Monday, October 10, 2016

2016-17 Big East preview

Six months removed from winning national championship, Villanova remains the team to beat in Big East. (Photo by Sports Illustrated)

One question was emphatically answered last April. Now, a new topic to ponder exists.

What will Villanova do for an encore?

The Wildcats provided an appropriate ending to one of the most dramatic and thrilling college basketball seasons ever, winning the national championship on a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Kris Jenkins for the program's first crown since 1985 and silencing all those who doubted the Big East's standing in the sport's pecking order after the conference was restructured in 2014. As much of a feel-good victory as it was for college basketball purists, it now becomes part of the history books as a new chapter prepares to be written.

Gone are Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, the four-year mainstays on the Main Line. The good news for Villanova fans is that the rest of the team is back to defend their national title, headlined by championship hero Jenkins and likely Big East Player of the Year favorite Josh Hart. Even without freshman Omari Spellman, who was declared academically ineligible, Jay Wright still has a solid group down low, anchored by senior Darryl Reynolds. Freshman Dylan Painter will make an impact if Wright's past use of big men is any indication, and Fordham transfer Eric Paschall is eligible once again to create a matchup problem on the wing and in the paint that the rest of the conference will not be ready for at first blush. In the backcourt, Jalen Brunson takes over the reins from Arcidiacono, with Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges joining Hart to renew Wright's patented "four quick" look.

Many Big East insiders have Xavier penciled in as the primary threat to Villanova, and deservedly so. The Musketeers got a huge boost when Trevon Bluiett decided to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to school for his junior season, fortifying one of the better backcourts in the league, a stable that also includes burgeoning star Edmond Sumner and a pair of gritty veterans in Myles Davis and J.P. Macura. The big question mark for Chris Mack will be his frontcourt, though, as Jalen Reynolds' decision to take his talents to the professional level leaves a massive void down low that the X-Men will be counting on 6-foot-10 junior Sean O'Mara to spearhead the effort to make up for the lost production. Norfolk State transfer RaShid Gaston, who sat out last year, will also play a huge role in the reformation of the front line.

The team that defeated Villanova for the Big East championship should not be ignored, either. Seton Hall seems to be flying under the radar to some degree, and that is probably the best news the Pirates can hear at this stage. Losing Isaiah Whitehead to the NBA will be felt throughout the year, but The Hall proved on many occasions last season that they are a group that is at its best when under pressure. The steady hand of Kevin Willard will be a calming influence once again, and look for Khadeen Carrington to cement himself as a versatile combo guard while Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez continue to exploit their defensive matchups on the other end. Speaking of defense, Ismael Sanogo should get more credit for his efforts on that side of the ball this season, and the Pirate bench will only improve with an additional year of experience under its belt.

Creighton began their resurgence last season by reaching the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament, and the Bluejays should be even better this time around. Maurice Watson may be the best point guard in the conference, and the arrival of Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster has both Greg McDermott and the rabid fan base in Omaha salivating at the thought of returning to the level Creighton was at just three years ago with Doug McDermott running the show. Senior wing Cole Huff, who nearly defeated Seton Hall in the Big East tournament quarterfinals with a 35-point masterpiece, is still one of the better kept secrets on a national level.

Georgetown has experienced one letdown after another in recent years, with each disappointment adding to the number of people calling for John Thompson III's head. However, the fact remains that the Hoyas are still very talented, and there is no better time for a breakthrough than this season. Robert Morris transfer Rodney Pryor, who led the Colonials to a Northeast Conference championship in 2015, is eligible immediately and will go a long way toward replacing D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, while L.J. Peak will help anchor a young stable of guards that will set the tone for the future on the Hilltop. Up front, the Hoyas are as solid as they have been since the Big East reformed. As many as six forwards can make a huge impact, starting with seven-footer Bradley Hayes and fellow senior Reggie Cameron. Isaac Copeland and Marcus Derrickson have improved exponentially going into their junior seasons, and sophomore Jessie Govan should see an increased role. Welcoming back Akoy Agau, who missed last season due to injury, will be a shot in the arm for the already massive depth up front as Georgetown seeks a return to its longtime postseason perch.

Butler loses Roosevelt Jones and Kellen Dunham, the last remaining vestiges to the Brad Stevens era. However, the Bulldogs welcome back Player of the Year contender Kelan Martin and bruising big man Andrew Chrabascz for their junior and senior seasons, respectively. Kethan Savage assumes the point guard duties after sitting out last year following his transfer from George Washington, and gives Chris Holtmann's team an immediate boost of credibility in the backcourt. Marquette bids adieu to Henry Ellenson after he was selected by the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the NBA Draft, but brings back each of their other four starters while welcoming a pair of transfers in Andrew Rowsey (UNC Asheville) and Katin Reinhardt (USC) to Steve Wojciechowski's rotation. The Golden Eagles will be up and down due to their relative youth, but should be able to piece it all together heading into the meat of the conference schedule.

Chris Mullin's first season at St. John's will be one Red Storm fans would like to forget, but at the same time, everyone around the corner of Union and Utopia conceded that last year's 8-24 campaign was merely a foundation year for bigger and better things. Having Kassoum Yakwe for a full season, while bringing in high-level talent the likes of Shamorie Ponds and Bashir Ahmed, will certainly help the transition this year. Marcus LoVett, ineligible last season, should assume the point guard duties while Malik Ellison and Federico Mussini fight for minutes as Yankuba Sima anchors the efforts down low.

Life without Kris Dunn will be a tough pill to swallow for Providence, but if anybody in the Big East can do a lot with what is perceived to be a little, it is certainly Ed Cooley. The Friars are young, and do not have a senior in their regular rotation, but Rodney Bullock and Jalen Lindsey are capable of garnering all-conference honors when all is said and done. The supporting cast must step up, though, as seen last year when Dunn and Ben Bentil were the only ones to shoulder the load at times despite reaching the NCAA Tournament. Finally, DePaul has nowhere to go but up. Much like Providence, though, the Blue Demons will need more than just Eli Cain and Billy Garrett to contribute if they are to escape the Wednesday night play-in game at Madison Square Garden.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1) Villanova - In the words of WWE champion Seth Rollins, the Wildcats have already redesigned and rebuilt. Now, they go about reclaiming their Big East crown.

2) Seton Hall - The Pirates will miss Isaiah Whitehead, but replacing him will not be as hard after their deep run through March last season. Look for Khadeen Carrington to take on more of a scoring role, and for Angel Delgado to establish himself as the unquestioned top forward in the conference.

3) Xavier - Chris Mack's backcourt is loaded, but the loss of Jalen Reynolds is going to be a huge mountain to overcome. Sean O'Mara enters the season as perhaps Xavier's most important key to replicating their recent success.

4) Creighton - If you don't know Marcus Foster yet, it won't take long to be baptized to his talent. He and Maurice Watson will elevate the Bluejays back into the NCAA Tournament.

5) Georgetown - The Hoyas are simply too talented to endure another year like last season. A deeper frontcourt, coupled with a veteran stable of guards, should return John Thompson III to the postseason, possibly as a fifth NCAA Tournament team.

6) Butler - Chris Holtmann always gets the Bulldogs to play hard, and Kelan Martin is a Player of the Year contender on a team that is always a tough out on any given night.

7) Marquette - Four returning starters ease the burden of youth for the Golden Eagles. Luke Fischer needs to stay out of foul trouble if a return to postseason play is in the cards.

8) St. John's - Chris Mullin has talent around him for his second year. The Red Storm were probably the scrappiest 8-24 team in the nation last year, and should be good for at least five or six more victories this season as the climb back to prominence steadily resumes.

9) Providence - A rebuilding year without question for the Friars, who will hope Rodney Bullock and Jalen Lindsey do what Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil did last year: Go above and beyond the call of duty on a nightly basis.

10) DePaul - Having three more years of Eli Cain will be gratifying to Blue Demons fans. Now, if they could only get more talent around him...

All-Big East First Team (in alphabetical order)
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Josh Hart, Villanova (Preseason Player of the Year)
Kris Jenkins, Villanova
Kelan Martin, Butler
Maurice Watson, Creighton

All-Big East Second Team (in alphabetical order)
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
Luke Fischer, Marquette
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Kassoum Yakwe, St. John's

All-Big East Honorable Mentions
Phil Booth, Villanova
Rodney Pryor, Georgetown
Darryl Reynolds, Villanova
Desi Rodriguez, Seton Hall

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