October 12, 2011
Each Wednesday until the season starts, a former player will help The Dagger preview his former conference. Ex-Notre Dame forward and current Notre Dame color analyst Jordan Cornette spoke with me this week to provide a scouting report on the Big East.
1. Who's your pick to win the Big East next season?
One team I really like is Syracuse. They've got Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine, C.J. Fair and Fab Melo coming back. I'm a big believer in experience coming back and point production coming back. I think Syracuse is a team that has a lot of that and meshes well with each other. I look for big things out of them. The other team I like is UConn. Yeah, they lost Kemba Walker, but they have a budding star in Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier running the point. I like that team a lot. So those are probably my two favorites.
2. Is there a team you see as a dark horse who can contend with Syracuse and UConn?
Call me a homer, but Notre Dame and Cincinnati are two teams I can see as dark horses. I like my guys at Notre Dame because they've always thrived in that underdog role and nobody's really talking about this team. The big name, Ben Hansbrough, is gone, but there are capable players there like Scott Martin and Tim Abromaitis. So they're a dark horse, not necessarily to win the conference, but to turn people's heads. And then the other dark horse I really like is Cincinnati. If you look back at their roster, they have four of their leading scorers back. Not many teams in the country can say that. You've got a big guy who's been underwhelming at times in Yancy Gates, but I think this will be his breakout season because he'll be motivated to prove people wrong. He's been the heartbeat for that team. If you look back at his double-double games, they've won most of them. If he can bring it night in and night out, I think they can surprise a lot of people.
3. Is there a team that may struggle more than usual next season?
I wouldn't expect much out of Villanova. That's the team that's perennially been good who's going to struggle this year. They struggled late in the season last year, and then they lose Corey Fisher, they lose Corey Stokes. Pena was big down low. With this roster, Maalik Wayns is their go-to guy and he can score, but it can't be all on him. Their junior class has been disappointing, and that has to change for them to be a factor.
4. How much for Syracuse depends on whether Fab Melo improves after a pretty underwhelming freshman season?
That's why I look at Syracuse as a contender because you saw Fab Melo become more comfortable as the season went along last year. A kid like that who has so much surrounding him when he comes in, some of those guys get overwhelmed. But as he got a little more comfortable in his role being the guy who does the dirty work, rebounds and defends, I think he settled into his role. But as he goes next season, that's definitely how the team goes.
5. Do you think UConn will have any trouble without Kemba Walker, or do they have enough returning talent to collectively shoulder that load?
I think Shabazz Napier runs the point for them, and then they have a lot of players who can help shoulder the scoring load. Jeremy Lamb steps into that go-to scorer role and then they have a freshman coming in, DeAndre Daniels. UConn's always been a program where freshman come in and star, and they say DeAndre Daniels can fill it up. You've got Oriakhi, who's averaging 10 points a game, and you've got some wings that are capable. So I think that team is another team with a lot of experience. And anytime you play all the way to the final game of the season and win it, the level of confidence is that much higher than anyone else in the conference.
6. Who's your choice for preseason Big East player of the year?
I love Jeremy Lamb and Ashton Gibbs as front runners, and the guy we just talked about, Yancy Gates, is another guy I'd throw in. I think Yancy Gates is going to finally put it together and at least contend for that. If he doesn't turn it up a notch late last season, they don't make the tournament. I think he's going to shoulder more of the load and they're going to demand even more out of him. I've seen him since his high school days, and I think he has all the tools. In that 11th hour, people turn on that switch. For him, this is his last chance, and I look for a big season out of him.
7. Is there a Big East player you think is underrated?
A guy I'd say that about is Tim Abromaitis. He's gotten some accolades, but on a national scale he's unknown. And this is the year he has to be the guy with Ben Hansbrough and Carleton Scott gone. I think it was a good summer for him playing with team USA, making that roster and being around superstars. I'm interested to see how that experienced rubbed off on him. Maybe he's recognized fully now that he's a Big East star, and I'd like to see him get more respect on a national scale rather than just in our conference.
8. Which arena in the Big East is the toughest on opposing teams?
The RAC at Rutgers is always tough. They may not have the most talented team, but that has never been an easy place to win. Going into the Oakland Zoo at Pittsburgh, their fans are nuts. You're warming up before a game, and they know your little sister's name, they know your ex-girlfriend from eight years ago, they know your mother's maiden name. Those Pittsburgh fans are brutal, but they make it a fun environment. And Pittsburgh plays so much better at home then other teams in the country. Then Syracuse, the sheer size of the Carrier Dome, that's nothing you can prepare for. The massive presence of that court in literally a football stadium, that's something that affects your play as well. So those are the three I'd say are the most difficult.
9. If you could play for one current Big East coach besides Mike Brey, who would it be?
I'd take Jay Wright. He just seems like a player's coach, just like Coach Brey. I enjoyed my four years with Coach Brey because he was someone you could hang out with on and off the court and he connected with players at a friend level, but he was able to separate that on game day. You were scared not to make this guy upset and you wanted to play your best for him. The ability to separate that is a very difficult to do, and I feel like Jay Wright is able to do that with his players too. The other guy who's a close second is Bob Huggins. I think he has the same relationship with his players. Kids would jump in front of a truck for him.