Home CBB 110 Sports College Basketball Preview: Big East

110 Sports College Basketball Preview: Big East

by Josh Mullenix | @TheJMULL_

Welcome to the conference that is always brutal. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s always competitive and Big East teams always always beat up on each other. For the most part, that’s the case this season.

The Villanova Wildcats are far and away the best team in this conference. They, along with Creighton, should sit pretty as the two best teams in this conference that are just a level above everyone else.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Georgetown and DePaul seem to be sitting pretty (or not so pretty) as the worst two teams in the conference and St. John’s won’t be all that far behind either of them. As for the other seven teams? Your guess is as good as mine. For one reason or another, you could make an argument for a team to finish third and someone else could make an equally logical argument for that team to finish seventh.

As the 110 Sports college basketball preview rolls on, I take a stab at trying to predict what this jumbled mess of a conference mind end up looking like. Let’s start with one of the three best teams in the entire country.

1. Villanova

There might not be a clearer front runner in a power conference in 2020-21 than Villanova. A lot of times, there is an argument as to why one team or another could overtake the favorite in the conference. That’s just not the case here. If all goes the way it’s supposed to for Jay Wright’s Wildcats, they should comfortably win the Big East this season.

Let’s start with the cornerstones. The Wildcats have arguably the best point guard in the conference in Collin Gillespie (who should also be in contention to be a first team all-american) and the most skilled big man in the Big East in Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Both players should be First Team All-Big East members and the most important players on this roster. Gillespie is the next in a long line of great Villanova guards. The senior took a major step forward last season, averaging 15 points, 4.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds. Pretty much everything suggests he’s going to be even better this year. Robinson-Earl nearly averaged a double-double at 10.5 points and 9.4 rebounds in his freshman season.

Everything the Wildcats do will start with them, but they have some of the best wings in the conference starting with Justin Moore. The sophomore will be one of the best 3-point shooters in the conference and perfect backcourt companion to Gillespie. In the front court, Robinson-Earl will be joined by Jermaine Samuels, another upperclassman who also averaged more than 10 points per game last season. Cole Swider and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree also return after productive seasons in 2019-20.

Perhaps the most intriguing parts of the Villanova roster are Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels and former five-star Bryan Antoine. Daniels brings his 16.9 points per game with him and Antoine spent his freshman season dealing with injuries. The only major loss the Wildcats endured was the departure of soon-to-be first round pick Sadiq Bey. On the surface, the Wildcats have pieces to make up for that loss, at least to a certain extent. 

Like every season, the Wildcats are going to take, and make, a lot of threes and be coached by the best boss in the Big East in Jay Wright. They have one of the best point guards, one of the most skilled bigs and a collection of wings to accompany them. Barring something unforeseen, the Wildcats will be the team to beat in the Big East and maybe the country. 

2. Creighton

We’ve seen it in the KenPom rankings and in the preseason AP Poll. There is a clear one and two in the Big East. The Wildcats are third in the AP Poll and fourth at KenPom. The Creighton Bluejays are 11th, according to AP, and 13th at KenPom. There isn’t another Big East team in the preseason AP Poll or inside the top 30 at KenPom. These two teams are clearly the best this conference has to offer.

The Bluejays had a very good 2019-20 season. They finished 24-7 and tied for first in the Big East thanks to stellar guard play and shooting. Ty-Shon Alexander, Marcus Zegarowski and Mitch Ballock led the charge and Creighton finished seventh in the AP Poll before the season was cut short. They bring almost all of last year’s team back with the exception of Alexander, their leading scorer and defensive tone-setter last season. Zegarowski is back as one of the overwhelming favorites to win Big East Player of the Year and Ballock joins him as one of the best sharpshooters in the country.

They added Memphis transfer Antwann Jones to the equation on the perimeter. Damien Jefferson, Chiristian Bishop and Denzel Mahoney are all back and Jacob Epperson, the 6’11 senior, returns after missing all of last season with an injury. Creighton has a lot coming back, but losing Alexander is a big loss on both ends of the floor. Last season, Creighton scored nearly 0.3 points less per possession and gave up 0.1 points more per possession when Alexander was off the floor than when he was on.

At 39.5% in conference play, Creighton was the best 3-point shooting team in the Big East and they probably will be again. With that being said, when they struggled in the Big East last season it was because they struggled from beyond the arc. In four of their five conference losses, Creighton shot 22% or worse from the 3-point line. Thankfully, they didn’t miss a lot of threes very many times last season, but that is the Achilles heel of any team that shoots as many threes as Creighton does. Without Alexander, the defense might take a step back, which makes shooting the three well that much more important.

The Bluejays should clearly be the second best team in this conference. We’ll see just how good Creighton can be and if they are even within striking distance of the Wildcats at the top of the Big East. 

3. Seton Hall

On the surface, it seems like what Seton Hall lost vastly outweighs what the Pirates bring back. They lost Myles Powell and Quincy McKnight. Powell was one of the more gifted scorers in the country and McKnight was a very solid, veteran guard. Romaro Gill was the 2019-20 Big East Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 3.2 blocks per game. They did, indeed lose a lot, but they also bring back and add quite a bit of talent this season.

Starting with the returners, the Pirates lost three of their five starters but still bring back three players who played more than 23 minutes per contest last season. Perhaps the most important of those players is Sandro Mamukelashvili. The 6’11 forward from Tbilisi, Georgia, is the leading returning scorer who shot 43% from beyond the arc last season. He will be the anchor inside along with Ike Obiagu who should replace Gill as the rim protector in the middle for Kevin Willard’s squad. 

Myles Cale and Jared Rhoden both return as veteran wing players who combined for just over 15 points worth of production a season ago and without Powell in the lineup they should get more shots than they did last season. With that being said, the most important piece of the Seton Hall puzzle is Harvard transfer Bryce Aiken. Aiken averaged 16.9 points per game a season ago and 22.2 points in 18 games in 2018-19. Like Powell, Aiken definitely has the ability to take over a game, which is a good thing considering nobody else on this roster seems to have that ability. His shot selection is questionable at times but he can score from anywhere on the floor and will be the guy with the ball in his hands a lot this season. That is, if he can stay healthy. Aiken played in 26 games as a freshman. Since then, he’s played in a total of 39 games over three seasons and he played in just seven in 2019-20. It’s certainly fair to question whether or not Aiken will be healthy all season, and if he can actually have a similar impact in a major conference throughout a full schedule. 

Canisius’ Takal Molson will also contribute heavily on the offensive end, bringing his 16.9 points per game with him to Seton Hall. He’ll be another piece in this new backcourt for Willard. 

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Seton Hall finish here or fall into the 5-7 territory in the Big East. If Aiken is healthy and makes up for some of Powell’s production, Mamukelashvili takes another step and the other perimeter players take another step forward with a little more usage, then the Pirates could be in for another top-three season in the Big East. However, there’s certainly a world in which they struggle and fall to the crowded middle tier of this conference. I have faith in Willard and the weapons at his disposal. 

4. Providence

Next we have Ed Cooley’s scrappy, physical Providence program. Last year was weird for the Friars, to say the least. They went 19-12. Typically, a team who goes 19-12 had a really solid nonconference but just wasn’t consistent enough in league play to win more than eight games and they walk away with double-digit losses. The opposite was true for Providence. The Friars suffered early-season losses to Northwestern, Pennsylvania, Cal State Long Beach and the College of Charleston. Then, all of a sudden, something clicked and Cooley’s team went 12-6 in conference play, finishing fourth in the Big East. 

The most obvious change from last year’s team is the departure of Alpha Diallo. They also lost Luwane Pipkins and Maliek White, but Diallo is the biggest loss. Diallo led the team in scoring, but I have faith in junior guard David Duke to carry the torch as the team’s leading scorer and main perimeter threat. Duke took major strides in every important category last season, especially from beyond the arc, where he shot 42% after shooting just 29% as a freshman. He along with fellow junior AJ Reeves should be a very solid perimeter duo for Cooley. 

Providence’s other most important returner is 6’10 center Nate Watson. He’s one of the better bigs in the conference when he stays out of foul trouble and will be a crucial piece of the Friar offense. He’ll need to stay on the floor to maximize his production on both ends. 

Cooley also has a pair of productive transfers coming from mid-major schools. Jared Bynum averaged 11.3 points and 4.5 assists in his one season at St. Joseph’s, he will probably take possession of the starting point guard spot after the departure of White and Pipkins. On the interior, North Florida transfer Noah Horchler will accompany Watson as a capable rebounder and shot blocker as well as another threat on offense. 

On the surface, Providence lost their best player from a 19-12 season. However, they bring back capable scorers, willing defenders, key pieces and they are led by one of the best coaches in the conference. That’s a good formula for a team fighting to finish in the top half of a messy middle of the Big East. 

5. Marquette

For the better part of the last four years, the story in Milwaukee has been Markus Howard, and for good reason. The Big East’s all-time leading scorer was one of the most dynamic scorers in the country and certainly one of the best shooters. In a way, head coach Steve Wojciechowski had an obligation to run everything through Howard. The Golden Eagles took almost 60 shots per game last season, Howard took one third of them. That’s not a dig on Wojo, Howard or Marquette. The point is, there isn’t a team in the Big East that will approach the season in a more different way than the Golden Eagles. 

Instead of having a player averaging almost 28 points per game, Marquette brings back just one player who averaged more than six points for the team last season. On the surface, that sounds bad, but Wojo has put together a roster that makes it possible for this team to completely pivot their approach and also be an average to above average Big East team.

Starting in the backcourt, Koby McEwen is back and his 9.5 points, five rebounds and 3.2 assists come with him. However, that’s not the headline of this year’s backcourt. That honor goes to Ohio State transfer DJ Carton. Carton averaged 10.4 points and three assists per contest before missing the last 10 games of the season for mental health reasons. The former top-35 recruit shot 40% from beyond the arc, and immediately raises the ceiling for Wojo’s team. He’s a great athlete and will immediately step in to run the show for Marquette and probably be one of their leading scorers. 

Joining McEwen as the other key returners are Jamal Cain and Theo John and a pair of bench players in Greg Elliot and Symir Torrence. John is going to be a physical player who sets the tone defensively as one of the best interior defenders in the country. Between the two aforementioned guards and these four players, the Golden Eagles should have solid depth at both the guard position and down low.

The Golden Eagles also bring in one of the favorites for Big East Freshman of the Year in Dawson Garcia. The 6’11 four-star recruit is going to be one of the best newcomers in the conference. He averaged 31.6(!) points and 9.8 rebounds as a senior in high school. The lefty is going to be an immediate offensive threat that possesses a rare skill set for someone his age and size. His range extends to the 3-point line and he can put it on the floor, where he can score and pass. Garcia will also pair nicely next to John, who definitely has a limit to his effectiveness on offense. He headlines the best recruiting class in the conference, according to 247 Sports, along with four stars Justin Lewis and Osasere Ighodaro. All three players are 6’7 and taller and should add to the interior depth. 

The product on the floor this season will be very different from recent memory in Milwaukee. But Wojo has an all-conference level guard, returning key pieces and a strong recruiting class. It’s not a bad foundation for Marquette to have a solid season. 

6. UConn

Welcome back, UConn. We’ve missed you and have patiently waited for your return to your rightful home. Guess what, the conference has changed since you were last here! While you are a great brand for the conference, no one really missed you in the Big East, a conference that existed just fine without you. We have a new king, the Villanova Wildcats. And while we’re happy to have you, it’s up to you to prove that you’re worthy of the Big East rather than the Big East proving it is worthy of you. 

The Big East instantly becomes better with UConn in the mix. It’s good for the conference, no doubt, but it doesn’t mean the Huskies are about to come in and control the conference. Not even close. There is reason to believe the Huskies will be good. This team won nine of its last 12 games last season, but the Huskies still only finished 10-8 in the AAC and lost their leading scorer in Christian Vital. So, how good is UConn in the context of a tough Big East conference? The answer, in my opinion, is average.

Leading the Huskies will be guard James Bouknight. Bouknight will immediately become one of the best guards in this conference and will likely be a First or Second Team All-Big East member. He averaged 13 points and four rebounds as a freshman and should take another step forward in production without Vital on the roster. Joining Bouknight in the backcourt will likely be Howard transfer RJ Cole. Cole brings his 21.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.1 rebounds to the table as well as 39% shooting from beyond the arc. If you’re looking for personnel to make up for the loss of Vital, this is the place you start. The 2018-19 MEAC Player of the Year is a dynamic scorer who got to take a lot of shots at Howard and the Huskies will need his production this year in the Big East. 

Other than that, head coach Dan Hurley’s roster looks pretty similar to how it looked last season. Jalen Gaffney, Brendan Adams, Tyler Polley and Josh Carlton are all back. This UConn team will be much older than they were last season and continuity will certainly play a factor in any improvement from last season.

On the recruiting trail, Andre Jackson is the best recruit in UConn’s class as a top-50 prospect and he’s joined by Adama Sanogo, a 6’9 forward who will bring physicality and effort to the frontcourt. 

The Huskies have returned to the Big East. The question is, how good can this team one year removed from a 10-8 performance in the AAC be in relation to other Big East teams? Relatively soon, UConn is going to compete for Big East titles, but it won’t be this year. 

7. Butler

I’ve seen the Bulldogs pretty much everywhere in preseason Big East rankings. I went to Butler and watched them play up close for four years. It’s simple, don’t underestimate the Bulldogs. Some have them as low as 10th in the conference, others (like CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander) have them as high as third. I’ll go right in between and place them here at seventh.

The big story for LaVall Jordan and the Bulldogs is that they are without Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott. Baldwin was the most clutch player in the country a season ago and one of the most important players relative to his team in the Big East. He averaged 16.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists and that doesn’t really begin to quantify his impact. McDermott was consistently one of the most efficient players in the country and the best shooter the Bulldogs had.

With that being said, the Bulldogs are very experienced, bring back several important pieces from last year’s team and welcome a couple of new transfers. Floor general and defensive menace Aaron Thompson is back to run things for Butler. He’s not going to impress you in the scoring department, but Thompson is one of the best on-ball defenders in the conference and should be in contention for Defensive Player of the Year and All-Big East honors. In the frontcourt, Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden return as two of the more skilled big men in the country. The pair fit very well together with games that compliment each other nicely. The two combined for nearly 17 points, 11 rebounds and 2.5 assists last season and should take another step up in production (and Butler needs them to). Christian David also returns as the last important piece from the 2019-20 squad. An ACL injury ended his season prematurely and might keep him out of the beginning of the season but he should make an impact when he returns. 

Jordan went out and got two impact transfers, South Carolina’s Jair Bolden and ETSU’s Bo Hodges. Bolden will be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer averaging 8.5 points and 2.4 rebounds. Bolden will help fill the obvious perimeter shooting hole that McDermott and Jordan Tucker left. He shot 41.2% from beyond the arc in one season in the SEC. It’s also worth noting that he’s a grad transfer with major conference experience. Hodges is still awaiting word as to whether or not he will be granted a waiver to play immediately. Hodges would be a valuable cutter and finisher at the rim with the ability to create his own shot at the rim. However, like I said, he’s still awaiting a waiver. 

JaKobe Coles, Chuck Harris and Myles Tate headline the available recruiting class for the Bulldogs. Scooby Johnson tore an ACL this offseason and will miss the entire season. However, these freshmen will have an impact on just how good the Bulldogs are this year. Is there a player who can make an impact like Baldwin did as a freshman? Thompson? That will be the question. Harris and Tate are both point guards who will have lasting impacts on the program and should produce behind Thompson and Bolden. Coles is the current frontrunner to get secondary frontcourt minutes behind Nze and Golden. 

The Bulldogs will likely be better defensively than they were last season. As good as McDermott and Baldwin were, they have the personnel to hang their hat on the defensive end. Thompson on the ball, David on the perimeter and the Bryces in the middle. The question for the Dawgs is whether or not they’re going to be able to score enough points in Big East play. Either way, Butler will be a tough team to beat like they are every season. 

8. Xavier

The Musketeers lost a lot. They said goodbye to Naji Marshall, Tyrique Jones and Quentin Goodin. That’s roughly 37 points, almost 20 rebounds and 8.5 assists worth of production gone from last season. The majority of that production came from Marshall and Jones who, along with Paul Scruggs, were Xavier’s best players a season ago.

Scruggs does return along with the next three leading scorers for the Musketeers in 2019-20. Freshman Zach Freemantle and junior Jason Carter added roughly seven points of their own and will be the focal point of Travis Steele’s offense along with Scruggs. Starting in the backcourt with Scruggs should be KyKy Tandy, a Big East All-Freshman Team selection who showed lots of promise last season and will be the second star of Steele’s backcourt. Newcomers Nate Johnson, a grad transfer from Gardner Webb, and CJ Wilcher will also factor into the equation as shooters in the Xavier backcourt. Johnson shot over 41% from beyond the arc last season and Wilcher is a known shooter out of New Jersey. Rounding out the backcourt is Xavier’s highest-rated recruit, Dwon Odom, who is extremely athletic with strength and quickness.

Also coming off the bench could be mid-major scorers Adam Kunkel from Belmont and Ben Stanley from Hampton, but both are awaiting waivers to become immediately eligible. 

The front court will be controlled by Freemantle and Carter who will be stark contrasts to the brute strength of Tyrique Jones. Fremantle and Carter are certainly finesse over power but DII transfer Bryan Griffin should make up for that off the bench. Last season at Mercy College, Griffin averaged 19.6 points while leading all of DII in rebounding at 14.5 rebounds per game. 

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Musketeers end up higher than eighth, but I want to see a little bit more from a team who lost so much in Marshall and Jones before getting too high on them.

9. St. John’s

The Red Storm lost a lot from a team that went 5-13 in the Big East last season. They lost LJ Figueroa who transferred to Oregon. They lost Mustapha Heron, the team’s third leading scorer and Nick Rutherford, one of the best defenders in the conference. That might lead you to believe that they don’t have a ton to be excited about, and you’d be right. However, there are some promising players on this roster.

Rasheem Dunn returns as the leading scorer to actually return to St. John’s. He’s joined by one of the more impressive freshmen in the conference last year, Julian Champagnie, who averaged 9.9 points and 6.5 rebounds. He has a chance to be one of the 10 best players in the conference this year and the Johnnies will need him to make that jump without Figueroa on the roster.

Marcellus Earlington and Josh Roberts should man the middle but Arnaldo Toro from George Washington and JUCO transfer Isaih Moore should make an impact in the front court as well.

Like every season, the Johnnies will play aggressive, up-tempo defense and force teams to make mistakes. If nothing else, head coach Mike Anderson gets his teams to compete night in and night out. However, with a lot of the important offensive pieces gone, where the Johnnies are going to get all of their points is yet to be seen. 

10. DePaul

Ah, the Blue Demons. I will take this moment to pat myself on the back for not overreacting about DePaul’s start last season. They were 12-1 and everyone was screaming DePaul from the mountain top. Well, they finished 16-16 and went 3-15 in the Big East, finishing dead last in the conference by two games. 

Things could get better, right? Probably not. They bring back former Kansas transfer and Chicago native Charlie Moore. Moore was the Blue Demons’ leading scorer at 15.5 points and 6.1 assists, but Paul Reed left for the NBA Draft and Jalen Coleman-Lands elected to play his final year of eligibility out at Iowa State.

With that being said, they do bring back Romeo Weems and Jaylen Butz, who will be solid in the frontcourt and they also welcome a large group of incoming transfers. Ray Salnave brings his 14.5 points to Chicago from Monmouth. Salnave was a Second Team All-MAAC selection who has an interesting array of skills both inside and out. Javon Freeman-Liberty brings 19 points and six rebounds with him from Valparaiso and will be the most obvious replacement for Coleman-Lands. He’s a solid scorer who struggles from beyond the arc and is one of the more important waiver recipients relative to how much a team needs his services. His athleticism is exciting and he should be another isolation scoring option for the Blue Demons.

Manhattan transfer Pauly Paulicap and Fort Wayne transfer Brian Patrick should also make an impact this season along with redshirt junior Darious Hall. Personally, I don’t quite understand why so many transfers head to DePaul seemingly every year, but this is another example and those four transfers will have to have a big impact if the Blue Demons want to see any kind of improvement. 

11. Georgetown

No James Akinjo. No Mac McClung. No Omer Yurtseven. No Terrell Allen. Head coach Patrick Ewing seemed to have this group heading in the right direction, but a lot has changed in the last 12 or so months for this program. McClung and Yurtseven combined for over 30 points per contest and Akinjo added another 13 before leaving the program. 

Jahvon Blair and Jamorko Pickett are the most important returners for the Hoyas this season. Blair averaged 13.2 points per game in the Big East last season along with 3.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists. With McClung struggling with injuries and Akinjo out of the picture, Blair emerged as one of the brighter players on the roster. Pickett also took a step forward in conference, averaging 11.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and shooting 37% from deep. With that being said, both have been role players throughout their career and they will need to be more than that this season. 

Arkansas transfer Jalen Harris is the likely starting point guard. He got stepped over at Arkansas last season but he’s a very capable lead guard that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and should positively impact the Georgetown offense.  

Other than those three players, it is slim pickings. Qudus Wahab will be the anchor in the frontcourt along with freshman Jamari Sibley. Donald Carey from Siena and Chudier Bile from Northwestern State bring production but it’s not a given that they will produce in the Big East. 

Not all that long ago, Ewing had this program in a positive position and they were trending upwards. Ahead of the 2020-21 season, there isn’t much of a reason to believe that’s still the case. Another year, another season of Georgetown finishing last or second-to-last in the Big East.

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