A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
NEW YORK — At this time five years ago, the Big East Conference, gutted after seismic conference realignment motivated by the millions of dollars in television contracts to be made in college football plundered a number of its founding members, was left with an uncertain future and without a permanent office space, working out of an office of a law firm in Times Square in year one of the league’s “rebirth.”
Five years, two national championships and many crow-eating doubters later, the Big East Conference is seemingly entering another golden age, though not one that can truly resemble the halcyon days of the conference back in the 1980s. Once again, the league goes into a college basketball season with the country’s defending national champion, as Villanova won their second championship in the past three seasons this spring. The Wildcats were one of six teams in the NCAA Tournament last season from the Big East, the fourth consecutive year the conference sent at least half of its 10 members to the Big Dance.
All this is to say that the demise of the league, predicted by a number of people who work in the college sports scene, was greatly exaggerated. Season six of the reconstituted league should be another thrill-a-minute campaign, though many of the teams in the league will be going through some sort of transition, as 19 of the league’s top 30 scorers having departed their respective schools. (Also, one of the two teams that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament from the Big East last season has to place its head coach.) But, given its recent history, there is no league more ready to bounce back from defections and facing doubts from experts than the Big East.
On Thursday Oct. 25, the league held its annual media day, and A Lot of Sports Talk was present at Madison Square Garden to talk with the players and coaches who will help form the storylines for this upcoming season. Below are capsules of each of the 10 teams in the league, ordered by our predictions on how the league will end up this season. Also included below are links that will take you to interviews done while at Big East Media Day, conducted by ALOST reporters Tyler Dudley, Adesina O. Koiki and Sarah Valenzuela.
1. VILLANOVA WILDCATS
It is quite possible that there are more question marks surrounding the Wildcats going into a new season than there have been in any season this decade. But with their head coach in tact, plus a couple of key pieces still in place from last year’s national championship team, how can you still not tab Villanova as the favorite to win another Big East championship?
As much as Jay Wright has been lauded for being a wonderful Xs and Os coach, what has made the Wildcats special – as well as national champions two of the past three seasons – has been the development of players not regarded as top-flight recruits into invaluable players who play their roles to perfection. In enough of those occasions, those role players have indeed become stars — and almost all of them now find themselves on NBA rosters — and, for this season, point guard Phil Booth may very well be next in line in that vain. Booth, who scored 20 points coming off the bench in the 2016 national championship game against North Carolina before missing all of 2017 due to injury, was a steady hand alongside the departed Jalen Brunson in the backcourt last season, averaging 10.0 points and producing an assist-to-turnover ratio of over 2-to-1 (95/45).
That is not to say that the Wildcats have not had super stars, and senior forward Eric Paschall, the one-time Mr. Basketball in the state of New York, is an emerging one, especially when taking in his performances from last year’s NCAA Tournament into consideration. In the two East Regional games in Boston, Paschall had 14 points in the win over West Virginia and followed that up with a 12-point, 14-rebound display in the Elite Eight win over Texas Tech. One game later, in the national semifinals, Paschall helped to blow the doors off of Kansas with 24 points on 10-of-11 shooting. As players such as Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo departed early for the NBA after last season’s title, it became clear, assuming that he did not bolt for the riches of the NBA as well, that Paschall was going to be the main man going into this season, a role he should thrive in given his past success in pressure-packed games.
Other returning role players such as guard Collin Gillespie and forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree should see their playing time and responsibility expand, and they’ll also be helped by a heralded recruiting class headlined by McDonald’s All-American guard Jahvon Quinerly.
2. PROVIDENCE FRIARS
With apologies to those who reminisce about the days of Ernie DiGregorio and/or Eric Murdock, these may very well be the halcyon days of Friar basketball, as Providence College is coming off its school-record fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance last season. Unfortunately, however, those five appearances have only yielded one NCAA Tournament victory, a buzzer-beating thriller over USC in 2016.
Making the Big Dance for a sixth season, all under head coach Ed Cooley, will be a challenge given that the team loses three integral starters to graduation: point guard Kyron Cartwright and wings Jalen Lindsey and Rodney Bullock. One of the team’s returning starters, shooting guard and preseason All-Big East First Team selection Alpha Diallo, proved his mettle as a sophomore, averaging 13.2 points and 6.6 rebounds and should see his scoring total rise this season. Providence was also a deep team last season, as players such as point guard Makai Ashton-Langford, sixth man Isaiah Jackson and center Nate Watson all logged important minutes last season, including during the Friars’ run to the Big East Tournament title game.
Two key additions, one via the prep route and one by return from injury, should allow the Friars to once again contend for a Big East championship. Senior forward Emmitt Holt, who missed all of last season due to an abdominal injury, is a skilled interior player who averaged 12.5 points and 5.4 rebounds in 2016-17, and was a nightmare for opposing centers because of his quickness despite being undersized at 6-foot-7. The Friars also got a commitment from one of the top high school guards in the country, David Duke, who led Cushing Academy (Mass.) to the AA New England Prep Championship as a junior.
3. MARQUETTE GOLDEN EAGLES
If you have not done so just yet, make sure that you go on YouTube and see highlights of Marquette sharpshooting guard Markus Howard from games played last year, and you’ll see why he is one of the players to watch nationally going into this season.
At 5-foot-11, Howard’s scoring prowess is even more to behold, as he was fifth in the conference at 20.4 points per game and shot over 40 percent from three. In a win last January on the road against NCAA Tournament-bound Providence, Howard exploded onto the national scene by scoring 52 points in the overtime victory. This season, all of the attention when Marquette takes the court will be on Howard, but the cupboard is far from bare in Milwaukee.
Steve Wojciechowski’s squad can spread the floor as well as anyone in the country, as junior guard Sam Hauser was third in the nation last season in three-point shooting, knocking down threes at a 48.7 percent clip. His brother, Joey, is a former top-50 high school recruit who will return to the team after missing most of last season after ankle surgery. Though the Golden Eagles lose Howard’s running mate in the backcourt, Andrew Rowsey, his likely replacement at the position, Fordham transfer Joseph Chartouny, might be an upgrade. The Quebec native was an All Atlantic-10 performer during his time in the Bronx and, last season, led the NCAA in steals with 97.
Even with the challenges that present itself during conference play, Marquette will not have to wait too long before it finds out how good of a team it is, as its non-conference schedule is one of the nation’s toughest. After opening the season against UMBC, the team that shocked No. 1 Virginia in the first 16-over-1 upset in NCAA Tournament history, Marquette also plays at Indiana, against Kansas and either Louisville or Tennessee in Brooklyn, plus plays host 2018 Elite Eight participant Kansas State, arch rival Wisconsin and MAC champion Buffalo, who returns almost its entire team from the one last season that blew out Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
4. BUTLER BULLDOGS
“The Butler Way” is the mantra that defines the school’s basketball program, continuing to emphasize the values of grit, hard work and sportsmanship at a school that normally does not get the top-flight recruits yet somehow continues to punch above its weight, no matter the conference affiliation and competition. Despite the massive personnel loss that it will suffer going into this season, including losing 2,000-point scorer Kelan Martin and the toughness inside of Tyler Wideman, the Bulldogs hope that the roster it has this year will once again be greater than the sum of its parts.
It does not hurt that the Bulldogs return one of the top guards in the Big East, as well as one of the more underrated guards in the country, in junior Kamar Baldwin, a unanimous Preseason All-Big East First Team selection. He saved some of his best games for the biggest stages last season: In an upset win over No. 1 Villanova on Dec. 30, 2017, Baldwin stuffed the stat sheet with 19 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two steals (He also went for 25 in the return game in Philadelphia as the Bulldogs came very close to sweeping the season series from the Wildcats.); In the Big East Tournament first-round game against Seton Hall, Baldwin exploded for 32 points; and in the Bulldogs’ first-round win over Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament, he amassed 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
Another piece of good news for LaVall Jordan’s Bulldogs is the experience that this roster possesses, as six returning players averaged at least 15 minutes per game last season. Of those players, expect guard Paul Jorgensen (10.2 points per game), three-point specialist Sean McDermott (7.5 points, 3.9 rebounds) to increase their production. The development of returning center Nate Fowler will also be important, as he is expected to man the pivot after being a reserve last season, and Butler’s history of having serviceable big men inside (e.g. Matt Howard, Wideman) has been crucial to the program’s ascent over the past decade.
5. ST. JOHN’S RED STORM
The good news about St. John’s basketball is that, after a tough first couple of seasons under head coach and basketball legend Chris Mullin, there are high expectations for the Johnnies going into this season, and living up to them will quickly make them one of the top stories in the No. 1 media market in the country.
Now, can the Red Storm actually live up to those expectations?
The Red Storm, picked to finish fourth in the Big East preseason poll at Big East Media Day, received a big boost in the offseason when dynamic guard Shamorie Ponds decided against leaving school for the NBA to return to Queens. Ponds was selected as the Preseason Player of the Year in the conference, and his performances after coming back from injury last season leave no doubt of the talent he possesses. In one of the greatest weeks in the history of the school, Ponds scored 33 points in a win at Madison Square Garden against then No. 4 Duke, then followed up that performance with 26 points in a St. John’s road win against then No. 1 Villanova and, finally, capped off that eight-day span by scoring 44 in a win at Carnesecca Arena against Marquette. As long as the 6-1 Ponds is healthy all season long, St. John’s can be a threat to any team nationally.
St. John’s also must prove once more that it is not a one-man show, and guard Justin Simon (12.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.3 steals) and forward Marvin Clark II (12.5 points) did their share of being capable supporting cast members as Ponds was going off. The Red Storm’s expectations increased even higher just a couple of weeks back, when former Auburn guard Mustapha Heron, the leading scorer on a Tigers team that won the SEC regular-season championship last season, was granted a legislative relief waiver by the NCAA to be eligible this year to play for the Red Storm.
6. CREIGHTON BLUEJAYS
Outside of the scads of NBA talent that Villanova lost from last year’s national championship team, there was probably no team hit harder by defections going into this season in the Big East than the Creighton Bluejays, who must replace productive scorer Marcus Foster and a dynamic two-way player in wing Khyri Thomas. One of the best home courts in the Big East and in the country may not be so intimidating this season, given the personnel the Bluejays lost.
But, almost always, Creighton makes it work, especially under head coach Greg McDermott. The Bluejays have won at least 20 games in 18 of the past 20 years, with McDermott being in charge for the last eight seasons in Omaha. His time at Creighton, outside of the years he had his son, Doug, on the roster, has been spent taking Creighton teams that may not have been predicted to finish at the top of the league and consistently punch above their weight. McDermott has also been a master at developing players who were under the radar, and that was the case last season when center Martin Krampelj came out of relative obscurity to average 11.9 points and 8.1 rebounds before his season ended with a knee injury in mid-January. Krampelj relayed to A Lot of Sports Talk that his knee is 100 percent, and a return to form is crucial to keeping the Blue Jays near the top of the league standings yet again.
Another player who should step up his production from last season is guard Davion Mintz, who led the Big East last season in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.8. Much more of a playmaker in the past few years, Mintz will need to increase his 6.1 points per game stat from last season, and will be helped by the presence of sophomore Mitch Ballock, who made the Big East All-Freshman team after averaging 7.3 points while playing in the most minutes per game (21.7) that a Creighton freshman has played since 2008.
7. XAVIER MUSKETEERS
If there is any school in basketball that can call itself the cradle of coaches, Xavier is definitely on the short list. Starting with Pete Gillen in the 1980s, a succession of head coaches have continued to keep the Musketeers as one of the top programs in the country, from the late Skip Prosser to Thad Matta to Sean Miller to Chris Mack. Mack, who led the Musketeers for nine seasons and, in 2017-18, to the school’s first-ever No. 1 seed in their NCAA Tournament history, has left the Cincinnati coop, taking the head job at Louisville at the end of last season.
In steps former assistant Travis Steele, who hopes to continue that rich coaching lineage for the Musketeers. Year One promises to be a big challenge, with the Musketeers losing lots of firepower from last year’s squad, including All-Big East selections Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura, as well as Kerem Kanter. The team’s biggest strength lies in their backcourt, as junior point guard Quentin Goodin, who averaged 8.7 points and 4.9 assists last season, has been asked to play key minutes since his freshman season. In his freshman season, guard Paul Scruggs came on at the very end, scoring in double figures in three of the team’s last five games. Those two players also well be aided by the addition of graduate transfer Kyle Castlin, a productive Ivy League performer during his time at Columbia.
In the frontcourt, Naji Marshall joined Scruggs as an impressive-looking freshman, and he finds himself as an All-Big East Honorable Mention selection going into this season. Another player with promise inside, as well as experience, is Tyrique Jones, who averaged 7.0 points and 4.5 rebounds while starting 19 games. His conditioning has been a concern with the Xavier coaching staff, but Jones has shed weight going into this season so the Musketeers can see him on the floor for longer stretches.
8. DEPAUL BLUE DEMONS
DePaul has found its time in the Big East rough in the past few years, and, given the league’s depth, a meteoric rise up the standings does not look like it is in the cards for this season. However, an increasing amount of talent that continues to be amassed at DePaul is causing this prognosticator to think this is the year the Blue Demons start to make their move up the Big East ladder.
Despite the losing, 6-foot-6 senior guard Max Strus looked the part of an All-Big East performer and an NBA prospect, scoring 16.8 points per game last year, a mark that was good for 11th in the conference. Strus teamed up in the backcourt with three-year starter Eli Cain, who burst onto the scene as a freshman with his three-point prowess and now comes into this season leading all active players in the Big East with 194 assists in conference games.
DePaul’s productive backcourt will get another powerful addition from Illinois transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands, who sat out last season. Coming from the national prep power La Lumiere (Ind.), Coleman-Lands averaged 9.1 points in his two seasons in Champaign while shooting 40.2 percent (158-of-393) from three-point range. The Blue Demons also return promising sophomore guard Devin Gage, who missed most of last season after injuring his Achilles.
9. GEORGETOWN HOYAS
In his second season as head coach of his alma mater, Patrick Ewing will try to turn a young roster that he had last season that took its share of lumps when it got into conference play and turn it into a battle-tested squad that hopes to contend for an NCAA berth. The road back to glory for the Hoyas is helped immensely by the return of center Jessie Govan, who averaged a double-double of 17.9 points and 10.0 rebounds last season. Sometimes, the 7-foot Govan can fall in love with the jump shot, so if the Hall of Fame big man in Ewing can continue to develop Govan’s low-post game, the latter can vault into the discussion of being Big East Player of the Year before this year’s season is through.
Part of the Hoyas’ rebuilding last season centered around forward Jamorko Pickett and guard Jahvon Blair, two players who made their way onto the Big East All-Freshman Team last season. Like last season, Georgetown’s non-conference schedule should afford it to build confidence – and a lot of wins – though there are games at Illinois and Syracuse on the docket before January.
What Georgetown fans may be most excited about coming into the season is the debut of freshman guard – and YouTube sensation – Mac McClung, whose high-flying displays at his high school games in Virginia and in the summer basketball circuit has the hype machine cranked up a few notches awaiting his arrival.
10. SETON HALL PIRATES
Seton Hall basketball, thanks to the legendary trio of point guard Khadeen Carrington, wing Desi Rodriguez and double-double machine Angel Delgado, is back on the college basketball map, making three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and, in 2018, winning an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2004.
But how long will it stay on the map? That’s the question now as each of those players have now graduated, and coach Kevin Willard embarks on what has to be deemed as a rebuilding year. That said, the Pirates do have a cornerstone to build around in shooting guard Myles Powell, last season’s most improved player in the conference. Providing a long-range threat over the past couple of seasons, Powell averaged 15.5 points last season and made 94 three-pointers in 2017-18.
To take some pressure off of the attention that Powell will get from opponents this season, Seton Hall needs to get positive contributions and consistency out of a couple of transfers, guard Quincy McKnight and center Taurean Thompson. McKnight, while at Sacred Heart in 2017 as a sophomore, led the Northeast Conference in scoring with an 18.9 average and was an All-NEC First-Team selection. Thompson, at 6-11, is a transfer from Syracuse who showed glimpses of his immense talent under Jim Boeheim when averaging 9.2 points as a freshman.