Big East Basketball: A New Era Promises A Feisty Race

Big East basketball is in the first year of a new era, as the mostly Jesuit basketball-only universities broke away from the football-playing members (who either migrated to the ACC or now make up the American Athletic), hooked up with Creighton and Butler and formed a league that would be free from the tyranny of football money.

In this first year of the new conference, Villanova looks like the early favorite, but the new Big East looks balanced from top to bottom and a fun run of league games, starting this week, are ahead for the next 2 ½ months. Here’s a run through all ten teams…

Villanova (ranked #8): The Wildcats were out to an 11-0 start before losing to Syracuse on Saturday, a defeat that will likely drop them out of the top 10 nationally. But it can’t change the promise the Wildcats are showing, with wins over Kansas and Iowa.

Villanova has a quartet of players between 6’5” and 6’7” that can create some matchup problems against opposing two-guards or smallish forwards. James Bell (16 points/6 rebounds) is the best of the group, with JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard not far behind. A key X-factor is 6’11” sophomore Daniel Ochetu, who’s getting six rebounds a game. Ochetu needs to keep rebounding and ‘Nova needs a playmaker, but the promise is there.

Creighton (receiving Top 25 votes): Doug McDermott is one of the best players in the country, and the 6’8” forward is knocking down 25 a night, grabbing eight rebounds, and hitting better than 40 percent from three-point range. The backcourt is filled with good passers, in Devin Brooks, Grant Gibbs and Austin Chatman. With this balance, and with senior forward Ethan Wragge providing valuable scoring help to McDermott, the Bluejays are a threat to win this conference.

Georgetown (11-3): The Hoyas were a tri-champion in the last year of the old Big East, and have been up-and-down in non-conference play. They’ve got a loss to Northeastern, but nice wins over Virginia Commonwealth and Kansas State.

I’m inclined to a positive view—the losses were early, the Hoyas have two 16-ppg scorers in D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Markel Starks, some good rebounders and Mikael Hopkins and Nate Luck, and while head coach John Thompson Jr. has some critics, it’s more about what happens in March than what happens during the regular season.

Butler (10-2): In the first year of the post-Brad Stevens era, the Bulldogs have only lost by two to Oklahoma State and LSU, while knocking off Vanderbilt and Purdue, though I suppose both wins are of debatable merit. Kellen Dunham and Kyle Marshall are wingmen who can pour in points, while Kameron Woods averages double digits in both scoring and rebounding. At the very least, Butler looks like it’s going back to the NCAA Tournament.

Marquette (8-5): A team that got to a regional final in 2013 is having trouble this time out, but the record is deceiving. The losses are to Ohio State, Arizona State, San Diego State, Wisconsin and New Mexico, constituting a tough non-conference schedule. The question will be whether Marquette can use the learning process and start turning these games into wins.

Davante Gardner is the team’s best player, at 14/6, with senior center Chris Otule providing rebounding help and Jake Thomas being the three-point gunner. Marquette needs Todd Mayo to lift his offensive game a bit at guard, and they desperately need the undisclosed injury to forward Jamil Wilson this past weekend to be short-term.

St. John (9-3): Steve Lavin needs more depth within his starting lineup. The Red Storm get great play from D’Angelo Harrison, a 20 ppg scorer and one of the really exciting players in the conference. Jakaarr Sampson is a tough sophomore forward who scores and rebounds. There’s no other contributing offensive threats though and no one can shoot the trey.

Xavier (10-3): The Musketeers have stepped up and beaten a pretty good team in Cincinnati and an okay one in Wake Forest. The losses to Iowa, Tennessee and USC are nothing horrible. Semaj Criston at guard and Matt Stainbrook in the post give Xavier a good inside-out combo, they get rebounding from James Farr and three-point shooting from Myles Davis. I wouldn’t be surprise to see this team get on a nice run.

Providence (10-3): There’s a lot of players on this team, and it starts with Bryce Cotton, who’s knocked down twenty points a night in non-conference play. Tyler Harris, Kadeem Batts and LaDontae Henton are score and help out on the glass, while 7’0” junior Carson Desrosiers focuses on rebounding. Kris Dunn oversees it all and averages five assists a night. The Friars have what it takes to be dangerous.

Seton Hall (9-4): The Pirates have six players averaging in double figures, but when they lose to Mercer, Fairleigh Dickinson and St. Peter’s, it’s tough to be impressed.

DePaul (8-5): On the surface it’s another long year in Chicago, but the schedule has been tough. The losses include Wichita State, Texas and Arizona State. The other two are Southern Miss and Illinois State, both of which have steady programs.

DePaul also has two top-shelf players in Cleveland Melvin and Branden Young, and a couple promising freshman in Billy Garrett Jr., and 6’10” Tommy Hamilton IV. They could be competitive, but eventually we have to talk about who they’re beating, not the quality of who they’re losing to.

The Blue Demons haven’t been good in years, but if this is the worst team in the Big East—and it probably is—that’s a good sign that this new league has a lively fight ahead of it.