For well over a decade, starting when Reggie Williams left for the NBA and ending when Gerald Riley came to Georgetown, the Hoyas sought a small forward who could shoot from the perimeter. Many had promise, from Robert Churchwell to Kevin Millen to Daymond Jackson. But no one fit the bill.
Foremost among those, in terms of potential, appeared to be Jerry Nichols, who had averaged better than 35 points per game in his senior year of high school. The Hoyas defense had been so strong year after year that the mere addition of Nichols seemed enough to propel them into national title contention.
But it took just a game or two to discover the astonishing truth: Jerry Nichols wasn't a college scorer. He made seven field goals during his entire freshman year in 1995-1996, when a Georgetown team with Allen Iverson, Victor Page, Jahidi White and Othella Harrington -- had Nichols truly been the small forward most people expected he'd be -- would have been national championship caliber.
And that was the astonishing thing about Nichols. You knew right away that he wasn't the answer to Georgetown's small forward drought. That type of immediate information is rare in college basketball.
But 2009-2010 has already provided such answers for a quintet of teams in the Big East this season: Villanova, Syracuse, Seton Hall, Connecticut and Georgetown. 'Nova has confirmed its status as league power, Syracuse and Seton Hall were badly underestimated, Connecticut and Georgetown likely overestimated.
Let's start with the preseason favorite, according to the coaches. The Wildcats managed to win the Puerto Rico Tip Off, which is impressive, but it is how they did so that bodes so well for them. The major question mark about Villanova was its ability to score inside and rebound. Notice I used the past tense.
They managed to win each game, against strong clubs from George Mason, Dayton and Mississippi, by outrebounding their opponents. Notice in the championship game against Mississippi that their rebounding margin was 45-32, with Antonio Pena grabbing 16 and Taylor King hauling in 11. Think King and Pena can fill the shoes of Dante Cunningham? The answer is already clear -- yes, and then some.
Next up is Syracuse, which demonstrated that it is going to be the clear class of the conference. When I spoke to Arinze Onuaku last month, he hoped to be at full strength by the start of Big East play. Well, he's already moving more effectively than he did all of last season, and the difference, as it was last season, is immense for Syracuse. Wesley Johnson, the transfer, has also made it clear already that he will be in the mix for Big East Player of the Year, and the combination of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche is actually bettering production from Jonny Flynn so far.
The biggest surprise the Big East will have is Seton Hall, where the roster finally meshes well with the Bobby Gonzalez offense. Jeremy Hazell still shoots whenever he gets the chance -- but the addition of offensive threats like Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope has meant Hazell isn't always shooting through a double-team. Pope, in particular, is well-suited to the Big East game. He's a smoother version of Jerome Williams, and is the biggest reason why Seton Hall bested a Cornell team that would, believe it or not, win a fair number of Big East games.
On the negative ledger so far, you have Connecticut and Georgetown. Both teams are far from lost causes, but both have significant depth issues that are bound to take their toll over the Big East schedule.
For the Huskies, the problem is on the interior. With Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet gone, Gavin Edwards is exposed as the primary interior enforcer. Now, Ater Majok is eligible in December, and promises to be a strong contributor, potentially. However, seeing is believing, and the lack of a credible alternative means UConn is two early Majok fouls from a real problem stopping anyone with a strong interior game.
As for Georgetown, the problem remains from last season -- a lack of depth offensively means points will often be hard to get. They put up just 63 against Savannah State, following a 46-45 victory over Temple. The reasons why are obvious. As of today, Chris Wright and Austin Freeman, for all their evident talent, are not skilled in the Georgetown offense. A quick check of any Jonathan Wallace-quarterbacked games will display the enormous difference in execution.
This means the Hoyas are going to need some individual playmakers to help take the pressure off of Greg Monroe inside, who can only be effective if he receives the ball. Unfortunately, the early returns suggest that only Jason Clark has improved his offensive game, with Julian Vaughn and Henry Sims still way too raw, and Hollis Thompson and Vee Sanford, the two highest-regarded freshmen, not yet ready to contribute.
Both Connecticut and Georgetown have talented coaches who generally see improvement from their teams as seasons progress (with 08-09 for Georgetown and 06-07 for Connecticut notable exceptions).
But as we've seen from Villanova, Syracuse and Seton Hall so far, the improvement may not be enough. And the problems both teams have are likely to be of the Jerry Nichols variety.