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CBB PREVIEW: Villanova eyes continued dominance in underrated Big East

The Big East has consistently been Villanova and everyone else since the Wildcats returned to title contention in 2013-14.

Spoiler alert: That hasn’t changed.

The Wildcats return plenty of talent from last year’s national title-winning team, despite sending four Top-35 picks to the NBA. They won’t be lacking for competition, but they’ll still undoubtedly be the top dogs.

The story to follow, therefore, in the Big East, will be the bevy of question marks that lie from the other nine squads. Between impact freshmen, key transfers and talented upperclassmen on the rise, the Big East will once again be one of basketball’s more intriguing leagues in 2018-19.

PRESEASON BIG EAST RANKINGS

1. VILLANOVA: The Wildcats lost four major pieces from their 2018 National Championship-winning squad. But that’s becoming the norm, right? ‘Nova is still poised to be a Top-10 caliber team, but it’s going to be much more of a project than past years. Between the growth of Eric Paschall and Phil Booth into featured seniors, the addition of Jermaine Samuels and Collin Gillespie into larger roles, and the arrival of guard Joe Cremo from Albany, Villanova will be plenty experienced. Oh, and the Wildcats also add a Top-10 class that features electric point guard Jahvon Quinerly, and a triad of athletic wings in Brandon SlaterCole Swider and Saddiq Bey.

Villanova makes the tournament if the sky doesn’t fall.

2. BUTLER: Butler only lost two pieces of last year’s No. 10 seed. It just so happens that those pieces — Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman — combined for 30.5 of Butler’s 79 points per game. Without those two, the burden will fall on seniors Paul Jorgensen and Nate Fowler, and juniors Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott, to run the show. That quarter combined for 39.3 ppg in a combined 102.7 mpg, so there’s still plenty of experience, spearheaded by Baldwin, whose numbers —15.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.5 spg, 34.0 mpg — speak for themselves. Butler’s frontcourt will be lacking for experience — outside of Fowler the Bulldogs return just 5.5 minutes per game from their bigs – but the addition of four-star freshman forward Bryce Golden will help.

Butler makes the tournament if its inexperienced bigs take a step and add depth behind Nate Fowler.

3. XAVIER: No more Trevon Blueitt. No more J.P. Macura. No more Sean O’Mara, Kaiser Gates or Kerem Kanter. No problem? No, major problem. Xavier won’t be the elite Big East contender it’s been the last few years, and it definitely won’t be a No. 1 seed again. Travis Steele has his work cut out for him as the Musketeers’ new head coach, and his success will be dependent on two forward who combined to play 36.8 minutes per contest last season in Tyrique Jones and Naji Marshall, and a trio of transfers in Kyle Castlin (Columbia), Zach Hankins (Ferris State) and Ryan Welage (San Jose State). Guard Paul Scruggs is Xavier’s only other returner who played more than 10 minutes per game, and he may be thrust into a much larger role with the Musketeers’ lack of experience in the backcourt.

Xavier makes the tournament if its various pieces gel, and generally play to their potential.

4. SETON HALL: I know Jacob Rosenfarb and I are pretty unhappy we’ll never get to see Angel Delgado play in a Seton Hall uniform again. Hall fans probably feel the same about Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington, who, with Delgado, comprised one of the program’s more successful seniors classes. After having two players transferred out of the program and signing nothing but three-star freshman, Seton Hall will be relying on its role-players — and its two returning starters, — to grow up and take this team to its fourth consecutive tourney.

Seton Hall makes the tournament if we don’t spend the season saying, “Man, remember Angel Delgado’s class? Those guys were great.”

5. MARQUETTE: Marquette just missed the tournament last year with one of the game’s most prolific scorers in Markus Howard. A preseason Naismith Award candidate, Howard is back to lead the Golden Eagles, who have become one of the most difficult to predict teams in college basketball. There’s little evidence of success to tell us that Marquette will be good, but between the return of Howard and Sam Hauser in the backcourt, the Golden Eagles won’t struggle to score. After those two, though, there’s not much production returning to Milwaukee. It’ll be interesting to watch the development of bigs like Matt Heldt and Theo John, and whether or note they can complement Marquette’s outstanding backcourt.

Marquette makes the tournament if Markus Howard balls out, but isn’t the only one doing so.

6. ST. JOHN’S: Shamorie Ponds. That’s the guy. When the Johnnies made noise last season, Ponds was the star, dropping 31 on Xavier, 33 on Duke, 26 on Villanova and 44 on Marquette in the span of two weeks. In an earlier contest with Villanova, Ponds poured in 37. He averaged 21.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.3 steals in his sophomore season and will undoubtedly be St. John’s biggest piece this year. Auburn transfer Moustapha Heron will add considerable athleticism, and if he, Marvin Clark and Justin Simon take the next step, the Red Storm could be a very fun team to follow in the middle of the Big East.

St. John’s makes the tournament if Shamorie Ponds isn’t the only scoring option.

7. PROVIDENCE: The Friars’ loss of three of their top four scorers from 2017-18 hurts, but bringing back junior wing Alpha Diallo definitely cushions the blow. Diallo was Providence’s second-leading scorer last season and its leading rebounder with 6.6 boards a night. After Diallo, things get muddier, as Providence has six different players — spearheaded by guard Isaiah Jackson — who each played between 10 and 20 minutes per game last season. Figuring out the rotation will be a difficult task for Ed Cooley, but he’s probably got enough talent to make a run at a sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament.

Providence makes the tournament if it finds a viable go-to scorer and an on-court leader.

8. CREIGHTON: Saying goodbye to Khyri Thomas and Marcus Foster, who alone combined for over 40 percent of the Blue Jays’ production last year, really stings. As a whole, Creighton lost about two-thirds of its scoring, including four of its top six scorers. With a relatively unassuming class of recruits, it’s hard to see the Blue Jays making too much noises this season, and a .500 mark seems pretty reasonable. Returning rotation players Martin Krampelj, Mitch Ballock and Davion Mintz will likely be Creighton’s focus, but it’ll need a step forward from the majority of its team if it wants to compete for anything in 2018-19.

Creighton makes the tournament if things eventually click and the Blue Jays get hot in February.

9. GEORGETOWN: Here’s where we really start to see a drop-off in the Big East; it’s hard to see these last two teams not finishing as Nos. 9 and 10. For the Hoyas, the Patrick Ewing project is on its way where they want it to go; that’s evident in recruits like Josh LeBlance and Mac McClung. But with transfer Omer Yurtseven sitting out the season and Marcus Derrickson inexplicably bolting early for the NBA, it’s going to be on Jesse Govan to try and carry this team, unless guys like Jahvon Blair, Kaleb Johnson and Jamarko Pickett make major strides.

Georgetown makes the tournament if literally everything clicks.

10. DEPAUL: Oh, DePaul. Every year, I want DePaul to be good. I really do. But man, this team catches no breaks. From a team that went 11-20 last year, three of its scholarship players graduated, and three others transferred. On the bright side, the Blue Demons bring back their first- and third-leading scorers as seniors, in Max Strus and Eli Cain, but we’re talking about a team that has nine scholarship players on its active roster, and six who have played Big East basketball before. It’s going to be tough in Chicago. Again.

DePaul makes the tournament if the sky falls on Butler, Xavier and Marquette when it falls on Villanova.

 

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