by John Fanta
NEW YORK — As the Big East players walked through the hallway to their Alumni Hall locker room at Providence College last week, they could always look to their left for inspiration.
Positioned across the wall was a blown-up photo, featuring some of the game’s greats united in red, white and blue holding gold medals. This shot was of the 2016 USA Basketball team, which claimed the Olympic basketball record 15th gold medal in Rio de Janeiro three years ago.
Rather than seeing their respective school logo, the players saw the likes of Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kyrie Irving and other NBA greats unifying for their country. This week offers Big East players the unprecedented opportunity to represent the U.S. in the world’s third-largest multi-sport event, the Pan American Games. The league won a first-of-its-kind bid over other conferences across the NCAA to represent USA Basketball in this week’s competition held in Lima, Peru.
With DePaul, Marquette, Georgetown and Xavier traveling internationally in the coming weeks, no current players are featured on the roster. While Creighton is in Australia August 1-13, leading scorer Ty-Shon Alexander will participate in the games, which run from July 31 – August 4, then head to Australia. Seton Hall is heading to Italy August 7-16, which means head coach Kevin Willard, Myles Powell and Myles Cale will be in the air quite a bit in the next few weeks.
As far as how the Pan Am Games roster of 12 was finalized by head coach Ed Cooley, two injuries made an impact. Providence grad transfer point guard Luwane Pipkins did not make the trip due to a left knee injury, while Butler forward Sean McDermott headed back to Indianapolis early in camp with a foot injury. Neither is considered serious, but both stayed in the state for precautionary reasons. That led Providence rising sophomore guard AJ Reeves jumping from an alternate onto the official roster for the games.
5 Ty-Shon Alexander Creighton Jr. G 6-4 195
6 Myles Cale Seton Hall Jr. G-F 6-6 210
11 Alpha Diallo Providence Sr. G 6-7 213
7 David Duke Providence So. G 6-5 198
2 Collin Gillespie Villanova Jr. G 6-3 190
15 Geoffrey Groselle Creighton — C 7-0 242
8 Mustapha Heron St. John’s Sr. G 6-5 220
10 Myles Powell Seton Hall Sr. G 6-2 195
4 A.J. Reeves Providence So. G 6-6 200
9 Jermaine Samuels Villanova Jr. F 6-5 225
14 Nate Watson Providence Jr. C 6-10 250
13 Tyler Wideman Butler — F 6-8 240
Considering the experience and size of the pros inside that these college players will go up against in Peru, Cooley brought in recent graduates Tyler Wideman (Butler Class of 2018) and Geoffrey Groselle (Creighton Class of 2016) to counteract that. The dynamic between Cooley and Willard was fascinating to take in, as both veteran coaches enjoyed friendly banter throughout the week in “Friartown.” On top of that, it’s a spotlight of some of the best talent the league has to offer, and watching those skillsets mesh together was something special. Here are five takeaways from Big East Pan Am Training Camp.
- Mustapha Heron is new and improved: The St. John’s rising senior looks as conditioned as ever, and is ready to take ownership of the Red Storm with junior LJ Figueroa. Averaging 14.6 points with 4.6 rebounds per game this past season, Heron played a key role but battled tendinitis throughout the campaign. On top of that, Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II held the leadership roles down. Now, Heron has his sights set on closing out his college career by ushering in the Mike Anderson Era as a Big East dark horse. The opportunity to wear “USA” across his chest carries an extra weight as well for Heron, who tried out twice for United States teams in high school but did not make the cut. The third opportunity provides a different result.
- Jermaine Samuels could lead Villanova to a Big East title: The Wildcats’ rising junior forward will be looked upon to lead Jay Wright’s team in the 2019-20 season, and he has the frame to do it. Samuels credits working with Villanova Head Strength and Conditioning Coach John Shackleton on his body, and said it’s now on him, Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree to be at the forefront for the Cats as they aim for a four-peat in the Big East Tournament in 2020.
- Myles Powell is as advertised: Powell makes three-pointers look like layins, and seemingly has limitless range. Is this the year Seton Hall makes its first Sweet 16 since 2000? That’s an honest expectation in South Orange with the return of Powell and his head coach, as well as a strong corps. The name to remember? Jared Rhoden. The Pirate rising sophomore has taken a major leap according to Powell and could be a real X-factor for SHU.
- Luwane Pipkins can talk: While Pipkins is being held out for precautionary reasons due to a slight knee injury, the UMass grad transfer will fit right into the Big East. He has quite the swagger. “He don’t shut the hell up, but we love that,” said Ed Cooley. Prepare for Pipkins to start at the 1 for the Friars with David Duke, AJ Reeves, Alpha Diallo and Nate Watson completing the line-up.
- Ty-Shon Alexander and Creighton: Alexander was part of a Bluejays’ distance attack that saw CU hit a program-record 372 triples this past season. Hitting 97 himself as a sophomore, only exceeded by Kyle Korver (100) in Creighton history, Alexander has expectations of a bounce-back season for the Jays, and so do Big East coaches. Creighton was a team that found itself one major win away from potentially breaking into the NCAA Tournament this past March, but four consecutive single-digit defeats in February were too much to overcome. With Martin Krampelj gone, the Jays’ post play hinges on a healthy Jacob Epperson and Idaho State grad transfer Kelvin Jones. If those two can combine and contribute, Creighton can return to the dance floor.
The Schedule: Pan Am Games action revs up for the Big East / United States team on Wednesday. With the tournament broken up into two four-team pools, the U.S. is joined by the Virgin Islands, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
The opener comes against the Virgin Islands Wednesday at 11:30 AM ET, with the Americans going from one extreme to the other in their schedule as they take on Venezuela at 11 PM ET Thursday. Pool play concludes Friday against Puerto Rico at 11 PM ET. All games are scheduled to be broadcast on ESPN3.
Argentina, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Uruguay make up Pool B.
Final Buzzer: The Big East is tasked with trying to bring back the first gold medal for USA Basketball in this event since 1983, when Michael Jordan was on the winning team. A medal in this event for these college players against pros who have practiced together for years would be considered a great achievement.
Follow @NCAAHoopsDigest and @John_Fanta on Twitter for Pan Am Games updates as well as college basketball coverage all year long, from the opening tip in November to the Final Four in April.
Georgetown’s center Omer Yurtseven should be representing the BigEast at the PanAm game.