Last season was a down one for the Big East. The league only sent four teams to the Big Dance, with two as double-digit seeds, and zero squads advanced to the second weekend. This year, though, figures to be different for the conference.
Villanova should be the same Villanova we’ve grown accustomed to over the last five or so years, while Creighton, Xavier and Seton Hall should all take major steps forward. A few other schools should be in the mix for tournament bids, and 2019-20 should be the Big East’s return to college basketball’s forefront.
National Competitors: Creighton, Seton Hall, Villanova, Xavier
Villanova has won five of the last six Big East regular season titles, and it is the favorite to take home its sixth in seven tries in 2020. Collin Gillespie, Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree are back to keep the Wildcats at the top of the league, and the No. 5 recruiting class in the nation helps cushion the blow from losing Eric Paschall and Phil Booth. Five stars Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Bryan Antoine are the biggest names in the crop, plus a couple four stars and Chris Arcidiacono, a relative of a certain someone Villanova fans may be familiar with. Expect the Wildcats to pick right back up where they left off.
Myles Powell was one of the most dynamic scorers in all of the college basketball last season, and he’s back again to take Seton Hall to heights it hasn’t seen in years. The Pirates also return the rest of its starting lineup, including Myles Cale, Quincy McKnight and Sandro Mamukelashvili. Expectations are high for this team, although Seton Hall has had just as much, if not more talent on its roster in recent years and still failed to deliver anything memorable. This will be an important season for head coach Kevin Willard to prove his position as a top coach in the Big East and show his fan base that he can do something special at Seton Hall.
Xavier also brings back nearly all of its production from last year, and head coach Travis Steele is expected to have his Musketeers in the thick of things in the Big East. Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs and Quentin Goodin are the major names back on the roster, with Ryan Welage and Zach Hankins serving as the biggest departures. Five commits in its top 30 recruiting class will provide much-needed depth, and they join a team that was one of the hottest in the country in the second half of last season. Xavier messed up its non-conference and the opening of Big East play too much to climb back into the NCAA Tournament by Selection Sunday, but it has to have Musketeers fans feeling good considering how similar this year’s team will look to last season’s.
The outlook for Creighton doesn’t quite look as positive now as it did a couple weeks ago. Jacob Epperson, one of the important returners from last season’s squad, suffered a leg injury in practice Oct. 24. The big man is out for an undetermined amount of time in what is now the second significant injury of his college career. Even without him, though, the Bluejays are in good position to contend in the Big East as Marcus Zegarowski, Davion Mintz, Ty-Shon Alexander and Mitchell Ballock are all back, plus the addition of transfer Denzel Mahoney, who averaged 19.3 points per outing at Southeast Missouri State in the 2017-18 season. Creighton should be dancing again in March and could make a run to the program’s first Sweet 16 since 1974.
NCAA Tournament Hopefuls: Butler, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence
The middle of the Big East has been a bubble haven for years now, and this season shouldn’t be any different. Depending on how the league does in the non-conference portion of the season, one to three of these schools could find themselves in the Big Dance come Selection Sunday, but none of them can feel safe about it heading into the season.
Marquette brings back one of the best players in the nation last season in Markus Howard. He averaged 25.0 points per contest and hit from anywhere at will when he wanted to. Having a scorer like him is a massive luxury for any team, and his offensive capabilities alone will win the Golden Eagles some games. Sacar Anim and Theo John are back, too, but the loss of Joey Hauser, Sam Hauser and Joseph Chartourny will be felt. Marquette isn’t anticipated to go toe-for-toe with Villanova for the Big East crown again, but it should have enough to return to the NCAA Tournament.
Head coach Ed Cooley returns the bulk of his roster from last season. Add in Massachusetts transfer Luwane Pipkins, and it makes sense that Providence is eyeing the Big Dance as its postseason destination. The Friars will be missing Isaiah Jackson and Makai Ashton-Langford, but Alpha Diallo, Nate Watson and A.J. Reeves will be readily available. How well Pipkins can acclimate to his new team will be important in determining how far the Friars can go, but they should be looking at a March Madness berth.
There are some more question marks for Butler and Georgetown’s Selection Sunday odds. The Bulldogs bring back Kamar Baldwin, Sean McDermott and Jordan Tucker, plus Derrik Smits transferred from Valapariaso and Bryce Nze joined the squad from Milwaukee in the offseason. Paul Jorgensen, Nate Fowler and Joey Brunk are gone, but with the new pieces and the ones returning, head coach LaVall Jordan is in a position to move his program forward from finishing tied for last in the Big East last season and an overall record of 16-17.
The Hoyas lost Jessie Govan, Trey Mourning, Kaleb Johnson and Greg Malinowski, but James Akinjo and Mac McClung, two of the most exciting freshmen in the Big East a year ago, are back and hopefully ready to take major steps forward in their games. The team also welcomes Omer Yurtseven, a transfer from NC State who averaged 13.4 points per outing in the 2017-18 campaign, to its ranks, plus complementary pieces like Josh LeBlanc and JaMorko Pickett return. Head coach Patrick Ewing has a chance to have his alma mater back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, but it will be a challenge.
The Fodder: DePaul, St. John’s
When hasn’t DePaul been fodder for the Big East? These Demon Deacons aren’t as bad as they were a few years ago. They can pull off some upsets, particularly at home, and will make some opponents sweat it out until the final buzzer. There are some fun players on the roster, such as Paul Reed, Jalen Coleman-Lands and Devin Gage. But Max Strus is gone, Eli Cain is gone, and I don’t see enough there to make me think DePaul will be any better than last season. With most of the Big East seemingly improving in the offseason, it’s tough to see the Demon Deacons do anything but finish in the league’s basement yet again.
St. John’s is under a new regime as Mike Anderson, the former head coach of UAB, Missouri and Arkansas, replaced Chris Mullin in the offseason. Other major exits include Shamorie Ponds and Justin Simon, which will really hurt the Red Storm in 2020. Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa are back, though, plus a collection of recruits and transfers – headlined by David Caraher, who posted 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per night with Houston Baptist in 2017-18 – who could help smooth over the transition the program is experiencing. The team should be good enough to bother some of the conference’s middling opposition, but I don’t see it overcoming the odds and qualifying for the Big Dance.