Big East basketball preview: Top players, teams

By Tim Murray  (VSiN.com) 

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Last year was a reminder of how challenging it is to navigate an 18-game Big East schedule. Seton Hall, Creighton and Villanova finished 13-5, and Providence was one game back at 12-6. This season the Big East adds another quality team, welcoming back Connecticut. Danny Hurley’s squad has some talent, but the top two teams this season are clearly Villanova and Creighton. Despite the loss of the Big East player of the year, Saddiq Bey, Villanova is primed to make another run at a national championship.

The Wildcats might have the most complete starting lineup in the country. Before the shutdown, Creighton started to hit its stride, winning 11 of its final 13. Marcus Zegarowski was named the preseason Big East player of the year, and Mitch Ballock can light it up from beyond the arc. Similar to Villanova, the Bluejays will need to replace a big-time player in Ty-Shon Alexander (16.9 ppg). The Big East drops off after Villanova and Creighton, but the middle is solid. No team in the conference might have lost more than Seton Hall with the departures of Myles Powell, Quincy McKnight and Romaro Gill. Sandro Mamukelashvili will need to rise up, and Kevin Willard’s team will hope Harvard grad transfer Bryce Aiken can stay healthy. Markus Howard put up the production of three players at times, and Marquette must replace him. The Golden Eagles have the preseason Big East newcomer of the year in 6-11 Dawson Garcia plus Ohio State transfer D.J. Carton. James Bouknight is a big-time player and can help UConn make noise in its return to the Big East. The Huskies also add Howard transfer R.J. Cole to the backcourt. Cole scored over 1,500 points in two seasons and was the 2018-19 MEAC player of the year. After a tough offseason with unexpected departures and the death of legendary coach John Thompson, Georgetown will likely be the worst team in the Big East in Patrick Ewing’s fourth season as coach at his alma mater. 

 

Top 10 Players

  1. Marcus Zegarowski, Junior, G, Creighton
  2. Collin Gillespie, Senior, G, Villanova
  3. James Bouknight, Sophomore, G, Connecticut 
  4. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Sophomore, F, Villanova
  5. Mitch Ballock, Senior, G, Creighton
  6. Sandro Mamukelashvili, Senior, F, Seton Hall
  7. Justin Moore, Sophomore, G, Villanova
  8. Paul Scruggs, Senior, G, Xavier
  9. Denzel Mahoney, Senior, G, Creighton
  10. Charlie Moore, Senior, G, DePaul

 

  1. Villanova: The Wildcats might be the most talented team in the country. Collin Gillespie and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl are two of the top players in the Big East, and expect contributions from Justin Moore. After sitting out last season, Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels (16.9 ppg in 2018-19) will play a big role off the bench. Jay Wright’s squad could win its third national title in five years.
  2. Creighton: The Bluejays are a top-10 team entering 2020-21. Marcus Zegarowski was picked to win Big East player of the year but is not the only talented player on the roster. Mitch Ballock is a 3-point specialist, and Denzel Mahoney had some big games down the stretch. Creighton is one of the most talented offensive teams in the country.
  3. Connecticut: Welcome back to the Big East, UConn. Danny Hurley’s team will be led by talented guard James Bouknight, who averaged 15.3 ppg in AAC play last season. Howard transfer R.J. Cole will add a solid punch in the backcourt. If Akok Akok (2.6 blocks per game) can return from an Achilles’ tendon injury by New Year’s Day, UConn could be interesting come March.
  4. Seton Hall: The Pirates lost Myles Powell (Big East player of the year), Romaro Gill (Big East defensive player of the year) and Quincy McKnight (11.9 ppg and 5.4 apg) but still will be competitive. Kevin Willard’s team will need seniors Sandro Mamukelashvili and Myles Cale to step into bigger roles. If Harvard grad transfer Bryce Aiken can stay healthy, he will be a solid contributor. Aiken averaged 22.2 ppg for Harvard in 2018-19 but took a medical redshirt last season due to a foot injury.
  5. Providence: Led by one of the top coaches in the country, Ed Cooley, the Friars will have to replace over 50% of their production. Alpha Diallo is gone after leading Providence in scoring and rebounding. David Duke (12 ppg) and St. Joseph’s transfer Jared Bynum will compose a very exciting backcourt. 
  6. Marquette: The Golden Eagles have no way to replace the production of Markus Howard, who averaged 27.8 points per game last year and finished with 2,761 points in his career. The only player on the roster who averaged double figures last season is D.J. Carton, who scored 10.4 ppg at Ohio State. Marquette might have the most talented freshman in the Big East in 6-11 Dawson Garcia. 
  7. Butler: The Bulldogs lost three starters from a 22-win team. Senior Aaron Thompson (7.2 ppg) will be expected to take a bigger role offensively. South Carolina grad transfer Jair Bolden will be Thompson’s backcourt running mate. F Bryce Nze will be a solid frontcourt contributor for the defensive-minded Bulldogs. 
  8. Xavier: The Musketeers will be looking to replace over 30 points per game with the departures of Naji Marshall and Tyrique Jones. Paul Scruggs (12.7 ppg) will be expected to shoulder the bulk of Xavier’s production. Travis Steele’s squad is waiting for word from the NCAA about Hampton transfer Ben Stanley. The 6-7, 235-pound forward averaged 22 points per game last year and would be a big boost to Xavier.
  9. St. John’s: After a 17-15 first season for Mike Anderson, the Red Storm took a big hit when leading scorer LJ Figueroa transferred to Oregon. Anderson will be expecting PG Rasheem Dunn to take a big step forward. Dunn led the Red Storm in assists and was third on the team in scoring. St. John’s added a pair of juco All-Americans to a frontcourt that returns four contributors. The Red Storm won’t likely be dancing in March but could be a tricky out in the Big East. 
  10. DePaul: Despite going 3-15 in Big East play, the Blue Demons showed some promise by defeating Xavier in the Big East tournament and finishing 94th in kenpom.com’s metrics, their best finish since 2007. The big question is: Who can help Charlie Moore? He averaged 15.5 ppg and 6.1 apg last season while playing 35.6 minutes per game. The Blue Demons added Monmouth transfer Ray Salnave (14.5 ppg and 36% on 3-pointers) and Valparaiso transfer Javon Freeman-Liberty (19.0 ppg and 6.1 rpg). Freeman-Liberty is awaiting word from the NCAA about immediate eligibility. 
  11. Georgetown: Patrick Ewing’s fourth season at his alma mater could be tough. C Omer Yurtseven (15.5 ppg) turned pro, and G Mac McClung (15.7 ppg) transferred to Texas Tech. Jamorko Pickett and Jahvon Blair will have expanded roles, while 6-6 F Chudier Bile, a transfer who averaged 14.3 ppg at Northwestern State, will have to make a big impact.
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