Big East Preview: Can Villanova repeat as national champs?
Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Big East Conference.
The Big East Conference, in its third season of a relaunch, finally achieved nationwide validation it had been seeking when Kris Jenkins sunk a buzzer-beating three to lift Villanova over North Carolina, 77-74, in one of the greatest national championship games of all time.
In 2016-17, the 10-team league has a chance to build on that momentum, and once again it starts with Jay Wright’s Wildcats.
Xavier, coming off a historic season that saw the Musketeers climb to their highest ranking ever, stands as Villanova’s top threat again, while Creighton is poised to make a jump into the contender conversation.
The Big East, on average, has sent half the league to the NCAA Tournament over the past three years. Expect that to be the same in 2017.
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FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:
1. Villanova won the national championship: In an instant classic, Villanova won the program’s second national championship, ending the criticism surrounding Jay Wright in March (despite him having a Final Four appearance on his résumé).
Even with the graduation Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, and those are big losses for Villanova, the Wildcats have the best chance to repeat as national champions since the Florida Gators during 2006-07 season. Josh Hart, a national player of the year candidate, and Kris Jenkins are back, while Jalen Brunson could be in for a big sophomore season as the primary ball handler. Mikal Bridges figures to be the next Villanova player to come through the system and become a breakout star. Eric Paschall, a Fordham transfer, adds another versatile wing. The Wildcats won’t have Omari Spellman, their top incoming recruit who was ruled a partial-qualifier, but Darryl Reynolds, who has played sparingly over his first three seasons, showed glimpses when he started last year while Ochefu was out with a concussion.
NBC Sports has Villanova ranked as the No. 2 in the nation this preseason.
2. Some stars left for the pros: Kris Dunn, the Big East Player of the Year, and Henry Ellenson, the Big East Freshman of the Year, left for the NBA as expected and became top-20 picks. Some players, like Ben Bentil and Isaiah Whitehead, weren’t guaranteed to bolt after their sophomore seasons, but both wound up being selected in the second round.
3. ... and some stars returned: Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Trevon Bluiett and Maurice Watson Jr., three of whom are listed below as Big East first teamers, all took advantage of the new NBA Draft rules and declared. All four elected to return to their respective schools. This made Villanova a favorite to return to the Final Four, meant Xavier is a top-10 caliber team and gave Creighton the backcourt that can guide the program back to the NCAA Tournament.
4. Creighton’s new era: Speaking of Creighton, many people are bullish on the Bluejays, as Marcus Foster looks to replicate the success Watson had in his first season after sitting out a transfer year. Greg McDermott had four 20-win seasons to begin his tenure at Creighton, which had a lot to do with having one of the most prolific scorers in NCAA history, his son, Doug. After plummeting to ninth in the conference following Doug’s graduation, Creighton rebounded with a 20-15 record last season. This Creighton team has the potential to do what Dougie McBuckets’ led teams never did: make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
5. NCAA Tournament: One of the interesting aspects of the Big East reboot is that, on average, half the league gets into the NCAA Tournament. That’s one of the benefits of an 18-game, round-robin conference schedule. But in only three seasons, five different teams have appeared in the Big East Conference championship game, resulting in three different winners. Only two of the 10 teams -- DePaul and Marquette -- have failed to qualify for the Big Dance since its rebirth in 2013. That’s all a long-winded way of saying that this league has depth and balance.
MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule
PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Josh Hart, Villanova
Josh Hart’s rise has been a continuous one during his time at Villanova. He was a role player as a freshman and the Big East Sixth Man of the Year as a sophomore before cracking the starting lineup as a junior, which resulted in first-team all-league honors. The preseason All-American really does it all for the Wildcats. He’s the top returning scorer at 15.5 points per game, while shooting 36 percent from three. At 6-foot-6, he’s the best rebounding guard in the nation, corralling 6.8 boards a contest. And he’s a versatile defender, a key reason why Villanova ranked among the best defenses in the country last year.
THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM:
- Trevon Bluiett, Xavier: A returning first-team all-Big East selection, Bluiett tested the NBA waters before returning to Cincinnati. The 6-foot-5 junior, who averaged 15.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, is obviously an important piece for the Musketeers. His versatility allows them to space the floor on offense given his 3-point touch, and his strength helps him defend opposing fours.
- Kris Jenkins, Villanova: The hero of the 2016 national championship game, averaged 15.5 points per game, shooting 49 percent from three during the NCAA Tournament. While he’ll be known for that shot, Jenkins is a quality rebounder and defender, something he put an emphasis on during the course of last season.
- Kelan Martin, Butler: Despite starting in only 14 of 33 games last season, Martin is the conference’s top returning scorer at 15.7 points per game. With Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones gone after impressive careers, Martin will be the focal point of a talented, yet thin roster. One would imagine that he’d have to assume some of the responsibilities left behind by Jones (i.e. ball-handling, defense, and most importantly, leadership) and not just replace the scoring production of Dunham.
- Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton: Many questioned Watson’s move from Boston University to Creighton, but those naysayers were silenced when he finished his debut season in the Big East, averaging 14.1 points, 6.5 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game. With plenty of shooters surrounding him, Watson should be a nightmare for defenses when he gets involved in pick-and-rolls situations and gets into the lane.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:
- Isaac Copeland, Georgetown
- Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
- Marcus Foster, Creighton
- Billy Garrett Jr., DePaul
- Edmond Sumner, Xavier
BREAKOUT STAR: Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
You could go a bunch of different ways with this pick: Marcus Derrickson at Georgetown, Xavier’s J.P. Macura, the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year, or Marquette’s Haanif Cheatham, but I’m going with the Seton Hall lead guard.
For starters, Khadeen Carrington averaged an extremely quiet 14.1 points per game. That’s understandable when the majority of the attention was focused on Isaiah Whitehead. With Whitehead now in the NBA, Carrington has a chance to improve on those numbers. Carrington showed promising strides from his freshman to sophomore year, becoming one of the best two-way guards in the league. The big test for him is how quickly he can adjust to running the team.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE: John Thompson III, Georgetown
In no way am I saying John Thompson III is in jeopardy of losing his job. He’s been to eight NCAA Tournaments in 12 years, reaching a Final Four in 2007. On top of that 264–133 record, his father, who built the program into a national powerhouse, is still very much part of the university. The school recently opened a brand-new, state of the art athletic center, named after him.
But Georgetown is coming off a disappointing year. Pegged to finish second in the league, the Hoyas staggered to a 15-18 (7-11 Big East) record, missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons. Georgetown is 3-6 -- with three first-round exits -- in the NCAA Tournament since the Final Four run in 2007.
Despite graduating D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, JT3 has a team that looks good on paper: Isaac Copeland, L.J. Peak, Marcus Derrickson, Jessie Govan and Rodney Pryor. Hoyas certainly have the talent of top-25 caliber team, and they’ll get plenty of opportunities to prove so against a non-conference slate that includes Maryland, Oregon (and the rest of the Maui Invitational field), Syracuse and UConn.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING ... : At least half the league is in the field of 68 once again
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : Villanova’s title defense
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:
- November 15, Creighton vs. Wisconsin
- November 15, Georgetown vs. Maryland
- December 10, Villanova vs. Notre Dame (Prudential Center, Newark, New Jersey)
- December 17, Butler vs. Indiana (BankersLife Arena, Indianapolis, Indiana)
- January 26, Xavier vs. Cincinnati
1. Villanova: The Wildcats are the unanimous favorite to win the Big East for a fourth straight season. While they won’t have freshman big man Omari Spellman, they have the defensive versatility, length and knockdown shooting to throw out this lineup at times: Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, Eric Paschall, Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges. Do you wanna guard that five?
2. Xavier: Rebounding and depth may not be as good as last year’s team, but Xavier will push Villanova once again. Trevon Bluiett is back. Edmond Sumner could skyrocket as a player this year. J.P. Macura is a breakout candidate. But RaShid Gaston is undoubtedly the x-factor the Xavier. He nearly averaged a double-double in his final season at Norfolk State. But there’s a slight difference in competition between the MEAC and Big East. The new-look frontline is key for the Musketeers. The reason why the 1-3-1 zone defense (aside from its length) was so effective was because James Farr controlled the glass. Myles Davis’ status is still uncertain, but Xavier has the weapons and personnel to match with Villanova (and its hypothetical “Death Lineup” listed above).
3. Creighton: Maurice Watson Jr. and Marcus Foster make up one of the best backcourts in the country. A lot needs to go right for the Bluejays: Isaiah Zierden staying healthy, Khyri Thomas emerging as a third option, Justin Patton, Cole Huff and Toby Hegner stabilizing the frontcourt following the graduation of Geoffrey Groselle, 3-point shooting, etc. If this all comes together, I wouldn’t want to see this team come March.
4. Seton Hall: We’d be talking much differently about the Pirates had Isaiah Whitehead returned. Still, Kevin Willard, now off the hot seat, could lead Seton Hall to another NCAA Tournament run. Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado: take your pick. Any of those guys could emerge as the team’s best player. Defense will be their calling card, especially with a group of guys who love to get out and run.
5. Georgetown: A rebound year is in order at The Hilltop. Like mentioned above, the Hoyas bring back talent. They should be good. Tre Campbell, the presumptive starting point guard, showed flashes (i.e. 21 points of five 3-pointers against Xavier last season), but can he do it all year long? JT3 doesn’t shy away from non-conference opponents, and Georgetown will be tested early (vs. Maryland on Nov. 15; vs. Oregon on Nov. 21 in the Maui Invitational).
6. Butler: The return of Kelan Martin and arrival of Kethan Savage help offset the departures of Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones. Tyler Lewis need to take command of the point guard role with no Jones to play off of like last year. Butler’s depth is a concern again this season, but it’s realistic to view this as an NCAA Tournament team.
7. Marquette: Henry Ellenson, as expected, bolted for the NBA after one season. Luke Fischer is back on the frontline, but it surely isn’t a deep one. The Golden Eagles have a deep perimeter with Duane Wilson, Jujuan Johnson, Traci Carter, Sandy Cohen III and Haanif Cheatham being joined by Andrew Rowsey, Katin Reinhardt and Markus Howard. Ellenson leaving leaves a void in the rebounding department, and I’m not sure the new additions fix the turnover problems.
8. Providence: It’s tough to lose both Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil. But Ed Cooley is a good coach, and I think Kyron Cartwright is capable of being a quality point guard in the Big East. My real concern is whether both Rodney Bullock and Jalen Lindsey can become consistent scorers for the Friars. Newcomers also need to make instant contributions.
9. St. John’s: Chris Mullin’s second year at his alma mater should see slight strides. The Johnnies have one of the best frontlines in the league with two shot-blockers in Yankuba Sima and Kassoum Yakwe, as well as highly-touted JUCO forward Bashir Ahmed. Marcus LoVett Jr., who sat out last season, assumes the point guard role, while Shamorie Ponds, the Brooklyn native, will provide offensive firepower alongside shooter Federico Mussini.
10. DePaul: Billy Garrett Jr. will win the Blue Demons a few games in conference play, but I expect DePaul to continue this rebuild in Dave Leitao’s second season back. The new arena, opening in 2017, offers the program and its fans optimism.