Big East expert picks, 2019-20 preview: Villanova will have to fend off challenges from Seton Hall and Xavier

USATSI

After Big East powerhouse Villanova took two national titles in a three-year span, the storied conference took a step back in 2018-19. Last season wasn't as strong of a showing–while four Big East teams (Villanova, Marquette, Seton Hall and St. John's) made the NCAA tournament in 2019, none made it past the second round. A true national contender never really emerged and the rest of the conference lacked any spark.

This season should look a little different, with the top spot no longer looking like a given for the Wildcats. Seton Hall is poised to take a big step forward, as is Xavier in Travis Steele's second season at the helm. The Big East is bringing in an influx of talent in the form of both freshman and ton of transfers to go with a number of notable returning names, which means competition within the conference should be tougher than last season. A better post-season showing is certainly expected (the league landed at 1-4 in last year's tournament) as the Big East trends back toward the strength it showed three or four years ago.

With middle-tier teams also trending toward top-tier talent and a few at the bottom of the barrel looking to finally move on up, the overall depth of the Big East should be better than last season, where not one Big East team finished in the top-25 in KenPom's rankings by the time the dust settled in April.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Marquette
Marquette's Markus Howard is the CBS Sports Big East Preseason Player of the Year USATSI

CBS Sports Preseason Player of Year

Markus Howard, Marquette

What Markus Howard lacks in size and brute strength he makes up for with a scoring ability that is sheer insanity. After averaging 25.0 points and 3.9 assists in 2018-19 while shooting at a 40.3% clip from deep, the Golden Eagles' golden child lost his two strongest teammates when brothers Sam and Joey Hauser departed for Virginia and Michigan State. With the Hausers went Marquette's preseason potential top-10 landing spot and most of Howard's offensive support, but the 5-foot-11 floor general will have an even greater opportunity to showcase his elite shooting skills during his senior season without the duo on the floor alongside him. The Golden Eagles' only legitimate shot-creator, Howard is expected to put up even more impressive numbers this season as Marquette's go-to-guy once again. A few more 40-point halves for Howard as he leads this team and he's likely to land the conference's top honor over Seton Hall's Myles Powell.

CBS Sports Preseason Coach of Year

Kevin Willard, Seton Hall

Entering his tenth season at the helm of the Pirates' program, Kevin Willard might finally be able to push entrenched power Villanova out of the Big East's top spot this season–if he can maximize the talent he brings back this season led by Myles Powell, who opted to return for another season rather than turn pro. Given the scare Seton Hall gave the Wildcats during last season's conference championship game and the sheer number of returners Willard has to work with on his roster, the veteran coach should be set up to take the award outright.

CBS Sports Preseason Freshman of Year

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova

With an Eric Paschall-sized void to fill on the floor, Villanova is expecting the headliner of Jay Wright's incoming recruiting class, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, to make an instant impact in the Big East this season. The 6-9 freshman boasts a reliable combination of strength and athleticism that should showcase well on a still-rebuilding Wildcat squad. He's effective in traffic, has a decent midrange game and a developing 3-point shot to go with the boost he'll bring on the boards for Villanova. The five-star forward is a physical presence with a proven ability to get to the basket who should flourish once a bit of Wright's wisdom is imparted on him.

Big East predicted order of finish

1


Jay Wright's top two scorers–seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall–are gone from last season's Big East regular-season championship squad, but the Wildcats should still wind up atop the conference thanks to the return of  three starters and their top reserve in addition to an incoming top-5 recruiting class led by five stars Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Brian Antoine. Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and breakout star Saddiq Bey are all back and poised to take significant steps forward with the incoming influx of talent that will surround them. 
2


The return of potential conference player of the year Myles Powell (who averaged 23.1 points per game last season while shooting 36.3% from deep) to South Orange, New Jersey, for his senior season solidified the Pirates as legitimate Big- East title contenders. Powell's decision means Seton Hall is bringing back nine of their top 10 rotation players from last season and eight of the team's top nine scorers. They also add 7-foot big man Ike Obiagu, who is finally eligible to help on the inside after sitting out last season following his transfer in from Florida State. 
3


The Musketeers won seven of their final nine regular season games last season under first-year coach Travis Steele after a shaky 3-8 start in Big East play. Their showing down the stretch combined with the return of four of Xavier's starters, including Second Team All-Big East selection Naji Marshall, has seriously raised expectations for 2019-20.
4


The Friars were another program to get a key returner back in Alpha Diallo, a go-to scorer for Providence and one of the Big East's best defenders. Diallo's decision came shortly after head coach Ed Cooley announced he'd be returning to the team for a ninth season after considering the Michigan job for a minute in May. 
5


The Bluejays managed to win 20 games last season (including two NIT games) and tied for third in league standings despite expectations that they'd finish in the lower half of the league. From last year's overachieving underdogs, Creighton returns four starters led by junior wing Ty-Shon Alexander (the team's leading scorer), sophomore point guard Marcus Zegarowski and junior forward Mitch Ballock, the latter of whom both had rock solid seasons in 2019-20, which means Greg McDermott get backs the bulk of his team's offensive production. 
6


The departure of brothers Sam and Joey Hauser did some serious silencing of the early spring talk that Marquette had Final Four potential for this upcoming season. The former Big East favorite does, however, still bring back sharp-shooter Markus Howard, who decided to return for one more year. Howard is heralded as perhaps the most explosive scorer in college basketball and will be called upon to carry this team even more this season without the team's No. 2 and No. 3 top scorers (the Hausers) alongside him anymore.
7


Things are looking up for Year Three of the Patrick Ewing Era after an encouraging 2018-19 showing. The Hoyas' freshman class stepped up last season (read: Mac McClung, James Akinjo and Josh LeBlanc–all Big East All-Freshman honorees) and Georgetown returns an exciting young core with plenty of talent to take them a bit further this year. Georgetown will also have a now-eligible seven-footer up front in former NC State big man Omer Yurtseven, who should help make up for the loss of leading scorer Jessie Govan. 
8


Last season wasn't Butler's best. The Bulldogs were the only team in the Big East to finish with an overall record below .500, entering this season fresh of off only their second losing season since 2005. There's hope, however, for a rebound in the form of top-100, four-star guard Khalif Battle and 7-1 grad transfer Derrik Smits (Valparaiso). In his third season, LaVall Jordan will try to fit better pieces around star Kamar Baldwin, who is back for his senior season.
9


DePaul has struggled mightily in recent seasons but this year might just be the year they don't land at the *very* bottom of the Big East thanks in large part to the arrival of Michigan's Mr. Basketball, Romeo Weems. The Blue Demons have finished last in the conference for three consecutive seasons and nine out of the last 11 seasons but Weems might be the answer they're looking for, especially as coach Dave Leitao begins to rebuild in light of the graduation of the team's top-three scorers from last season.
10


The Red Storm had a bit of a tumultuous offseason after sneaking into an NCAA First Four game down the stretch (and then losing). Gone are star guard Shamorie Ponds and Big East Defensive Player of the Year  Justin Simon to the NBA and a trio of transfers from last season's tournament team. Add in the turmoil that came with coach Chris Mullins stepping down and former Arkansas coach Mike Anderson stepping in and St. John's is in for, at the very least, a transitional season in Queens–even with Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa back.

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