Big East: Top 10 Defensive Stars

November 11th, 2006

While star offensive players receive the overwhelming majority of publicity, as well as accolades from fans, coaches know that games are won and lost as much on the defensive end of the court as on the offensive end, and that top-flight defenders are every bit as valuable to a team’s success as are prolific scorers. While it’s certainly nice to have a player who can be counted on to score 20 or so points in any particular game, it is just as important to have someone who can hold a player averaging 20 ppg significantly below the individual’s average. Other defensive stalwarts make their presence felt in other ways, such as by providing excellent help defense, blocking or altering opponents’ shots, or getting steals and deflections.

Here are 10 returning Big East players who have already earned a reputation for defensive excellence. Incoming freshmen, transfers, and junior college players are not included in this listing because they have not yet shown their prowess on defense against Big East competition.

Stan Gaines (Seton Hall) - The 6'7" power forward gained a reputation as a defensive stopper even before transferring to Seton Hall from Minnesota. Though not as quick as some other power forwards, he is strong, smart, and aggressive. He is very good at positioning to deny his opponent the ball, and, if his player does get the ball in the lane or near the block, he uses his agility and strength to make it difficult for his man to get a decent look. Gaines is also versatile enough to step out on the perimeter, if he’s matched up with a 4 who can shoot from the outside, and not worry about being beaten off the dribble. Though not much of a scorer, this hard-working senior will be a key to the Pirates’ season because of his defensive prowess.

Brandon Jenkins (Louisville) - The 6'3" senior guard uses size and strength, as well as decent quickness, to contain opposing teams’ point guards and off guards alike. Even as a freshman, he held his own against some of the top perimeter players in his league (CUSA). Jenkins is equally adept in Coach Rick Pitino’s trapping, full-court style as he is in Louisville ’s half-court defense. This year, with the departure of Taquan Dean, Jenkins will probably shift to 2 guard and will be counted on to score more than the 11.3 ppg he did last year. However, his primary contribution may well be shutting down, or at least containing, opponents’ primary perimeter scoring threat.

Marcus Johnson (Connecticut) - The 6'6" sophomore small forward played very little during the conference portion of the regular season last year, but he has already made a name for himself as a quality defender. A terrific athlete, Johnson is quick enough to defend opposing off guards yet tall enough and strong enough to match up with small forwards. He does a good job of staying in front of his man and denying dribble penetration, yet his athleticism also allows him to contest outside shots. Last year Johnson played behind Rudy Gay, Rashad Anderson, and Denham Brown. This year the primary question is whether Johnson will be able to hold off a potential challenge from talented freshman forward Stanley Robinson to earn a spot in the starting lineup and significant playing time.

Levon Kendall (Pittsburgh) - The 6'9" Canadian import gets nowhere near the publicity of pre-season all-American teammate Aaron Gray, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a solid contributor to the Panthers’ success. Head Coach Jamie Dixon and his staff, as well as diehard Pitt fans, recognize his contributions on defense. Though not exceptionally quick or strong, and despite not being a particularly athletic jumper, Kendall uses court awareness and relentless effort to not only play excellent on-ball defense, but also superb help defense. He has a knack for anticipating ball and player movement and coming from the weak side to contest or block an opponent’s shot or deflect or steal an entry pass from the perimeter. Like Johnson, Kendall must hold off the challenge for playing time by a talented underclassman - sophomore Sam Young - but Kendall is simply too valuable to lose his starting spot.

Cedric McGowan (Cincinnati) - The 6'7" senior power forward was a pleasant surprise for the Bearcats last season. He averaged 7.2 rpg, but, equally important, he proved to be a top-notch defender. He is quick enough to defend on the perimeter and strong enough to make life difficult for opponents on the block and in the paint. He brings an aggressive attitude on the defensive end of the court that makes life difficult for the man he’s guarding. McGowan will be counted on to raise his offensive production this year, as well as provide leadership as the only experienced senior on the roster, but his major contribution may well be his ability to contain other conference power forwards, many of whom are proven offensive threats.

Jerel McNeal (Marquette) – The 6’2” sophomore guard had a solid freshman season on offense, averaging 11.1 ppg on 44.2% shooting. However, it was his defensive play that stood out. With his reported wing span of 6’9”, McNeal uses his length both on the ball and off the ball to create deflections and get steals. He was second in the conference in steals behind only Kyle Lowry of Villanova. But McNeal is also extremely quick and unusually strong. More than his physical tools, however, he brings an attack mentality on defense, the relentless aggressiveness of a predator stalking his prey. He also happens to be the leading returning rebounder in the conference among guards as he averaged an impressive 5.2 rpg in conference play, second only to Louisville’s Taquan Dean (5.4 rpg) among guards, with most of those coming on the defensive glass.

Sammy Mejia (DePaul) – Unlike some other players on this list, such as Jenkins, Johnson, and McNeal, the 6’6” guard did not earn a reputation for quality defense as a freshman. In fact, he was even viewed by some to be more of a liability on defense than an asset. To his credit, he has worked hard to improve both his on-ball and off-the-ball defense to the point that he is now seen as the Demons’ primary defensive stopper. His height, along with above-average quickness, gives shorter guards problems, but it also allows him to match up with small forwards if necessary. Mejia’s career to date has been characterized by inconsistency on the offensive end of the court, but his coaches and teammates now anticipate that he’s probably going to bring his A game each night on defense.

Curtis Sumpter (Villanova) –Most fans who follow college basketball know that Sumpter is coming back from two operations and that he missed all of last season. They are also probably aware that he is a versatile, multi-talented offensive player who averaged over 15 ppg and over seven rpg two seasons ago. What many fans may not be aware of is that he was also one of the premier defenders in the conference before his two ACL operations. If his knee is even close to 100% this year – and reports indicate that it is – he should once again be one of the top defenders in the league. He is quick enough and athletic enough to defend players on the perimeter and strong enough and tough enough to mix it up underneath the basket. Plus, he is one of those players who works hard every minute of every game, never taking a single play off. Assuming he’s back to where he was prior to his injuries, Sumpter will once again be shutting down opposing small forwards.

Darryl Watkins (Syracuse) - The 6’11” senior is in a different situation than the other players on this list. First, he is the only true center among the 10 players listed, so he almost never strays away from the hoop, which even power forwards must do at times. More importantly, the Orange play almost exclusively zone (though that may change this year). Consequently, it is difficult to determine what kind of man-to-man defender Watkins might be. Most likely, however, he would still be an intimidating defensive presence both on the ball and providing help defense when a teammate is beaten. Watkins brings a rare combination of size, strength, quickness, and overall athleticism that allows him to block, as well as alter, opponents’ shots. He was third in the conference in blocked shots a year ago (2.8 blocks per game) and is the leader in that area among returning players. What is scary is that he is probably not even close to reaching his potential on the defensive end of the court.

Marquis Webb (Rutgers) - The 6’5” senior has long been recognized by those who follow the Big East as one of the best defensive players in the conference. He may well be the most versatile defender in the league as he is quick enough to match up with point guards and off guards and long enough and strong enough to take on both small forwards and even some power forwards. He does an excellent job of denying his man the ball; however, once his man does have it, he is a tenacious, resolute, on-ball defender. Many Scarlet Knight fans consider Webb the best defender in the conference, and they may be right. Whether he is or not, Webb will once again cause nightmares for players he’s matched up with.

There will certainly be some newcomers who make their presence felt defensively this season. A few of the freshmen, in particular, come into the league with reputations for their defensive ability. However, until they actually show their stuff against other Big East players, as the saying goes, “They ain’t done nothing yet.” Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if at least a couple of freshmen or transfers end up on a list of top defensive players at the end of the season, and it is certainly possible that some returning veterans, besides those listed above, could join this elite group as well.