The 2020 Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament stopped at halftime of the first game in the quarterfinal round, with ninth-seeded St. John’s leading top seed Creighton 38-35. The Big East remained competitive until the very last cancellations due to the pandemic, and it figures to pick up right where it left off for the 2020-21 men’s basketball season. This is projected to be one of the top conferences in the nation, with all eleven teams ranked in the Top 100 by KenPom. Traditional powerhouse UConn makes its return after a seven-year hiatus in the American Athletic Conference where it never truly fit. With all this being said, the Big East is headed for another exciting season with high-level competition all around. Let’s get into my preseason predictions.
I will save my bolder predictions for further down the list because there’s not much to be said for the top. Villanova is the top team in this conference, and they will enter the season a favorite to be in the Final Four. With the notable exception of forward Saddiq Bey, most of the roster returns intact. Senior guard Collin Gillespie will continue to lead this team as one of the best floor generals in the country, capable of scoring efficiently from the outside and distributing the ball effectively. Sophomore forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is one of the contenders for the Big East Player of the Year. He will be looking to build on a phenomenal freshman season, where he averaged 10.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, and prove he is ready for the leap to the pros. With the return of 5-star sophomore guard Bryan Antoine, this team is a force to be reckoned with. Did I mention that their head coach Jay Wright is a two-time national champion? No further commentary necessary on him.
Player to watch: Sophomore guard Justin Moore.
With all that being said about Gillespie and Robinson-Earl, Moore brings yet another dimension of shooting to this Villanova squad. He filled in admirably for the injured Antoine and shot nearly 40% from three, playing better as the season progressed. Moore is a weapon in Villanova’s deep arsenal, and it would be a mistake to cheat off of him this season.
Another player in the discussion for Player of the Year is junior guard Marcus Zegarowski, who leads a deadly Creighton offense. The Bluejays anticipated Ty-Shon Alexander’s departure to the next level, and while he will leave a hole on defense, there are several players who can help fill the scoring void. Senior forward Denzel Mahoney, the 2020 Big East Sixth Man of the Year, will be called on to provide buckets in the starting lineup after averaging 12 points a game off the bench. Zegarowski (42.4% from three) and senior guard Mitch Ballock (43.5% from three) can shoot the lights out, allowing Creighton to spread the floor and run teams out of the gym under head coach Greg McDermott’s design.
Player to watch: Freshman center Ryan Kalkbrenner.
Though Creighton is more than proficient on the outside, they have struggled defensively in the last few seasons. Kalkbrenner, a four-star recruit, looks to help them in the middle with his shot-blocking ability and length in the low block. With freshman guard Rati Andronikashvili out for the season due to an ACL injury, look for Kalkbrenner to step into a prominent role for the freshman class.
The Huskies finally return to their home, and they bring a squad with rising expectations and tournament aspirations. Sophomore forward James Bouknight leads the charge, averaging 13 points per game last season with a 19.9 Player Efficiency Rating (PER). He is another pro prospect looking to impress the scouts and show he can make the leap. Sophomore forward Akok Akok will provide toughness in the middle, and head coach Dan Hurley’s incoming freshman class is just as impressive. Top-100 center Adama Sanogo and top-50 forward Andre Jackson headline the class looking to make an impact right away.
Player to watch: RS junior guard R.J. Cole.
At Howard University, Cole built himself into one of the nation’s most explosive scorers, averaging 22.5 points per game in the MEAC while running the show as the primary ball-handler. Lightly recruited out of high school, Cole worked hard to the point where high-major programs were fighting for him to transfer, effectively turning the tables. In front of a national audience, look for Cole to complement Bouknight as a scorer and bring veteran leadership to this ascending team.
4. Seton Hall
In the last five seasons under head coach Kevin Willard, Seton Hall has finished no worse than third in the Big East. Willard has done a masterful job molding Seton Hall into a physical team, and they will be in position again to compete with the Big East’s best. The loss of 2020 Big East Player of the Year Myles Powell dampens the outlook a little for the Pirates, but they return a strong core including fully healthy senior center Sandro Mamukelashvili and senior forward Myles Cale. Graduate transfer Bryce Aiken will be an impact player and their go-to scorer from the jump, and the Pirates should still contend with his production.
Player to watch: Junior forward Jared Rhoden
When Mamukelashvili went down due to injury last season, Rhoden stepped in admirably. He showcased his outstanding energy and bounce, leading the Pirates in rebounding (6.4 per game) on a team with a 7-footer while averaging close to double figures in scoring. Rhoden is the type of player anyone would love to have on their team, and he figures to be an important contributor for Seton Hall.
This might seem like a high placement due to the fact that the Friars will be losing four starters including standout guard Alpha Diallo. But, any Ed Cooley team will not stay down for very long. Providence ended their last season on a six-game winning streak in the Big East, and I would not be surprised to see them continue their momentum. This time, it will have to be junior guards David Duke and A.J. Reeves who lead the charge. Both are talented scorers who can get to the basket and distribute the ball well. They will be joined by sophomore guard Brycen Goodine, who transferred from Syracuse and received a waiver to play immediately. With a talented stable of guards, the Friars are in position to make up for their losses and compete with the best in the Big East.
Player to watch: Senior center Nate Watson
We know Watson can dominate in the low block. Physically imposing at 6-10 weighing 250 pounds, he showed his stuff in his sophomore season, averaging 11.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. He lost some playing time last season due to forward Kalif Young, but he figures to add a physical dimension to complement the guard play around him. If Watson dominates on a consistent basis, look out.
Some may expect the Golden Eagles to be down after losing the nation’s top scorer and the Big East’s all-time leading scorer in guard Markus Howard. I wouldn’t be so quick to write Marquette off. Losing guard Sacar Anim and forward Brendan Bailey won’t help matters, but underestimating any team coached by Steve Wojciechowski is a serious error. Marquette boasts the #1 recruiting class in the Big East this year, headlined by top-40 forward Dawson Garcia and top-100 forward Justin Lewis. Another highly-touted newcomer is sophomore guard D.J. Carton, who averaged double figures at Ohio State and is eligible to play immediately. If these talented new pieces can mesh together well and redshirt senior guard Koby McEwen can have a bounce-back year, Marquette will have an offense as good as any in the Big East, save Creighton.
Player to watch: Senior forward Jamal Cain
We’ve all known that Jamal Cain can shoot the lights out (career 40.2% from three). This season, we will find out if he can do it on a more consistent basis. With more catch-and-shoot opportunities coming off the bench due to Howard’s departure, Cain will be key in delivering energy into the game. Making sure that teams have to account for him can also open up more opportunities inside for the freshmen forwards and force opponents to pick their poison.
I’m not sold on Xavier as I am on Marquette and Providence. With the departures of junior forward Naji Marshall and senior forward Tyrique Jones, the already offensively-challenged Musketeers lost their top two scorers and a bit of their identity. There is too much talent on this roster for me to rank them lower, and I am sure they will still play great defense under head coach Travis Steele. Senior guard Paul Scruggs will have to assume a leadership role and someone else will also have to step up in the scoring department. The most likely candidates are sophomore guard KyKy Tandy and sophomore forward Zach Freemantle, who emerged towards the end of the season as viable scoring options.
Player to watch: Freshman guard Dwon Odom
The Musketeers are expecting the top-60 freshman to make an impact right away. He brings a high level of athleticism and great finishing ability, attributes that can definitely help Xavier generate buckets offensively. We know that Xavier will always bring it defensively, and if Odom can help them draw fouls and get easy buckets, the Musketeers can very well outperform this ranking.
8. St. John’s
This is my sleeper team because any team coached by Mike Anderson will have a chance to win any game. Anderson employs a “40 Minutes From Hell” strategy from his mentor Nolan Richardson, and we saw the Red Storm implement this towards the end of the season. The loss of leading scorer L.J. Figueroa to Oregon certainly hurts offensively, and so the Red Storm will rely on senior guard Rasheem Dunn to build on his progress from last season as a scorer (11.9 points per game). Sophomore forward Julian Champagnie is perhaps the most underrated player in the conference. He led St. John’s in rebounding as a freshman, averaging 9.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He is a high-energy, hardworking player who gives defenses fits and I would not be surprised to see him on an All-Big East team this year.
Player to watch: Junior forward Marcellus Earlington
It seems like all my players to watch are either pure scorers off the bench or bouncy players that give teams a jolt. Earlington is probably the very definition of the latter, averaging 9.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per game while averaging 18 minutes. He led the Red Storm in efficiency last season with a 20.8 PER, and we will see if he can maintain such marks in an expanded role. St. John’s will be a tough out for anyone and Earlington is a big reason why.
Similar to Xavier, I am a little bearish on Butler. I think that there is a significant leadership void with the departures of senior guard Kamar Baldwin, senior forward Sean McDermott, and junior forward Jordan Tucker. Those three players combined for over 53% of Butler’s scoring last season, and several players will have to step up for the Bulldogs. Senior guard Aaron Thompson will be a steady distributor, but it will have to be up to redshirt senior forward Bryce Nze and junior forward Bryce Golden to pick up the scoring. We do know that LaVall Jordan will emphasize the fundamentals and Butler will rarely make mental errors, but will it be enough to overcome their losses?
Player to watch: Graduate guard Jair Bolden
Bolden will be an important piece in terms of leadership impact as well as on the court play. He played well at a high-major program in South Carolina, shooting 41.2% from deep, and he will have to help Thompson get their offense going. If he can help facilitate to Nze and Golden and remain an outside threat, Butler will outperform this prediction.
As we know, the Hoyas went through unbelievable trials and tribulations last year. Their story did not have a triumphant end, but we learned a lot about the character of the men who stayed. Any team coached by Patrick Ewing will fight like hell, and you cannot question their resolve and drive. The fact remains that four players graduated and another five transferred elsewhere, and with a shortened practice time, integrating all the new pieces will not be easy. Georgetown will rely heavily on senior leadership from forward Jamorko Pickett and guard Jahvon Blair, as well as continued growth from sophomore center Qudus Wahab. If Pickett can be more consistent, Blair can be more efficient, and Wahab can protect the rim, Georgetown will be far more competitive than people are giving them credit for. The team’s keys to success are to limit the turnovers offensively and utilize different defensive coverages to counter the pick-and-roll. Ultimately, defensive improvements would be a welcome sign of progress, and that is what the Hoyas should focus on.
Player to watch: Graduate guard Don Carey
Georgetown has relied heavily on graduate players in recent years, with Greg Malinowski and Terrell Allen playing admirably the last two seasons. Carey looks to continue that trend as a veteran coming home to provide leadership and solid minutes in any role Ewing may need. Carey averaged 11.3 points per game while shooting 38.2% from three at Siena, and the Hoyas hope he will bring poise and stability to a group that has had turnover in the last few years. An underrated aspect of Carey is his intelligence. He already has enough credits to graduate after three years of college, and it’s clear he fits into Georgetown’s idea of a student-athlete.
It appears that DePaul is headed towards another difficult season. They lost two of their top three scorers in forward Paul Reed and guard Jalen Coleman-Lands. Even with a future NBA prospect in Reed, the Blue Demons finished 3-15 within conference play last season, and it will be an uphill battle this year. Senior guard Charlie Moore must cut down on the turnovers (3.5 per game last season) while still being an effective scorer and facilitator. Most importantly, sophomore forward Romeo Weems will need to become a greater consistent threat on offense to carry the team as they had envisioned it. Head coach Dave Leitao will also need one of the role players to step up, otherwise he may be on the hot seat.
Player to watch: Senior forward Jaylen Butz.
As a big man, Butz has big shoes to fill with the departure of Paul Reed. He will have to be more consistent on the glass as well as becoming a reliable option down low. Butz has always shown flashes, including a brilliant game against Northwestern last season where he dropped 24 points and 8 rebounds. If Butz can put it all together this season, DePaul may yet have a chance in this treacherous conference.
All statistics courtesy of Sports Reference.