Big East basketball is approaching. What is the most pressing question facing each team?
Another Big East basketball season is on the horizon. The conference only notched four bids to the NCAA Tournament a year ago, but expectations are high for an improved number this time around. Villanova still figures to be at the top of the standings, but there is an intriguing crop of teams behind them. Xavier and Butler, for instance, both return over 90 percent of their minutes from last season and are seeking resurgent years.
UConn and Seton Hall also expect to be top-half teams in the league even after losing their respective star players over the summer. St. John’s, conversely, lost essentially all of its role players but returned two of the best players in the league. Creighton and Georgetown both experienced a ton of roster turnover after reaching the NCAA Tournament, Providence remains likely to fit in the middle of the conference, and Marquette and DePaul have new coaches.
But while the excitement flame burns hot, there are pivotal questions that each program needs to answer in order to succeed. The campaign is just over a month away, so let’s dive into some of those essential queries.
Where do offensive improvements come from?
There were several reasons for Butler’s massive struggles last season with injuries being at the forefront of that list. With over 95 percent of their possession minutes returning and healthy, as well as the addition of Ty Groce, expectations for a bounce-back campaign are high. In order to make this happen, the Dawgs will need to be significantly better offensively. After three straight efficient scoring seasons under head coach LaVall Jordan, the team struggled last year:
Arguably the most discernible reason for this dropoff was the lack of a go-to scorer in the mold of Kelan Martin or Kamar Baldwin. The hope for this season is that sophomore Chuck Harris is able to fill that role. He scored 18.1 points per game on .414/.419/.871 shooting over Butler’s last seven contests last year, showcasing clutch shot-making along the way.
Additionally, the entire core around him is back and should be healthy. This includes bigs Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden, both of whom were hampered throughout last season after being hyper-efficient finishers in 2020. Groce also should contribute to improving the offense; he shot above the national averages in 2P%, 3P%, and FT% last season for Eastern Michigan.
There are reasons to be optimistic about Butler’s potential bounce-back this season. Coach Jordan’s strong track record offensively prior to last season is perhaps chief among them. The fact remains, though, that the offense needs to be much better.
How quickly can the ‘Jays grow up?
Creighton’s roster is plenty talented. Head coach Greg McDermott is bringing in the No. 7 overall recruiting class in the nation to help usher in a new era. Replacing Zegarowski, Ballock, Mahoney, Jefferson, and Bishop will surely be a tough challenge, and there is bound to be a transition period. The big question is how fast Creighton’s new-look roster will grow up and be ready to win consistently in the Big East.
The Bluejays are returning just 16.3 percent of their possession minutes from last season and rank 356th nationally in effective experience rating. Coach McDermott has earned the benefit of the doubt exceeding preseason expectations during his Big East basketball days, but he has to overcome the youth of his roster in order to do so again. This feels like a transition year for the program, but perhaps their overall talent outweighs their lack of experience.
Arthur Kaluma (No. 48 recruit), Ryan Nembhard (No. 68), Mason Miller (No. 73), and Trey Alexander (No. 75) are all four-star Top 100 prospects set to fill key roles. The program is also returning second-year players Rati Adronikashvili (redshirted last season) and Ryan Kalkbrenner as crucial underclassmen. Both Kalkbrenner and Nembhard are coming off strong appearances at FIBA U19 and have star potential.
DePaul Blue Demons
Can Stubblefield escape the DePaul curse?
DePaul has not finished above .500 in Big East basketball since 2007. This includes a 30-111 (.213) conference record since the 2014 realignment. DePaul has simply been confined to the cellar for as long as many fans can remember. Newly hired head coach Tony Stubblefield is hopefully the one to bring the Blue Demons back to relevance, but doing so will take baby steps.
DePaul’s roster was decimated by the transfer market this offseason, losing five key pieces to other college teams. Romeo Weems also took his talents to the NBA. Javon Freeman-Liberty and Nick Ongenda are back as solid returners but the rest of the rotation is likely to be filled out by newcomers. When it comes to setting the tone for the future, the key figures to watch are Jalen Terry and Ahamad Bynum.
These two make up the likely backcourt of the present and future for the Blue Demons. Terry is a former Top 100 recruit who played a limited role for Oregon as a freshman before transferring. He should take on more responsibility with DePaul. Bynum is a freshman ranked as the No. 90 overall player in the 2021 class. Their development will be crucial right away and down the road.
Will all the newcomers fit together?
Georgetown finished last year on a magical run, reaching the NCAA Tournament via the conference’s automatic bid. That hot finish, though, is in the past and the program experienced an overhaul over the summer. Their four top scorers all departed, including star big man Qudus Wahab (92nd-best block rate in the country) transferring to Maryland. Blair, Bile, and Pickett — all of whom have graduated — accounted for two-thirds of the Hoyas’ made 3-pointers.
Dante Harris and Donald Carey are the team’s most proven returners. Harris is the conference’s most underrated rising sophomore while Carey shot the lights out from three a year ago. Timothy Ighoefe is also returning, but the rest of the rotation will be made up of newcomers. Transfers Tre King (Eastern Kentucky) and Kaiden Rice (The Citadel) both figure to play big minutes; Rice’s high-volume 3-point shooting should help offset some of their perimeter losses.
More importantly, though, Georgetown’s incoming freshman class is an exciting one headlined by five-star wing Aminu Mohammed. The group also includes three other Top 150 prospects: big man Ryan Mutombo; wing Jordan Riley; guard Tyler Beard. All in all, it is the 16th-best class nationally. Georgetown clearly has a lot of new pieces joining the mix and making a push for a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance will hinge on how they all meld together.
Marquette Golden Eagles
Are there enough offensive weapons?
Marquette experienced a major program turnover this offseason. Shaka Smart is now stepping into the head coaching position while five players either transferred or turned pro. Justin Lewis and Greg Elliott at the lone key returners from last season, with the rest of the roster being filled out by incoming freshmen and transfers. With that said, the only player on the team coming off a double-digit scoring season is George Mason transfer Tyler Kolek.
There is a fair amount of defensive talent on the roster, including reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Darryl Morsell. As a result, it is reasonable to expect that Marquette will make significant strides on that end relative to the Wojo Era. Still, there are gaping holes offensively. The team’s top five scorers from last season all departed.
Finding someone who can successfully take over late shot-clock situations will be crucial for exceeding low preseason expectations. Rising sophomore Justin Lewis is coming off an impressive All-Freshman Big East basketball season, but was inefficient while scoring 7.8 points per game. He is still probably the most-likely player to breakthrough as a star.
Marquette should have a defense-first identity this season, but it needs multiple pieces to step offensively. There doesn’t seem to be one elite go-to guy on paper.
Is there enough spacing around Watson?
Nate Watson is arguably the most dominant center in Big East basketball. The 6-10 senior averaged 16.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game while shooting 60.2 percent from the field. He is the clear No. 1 option for Providence’s offense this season, but he is a non-threat outside of the paint. In order for him to be at his best, the Friars need to space the floor around him.
With their best shooter from last season, David Duke (51-for-131, 38.9 percent), now departed, it is worth questioning whether or not there is enough shooting around Watson. A.J. Reeves and Al Durham are both solid shooters, though neither are better than 36 percent for their careers. Noah Horchler was highly efficient from deep but on low volume and is better known for his rebounding ability.
A big key would be a resurgence from Jared Bynum as a shooter. The rising junior point guard shot 34.3 percent from three as a freshman at Saint Joseph’s before struggling mightily with the Friars. He likely won’t be an elite shooter, but he was simply a non-threat last season. The same could be said about South Carolina transfer Justin Minaya; he shot just 23.8 percent from deep over his last 47 games.
On paper, Providence figures to be a bottom-half shooting team in the country. Watson is a dominant force but needs more reliable shooting around him for the team to thrive.
St. John’s Red Storm
Can the Red Storm get stops?
St. John’s seems to have a bit of an unfounded reputation as an elite defensive team. Sure, the Red Storm forced a ton of turnovers last season, but that was just about all they did well on that end. They ranked 277th nationally in effective field goal percentage surrendered, particularly struggling with regard to at-the-rim defense. In addition to opponents being able to score underneath at high-efficiency marks, St. John’s also struggled on the defensive glass. Opponents snagged second-chance opportunities on 30.3 percent of missed shots.
St. John’s has a lot of new pieces around Posh Alexander and Julian Champagnie this season. The newcomers generally seem likely to be upgrades compared to last year, but are they going to improve the team’s overall defense? The Red Storm are always going to give up baskets around the rim as a byproduct of their aggressive, turnover-focused defensive scheme, but they need to be much better this time around. Last season’s 53.3 percent shooting allowed on 2-point attempts was the worst mark in Coach Anderson’s career.
Purdue transfer Aaron Wheeler should add to the frontcourt defense with his 6-9 frame and multi-year experience at the high-major level. Additionally, Fordham transfer Joel Soriano posted the nation’s 211th-best block rate and the 29th-best defensive rebounding rate in the country last season.
Seton Hall Pirates
How do the Pirates look post-Mamu?
Seton Hall looks to potentially enter a transition year following the departure of star player Sandro Mamukelashvili. However, the same could have been said after Carrington/Delgado/Rodriguez graduated, and then again after Myles Powell left. Throughout all of that, though, the Pirates have finished .500 or better in Big East basketball play for six consecutive seasons.
Kevin Willard has proven himself to be one of the better coaches in the league, but there are going to be some learning curves this year. “Mamu” was at the core of just about everything for the Pirates last season. He set career-highs across several different categories, leading Seton Hall in points, rebounds, and assists. The highly versatile forward was among the most impactful players in the country:
Jared Rhoden now figures to fill the star role for the team after averaging 14.9 points per game last season. The 6-6 guard/forward is a proven scoring threat as a slasher and should be the No. 1 option this season. His skillset is vastly different from Mamu, though, and an offense tailored around him will look much different. Additionally, Syracuse transfer Kadary Richmond is likely to take over the primary playmaking duties and will need to make the sophomore jump that many expect.
Who emerges as the go-to scorer?
UConn ranks third in Big East basketball in percentage of returning possession minutes this season (only behind Butler and Xavier). With that said, replacing James Bouknight’s ability as a scorer will be an arduous task. The now-Hornet averaged 18.7 points per game for the Huskies last season; the team went 11-4 with him on the court and 4-4 without him. They did shoot the three better in games without Bouknight but were overall sizably worse offensively:
It is reasonable to expect that UConn’s defense will continue to be elite this season. The Huskies ranked 29th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency last year and return all of their key stoppers, including Tyrese Martin and Isaiah Whaley. Rising sophomore Andre Jackson also has immense defensive potential and could slide into a starting role.
This projected elite defense raises UConn’s floor tremendously. If the Huskies are going to reach their full potential, though, they need a go-to scorer to emerge. Senior guard R.J. Cole is the primary suspect after averaging 12.2 points per game last season; he showed what he can do at high volume during his two seasons at Howard. Martin, another former transfer, is also an option.
Who steps up at the “5” spot?
Villanova returns a ton of talent from last season, including easily the best backcourt in the conference. Collin Gillespie, Justin Moore, and Caleb Daniels are an incredible trio for head coach Jay Wright to build his title contention around. Jermaine Samuels is also a very solid returning forward, but there is a lack of proven options at the “5” spot. Losing Jeremiah Robinson-Earl to the NBA is significant given that the Wildcats need a fresh face to emerge.
The most likely option to start is sophomore Eric Dixon. The former Top 100 recruit is entering his third season in Philly after a redshirt and averaging 3.0 points and 1.6 rebounds per game last year. He is a tad undersized at 6-8 but is a fluid inside-out mismatch threat if he takes a big leap. Incoming freshman Nnanna Njoku might also crack the rotation due to his size (6-9). He might have to immediately play given that Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree’s status is still unclear.
The Wildcats are the clear favorite to win the Big East basketball title but their ceiling is perhaps higher than that. In order to win their third national title in recent memory, Villanova will need someone like Dixon to emerge as a legit major contributor at the center spot. The guards are strong enough to lead a contender.
Is this Travis Steele’s breakthrough year?
Xavier made the NCAA Tournament in 16 of the 18 years prior to Travis Steele taking over the program. During his three years at the helm, the Musketeers have been solid (51-36, 23-26 Big East) but are yet to reach the NCAA Tournament. This has included a pair of late-season collapses; they lost three straight to end 2020 and then six of eight to finish 2021. With that in mind, this is a prove-it year for Coach Steele.
There is a strong argument to be made that Xavier boasts the second-best roster in Big East basketball this season. Paul Scruggs and Zach Freemantle are both All-Conference-caliber players who thrive at their respective positions. Scruggs is a superb do-it-all guard with great size at 6-5 while Freemantle is clearly one of the best bigs in the league. With Jack Nunge (Iowa) joining the mix this year, Freemantle will be able to play the “4” for stretches as well.
Nate Johnson is a superb shooter to put around the stars, while both KyKy Tandy and Adam Kunkel are solid perimeter threats as well. There is a lot to like about this roster. The Musketeers were one of the first teams out of the Big Dance last year and bring back the vast majority of their key pieces. Expectations should be high, and hopefully, this is the breakthrough year for Coach Steele, who has underachieved to date.