2020-21 32×32: Big East Preview

Week two of our preview series begins with the Big East! While other traditional high-major league administrators have been all-in on ensuring football teams took the field this fall, Val Ackerman and the Big East have had November circled on the calendar since March. Can the Big East and the rest of college basketball pull it off? Well, we fully expect things will get started on time. Will it be normal? Maybe not. But it’s more than worth trying, and the work done by coaches and administrators in the Big East is one of the many reasons why we’ll get to see the ball get tipped off in a little over a month.

  1. Villanova – A consensus top-3 team nationally, this is a group built to win Jay Wright his third national title. Even with the loss of Saddiq Bey, the Wildcats still bring back four double-figure scorers for an offense that should be one of the most dynamic in America. There may not be an elite scorer in this mix, but it’s a team full of unselfish players who share the ball, know their role, and can all stroke it from deep. Much of the conversation around this club will surround Collin Gillespie and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, but I’m equally excited to see the growth of Justin Moore. Moore was one of the most productive freshmen in the country a season ago and gets another year of development from a staff that prides itself in just that. He’s a budding star in this conference. And while there’s no Bey replacement on the roster, Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels provides yet another wing option – an athletic 3-level scorer who can create for himself and others. In what promises to be a messy season, it’s even easier than normal to bet on great coaching and veteran leadership. Villanova has both. I expect to see them in Indianapolis come March.
  2. Creighton – The Bluejays may have had legitimate national championship aspirations before Ty-Shon Alexander elected to go pro a year early, but that departure isn’t enough to keep them from being an elite team in 2020-21. While Alexander’s defense and shot-making ability made him almost the perfect guard to pair with Marcus Zegarowski, Greg McDermott still has tons of options at his disposal in the backcourt. Zegarowski is an All-American type, Mitch Ballock is the perfect glue piece, while Memphis transfer Antwann Jones and returner Denzel Mahoney are more than capable of getting wing buckets. The x-factor addition to the backcourt is Rati Andronikashvili, the Georgian point guard who averaged 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists at FIBA U18B Euros last summer. If he pans out, McDermott will have an easier time playing some of the 5-guard lineups he used with Mahoney as a nominal 5-man last season. Going small may not be as necessary though this season: Jacob Epperson comes back after missing a season due to injury, and 6-11 freshman Ryan Kalkbrenner is known for his ability to protect the rim. Those additions decrease the load on Christian Bishop, whose game also perfectly fit into the Bluejays’ small-ball ethos. Even without Alexander, there’s plenty of firepower here. And with more options up front, the defense could take some steps forward. CU and VU are a cut above the rest in the Big East.
  3. UConn – Danny Hurley enters year three with what is without a doubt his most talented group yet in Storrs, and expectations are without a doubt high. The hype train grew further with the news that URI transfer Tyrese Martin received a waiver to play right away, giving the Huskies yet another proven talent to plug into the mix. If you don’t know the name James Bouknight yet, you will soon: Bouknight is a legit NBA prospect thanks to his high-flying athleticism the ability to shoot the ball from deep. He’s high on my list of must-watch players this season. Rounding out the backcourt with Bouknight and Martin is Howard transfer RJ Cole, a dynamic scoring point guard who is great in ball screens and scored a ridiculous 1510 points in two seasons for the Bison. Throw in Jalen Gaffney, Brendan Adams, and Andre Jackson, and all the sudden you have six impressive guards to cycle through. If healthy, the frontcourt might be just as deep. Akok Akok is a difference-maker as a rim protector, but he’s coming off an achilles tear and his timetable to return isn’t totally clear. Tyler Polley is excellent as a shooter off screens, but is still in recovery from a January ACL tear. But veterans Josh Carlton and Isaiah Whaley are productive pieces in the frontcourt, with Whaley really shining down the stretch once given the opportunity. And that’s not even mentioning Adama Sanogo, a highly-touted reclassified recruit whose best basketball is still in front of him. Hurley has a strong reputation as a recruiter for a reason, and it’s no surprise that he has loaded up the roster like this in a fairly short time. Cole’s play at point guard will be critical in making an offense that was inconsistent at times run smoother, but the Huskies now have the type of roster Hurley needs: deep, athletic, aggressive, and filled with guys who can make shots.
  4. Seton Hall – Pegging the Pirates is a real challenge in 2020-21 given the amount of unknowns they have to deal with. The obvious question asked by all is how one replaces Myles Powell, but in some ways, that’s the easiest issue to deal with. No one can step in and replace what Powell brought – he’s an elite-level shot-maker who was the focus of every scouting report last season. But defining the heart of what was an elite defense may be more challenging. Romaro Gill was at times SHU’s most important player: he changed the game with his ability to protect the rim and was also a solid offensive option at times. And for everything Gill was at the back end, Quincy McKnight was elite at the point of attack. Not only was he a steady passer and shooter, McKnight was capable of locking down opposing point guards for 30 minutes a night. So while there’s a lot to like on this roster, figuring out how much this defense regresses will be key in determining how much of a drop-off the Pirates experience. Kevin Willard won a gigantic recruiting battle for the services of Harvard grad transfer PG Bryce Aiken – Aiken isn’t the defender or even passer that McKnight was, but he’s a certified bucket-getter who is great in ball screens… IF HE STAYS HEALTHY. Canisius transfer Takal Molson should help on both ends, a physical guard wired to score but also a more than capable defender who locked down Jalen Pickett twice in his MAAC days. Will Willard play more small lineups with Jared Rhoden at the 4 and high-level big man Sandro Mamukelashvili at the 5? Or will he prefer to go big with gentle giant Ike Obiagu attempting to fill the Gill role as much as possible.
  5. Providence – Can Providence please drop the Jekyll and Hyde act? Ed Cooley’s bunch backed themselves into a seemingly-inescapable hole based on horrible non-conference play, then ran through the conference season and played their way onto the bubble. Why? Offensive struggles, namely at point guard. Luwane Pipkins looked unplayable early in the year, but my the end of the season was an indispensable piece who made so many big plays. His replacement this season in St. Joe’s transfer Jared Bynum will be equally pivotal: Bynum is a better passer than Pipkins but doesn’t quite bring the same scoring punch. That leaves bigger responsibilities on the plate of AJ Reeves, a high-level shooter who has been incredibly up-and-down during his career but desperately needs to thrive in year three next to Bynum and the uber-versatile David Duke. Greg Gannt and North Florida transfer Noah Horchler will look to slot in at the 4 to replace Alpha Diallo, and there’s also some potential for smaller lineups with one of those two at the 5 when Nate Watson sits. Cooley’s teams are incredibly scrappy, and I’d expect them to have to win ugly at times yet again this season. But how well Reeves and Bynum supplement Duke in the backcourt will determine whether this team is safely in the field or sweating on Selection Sunday.
  6. Marquette – I’m not sure there’s a better possible replacement for Markus Howard one could possibly have landed than DJ Carton. The Ohio State transfer and former elite recruit is the perfect player for Marquette’s pace-and-space offense, more than capable of shouldering a heavy scoring load right away but capable of distributing from the point guard position as well. The help around that lead guard spot (on both ends of the floor) is where MU needs to get better to take the next step. Can the Koby McEwen/Greg Elliott/Symir Torrence trio prove reliable enough, especially if Carton isn’t an exact replica of Howard in terms of scoring production? I’ve been big on Torrence since his days with the Albany City Rocks, and his emergence would be key for this team. One guy who could really open things up for the Golden Eagles on both ends is highly-touted freshman Dawson Garcia, a prototype modern forward who should be a impact player offensively right away. His skillset meshes well with Theo John, who remains one of the better defensive bigs in the country but doesn’t give you much on the offensive end. At the end of the day, this team feels like it has 7-11 seed written all over it again.
  7. Xavier – Back-to-back 19-win campaigns to open the Travis Steele era mark the first time since 1982 that the Musketeers have went consecutive seasons without winning 20 games. If that’s not a summary of just how good a program this has been for the last 4 decades, I don’t know what is. Still, it feels like a critical third campaign for Steele and staff in a year where things could go in a ton of different directions. There is without a doubt good young talent in the pipeline: Zach Freemantle and KyKy Tandy were impressive as freshmen, and a strong 3-man recruiting class headlined by fringe top-50 recruit Dwon Odom should also be impactful in the Big East. But the early departure of star wing Naji Marshall leaves a major hole for Steele to replace, especially since Marshall was a strong playmaker and defender in addition to his scoring exploits. Shooting has been a big concern in both years under Steele, but he hopes Gardner-Webb transfer Nate Johnson (74 made triples at a 41% clip) will help there. Watch for a waiver for Hampton transfer Ben Stanley, who averaged 22 points and 7 boards last season. He’s not the creator Marshall was, but he could definitely slot in as a small-ball 4 with high-major athleticism and plenty of skill facing up. There’s an interesting collection of pieces here, let’s see if Steele can put them together.
  8. St. John’s –  SJU started strong before fading fast in year one of the Mike Anderson era. With LJ Figueroa and Mustapha Heron gone, Anderson needs his recruits to take center stage and lead the way for a team that will, like most Anderson teams, be driven by defense and turnover margin. In conference games last season, the Johnnies held on average a +5.8 edge in the turnover department, and that type of massive possession advantage gives you a lot of room for error. The problem is, they gave most of that edge away thanks to an offense that was inefficient around the rim, a defense that struggled to defend the paint, and a free throw margin that was flat-out ugly. There’s hope that George Washington transfer Arnaldo Toro can help with the frontcourt woes, and Mike Anderson spoke highly of his abilities on the block back in September. Toro has struggled to stay healthy in his career but has put up some eye-popping stat lines along the way, including a 20 point, 24 rebound performance against American early last season. Still, the center rotation of Josh Roberts and Toro profiles as perhaps the league’s worst, so some small ball with JUCO product Isaih Moore pairing with Marcellus Earlington or Julian Champagnie up front could present some interesting possibilities. The most exciting newcomer in my mind is Vince Cole, a JUCO wing who put up massive numbers at USC Salk: 21 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, all while shooting 45% from deep. That’s the type of piece SJU desperately needs to help replace Heron and Figueroa’s scoring exploits. Mike Anderson is also excited about his point guards, as local product Posh Alexander was a major recruiting coup and Rasheem Dunn gets another year in the system. I’m just not sure there’s enough here to eat away at some of the major flaws in last year’s group, which is why I’m predicting a middling year for the Red Storm.
  9. DePaul – No, I don’t have DePaul last. Yes, I considered having them even higher. And yes, I know that it’s DePaul we’re talking about here. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about why I’ve fallen hopelessly into a rabbit hole about why THIS DePaul team might be different. The Blue Demons’ big problem last season was a lack of guards beyond Charlie Moore who could create offense and a lack of shooting. Adding Javon Freeman-Liberty (Valpo, assuming waiver) and Ray Salnave (Monmouth) should help significantly on that front: all three have spent time as a primary creator in their career, and all can space the floor. Freeman-Liberty is an especially exciting add: he was one of the best players in the Missouri Valley last season and has legit all-Big East potential. But he and Salnave will take the heat off Moore and help in a big way with floor spacing. Then there’s Romeo Weems, an elite-level defender whose offense still lags behind. Bumping him up to the 4 in 3-guard looks should pay dividends – he’s a capable spacer and can attack closeouts. Throw in a Jaylen Butz/Pauly Paulicap platoon at the 5, and you’ve got an intriguing rotation. A defense with three very good perimeter defenders in Freeman-Liberty, Salnave, and Weems is intriguing, and I’m buying stock in the offensive improvements. With a new AD in DeWayne Peevy having strong basketball pedigree from his days at Kentucky, this feels like a key audition year for Dave Leitao. Can he sell his superiors on the future of Blue Demon basketball being in good hands?
  10. Butler – There’s nothing overly exciting about this Butler team on paper, at least for this year. I’m fairly bullish on the future thanks to a loaded 5-man freshman class that features 4 fringe top-150 kids, but all those guys feel a year away from making major contributions. That’s especially the case now that the guy expected to do the most as a freshman in Scooby Johnson went down with an ACL tear earlier this summer. 2019-20’s team was very well-constructed with role players around Kamar Baldwin, but there isn’t anyone on the roster from that group of role players that seems poised to assume a starring role. Aaron Thompson is a great ball-mover and defender, but he’s not a primary offensive threat. Neither is Bryce Nze, a productive forward who plays hard at both ends. Some are bullish on a big jump from Bryce Golden, but I’m not there yet. Jair Bolden adds shooting and ball-handling, but the last time he was a top-3 player on a team that team went 7-11 in the A10. This team is going to need to figure out how to win a lot of games 62-58 or victories might be tough to come by.
  11. Georgetown – Mac McClung’s transfer to Texas Tech capped an almost-unthinkable collapse of a core that once looked so promising. At this time last season, if you had told me I would be picking Georgetown last in the Big East the following season, I’d likely have called you crazy. But the departures of McClung, James Akinjo, Josh LeBlanc, combined with landing what is a fairly underwhelming recruiting class for 2020, leaves long-term questions about whether Patrick Ewing is the guy long-term. I should be clear: Ewing is not at all deserving of the “can’t coach” label: he did an admirable job of preventing the wheels from coming off when half his rotation transferred out at the semester break in a shroud of controversy. Instead, it has been the program management side that needs improvement (though some issues were without a doubt beyond his control). Ewing did cobble together a respectable rotation for 2020-21 through the grad transfer market, adding Jalen Harris (Arkansas) to run point, Don Carey (Siena) for what likely will be a sixth man role, and Chudier Bile (Northwestern State) to serve as a bridge to Jamari Sibley at the 4. Still, so much of this season’s success or failure will be measured by the growth of sophomore big man Qudus Wahab. Hoya fans yearned for more Wahab and less Omer Yurtseven down the stretch last season, and the 6-11 post player oozes with upside as a potential double-double machine down the line. The focus for Ewing needs to be building for the next 2-3 years around Wahab, and seeing how far it takes him. If that fails, the Hoyas may be faced with a tough decision about what to do with their native son at the helm of the program.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Collin Gillespie (Villanova)
  • David Duke (Providence)
  • Marcus Zegarowski (Creighton)
  • James Bouknight (UConn)
  • Sandro Mamukelashvili (Seton Hall)

Player of the Year: Marcus Zegarowski (Creighton) – Zegarowski going to Creighton was really a match made in heaven. His elite-level shooting prowess, combined with his ability to distribute in ball screens, makes him pretty much the perfect point guard for a Greg McDermott team. With Ty-Shon Alexander gone, Zegarowski will be asked to score even more. He could put up some pretty insane numbers this season.

Breakout Player: Qudus Wahab (Georgetown) – Being a breakout player requires equal parts talent and opportunity, and Wahab has both in droves. Patrick Ewing loves to play through his bigs, and Wahab is in line for major minutes at the 5 for the Hoyas. Plus, he was highly productive as a freshman. With another year under his belt, expect significant growth from Wahab as he develops into the centerpiece of the program moving forward.

Newcomer of the Year: DJ Carton (Marquette) – I came incredibly close to sticking Carton on the first team, and I may look back and regret not doing so given the numbers he seems likely to put up in Milwaukee. Steve Wojchiechowski lets his guards run wild, and Carton is a wildly talented player who fits in perfectly with the scheme. Expect a huge year.

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