GOLDEN EAGLE: Big East Men’s Preview

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The first season of the “new” 10-team Big East was a test for the conference, and much of it was a success. The conference had four teams make the NCAA Tournament (Villanova, Creighton, Providence, Xavier) and played host to the end of Doug McDermott’s illustrious collegiate career. Now in its’ second season, the Big East must prove that it can be labeled a power conference in basketball. Here is a preview of the Big East (teams listed according to their Preseason Coaches’ Poll ranking):

Villanova:

Fresh off a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament and ranked 12th in the Preseason AP Poll, the experienced Wildcats are led by seniors JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard. They must get through No. 15 VCU, No. 24 Michigan, St. Joe’s, and No. 23 Syracuse before Big East play begins.

Best case: They roll through the Big East schedule on their way back to March Madness.

Worst case: Last season was just a fluke, and a tough non-conference schedule hurts them down the stretch.

Bottom line: This team is a sure bet to be back in the NCAA Tournament.

Georgetown:

Veterans D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Mikael Hopkins and Jabril Trawick return for a team that trudged through a disappointing 18-15 record last season. Combine that trio with a consensus top-10 recruiting class that includes three four-star forwards, and the Hoyas could have the deepest roster in the conference.

Best case: The Hoyas utilize a strong mix of players to bring a Big East Tournament championship back to Washington, D.C. for the first time since 2007.

Worst case: Re-living last year’s nightmare, the Hoyas finish toward the bottom of the Big East standings once again.

Bottom line: Head coach John Thompson III simply will not allow another meltdown, and the Hoyas will get back to the NCAA Tournament.

St. John’s:

The Red Storm return four starters, including senior D’Angelo Harrison, who averaged 17.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game last year. This was the best shot blocking team in Division I in 2013-14, averaging 7.5 blocks per game. Led by center Chris Obekpa, the front line of their defense may be the best in the country this season.

Best case: Harrison averages 20 points per game on his way to Big East Player of the Year and Obekpa leads the nation in blocks. The Johnnies feature their balanced game plan to win big match-ups.

Worst case: It seems like off-the-court issues plague the Johnnies every year. This year will be no different, and they finish in middle of the pack yet again.

Bottom line: With consistent scoring and great defense at the rim, they get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

Xavier:

The Musketeers lost their two leading scorers from last season in Semaj Christon and Justin Martin. However, experienced big men Matt Stainbrook, Jalen Reynolds and James Farr will lead this team through a non-conference schedule that holds zero ranked opponents.

Best case: The Musketeers will use the momentum from an easy non-conference slate to cruise through the Big East.

Worst case: Xavier cannot overcome the loss of Christon, lack necessary leadership, and are NIT-bound.

Bottom line: Head coach Chris Mack knows what it takes to win, and he’ll get his team back to the NCAA Tournament as a high seed.

Providence:

Point guard Kris Dunn entered the program two years ago as a top-25 recruit, but he has been overshadowed by injuries and the production of Bryce Cotton. With Cotton now graduated and out of the picture, the young Friars turn to Dunn to control the team, along with forwards LaDontae Henton and Tyler Harris.

Best case: Dunn stays healthy, replaces Cotton’s 21.8 points per game, and leads last year’s Big East Tournament winners back to March Madness.

Worst case: The Friars cannot overcome the aftermath of losing Cotton and Kadeem Batts, and can’t climb above .500 in the Big East standings.

Bottom line: This squad doesn’t have the fire power to win important games, but gets an NIT invite.

Seton Hall:

Head coach Kevin Willard shocked the basketball world with his consensus top-15 recruiting class, led by five-star guard Isaiah Whitehead and four-star forward Angel Delgado. Having that duo, along with veterans Brandon Mobley and Sterling Gibbs, means the Pirates have much higher expectations than what they are used to.

Best case: The inexperienced Pirates make some noise and win a few big games. Willard keeps his job and his team makes a postseason tournament.

Worst case: Things stay par for the course, and Hall remains a cellar dweller.

Bottom line: The Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll had the Pirates 6th, based mainly on the fact that Whitehead could be a superstar. They get an NIT invitation at best.

Marquette:

It is well-documented that Marquette will play with only nine players on its active roster until Dec. 15, with no player standing taller than 6-foot-7 until center Luke Fischer is eligible. That makes No. 20 Ohio State, Georgia Tech, potentially Kansas or Michigan State and No. 3 Wisconsin in the non-conference slate even more daunting. The Golden Eagles have not missed the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years since 2004-2005.

Best case: Forward Deonte Burton and guard Matt Carlino become the best scoring duo in the conference, and the defense is also one of the best in the conference under Steve Wojciechowski’s new regime.

Worst case: A lack of both size and depth are the Golden Eagles’ downfall, and they finish toward the bottom of the Big East.

Bottom Line: This is a transition year, but they’ll surprise a few teams and get enough wins to be on the cusp of an NCAA Tournament bid.

Butler:

After finishing 4-14 in their first season in the Big East, the Bulldogs will be glad to have skilled guard/forward Roosevelt Jones back from injury in 2014-15. He and guard Kellen Dunham, who led the team with 16.7 points per game last season, will look to add some offense to a team that scored just 65 points per game in conference play last season.

Best case: Jones and Dunham both shoot over 40 percent from the field and they carry the Bulldogs back to postseason play.

Worst case: As a team without much size in the post or depth at the guard positions, Butler again struggles to pull off victories in the Big East schedule.

Bottom line: Their 7th-place ranking in the Big East Preseason Poll is accurate.

Creighton:

The Bluejays lost an astounding 51.3 points per game from four graduated starters (most notably that Doug McDermott guy). They still have a solid nucleus to rely on, with seniors Will Artino, Devin Brooks and Austin Chatman leading the way. This team led the country in three-point field goal percentage and shot nearly 50 percent from the floor in 2013-14, but expect them to play more down to earth this season.

Best case: The post-McDermott era begins by getting back to the postseason, backed by a veteran core that knows what it takes to win.

Worst case: McDermott, Ethan Wragge and Grant Gibbs are sorely missed, and the Bluejays miss March Madness for the first time since 2011.

Bottom line: Creighton simply cannot replace a three-time All-American, Wooden Award winning, 26.7 point per game scoring player. NIT or bust for the Bluejays.

DePaul:

The Blue Demons have finished dead last in the Big East each of the past six seasons, so they are hoping this year won’t be unlucky number seven. They were outscored by a whopping 12 points per game in conference play last season, but sophomore standout Billy Garrett Jr.’s scoring prowess may make that number marginally smaller.

Best case: Garrett Jr. averages 25 points per game, some other people score, too, and they win more than three games in Big East play.

Worst case: They fail to win 13 games for the 9th time in 10 seasons.

Bottom line: It would be a surprise to most people if the Blue Demons do not finish in last place.

Games To Watch:

Marquette @ Xavier (Jan. 17): These teams met three times last season, each game decided by 10 points or less.

Creighton @ Villanova (Jan. 25): The first match-up between last year’s top two teams. The Bluejays owned the Wildcats in 2014, winning 96-68 at ‘Nova and 101-80 at Creighton.

Georgetown @ St. John’s (Feb. 28): The conference’s only game on CBS, and it takes place during the final stretch for two tournament contenders.

Freshmen To Watch:

Trevon Bluiett (Xavier): A versatile guard who will cause problems for opposing defenses due to his size and ability.

Isaac Copeland (Georgetown): An athletic wing-forward with height who should fit perfectly into the Hoyas’ offense.

Isaiah Whitehead (Seton Hall): A do-it-all 5-star guard from Lincoln HS in Brooklyn (see: Lance Stephenson, Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair).

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