The last few years have seen a dramatic change in the outlook for the Big East. Long the undisputed powerhouse of NCAA basketball, the famous conference had been the spiritual home of many of college basketball’s best rivalries. Nowadays, with the breakup of the old Big East, the days of yore have passed. Villanova and Creighton were the only teams in the conference to contend nationally last season, illustrating the extent to which the conference has declined. Now, in its second year, the reorganized conference is looking to force its way back into the mainstream of NCAA basketball.
1. Villanova Wildcats
Why I’m optimistic: Villanova returns the core of a team that finished 29-5 last season and was quite possibly the strongest team in the conference. They finished 14th in the country according to Kenpom.com’s comprehensive analysis of college basketball, and this preseason they are ranked ninth. The Wildcats lost leading scorer James Bell, but otherwise have plenty of options moving forward. Junior guard Ryan Arcidiacono is back as the team’s metronome and offensive leader, while senior guard Darrun Hilliard could be the elite floor spacer any national contender requires. The Wildcats might not be true champions yet, but they are, without a doubt, one of the top 15 teams in the country.
Why I’m not: Everything went right for Villanova last season, but an early NCAA tournament exit and a few humiliating losses to Creighton showed revealed previously unseen weaknesses. They are a well-balanced team with a chance to be great, but a target on the team’s proverbial back means that conference rivals will look to exploit some of those same deficiencies.
Bottom Line: Last year at this time, I predicted that the Wildcats would surprise many. Their relative continuity and impressive free throw rate from two years ago meant they were worth a few surprises. This season, it’s easier to foresee greatness from the Wildcats. Villanova is the overwhelming favorite to win the conference, and should make a deep tournament run. There is no reason to doubt them.
2. Georgetown Hoyas
Why I’m optimistic: Junior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera took a huge step forward last season, becoming one of the best scorers in the Big East. The Hoyas also secured one of the strongest recruiting classes in the country in Isaac Copeland, L.J. Peak, Paul White, and Tre Campbell. Copeland could play small forward like former Hoya Jeff Green. L.J. Peak is a great athlete with a lot of potential, but is still raw. He has a chance to be a real difference-maker in the future.
Why I’m not: Last year, Georgetown was not a good basketball team. The Hoyas defense was almost nonexistent, so they were stuck playing in the halfcourt all too often. Despite reinforcing a squad that only lost former talisman Otto Porter Jr., they lost their leading scorer, rebounder, and passer in the span of a few months. Nobody on the current team appears to be a legitimate rim protector who can shore things up defensively, and there are few proven scorers on the roster.
Bottom Line: Georgetown will be a talented and well-coached team this season, but they are probably a year away from being a real contender. That being said, the potential for a sudden turnaround exists. For all the optimism, there is only one proven offensive player on the roster in Smith-Rivera. For every scenario where Georgetown makes a deep tournament run, there are two more in which they struggle to improve on last year’s disaster.
3. St. Johns Red Storm
Why I’m optimistic: Senior guard D’Angelo Harrison is the backbone of a St. John’s unit that should hold its own in the Big East. Junior forward Chris Obekpa still has a limited offensive skillset, but is an undeniably gifted defensive player. He’ll contribute to what is already a cohesive defensive unit last year. With strong senior leadership, and all the hype in the world, this is going to be a do-or-die year for the Red Storm.
Why I’m not: This team was an unmitigated disaster offensively last year. St. John’s really does not have any system at all, letting its best players chuck the ball whenever they want. Chris Obekpa is partially to blame since he basically forces St. Johns to play 4-on-5 every possession. However, the biggest problem seems to be that head coach Steve Lavin has no idea how to coach a basketball team. The head honcho is a great recruiter who is good at getting through to young players, but he hasn’t paid any attention to whether or not his team can put the ball in the basket or not.
Bottom Line: St. Johns is once again a great team on paper, but it remains to be seen if they can really make the most of it. They are probably an NCAA Tournament team considering they are just way too talented. However, it seems unimaginable that they will actually live up to their billing. Expect St. Johns to be a tough team to play on a night-to-night basis, but not a serious threat to win the conference.
4. Xavier Musketeers
Why I’m optimistic: Xavier is almost always a respectable team and this year should be no different. The Musketeers boast no superstars and are a fringe NCAA Tournament team, but they have a ton of seniors and the most depth in the Big East. They won’t be spectacular, but they’ll certainly be a tough opponent. Senior center Matt Stainbrook is an excellent player. Xavier made the Tournament last season, so their goal is to make a reappearance at the Big Dance.
Why I’m not: Former Musketeer Semaj Christon was by far the best player on this team, but made the questionable decision to leave for the NBA before his time in Cincinnati was officially over. Xavier isn’t particularly impressive on either side of the ball and are relying on players who haven’t proven themselves. They won’t play a single preseason ranked team outside of Villanova, meaning that they will have to really beat up on some inferior play if they are to make a strong case for their inclusion in the NCAA Tournament.
Bottom Line: The Musketeers are a decent team. Not bad, but not particularly good either. They’re good enough to pose a challenge in the Big East tournament, but they probably won’t go anywhere nationally. They’re the quintessential average team.
5. Providence Friars
Why I’m optimistic: Providence will rely on senior forward LaDontae Henton to make a major impact in the Big East. Although he’s a quality player who can score and rebound the ball at a very high level, Henton won’t be able to do it all alone. This ranking is based on the belief that sophomore guard Kris Dunn is the real deal. Dunn came into college as one of the best prospects in the country, but has struggled to stay healthy. Dunn is the kind of guard who can change the calculus for a team. If he’s fully fit, the Connecticutian can take this team to a higher level.
Why I’m not: Key players Bryce Cotton and Kadeem Batts graduated last year, leaving Providence in total flux. At times, this team will struggle to succeed. Cotton was one of the very best players in the country last year. He brought dynamic ability that Providence will struggle to replace.
Bottom Line: Providence might not be a great team, but they sure are interesting. Dunn is an immensely intriguing player whose athletic ceiling has yet to be reached. It’s possible that this team overperforms and makes the NCAA Tournament, but anything more than that would, frankly, be a miracle.
6. Creighton Bluejays
Why I’m optimistic: There are a number of good veterans who will be returning for Creighton that have a good chance to continue the Bluejay tradition of quality. Head Coach Greg McDermott is one of the very best tacticians in the Big East and has always been able to turn decent Creighton units into over-performers. Most people doubted Creighton would be as strong as they were in 2013-2014, so dont be surprised if they is punch above their weight again this season.
Why I’m not: Former Bluejay sharpshooter Doug McDermott might have been the best player in the country last year. He picked up a lot of the team’s slack, but he’s gone. Nobody on this team is a real difference maker, so it’s hard to imagine that they will be any kind of good this year.
Bottom Line: This is clearly a rebuilding year for Creighton. They are probably good enough to avoid the bottom of the conference this season, but it’s hard to imagine that they will achieve anything notable.
7. Seton Hall Pirates
Why I’m optimistic: Isaiah Whitehead. Isaiah Whitehead. Isaiah Whitehead. The freshman guard is a special talent, capable of making a major impact in the NBA someday. If he elects to stay at Seton Hall, he’ll be a game changer for the next few years. Unfortunately for Seton Hall, that’s literally it.
Why I’m not: Most of this team graduated last season. Apart from Whitehead, there isn’t much to discuss. They’re going to lose a ton of games. But they’ll be a lot of fun to watch as it happens.
Bottom Line: Whitehead? Whitehead. There just isn’t any other reason to watch Seton Hall this season.
8. Marquette Golden Eagles
Why I’m optimistic: For starters, don’t expect too much too soon. Former head coach Buzz Williams left suddenly and now Marquette is stuck with Steve Wojciechowski, a longtime assistant under Coach K. Wojo, as he’s more affectionately known, could be a good coach who has at least proven his ability to recruit. However, it’s likely to be a rough year for the Golden Eagles.
Why I’m not: Many people (including me) pegged Marquette as the clear favorite to win the Big East last season, yet things have only gone downhill. Wojo is a promising head coach, but he has huge shoes to fill. It’ll be a real uphill battle for Marquette.
Bottom Line: Marquette isn’t totally hopeless, but there are far too many problems, and nowhere near enough solutions.
9. Butler Bulldogs
Why I’m optimistic: Just keep reading.
Why I’m not: Head Coach Brandon Miller’s health problems might be a non factor for a more talented squad, but Butler aren’t that squad. They are not a talented team to begin with, and their season is probably going to ultimately defined by Miller’s possible absences.
Bottom Line: This year won’t be about the basketball. There is so much chaos here that Butler’s season may be over before it even starts.
10. DePaul Blue Devils
Why I’m optimistic: Chicago is quite nice this time of year.
Why I’m not: This team is unspeakably terrible. They’re awful every year. Somehow, they’ll find a way to be more awful than usual.
Bottom Line: It’s amazing that a team in Chicago can’t recruit anyone decent. Seriously, has anyone noticed how odd this is?