Though new head coach Kevin Willard has high hopes for the Pirates’ upcoming season, many others in the Big East do not duplicate his optimism.
“I want to re-build this basketball program that was once a powerhouse; that’s our goal everyday,” said Willard. “I’m very excited about our team. They’re ready for the challenge.”
At Seton Hall Media Day on Nov. 2, Willard emphasized strong defense, maturity and balance between returning players and recruits.
“We can be in every game if we play good defense,” he said. “I run a tight ship. It’s not a prison and I’d like them to have fun, but you have to respect the game and respect the opponent.”
“Last year, we could score against anybody in the country, but we gave up just as many points as we scored. You can’t do that,” said junior Jordan Theodore who will be filling the point guard void left by Eugene Harvey.
Seton Hall is projected to finish 11th in the conference standings according to the Big East Preseason Coaches Poll. They fall in the shadows of teams that consistently finish toward the top, except for St. John’s who is now under the direction of Steve Lavin and projected to end the regular season in sixth place.
The poll has Pittsburgh finishing in first place as they return four starters from last year’s roster. Among them is junior guard Ashton Gibbs who averaged a team-leading 15.7 points per game last year in addition to achieving a conference-high free throw shooting percentage of 88.4.
Behind the Panthers sit the four teams that historically don’t come as much of a surprise: Villanova, Syracuse, Georgetown and West Virginia.
Offensively, the Wildcats are led by senior guard Corey Fisher, senior forward Antonio Pena and senior guard Corey Strokes. Fisher led in scoring last year with 13.3 points per game and 3.9 assists. After being eliminated in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Nova is striving to make it to the “Big Dance” for the seventh straight year.
Although last season’s Big East Player of the Year Wes Johnson is no longer in the picture at Syracuse, the Orange have the advantage of size on their side. The returning starters Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph stand at 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-7, respectively, while the Cuse also welcomes 7-foot freshman Fabricio Melo.
Georgetown’s charm comes in the form of Austin Freeman, the Preseason Big East Player of the Year. Freeman averaged 16.5 points per game last year and led the league in three point shooting percentage, knocking down 51.9 percent of attempts.
Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers are entering the season with the hype of winning the Big East Championship and advancing to the NCAA Final Four last March. Their squad is centered around junior forward Kevin Jones, a Preseason All-Big East Team pick along with other key veterans.
“It’s a hard league. I have three five-year guys in Joe Mazzulla, Cam Thoroughman and Jonnie West who have kind of been through it all and understand,” Huggins said. “We’re certainly going to lean on them.”
Connecticut, a Final Four team two seasons ago that finished tied for 11th in the Big East last year with Hasheem Thabeet no longer in the lineup, is expected to place only one spot ahead of the Pirates at 10th.
“This year we have a lot of great freshmen who can help us right away,” said Huskies sophomore guard/forward Alex Oriahki. “We just want to improve from last year.”
At Big East Media Day, many coaches and players agreed that upsets are not at all a foreign concept for the 16 teams.
“There’s always those teams that you don’t expect much from, but they get a lot done,” said South Florida head coach Stan Heath.
Gabrielle Kiger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.