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Big East contenders closing fast on Villanova

Greg Peterson
VSiN.com

November 11, 2017 10:44 PM
Jay Wright, coach of Villanova
Villanova coach Jay Wright will try to win the Big East again, but this time he's without Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins.

Things went as expected throughout most of the regular season in the Big East as Villanova won the league and was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Things did not go the conference's way in March, with the lone exception being Xavier, which went to the Elite Eight despite nearly missing the dance after losing six straight games in February.

Villanova has taken some losses from last season that could put winning the regular-season crown for a fifth consecutive year in doubt. Kris Jenkins, who made the shot at the buzzer to give the Wildcats the 2016 NCAA championship, is gone. Josh Hart, the Big East Player of the Year, is also gone.

Their departures will leave it up to the lone returning starter from the national championship team, Jalen Brunson, to take control of the offense. Brunson did a solid job at the point last year with averages of 14.7 points, 4.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds while hitting nearly 38 percent of his 3-point shots.

The team also watched 6-foot-7 wing Mikal Bridges go from just a defensive stopper to a player who can add some offense, as well. He had 9.8 points per game as a sophomore and will need to continue to build on those numbers for coach Jay Wright's crew to be successful.

Donte DiVincenzo made up for lost time last year as he was injured when the team won the title. He became an effective forward for the squad with 8.8 points and 3.7 rebounds off the bench while converting 36.5 percent of his triples. His numbers dipped during Big East play, but he averaged 18 points in the NCAA Tournament and had the dramatic tip-in to lift Villanova over Virginia in one of the most exciting games of the regular season.

The team should have a healthy Phil Booth, who played just three games last year before being ruled out for the season due to knee inflammation. He averaged seven points per game as a sophomore in 2015-16, saving his best for last with a career-high 20 points in the title game versus North Carolina.

The big unknown for Wright is how much 6-foot-5 freshman wing Jermaine Samuels, the team's top-rated incoming freshman, will contribute. The team also has a 6-foot-9 ESPN-rated four-star recruit in Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who could become the team's next designated rebounding specialist.

The Wildcats will take a step back from where they have been the past few years, likely dipping to a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Creighton looked like a team early in the season that could make a lot of noise in March, but things came crashing down when point guard Mo Watson tore his ACL in late January. From there, the Bluejays were essentially a .500 team and were bounced from the NCAA first round by Rhode Island.

Key departures put the pressure on senior Marcus Foster to have a big season. He was dynamic last year with 18.2 points and 2.4 assists per game. The Bluejays should have enough to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.

Seton Hall had a bit of an inconsistent 2016-17 season but was awarded a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament last year thanks to a five-game winning streak that spanned the end of the Big East conference slate into the conference tournament.

Khadeen Carrington was the team leader last year as a junior with 17.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 2.9 assists per game. His main source of help in the backcourt is also back as Myles Powell played a sixth-man role and had 10.7 points per game as a designated scorer while taking 6.2 3-point attempts per game. Angel Delgado is bringing his 15.2 points and NCAA-high 13.1 rebounds per game back to campus for another year.

To put Seton Hall atop the Big East might be getting a bit carried away, but this team is loaded and returns over 90 percent of its scoring and rebounding from a year ago. This should be a Top 25 team in line for a 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Marquette made the NCAAs last year for the first time since the 2013 big dance. The Golden Eagles rode perimeter shooting, topping the nation with a team 3-point shooting percentage of 42.9.

The team returns most of the most lethal 3-point shooters, including Markus Howard, who made just under 55 percent of his 3s while averaging a team-high 13.2 points as a freshman. Of qualified players, he had the top 3-point shooting percentage in the country.

Marquette has several players who received some solid seasoning last year but also has to absorb a lot of losses.

Butler made a run to the Sweet 16 last year before being ousted by eventual champion North Carolina, but coach Chris Holtmann's June departure to Ohio State left the program in a precarious spot. It is former Butler player LaVall Jordan now in charge after he got Wisconsin-Milwaukee to within a game of the NCAA Tournament despite the Panthers finishing last in the Horizon League.

Jordan inherits a much better program than he did in Milwaukee. He will coach one of the best forwards in the nation, Kelan Martin, who led the team with 16 points and 5.8 rebounds and came off the bench in the last 12 games of the year for the good of the team.

This has the feel of a down year for the Bulldogs, who figure to be sweating on Selection Sunday.

Xavier went from sneaky to a Top 10 team to being a team that might miss the NCAA Tournament to an Elite Eight squad all in the span of four months last season.

The loss of sophomore guard Edmund Sumner hurt the team when he went down with a torn ACL in January, but losing Trevon Bluiett is what really put things over the top for the team's struggles. With him healthy, though, the team had a completely different dynamic as he averaged 25 points per game in its three NCAA Tournament wins over Maryland, Florida State and Arizona.

Bluiett is back for his senior year after posting season averages of 18.4 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting over 37 percent from 3. He will be joined  in the backcourt by J.P. Macura, who contributed 14.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.4 steals per game as a junior.

Coach Chris Mack will likely roll with 6-foot-4 sophomore Quentin Goodin at the point as he received 19 starts a year ago due to the injuries to Sumner and Bluiett. He was a poor shooter last year, making just 35 percent of his shots and 25.5 percent of his 3s, but his 3.4 assists per game made up for his poor shooting.

Xavier has four ESPN-rated four-star recruits entering the program. The Musketeers have the talent to make another run in March.

Providence managed to get to the NCAA Tournament last year despite not having a single contributing senior on the roster.

Rodney Bullock, a 6-foot-7 forward, became the team’s most dominant player as he netted 15.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. He tested the NBA Draft process, but ultimately is back on campus for his senior year. Emmitt Holt, who left the Indiana program under a dark cloud, also stepped up and was a force in the paint. He accounted for 12.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game of production last year to give the team one of the best low-post combos in the conference.

Providence has a golden opportunity to challenge for one of the top spots in the conference. The team has stars, depth, versatility and experience. The pieces are in place to be a Top 25 team.

Georgetown is coming off back-to-back losing seasons and fired coach John Thompson III to try to change the culture. Hoyas legend Patrick Ewing is now in charge of the program and has quite a mess to mop up as the team has had two straight seasons of 18 losses.

Ewing lured two graduate transfers to help in the short term with Gregory Malinowski coming over from William & Mary and Trey Dickerson from South Dakota. Departures mean 6-foot-10 center Jessie Govan and 6-foot-7 Marcus Derrickson will have to be the leaders of the program. This team likely will suffer a third straight losing season, so it would probably be in Ewing's best interest to give his young guys some minutes and start building for the future.

It was another rough year for coach Chris Mullin at St. John's with the team going 14-19, but the Red Storm showed improvement in Big East play. The team went just 1-17 in league play during the 2015-16 season and improved that mark to 7-11 season. With impact transfers eligible this year, Mullin's rebuild might have the tools to get this program back to prominence.

Former Arizona guard Justin Simon is ready to roll, and he should be able to provide a young and exciting backcourt some added pop after Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett combined to average 33.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.9 assists as freshmen. The team also adds a 6-foot-6 forward in Marvin Clark, who provides some 3-point shooting as he made 36.4 percent of his 3s while playing in the Big Ten, but he could never seem to get consistent minutes at Michigan State.

Clark should make a good one-two combo with 6-foot-7 wing Bashir Ahmed, who had 13.4 points and 5.5 rebounds while making 35.4 percent of his 3s. Federico Mussini was the team's sixth man, making 42.7 percent of his 3s and pouring in 8.2 points per game. Seven-foot Zach Brown was rated by ESPN as a four-star prospect and should be a big man who can play immediately. 

St. John's is likely a year away from the big dance, but Mullin has this train back on the track and chugging along in the right direction. The Red Storm has a chance to get to .500 in the Big East.

That leaves DePaul, which went 9-23 last season and has won three games or fewer in Big East play in eight of the past nine seasons. The hope of coach Dave Leitao is that a young backcourt can carry the team back to respectability.

The Big East does not have a dominant team, as Villanova has taken a step back, but this conference has Elite Eight contenders with Xavier, Seton Hall, Villanova and Providence. Butler is the conference's biggest unknown. The overall outlook for the conference is as bright as it has been since realignment occurred a few years ago.

Greg Peterson’s Big East Conference forecast:
1. Villanova
2. Xavier
3. Seton Hall
4. Providence
5. Creighton
6. Marquette
7. Butler
8. St, John's
9. Georgetown
10. DePaul

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