2016-17 Big East season preview

Photo: Bill Streicher-USA Today Sports
Villanova guard Josh Hart. (Photo: Bill Streicher-USA Today Sports)

The Big East flexed its muscle last March on a national stage, as the only basketball-first power conference saw its best team bring home a national title. This year, Villanova has a group capable of threatening to repeat, while Xavier returns the guts of a team that won 28 games. Seton Hall and Creighton are a couple schools on the rise that could threaten the conference’s brass.

The Big East’s depth has been its greatest strength since it reorganized in 2013, though the conference’s mid-section may take a bit of a hit this winter. Georgetown, Butler and Providence all have pieces and stellar coaches, but each possess a roster that suggests a rebuilding season. Georgetown, meanwhile, needs to bounce back after underachieving horribly last year. John Thompson III has never missed the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years at Georgetown, and the distinguished coach’s seat might grow a bit toasty if the losses keep pouring in.

Marquette, St. John’s and DePaul look like this year’s bottom-dwellers, although the Blue Demons are finally investing in their basketball program, and St. John’s could have a good thing going in Queens sooner rather than later.

1. Villanova

Strengths

Oh, just about everything. Senior wing Josh Hart is an athletic freak, and terrorizes opponents on both ends of the court. Senior forward Kris Jenkins was a stud even before he hit the biggest shot of the season.

Jenkins is a hard guard and fills in a key role in a front court that also includes long-striding sophomore Mikal Bridges and offensively-gifted Fordham transfer Eric Paschall. Another scoring machine, junior Phil Booth, will put up points for the backcourt, and sophomore Jalen Brunson will step into a starring role at point replacing Ryan Arcidiacono.

Concerns

The frontcourt is stacked, and the backcourt is, well, a Villanova backcourt. But the Wildcats will still miss two key cogs from last year: Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu. The gritty center and clutch guard will be replaced without too much of a beat when it comes to talent, but their leadership will be harder to replicate. Jenkins and Hart will have to step up.

2. Xavier

Strengths

These dudes can put the biscuit in the basket. Junior swingman Trevon Bluiett is back after scoring 15 per game and knocking in just under 40% of his 3-pointers last year. Senior Myles Davis is back too, and he’s also ultra dangerous from deep. A couple of other big, rock solid guards — junior J.P. Macura and sophomore Edmond Sumner — round up one the nation’s best backcourts.

Concerns

The frontcourt has thinned and Xavier likely won’t lead the Big East in rebounding margin again this year. Forwards James Farr and Jalen Reynolds are big losses. Norfolk State transfer RaShid Gaston will have to step up. He averaged 15.5 points, 9.6 boards and 1.2 blocks for the Spartans two seasons ago.

3. Seton Hall

Strengths

This is a guard-heavy league and, like Xavier, Seton Hall’s strength is its backcourt. Junior guard Khadeen Carrington is one of the league’s best players, and the addition of a diaper dandy guard by the name of Myles Powell makes the team’s backcourt look elite even despite the graduation of Isaiah Whitehead, the conference’s second-leading scorer last year.

Concerns

Keeping it all together. Seton Hall exploded onto the scene last year with consistent defense and an offensively charged offense. The season ended in the team’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade. Now, there’s hype built around the program. The team will have to find a way to handle it while still staying grounded.

4. Creighton

Strengths

Senior Cole Huff does great work in the front court, and he’ll give another team with talented guards some balance. Meanwhile, senior shooter Isaiah Zierden might be the league’s best, and Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster will add another stud to a backcourt led by 5-foot-10 senior point guard Maurice Watson Jr. The Bluejays didn’t score prolifically enough last year to compete for a spot in the Dance, but the addition of Foster and the maturation of Watson Jr. should boost them.

Concerns

Scoring efficiently is still a concern. The Bluejays are far removed from the days of Doug McDermott. Plus, the losses of guard James Milliken and center Geoffrey Groselle are not inconsiderable. There’s some real talent here, but also some real question marks — particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

5. Georgetown

Strengths

This is a big, bruising physical Big East team. Senior 7-footer Bradley Hayes is a rock in the middle, and he’ll be joined by a number of other bigs, including sophomore Jessie Govan, junior Isaac Copeland and sophomore Marcus Derrickson. Put it all together and you have the league’s best frontcourt outside of Philadelphia. Meanwhile, junior slasher L.J. Peak will put up serious offensive numbers.

Concerns

Leading scorer D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is gone, which may be a breath of fresh air after the guard struggled at times last year, but the team’s guards will need to figure it out without him. And they’ll be looking to cut down on turnovers, which killed the Hoyas last year.

6. Providence

Strengths

Ed Cooley is still the coach in Providence, and if anyone can overcome losing the league’s leading scorer from last year in Ben Bentil AND a lottery pick in Kris Dunn, Cooley can. Plus the young dudes on this team are exciting. Junior Kyron Cartwright has wheels, and junior Rodney Bullock looked like he was a year away from blossoming into a start last winter. This is his team now.

Concerns

Shooting. Providence was a brick machine from the outside last year, and that was before two of the team’s best shooters departed. If the Friars can’t get anything to drop outside of 15 feet, that will be a problem.

7. Butler

Strengths

Like Providence, the Bulldogs lost their two best players after last season. This is a team in transition, but they’ll still stretch opponents with their frontcourt. Senior forward Andrew Chrabascz is a tough cover with a funky game, and junior forward Kelan Martin should score in bunches.

Concerns

Roosevelt Jones is irreplaceable. Kellen Dunham was as good a shooter as the league had. Butler will need to find new leadership and new places to find offense.

8. Marquette

Strengths

Youthful talent. There are some promising young bucks on this team, and the arrival of transfer Andrew Rowsey could be big. Sophomore guard Haanif Cheatham could be a star.

Concerns

Forward Henry Ellenson was absolute dynamite last year, and he’s off to the NBA. Even with him back, this team would lack meaningful experience.

9. St. John’s

Strengths

There’s potential all over the roster, from sophomore center Yankuba Sima to sophomore guards Federico Mussini and Malik Ellison. Freshman guards Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett give this backcourt some depth, if they can live up to the hype.

Concerns

That potential still needs to be realized. So far, it hasn’t. We’ll find out if this program is still a year or two away from success.

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
DePaul guard Eli Cain. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

10. DePaul

Strengths

There’s a new arena on the way. Oh, and the Blue Demons actually have a decent backcourt! (Who doesn’t in this league?) Senior Billy Garrett Jr. and sophomore Eli Cain will score some points.

Concerns

They couldn’t guard anybody last year, and forward Myke Henry is a major loss. They’ll huck, and they have some athleticism, but until DePaul starts protecting the rim, they’re going to lose a lot. 6’10” senior Peter Ryckbosch may miss all of non-conference play due to a knee injury, which leaves freshmen Levi Cook and Al Eichelberger as the only true size on the team to start the season.

All-League 1st Team

Trevon Bluiett, Xavier

Rodney Bullock, Providence

Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall

Josh Hart, Villanova

Kris Jenkins, Villanova

Player of the Year

Josh Hart, Villanova

Freshman of the Year

Myles Powell, Seton Hall

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