Lukas Harkins | @hardwiredsports | 06/08/20
The Big East is fresh off an excellent season in which it was widely regarded as one of the best leagues in the nation. In fact, four teams (Villanova, Creighton, Seton Hall, Butler) were all looking poised to potentially land Top 4 seeds to the NCAA Tournament prior to its cancelation with a couple more on the bubble. It was an all-around strong year for the conference, but one that would not be honored by postseason success.
Looking ahead to the 2020-21 season, there are a lot of questions facing the conference. Considering nine of the 11 All-Big East selections (and all six first-teamers) last season have either graduated or are likely to turn professional, perhaps the most pressing concern is wondering who the next crop of stars will be.
Additionally, UConn is rejoining starting in this coming year and the move to a 20-game conference schedule will be intriguing to watch as well. To put it simply, there is no shortage of storylines to follow for the Big East heading into the campaign.
Now, with a few months remaining until the hopeful opening tip of the 2020-21 season, let’s take a dive into some way-too-early rankings for the conference.
1. Villanova Wildcats (2019-20 Finish: 1st | 24-7, 13-5 BE)
Villanova is the clear choice to be named the preseason frontrunner to win the Big East for this coming season. With Jay Wright roaming the sidelines in Philadelphia for his 20th season, the Wildcats boast the best head coach in the conference and he has a loaded roster to work with. Even with Saddiq Bey likely taking his talents to the NBA, ‘Nova is stacked with returning talent from a team that was likely to receive a Top 2 seed at the NCAA Tournament during this past season.
Senior point guard Collin Gillespie (15.1p/3.7r/4.5a) will be the seasoned veteran leader of the roster with his steady scoring and playmaking. He took a big leap last season and has earned the trust of his teammates to step up in big moments. He is simply a rock-solid guard fresh off being named an All-Big East Second Team performer. Gillespie will also be joined by fellow upperclassmen Jermaine Samuels and Cole Swider (among others).
Perhaps most importantly, though, Villanova’s rising sophomore class is why this team has a legitimate shot at being named the preseason No. 1 team in America. Justin Moore (11.3p) and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (10.5p/9.4r) both posted strong freshmen seasons and will be back for more. Additionally, former five-star prospect Bryan Antoine should be completely healthy in 2020-21 and his ceiling is among the highest on the team if he returns to his prior form.
2. Creighton Bluejays (2019-20 Finish: 1st | 24-7, 13-5 BE)
Creighton was a popular pick to potentially win the Big East in 2020-21 at the start of this offseason but then lost Ty-Shon Alexander to the NBA. While the Bluejays still bring back a ton of talent, particularly offensively, Alexander was their best two-way player and was an All-Big East First Team performer as a result. His loss is an absolutely huge one and greatly diminishes the team’s defensive ability.
Nonetheless, Creighton should still be a lock for the No. 2 spot in the preseason poll for the Big East thanks to its ridiculous offensive firepower. Leading the way for this group will be junior Marcus Zegarowski. One of the top overall point guards in the entire nation, Zegarowski was a Second Team All-Big East selection this past season after averaging 16.1 points and 5.0 assists per game on 42.4 percent shooting from three.
Head coach Greg McDermott will rely on him to run the offense but there are several other solid pieces returning too. This includes seniors Mitchell Ballock (11.9p/5.3r) and Damien Jefferson (9.4p/5.5r), as well as undersized junior forward Christian Bishop (8.6p/5.3r). In terms of reinforcements, the Bluejays are adding a respectable recruiting class ranked at 47th in the nation by Rivals. This group includes a pair of four-star prospects with big man Ryan Kalkbrenner and point guard Rati Andronikashvili.
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3. Seton Hall Pirates (2019-20 Finish: 1st | 21-9, 13-5 BE)
Seton Hall entered last season with high expectations and largely lived up to the hype while finishing in a three-way tie for the Big East regular-season title. The Pirates performed admirably throughout the year as they were more than just “The Myles Powell Show”. Their emergence on the defensive end, thanks to Quincy McKnight and Romaro Gill, was astounding and arguably the main reason for their success.
Looking ahead to this coming season, though, the Pirates have a lot of unanswered questions on the table with Powell, McKnight, and Gill all graduating. Head coach Kevin Willard essentially has to replace each of his three most important players this offseason and that isn’t easy no matter how you spin it. But with a solid group of returners and an elite incoming graduate transfer, the Pirates could remain in the upper half of the Big East.
Bryce Aiken is at the forefront of the optimism for Seton Hall during this coming season. The 6-foot-0 grad transfer from Harvard has struggled with injuries throughout his career and that is a huge concern, but he can be a dynamite scorer to fill Powell’s role within the offense if he is able to stay healthy. Aiken averaged 22.2 points per game in 2018-19 across 18 games with the Crimson.
Aiken will also be joining a roster with some valuable returners as well. Sandro Mamukelashvili, Jared Rhoden, Myles Cale, and Tyrese Samuel have all proven to be solid contributors that could take their games to the next level in 2020-21. Canisius transfer Takal Molson, who sat out this past season, is also worth mentioning.
4. Providence Friars (2019-20 Finish: 4th | 19-12, 12-6 BE)
Providence struggled early during this past season while largely falling out of the NCAA Tournament conversation by the end of non-conference play. Yet, when the Big East season started, the Friars found a whole different gear and finished just a game behind the three-way tie for the title. Head coach Ed Cooley’s team played with a desperation that was hard to match as they ripped off some huge wins.
While the Friars are losing Alpha Diallo, Luwane Pipkins, and Maliek White (among others) this offseason, they have a strong returning core that is worth believing in. Rising juniors David Duke and A.J. Reeves look poised to be the stars of the roster while Nate Watson is a solid veteran option at the center spot as well. Noah Horchler (North Florida transfer) will also join the mix. These upperclassmen will be leading the way but two sophomores could be the big ceiling-raisers.
Former Top 100 recruit Greg Gantt only averaged 2.6 points and 2.3 rebounds per game as a freshman in 2019-20 but a huge leap could be in his future. If he is able to take that jump as a versatile 6-foot-8 forward, then Providence will be a top-half team in the conference. Additionally, transfer guard Jared Bynum will be a sophomore next season after sitting out this past campaign. Bynum averaged 11.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game as a freshman at St. Joseph’s.
The Friars are losing a lot of talent, and I might be overvaluing them at No. 4 in these rankings. There is just so much that is unknown in the middle of this league and someone has to be at this spot.
5. UConn Huskies (2019-20 Finish: N/A | 19-12, 10-8 AAC)
UConn will be rejoining the Big East moving forward after spending the past seven campaigns in the AAC. While the Huskies did win the national title in their first year in that league, they have fizzled recently with just one NCAA Tournament appearance over the last six years. Still, head coach Dan Hurley has a fun group on his hands for Year 3 with the program and expectations will be high.
Most notably, rising sophomore James Bouknight looks like the nation’s next rising star. The 6-foot-4 guard from Brooklyn is fresh off a solid freshman year but was particularly excellent down the stretch. Over the last 13 games of the season, Bouknight averaged 17.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game on high-efficiency shooting. The athletic shot-maker really seemed to turn a corner and he should be an All-Big East performer at some point in the future.
The Huskies will likely center their attack around Bouknight but he is not the only important piece to take note of. Isaiah Whaley also finished this past season remarkably strong and it would be a mistake to overlook Josh Carlton as a proven starter. Furthermore, Tyler Polley is also expected to be healthy from the opening tip, and Howard transfer RJ Cole should see big minutes after sitting out last season.
I have two concerns regarding UConn, though, and that is why they are ranked at only No. 5 right now. For one, the Huskies simply weren’t very successful in the AAC and the Big East is a slightly more challenging conference. Perhaps the more pertinent concern, though, is the health of Akok Akok after his Achilles injury. If he is completely healthy, I would move UConn up a bit (either No. 3 or 4).
6. St. John’s Red Storm (2019-20 Finish: 8th | 17-15, 5-13 BE)
I might be a bit high on St. John’s with this No. 6 placement. After all, the Red Storm have struggled to live up to expectations in just about every season in recent memory. Even during this past season, SJU played excellent basketball in non-conference play only to stumble to a 5-13 conference record. Yet, I have high hopes for Year 2 under head coach Mike Anderson, who I believe has the program trending in the right direction.
While likely losing LJ Figueroa is a big blow, the Red Storm have a few solid returners and arguably the most underrated group of newcomers in the country. Leading the way for this group should be rising sophomore Julian Champagnie. The 6-foot-7 forward ended last season on a tear while averaging 14.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game over SJU’s last eight games. Double-digit scorer Rasheem Dunn (11.9p/3.8r/3.4a) will also be returning as a steady contributor for the backcourt.
These two will be leading the way but SJU’s rising junior class is worth mentioning as well. Greg Williams Jr., Marcellus Earlington, and Josh Roberts (among others) headline this group as returners but Coach Anderson also has a pair of JUCO transfers joining the mix. Vince Cole should add vital 3-point shooting to the wing with his 6-foot-5 frame and sniper abilities while Isaih Moore could be a solid back-up presence inside.
Furthermore, incoming freshmen Posh Alexander and Dylan Wusu might not be highly-rated but seem to embody exactly what Coach Anderson is looking to build. They represent a duo that should develop together quite well for the future in Queens.
7. Butler Bulldogs (2019-20 Finish: 5th | 22-9, 10-8 BE)
Butler was one of the nation’s most surprising teams during this past season. Despite entering the campaign with extremely low expectations, the Dawgs surprised many. They spent most of the year ranked in the AP Top 25 and were poised to land a No. 4-5 seed at the NCAA Tournament prior to its cancelation. Looking ahead to this campaign, Butler will be without huge contributors in Kamar Baldwin, Sean McDermott, and Jordan Tucker (among others) but also has some solid returning talent.
In fact, Butler returns three full-time starters from this past year with Aaron Thompson, Bryce Nze, and Bryce Golden. With the addition of South Carolina graduate transfer Jair Bolden, the Dawgs will enter this coming campaign with four upperclassmen starters and that is a pretty good set of building blocks to work with. Butler has earned a reputation for exceeding preseason expectations in the past and could do so again, especially with their veteran starting lineup.
The key for Butler will be emerging as an elite defensive team during this coming season. Without any true shooting threats on paper, the Dawgs could struggle to score consistently and thus need to be lockdown on the other end. When fully healthy, Butler ranked in the Top 5 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency last season and is returning arguably its best three defenders. That includes four-year starting lead guard Aaron Thompson, who was a semifinalist for National Defensive Player of the Year. He will anchor this group at the point.
Butler’s ceiling will be dependent on its incoming recruiting class, which is ranked as the 23rd-best in the nation by Rivals. This five-man group features four Top 150 players and is the highest-rated in program history. Michigan’s Mr. Basketball, Scooby Johnson, appears poised to fill a starting role as a freshman while a few others could be rotation pieces. If one or two freshmen can contribute right away, Butler could once again exceed expectations.
8. Marquette Golden Eagles (2019-20 Finish: 6th | 18-12, 8-10 BE)
Marquette arguably suffered the biggest losses of any team in the Big East this offseason. Losing the nation’s leading scorer in Markus Howard to graduation is tough enough, but the Golden Eagles also have to wave goodbye to fellow double-digit scorer Sacar Anim (graduation) and potential rising star Brendan Bailey (professional). That leaves only Koby McEwen as a returner who averaged over six points per game last season.
In order to counteract these losses, head coach Steve Wojciechowski has an electric group of newcomers joining the program. Whether or not this group will be enough to push the team over the top, though, remains to be seen. After all, Marquette has largely disappointed over the past few seasons even with an all-time great in Howard leading the team.
In the transfer market, Coach Wojo was able to secure commitments from D.J. Carton and Jose Perez. For the time being, though, both of these players will have to sit out this coming season before resuming their eligibility in the future. If neither is able to play this year, it could be a very long season for Marquette. With that said, though, many expect that Carton will be granted a waiver and that would greatly help the team. The former Top 50 recruit was playing well for Ohio State as a freshman last season before stepping away due to mental health.
In addition to the two incoming transfers, Marquette boasts an excellent incoming recruiting class. Dawson Garcia is the most well-known of this group and he could take on a starring role right away as a versatile 6-foot-11 forward/center fringing on being a five-star commit. Justin Lewis and Osasere Ighodaro are the other newcomers as multipositional forwards ranked in the Top 100 as well.
To put it simply, Marquette is going to look very, very different next season. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing, and there are still lots of questions to be answered.
9. Xavier Musketeers (2019-20 Finish: 6th | 19-13, 8-10 BE)
Xavier entered this past season with high expectations but was never able to truly live up to the hype. The Musketeers hovered around the bubble rather than the Top 25 for most of the year and likely would have been left out of the NCAA Tournament had it not been canceled. It was a relatively disappointing season, on the whole, as head coach Travis Steele has now fallen one short of the 20-win mark in back-to-back years since taking over at the helm. X had previously exceeded that number in each of its first five years while in the Big East. Additionally, Coach Steele is losing his top two players this offseason with Naji Marshall heading to the pros and Tyrique Jones graduating.
Still, Xavier has enough talent to potentially finish in the upper-half of the Big East. While I currently have the Musketeers in this No. 9 slot, they are still in the massive Tier 2 of the league in which teams ranked 3-through-9 could be placed in almost any order. Xavier is certainly losing multiple key pieces this offseason, but so is just about everyone in the conference (sans Villanova and Creighton, who are only losing one or two each). With four strong returners coming back to Cincinnati, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Musketeers vastly exceed this WTE prediction.
This potential optimism is centered on Xavier’s rising sophomore duo of Zach Freemantle and Kyky Tandy. These two both performed relatively well as freshmen while showing flashes of their potential for big-time success down the road. They don’t necessarily need to be stars as sophomore to take Xavier to the next level, but both making sizable improvements – which is not unlikely – would bode well for the team.
The Musketeers’ ceiling will rely fairly heavily on those sophomores but they also have a decent group of upperclassmen as well. Rising senior guard Paul Scruggs is the lone returning double-digit scorer for the team and will thus likely be the top option offensively this season. Additionally, Jason Carter is back in the fold and Coach Steele added a pair of transfers in Bryan Griffin and Nate Johnson, both of whom will be eligible immediately. They also have a solid recruiting class ranked at 28th in the nation by Rivals that should help right away.
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10. DePaul Blue Demons (2019-20 Finish: 10th | 16-16, 3-15 BE)
I still feel bad for DePaul fans after last season. The Blue Demons started the year playing so well with big non-conference wins and an 11-1 record that seemed to have them on the path of reaching their first NCAA Tournament since 2003-04. Alas, DePaul went just 3-15 in conference play and fell out of the national spotlight and back to the cellar of the Big East. The second half of the season was far from pretty and it doesn’t seem like DePaul will make a massive run of the standings in 2020-21, either.
With Paul Reed heading to the pros and Jalen Coleman-Lands transferring to Iowa State, the Blue Demons lost two of its most crucial pieces this offseason and that will be difficult to recover from. Reed was the team’s star in the frontcourt on both ends of the floor while JCL was one of the lone pieces willing to space the floor from distance. Both averaged in double-figures per game as scorers.
While head coach Dave Leitao is bringing back a decent core of Charlie Moore, Jaylen Butz, Darious Hall, and Romeo Weems, it’s hard to predict that DePaul will be soaring up the rankings with that group. They will certainly be competitive in a lot of games, and the addition of transfer Ray Salnave definitely helps, but I’m not buying the potential for a breakout year from the program. There does not appear to be enough depth on this roster nor is the core talented enough to make a jump by itself.
11. Georgetown Hoyas (2019-20 Finish: 8th | 15-17, 5-13 BE)
Georgetown was the only Big East team that finished with a losing overall record last season. The Hoyas finished just 15-17 (5-13 BE) and the campaign was tumultuous, to say the least. The program lost a few pieces to transfer early in the year, suffered through injuries, and lost their last seven games as a result. It was a disappointing end to a disappointing season, and the future does not look particularly bright for this coming year either.
This pessimism is due to the fact that not only did Georgetown struggle during this past season but it is also losing the majority of its main contributors. Omer Yurtseven is heading to the pros, Mac McClung transferred to Texas Tech, and Terrell Allen/Jagan Mosely both graduated. These departures represented four of Georgetown’s top six scorers over the course of the campaign.
Jahvon Blair and Jamorko Pickett will be back as seniors after both averaging 10 points per game last season and they will likely be the leaders of the team. Jalen Harris is also joining the mix as an upperclassman transfer. Rising sophomore big man Qudus Wahab, though, might be the most important to watch as he showed flashes of brilliance last season and could be a budding star worth watching in the nation’s capital.
On the whole, though, this seems like a rebuilding year for Georgetown. In addition to Wahab, the Hoyas will likely look to give incoming freshmen such as Jamari Sibley and Tyler Beard plenty of minutes to aide in their development.
Lukas Harkins is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com and covers the nation with rankings, bracketology, analysis, and recruiting breakdowns. He is currently a Rockin’ 25 voter and is credentialed media for Butler. He previously worked as one of the site experts at Busting Brackets. Harkins graduated from Butler University in 2019 and majored in Healthcare and Business.