Return of the Rock: Big East Preview

By JUSTIN FITZGERALD

After the breakup of the original Big East in 2013, fans wondered what would be left of the conference that changed college basketball. The conference retained classic basketball powers, but also added unproven mid-majors. It was not known whether the latter would add depth or wilt against stiffer competition. The identity of the new Big East remains to be decided, but it looks like it will remain nationally relevant. Last year the conference sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament, but only Xavier made it to the Sweet 16. Here’s the outlook for this season. 

Ryan Arcidiacono. Courtesy of philly.com
Ryan Arcidiacono. Courtesy of philly.com
  1. Villanova Wildcats (33-3, 16-2)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Third Round

The Wildcats had high hopes going into last year’s NCAA Tournament, but once again bowed out in the third round. Last year’s loss to NC State was not the end for this team, as Jay Wright’s squad returns enough talent to finally make a deep run in March. Gone is leading scorer Darun Hilliard, but they return sharpshooters Josh Hart and Big East player of the year Ryan Arcidiacono. They will be joined by incoming point guard Jalen Brunson, who should step in and contribute right away. The only concern is who will start alongside Daniel Ochefu in the paint, since they have to replace JayVaughn Pinkston. With a solid returning core and the addition of Brunson, this team has the potential to make piccolo girl much happier.

D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera. Courtesy of New York Post.
D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. Courtesy of New York Post.
  1. Georgetown Hoyas (22-11, 12-6)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Third Round

After missing the NCAA Tournament and finishing seventh in the conference in 2013, the Hoyas returned to the top of the Big East last season. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera may be the best pure scorer in the conference, and is a surefire contender for Big East player of the year. They also return role players L.J. Peak and Isaac Copeland, who  need to step up and replace Jabril Trawick and Josh Smith respectively. Copeland could be poised for a breakout season by taking over Smith’s role, but will be joined in the paint by freshman Jessie Govan (6-10, 263) and Marcus Derrickson (6-7, 250). Govan and Derrickson add extra muscle that will make Georgetown the toughest defense in the conference and one of the most physical front-courts in the country.

Kellen Donham, Courtesy of butlersports.com
Kellen Donham, Courtesy of butlersports.com
  1. Butler Bulldogs (23-11, 12-6)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Third Round

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since coach Brad Stevens guided Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard led Butler to the national championship appearance. Although  Stevens bolted for the NBA in 2013, Chris Holtmann has this team capable of once again making a deep NCAA Tournament run. The Bulldogs return leading scorers Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones, who were Big East first and second team respectively last season. Also back is starter Andrew Chrabascz, who CBS Sports’s Matt Norlander called “the prototypical Butler player.” The concern for this team is height, as 6-8 Tyler Wideman will be the tallest starter, which will be a problem when they face physical teams.

Trevon Bluiett. Courtesy of musketeermadness.com
Trevon Bluiett. Courtesy of musketeermadness.com
  1. Xavier Musketeers (23-14, 9-9)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen

The Musketeers have quietly been one of the most consistent teams since the turn of the century, making 13 of the past 15 NCAA Tournaments, including six Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights. When they moved to the Big East there were concerns whether Xavier could compete, but they finished their first two seasons .500 or better in conference play. Chris Mack returns three starters in Trevon Bluiett, Myles Davis and Reny Abell, who were part of a team that made runs to the Big East tournament final and the Sweet Sixteen. They have to replace leading scorer Matt Stainbrook, but Jalen Reynolds looks ready to step into his role. This looks like a typical Xavier team, one that could go deep in March Madness.

Duane Wilson. Courtesy of zimbio.com
Duane Wilson. Courtesy of zimbio.com
  1. Marquette Golden Eagles (13-19, 4-14)

Postseason: None

Steve Wojciechowski had a rough first season as head coach, as the Golden Eagles finished under .500 for the first time since 1998-99. This team looks a lot stronger this year, even after losing leading scorer Matt Carlino. Wojciechowski was able to  bring in a top 10 recruit in forward Henry Ellenson, who will provide a strong physical presence down low with returning starter Luke Fischer. Ellenson will also help offset the losses of Juan Anderson and Steve Taylor Jr., Marquette’s top two rebounders last season. All Big East Rookie team member Duane Wilson is ready for a bigger role this season, and the back-court will be boosted by junior Jajuan Johnson and freshman Haanif Cheatham. Expect this team to contend for an NCAA Tournament berth.

Kris Dunn. Courtesy of friarbasketball.com
Kris Dunn. Courtesy of friarbasketball.com
  1. Providence Friars (22-11, 11-7)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Second Round

All Friars fan breathed a huge sigh of relief when guard Kris Dunn decided to forego the NBA Draft and return for his junior year. Dunn average 15.5 points and 7.5 assists per game on his way to an All Big East selection, and this year is a dark horse candidate for first team All-America and National Player of the Year. For Dunn to be in the running for those honors, his supporting cast will need to step up. The Friars lost leading scorer and rebounder LaDontae Henton and questions remain about who will surround Dunn in the starting lineup. Ben Bentil needs to have a breakout season after emerging near the end of last year, and coach Ed Cooley will also need forward Jalen Lindsey to play a bigger role. Dunn will have a huge season, but it remains to be seen whether it will end in March Madness.

James Milliken. Courtesy of Bleacher Report.
James Milliken. Courtesy of Bleacher Report.
  1. Creighton Blue Jays (14-19, 4-14)

Postseason: None

The Blue Jays fell hard in their first year without Doug McDermott, finishing under. 500 for the first time since the 1995-96 season. This is another rebuilding year for the Blue Jays, who return guards James Milliken and Isaiah Zierden but lose leading scorer Austin Chatman. Milliken and Zierden both averaged just under 10 points a game last year, but expect both to be in double figures this year. They got a huge boost when guard Maurice Watson Jr and forward Cole Huff decided to transfer Creighton. Watson is another playmaking guard and Huff gives them a scoring option down low. Don’t expect this team to make the NCAA Tournament, but the future looks bright for 2016.

Isaiah Whitehead. Courtesy of si.com
Isaiah Whitehead. Courtesy of si.com
  1. Seton Hall Pirates (16-15, 6-12)

Postseason: None

Last season it looked like the Pirates were finally ready to break through, starting 13-3 with victories over number 15 St. John’s and number six Villanova. But they collapsed down the stretch, finishing 3-12 and getting blown out in the first round of the conference tournament  by Marquette. Tension mounted during the slump, which resulted in freshman Jaren Sina leaving the team midseason and leading scorer Sterling Gibbs deciding to transfer to Connecticut.

Head coach Kevin Willard enters a make or break season, as the program has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2006. Willard returns second leading scorer Isaiah Whitehead, who is looking to play a full season after missing a month last year due to a stress fracture in his foot. They also get back leading rebounder and Big East Freshman of the Year Angel Delgado, who could average a double-double this season. Although Sina and Gibbs are gone, they were two of the Pirates worst defenders last year, so the team should be improved on the defensive end. If Willard can keep his team under control, it could save his job.

Billy Garrett Jr. Courtesy of NCSA Sports.
Billy Garrett Jr. Courtesy of NCSA Sports.
  1. DePaul Blue Demons (12-20, 6-12)

Postseason: None

There are three things certain in life: death, taxes, and DePaul finishing near the bottom of the Big East. The Blue Demons have 22-122 in conference play in the past eight years, including six straight last place finishes from 2008-13. After five miserable seasons under Oliver Purnell, the university brought in Dave Leitao, the last coach to lead the Blue Demons to the NCAA Tournament. They return three of their top four scorers from last year in Billy Garrett Jr, Myke Henry, and Tommy Hamilton IV, but lack an experienced point guard after Durrell McDonald transferred. This team could be better than recent DePaul teams, but that isn’t saying much.

Chris Mullin. Courtesy of New York Daily News.
Chris Mullin. Courtesy of New York Daily News.
  1. St. John’s Red Storm (21-12, 10-8)

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Second Round

To say head coach Chris Mullin’s first year is a rebuilding year would be an understatement. The Johnnies lost Big East First Team member D’Angelo Harrison, Defensive Player of the Year Sir’Dominic Pointer, as well as starters Rysheed Jordan, Phil Greene IV, and Chris Obekpa. This leaves Mullin without a player who averaged more than nine minutes a game last season. Alumni want Mullin to take the program back to the heights achieved when Lou Carnesecca roamed the sidelines, but it could take a few years for Mullin just to get his team to .500.

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