One knows college basketball is ready to begin when the preseason all-conference lists are published. There are several players who could have merited inclusion in either of the three teams, but the presence of lingering question marks pushed them to receive an honorable mention. It is interesting that there are player of the year candidates among the returning Big East teams (Davante Gardner and Fuquan Edwin) as well as the newcomers (Semaj Christon and Doug McDermott).
Doug McDermott, Senior, Creighton: If Creighton had remained in the Missouri Valley, there is a strong chance Doug McDermott would be suiting up in a preseason NBA game rather than attend the Big East media day. “This is just a new challenge,” says McDermott, when discussing whether realignment altered his future for just one season. The forward underwent a subtle shift last year; while he still spent much of his time on the block, he expanded his game to include more movement in the Bluejays’ half-court offense. More than ten percent of his possessions involved spot up shots (and nearly all of those were beyond the three-point arc), and he was effective using screens to free his defender and then beating the help once in the lane. Since he attempted 35% of the team’s shots, and was transitioning to a new role, it would be logical to assume McDermott’s efficiency dipped, but the big still posted an absurd offensive rating — 121.3 — converted 57% of his twos and a whopping 49% of threes, and managed to get to the line 216 times. Translation: McDermott could finish his college career as the most efficient offensive player in the Ken Pom era to stay all four years.
Bryce Cotton, Senior, Providence: What is amazing about Bryce Cotton, Providence’s long-range specialist, is opponents know Cotton is going to shoot a three. Only 27 of his possessions last year were jump shots within the arc, and while teams constantly try to chase Cotton from the line, the 6’1″ guard is a savant at launching his shot, and connecting, with multiple hands blocking his view of the basket (36.4% last year). Cotton is most efficient when coming off screens and then either rising the moment his shoulder clears his teammate’s hip, or flaring and catching teams unaware of his quickly squared body. The arrival of Tyler Harris, Carson Desrosiers, and Brandon Austin will deflect some defensive glare off Cotton, so the guard might even find himself open in 2013-14.
Davante Gardner, Senior, Marquette: As he was developing into a potential Big East player of the year candidate, Davante Gardner learned to use his body to better shield the defender. Now a senior, Gardner is arguably the conference’s most effective scorer in the post. When he receives a paint touch — which he does frequently, as coach Buzz Williams is insistent the ball needs to enter the interior multiple times during a possession — Gardner has an array of post moves all while keeping the defender on his hip and off balance. It also helps that Gardner can catch nearly every pass the MU guards throw to him, scoring more than one point per possession on either the right or left block. Though Gardner’s conditioning has limited his on-court contributions, the big looked noticeably slimmer during the Big East media day; Gardner maintains he likes coming off the bench, but since he made nearly 60% of his twos in 2013 (and converted 84% of his free throws), Williams might experiment and up his percentage of minutes used.
Fuquan Edwin, Senior, Seton Hall: It is no secret that Big Apple Buckets is a fan of Fuquan Edwin. Due to various injuries, Edwin was forced to carry Seton Hall offensively last year, and not only did he post an offensive rating above 100 (which is notably since he attempted more than 30% of SHU’s shots), but he transformed his game into one not entirely dependent on assists from his teammates (again worth mentioning because Edwin is a wing). The percentage of Edwin’s possessions that resulted in an isolation play or an off screen rose, and per Hoop-Math.com, Edwin’s percentage of assisted field goals declined. Edwin continued to use his handle and quickness to beat defenders to the rim (and convert nearly 60% of his shots around the basket) but he also developed a perimeter game that would force defenders to close out quickly or risk being quickly yanked from the game. Edwin, who made 41.2% of his threes in 2013, scored 1.3 points per possession that ended with an attempted three (compared to .85 when he was a junior).
JayVaughn Pinkston, Junior, Villanova: JayVaughn Pinkston understands his limitations. A player who leads his team in both percentage of possessions and shots attempted might prove erratic at times with his shot selection, but Pinkston — who led Nova in both categories by a wide margin in 2013 — knows what he does well: take a lot of twos and get to the free throw stripe. Only one other high-major player (Iowa’s Aaron White) had a higher free throw rate than Pinkston, and the wing propelled the Wildcats’ offense through his 241 free throws attempts. Coach Jay Wright realized the best way to compensate for the team’s overall lack of height was to attack opponents and force teams to send Nova to the stripe. Three Wildcats, not including Pinkston, drew more than four fouls per 40 minutes, and Pinkston, who drew nearly eight fouls, was perfectly suited for this philosophy. He is quicker than most 4s but still possesses the foot speed (and the height) to overwhelm small forwards.
D’Angelo Harrison, Junior, St. John’s: One could make a compelling case that Harrison deserves to be included among the first-team candidates, because even though Harrison missed the final six games of the season due to a suspension, he is such a talented scorer that bumping him to the second team is borderline disrespectful. Harrison finishes shots that any other 6’3″ would find swatted into the stands, but despite this fortuitous finishing ability, he recognized prior to the start of his soph season that he had been overpenetrating, dribbling into the paint without an open shot or teammate. Nearly 20% of his attempts in 2012 were at the rim, and his field goal percentage around the bucket barely cracked 50%. He began to curtail those wild drives and expand his mid-range game, using either picks or beating his man off the dribble before pulling up for a jumper (or a floater). Per Hoop-Math.com, his percentage of two point field goals rose to 41% and he made 40% of those shots, an improvement from the 32% and 31%, respectively, in 2012.
JaKarr Sampson, Sophomore, St. John’s: It could be a very entertaining season in Queens if Sampson can make more of his two-point attempts. Out of necessity, Sampson was forced to play the 4, and while he has the size to compete against opposing power forwards, the availability of Orlando Sanchez and God’sgift Achiuwa will slide Sampson to the 3. That move should allow Sampson more freedom to attack the rim, which coach Steve Lavin has instructed his sophomore he needs to do. Sampson is arguably the most athletic Johnny, possessing a rare mix of physicality, hops, and length, but Sampson only attempted 26% of his field goals at the rim. He often bailed out opponents with off-balance, early in the clock shots within the arc that connected 37% of the attempts. The key will be if Sampson can make the similar sophomore step that Harrison took last season and learn how to balance his offensive output.
Semaj Christon, Sophomore, Xavier: Of all the guards in the Big East, only Providence’s Kris Dunn (45%) attempted a higher percentage of shots at the rim than the 6’3″ Christon (44%). The sophomore may not possess the squad’s best perimeter game, but Christon continually pressures opponents by driving the lane, racking up fouls, and getting to the free throw line. How teams defend pick and rolls (and how referees call hand checks) favor Christon’s game, and the guard excels at using that open space to get into the defensive interior; he has already shown an ability to find open teammates from there, but he also knows how to keep his dribble alive, absorb contact, and then convert from the free throw line.
Markel Starks, Senior, Georgetown: Markel Starks is known as a long-range threat; a player develops that reputation once he makes 40% of his threes over the course of two season. However, what Starks need to do in 2013-14 is ensure the Hoyas don’t devolve into a jump-shooting team. Losing Otto Porter and (potentially) Greg Whittington has not only hurt frontcourt depth, but it has significantly decreased the percentage of Hoya points coming from the interior. While Nate Lubick does connect on 61% of his twos, he isn’t really an offensive factor, so Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (among others) have to be cognizant and not settle for jumpers. Porter was the only Hoya to attempt more than 100 free throws last year, and it will be interesting to see if Georgetown’s backcourt recognizes they need to get into the lane more often as a way of balancing the offense but also getting to the stripe.
Grant Gibbs, Senior, Creighton: Despite the accolades heaped on Doug McDermott, Gibbs is the Bluejays’ most important player. Not only is he an offensive threat — 58% from two and 40% from 3 — but Gibbs is the squad’s best passer, a 6’5′ point-wing who can look over the defense and reverse or lob the ball to the myriad of Bluejays camped beyond the three-point line.
Brandon Young, Senior, DePaul: DePaul will improve in Oliver Purnell’s fourth season if Young continues to propel the offense. Since he is essentially the only offensive threat in the Blue Demons’ backcourt, Young has had to learn how to finish against swarming defenses while still orchestrating DePaul’s halfcourt offense. Not only does Young make 48% of his two-point field goals, attempting nearly 30% of the team’s shots, but he can post an assist rate of 31% — during the last six weeks of the 2013 season, Young handed out five or more assists on eight occasions.
Kellen Dunham, Sophomore, Butler: As a sharpshooter still understanding how to get his shot off against college defenses, most of Dunham’s three-point attempts came off screens or picks, and the then freshman did make 35% of his long-range attempts. Dunham was ready to shoulder more ball-handling duties due to Butler’s backcourt issues even before Roosevelt Jones’ injury, so it will be interesting to see how Dunham’s role changes as he essentially becomes the primary ballhandler,
Jamil Wilson, Senior, Marquette: Wilson’s game prevents opponents from sagging and raking the ball whenever Gardner has a paint touch. The majority of his attempts are taken away from the paint as the big is more apt to take a two-point jumper than finish at the rim. The forward creates interior openings for Gardner, Chris Otule, and the Golden Eagles’ guards, but it is also important that Wilson still make those shots — the big upped his field goal percentage within the arc to nearly 50% in 2013.
Khyle Marshall, Senior, Butler: Marshall has always been known to sky for offensive rebunds — the 6’6″ big typically leads Butler in offensive rebounding percentage — but Marshall proved that he could handle increased paint touches. Marshall attacked the rim more frequently and was able to better finish among the interior trees, and since Marshall is the only returning Bulldog big who used significant minutes — Erik Fromm and Kameron Woods will have expanded roles this season but have yet to impact the offense consistently — Marshall will need to continue camping out on the offensive glass and drawing defenders from the three-point line.
Ryan Arcidiacono, Sophomore, Villanova: The most polarizing individual on this list, there are some who believes Arcidiacono is overhyped, but it is worth mentioning that the guard missed his entire senior high school season with a back injury. No other Wildcat used a higher percentage of minutes than Arcidiacono, and while his shooting percentages weren’t stellar, he should thrive when paired with Dylan Ennis, another guard who can create off the bounce.
Chris Obekpa, Sophomore, St. John’s; James Bell, Senior, Villanova; Ethan Wragge, Senior, Creighton; D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Sophomore, Georgetown; Austin Chatman, Junior, Creighon