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December 16, 2008
The Big East
Ranked Teams With Questions

by John Gasaway

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This week Connecticut is welcoming Stanley Robinson back to the roster, after the junior spent the past five months working at Prime Materials Recovery in Willimantic, Connecticut. (Don't ask. It's quite a saga. Anyway, he's back.)

It's not like the Huskies have struggled in Robinson's absence. After all, Jim Calhoun's team is 8-0, with double-digit neutral-site wins over Miami and Wisconsin. So why is it I feel like I still don't have a good read on this team, specifically on whether they are a worthy foe for North Carolina?

Their struggle to notch a four-point win at Buffalo is, of course, part of my uncertainty. Not all of it, however; take for example the strange emergence of Jerome Dyson, of all people, as the Huskies' featured player on offense. This year, the career 32 percent three-point shooter is taking 28 percent of his team's shots during his minutes on the floor. In other words, he takes more of the shots in this offense than Kevin Love did in the UCLA offense last year. This is the team that's supposed to give Carolina a go?

In Dyson's defense, he's merely seizing an opportunity. A.J. Price is clearly struggling to recover from knee surgery in April and nowhere near the Price that UConn fans saw last season. His minutes are down, and when he's on the floor he's been but a shadow of his former self. Though Dyson's been only too happy to pick up the slack here, at least UConn also has freshman Kemba Walker on hand. Walker has been as fast as advertised, while dishing assists, getting to the line and showing promise from the perimeter.

Then there's the big guy. You've probably heard reports of a sassy new-look Hasheem Thabeet, one who's more assertive on offense (see his 21 points against surprisingly scrappy Buffalo) and more beastly on the boards. The rebounding part has emphatically been true thus far, though of course dominating the glass against Bryant and Hartford isn't the same thing as doing it against Pitt and Louisville.

Note, however, that to this point in the season, Thabeet's alleged newfound assertiveness on offense has been greatly overstated. Last year he took a microscopic 13 percent of his team's shots during his minutes. This year that figure has grown, yes, but only to a still very small 17 percent. If current trends hold, Thabeet will be drafted next summer based on defense and potential, period.

Be that as it may, Connecticut's offense has looked great even without the 2007-08 version of A.J. Price, thanks to an abundance of free throws and a paucity of turnovers, in that order. Both are likely to continue. In particular, Connecticut showed beyond question last year that they're quite capable of racking up big FT totals against Big East opposition.

The mystery with Connecticut remains, however surprisingly, on defense. Last year the Huskies had merely the eighth-best defense in the Big East. Better defensive rebounding (like that shown already by Thabeet) would go a long way toward propelling this team toward a potential collision with a certain team from Chapel Hill.

Elsewhere in the conference it was announced with much fanfare this week that the Big East occupied no fewer than seven of the top 15 spots in the latest coaches' poll. Syracuse was so enthused about this news that they promptly went out and lost to Cleveland State. Still, the coaches aren't that far off. This is indeed the top conference in the nation this year. Here's a look at where the other top-15 Big East teams stand right now….

  • Pittsburgh. This year DeJuan Blair has rebounded 26 percent of his own team's misses during his time on the floor. A number that absurd (it would actually be a very good defensive rebound percentage) tells me I'm looking at both an outstanding player and a squishy soft schedule. Indeed, faced with Levance Fields' ridiculous 14 assists per 100 possessions or Sam Young's 21 points in just 29 minutes per game, it's fair to say that this is an elite offense that thus far has, Washington State notwithstanding, frolicked its way through a relatively frictionless schedule. We haven't seen Pitt challenged, but right now they're undoubtedly a collection of impressive specialists: see Fields' assists, Young's shots and Blair's rebounds. On D, however, don't be surprised if last year's average rebounding continues. Against a very forgiving schedule, the Panthers have grabbed less than 69 percent of their opponents' misses. That would be a fine result in the Big East, but seen in the context of their schedule it's a little ominous. The Panthers may have not only the ability but also the need to outscore opponents. Kind of like Notre Dame.
  • Louisville. Pitt may have played a kind schedule but they at least beat everyone on it. Not so Louisville, which rather notoriously lost by 14 to Western Kentucky. Basically, the loss of David Padgett hasn't made one bit of difference to Rick Pitino's defense but it's made a world of difference to his offense. That's not to say Louisville can't transition to life after Padgett. The featured role on offense has already fallen to freshman Samardo Samuels, who has settled into what might be called the Josh Heytvelt role: efficient scoring with zero defensive rebounding. Note that veterans Earl Clark and Terence Williams have both been merely mortal on offense coming out of the gate.
  • Syracuse. I had a nifty paragraph all teed up here on how Syracuse, at number 11 in this week's coaches' poll, was self-evidently the most overrated team in this group of seven. (Perhaps the most jarring thing about the Orangemen is that here they are in the "soft" part of their schedule--and they turn the ball over more than their opponents do.) Then Cedric Jackson went and saved me the trouble, hitting a 60-footer at the buzzer the enabled Cleveland State to beat the Orangemen 72-69 in the Carrier Dome on Monday night. That's not to take anything away from the Vikings, the preseason favorites in the Horizon League. It's merely to say that the number 11 team in the nation should be able to win that game on their home court. That being said, Jonny Flynn is an outstanding player both outside and, most impressively, inside the arc. If this team ends up losing Eric Devendorf to his off-court matter, the time will have come for Andy Rautins to find the range from the perimeter. He's yet to do so this year.
  • Georgetown. The Hoyas may just conduct a grand hoops experiment all by themselves on defense this season. You see, their field-goal defense is so incredible and their defensive rebounding is so awful, we may be on the brink of a true first: outstanding defense without rebounds. So far, that is exactly what we've seen from this group. By the way, did I miss something? John Thompson III's traditionally deliberate team is averaging 67 trips per 40 minutes this season. If this is a conscious stylistic choice, it appears to be a good one. Fueled by DaJuan Summers' spectacular start, the Georgetown offense has been both balanced and effective, even as they work freshman Greg Monroe into the mix. (Granted, a few more threes falling wouldn't hurt matters.)
  • Notre Dame. Luke Harangody hasn't been nearly as efficient in his scoring on the young season as he was in his first two years. He's been ill, of course, but here's the weird part: his excellent defensive rebounding hasn't fallen off one bit. Yet somehow he is making "just" 51 percent of his twos. Good thing Kyle McAlarney has continued his accurate ways, hitting 47 percent of his frequent threes. I know the theme I chose for this glimpse of the Big East was "mysteries" but, frankly, that shoe doesn't fit here. We know exactly what we'll get from Notre Dame this year, don't we? They won't turn the ball over; neither will their opponents. The Irish won't exactly shut anyone down but they won't be shut down either. Games will be straight-up possession-by-possession scoring contests.
  • Villanova. The question for the Wildcats entering this season was scoring. So far Corey Stokes has stepped forward with at least one answer to that question, hitting almost half his threes. Meanwhile his team has been surprisingly rugged on the defensive glass. Dante Cunningham is fair in that department but this has been a true group effort. Now the question for 'Nova is interior scoring. The Wildcats have made 51 percent of their twos playing nine of their ten games in Philadelphia. The 51 percent part is fine, but at some point Jay Wright's team will be required to venture beyond Philly. When they do, watch how they fare inside the arc.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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