It was difficult to winnow down the possibilities for breakthrough candidates in the new-look Big East. The conference is stocked with teams that lost crucial elements of their roster following last season, and since there is no definitive favorite for the preseason title, there are countless players whose roles could substantially shift. One key, though, was limiting the list to those who have used one season of playing time, even if that player was redshirting and the PT was spent on the practice squad.
Daniel Ochefu (Villanova): Though Mouphtaou Yarou never truly developed into a dominant offensive threat, the 6’10” Yarou did evolve into a fantastic defender. A reason why Villanova made the NCAA tournament last season was their miniscule defensive two-point field goal percentage, fueled by Yarou’s ability to shrink the interior and force opposing bigs to take off-balanced shots. Without Yarou and Maurice Sutton, the defensive onus now falls on Daniel Ochefu — the sophomore is the only returning member of the Wildcats’ frontcourt. Jay Wright’s squad showed success using hard hedges to disrupt an opponent’s offense. Ochefu has demonstrated the necessary foot speed to show high and then quickly get back to his man to prevent an easy bucket, but he will now have to combine that footwork with crashing the glass to prevent second chances (Yarou grabbed more than 20% of opponents’ misses). Nova’s offense should click this season — the improvement of Ryan Archidiacano mixed with Dylan Ennis, a guard capable of breaking defenders down off the dribble, bodes well for VU’s offensive efficiency — but Ochefu’s play (and his 4.7% block rate) will be crucial to anchor the squad’s frontcourt and frustrate Big East teams in the paint.
Matt Stainbrook (Xavier): When Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons ran Xavier’s offense, the two guards heavily relied on Musketeer bigs to set picks and create clear looks (and lanes) at the basket. Nearly 15% of Xavier’s 2012 offensive sets were pick and rolls, a percentage that dipped below ten percent due to the arrival of Semaj Christon, a 6’3″ guard with a quick enough first step that he didn’t need a pick to turn the corner on a defender. However, now that Matt Stainbrook, a Western Michigan transfer, is eligible, Xavier’s offense could resume relying on P&Rs. When he last took the court, Stainbrook converted almost 60% of his twos, posting an offensive rating of 114, and the 6’9″ Stainbrook spent his redshirt season working on his game and slimming down his body. The combination of Stainbrook’s soft touch and conditioning indicates that Stainbrook-set picks on Christon’s defender might be commonplace at the Cintas Center next season. Even if he doesn’t receive a pass, the rolling Stainbrook would be in ideal position for offensive boards, and the big scores more than one point per second chance possession. An added bonus is Christon’s ability to draw fouls at a rapid pace when he gets into the lane — the guard drew 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes, a rate that is tops of any returning Big East guard.
Jamal Branch (St. John’s): It is unclear how Steve Lavin will organize his lineups this season, but he has mentioned two potential possibilities: using three guards — Rysheed Jordan, Jamal Branch, and D’Angelo Harrison — and a Johnny like Max Hooper at the 4, or going ‘big’ and taking advantage of SJU’s frontcourt depth. Branch, a junior guard, will be a key element in either lineup. It is unfair to evaluate Branch’s sophomore season — he didn’t take the court until after the first semester and he was clearly limited following an MCL sprain in early February. Branch is best when creating, getting into the lane and either locating open Johnnies, and based on how he performed during the team’s European trip, Branch’s offensive orchestration will allow further freedom to both Harrison and Jordan.
Sterling Gibbs (Seton Hall): The loss of Aaron Cosby was predicted weeks before the end of Seton Hall’s 2013 season, but coach Kevin Willard had a waiting starter in Sterling Gibbs, a transfer who is eligible this season. What is uncertain is how seamlessly Gibbs, who barely saw playing time at Texas, handles both the starting role and the Pirates’ offense. Seton Hall returns a talented core — Fuquan Edwin is a potential player of the year candidate, and Willard can lean on a better in-shape Eugene Teague and now-healthy Brandon Mobley – which will lessen Gibbs’ scoring responsibility and allow him to solely focus on playmaking. But Gibbs isn’t offensively inept, and his shooting will force opponents from sagging off the 6’1″ guard: although he only attempted 35 threes in the Big 12, Gibbs made 37.1% of those shots.
Myles Davis (Xavier): If Christon and Stainbrook are both covered on the drive and the roll, one potential outlet for Christon will be Myles Davis. The redshirt freshman entered college with a reputation as a shooter and has reportedly worked on his shot and his conditioning last season, giving coach Chris Mack the option to utilize a three-guard lineup (with Dee Davis) in 2014. Despite the presence of Brad Redford, Xavier was not proficient from deep; Redford, whose eligibility has since expired, was the only Musketeer to attempt more than 100 threes, and though Davis showed improved range (his percentage — 37% — jumped significantly over the course of two seasons), the team rarely relied on three-pointers. That could change with Davis’ arrival.
Derrick Wilson (Marquette): Marquette would be the runaway preseason top pick in the Big East absent a glaring unknown at the point guard spot. Junior Cadougan wasn’t perfect — an offensive rating of 96.1 and a penchant for turnovers aren’t ideal for a team’s starting point — but the departed Cadougan possessed an innate understanding of Buzz Wiliams’ offense. Williams is loathe to play freshmen immediately, so even though the Golden Eagles have a top-ranking group of frosh, including guard Duane Wilson, the task of replacing Cadougan will fall to Derrick Wilson. Wilson’s sample size is small — he barely played during his first two seasons at MU — but if he can continue to limit turnovers (an assist rate of just 3% during Big East and postseason play), Williams will likely turn to Wilson to direct MU’s interior-heavy attack — nearly 30% of the squad’s offense in 2013 came as a result of paint touches.
D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (Georgetown): Expect the role of D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, a sophomore guard, to expand greatly since coach John Thompson III needs to find another Hoya to pair with Markel Starks. Smith-Rivera thrived as an additional option last year, serving as highly efficient alternative when defenses focused on Starks or Otto Porter, but without Porter or Greg Whittington, a forward who tore his ACL this offseason and could likely miss the entire season, Smith-Rivera continued evolution as a scorer is imperative. As evidenced by his percentage of field goals assisted at the rim — 56% — Smith-Rivera is capable of creating his own offense, and there could be more set plays involving Smith-Rivera coming off screens or using a pick to either shoot from deep (34%), drive to the bucket, or put an onus on defenders to foul. One indication Smith-Rivera is ready for the extra touches was Georgetown’s mid-February win over DePaul, a game where Porter only played 20 minutes and the 6’5″ Smith-Rivera scored 33 points in an offensively dominant display.
Kris Dunn (Providence): Vincent Council was arguably the most underrated point guard in the BCS conference ranks last season. If the Friars are indeed this season’s emerging contender (as most have pegged Ed Cooley’s team), sophomore Kris Dunn has to undergo a tremendous leap in his development. Though Dunn struggled with turnovers, an invitation to the trials for the U19 World Championship Team might serve to boost the guard’s performance (and confidence). Dunn did record 41 assists in conference play and his now seasoned ability to find Friars the moment they shake free from their defender could raise last season’s mundane offensive efficiency rating. The team’s core — Kadeem Batts, Bryce Cotton, and LaDontae Henton — were reliant on Council to find the trio in scoring position, a duty Dunn must quickly master. An intriguing aspect of Dunn’s game, and one worth watching, is his rebounding — at 6’3″, Dunn has an advantage on the interior, and since Cotton typically bombs away from the perimeter, Dunn is free to troll for rebounds — roughly 10% of his possessions ended with an second chance opportunity — and not worry about preventing a fast-break.
Will Artino (Creighton): The big has so far spent his time in Omaha camped on the interior, grabbing a copious amount of rebounds in his very limited minutes, but the departure of Gregory Echenique means an expanded role for Will Artino. He’ll still have to crash the glass — coach Greg McDermott has said his lineup choices will largely depend on how the Bluejays rebound, and Artino, who sported offensive and defensive rebounding percentages that hovered around 20% last season, will likely be a focal point in those lineups — but Artino’s interior defense and pick-setting will be crucial for the squad. Other than Artino, Doug McDermott is the only returning Bluejay who is taller than 6’8″.
Kameron Woods (Butler): The offseason injury to Roosevelt Jones forces new coach Brandon Miller to depend on other Bulldogs to carry Jones’ expected offensive load, and Woods, a 6’8″ junior, is primed to receive more touches. Entering a college-level strength and conditioning program has greatly helped the big; while his percentage of minutes played hasn’t changed much over the course of Woods’ two seasons, there have been drastic jumps in both his offensive rating (105.2) and two-point field goal percentage (55.8%). Woods is much more confident catching the ball in the paint and finishing — he scored more than one point per offensive rebound and pick and roll possession last season — and shied away from taking ill-advised threes.
Matt Giles is a reporter for New York Magazine and has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus 2012-13, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, the New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Salon. You can follow Matt on Twitter @HudsonGiles.