The Big East was one of the best conferences in the country last year, if not the best. They produced two number one seeds, Xavier and Villanova, and Villanova went on to defeat Michigan in the National Championship game. Six Big East teams made the tournament. The problem is many of these teams lost a lot of talent. The Big East Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, and Freshman of the Year are all no longer in the conference. With the Big East slightly depleted, there are four main contenders for the conference championship this year.
Xavier is the reigning conference champion but like so many others, lost a lot of talent. The Musketeers lost seniors Trevon Blueitt, J.P. Macura, and Karem Kanter. However, losing Kanter may be addition by subtraction. Arguably most importantly, they lose head coach Chris Mack to Louisville. Replacement Travis Steele is an in-house hire that will provide some continuity, but they will definitely suffer at the head coach position. Quentin Goodin and Naji Marshall will be a solid top two and Marshall is a potential breakout candidate, but they do not have enough talent to repeat their success from last year.
Another team to watch is Marquette. Marquette will have one of the best offenses in the nation but will struggle on the defensive end. They lost their best player Andrew Rowsey as well as Haniif Cheatham, but return pretty much everyone else. Most importantly, they return Markus Howard who could contend for the National Player of the Year Award. Howard averaged 20 points on 40% three-point shooting last year, and now has last year’s leading scorer, Andrew Rowsey, out of the way. Also coming back is Sam Hauser, who was the third leading scorer on the team but was also awarded the team MVP award. He does a little bit of everything and will be one of the best players in the conference this year. The problem is their defense, which was just 182nd in defensive efficiency according to KenPom, and there’s nothing to suggest any improvement this year.
The two most intriguing teams in the conference are Villanova and St. John’s. St. John’s was 16-17 last year and 4-14 in conference play, but they also played the 9th toughest schedule according to KenPom. I think they will be one of the most improved teams in college basketball. They had some really good wins including home wins against Nebraska, Duke, Marquette, and Butler, as well as a road win against Villanova. They had no really bad losses outside of a home loss to DePaul. The Red Storm return star point guard Shamorie Ponds along with starters Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II. They also bring in several very good transfers.
Shamorie Ponds is a 6’1″ point guard returning for his junior season. He was first-team All-Big East last season and led the conference in scoring while averaging 22 points. Ponds also added 5 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals a game. He is explosive and crafty with excellent finishing skills. Ponds is a true point guard that can score in bunches. The one knock on Shamorie Ponds is his shooting. He shot just 25% from three last season, but I think that number could jump up to more than 35% this season. Defenses keyed on Ponds and made it hard for him to get an open three. Star transfer Mustapha Heron will lessen this pressure. The Red Storm lacked a second offensive threat like Heron last season to ease the defensive attention on Ponds. With less defensive attention all Ponds needs is the shooting ability, which he has shown he has. He shot 37.5% from three his freshman year on 14 more attempts than last season. He entered the draft but withdrew after receiving a second-round grade, likely because of his shooting. So I would not be surprised if he comes back for this season with a much-improved shot after having it pointed out that it will hold him back.
Mustapha Heron will do more than just take a little attention off of Shamorie Ponds though. Heron averaged 16 points and 5 rebounds last year while leading Auburn to a regular season conference title and to the second round of the NCAA tournament. He was second-team All-SEC last season and was the first 5-star Auburn had landed in a long time. Heron was granted an NCAA hardship waiver because he transferred to be closer to his ill mother, so he’s eligible to play this season. He is an explosive and powerful athlete that can also shoot the three pretty well. At 6’5″ and 215 lbs. he is bigger and stronger than most shooting guards he matches up with. Heron is entering his junior season and could be gone for the NBA after this year.
A player that does not receive as much hype, but will be just as important as Ponds and Heron is Justin Simon. Simon also plays shooting guard so either him or Heron will likely move to the three spot in the lineup. He is a redshirt junior that started all 33 games last season and is a great leader. Just by watching St. John’s play you can tell the younger players look up to him and that his teammates genuinely love playing with him, and for good reason. Simon is very versatile and does almost everything well. He averaged 12 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists last year while shooting 42% from three, as well as putting up 2.5 steals a game which was good for eighth in the nation. Simon is a great perimeter defender, he is very athletic, and he can really attack the rim.
Marvin Clark II, another starter, is also returning. Clark is a 6’7″ redshirt senior forward that averaged 13 points and 5 rebounds last season. He is a good shooter (41% from beyond the arc last year) and is very physical.
Transfers Sedee Keita, L.J. Figueroa, and Mikey Dixon will round out a stacked rotation. Keita was ineligible last season but played 10 minutes a game on the South Carolina Final Four team two years ago. He is a good shot blocker and rebounder that will provide some much-needed size for St. John’s. Figueroa is a 6’6″ forward that will probably be the sixth man. He was a JUCO All-American last year and was ranked as high as #71 in the class of 2017. Head coach Chris Mullin has spoken very highly of Figueroa and it sounds as though he has impressed everyone so far. Dixon is a 6’2″ guard that transferred from Quinnipiac. At Quinnipiac he averaged 17 points a game and was the MAAC Rookie of the Year.
St. John’s is a little undersized but will continue to be one of the best defensive teams in the nation. This will likely be the best team Chris Mullin has coached. Not only are they excellent defensively but they’ll be a very good shooting team, a good passing team, and they have plenty of talent and experience. The only problem with St. John’s’ Big East title hopes is that they share a conference with Villanova.
Villanova was undoubtedly the best team in college basketball from the beginning to the end of the season. They were #1 in the KenPom ratings for most of the season and capped the season off with a National Championship win. They finished the season with a 30-4 record and came in second in the Big East. But the Wildcats lost a lot of talent. National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson is gone. Their best player Mikal Bridges is gone. National Championship game hero Donte Divincenzo is gone. And one-and-done big man Omari Spellman is gone. They still have a very talented roster though.
Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are their two biggest contributors returning. Both averaged double-digit points last year, both are redshirt seniors, and both are good shooters and defenders.
Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree had limited roles last year but will step up in a big way. Gillespie is a 6’2″ sophomore guard that reportedly looked incredible during the intrasquad scrimmage at their open practice. Cosby-Roundtree is also a sophomore but showed last year that he is a valuable interior defender.
Jay Wright has an excellent recruiting class coming in as well. Jahvon Quinerly is a 5-star point guard that will be a key contributor right away. He is a great finisher around the rim and an excellent passer. Quinerly decommitted from Arizona amid the FBI investigation and is believed to be the player that sparked the investigation. Cole Swider and Brandon Slater are both top-50 recruits that will be given the opportunity to contribute early on. I think that both Swider and Slater will have great college careers and they both fit in very well with the program.
Also new to Villanova is grad transfer Joe Cremo. Cremo averaged 18 points last season at Albany while shooting 46% from three. He was one of the most coveted grad transfers of the offseason and is a great get for Jay Wright.
I think the conference race will come down to Villanova and St. John’s but ultimately, I think Villanova will win the Big East. Villanova has a more proven and efficient offense and Jay Wright can out-coach Chris Mullin any day of the week. They are just all-around better. However, St. John’s will be greatly improved and could go out and beat any team on any night. Look for some great battles between the two and keep your eye on both teams all season long.