By Kevin Sweeney
Perhaps no league projects to have more parity than the Big East in 2019-20. In my top 100, seven Big East teams rank between 16th and 39th nationally, a stunning level of balance. There may not be an elite team in the conference, but there are a ton of good teams, and that should play out with an incredibly fun season. 13-5 was enough to win the league last season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that mark does it again. Every game will be a battle.
#1. Villanova– For all the discussion of last season’s Villanova team as a disappointment, the Wildcats STILL found a way to win the Big East. Playing the slowest tempo Jay Wright has ever played, ‘Nova grinded out games behind two dominant creators in Eric Paschall and Phill Booth. With both gone, Wright has to find a new way to create offense consistently. Collin Gillespie has to progress as a true point guard, and Bryan Antoine projects to be one of the most important freshmen in the country. The Wildcats desperately need an alpha-dog, and Antoine may be the only one who can play that role. That said, I’ve heard good things about the development of sophomores Jermaine Samuels and Saddiq Bey– perhaps neither is a plus shot-creator, but both should make major impacts stepping into bigger roles.
#2. Seton Hall– The Pirates run it back minus Michael Nzei from a team whose peak featured road/neutral wins against Kentucky, Maryland, Marquette and whose floor feautured a 4-8 stretch in the middle of conference play. Myles Powell is the nation’s best pure scorer, and the strides made by Jared Rhoden and Anthony Nelson down the stretch last season gives Kevin Willard more options with his bench. The x-factor: Florida State transfer Ike Obiagu, who had the best block rate of all time for a player who played at least 10 minutes per game in his first season at FSU. His length and instincts could revolutionize this SHU team’s interior defense.
#3. Marquette– Speaking of interior defense, the play of Theo John last season almost single-handedly lifted Marquette from having one of the nation’s worst defenses at the high-major level to a top-50 defense. Now, Steve Wojciechowski has doubled down on size, landing 7-foot grad transfer Jayce Johnson (Utah) with plans to play two bigs often this season. I have a very difficult time believing a John/Johnson pairing will work, but the loss of the Hauser twins means that the Golden Eagles will have to emphasize size and athleticism over shooting to surround Markus Howard in 2019-20.
#4. Creighton– I’m bullish on the Bluejays this season, thanks to an absolutely loaded backcourt headlined by Ty-Shon Alexander. Greg McDermott has six legitimate starting-caliber guards/wings on the roster, a luxury that will keep guys fresh and allow for tremendous lineup versatility. More questions surround the frontcourt with the early departure of Martin Krampelj, but Christian Bishop was impressive in limited minutes last season and wowed on the team’s international trip this offseason. Bishop at the 5 surrounded by four guards could be a Golden State Warriors-esque “death lineup” that would be incredibly hard to stop.
#5. Xavier– After a difficult start to the season that saw the Musketeers sitting at 11-13 at one point, Travis Steele’s club rode a re-invigorated defense to an 8-3 close to the upcoming season. In year two, Steele has a club that has gotten old together and adds two grad transfers to supplement a strong core in Jason Carter (Ohio) and Bryce Moore (Western Michigan). My main question: can that defensive bump continue into 2019-20 with Zach Hankins having graduated? Hankins was terrific down the stretch, bringing energy and rim protection at the center position.
#6. Providence– The Friars anemic offense ended any hopes of a sixth straight NCAA Tournament bid. Those woes were centered around point guard issues– the Makai Ashton-Langford experiment officially failed, David Duke is more ball-mover than shot-creator, and Maliek White is little more than a strong backup and steady defender. Enter UMass grad transfer Luwane Pipkins, who is certainly dynamic with the ball and provides a scoring element at the point guard spot the Friars didn’t have last season. The return of pieces like Alpha Diallo, Nate Watson, and AJ Reeves creates a nice core, and if Pipkins and Duke can form a steady backcourt pairing, Ed Cooley and the Friars should dance again.
#7. Georgetown– All things considered, it was a successful year two for Patrick Ewing, establishing the Hoyas’ backcourt of the future in James Akinjo and Mac McClung and getting back to the postseason. Now, for Ewing’s bunch to take the next step, it will take improvement on the defensive side of the ball. NC State transfer Omer Yurtseven should be better than Jesse Govan as an interior defender, especially after a year of seasoning from Ewing. However, I’m less optimistic about the perimeter defense, as both Akinjo and McClung lack the positional size or strength to be strong on that side of the ball. Still, the Hoyas should be in the mix come Selection Sunday, and continuing to show improvement is a positive sign for Ewing’s future in Washington D.C.
#8. DePaul– A 7-11 season in the Big East was a win for DePaul, and a run to the CBI Championship series helped continue to build momentum into the offseason for the Blue Demons. The return of Paul Reed gives Dave Leitao the star to build around he needs, an excellent rebounder and finisher who showed flashes of brilliance on the perimeter and on defense last season, and top-50 recruit Romeo Weems should provide a major boost. Kansas transfer Charlie Moore looked more like the Moore we saw at Cal than the one we saw in Lawrence on the team’s international trip. A central question: can the Blue Demons improve enough on the defensive end to creep into bubble territory?
#9. Butler– It’s a critical year three for LaVall Jordan in Indianapolis, as the 2018-19 iteration of the Bulldogs hardly lived up to Butler standards. The major flaw was a horrific interior defense, mostly due both Joey Brunk and Nate Fowler being below-average defenders at the 5. The introduction of Derrik Smits (Valpo) and Bryce Nze (Milwaukee) should help in that regard. Still, Jordan needs a jump from Jordan Tucker for the Bulldogs to contend for a bid.
#10. St. John’s– After a mess of a coaching search, the Johnnies wound up with an experienced high-major coach in Mike Anderson (albeit one with no ties to the region). Hiring Van Macon and Steve DeMeo to his staff helps cover for that lack of ties, and landing Posh Alexander was a nice early statement in NYC. Anderson inherits two terrific players in Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa, but has major holes at both point guard and big. That will likely be too much to overcome in a Big East with no easy games.
All-Conference First Team:
- Markus Howard (Marquette)
- Myles Powell (Seton Hall)
- Ty-Shon Alexander (Creighton)
- Alpha Diallo (Providence)
- Paul Reed (DePaul)
Player of the Year: Myles Powell (Seton Hall)
Markus Howard may lead the nation in scoring, but Powell is my pick as the Big East’s best. He’s the best shot-creator in the nation for my money– able to score at all three levels with ease efficiently. He returned to Seton Hall for one reason– to lead the program to new heights. If he can do that, he’ll etch his name in SHU lore.
Breakout Player: Christian Bishop (Creighton)
Bishop averaged close to 16 points per game on the Bluejays’ August trip to Australia, continuing to demonstrate his worth as a dangerous small-ball 5 who can help protect the rim. Per 25 minutes last season, Bishop averaged 12.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks. If he produces those type of numbers, this Creighton team could push for a Big East title.
Newcomer of the Year: Bryan Antoine (Villanova)
Antoine is recovering from shoulder surgery that could sideline him into the season, but if healthy, his scoring ability can separate Vllanova from the rest in the Big East. He’s an elite-level athlete who always plays under control, and fits Jay Wright’s system to a T. A healthy Antoine is good for college basketball.