Big East expert picks, what you need to know: Villanova leads rising conference
This is one of the four or five conferences that got significantly better
This is year No. 4 of the newly aligned, 10-team Big East. The past three seasons have seen the conference send an average of five teams to the NCAA Tournament. It would be a shock if the Big East doesn't put at least that many into the Big Dance once again. Villanova is the reigning national champ. Xavier could actually be better this season than it was last. Georgetown is set for a huge rebound year, and Creighton's got two of the six or seven most valuable players in the league. At the bottom, even DePaul and St. John's are set up to be stronger than a year ago.
Most leagues don't truly get undeniably stronger top to bottom from one season to the next. There are 32 conferences, and in a given year you might have four or five leagues at most who can boast a true rise in the tide. The Big East fits that description this season. Even teams like Providence and Marquette, which lost first-round draft picks and won't be as strong, still set up to be threats to crack the top half of the conference.
(Below you'll find everything you need to know about the Big East -- including our predictions for conference Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and Coach of the Year, all-conference teams, as well as our predicted order of finish and a scouting report including strengths and weaknesses, X-factors and projected regular-season win totals for each team.)
Player of the Year
Josh Hart, Villanova
A do-it-all player for Villanova, he's seen as a preseason All-America candidate and a player who's come into his own throughout his career. Hart could be a threat for a couple of triple-doubles this season, too. He's got a great supporting cast, and if the Wildcats do indeed win the league, then he's the clear-cut favorite to win POY. Few guys in college basketball have the combination of smarts and toughness that Hart does.
Freshman of the Year
Shamorie Ponds, St. John's
St. John's needs offense. Ponds gets wet. His stroke is great, and he'll be asked to pour it in for the Red Storm. You look around the Big East, and right now not a lot of teams need their freshmen to put up numbers. The Johnnies are an exception. He should have a big year and set up a critical third season, a year from now, for Chris Mullin in Queens.
Coach of the Year
Jay Wright, Villanova
I have Villanova winning the league -- by a game, basically -- over Xavier. Too often the coach-of-the-year mindset winds up giving a guy the award because expectations are low. Occasionally, if the target is on your back and you come through anyway, then yeah, you deserve the honor. Nova's going to run the gamut this season, take some shots and lose some tough games. But it's going to almost certainly be a top-three seed. It should be atop the Big East standings. Wright feels like the right pick, especially when you consider he'll have the challenge of tutoring Jalen Brunson to replace Ryan Arcidiacono.
All-Big East team
G: Edmond Sumner | Xavier | Sophomore
G: Josh Hart | Villanova | Senior
G: Trevon Bluiett | Xavier | Junior
F: Kris Jenkins | Villanova | Senior
F: Kelan Martin | Butler | Junior
Predicted order of finish
(Teams listed in consensus predicted order of finish)
I could rattle off 10 things here, but I do think Jay Wright has the right temperament for this group. Nova is going to don a target on its back all year, and you know Wright will keep the ship steady. There will probably be a surprising loss or two, but I still think this team will get to March as a top-five odds-on favorite. Too much talent and experience on the bench not to keep the Wildcats among the sport's best (barring injury) as we start the march to March.
Weakness: Offensive rebounding
It's the one thing Villanova did not do with any reliability last season, and now Daniel Ochefu is gone. Darryl Reynolds will not be the presence Ochefu was, either, so I'd anticipate Nova being lethal in execution, making and taking the right shots.
X-factor: Jalen Brunson
Brunson's an X-factor, a breakout player, and he plays a vital role. Nova's loaded with these types of guys. Hell, Nova's loaded period. But Brunson's the five-star point guard who quietly did his thing last year. He's not going to have the massive pop from frosh to soph year like Grayson Allen did at Duke, but he will be in the orbit of what Allen did. Brunson will wind up as a top-three player of importance for Villanova this year, right behind Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. He takes over running the offense, and I think he'll flourish.
Projected regular-season win total: 25
Nova is the best team in the conference. You know the personnel. Let's look at the schedule. In terms of league play, Nova's gone 16-2 three straight seasons. Let's just knock that down to 15 wins for 2016-17. That means we need to get to 10 wins out of league. OK, so here's where those wins will come: Lafayette, Western Michigan, UTEP, Wake Forest, Charleston, at Penn, La Salle, Saint Joe's, Temple and American. That leaves room for a loss against Notre Dame and a loss against Virginia, which will be a home game for Nova. Twenty-five wins, at least -- bank on it.
Unpredictable positive production from a rotating cast member every game. They have five guys who can step up and be the stud on any night -- Edmond Sumner, Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Myles Davis and incoming transfer RaShid Gaston. In a lot of ways, this year' Xavier team will remind you of last year's Nova team.
Weakness: In search of a true point guard
Chris Mack's team will have ballhandlers and playmakers, but Davis, Sumner and Quentin Goodin are all just a tad shy of being true 1s. I can't find much else to be a glaring weakness about this roster. Sumner might become a star this season. There's a whole lot to like in Cincinnati.
X-factor: How it responds to a tough non-conference schedule
Chris Mack doesn't schedule scared. The Musketeers will face at least two of these teams in the Tire Pros Invitational (formerly the Puerto Rico Tip-Off): Oklahoma, Clemson, Northern Iowa, Davidson, Arizona State and Tulane. The first four mentioned have solid chances at being NCAA tourney teams. Then Xavier and Northern Iowa -- perhaps for a second time -- on Nov. 26.
It then hosts a solid North Dakota State team, travels to Baylor and follows up that road game with a home tilt against respectable Utah. The annual rivalry game with Cincinnati is dropped in the middle of league play, too. Xavier should have a better team, on the whole, than the group that got a 2 seed last season. But it might wind up "losing" its way to a 3 seed with how tough the schedule is. More coaches should schedule like Mack.
Projected regular-season win total: 24
The X men should be better than last season, when they were a No. 2 seed. But Chris Mack was ambitious with his non-conference scheduling, so I think the Muskies get nipped a few times prior to January. It would genuinely shock me if Xavier doesn't finish in the top two in the league. Given its strength of schedule and the projected stature of the Big East, a 4-seed is the absolute floor for this group.
Strength: Two top-40 players
Mo Watson Jr. and Marcus Foster provide Greg McDermott with a terrific 1-2 attack in the backcourt. Creighton's going to have an offense that comes close to matching the efficiency of Doug McDermott's senior season. Watson's a better all-around player than Foster, but Foster will be a threat to take over games. Don't forget how good he was at K-State.
Weakness: Offensive rebounding
No Big East team was worse than Creighton last season when it came to crashing the offensive glass. And the Bluejays will need to find ways to get better at it, because 7-footer Geoffrey Groselle has graduated. This could absolutely wind up being the drawback that prevents Creighton from being a week-to-week Top 25 team.
X-factor: Khyri Thomas
The Bluejays are projected by many people to be a top-30 team. Thomas shot 42 percent from deep last year -- but he averaged less than two 3-pointers per game. If that doubles -- and it should since Thomas is now a sophomore and will average more than 20 minutes -- Creighton's going to have threats on the floor in Foster, Cole Huff, Watson Jr., Thomas and Isaiah Zierden.
Projected regular-season win total: 23
This will be a good regular season for Creighton, but when you hear about what a huge turnaround it could be, remember that Greg McDermott's team did finish with 20 wins last season. Still, it will be a big jump. The Paradise Jam field (Washington State, NC State, Montana, Oral Roberts, Saint Joe's, Ole Miss and Loyola) offers up some interesting challenges, but none of them register as better than Creighton right now. The non-conference slate isn't that tough. Creighton will probably win at least one of its two road tilts at Nebraska and Arizona State.
Strength: Not turning the ball over
Butler was ranked seventh in the country last year when it came to holding on to the ball. If you could give coaches a magic wand and say their teams could always -- or never -- do one thing, outside of the obvious choice of never missing a shot or getting every single rebound, the answer would be never turning the ball over. Turnovers are wasted possessions and they wind up costing teams anywhere from 10-30 points in a game. When you have a group that is responsible, it just makes the game so much easier.
Weakness: Where's the bench production?
Chris Holtmann got by last season by using his bench just a quarter of the available minutes. That's not a lot. The norm for college hoops teams is around 33 percent. Butler has a thin roster yet again. That will present problems, as Butler is Butler, so it will be physical. Smart, but physical. I'm expecting the Bulldogs to encounter issues with sitting Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman late in first halves due to foul trouble.
X-factor: Not relying on Kelan Martin to be another Roosevelt Jones.
Roosevelt Jones was unlike any player college basketball's had in the past 10 years. He had an old-man game -- and it was an ugly game. But he was smart, efficient, tough to the bone and absolutely vital to Butler throughout his career. The team was better whenever he was on the floor. This year, Butler's best player is Martin, but he's a different kind of player than Jones. He has more natural talent. He's also not the leader Jones was. Butler will need to win by committee while letting Martin take his cues. It's a different dynamic this season, one we haven't seen since Brad Stevens left.
Projected regular-season win total: 18
The Bulldogs have some interesting talent and a player I love in Kelan Martin, but the schedule is not simple. I think BU -- which won 22 games a season ago against the 50th-toughest schedule -- has a rougher go of it in part because of road games against Utah and Indiana State, plus a neutral-court matchup against Indiana and testy challenges against Vanderbilt and Cincinnati.
Strength: Making free throws
The Hoyas made 75 percent of their freebies last year, a clip any coach in the country would sign up for. That's likely to continue as most of Georgetown's roster is back this season.
Weakness Giving up free throws
You want to put your opponents on the line as little as possible, obviously. For every two field goals attempted last season, Georgetown allowed one foul shot. That's a miserable ratio (49.3 percent), third-worst in the country.
With the loss of D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, the Hoyas lack an important veteran piece. But last year, GU ranked 245th in turning the ball over and 283rd in forcing turnovers. Those numbers will need to pop into the top 150 if Georgetown is to make a run in this league and become at-large worthy. The Hoyas were just 15-18 last season. They have top-40 talent. They'll need to force the issue on defense more and be more careful with the ball.
Projected regular-season win total: 19
If you were gambling on all the teams listed here, Georgetown is the one more than any other I'd tell you to stay away from. The Hoyas have been volatile in terms of projection for much of the past five seasons. They've had good players, but there hasn't been any type of consistency, and some recruits haven't lived up to expectations. This season, Isaac Copeland and Jessie Govan should be pivotal. The schedule is interesting, because Georgetown is going to Maui. Oregon, Wisconsin, UConn, UNC ... it's a loaded field. G'town also has a home game against Maryland and heads to Syracuse ... and then plenty of manageable opportunities.
Strength: Overall defense
By the end of last season, the Hall was a top-10 team in defensive efficiency. The good news: This team isn't going to lose that identity over the course of a summer. The slightly less good news: I'm willing to bet this isn't a top-20 team on defense this season. But on the whole, I like the makeup of Willard's team on that side of the floor. Desi Rodriguez is going to hound.
Weakness: No alpha dog with the ball
Until proven otherwise, I have to assume Isaiah Whitehead's departure will have a big effect to start Seton Hall's season. Khadeen Carrington will take the lead guard role, but he doesn't have the pure force that Whitehead brought. I think this will be a challenge for SHU into league play.
X-factor: Angel Delgado
If Delgado can become a top-40 player in the country, which he has the ability too be, it will completely change the way we view Seton Hall. Right now, Whitehead's early departure for the NBA presents a playmaker problem for Seton Hall. If he were back, the Pirates would be a consensus top-20 team. Without him, they don't crack the top 30, or even 35 for many prognosticators. I'm one of them. Delgado's a hoss, though, and if he's able to build on a very good sophomore season (9.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg), it will be the difference between Hall finding itself in the top four or bottom half of the Big East.
Projected regular-season win total: 17
I'm lower on Seton Hall than a lot of people. Whitehead is gone, but almost every other player of importance returns. However, I watched firsthand in March when Whitehead vaulted that team in a style that was vintage Big East. Very Gerry McNamara-esque. I think he means a lot to the group, and I think the Hall will hit some bumps in a respectable non-conference schedule. Credit Kevin Willard for aligning himself with something that isn't too easy. The team will be better for having so many tough games (at Iowa, Florida, possible games against Gonzaga, Cal, South Carolina).
Strength: Stealing the ball.
The Golden Eagles did it more frequently and efficiently than any team in the conference last year. The three players best at it -- Duane Wilson, JaJuan Johnson, Traci Carter -- are all back.
MU ranked 344th out of 351 teams in terms of minutes played at the college level heading into last season. They're older now, but still don't have enough seniors -- old, hardened veterans -- to push them to the top four in the conference.
X-factor: Filling the void of Henry Ellenson
Ellenson is the highest-rated recruit in Marquette history. But he was too good for college, leaving after one season and being taken in the top 20 of the NBA Draft. Now the Golden Eagles have good pieces but no one with near the all-around skillset as Ellenson; the freshman's ability to rebound and pass out of the paint and score in unconventional ways made Marquette's games worth tuning into last season. Ellenson did have a flawed game, but he was pivotal to MU's scheme. So now Steve Wojciechowski must work around that.
Projected regular-season win total: 18
The Golden Eagles finished last year's regular season with 19 wins. How about this: I actually think MU will be better this season, but I also think the Big East will be tougher on the whole, and you have to consider MU's non-con games against Michigan, Wisconsin, Vandy, at Georgia. Eighteen victories (pre Big East tourney) should be something MU fans sign up for now.
Ed Cooley still doesn't get the respect he deserves. Providence will have a different -- but still fun -- kind of offense this season, and Cooley's X-and-O approach will be good enough to win the Friars at least two games they "shouldn't." Some might forget it now, but while Kris Dunn was a five-star prospect when he got to Providence, he had a lot of injury concerns and plenty of stay-under-control issues. Dunn still was good for one what-are-you-doing turnover per game last season, but Cooley helped him really mature his game. And then you see what Ben Bentil did in turning himself into not only an NBA pick in a matter of months, but also holding the mantle of most improved player in college basketball last season.
Weakness: Lack of athleticism
Providence will not have the DNA to compete on a night-in, night-out basis that a lot of teams will. There's some talent here (Kyron Cartwright should be able to handle the offense, and Rodney Bullock could be a top-five scorer in the league), but team depth is a major concern. You combo that with Providence not having a really strong (I'm speaking literally here) roster, and you can understand why this team is projected in the bottom half of the league.
X-factor: Kyron Cartwright's playmaking
Ed Cooley believes Cartwright will have a very good chance at being a top-three disher in the Big East. In terms of assist ratio, he'll have his shot. And Providence will need Cartwright to be a reasonable replacement for superstar Kris Dunn. Cartwright can be less of a turnover worry than Dunn, and he won't force as many shots, but he's not nearly the defender or physical player Dunn was. The Friars aren't projected to be an NCAA Tournament team this year due to the loss of Dunn and Bentil, but Cartwright has enough promise that he could push the Friars to being a bubble team.
Projected regular-season win total: 16
Providence is expected to take the biggest drop of any Big East program. While it's a virtual certainty that the Friars will be worse without Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, I don't think Ed Cooley's team is going to plunge to the basement of the Big East. I'd set the over/under of league wins at 8.5, and the non-conference schedule will probably rank in the 100s by the time we get to January.
As a program, St. John's has been the best shot-blocking club in the Big East for most of the past five years. With Kassoum Yakwe and Yankuba Sima back in the mix, they'll be at the top or No. 2 yet again. If SJU can turn blocked shots into turnovers 75 percent of the time, then things change in a big way, because this team should be able to run often.
Weakness: Many, but we'll focus on foul shooting
St. John's 63.6 free-throw shooting percentage was the worst in the league last season. Getting that average up to 70 will inevitably put St. John's in closer games more often. You do that, you can get more breaks, and from there, fall into a win or two.
X-factor: The collective coaching philosophy of Chris Mullin and his assistants
I'm far from convinced that St. John's hiring a program legend like Mullin will translate to consistency in recruiting and on-court success. To be fair, I and most others said the same thing about Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State -- and then Hoiberg went out and built a perennial top-25 program. Mullin won't turn St. John's into a top-25 national program, I don't think, but there's still a lot of time to see what he's capable of. The Johnnies went 8-24 last season. So double digit wins should be coming. But with the caliber of coach in this league, you can't just put blue-chip recruit Shamorie Ponds out there and expect wins to follow. Scheme is vital. I'd love to chat with Mullin on his approach this year and what he learned from last season.
Projected regular-season win total: 12
The Johnnies will probably have the freshman of the year in Shamorie Ponds, but I don't see how this team is suddenly able to score and be efficient in a matter of months after having far and away the worst offense in the league last season. It's going to take time. St. John's won one league game last year. I think it will triple that.
Strength: Avoiding shot-blocking
It's the only category (other than 2-point percentage) in which DePaul ranked in the top 100 nationally last season. The Blue Demons had their shots swatted 8.2 percent of the time, which is an impressive number given how much of a doormat the team was for most of the season.
Weakness: Lack of interior/rebounding
The Blue Demons were dominated almost every game of league play last season by teams who had more want-to on the glass. DePaul has a lot to work on, but so many coaches believe a winning foundation is built on fearlessness and hunger for your own second-chance opportunities, and limiting opponents' chances for follow-ups by hounding the glass. DePaul absolutely has to make big strides with this in 2016-17.
X-factor: Dave Leitao's system and culture
The Blue Demons need to find any type of consistency. A reason to have positive momentum and a sense of improvement within the Big East. This is a program that's made the NCAAs once in the past 15 years. I actually believe DePaul has the infrastructure, recruiting bed and potential to be a middle-of-the-pack Big East team in the next decade. And middle-of-the-pack is a huge step up. But Leitao, now in his second run as DePaul coach (the first lasting from 2002-05), will need at least four years to establish a foundation.
Projected regular-season win total: 13
If Dave Leitao can manage 13 wins, it will be the most the program has had in a decade. Truly remarkable. But Billy Garrett Jr. is one of the 10 best players in this league, and the Blue Demons' schedule is absolutely manageable in the non-conference. I'd put DePaul's over/under for Big East league wins at 3.5, but in November and December it will be going up against a lot of programs projected to finish in the bottom half of their respective leagues.
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