No conference in NCAA basketball has ever undergone the kind of upheaval the Big East has faced in the past year. For those fans still trying to wrap their heads around the new-look league, a refresher course is in order before conference play begins next week.
Although resurgent Villanova is off to the fastest start of any Big East team, the league’s newcomers aren’t far behind. High-scoring Creighton has already thrashed some big names from the West Coast (Arizona State and Cal) and looks poised to do the same against its new conference rivals.
Herein, a closer look at the teams, games and individual stars that will define the first season of the new Big East.
St. John’s 8-3
Seton Hall 8-4
The championship race is wide open
Even unbeaten Villanova has shown some cracks (read: 226th nationally in three-point shooting) during its hot start, and last-place Marquette’s poor showing is the product of a brutal schedule. Either team could end up winning the league—as could almost anyone in between.
Butler is not going to roll over and die without Roosevelt Jones
In its first season under new head coach Brandon Miller, Butler looked to be headed for a disastrous year without injured star Roosevelt Jones. Instead, the Bulldogs have rallied behind sweet-shooting sophomore Kellen Dunham to add some significant offense to their always-tough D.
Sophomores are the new freshmen
There haven’t been many first-year superstars in this conference, but a crop of late-blooming sophomores has made up for it. Dunham, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (Georgetown) and Sterling Gibbs (Seton Hall) are all lightyears ahead of last year’s performances.
How much of the old conference’s defensive toughness survives?
Even with stalwarts such as Georgetown and Marquette still around, it’s looking like there will be a lot more scoring in the revamped league. Doug McDermott of Creighton headlines an impressive list of scoring stars—Providence’s Bryce Cotton, D’Angelo Harrison of St. John’s—who will have a lot to say about the final standings.
Where are all the point guards?
Only six players in the conference are averaging over four assists per game, and two of those play for Creighton. If Rysheed Jordan (St. John’s) or Ryan Arcidiacono (Villanova) rallies in the second half, it could make all the difference in the league-title race.
Is one ranked team really as good as it gets?
Even with the downsizing of the formerly dominant league, it’s a surprise to see Villanova as the only Big East program in the Top 25. Will anyone be able to join the Wildcats in the polls, or will the league’s extensive parity prevent the kind of winning streak that the voters will be looking for?
Villanova at Butler (Dec. 31)
Hinkle Fieldhouse is the toughest of the Big East’s new home courts, and it debuts with a visit from front-running Villanova. Will the Wildcats join the long list of ranked foes upset by the Bulldogs on that floor?
Creighton at Marquette (Feb. 19)
For pure offense vs. pure defense, it doesn’t get any better than this showdown in Milwaukee. The Golden Eagles have the length and athleticism to make even Doug McDermott work for his points.
Georgetown at Villanova (March 8)
A classic rivalry from the old Big East closes the season with major league-title implications. Villanova dazzled on its home floor last year, and this year’s team has a lot more bite.
Providence at Creighton (March 8)
Watch McDermott play H-O-R-S-E with Bryce Cotton in a game with a halftime score that will eclipse several full-game tallies in this league. The Friars, desperately short on quality nonconference wins, will need this one to help their NCAA tournament chances.
Josh Hart, Villanova
A 6’5” guard who’s rebounding like a forward (5.0 boards a night), Josh Hart has been a welcome surprise off the Wildcats bench.
Rysheed Jordan, St. John’s
Rysheed Jordan has rallied after a terrible start—he even looked respectable against mighty Syracuse—giving the Red Storm hope that he might yet be the season-saving point guard they thought they were recruiting.
Billy Garrett Jr., DePaul
Son of a DePaul assistant coach, Billy Garrett Jr. is living up to his pedigree as a backcourt jack-of-all-trades for the talent-starved Blue Demons.
Deonte Burton, Marquette
He’s been struggling for playing time behind Jamil Wilson, but swingman Deonte Burton has been one of the few Golden Eagles with some offense (6.0 points in just 13.8 minutes a night) to go with his D (1.3 steals per game).
Doug McDermott, Creighton
Two-time All-American Doug McDermott is the heavy favorite in this race thanks to his 24.8 points per game (second nationally to Niagara’s Antoine Mason).
Davante Gardner, Marquette
The Golden Eagles will benefit from taking their lumps early, and if they bounce back as far as a Big East crown (not at all impossible), Davante Gardner will get credit in proportion to his offensive-tackle size.
James Bell, Villanova
James Bell has been the surprise star for the unbeaten Wildcats, leading the team in rebounding (as a 6’6” guard) and serving as the top perimeter scorer.
Markel Starks, Georgetown
High-scoring senior Markel Starks has evolved into a productive playmaker (4.5 assists per game) while spearheading the defense that makes Georgetown a league-championship contender.
Freshman of the Year: Josh Hart, Villanova
Rysheed Jordan will probably have a better second half than Josh Hart, but Villanova is a better team than St. John’s, and the Wildcats’ success will earn their young guard the win here.
Coach of the Year: Chris Mack, Xavier
Coming off a 17-14 season and with their best post player lost to graduation, Chris Mack’s Musketeers have already beaten Tennessee, Cincinnati and Alabama (in Tuscaloosa), with more quality wins sure to come.
Player of the Year: Doug McDermott, Creighton
It’s awfully tough to vote against a player as decorated and productive as Doug McDermott, especially when his Blue Jays should be in the thick of the league-title hunt.
The hunter becomes the hunted as last year’s upset specialists enter conference play loaded with confidence. That’s a slim edge over Creighton and Marquette but an edge that may prove decisive.
Dark Horse: St. John’s
The Red Storm’s best win so far came against a middling Georgia Tech squad, but they’ve got as many elite athletes as any team in the league (including the nation’s top shot-blocker in Chris Obekpa). If Rysheed Jordan keeps growing up as a point guard, all the pieces could fall into place.
Shoo-ins: Villanova, Creighton, Xavier
With only 10 teams in the conference, the days of record-setting bid totals are far in the past.
Hopefuls: Georgetown, Marquette
The Hoyas and Golden Eagles both return loads of experience and talent from high-seeded 2013 tourney squads, but neither has much in the way of quality wins yet.
Long Shots: St. John’s, Providence, Butler
Talent abounds on the Red Storm and Friars rosters, but neither team has managed to turn it into meaningful wins in previous years (let alone in 2013-14).
6. St. John’s
9. Seton Hall