Big East College Basketball 2020/21 Preview

Prior to the sudden end of the 2019/20 college basketball season, the Big East Conference provided some of the best basketball in the country and featured a three-way tie for the regular-season crown between Creighton, Villanova, and Seton Hall, each of whom was ranked in the Top 15 heading into the Big East Conference Tournament.

One year later, the conference is going through a transition period.

The biggest story of the offseason is that of the return to the Big East from original conference member UConn.  UConn comes back to the Big East after seven seasons playing as a member of the American Athletic Conference, but the move never really felt right so seeing UConn back in the conference they belong is already a major win for the conference.

The Big East saw a lot of talent leave the conference between March and today, as NCAA leading scorer Markus Howard graduated from Marquette and the face of Seton Hall, Myles Powell, also departed the program after graduating.  Georgetown lost sharpshooting Mac McClung (transferred to Texas Tech), Creighton lost Ty-Shon Alexander (NBA Draft), and Butler lost practically their entire senior-laden team.

The landscape of the conference has changed, but one thing remains the same:  Villanova is going to be really good this season.

Here’s how the rest of the Big East shakes out.

The Contenders

#3 Villanova (-109 to Win Big East)

A mark of how talented this Villanova team is this season is looking at their odds to win the Big East. 

Outside of Gonzaga, no other school in the country is favored to win their conference with you risking more money than you’d win.  There’s a reason for these odds, as no other team in the Big East boasts the depth, experience, and shooting that Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats will during the 2020/21 season.

Villanova only loses one player from last season’s team in leading scorer Saddiq Bey (2020 NBA Draft) and is projected to start four players who averaged double-digits in scoring a season ago. 

The ‘Cats will be led by senior point guard Collin Gillespie (15.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) who made enormous strides last season as a player and is a legitimate candidate to bring home the Big East Conference Player of the Year Award.  Gillespie will be playing alongside sophomore three-point shooting specialist Justin Moore in the backcourt.  Moore is a former Top 50 recruit for Jay Wright and connected on 40% of his shots from distance a season ago. 

The weapons in Jay Wright’s arsenal are plenty, as Villanova will also have the services of Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels this season.  Daniels averaged nearly 17 points per game for the Green Wave before transferring to Villanova and figures to be the ‘Cats sixth man this season.

All of this and we haven’t even mentioned the reigning Big East Freshman of the Year in forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (10.5 ppg, 9.4 rpg).

Simply put, Villanova is stacked.  The Big East is down this season, but Villanova is not.  They may very well waltz to another league crown.  Don’t be afraid to bet on this team throughout the season and in whatever version of an NCAA Tournament that we get this year.

#11 Creighton (+350 to Win Big East)

If anyone can relate to the Baylor’s, Dayton’s, and San Diego State’s of the world, it would probably be the boys from Omaha, Nebraska.

The Creighton Blue Jays were fresh off securing a share of their first-ever Big East Conference championship and ranked as the 7th overall team in the country entering championship week.  A Big East conference tournament championship likely would have brought the Blue Jays their highest seeding in the NCAA Tournament ever, and they were a very real threat to make a deep run in March.

Then COVID-19 happened and the season was history. 

Now Greg McDermott is left to try again, this time without his best player Ty-Shon Alexander, but the Blue Jays are once again in a great position to finish high in the Big East standings and potentially make a March run.

Replacing Alexander will not be easy, but McDermott is not inheriting a bare cupboard this season either.  Junior guard Marcus Zegarowski (16.1 ppg, 5.0 apg) will be the team’s new leader and the Blue Jays should be in great hands as a result.  The talented point guard was an assassin from three-point range a season ago, shooting a blistering 45% from beyond the arc while chipping in five assists a night.  McDermott’s quick-tempo system that spreads the floor is tailor-made for Zegarowski’s skillset and he should fill some of the gaps from Alexander’s absence.

Joining Zegarowski in the Creighton backcourt is senior guard Mitchell Ballock, who like Zegarowski is also a demon from three-point range as he connected on nearly 44% of his 211 three-point attempts a season ago. 

While Creighton is loaded with guards that can shoot the lights out, they’re dangerously thin in the frontcourt with 6-11 Jacob Epperson being the team’s best option down low.  Epperson hasn’t played since the 2018-19 season, however, as he missed all of last season with an injury.  He’s also a very slender 6-11, so whether or not he can handle a skilled big remains to be seen.

Outside of Villanova, however, there is not another team in the conference that can light up the scoreboard in the manner Creighton can.  Expect McDermott’s team to push for another regular-season crown and look out for them when you’re filling out your bracket in March.

The Dangerous Dark Horses

UConn (+500 to Win Big East)

“FINALLY!  UCONN HAS COME BAAAAAAAAAAACK……. TO THE BIG EAST!”
 – Dwayne Johnson, probably.

2020 has brought us a whole myriad of awful crap to endure, but it did right at least one wrong by returning UConn to its rightful home – the Big East Conference.

Yes, UConn is back as a member of the conference and Dan Hurley has his best team at UConn yet.

The Huskies return emerging star sophomore James Bouknight (13.0 ppg) and added two high-volume scorers through the transfer portal in former Howard leading scorer RJ Cole (21.4 ppg) and former Rhode Island product Tyrese Martin (12.8 ppg, 7 rpg).

Each player should immediately contribute to a young Huskies team that has only three seniors on it, two of which start in the UConn frontcourt with bigs Tyler Polley (9.5 ppg) and Josh Carlton (7.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg).  

If RJ Cole can come in and give Dan Hurley a much needed three-point threat, UConn has a great chance to emerge from a crowded middle of the conference and get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 – which given their storied history, is hard to believe they’ve been away from the dance for this long.

Providence (+900 to Win Big East)

For the Providence Friars, the 2019/20 season could have easily doubled as a Jekyll & Hyde type performance.

The Friars began the season with high-expectations about being a live dog in the Big East and a team capable of contending for the regular-season crown, instead, they stumbled to a 7-6 start in the non-conference part of their schedule, losing games to the likes of Northwestern, Penn, Long Beach State, and Charleston. 

Then right around Valentine’s Day, the Friars sat at 13-12 overall and 6-6 in the conference. 

They wouldn’t lose again for the rest of the season.  They would rattle off six-straight conference wins including wins over Seton Hall, Marquette, and Villanova, and were going to safely be in the field of 68 before COVID-19 crushed all of our March Madness happiness.

Now Ed Cooley’s Providence Friars enter the new season looking to replace the team’s top scorer and captain in Alpha Diallo, and the team’s third-leading scorer in Luwane Pipkins.  It will be a challenging feat but the Friars appear to have the talent necessary to survive losing five players to graduation.

For Providence to return to the NCAA Tournament this season, they will need junior scoring threat David Duke (12.0 ppg) to fill the shoes of Alpha Diallo and make that next leap into stardom. 

Helping Duke get to that point will be former St. Joe’s point guard Jared Bynum (11.3 ppg, 4.5 apg in 2018/19) and junior guard A.J. Reeves (7.4 ppg).  Cooley will also have the services of former North Florida star Noah Horchler (16.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg) to bolster the Friars’ frontcourt, as he sat out last season while waiting to be eligible.

All in all, this is a team that may mimic a lot of what last season’s Friars team did, right down to the slow start and strong finish.  If Duke can grow into the talent Cooley thinks he is, Providence could be a very pesky foe in the Big East and beyond.

Seton Hall (+1000 to Win Big East)

Like Creighton, Seton Hall also had their best season in quite some time cut short by COVID-19.  The Pirates were off to their best season since the early ’90s and were in line to land a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Instead, the Pirates got a share of the regular-season Big East crown and then got to watch the blood and soul of their team depart via graduation when Myles Powell’s career came to a close.

Now coach Kevin Willard is in the precarious position of not only replacing the loss of Powell, but also the team’s second-leading scorer in guard Quincy McKnight (11.9), and the team’s best rim protector center Romaro Gill (7.8 ppg, 3.2 bpg). 

To offset these losses, Willard was able to bring in one of the most coveted grad-transfers in the transfer portal in Harvard’s Bryce Aiken.  Aiken was a former Top 100 recruit for, ironically enough, former Seton Hall and current Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker.

Powell’s departure may be easier to handle if Aiken can continue the strong play he showed at Harvard.  Seven times in his career, the 5-11 guard has topped 30 points in a game while shooting a very respectable 35% from distance and 85% at the line.  Aiken’s biggest issue has been durability, as he has yet to play a season without missing time due to injury.  Aiken’s health could ultimately make or break the Pirates’ season.

Outside of Aiken, the most impactful player on the Seton Hall roster is that of forward Sandro Mamukelashvili (try to say that one five times fast).  Mamu averaged 12 points per game and six rebounds a season ago and will be tasked to bolster the Pirates’ frontcourt and to try to fill the void left by the departed Gill.

Willard should have a veteran rotation at his disposal, but the Pirates will likely only go about three deep on their bench.  Their depth could become a concern should injuries occur.

This Seton Hall team doesn’t seem to be as well rounded a unit as last year’s team was, but the Pirates can still make a great deal of noise and be right in the thick of another at-large berth in the tournament.  

Middle of the Pack

Marquette (+1500 to Win Big East)

The temperature under the seat of Marquette HC Steve Wojciechowski is starting to feel a little toasty, and now Wojo is faced with the heavy challenge of replacing the all-time leading scorer in school history with Markus Howard’s graduation.

However, if you’re looking to save your job, Wojo’s approach to the offseason is not a bad blueprint to try and replicate.

Marquette pulled in the best recruiting class (ranked 18th overall by 247Sports) in the Big East, and won the DJ Carton (Ohio State) transfer sweepstakes, getting the added bonus of having the NCAA grant Carton (10.4 ppg) a waiver that makes him immediately eligible to play this season.

Losing Howard’s offense will be a big hurdle to overcome for the Golden Eagles, but the team may ultimately be better off in the long run, as all too often Marquette seemed to fall in love with Howard playing ISO ball and shooting the ball 20+ times a night.  Now Wojo hopes for more ball movement, fewer turnovers, and better defense with Howard no longer on the floor.   

If the Golden Eagles can replace Howard’s offensive production they could very well overachieve this season with the new-look roster.  Considering Wojo has fielded a Top 15 offensive team in three of the last four seasons, that could very well be the case this year.

However, if Marquette remains maddeningly inconsistent, that seat under Wojo’s cheeks is only going to get warmer and warmer…

Xavier (+3000 to Win Big East)

Like Marquette before them, Xavier is another team that has been aggravatingly inconsistent. 

A season ago, the Musketeers were projected to finish 3rd in the Big East, instead, they limped their way to a sub .500 8-10 record in conference play, and had COVID-19 not canceled the season, Xavier was likely going to be NIT bound.

If Xavier is to overachieve this season, they will need to navigate through the departures of Naji Marshall (NBA Draft) and Tyrique Jones.

However, coach Travis Steele may have already done just that as the Musketeers added on three highly-coveted transfers in Nate Johnson (Gardner-Webb), Adam Kunkel (Belmont), and Ben Stanley (Hampton).  

Johnson is a graduate transfer by way of Gardner-Webb and averaged 13.5 points per contest a season ago.  The 6-6 Stanley averaged 22 points per game with Hampton, while the 6-4 Kunkel chipped in nearly 17 a night at Belmont.  They will team up with returning starting point guard Paul Scruggs to formulate a quartet of dangerous offensive weapons.

If the new talent can gel with the returning players Steele has this season, Xavier can be a very difficult opponent come conference play and beyond.  If the talent doesn’t come together and Xavier underachieves yet again, Travis Steele could be the latest head coach in danger of losing his job.

The Long Shots

St. John’s (+5000 to Win Big East)
Butler (+10000 to Win Big East)
Georgetown (+10000 to Win Big East)
DePaul (+15000 to Win Big East)

Let’s face it, each of these teams has a lot of issues to address this season.

St. John’s hopes to improve on their 8th place finish from a season ago in Mike Anderson’s second season with the school, but there are not a lot of pieces currently on the roster that look like they can run Anderson’s relentless offense to its full potential.  Keep an eye out for the Johnnies in 2021/22, but for now, they will just be the team that occasionally sends a contender a scare.

Butler is going through a full-blown rebuild this season after losing six players including star Kamar Baldwin and second-leading scorer Sean McDermott.  If anyone can overachieve with an entirely new group it’s probably Butler, but they will endure quite a bit of growing pains this season and take their lumps towards the bottom of the conference.

Georgetown losing top scoring threat Mac McClung to Texas Tech is a massive blow to the hopes of their season.  Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas were the worst defensive team in the conference last season and likely will not improve much on that this season.  Adding grad transfers Jalen Harris (Arkansas) and Chudier Bile (Northwestern State) will help replace some losses, but this team simply does not have the overall talent to hang with the big dogs of the conference.  Would the Hoyas consider firing beloved Patrick Ewing if G’Town disappoints again?  It’s a possibility.

DePaul is showing signs of finally breaking out of their long period of losing but still found themselves at the bottom of the Big East a season ago.  The Demons will compete, they just won’t win very often in the conference.

Big East Projected Order of Finish

  1. Villanova
  2. Creighton
  3. UConn
  4. Providence
  5. Seton Hall
  6. Xavier
  7. Marquette
  8. Butler
  9. St. John’s
  10. Georgetown
  11. DePaul