"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Monday, October 02, 2023

Big East Preseason Awards, 2023-24

Over the next month, Cracked Sidewalks will be rolling out conference previews for the Big East. Unlike past years, these will be revealed in a predicted order of finish, starting with the team expected to finish last and ending with the team picked to win it all.

We begin this today with preseason Big East Awards. Let's get into it.

Big East Player of the Year: Tyler Kolek, Marquette
Photo by John Minchillo | Associated Press

We're not going to get cute here. The man who won Big East Player of the Year and Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player while leading his team to the regular season and tournament titles is the obvious choice. And while Kolek put up impressive counting numbers (12.9 ppg/7.5 apg) throughout the season, his conference-only numbers were even more impressive (15.1 ppg/8.0 apg). Kolek was a consensus All-American who showed improvement in-season and if he can replicate what he did once conference play started, he can put up even bigger numbers than he did last year. Kolek will look to join Kris Dunn and Collin Gillespie as the only two-time BEPOY winners since the league's reformation in 2013. Considering his ability and surrounding cast, there's no reason to think he can't do it.

Big East Defensive Player of the Year: Ryan Kalkbrenner, Creighton

Photo by Canadian Press

Considering he's won the award each of the past two seasons, it feels crazy to pick against Kalkbrenner. In the past two seasons, Greg McDermott's team has had his two highest ranked kenpom defensive finishes in his 22 seasons as a head coach. What truly makes Kalkbrenner so impressive isn't reflected in typical counting stats. He impacts the game not just with his size or his shot-blocking, but his ability to disrupt passing lanes. That skill makes him one of the most effective pick and roll defenders in the country. In addition, Kalkbrenner is a player who is rarely in foul trouble despite being an effective rim protector. In 99 career games for Creighton, Kalkbrenner has never fouled out, particularly impressive last year as he averaged 32.2 mpg. In addition, while he isn't a prolific defensive rebounder himself (12.1% is poor for a 7-footer) Creighton as a team is much better at defensive rebounding (22.1% OReb allowed vs 26.5%) when he's on the floor. His presence enables his teammates to corral boards. That he was also the league's highest efficiency player on offense is a cherry on top for not only the BEDPOY pick, but the most likely challenger to Kolek for the overall POY crown.

All-Big East First Team

Tyler Kolek, Ryan Kalkbrenner, Joel Soriano, Bryce Hopkins, Kam Jones

Both Kolek and Kalkbrenner seem like obvious picks here. They were both first team honorees a year ago and won the league's two respective POY crowns. So what of the others we include here?

Joel Soriano was a second-team Big East honoree last year, though that was probably undeserved. He put up great counting numbers, but St. John's offense was 3.8 points/100 possessions worse and their defense as 4.4 points/100 possessions worse when he was on the floor. That means that for 100 possessions, St. John's was 8.2 points worse overall when Soriano was in the game as opposed to when he was not. So why does he make first team this year? Because of Rick Pitino. He now has a coach who knows how to utilize his strengths. Soriano is a productive, physical player who was never suited for the up-and-down pace that Mike Anderson played. His numbers will likely stay the same, but not having to constantly chug back and forth will improve his effectiveness. Expect a big year from Soriano.

Bryce Hopkins joined Kolek as the only two first-team honorees last year to be unanimous selections. He put up huge numbers (15.8 ppg/8.5 rpg) and was the front-runner for BEPOY much of the year. But what makes Hopkins so effective isn't just his ability to score from anywhere on the floor or his dominance on the defensive glass, but rather the way he constantly puts pressure on defenses. He led the Big East in fouls drawn/40 minutes. He knows how to use his physicality to attack the rim and get to the line, which Marquette fans will remember all too well from the 18 free throw attempts he got in Providence's double-overtime win over Marquette last year.

Kam Jones rounds out the first team. He might be the most lethal scorer from the field in the league. Jones is the only returning high-major player 6'5" or under to rank in the top-100 in two-point field goal percentage (64.3% was #79 nationally) and he's a career 37.1% shooter from three. Jones did that while more than doubling his defensive rebounding rate (6.4 to 13.5%) and cutting down turnovers (8.4% turnover rate was #1 in the Big East). Not only does Jones put up the numbers to belong here, he's proving he can do the little things as well.

All-Big East Second Team

Steven Ashworth, Trey Alexander, Justin Moore, Oso Ighodaro, Donovan Clingan

Steven Ashworth steps into a Creighton offense made for his shooting and distribution abilities. Teammate Trey Alexander returned from the NBA Draft after leading the league in three point field goal percentage and should see even more of the ball with Arthur Kaluma and Ryan Nembhard departed. Justin Moore looked like he was back to his old self and if he's full healthy he should be the leader of an improved Villanova team. Oso Ighodaro is quietly one of the best bigs in a league full of great big men. Donovan Clingan on paper looks like an All-American candidate, but he has to prove he can do it while doubling his minutes played and dealing with early-season injuries.

Freshman of the Year: Stephon Castle, Connecticut

Photo from UConn Athletics

Freshman of the Year honors are about two things: talent and opportunity. Not only is the 6'6" Castle a top-10 recruit who has a chance to be in next summer's NBA Draft, but he steps into a team that saw five of their top eight players in terms of minutes leave over the summer. He will have the chance to cement himself as a high-usage starter right from the jump, while also having a proven point guard in Tristen Newton next to him to shoulder much of the ball-handling load. Castle is in a perfect position to shine from day one.

That does it for our Big East preseason awards. Over the course of the next month, we will have previews of all 11 Big East teams, starting with the lowest bottom feeder all the way to our predicted league champions. It's time to start getting excited, as of this writing the 2023-24 college basketball season is just 35 days away.

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