Regular season champions in each of the four seasons since Big East was restructured, Villanova seeks to maintain its stranglehold on league, which sent seven teams to NCAA Tournament last year. (Photo by Newsday)
Since the Big East Conference was restructured following the 2012-13 season, two things have been made quite clear to both the casual and vested fan alike.
First, Villanova has been, and will continue to be until proven otherwise, the unquestioned standard-bearer in the perennial powerhouse league. The Wildcats have claimed each Big East regular season championship following the exodus of the football schools that helped shape the identity of the titanic conference, and are once again the heavy favorites to win a fifth straight title that Jay Wright and the 2016 national champions hope to supplement with a third Big East tournament victory in four seasons. Villanova loses senior mainstays Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, plus the imposing interior presence of Darryl Reynolds, but the Wildcats should boast the Preseason Player of the Year in junior point guard Jalen Brunson, who anchors an offense that will return Mikal Bridges to the starting lineup while also getting increased contributions from Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall, not to mention freshman Omari Spellman, who should be the preseason choice for Freshman of the Year honors after being declared ineligible last season. Native Philadelphian Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree is the other frontcourt newcomer to the Main Line, while Phil Booth is also back after missing his junior season due to injury.
Secondly, any remaining aspersions cast on the Big East and its long-term survival were put to rest in emphatic fashion last March, as the conference sent seven of its ten teams to the NCAA Tournament one year after Villanova brought the league a third national championship this decade. With a majority of last season's star power returning this fall, it is not inconceivable to think at least five or six teams will hear their names announced on Selection Sunday once again. One thing remains certain, though: The quality of the league from top to bottom is deeper this season than last, and the challenges to usurp the throne from the Wildcats will come from a bevy of hungry competitors.
On the heels of back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, Seton Hall comes into the 2017-18 season with a chip on its shoulder, seeking to erase the bitter aftertaste of opening-round exits from the field of 68. A quartet of seniors returns to South Orange for one last hurrah, led by All-American candidate Angel Delgado, the consensus best forward in the conference and strong contender for Player of the Year honors. Khadeen Carrington will need to be equal parts scorer and facilitator for the Pirates this season in the absence of Madison Jones, while Desi Rodriguez brings his slashing playmaker style back to the wing and Ismael Sanogo continues to be the lockdown glue guy in Kevin Willard's lineup. After a promising rookie campaign, Myles Powell is on the precipice of an even bigger breakout as a sophomore, and if Michael Nzei can become a productive backup to Delgado, the potential for The Hall having a season to remember will be limitless.
Fresh off a surprising run to the West Regional final just weeks after they looked dead in the water and bound for the National Invitation Tournament, Xavier enters the season with momentum and renewed enthusiasm for their usual consistent success. Seniors Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura anchor the backcourt for head coach Chris Mack while point guard Quentin Goodin prepares to develop further as a sophomore after inheriting the keys to the offense in the wake of Edmond Sumner's torn ACL last season. Up front, the Musketeers have several big men to help anchor the 1-3-1 zone defense, including graduate transfer Kerem Kanter, who will team with Sean O'Mara and Tyrique Jones. Kaiser Gates should be a force inside as well, with highly touted freshmen Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs being counted on to pay immediate dividends in Cincinnati.
If anyone has shown the ability to fly under the radar and deliver results year after year in the Big East, it has been Ed Cooley. Champions of the Big East in 2014, his Providence Friars put together another NCAA Tournament berth last season after being picked in the second half of the preseason poll, and return all five starters from that squad this season. Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock are surefire all-conference selections entering their senior seasons, with Jalen Lindsay, Alpha Diallo and Emmitt Holt more than capable of carrying the team on either of their respective backs on any given night. The addition of Makai Ashton-Langford, a Top 100 recruit who spurned UConn to sign with Providence, only makes the Friars deeper and much more dangerous on a roster that sees nine of its top ten scorers back in the Ocean State.
Chris Mullin's second season at the helm of his alma mater, St. John's, went much better than his first voyage, which yielded just one conference win and an 8-24 overall record. With more weapons in the arsenal this season, the Red Storm possess the upside that has been indicative of a postseason contender over the years, and look to be hitting their best stride at the most opportune of times. Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett come off a freshman season in which they guided the Johnnies' backcourt to the best defensive turnover rate in league play last year, and the sophomores will be looking to break into their patented transition game at every turn this season. Transfers Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon will be integral pieces to a lineup that can use Bashir Ahmed as the center in a smaller attack, but also as a wing man when Kassoum Yakwe and Tariq Owens are on the floor in a bigger outfit on the corner of Union and Utopia. Another team with tremendous upside is Creighton, which possesses a pair of qualified scorers in Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, the latter of whom should be one of the most lethal two-way players in the Big East this season. The arrival of Kaleb Joseph by way of Syracuse gives Greg McDermott's Bluejays a proven floor general to step into the shoes of Maurice Watson, Jr. without missing a beat in Omaha.
Marquette, one of the seven NCAA Tournament teams in the conference last season, should be able to reprise its role again this year in a deeper and more efficient composition this year for Steve Wojciechowski. Now a sophomore, Markus Howard is still only 18 years old, and the sharpshooter stands to become a household name with his uncanny eye for smart shots and long-distance daggers. Newcomers Theo John and Harry Froling will not have it easy in replacing Luke Fischer, but the duo will lighten the load on Sam Hauser and fan favorite Matt Heldt in Milwaukee, making the transition easier for the Golden Eagles. Butler welcomes a new coach in alumnus LaVall Jordan after Chris Holtmann left for Ohio State, but the Bulldogs are still a sleeper thanks to seniors Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman, not to mention burgeoning sophomore point guard Kamar Baldwin. George Washington expatriate Paul Jorgensen is eligible once again, and provides instant credibility to the backcourt, while incoming freshmen Aaron Thompson and Christian David; both of whom reaffirmed their commitments even after Holtmann left Indianapolis, make their presence known early and often.
DePaul ushers in the opening of Wintrust Arena with a group eager to make strides under Dave Leitao. Junior swingman Eli Cain becomes the face of the Blue Demons with Billy Garrett, Jr. having graduated, and will count on Oklahoma transfer Austin Grandstaff to lead a supporting cast who must step up soon to expedite the rebuilding process. Finally, Georgetown replaces John Thompson III with program icon Patrick Ewing, creating a palpable buzz on the Hilltop after a handful of subpar seasons. However, the hill to climb has become steeper for the Hoyas, who will have junior center Jessie Govan leading the way in what the former national champion and Olympic gold medalist hopes will be a year highlighted more for fleeting moments of glory than humbling defeats.
Predicted Order of Finish:
1) Villanova - The road to a conference championship goes through the Main Line until proven otherwise. Not many teams have the ability to look stronger than the previous season in the wake of losing three starters, but Jay Wright and the Wildcats have an elixir for success that becomes stronger and more formidable with each passing year.
2) Seton Hall - The Pirates have been building for a banner year in each of the past two seasons, starting with March 2016's Big East title run before winning seven of their final nine regular season contests last year to erase any prospect of being on the bubble going into Madison Square Garden. The fever pitch has now reached a crescendo, and with a Top 25 outfit going into battle in South Orange, Kevin Willard has his best chance to knock the kings of the conference out of power.
3) Xavier - This could very well be Chris Mack's deepest and most talented team. The question now becomes one of whether or not the Musketeers can get over the hump and win a conference title.
4) Providence - The Friars are not the trendy pick to make noise this season, as the majority of last season's NCAA Tournament team comes back for Ed Cooley. If Providence knocks on the door to the top, chances are they will break it down sooner rather than later.
5) St. John's - Expect at least 18 wins and no worse than a National Invitation Tournament appearance for the Red Storm this season. Chris Mullin's team has the pieces to put it all together, and with a strong non-conference season, the Johnnies could very well have enough left in the tank to go dancing for a third time in eight years.
6) Creighton - Khyri Thomas will be no worse than a second team all-Big East selection this year, and Marcus Foster should be a Player of the Year contender. Those two, plus Kaleb Joseph and a deceptively strong freshman class, will keep the Bluejays in the thick of things throughout the year.
7) Marquette - The Golden Eagles are a victim of the middle of the league being wide open, but they should still be a postseason team barring a cataclysmic meltdown. Markus Howard might end up being the conference's leading scorer by the time March rolls around.
8) Butler - Losing Andrew Chrabascz will be hard for the Bulldogs to overcome, but senior leadership and an intriguing group of freshmen will mitigate any trouble spots for LaVall Jordan in his first season at the helm.
9) DePaul - The Blue Demons should be able to escape the cellar this season, but Eli Cain has a lot more to prove as the leader as opposed to being Billy Garrett, Jr.'s sidekick last season.
10) Georgetown - It's not going to be easy for Patrick Ewing this year, but the Hoyas will gain valuable experience that will serve them well for seasons to come on the Hilltop.