Big East: Changing of the Guard

January 6th, 2007
Even the most rabid ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10, or SEC fans would have to admit that no conference lost as many talented guards from the 2006-2006 season as the Big East.  Four Big East guards – Randy Foye and Kyle Lowry of Villanova, Quincy Douby of Rutgers, and Marcus Williams of Connecticut – were selected in the first round of the NBA draft, while a fifth – Connecticut’s Denham Brown – was taken in the second round.  Two other high-profile Big East guards – Notre Dame’s Chris Quinn and Villanova’s Allan Ray – made NBA rosters this year as free agents.
Besides those seven backcourt talents, other quality guards also completed their Big East careers last spring.  Gone are Syracuse’s Gerry McNamara, Louisville’s Taquan Dean, Providence’s Donnie McGrath, Seton Hall’s Donald Copeland, Pittsburgh’s Carl Krauser, Georgetown’s Ashanti Cook, West Virginia’s  J. D. Collins, Joe Herber, and Patrick Beilein, South Florida’s James Holmes, Connecticut’s Rashad Anderson, and Cincinnati’s Jihad Muhammed and Devan Downey (who transferred).  Overall, at least 20 quality guards no longer grace conference campuses.
Still, there’s no need to weep for Big East coaches or fans.  A number of excellent guards returned and have stepped up their games.  Additionally, quite a few newcomers have entered the conference and have admirably stepped in for those who have departed.
Here’s a look at 16 backcourt players new to the conference that have stepped in and contributed so far in the non-conference season.  All stats are through December 31.
Cincinnati:  Gone are Jihad Muhammed (10.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.2 apg) and member of the all-rookie team Devan Downey (11.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 4.3 apg), who transferred, and Armien Kirkland (9.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.1 apg) who missed the second half of the season due to injury.  In my Big East pre-season preview, I wrote,
     “Regardless of which one (Deonte Vaughn or Tim Crowell) eventually earns the bulk of the playing time,    there's not a snowball's chance in Southern Ohio that he'll produce anything even close to what last year’s star freshman, Devan Downey, would have provided this year had he returned.”
So much for predictions!  Freshman Deonte Vaughn may be the most impressive – and the most surprising – member of the Class of 2006 so far.  He is averaging 14.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, and 4.5 apg with an assist/turnover ratio of 1.9/1.0.  He had 25 points and 9 assists against North Carolina State and 24 points and 5 rebounds against Xavier, as well as 33 points and 6 assists against Wofford.  At this point Vaughn is a shoo-in for the all-rookie team and a legitimate candidate for ROY.  Devan Who?
Junior college transfer Jamual Warren’s stats are nearly identical to Muhammed’s stats a year ago.  The 6’2” combo guard is averaging 9.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, and 2.8 apg.  In his last eight games – after going scoreless in his two previous games – Warren has scored in double figures six times and nine points the other two times for an average of 12.6 ppg.  He had 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists against Temple, 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists against Xavier, and 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists against Miami (Ohio).  Though he’s shooting only 39% from the field and 17.1% on three-pointers, he’s already proven to be a capable replacement for Muhammed.
Conncecticut: Gone are first-round NBA draft choice Marcus Williams (12.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, and 8.6 apg), second-round pick Denham Brown (10.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg), and sharpshooting sixth man Rashad Anderson (12.8 ppg on 40.7% three-point shooting).
Though he’s a red-shirt sophomore, A. J. Price (#24 on RSCI for Class of 2004) never played a game at UConn until this year, so he is technically “stepping in,” not “stepping up.”  Either way, he is averaging 12.8 ppg and 5.4 apg with an assist/turnover ration of 2.3/1.0, (fourth in the conference).  He has definitely done an admirable job so far though UConn’s  non-conference schedule was basically a tiptoe through the tulips.
Freshman Jerome Dyson was highly-touted (#36 on RSCI), and he has not disappointed.  He is averaging 13.3 ppg and 3.7 rpg and has a very respectable assist/turnover ratio of 1.4/1.0.  He is also earning a name for himself as an excellent defender and is averaging an impressive 2.4 steals per game.  He has a reputation as a very good long-range shooter though he’s only hitting 29.5 % on treys at this point.  Still, like Vaughn at Cincy, barring injury he’s a lock to make the all-rookie team.
Another freshman, Doug Wiggins (#55 on RSCI), has played well off the bench for Coach Jim Calhoun.  He is averaging 8.8 ppg in only 18.4 mpg and is also shooting 41.2% from long range.  Perhaps more significantly, in his last seven games, Wiggins has averaged 13.6 ppg and has made 13 of 24 three-pointers (58.3%).  If he can come even close to continuing that kind of shooting, he will see considerable playing time for the Huskies, especially when they play a three-guard lineup. 
DePaul:  The Demons did not lose any backcourt players from last season.
Freshman Will Walker is not “stepping in” for someone who left as much as he’s taken minutes from last year’s starting point guard, Jabari Currie (from 22.2 mpg to 15.4 mpg) and back up Cliff Clinkscales (19.9 mpg to 11.9 mpg).  He’s also gotten more playing time (22.2 mpg) than sixth man, Draelon Burns, who averaged 23.1 mpg last season but 21.0 mpg this year.  Walker takes excellent care of the basketball.  In his last 12 games (through Northwestern State) he had only four turnovers in 281 minutes, a phenomenal accomplishment.  For the season, he has an assist/turnover ratio of 2.7/1.0.  In short, Walker has upgraded the Demons’ backcourt.
Louisville:  The Cardinals lost leading scorer Taquan Dean (16.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.3 apg).  They have also had two returning guards, senior Brandon Jenkins and sophomore Andre McGee, battle injuries that have limited their playing time.
Freshman point guard Edgar Sosa (#55 on RSCI), who figured to split time with McGee, has been thrust into the starting spot and has responded admirably.  He is averaging 11.1 ppg and 2.9 apg and is shooting a solid 42.7% from behind the arc in 24.7 mpg.  He had 22 points and five assists against Ohio and 18 points and 8 assists in a recent game against San Francisco.  Even when McGee is ready to return, he may find himself coming off the bench as a back-up to Sosa.
Another freshman, Jerry Smith (#45 on the RSCI), has been inconsistent but has shown flashes of his tremendous talent.  He is averaging 9.6 ppg and 4.3 rpg in only 21.2 mpg.  He is shooting 47.9% from the field, 50% from behind the arc, and 82.6% from the line.  Against ACC foe Miami, Smith had a monster game with 22 points and 12 rebounds in 30 minutes.  He has worked himself into the starting lineup ahead of Jenkins, who apparently is still not quite a 100%.  Whether he continues to start or comes off the bench, Smith will be a key figure for Coach Rick Pitino this season.
Marquette:  Part-time starter Joe Chapman (6.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, and 1.5 apg in 22.5 mpg) was a steady outside shooter (39.6% on treys) and had a solid assist/turnover ratio of 2.4/1.0.
Freshman David Cubillan (Eugene Harvey’s backcourt partner at St. Benedicts in New Jersey) has given Marquette a quality back-up behind Dominic James at point guard.  The relatively unheralded Venezuelan native is averaging 5.0 ppg and 2.0 apg in 19.1 mpg.  He has been Marquette’s best three-point shooter (48.7%) and has an outstanding assist/turnover ratio of 2.7/1.0.  He has also turned heads with his aggressive on-ball defense.  He has become a key figure in Coach Tom Crean’s four-man rotation through MU’s three guard line up
Notre Dame: Point guard Chris Quinn, (17.7 ppg, 6.4 apg, 41.9% three-point shooting, and 2.4/1.0 assist/turnover ratio) is now playing for pay in the NBA with the Miami Heat.  No single individual could come in to South Bend this year and replace Quinn’s stats or his importance to the Irish.
However, lightning quick freshman point guard Tory Jackson has done a respectable job coming off the bench so far this season, and, with the recent suspension of sophomore Kyle McAlarney, will have to take on a significantly greater share of the load for Coach Mike Brey.  Jackson is averaging 4.8 ppg and 2.0 apg in 16.6 mpg.  He is definitely not the shooter Quinn was (only 3 of 17 – 17.6% - so far this season).  And he has to improve his assist/turnover ratio of 1.1/1.0.  Still, he has a bright future in South Bend as he gives Notre Dame much-needed speed and quickness on both ends of the court.
Seton Hall:  A year ago point guard Donald Copeland (16.1 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.5 apg) was probably the key to the Pirates’ surprisingly successful season.  He led Seton Hall in three-point shooting (39.2%) and had a solid assist/turnover ratio of 1.9/1.0.
Coach Bobby Gonzalez knew he had to find someone to run the show in his first season as the Pirates’ head man.  He brought in the ideal replacement for Copeland in Eugene Harvey (#73 on RSCI), who is averaging 15.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, and 5.3 apg.  Though not a perimeter threat (only 2 of 14 on treys through 11 games), Harvey can get to the rim and has a solid mid-range game (48% field goal percentage).  He has scored 18 points or more in six of his 12 games with a high of 27 against Penn State.  He has also done an excellent job of taking care of the basketball as his assist/turnover ratio of 2.0/1.0 illustrates.  Harvey has had as fine a non-conference season as any other freshman in the conference and should find himself in contention for league ROY.
South Florida:  The Bulls lost leading scorer James Holmes (16.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg) from last year’s squad.  With virtually no other proven backcourt scoring threat returning this year, USF needed someone to put some points on the board.
Freshman Solomon Bozeman has been, along with Vaughn at Cincinnati, probably the biggest surprise among this year’s cast of conference newcomers.  A relative unknown, Bozeman is averaging 13.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, and an impressive 5.0 apg.  In a recent game against ACC opponent Wake Forest, the 6’0” point guard had 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists.  He has scored in double figures in 10 of the Bulls’ 13 games.  He excels at drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line as he’s taken a remarkable total of 107 free throws (8.2 attempts/game) and has made 88.9% of them.  He’s also done a decent job of taking care of the ball as he has an assist/turnover ratio of 1.3/1.0.
The recent addition of Arizona transfer Jesus Verdejo at the start of second semester will also help South Florida put points on the board.  Through his first seven games, the 6’4” junior has averaged 11.9 ppg in 28.6 mpg.  He is shooting 38.3% from behind the arc, providing another outside threat besides Melvin Buckley.  He scored 15 points against Wake Forest and 14 against UNLV, indications that he can put the ball in the hoop against decent competition.
St. John’s:  Like DePaul, the Red Storm didn’t lose either of their starting guards from a year ago.  However, they did pick up a junior college transfer who has earned a spot in the starting lineup this season.
Shooting guard Avery Patterson is the second leading scorer at 13.8 ppg (behind Lamont Hamilton’s 13.9 ppg).  As important as the points themselves is how he gets them – from the perimeter.  He has become Coach Norm Roberts’ primary threat from behind the arc (37.5%).  He’s also hitting 81.5% of his free throws.  However, he has to become more consistent.  He’s had four games in the 20s, four in the teens, and five in single digits.  The bottom line, however, is that he has played well enough for Roberts to have senior Daryll Hill come off the bench.
Syracuse: Last spring, Orange fans bade adieu to four-year starter Gerry McNamara (16.0 ppg and 5.9 apg), who practically willed Syracuse to the conference tournament championship last season.  As good as McNamara was, however, his replacement may be even better.
Freshman Paul Harris was the most highly-regarded recruit (#23 on RSCI) entering the conference this season.  The 6’4” perimeter player brings tremendous athleticism, as well as a competitive intensity to Coach Jim Boeheim’s squad.  Though not a starter, he has earned starters’ minutes.  He is averaging 11.3 ppg and an extremely impressive 7.3 rpg.  He doesn’t possess McNamara’s perimeter shooting touch as he’s made only one three-pointer in 16 attempts, but he is a potentially prolific scorer.  Inside the arc he’s shooting 54.3%.  He’s scored in double figures in 11 of 14 games and has reached at least eight rebounds in a game seven times.  Harris was the pre-season pick as Big East Rookie of the Year, an award he may still very well win.
Villanova: No team in the country lost more in the backcourt from last year than the Wildcats.  Now playing for pay are Randy Foye (20.5 ppg and 5.8 rpg), Allan Ray (18.5 ppg), and Kyle Lowry (11.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, and 3.7 apg).
Freshman combo guard Scottie Reynolds (#37 on RSCI) certainly can not replace these three stars, but he’s already displayed the talent to become a future force in Coach Jay Wright’s program.  He’s averaging 8.1 ppg and a solid 4.3 apg in 23.3 mpg.  However, breaking down his stats into the first six games and the next six games reveals how much he has improved already.  He averaged 7.1 ppg and 3.0 apg during six games in November, then raised those stats to 9.0 ppg and 5.5 apg in December, highlighted by a 12-point, 9-rebound game against Temple.  On a team with three senior starters, including multi-talented Curtis Sumpter and sharpshooting guard Michael Nardi, Reynolds will not be one of the primary options on offense.  Still, he is a key figure in Villanova’s quest for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The 16 players listed above may not make fans of their respective teams forget those who came before them.  However, when these “newcomers” are seniors, those same fans may be wondering how their teams will possibly replace these quality backcourt players.