughs and New Jersey. Out in Jamaica, Queens, Steve Lavin has taken on the job of bringing back the energy at St. John's. He did inherit a group of seniors with tons of experience. The problem has been that too many times the Red Storm have been close, but not quite good enough. We'll see if Lavin's touch can be the difference this year. Like Rice, Lavin's first recruiting class has been heralded by everyone.
Is this the year that Providence fans can finally forget about the glory years when God Shammgod and Jamel Thomas created havoc in the BIG EAST and even back to 1987 when they made it to the Final Four? It's been a long time since the Friars put fear in the heart of their opponents. The Friars sit at 11-2 and have one of the most explosive scorers in the league in senior Marshon Brooks. His sidekick is the explosive Vincent Council. The conference tests begin at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse.
Two teams that seem to have had a hard time finding their way in the conference are DePaul and USF. For DePaul, under new coach Oliver Purnell, freshman Brandon Young has already had games of 31 points and 23 points versus Central Michigan and Ball State, respectively. He has been a surprise along with classmate Cleveland Melvin. But Central Michigan and Ball State don't play in the BIG EAST. Young's toughest exams start Dec. 28 at Cincinnati.
USF is one of the favorite destinations for many of its BIG EAST opponents. One reason is because of the weather. Who wouldn't want to take a trip to Tampa in the middle of the winter? I wish the Bulls were in the league when I played! The second reason is because they haven't been that good and most teams see it as an easy win. They made good progress last year under coach Stan Heath, being invited to the NIT. But do-it-all Dominique Jones has moved on to the NBA and the remaining players don't look to be ready to contend. Forward Augustus Gilchrist although talented, has battled injuries during his career. Unless they get some improved guard play, it could be a tough year.
On a whole, the BIG EAST is back again in full effect. With the depth and consistency of the programs in the country's largest conference I'm not sure why some of us had the audacity to speak of its demise when some good players move on. When will we learn to simply pencil in the BIG EAST every year when speaking of the best conferences in the land? Forget about the pencil. It should be an unwritten rule.