Top Big East story lines to watch in 2017-18:
1. The Big East is once again one of the deepest and most competitive conferences in the country, and could send as many as 8 teams to the NCAA Tournament.
2. Patrick Ewing returns to the Hilltop and LaVall Jordan to Indy as the league’s two new coaches.
3. DePaul finally moves out of the universally hated Allstate Arena and into Wintrust Arena, a much more accessible venue on Chicago’s near south side. It was christened on October 27th with a Bob Dylan concert (I’m a huge Dylanphile, so had to throw in a gratuitous reference somewhere in these previews).
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
Jay Wright once again has his Wildcats positioned to be one of a handful of true national title contenders, despite the losses of Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart. The losses of Hart and Jenkins does put a lot of pressure on outstanding point guard Jalen Brunson, as his ability to penetrate into the lane is the key catalyst for one of the country’s best offenses, if not the best. Those two were essential in keeping help defenders off of Brunson, and opening up the court. The return of a healthy Phil Booth gives Wright the dual PG offense that he covets, as penetration and subsequent ball movement to an array of shooters is the lifeblood of the Nova offense. Which Phil Booth shows up this year after injury is one of the big question marks coming into the season for the Wildcats. Will it be the freshman Phil Booth that posted a 128 ORtg, or the sophomore Phil Booth that posted a 91.5 ORtg in Big East play despite similar shot and usage rates? The other big question: who are the shooters to replace Hart and Jenkins? That question has a more definitive answer, as Mikal Bridges is set to have a monster junior year, and could skyrocket into the lottery picture. He’s already one of the best defenders in the country, and the key to Nova’s constantly switching defense and Wright’s zone traps, but his perimeter game took off on the offensive end last year, hitting 39% from 3 and posting the league’s 9th best efficiency rating. Bridges and fellow wing Donte DiVincenzo form a lethal 3/4 duo, with the latter providing a budding ability to slash to the rim efficiently. 6’6 freshman Jermaine Samuels comes in as a 4 star wing recruit, and is already being hailed as the next Bridges with his athleticism and defensive skills. The frontcourt returns Eric Paschall, who can move back to the 4, especially if his jump shooting improves. Paschall surprised me as a defender in the paint last year, as he didn’t show much of that at Fordham, but his rebounding needs to improve. Paschall can move to the 4 because of the NCAA finally clearing highly touted Omari Spellman. You can make a case for Spellman being the key to Villanova’s season, as he provides a big, skilled body for Brunson to dump the ball to inside, and as I mentioned earlier, the catalyst to Wright’s outstanding offensive scheme is getting the ball inside and working out. Spellman’s also has a reputation as a plus rebounder, an aspect that might be lacking overall on this year’s team. If Spellman provides a reasonable facsimile of Daniel Ochefu two years ago, the Wildcats could find themselves in the Final Four again, although my biggest concern is his passing ability out of doubles, which is a fairly big concern since it’s vital to the Nova offense. 4 star freshman Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and sophomore Dylan Painter provide quality depth in the frontcourt this year.
A healthy Booth and an as-good-as-advertised Spellman are the keys for Jay Wright’s squad this year.
Despite the loss of Edmund Sumner, Xavier is still loaded this year, and they have one of the best coaches in the game at maximizing his talent at hand. Yes, Xavier was pretty terrible after they lost Sumner to injury, a fact that has been lost to history after the Muskies’ Elite 8 run. The play of Quentin Goodin at the point is almost certainly the key for XU’s season. Goodin is a big guard built like a linebacker, just like Sumner, but his turnover rate of 26.5% is more than concerning, and while his sheer athleticism allowed for a solid steal rate, he was often out of position and struggled particularly in the 1-3-1 and Chris Mack’s shifting zone looks. The key for Goodin’s season is the development of a jump shot, more so than reducing his turnover rate. Without at least the semblance of a jumper, teams will continue to sag off him to limit his bullying penetration. The return of Trevon Bluiett will help cover up some of Goodin’s shortcomings. Simply put, Bluiett is just an outstanding offensive basketball player on the wing who doesn’t have any glaring flaws in his game. He’s likely playing with a chip on his shoulder this year after not being invited to the NBA draft combine. The other key piece for Mack is of course JP Macura, who has steadily developed into one of the best all around players in the league. Macura went from a spot shooter to a devastating slasher off the wing and a key defensively at the top of the 1-3-1. In the frontcourt, Kaiser Gates returns as an efficient pick and pop four that can still bang for rebounds in the paint. Around the rim, the Muskies are reliable if unspectacular. Sean O’Mara, Kerem Kanter, and Tyrique Jones are all bangers who can board and clog up the lane defensively, with Kanter offering some floor stretching ability on the other end. The all have significant upside offensively, as Mack and his coaching staff have proven time and time again that they can elicit hidden skills out of their bigs. Freshmen Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs (another Indy steal for Mack) will contribute immediately, as Marshall can play anywhere from 1-4, and Scruggs can literally do everything on the floor out of the backcourt.
If Goodin makes just a reasonable sophomore leap, Xavier won’t be labeled as a surprise Elite 8 team this year.
3. Seton Hall
The Pirates have a lot of people on their bandwagon this year, and for good reason. Kevin Willard has 4 seniors with a rugged defensive and rebounding identity, but there are some question marks offensively. Seton Hall’s offense is incredibly reliant on getting the ball to the rim as close as possible, and with Angel Delgado, Ismael Sanogo, and Michael Nzei’s ability to rebound the ball offensively, that essentially became the Pirates’ best offense. None of three are particularly skilled offensively, but they’re just demons on the glass- a team full of Dennis Rodmans (and I didn’t even mention 7’2 JUCO import Romaro Gill, but I’d be shocked if he didn’t redshirt this year given SHU’s frontcourt depth and the fact that he’s really only played one year of organzied basketball). The backcourt will see senior Khadeen Carrington shift to the point, with Myles Powell returning as the team’s resident volume perimeter shooter. Carrington will be a steadier influence on the ball than Madison Jones last year, but will the extra responsibility affect his own offensive production? Eron Gordon is probably the only backup ball handler, unless 3 star freshman Jordan Walker develops quickly. Desi Rodriguez returns on the wing as the most reliable offensive threat for Willard. He can score at all three levels, shooting 42% from three in league play. He’s consistently the hardest player to matchup with in Willard’s ball screen heavy offense. Myles Cale is another talented freshman who will see minutes on the wing, but Sandro Mamukelashvili will likely have the biggest impact for Willard this year, despite his lesser recruiting pedigree. He can play 3-5, and operate out of the high post, an aspect SHU didn’t have last year.
The Pirates hang their hat on the defensive end and the ability to eat glass on both ends, but if they’re going to have any sort of run in March, the offense has to find a way to score efficiently in ways that aren’t putback dunks.
With nearly everyone returning from last year’s up and down 20 win team, the Friars are easily one of the best teams in the league, and a sleeper for a deep March run. Throw in that Ed Cooley seems to always overachieve preseason expectations, and expectations at PC are justifiably sky high. Kyron Cartwright returns on the ball as one of the country’s most underrated lead guards. All he did last year while taking Kris Dunn’s role was post the nation’s fourth highest assist rate and shoot 39% from 3, all while executing Cooley’s grinder motion offense to a tee. Makai Ashton-Langford is Cooley’s point of the future as a top 50 recruit who initially committed to UConn. He’ll immediately back up Cartwright. The main beneficiary of Cartwright’s outstanding distribution talent is 6’8 senior Rodney Bullock, a true three level scorer. Jalen Lindsey returns on the wing as the team’s sharp shooter after nearly doubling his three point shooting percentage, with more volume. Lindsey remarkably went from a 25% shooter in league play to 48% last year. He’s dealing with a sore knee and hasn’t been practicing, which is a concern, but not as concerning as Emmitt Holt’s stomach issue, which required surgery and will likely force him to take a medical redshirt. Holt’s impact as a rim scorer and protector can’t be overstated, and you can tell by reading Cooley’s effusive praise of him that he knows he simply can’t replace him, although massive freshman Nate Watson should be able to make up for his rebounding, while sophomore Kalif Young will have a much bigger role. Isaiah Jackson returns on the wing as a 6’6 lock down defender, as does shooter/slasher Alpha Diallo, who could be in line for a breakout year. Drew Edwards came to PC as a 4 star recruit on the wing, but has been plagued by injuries, and he’s already missing time with recurring back spasms. Cooley’s wing depth between Lindsey, Diallo, Jackson, and Edwards is a key in his constantly shifting defense. Few coaches mix in zone as seamlessly as Cooley and his staff, and the disguised defenses are tough to prep for.
The loss of Holt really puts a damper on the season for PC, but if Young/Watson can fill in admirably, the Friars should be able to recover. An exhibition loss to Canadian powerhouse Carleton wasn’t an encouraging sign, but could light a fire to start the season.
LaVall Jordan takes over for Chris Holtmann as the latest itiration of the "Butler Way". He’s short on head coaching experience with just one mediocre season at Milwaukee, but he’s learned from John Beilein and Todd Lickliter, and has a solid returning core to work with in his first season back in Indy. Expect Jordan to go with a dual PG look between Kamar Baldwin and George Washington transfer Paul Jorgensen. Baldwin is a Big East star in the making, and is a ferocious on ball defender. With Baldwin spearheading the defense and quick handed freshman Aaron Thompson entering the picture (don’t be surprised if he’s starting alongside Baldwin by December), Jordan will likely be extending pressure for the majority of the game, and while his lone season at Milwaukee might not suggest it (the Panthers were running the 344th slowest tempo in the country last year), Butler could be due for a noticeable pace increase this year. The wing corps is young outside of Kelan Martin and potentially a weakness defensively. Martin’s a go to scorer, albeit a streaky one, but he’s also a tenacious defensive rebounder (second highest rebounding rate in the league on that end) and a matchup nightmare when he’s at the 4 with his ability to play on the perimeter and draw frequent contact off the bounce. Two sophomores, Sean McDermott and Henry Baddley, figure to see a minutes increase at the 3, with McDermott the likely starter, although sharpshooting 6’6 freshman Christian David could push for minutes. The frontcourt will be comprised of veteran Tyler Wideman, an excellent offensive rebounder, solid rim protector, and consistent post threat. Highly touted local product Joey Brunk will need to have a relative breakout season as a sophomore, and Nate Fowler provides some solid floor stretching ability.
There are a lot of question marks for the Bulldogs in Jordan’s first season, but Butler has found themselves in this situation frequently in the past, and they seem to always find a successful way through.
Greg McDermott and his staff did an excellent job of adjusting to life without Mo Watson last year, but the issues at the point carry over to this year, and the loss of Justin Patton only exacerbates the issue. The Blue Jays were one of the most efficient inside-out offenses in the country when clicking, and filtering everything through Patton was the reason why. So who replaces Patton and who takes over at the point? Syracuse transfer Kaleb Joseph is the most likely pick on the ball, but he’s been dealing with a lingering hamstring issue, which could linger itself into the regular season, leaving returnees Davion Mintz, Tyler Clement, and Ronnie Harrell. All three of those options proved to be less than ideal in Watson’s stead, and it took a toll on off ball scorer Marcus Foster’s efficiency (although Harrell’s versatility as a 6’7 ball handler offers a lot of intrigue). Foster and fellow 2/3 Khyri Thomas are the two most important Blue Jays this year, and I don’t see anyway McDermott gets away with resting either of them for any amount of time. Thomas is an outstanding on ball defender, but his burgeoning offensive game is a big development for Creighton, although his efficiency also suffered when Watson was out. Foster meanwhile is a lethal penetrator with unlimited range, if sometimes questionable shot selection. McDermott will rely on veteran Toby Hegner and sophomore Martin Krampelj to hopefully replace at least a fraction of Patton’s production. Hegner bulked up to score at the rim more this year, but both are really stretch bigs, and won’t command the collapsing defenses that Patton did, which in turn opened up the floor for a bevy of lethal shooters- of which McDermott added two more in 4 star freshmen wings Ty-Shon Alexander and Mitchell Ballock.
If the point situation shakes out favorably- whether it be Joseph, Harrell, Thomas, or more than likely a combo of all 3- and Krampelj, Hegner, and Manny Suarez can command defensive attention inside, Creighton should be dancing for the first time in back to back years since joining the Big East.
Three out of four of Marquette’s lethal volume shooters return to a team that shot 43% from 3 last year. The Golden Eagles can score with anyone in the country. Those same shooters have some serious defensive issues, and defensive band-aid JaJuan Johnson has graduated. Markus Howard returns as the best shooter in the country statistically, having hit 55% of his threes. He and Andrew Rowsey form a lethal on ball shooting duo- and a painfully small on ball defensive duo. Containing dribble penetration was an issue all year long, and without Johnson, I can only see it getting worse. Haanif Cheatham returns to the backcourt as the Wojo’s top slasher from the wing and most versatile scorer (an x-factor on the wing could be redshirt sophomore Sacar Anim, who could take a drastic chunk of Cheatham’s minutes if his efficiency continues to trend downward, and Anim is almost certainly a better defender already), while the frontcourt duo of stretch 4 Sam Hauser (45% three point shooter who needs to improve both defensively and on the glass, but has reportedly bulked up to do so) and Matt Heldt is flying under the national radar. Heldt proved to be a much more reliable defender than Luke Fischer when he took he starting spot, and was an efficient rim scorer when necessary. Marquette ended up allowing 69% shooting at the rim, the 10th worst mark in the country, but a lot of that egregious number was built on exploiting Fischer. Frontcourt depth is a major concern, as freshmen Theo John and Ike Eke, while highly regarded, are the only bigs behind Heldt on the depth chart, while highly athletic wing Jamal Cain likely contributes on the glass as a touted freshman as well. However, Wojo gets some much needed paint reinforcement when SMU transfer Harry Froling is eligible in December.
The offense isn’t in question for the Golden Eagles, but the defense, particularly on the perimeter is more than concerning, and it will have a trickle down effect on Heldt, who is likely to pick up more fouls as he runs into more dribble penetration. That said, Marquette’s ceiling is arguably the highest in the Big East (Chris Mullin and the Johnnies would like a word), and picking them 7th is a testament to the depth of the league.
8. St. John’s
Chris Mullin returns 4.5 starters from last year’s team, if you include Tariq Owens, and the Red Storm are clearly a Big East team trending in the right direction. The problem is that there are so many quality teams still ahead of them in the league. Mullin did a masterful job on the recruiting trail, as he returns an extremely talented backcourt duo of Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett, and bolstered the talent around them with Michigan State transfer Marvin Clark and Arizona transfer Justin Simon – that’s in addition to the returning members of the paint crew, which include stretch 4 Bashir Ahmed and elite rim protectors Owens and Kassoum Yakwe. Starting with the backcourt, Ponds and LoVett have been given the keys to this IndyCar, and they go full speed all the time on both ends. Both will shoot from anywhere on the floor and get to the rim with ease, and are the key defenders for a team that pressed nearly as much as anyone in the country, as they boast top 10 steal rates in Big East play. That said, the same liberties Ponds and LoVett can be a bit of a detriment, as they can play a bit recklessly on both ends- but that’s also probably a byproduct typical of D1 rookies. The frontcourt of Yakwe and Owens is every bit as ball hawking as the backcourt, as Owens posted the league’s top block rate, with Yakwe right behind. However, that aggression by the backcourt and frontcourt also left the Johnnies vulnerable in transition defense, rim defense, and defensive rebounding. Playing for steals and blocks is a great way to generate easy offense and disrupt the rhythm of the oppossing offense, but you have to have discipline defensively too. Too often the backcourt and frontcourt was out of position by gambling for a turnover, allowing easy looks at the rim and a plethora of offensive rebounds. And of course it leads to an excessive foul rate, which is more palatable with the depth that Clark brings as a versatile 3-5 option in the frontcourt, and Simon as a bigger option in a small but quick backcourt. The additions of Clark and Simon could most likely come at the expense of Ahmed’s minutes. His slashing/shooting ability is evident, as is his rebounding, but his shot selection was quite poor. Amar Alibegovic returns to the frontcourt as well as a "stretch 5" of sorts, while Bryan Trimble should see quality minutes in the backcourt as a freshman.
The Johnnies are the most volatile team in the league considering their tempo and willingness to aggressively hunt turnovers. A top half finish is as equally likely as bottom tier finish.
DePaul should be more than competitive this year! And Leitao has depth! And the Blue Demons aren’t playing at the dreaded Allstate Arena! These are all great things for DePaul (obviously), the Big East, and the state of Chicago basketball in general. That said, the Blue Demons still have myriad issues, otherwise they wouldn’t be projected 9th. The backcourt has improved despite the loss of Billy Garrett, who should probably have a statue in Lincoln Park for his suffering. Austin Grandstaff comes in after almost playing for about a dozen schools as a 4 star recruit, and Leitao actually has enough depth in the backcourt that finding him minutes is actually a bit of an issue. Grandstaff has potential as an elite level shooter from three, and with DePaul’s inability to keep teams from completely packing in the paint against Garrett’s penetration, Leitao might have to get creative with lineups, which in turn might see wing Eli Cain used more on the ball. Cain is DePaul’s best returning scoring option, and a lineup of Cain, Grandstaff, and Lewis scoring phenom Max Strus would maximize DePaul’s offensive potential – a must after posting .96 points per possession in league play, good for dead last. That "max lineup" disregards the fact that Leitao does have two legit options at the point. Devin Gage is the safe bet as a sophomore, but Findlay Prep product (via Indy) Justin Roberts offers the clear upside as a 4 star "pace and space" type floor runner. The frontcourt has some issues. The addition of Marin Maric from just an hour to the west will help offensively, as he’s a solid pick and pop option, but his defense doesn’t improve a frontcourt that was routinely gashed at the rim to the tune of 67%, 22nd worst mark in the country. Tre McCallum is underrated with his ability to do a little bit of a lot of things, but he’s a safe floor, low ceiling type of frontcourt player.
With the addition of Grandstaff, Roberts, and Strus, the Blue Demons will at the very least be an enjoyable offense to watch.
This is undoubtedly going to be a rebuilding year for the Hoyas in Patrick Ewing’s first season back in DC. I don’t doubt that he’ll keep the Hoyas competitive this year, especially with a solid frontcourt nucleus of Marcus Derrickson and Jessie Govan, but there are just so many question marks after the JTIII induced exodus. Derrickson and Govan are big bodied, but also useful in pick and pop situations and can stretch defenses in the NBA "space and pace" type of play that Ewing intends on bringing to Georgetown. With the addition of 7’3 Nigerian Chris Sodom (who famously played well against DeAndre Ayton), the frontcourt is the clear strength of the team. Jamarko Pickett is another highly touted freshman who could start at the 3 as a three level scorer in a massive Hoya lineup. The backcourt is quite a jumbled mess, but not without talent. Trey Dickerson can slide into the point as an experienced grad transfer, but freshman Jahvon Blair and sophomore Jagan Mosely offer far more upside, and why not go to them early during a rebuild? Antwan Walker is another freshman who could see immediate minutes off the ball, and former 4 star JTIII recruit Kaleb Johnson will be looking to revive his career under Ewing.
There is talent on the roster, but this is a rebuilding year in D.C. for the Hoyas.
FINAL OUTLOOK: The Big East could send 8 teams to the dance this year, with Villanova and Xavier having Final Four potential. It’s more likely 7 bids with St. John’s and maybe even DePaul getting NIT invites. Georgetown might take a CBI bid if Ewing thinks it will help a young team.
BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
ALL BIG EAST FIRST TEAM:
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Rodney Bullock, Providence
ALL BIG EAST SECOND TEAM:
Kyron Cartwright, Providence
Mikal Bridges, Villanova
Omari Spellman, Villanova
Kelan Martin, Butler
Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s