It’s never too soon to talk college basketball.
With the recent news of Oklahoma and Texas attempting to leave the Big 12, it seems an appropriate time to appreciate the Big East’s growing strength and stability. Coming off a year in which the conference had more Sweet 16 participants than the Big 12, Big 10, and ACC, multiple programs are shaping up for an even stronger 2021-2022. Below, we’ll explore the offseason moves for each program, including transfers, late recruits, and seniors returning, and give them each a grade.
It is a make-or-break year for Xavier Head Coach Travis Steele. In three seasons, Steele is yet to reach an NCAA tournament and has not had a Big East finish better than 9-9. Last year may have been the most disappointing yet, as his Musketeers stormed off to an 8-0 start, including a 22 point win over Oklahoma, only to drop 13 of their final 24 for a 7th place conference finish.
With so much riding on 2021-2022, Steele has knocked it out of the park this offseason. He managed to get both of his starting guards, seniors Paul Scruggs and Nate Johnson, to use their 5th year of eligibility. Scruggs was a second-team All-Conference performer a year ago while Johnson was second in the conference in 3 point percentage before his year was cut short with a leg injury. The Musketeers also held onto junior Zach Freemantle, a second-team All-Big East forward; sophomore Colby Jones, an All-Freshman team guard; and junior KyKy Tandy, a quality scoring guard who pulled his name from the portal when Scruggs decided to return.
Most importantly, Steele won in the transfer portal. He lost starting center Jason Carter to Ohio but massively upgraded the position with the addition of senior Jack Nunge. Nunge averaged 7 points and 5 rebounds per game behind Luka Garza at Iowa last year and showed real flashes of being an elite stretch big. His presence will allow Freemantle to have the room inside he needs to make a run at Big East Player of The Year.
This one is pretty simple. Villanova’s off-season starts and ends with the surprise returns of senior guards Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels. While it appeared as though last year’s Sweet Sixteen run would be the final act for two of the best players in recent program history, they are back for one more. Gillespie, who went down with a season-ending injury last February, will look to win back-to-back Big East Player of The Year awards for the first time since Providence’s Kris Dunn in 2015 and 2016.
Outside of the two-star guards, Jay Wright also gets back 5th year senior Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, a high ceiling big man who missed all of last year due to injury. He will be able to slot in for Jeremiah Robinson-Earl who has decided to keep his name in the NBA Draft. The Wildcats only lost one rotation player to the portal in senior forward Cole Swider and a fairly strong recruiting class should be able to fill his minutes.
The continuity Villanova achieved this offseason is what makes them such big winners. Next to Gillespie and Samuels, they return junior guard Justin Moore and senior guard Caleb Daniels who each should be double-figure scorers in a high octane offense. It is the same old Villanova and based on recent history that is a good thing.
Butler cannot be blamed for wanting to ignore their 2020 season. Their COVID shortened year was littered with key injuries and multiple stoppages. They had freshmen playing huge minutes and were without their star guard Aaron Thompson for long stretches.
The good news for Coach Lavall Jordan’s team is that everyone is back for another run; this time with the massive addition of redshirt freshman Scooby Johnson who missed all of last year due to injury. Jordan was able to persuade four seniors, Thompson, guard Jair Bolden, forward Bryce Nze, and forward Bo Hodges, to return for their 5th year. He did this while not losing any of the excellent freshmen that stepped up last year. Top of that list is All-Big East freshman team member Chuck Harris who led the team in scoring and looks to be a real All-Conference contender for 2021-2022. Jordan also brought in graduate forward Ty Groce from Eastern Michigan who averaged 15 points per game in a competitive MAC.
The one question is if Jordan did enough to elevate this roster back toward the top half of the conference. His lack of moves in the portal shows confidence that with one year of development they can indeed take that step.
St. John’s Red Storm:
The player that many believed should have won last year’s Big East Player of the Year award is back for Mike Anderson and St. John’s. The junior forward should strike fear in the hearts of his Big East rivals and join sophomore guard Posh Alexander to form what might be the most prolific one-two punch in the entire conference. Champagnie’s surprise return was an absolute game-changing off-season win. He’ll be favored to win POY and puts St. John’s in real tournament contention.
The Red Storm also did a fairly good job in the portal. They lost senior forward Marcellus Earlington and senior guards Greg Williams Jr., and Rasheem Dunn to mid-majors but found replacements that may be more productive. First is Rutgers transfer guard Montez Mathis. Mathis started 23 games last year for a good Rutgers team and should contribute immediately. They also added junior center Joel Soriano from Fordham who nearly averaged a double-double in his sophomore season. Senior guard Stef Smith from Vermont and redshirt junior forward Aaron Wheeler from Purdue should also provide important depth.
Again, Champagnie’s return is everything for St. John’s, and with the other additions, Anderson’s staff can be very content with a productive offseason.
Seton Hall Pirates:
It has been quite a complicated offseason for Kevin Willard and the Pirates. Let’s start with the positives. Willard brings in one of the strongest transfer classes in the country headlined by former Syracuse sophomore guard Kadary Richmond. Richmond was a 4-star recruit out of high school and looked dynamic in stretches during his first year at Syracuse. He should slot in at point guard from the jump, a position Seton Hall struggled at last year after the loss of the graduated Quincy McKnight. Additionally, they added Alexis Yetna from the University of South Florida to try and fill the massive shoes of reigning Big East POY Sandro Mamukelishivli who left for the professional ranks. Senior Jamir Harris, a 20 point-per-game scorer and first-team All-Patriot League selection last year, also joins the roster. He’ll play next to Big East POY candidate Jared Rhoden who will return for his senior season. With this class and the returns of guards Myles Cale and Bryce Aiken for their extra seasons, there is no doubt Seton Hall will have second-weekend aspirations in the NCAA tournament.
The lone negative for Willard’s offseason has nothing to do with the roster yet has huge ramifications. Last week, it was reported that Myles Powell, the only player in program history to win both Big East POY and first-team All-American honors, is suing the program for allowing him to play on a torn meniscus his senior season. While it may not have a tangible impact on the team for next year, the impact on recruiting and retaining big-time players will certainly be felt. In a year in which his number should be raised into the rafters, Powell will now loom over this team in a far more ominous way.
It appears (unfortunately) that UConn is here to stay at the top of the Big East. Dan Hurley’s squad had a similar offseason to Butler and Villanova in that their strength lies with continuity. Despite the massive loss of All-Big East guard James Bouknight to the NBA Draft, the Huskies bring back two dominant senior big men in Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley. They also have a remarkably strong sophomore class returning featuring forwards Adama Sanogo and Akok Akok, and guard Andre Jackson.
The lone unanswered question is if senior guard RJ Cole is ready to fill the shoes of Bouknight. UConn was silent in the portal signifying confidence that he can. If they can find scoring on the roster then Hurley’s complacency becomes well-designed patience, if not it will be a massive missed chance with a super talented cast of players.
Guess who is back…
Yes, Nate Watson is returning to Providence for his 5th year season although I could easily be convinced it is his 10th. The big man is immediately on the shortlist for Player of the Year in the conference and is the basis for most of the optimism around Providence’s offseason. He is joined by forward Noah Horchler, a key contributor from a year ago, who will also use his extra season.
The loss of both David Duke to the NBA draft and Jimmy Nichols Jr. to the portal hurt Ed Cooley’s squad, however. Duke leaves a massive scoring and playmaking hole similar to Bouknight at UConn. The Friars’ answer to that problem was bringing in 5th-year guard Al Durham. Durham started last year for Indiana and joins the Friars as their most important addition from the portal. Forward Justin Minaya also comes to Rhode Island after a season averaging 8 points and 6 rebounds in a tough SEC at South Carolina. He should form a quality partnership with Watson.
The additions aren’t the most exciting in the conference but should keep Providence competitive and pesky as always. It’s the Ed Cooley way.
DePaul Blue Demons:
The Dave Leitao era has come to a merciful end in Chicago. In his place, DePaul brings in Tony Stubblefield from Oregon. While many have questioned the hire, it appears to be a shrewd one. Simply, DePaul needs to thrive in the transfer portal to become remotely competitive again in the Big East. The perennial basement dwellers have been surpassed in resources and allure in the traditional recruiting scene. This makes bringing in an assistant that dominated the portal for Oregon a sensible move.
Stubblefield has already flexed his transfer portal skills bringing guard Jalen Terry with him from out West. Terry will be tasked with filling the shoes of DePaul’s lone bright spot last season, Charlie Moore, who moved on to Miami. The Blue Demons also added forward Brandon Johnson from Minnesota who made the decision to swap the projected worst team in the Big 10 for the worst in the Big East.
The roster may not be ready to compete right now but Stubblefield has them heading in the right direction. It is going to be a long rebuild, but success feels possible for the first time in a long time.
It is finally time to talk about the Hoyas. Before jumping in I’d like to reiterate the criteria. These ratings are exclusively offseason focused: Xavier is not my favorite to win the conference, and Georgetown’s outlook is far brighter than this grade.
Patrick Ewing’s teams are no stranger to turnover and the exits this offseason ensure that will again be the case. Seniors Jamorko Pickett, Chudier Bile, and Jahvon Blair all will not use their extra years of eligibility and instead will pursue professional careers. To make matters worse, star sophomore center Qudus Wahab left the program to join Maryland.
However, Georgetown has picked up some exciting pieces from the portal. Junior center Tre King averaged 15 points and 6 rebounds on his way to first-team all Ohio Valley Conference honors. Additionally, senior wing Kaiden Rice averaged 17.6 points per game for The Citadel. Those two will immediately be asked to fill big roles alongside senior guard Donald Carey who returns to the Hilltop. Dante Harris also comes back for his sophomore year with a real chance at an All-Big East team selection.
Ewing will be relying on the work he did on the recruiting trail prior to the offseason as forward Aminu Mohammed headlines an exciting class of freshmen that will be tasked with big responsibilities. There are certainly a lot of questions about the roster but there is equal room for optimism.
Marquette Golden Eagles:
It was past time for Marquette to say goodbye to Steve Wojciechowski. The long-tenured coach simply could not get this Marquette program to where the fans expected them to be. In Wojo’s place, Shaka Smart joins the Golden Eagles. Smart is an upgrade and immediately showed his recruiting prowess this offseason. He added two four stars this spring for the upcoming year in forward David Joplin and guard Emarion Ellis. He also brought in former four-star forward prospect Olivier-Maxence Prosper from Clemson. Most crucially, Smart grabbed guard Darryl Morsell, who leaves Maryland after winning BIG 10 Defender of the Year.
These additions are much needed as the exodus of talent out of Wisconsin was immense. Seniors Koby McEwen, Theo John, and Jamal Cain chose to use their extra year of eligibility elsewhere. More importantly, guard DJ Carton and forward Dawson Garica, the core pieces of their 2020-2021 season, each elected to move on from the program. Carton will turn pro while Garcia entered the portal late in the spring and joined UNC.
The huge amount of talent leaving the program renders the recruits and coaching upgrade insignificant in the short term. Therefore, while the overall prospects of the program are starting to look up this off-season may be one to forget.
Creighton Blue Jays:
It is hard to feel sympathy for Creighton’s offseason woes after the instance of racism and lack of accountability within the program at the end of last season.
Head coach Greg McDermott’s comments have to be heavily considered when discussing the offseason personnel losses. Forward Damien Jefferson and guards Marcus Zegarowski and Mitch Ballock all have decided to stay in the draft and not use their extra year of eligibility. Additionally, forward Christian Bishop has left the program to join Chris Beard at Texas, and 5-star recruit Ty Ty Washington decommitted. To make matters even worse, the Blue Jays missed on their bigger transfer targets. They do bring in forward Ryan Hawkins from NW Missouri State who led Division Two in scoring last year; however, it must be said that the D2 to D1 jump is mighty hard to make.
The saving grace for Creighton’s offseason comes with the late commitments of two 4-star prospects Mason Miller and Arthur Kaluma. They will be asked to contribute immediately alongside 5th-year senior guard Alex O’Connell and sophomore big man Ryan Kalkbrenner.
After years at the top of the Big East, this offseason could signify a downturn for Creighton. It will be up to their leadership to regain control of the program and find ways to succeed again.
With each program assessed it’s time to hand out some final individuals awards that hopefully won’t look too dumb until at least mid-December.
Best Incoming Transfer: Kadary Richmond, Seton Hall
Best Returning Underclassman: Chuck Harris, Butler
Best Returning Upperclassman: Julian Champagnie, St. Johns
Best “Super Senior” (5th year): Paul Scruggs, Xavier
Best Offseason: Xavier Musketeers