National champions last season for a second time in three years, Villanova should once again be forwardly placed, even as Big East grows much deeper at top. (Photo by Sports Illustrated)
Even with one program seemingly dominating its upper echelon since the 2013 restructuring, the Big East Conference projects to be as open as any point during its current basketball-centric incarnation.
Yes, Villanova -- and its two national championships in three seasons -- is the team to beat once again as Eric Paschall and Phil Booth return from last year's outfit to pace the Wildcats in their senior campaigns. And while most other programs go through the motions when retooling, Jay Wright has not missed a beat, returning a young core of players such as Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree -- plus graduate transfer Joe Cremo from Albany -- to team with three highly-touted freshmen headlined by five-star recruits Jahvon Quinerly and Cole Swider.
But who lies in wait as the biggest challenger for the residents of the Main Line? The answer could be Marquette, with junior sharpshooter Markus Howard poised to build off an efficient and productive sophomore season by contending for the national scoring title. The 19-year-old junior -- yes, you read that right -- will be featured off the ball more prominently this season, thanks to the arrival of Fordham transfer Joseph Chartouny at the point guard spot. With Sam Hauser up front and mounds of potential from freshman forward Brendan Bailey, Steve Wojciechowski will not have to worry about his front line producing, especially when Ed Morrow and Matt Heldt factor into the equation. Behind the Golden Eagles, Providence is on the precipice of what could be Ed Cooley's magnum opus as the Ocean State native enters his eighth season at the helm in Rhode Island's capital. With only two seniors -- Isaiah Jackson and the returning Emmitt Holt -- on the Friars' roster, the future is exceedingly bright, and paced by junior Alpha Diallo, who should be a double-double threat on any given night. Nate Watson and Makai Ashton-Langford will only grow as sophomores, and if David Duke lives up to half the hype surrounding his homegrown talent, Providence could easily find itself cutting down a net at Madison Square Garden come March.
The New York/New Jersey contingent should be in line for promising results this season as well, particularly at St. John's, where Chris Mullin has his deepest and most talented roster since assuming the reins at his alma mater. Shamorie Ponds will undoubtedly be named the Preseason Player of the Year, and the Brooklyn wunderkind has more backcourt help now that Mustapha Heron received approval of the hardship waiver the school sought for him in the offseason. Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II should continue to be understated difference-makers for the Red Storm, whose bench is also capable of scoring in bunches. As for Seton Hall, the spotlight is now firmly entrenched upon Myles Powell, who takes over the leadership role for the Pirates in the wake of Kevin Willard's most successful senior class having graduated. It remains to be seen how well Quincy McKnight will make the same transition to point guard that Khadeen Carrington handled magnificently, but with Taurean Thompson and Michael Nzei combining to replace Angel Delgado down low; coupled with an emerging Sandro Mamukelashvili, there is reason aplenty to be confident in South Orange.
Butler surprised some critics last season, as LaVall Jordan returned to the program he played for and coached under as an assistant to guide the Bulldogs back to the NCAA Tournament in a year where not much was expected following Chris Holtmann's departure to Ohio State. This season, Jordan has a potential Player of the Year in junior guard Kamar Baldwin, who should see the ball early and often in every game. Paul Jorgensen and Sean McDermott are more than capable of providing a jolt as well, and when Duke transfer Jordan Tucker becomes eligible, Hinkle Fieldhouse will see its fair share of magic more often than not. Staying in the Midwest, Creighton may be picked in the middle of the pack, but the Bluejays have underrated depth as Martin Krampelj returns from a torn ACL. Expect Jacob Epperson to take on more of a role in the paint as a sophomore, while the trio of Davion Mintz, Mitch Ballock and Kaleb Joseph handle the backcourt affairs.
Georgetown should be much improved this season, and Patrick Ewing's development of Jessie Govan has already paid off handsomely. Now a senior, the Wings Academy product will shine prominently for the Hoyas, whose backcourt duo of Jahvon Blair and Jamorko Pickett becomes stronger and deeper with the additions of freshmen James Akinjo and Mac McClung, leaving Jagan Mosely more room to become an X-factor along with Kaleb Johnson on the wing. If NC State transfer Omer Yurtseven becomes eligible, the halcyon days on the Hilltop could soon return. Xavier welcomes a new head coach, but a familiar face in Travis Steele, who ascended to the top spot after Chris Mack left for Louisville. The continuity is also prevalent in the Musketeers' roster, now anchored by point guard Quentin Goodin and forward Tyrique Jones. Sophomores Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall will threaten for all-conference honors by the end of the season, and Columbia transfer Kyle Castlin will make an impact as well. Finally, DePaul will be counting on Max Strus and Eli Cain to lead the way once more as Dave Leitao pushes forward in his attempt to lead the Blue Demons out of the cellar. A supporting cast headed by Jalen Coleman-Lands will be key for this development, though, as the rest of the league has only gotten stronger in front of them.
Predicted Order of Finish:
1) Villanova - Champions until proven otherwise, the Wildcats are still the class of the field, and Jay Wright's reload game is just as strong as his suit game.
2) Marquette - The most impressive part of the Golden Eagles' makeup this season may just be the fact that Sam Hauser is still only a junior.
3) Providence - If you thought Ed Cooley was a magician for his work over the past few seasons, get ready for what lies ahead this year. Alpha Diallo will be the next Angel Delgado.
4) St. John's - Chris Mullin has the pieces, but can he execute when it matters most? There are no excuses this time around for the Red Storm, and its fan base will be the first to reference that.
5) Seton Hall - On potential, the Pirates are NCAA Tournament-caliber, and Kevin Willard does his best work when his teams fly under the radar. Myles Powell could average 20 points per game this season.
6) Butler - Kamar Baldwin will be the Player of the Year in the Big East if the Bulldogs can crack the top half of the standings, and he still may be even if they don't.
7) Creighton - If Martin Krampelj can get back to 100 percent by the start of conference play, look out for the Bluejays, who might have the most underrated backcourt in the league.
8) Georgetown - The process continues for the Hoyas, who will be far more competitive than they were a year ago.
9) Xavier - Quentin Goodin will be the steady hand the Musketeers need, but the key to the season rests in the hands of Naji Marshall.
10) DePaul - Another tall task for the Blue Demons. Rinse and repeat.