Big East Conference Preview
Despite the Big East being one of the top four conferences in the country (according to RPI) since its reconfiguration prior to the 2013-14 season, it had consistently been overlooked, considered underwhelming and often criticized by the masses, from national reporters to the everyday fan, as many yearned for the Big East of old. Prior to Villanova’s run, many people thought that the conference was nothing more than a hyped up A-10 that would never compete with the likes of the ACC, Big Ten and Big XII. It was a conference that was respectable during the regular season but came out flat when they needed it most in March. Xavier was the only Big East team to make the Sweet 16 in 2015, while McDermott-led Creighton in 2014 and two top-5 Villanova teams drifted away with early March exits. As all college basketball fans know, a team’s (and conference’s) success is predicated upon how far it goes in March Madness.
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That was until March 2016. That was until Villanova went on a decimation streak through the NCAA Tournament that culminated with Kris Jenkins’ highlight-reel, one-for-the-ages, buzzer-beater three-pointer to push his team past North Carolina and crown Villanova as college basketball’s 2016 champions. Fast-forward seven months and the Big East Conference is as strong as it has been in its current four-year existence. With Villanova’s championship run, it begins a new era where the conference is respected, with its upper echelon of teams being considered legitimate national title contenders. From national rankings that have both Villanova and Xavier in the Top Ten to the conference’s success on the recruiting trail (10 of Scout’s Top 100 2017 recruits are committed to Big East schools),the future is very bright for the Big East Conference.
Speaking of legitimacy, Villanova has a very real chance to repeat as national champions, while Xavier looks to build on their school-record 27-win 2015-16 regular season and avenge its heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin in the second round of the tournament. While many analysts will agree that this is a two-horse race at the top, a multitude of Big East teams (namely, Butler, Creighton, Georgetown, Marquette and Seton Hall) will duke it out for spots 3-10, and it is anyone’s guess as to where they will finish..
Below is a run-down of each Big East team’s season outlook and my predictions for their order of finish.
1. Villanova Wildcats (Last Year: 29-5; 16-2 in conference, 1st place)
KenPom (overall): 2
Despite losing key contributors to last year’s championship run in PG Ryan Arcidiacono and C Daniel Ochefu, Villanova returns a very deep rotation highlighted by three starters from last year’s team in Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Jalen Brunson. Josh Hart, a senior guard from Upper Marlboro, MD, led Villanova with 15.5 points last year, including an average of 17.5 points and 8.0 rebounds in Villanova’s last two games versus Oklahoma and North Carolina. Until the Wildcats falter, they will continue to be the team to beat in the Big East Conference. Not only is their starting rotation talented, but their bench is deep, as newcomers Eric Paschall (Fordham transfer) and Dylan Painter (3 star PF) along with Mikal Bridges will be key contributors down the line. Expect Villanova to remain in the Top Five and battle for the top spot in the nation throughout the season.
Projected Finish: NCAA Final Four
2. Xavier Musketeers (Last Year: 27-5; 14-4 in conference, 2nd place)
KenPom (overall): 11
The Musketeers are coming off a year that was loaded with school records, from most regular season victories (27) to peak national rankings in both the AP Poll and the Coaches’ Poll. The team returns its trio of offensive firepower in Trevon Blueitt (15.1 PPG), Edmond Sumner (11.0 PPG) and JP Macura (9.4 PPG). Those three, coupled with freshman PG Quentin Goodin and grad transfer Malcom Bernard make the Musketeers’ backcourt arguably one of the best in the nation. That doesn’t even include SG Myles Davis, who has been suspended by the team due to an off-court legal incident but should return by conference play. The one area of concern for Xavier will be how to replace the 40.2 minutes, 20.3 points and 14.3 rebounds that James Farr and Jalen Reynolds produced. Norfolk State transfer Rashid Gaston and junior Sean O’Mara will look to fill that hole and many believe that there will be minimal differences between the Farr/Reynolds duo and Gaston and O’Mara. Expect Coach Chris Mack to employ a 4 out, 1 in starting lineup that features a lot of length in Edmond Sumner, JP Macura, Trevon Blueitt, Kaiser Gates and Rashid Gaston, all 6’6” or taller.
Projected Finish: NCAA Elite Eight
3. Creighton Bluejays (Last Year: 18-14; 9-9 in conference, 6th place)
KenPom (overall): 32
The Bluejays enter the season as a sort of dark-horse Top 25 team who many believe will be a surprise to college hoops across the country. While many believe the Big East is a two-team race, Creighton will look to disrupt that line of thinking as they are led by another dynamic backcourt in senior Maurice Watson Jr. and transfer junior guard Marcus Foster. Both Watson and Foster should be able to score at will by creating shots for themselves and facilitating options for teammates. Watson averaged 31.4 minutes, a team-high 14.1 points and led the Big East in 6.5 assists last season. Foster, a transfer from Kansas State, will look to bring his 14.1 PPG and 2.2 APG to Omaha to make Creighton this season’s college basketball breakout team. Another newcomer, Justin Patton, a top-100 big man recruit who was redshirted last season, will look to fill the void left by graduating Geoffrey Groselle (11.2 PPG, 6.1 RPG).
Projected Finish: NCAA Sweet Sixteen
4. Georgetown Hoyas (Last Year: 15-18; 7-11 in conference, 8th place)
KenPom (overall): 29
A team who has not benefitted greatly from the revamped conference, the Hoyas look to rebound from an absolutely dreadful 2015-16 campaign where they lost to the likes of Radford and Monmouth. The Hoyas continue to be a perplexing bunch, as there is clear talent on the roster but it seems to never come together for a successful season. Expect a bounce-back year from the Hoyas despite losing their leading scorer, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (16.2 PPG). The Hoyas miraculously earned a 5th year for breakout C Bradley Hayes which gives Georgetown one of the deepest frontcourts in the league. All-Big East Second Team F Isaac Copeland will need to build off of his successful sophomore year in order to ensure Georgetown returns to the NCAA Tournament. This team may struggle to score with the loss of DSR, but their frontcourt depth and experience will allow them to compete, so long as there are no early-season mishaps like last year.
Projected Finish: NCAA Round of 32
5. Seton Hall Pirates (Last Year: 25-8; 12-6 in conference, 3rd place)
KenPom (overall): 38
The story with Seton Hall is that if Isaiah Whitehead returned for his junior year instead of heading to the NBA, the Pirates would easily be a Top 25 team and a contender for the Big East title. SHU had big wins last season against Xavier in conference play and against Villanova in the Big East conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately for Pirates fans, Whitehead and his 18.2 PPG are not returning, which means Kevin Willard’s team will need to focus more on team ball in 2016-17. Willard still has 4 members of a heralded 2014 recruiting class as Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez, Khadeen Carrington and Ismael Sanogo will look to build off the Pirates’ successful regular season last year. Each of those players has had breakout games over the course of the last two seasons, but if Seton Hall wants to return to the NCAA’s, they will need to be more consistent in Whitehead’s absence. Seton Hall also has top-100 PG recruit Myles Powell and Kansas State transfer Jevon Thomas who should be able to produce for the Pirates.
Projected Finish: NCAA First Round
6. Marquette Golden Eagles (Last Year: 20-13; 8-10 in conference, 7th place)
KenPom (overall): 47
Marquette’s only key player lost from last year’s 6th-place team is NBA product Henry Ellenson. They also come in with the Big East’s top recruiting class that included 4-stars SF Sam Hauser, SF Brendan Bailey and PG Markus Howard. While they are still unlikely to sit atop the standings, this Marquette team could surprise people with a run to 3rd place, as many of the teams ranked 3-7 are interchangeable. Marquette will struggle mightily in the frontcourt as only two players (starter Luke Fischer and rarely used Matt Heldt) measure above 6’5”. Despite their height issues, Marquette will have a solid backcourt and loaded wings in what has become a growing trend in college basketball of using a 4 out, 1 in starting 5 that Jay Wright and Villanova have used for years and Chris Mack and Xavier implemented last season. Coach Wojo does have four players returning who averaged at least 10 points per game so the main concerns for the Golden Eagles this season will be rebounding and keeping Fischer healthy and out of foul trouble.
Projected Finish: Bubble Team; NIT
7. Butler Bulldogs (Last Year: 21-10; 10-8 in conference, 5th place)
KenPom (overall): 19
It is tough to replace what Kellen Dunham (16.2 PPG) and Roosevelt Jones (13.8) meant for this team, both on the court, on the stat sheet and as leaders in the locker room. Butler will be relying on Kelan Martin to continue to improve upon his highly successful sophomore year. The junior forward was named to the All-Big East First Team after finishing last season with 15.7 PPG and 6.8 RPG, both top-ten in the conference. They will also rely on senior point guard Tyler Lewis to make a markedly big jump after an underwhelming first season with the Bulldogs after transferring from NC State.
Projected Finish: Bubble Team; NIT
8. St. John’s Red Storm (Last Year: 8-24; 1-17 in conference, 10th place)
KenPom (overall): 108
St. John’s was an absolutely brutal team last year with their only win against annual cellar-dweller DePaul. Chris Mullin’s sophomore year cannot possibly be any worse than his first, so expect some marginal improvement despite it still being a rebuilding year for the Johnnies. St. John’s has a very young team, as forward Darien Williams is the lone senior. Four freshman started nine or more games last season yet none finished in the top 25 of Big East scoring. Look for St. John’s to heavily rely on Shamorie Ponds, a 6’1” guard from Brooklyn, NY who was named the Big East’s Pre-Season Freshman of the Year. Ponds is an all-around guard that should be able to lead St. John’s in many stat categories. While they will not compete for a conference title, the Red Storm do have a chance to be upset specialists to the teams at the top.
Projected Finish: no post-season
9. Providence Friars (Last Year: 23-10; 10-8 in conference, 4th place)
KenPom (overall): 63
Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn were the 2015-16 Providence Friars. The two combined for 37.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG (Bentil) and 6.2 APG (Dunn) last season. That output is tough to replace no matter what team you are and who you have coming in. While Ed Cooley did add two 4-star players in Maliek White and Alpha Diallo, it most certainly will not be enough to replace Dunn and Bentil. Quite frankly, the Friars’ weakness last year was the lack of playmakers aside from that duo, which showed in their Round of 32 loss to North Carolina. They will need a meteoric jump from Jalen Lindsey and Ryan Fazekas in order to compete in this conference and for a shot at the top spots in the conference. That is highly unlikely, but the Friars do have Ed Cooley, who is one of the most underrated coaches in the country.
Projected Finish: no post-season
10. DePaul Blue Demons (Last Year: 9-22; 3-15 in conference, 9th place)
KenPom (overall): 177
Another basketball season means another year where DePaul is expected to finish last. DePaul has not won more than 6 conferences games since the 2006-07 season and fans should expect that streak to continue. While All-Big East Second Team G Billy Garrett Jr. and WKU-transfer newcomer Chris Harrison-Docks form an admirable backcourt, there just isn’t much else to like with this Blue Demons team. They will struggle in the frontcourt against many of the taller, more physical forwards that the other Big East teams boast. The Blue Demon faithful will have to hope that the opening of their new arena in 2017 will spark a recruiting improvement in order to see any success in the near future.
Projected Finish: no post-season
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A graduate of Xavier University, Chris began his writing career as a Xavier Musketeers Athletic Communications Intern where he wrote previews and post-game recaps for men’s basketball, women’s basketball and other Olympic sports. He has worked in the sports industry in various capacities for over 5 years. Chris is a fan of the Xavier Musketeers, the Baltimore Ravens and the Baltimore Orioles. Other hobbies and passions includes Game of Thrones and, as an Eagle Scout, volunteering as a Boy Scout Troop Assistant Scoutmaster. Chris was born in Baltimore, raised in Baltimore County and currently resides in Canton.