2020-21 Conference Preview: Big East
Fall sports, from college football to the NFL, have been bizarre. Covid outbreaks, schedule adjustments and the need for endless flexibility. There's little doubt, bubbles will be burst far before Greg Gumbel has the chance to announce the bracket - if there is such a selection show this year.
Preseason predictions are less relevant than ever before. The sports landscape is secondary to those of national health and safety. We may see dramatic interruptions, and depending on how or when those interrupt, different teams will rise or fall as a result.
Nonetheless, we push forward. Our conference previews will look at only the six power conferences throughout the NCAA: ACC, Big East, SEC, Big Ten, Big Twelve and Pac-12. Second on our stop is in the Big East, a powerful conference often overlooked on the national landscape. The league boasts some of the country's best coaches, and as a league with wide geographical reaches, the recruiting landscape is distinct.
Behind a couple national giants in Villanova and Creighton, teams 3 thru 9 are all jockeying for position. This could be a league with tremendous depth, or it could separate into two tiers. With many programs losing impactful leaders (Myles Powell from Seton Hall, Naji Marshall at Xavier, Markus Howard at Marquette, Ty-Shon Alexander at Creighton), there's plenty of movement to be had.
The wild card here is team number eleven, the Connecticut Huskies. Joining for the first time from the AAC, UConn is back where they belong in the Big East. How early of an impact can they make, and how does that disrupt the league's natural balance of power?
11. DePaul Blue Demons - 3-15 last year. Projection: 4-16
I simultaneously like what the Blue Demons are building and recognize it's nowhere near enough in the loaded Big East. 5'11" senior point guard Charlie Moore (15.5 points, 6.1 assists) just produces when he's out there. 6'9" Jaylen Butz is an underrated, mobile big who is capable of flying around like Paul Reed once did. DePaul has brought in some solid talent. Romeo Weems is a really good sophomore. Four transfers enter who averaged double-digits in the mid-majors before arriving in Chicago. The issue is that none of this ever clicks. Moore and Butz are seniors and on their way out. They couldn't escape the basement even with an NBA draft pick in Paul Reed. Dave Leitao is fighting the good fight, and highly-touted recruits are simply not choosing to get smacked around in the Big East when Big Ten options nearby are so attractive.
10. Georgetown Hoyas - 5-13 last year. Projection: 4-16
It's difficult to build a program when you can't keep the best recruits you sign. Patrick Ewing's tenure with my alma mater hasn't been ideal. Mac McClung and James Akinjo, the two perimeter scorers Ewing counted on, have left the program. All that exists of returners are role players, like Jahvon Blair and JaMorko Pickett. Ewing continues to bring in highly-touted guys: Jalen Harris from Arkansas should man the point, freshman Jamari Sibley is an instant-impact wing and Kobe Clark is a freshman who could provide some shooting. While they won't win enough games to break the slump, the greater issue for the Jesuits is their lack of retention amongst the big names they bring in.
9. Butler Bulldogs - 10-8 last year. Projection: 9-11
This Butler team lost more than any other group in the Big East. Kamar Baldwin, Sean McDermott and Jordan Tucker were 3 of the team's top 4 scorers a season ago. Henry Baddley, Derrik Smits and Khalif Battle all played key bench roles. It's a lot to lose, and when you throw in the torn ACL that will cost Michigan's Mr. Basketball and stud freshman Scooby Johnson his freshman year, there's no go-to guy left in Hinkle Fieldhouse.
There are still very good players here, and a few freshmen worth monitoring, too. Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden will handle the frontcourt duties and could be the team's leading scorers. Seniors Jair Bolden (from South Carolina) and Aaron Thompson will be needed to be competent in the backcourt. 6'2" freshman Chuck Harris and 6'0" freshman Myles Tate will be good down the line, likely deferring to Bolden and Thompson right now. The Bulldogs don't have someone to go out and get them a bucket when they need one. They'll be solid, though expecting a high ceiling and surprise jolt to the top like last year would require a ton of faith in LaVall Jordan.
8. Marquette Golden Eagles - 8-10 last year. Projection: 9-11
Ohio State transfer DJ Carton and stud 6'9" freshman Dawson Garcia should hold the fort down despite losing elite scorer Markus Howard. Carton will take much of the scoring load off his shoulders; he won't average 20 a game like Howard did, but he can be a dynamic late-clock option. Garcia's ceiling is incredibly high, and if he plays close to it, there's a chance Wojo's hot seat cools quite a bit. He's done a good job recruiting recently, but the lack of ability to keep the Hausers and mediocrity in-league are damning.
If the Golden Eagles are going to make a push to keep Wojo's job, this might be the year. Three senior starters (Koby McEwan, Jamal Cain and Theo John) will be tough to replace. Carton will be handed the keys, while freshmen forwards Justin Lewis and Osa Ighodaro are guys they hope can be part of a long-term core. With 2021 recruit Stevie Mitchell on the way, this is an important bridge season to make moves.
7. Seton Hall Pirates - 13-5 last year. Projection: 10-10
Most folks think Kevin Willard's Pirates remain atop the Big East despite losing Myles Powell, Romaro Gill and Quincy McKnight. That's an awful lot of firepower to move on from. The Pirates will still be huge, though. 6'11' Sandro Mamukelashvilli (11.9 points) and 7'2" Ike Obiagu (2.1 blocks) make for an imposing frontcourt. Mamukelashvilli's mobility comes into question, and without a late-clock shot-maker like Powell to bail them out, the Pirates may have to lean heavily into their defensive efforts.
To pick up the scoring slack, Willard relies on transfers. Takal Molson from Canisius and Bryce Aiken from Harvard both averaged over 16 a game before coming to New Jersey; freshman point guard Jahari Long is more of a creator than a scorer. Jared Rhoden and Myles Cale are great glue guys in the frontcourt and should help the Pirates stay afloat. Expecting another 13-5, top-ten performance seems a bit unreasonable, though.
6. St. John's Red Storm - 5-13 last year. Projection: 10-10
My big surprise is in predicting a five-win gain for Mike Anderson in New York City. I may be the most optimistic on the Johnnies in the country, but they were better than a 5-13 team last season. They have a great deal of talent that fits with a surprising rise. A senior point guard to anchor the show (Rasheem Dunn scored 11.9 last year) who is vastly underrated in the conference. Great wing size and production in Julian Champagnie (9.9 points, 6.5 rebounds) and Marcellus Earlington (9.0 points). A 6'9" rim protector in Josh Roberts; there's returning talent.
My belief is that Anderson perfectly has recruited around those slashers. Posh Alexander is the point guard of the future and is the NYC kid that is impossible to count out. George Washington transfer Arnaldo Toro tightens up the frontcourt rotation. JuCo transfer Vince Cole lightens the loss of LJ Figueroa; he shot 47 percent from 3 last year and would be a great boon if he earns a starting role. With another shooter in Greg Williams Jr., there's plenty of opportunities to find the floor spacing they need. I'm a Mike Anderson believer; the fit in NYC was odd when it happened, but he's a really good coach and recruiter. This year should see solid steps forward before turning the reigns over to Alexander and building around him and Champagnie.
5. Xavier Musketeers - 8-10 last year. Projection: 11-9
The Musketeers are this high just because I respect Travis Steele so damn much. The Big East is pretty deep and there are many excellent coaches here. Xavier loses the most unique alpha in the conference in Naji Marshall. 6'4' senior guard Paul Scruggs steps into the spotlight as the team leader, and he should do a strong job at the point of attack. Freshman CJ Wilcher could surprise and be a Freshman of the Year candidate in-league if he gets the type of minutes I'm anticipating.
KyKy Tandy could also be poised for a strong season. Those three make up a strong backcourt, and the addition of Gardner Webb transfer Nate Johnson will add some scoring punch. Tandy and big man Zach Freemantle make up an impressive sophomore class who the Musketeers will try to build around. The heir apparent to Scruggs is freshman point guard Dwon Odom, a guy I'm really high on long-term. Steele has done a good job amassing talent at Xavier, now he just needs to win with it.
4. Providence Friars - 12-6 last year. Projection: 12-8
This is an Ed Cooley fan account. The Friars rallied to win their last six games after flirting with mediocrity. The backcourt tandem of David Duke and AJ Reeves anchors a fantastically tough scoring attack. St Joe's transfer Jared Bynum is tiny at 5'10" but can really score and produce; he fits the toughness model Cooley preaches.
Surrounding their backcourt is a pair of freshman wings counted upon early. Alyn Breed and Jyare Davis will be needed, and both are capable. 6'10" senior post Nate Watson anchors the attack, and is an underrated offensive piece. He averaged 9 points and 4.6 boards a year ago, both of which should go up.
The season rests on what they solve at the 4. North Florida transfer Noah Horchler is a solid stretch-4, and 6'8" sophomore Greg Gantt will need to play a role. The Friars are always stingy on defense, but with the shooting from Horchler and three dynamic backcourt scorers, Cooley should see an uptick in his team's offensive efficiency. That alone could stave off the rest of the pack nipping at their heels.
3. Connecticut Huskies - 10-8 AAC last year. Projection: 12-8
Welcome back to the Big East, Huskies! Danny Hurley is ready to go, with a go-to scorer in James Bouknight able to handle the big-shot duties they need. The waiver granted to Rhode Island transfer Tyrese Martin is massive for the Huskies and gives them a secondary scorer in the backcourt next to Bouknight. Sophomore guard Jalen Gaffney is another favorite; the three of them are an incredibly dynamic trio that will be tough for others to match up with. Sprinkle in transfer from Howard RJ Cole, who averaged over 21 a game, and there's no shortage of offensive firepower in Storrs.
The frontcourt is in flux, with different injuries hampering their long-term outlook. Akok Akok tore his Achilles in February; not much is expected of him. Tyler Polley, coming off a torn ACL, is an impact 4-man that plays the glue role well. The backups are, thankfully, competent. Josh Carlton can protect the rim and is a starting-caliber big in the league, while 4-star recruit Andre Jackson is more of a 3, but is impactful enough to help if the Huskies embrace small ball.
Once Polley is back, and if Jackson is integrated and comfortable, the Huskies are talented enough to launch into the top-three, a tier above the others. The injuries could slow them down a bit. Don't be shocked if Bouknight is the league's Player of the Year.
2. Creighton Blue Jays - 13-5 last year. Projection: 14-6
Inject Greg McDermott's offensive system into my veins. Atop the league are two nationally-relevant contenders who run the best offense, recruit fit for their systems and can be any team in the country whenever they're out there. What McDermott has built at Creighton is wildly impressive. Despite losing Ty-Shon Alexander to the NBA, there's plenty left worth noting. Point guard Marcus Zegarowski is the front-runner for Conference POY and could be a national finalist. He's such a good offensive piece and a fiery defender. They also boast the league's (and, in my opinion, the nation's) best shooter in Mitch Ballock.
On the wing, Memphis transfer Antwann Jones and SEMO transfer Denzel Mahoney will vie for the next starting role. Don't sleep on Lithuanian freshman Modestas Kancleris carving out a role off the bench, either.
If there's a concern, and a reason the Blue Jays drop down from the level they were at last year, it's their lack of experience of front. Jacob Epperson is back after 24 months off due to a knee injury. His return is much-needed, though counting on him will be difficult. Freshman Ryan Kalkbrenner needs to add bulk to avoid being bullied, though he's the center of the future. Forwards Damien Jefferson and Christian Bishop are both better-served at the 4. McDermott will coach his ass off and put the talent in a position to succeed; they're still offensively great enough to get an NCAA bid and top-25 ranking, though they likely don't have the ceiling of last year's squad.
1. Villanova Wildcats - 13-5 last year. Projection: 15-5
Jay Wright is the most consistent recruiter in America. He brings in guys who appropriately fit their offensive and defensive systems, their culture and who want to get better at the facets that impact winning. Losing a well-rounded sniper like Saddiq Bey definitely hurts, but Wright knows the younger guys are ready to take the famous Villanova leap to compensate. Sophomore forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is now a sophomore, and after averaging 10.5 points and 9.4 rebounds as a freshman, he'll be incredibly impactful. JRE is my sleeper for a top-10 pick next year in the draft and a near lock for All-Big East first team.
Running the show is point guard Collin Gillespie, a senior who averaged 15.1 points and 4.5 assists in the Wildcats spread scheme. He's a dynamite playmaker. If 6'9" junior Cole Swider is ready to take the next steps to being a consistent shooting threat in the Bey template, Villanova will improve from last year to now. Their offense so perfectly spreads the floor, and everyone on the floor can shoot or drive it, so there's no good way to defend them. With senior leadership in the backcourt, this team is legitimate nationally.
Let's not overlook the talent of the role players, either. Backup guard Bryan Antoine was one a top-15 recruit. Justin Moore will start at the 2 after receiving All-Freshman honors a season ago. 6'7" senior Jermaine Samuels is a do-it-all glue guy, and redshirt freshman Eric Dixon provides depth behind JRE down low. If they get an impact from Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels (16.9 points with the Green Wave in 2018-19), this will be the deepest title contender in the land.
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Assistant Men's Basketball Coach, Dickinson College.