By Kevin Sweeney
On paper, this year feels like a bit of a transitional campaign for the Big East. Programs like Seton Hall, Xavier, and Creighton appear likely to take a step back this season thanks to massive roster turnover, and beyond Villanova there isn’t a clear top 25 team in the conference. While it may not have the top end talent it has had the last couple of seasons, the Big East will be deep and extremely competitive in the middle tier, which should make it incredibly exciting to watch. Overall, the league continues to recruit extremely well and make strong coaching hires. If it can continue to do that, the rest will fall into place.
When you can lose the reigning national player of the year and 3 additional first round picks and still be the clear favorite in your conference, you know you have to be doing something right. Jay Wright is doing just about everything right, and has the Wildcats positioned to contend for a 3rd national title in 4 years. Wright brings in an elite recruiting class and one of the nation’s most sought-after grad transfers to overcome those departures, and while the Wildcats will have a ton of fresh faces, they’ll still have a chance to be among the nation’s elite teams. Sophomore Collin Gillespie and McDonald’s All-American Jahvon Quinerly should be able to man the point guard spot, with Phil Booth and Albany transfer Joe Cremo providing plus shooting and playmaking on the wing. Meanwhile, Eric Paschall has drawn rave reviews this summer in his transition from super-utility player to star, while his athleticism and versatility will keep him one of the nation’s most valuable defenders. In a conference with far more preseason questions than answers, few will doubt Wright’s club as top dog.
Steve Wojciechowski enters this season squarely on the hot seat, with just one NCAA Tournament to show for in his 4 seasons in Milwaukee. Wojciechowski’s MU teams have been putrid defensively, mostly due to their reliance on 2 undersized combo guards to run their offense in Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard. Rowsey graduates, and he’ll be replaced with a much better defensive alternative in ball-hawking lead guard Joseph Chartouny (Fordham). Nebraska transfer Ed Morrow joins the fray as well, adding a toughness on the glass the Golden Eagles have lacked. While some of the defensive trouble is systematic, MU was much better defensively last year with Rowsey off the floor, and Morrow’s presence may allow the Golden Eagles to win the rebounding battle much more frequently than they did last season. Guarding Howard and Sam Hauser will remain as big a challenge as any the conference has to offer, and Sam’s brother Joey should assume a key role in his first season in Milwaukee. I’ve been hesitant to jump onto the Marquette bandwagon, but without a whole lot of other options for the second spot, I will role with the Golden Eagles.
#3. Saint John’s
Few teams have as much scoring talent in the backcourt as this SJU club.
Few teams have as little experience or depth up front as this SJU club.
That, along with Chris Mullin’s in-game coaching struggles throughout his 3-year tenure at the helm of the Red Storm, is what makes this team so hard to crack. In theory, the Johnnies have loaded up on multi-positional wings (Mustapha Heron, Justin Simon, and LJ Figueroa) who mesh physicality, ball-handling, and versatility to play with their star guard Shamorie Ponds. SJU will almost assuredly rely heavily on pick-and-roll looks, keeping the ball in the hands of Ponds and Simon as much as they can. However, with only South Carolina transfer Sedee Keita providing a true presence in the paint, the Red Storm may get crushed on the glass without some heroic work from those aforementioned “big wings”. Can anyone stop a “death lineup” with Ponds, Simon, Heron, Figueroa, and Marvin Clark? Probably not. But can that lineup defend (and rebound) enough to win games? That remains to be seen. Chris Mullin’s job may depend on finding the right lineup to play to the strengths of his talented group.
Travis Steele has done about as good a job as he could have taking over from an elite coach like Chris Mack. With the exception of Kaiser Gates’ early departure for pro basketball, the entire roster remained in tact, and Steele added a trio of grad transfers that will keep the team competitive without hindering the development of the current core. Those grad transfers (Kyle Castlin of Columbia, Ryan Welage of San Jose State, and Zach Hankins of Ferris State) should all factor in as significant rotation pieces, surrounding core pieces in Quentin Goodin, Naji Marshall, and Tyrique Jones with strong role players with specific skillsets. Welage may lead the team in scoring, a pure floor-spacer at the 4 spot, while Castlin provides defense and experience in the backcourt and Hankins is a steady rim protector and interior scorer to form a platoon with Jones. Marshall’s rise has been discussed at length, and I’ll buy any remaining stock still available in the talented sophomore, as I truly believe he has an all-conference first team future.
#5. Butler– DARK HORSE
LaVall Jordan took over late last summer for Chris Holtmann and kept things together well, coming up just short of a Sweet 16. Gone is 2,000-point scorer Kelan Martin, but Kamar Baldwin and much of the rest of the rotation returns. The Bulldogs also add a high-profile transfer midseason in former Duke forward Jordan Tucker, who should slot into Martin’s combo forward role once eligible. While it would be foolish to expect Martin-level production from Tucker, he should provide significant scoring punch and athleticism from the get-go in Indianapolis. With an efficient offense and a high-level playmaker in Baldwin leading the way, Butler has enough to outperform this ranking.
I generally refer to my friend and podcast partner Brad Cavallaro for all things Providence, and as of now our projections for this Friar team are fairly similar. Ed Cooley brought in his backcourt of the future with a pair of major recruiting wins from Mass Rivals in David Duke and AJ Reeves, and both should see a fair bit of action in year 1. They’ll compete with returners Maliek White and Makai Ashton-Langford for minutes in the backcourt. Versatile wing Alpha Diallo should take the next step and become one of the Big East’s premier players, and the return of Emmitt Holt should allow Cooley to go big or small depending on matchups. A return to the NCAA Tournament for the 6th straight season should be the goal this season, with that 2019-20 campaign truly the time when the Friars should take the next step under Cooley.
The Hoyas were better than perhaps most expected last season despite their modest 15-15 record, competing well in year 1 of the Patrick Ewing era while laying the groundwork for future success on the recruiting trail. The biggest issue they had was in the backcourt, where a Jonathan Mulmore/Trey Dickerson/Jagan Mosely/Jahvon Blair unit simply wasn’t enough to contend with the rest of the Big East. That unit replaces Mulmore and Dickerson with a pair of exciting recruits in lightning-fast point guard James Akinjo and uber-athletic combo Mac McClung. Giving a team with one of the nation’s best big men in Jessie Govan and a pair of high-upside combo forwards in Jamorko Pickett and Josh LeBlanc even just league-average guard play would be enough to put the Hoyas in NCAA Tournament contention.
This is probably one spot higher than the vast majority of Big East rankings will have the Bluejays. The lack of a go-to scorer is concerning in Greg McDermott’s shoot-happy system, and Martin Krampelj’s health may be a concern as well. If Krampelj is healthy, CU might be better than many expect. McDermott does a great job developing guards, and he has had all summer to work with a pair of talented ones in Mitch Ballock and Ty-Shon Alexander, both of whom I see poised for big years. Add in a solid grad transfer on the wing in Rice’s Connor Cashaw, and Creighton has enough backcourt talent to pair with Krampelj and Jacob Epperson up front.
#9. Seton Hall
A senior class that meant everything to the Pirate program departs, leaving a monstrous amount of production to be replaced. Personally, I’m not a big fan of what Kevin Willard has done to replace that group. A pair of well-regarded yet severely flawed transfers in Quincy McKnight (Sacred Heart) and Taurean Thompson (Syracuse) are the highest-profile newcomers, and since I’m down on both, it makes sense that I’m down on SHU as a whole. McKnight is a turnover-happy scoring point guard whose wild style hurt Sacred Heart at times, while Thompson is a glorified turnstile defensively who hasn’t shown the ability to consistently hit 3’s. As excited I am about Myles Powell, I just don’t get the appeal with the rest of this roster.
I will say this: DePaul was not as bad as people made them out to be last season. They finished in the top 100 of KenPom and played a lot of close games. They just played in a tough conference where they had a little less talent than the rest of the teams, and didn’t have a coach that could bridge that gap schematically. Unfortunately for the Blue Demons, the same things will likely be true this year. The Max Strus/Eli Cain/Jalen Coleman-Lands/Femi Olujobi core is good enough to compete, but probably not good enough to win games, and Dave Leitao is still not a very good coach. It’s just hard for me to see DePaul build any sort of sustained momentum under Leitao, and the sooner he can be replaced, the better.
All-Conference First Team:
- G: Shamorie Ponds– St. John’s (21.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.7 apg, .420/.253/.857)
- G: Markus Howard– Marquette (20.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.8 apg, .464/.404/.938)
- G: Kamar Baldwin– Butler (15.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.2 apg, .442/.331/.775)
- F: Eric Paschall– Villanova (10.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.2 apg, .533/.356/.813)
- F: Jessie Govan– Georgetown (17.9 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, .508/.348/.761)
Player of the Year: Shamorie Ponds (St. John’s)
Ponds literally carried a severely flawed St. John’s through Big East play last season, doing everything he could to keep his team in games. Allowing him to operate in a well-spaced offensive system without the defense being able to collapse on him every time he took the ball towards the rim will make Ponds’ game that much bettter. However, he’ll have to make better decisions and take care of the ball as the team’s true point guard if the Red Storm is going to reach their lofty goals.
Breakout Player: Naji Marshall (Xavier)
A former top-75 recruit out of high school, Marshall looked the part in his freshman campaign. With Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura both gone, Marshall will likely be seen as the team’s primary scoring option. Xavier’s NCAA Tournament hopes depend on Marshall taking to that role well, and I believe he will.
Newcomer of the Year: Jahvon Quinerly (Villanova)
I’ll continue my theme of using the most important newcomer rather than the one likely to put up the biggest numbers. Mustapha Heron will likely put up the best numbers of the incoming group to the Big East, but Quinerly can make Villanova a top 5 team if he plays to his potential. Playing point guard in Jay Wright’s offense is a great job to have, and Quinerly’s outstanding passing ability and creative handle make him a great fit, albeit a much different player than the guy he’ll be replacing in Jalen Brunson.