Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The first Associated Press Top-25 Poll was released this week and the only team from the Big East Conference to secure a spot on the list was Villanova, so it only makes sense that the Wildcats are the favorites to take the league title again this season.
The reconfiguration of the Big East Conference, the addition of Butler, Creighton and Xavier along with the splintering off of several schools to the newly-former American Athletic Conference, means the league is a much more condensed unit that actually has a farther geographic reach, but at least for this year that doesn't necessarily translate into a greater competition.
Clearly the Wildcats, ranked 12th in the initial AP Poll, are head-and- shoulders above the rest of the Big East after dominating the league last season. Many of the principle players are again in place for Villanova to make a strong run at the postseason, but now it is just a matter of meeting expectations, which are again quite high in the Philadelphia suburbs.
The Georgetown Hoyas, who earned a few votes in the AP Poll, have the pedigree to be successful and challenge for the title, but they did lose a key piece from their roster and will have to rethink their approach on offense.
St. John's will again be a spunky bunch that will step up and surprise more than a few people, as long as everything goes to plan, and Providence might also make a move forward this year, but that's assuming not a single thing goes wrong in Rhode Island.
The Musketeers, Bulldogs and Bluejays were interesting additions to the circuit last season, but none will challenge for the championship realistically. In fact, don't be surprised to see Creighton, sans Doug McDermott, finishing close to the bottom of the standings along with DePaul, a team which consistently underachieves.
Another interesting story line is that of the change in coaching at Marquette where Steve Wojciechowski has stepped in. It will be interesting to see how well his intensity plays in the Mid-West.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Villanova
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Villanova, 2. Georgetown, 3. St. John's, 4. Providence, 5. Xavier, 6. Seton Hall, 7. Marquette, 8. Butler, 9. Creighton, 10. DePaul
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
VILLANOVA: For the third time during his tenure at Villanova, Jay Wright was named the Big East Conference Coach of the Year after a 2013-14 season in which he led the Wildcats to a school-record 16 league victories, while the 29 wins overall was the second-most in school history as well. However, Villanova was again dismissed early in the NCAA Tournament, something that seems to be a theme with this group no matter how well they play between November and February. The team has lost All-Big East First-Team member James Bell (14.4 ppg), but other than that it is stocked with talent and ready to proceed towards another league title. Wright is bringing back several key elements from a group that was first in the league in scoring defense (66.5 ppg) and tops in the Big East, 11th in the nation, in scoring margin with a plus 11.5 ppg. JayVaughn Pinkston is a preseason all-conference selection who was one of the top scorers for the Wildcats last season with his 14.1 ppg, while also showing a nose for the ball coming off the glass with his 6.1 rpg. While Pinkston mixes it up in the paint, guard Darrun Hilliard (14.3 ppg) is available to knock down 3-point attempts, hopefully at a similar rate as last season when he was 41.4 percent accurate. Although he is not much of a scoring threat, at least he wasn't last season with 5.7 ppg, Daniel Ochefu is another one who can get after the ball in the paint (6.1 rpg). As someone who is not afraid to take the big shot in pressure situations, guard Ryan Arcidiacono (9.9 ppg, 3.5 apg) brings a swagger to the Wildcats that made him a starter the moment he stepped on campus.
GEORGETOWN: The Hoyas experienced a down season in 2013-14 as they finished just 18-15 overall and under .500 in conference play (8-10), so you can understand if they have a chip on their shoulder entering this campaign. The team lost Markel Starks, an All-Big East First Team guard who posted 17.3 points and 4.1 assists per contest, as well as Nate Lubick (5.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) who always seemed to have his hands in plays even though the stats may not have fully reflected his efforts. Head coach John Thompson III, who needs just five more wins to reach 300 for his career, saw his team break from a four- year run in the NCAA Tournament result in a 1-1 mark in the NIT after losing the first game of the Big East Tournament versus DePaul (60-56). Expecting to get back to the Big Dance this time, coach Thompson will be leaning on D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera to carry much of the load. The preseason Big East Player of the Year, Smith-Rivera is coming off a campaign in which he finished third in the league in scoring (17.6 ppg) as he played 37.0 minutes per contest. The Hoyas are expecting to get more out of Joshua Smith this time around, considering he appeared in just 13 games due to academic issues. Smith, who averaged 11.5 ppg, converted 65.5 percent of his field goal tries, which was better than his 63.5 percent at the charity stripe. Jabril Trawick, who missed time due to a wrist injury, has his sights set on improving upon his 9.1 ppg for a team that finished in the bottom third of the league in scoring (71.0 ppg).
ST. JOHN'S: Just a few years ago, the Red Storm were one of the youngest teams in Division I basketball, but for those players who have decided to stick around and grow with the program, the fruits of their labors should continue to be realized this season under head coach Steve Lavin. Last year, St. John's produced an impressive 20-13 record overall and tied for third in the league standings at 10-8, but the squad was one-and-done in the Big East Tournament, which was the same story for the NIT. Under Lavin, who has been associated with the program since 2010-11 but was on medical leave in 2011-12, the Red Storm has become a suitable opponent and figures to be so moving forward even after the loss of JaKarr Sampson (12.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg) who decided to leave early in hopes of pursuing a pro career. D'Angelo Harrison, an All-Big East First Team selection, has been the leading scorer for the Red Storm each of the last two years, putting up 17.5 ppg over the course of 33 games last season, although he shot just 38.1 percent from the floor and saw his accuracy dip even lower, to 36.4 percent, in conference action. Rysheed Jordan is coming off a strong inaugural campaign in which he posted 11.2 ppg in league play, while his 88 total assists was tops on the unit. Providing the team with a solid defensive platform are Sir'Dominic Pointer (40 steals, 35 blocks) and Chris Obekpa (94 blocks), and hopefully they'll be able to contribute at the offensive end of the floor as well.
PROVIDENCE: For the first time since the 2008-09 campaign and for just the second time in the last decade, the Friars finished with a conference mark above .500 in 2013-14 as they posted a record of 10-8 and finished tied for third in the standings for head coach Ed Cooley. More importantly, the Friars shocked even themselves by defeating St. John's (79-74), Seton Hall (80-74) and favorite Creighton (65-58) in the conference tournament in order to claim the title for just the second time in school history. Unfortunately, coach Cooley's magical campaign was brought to an abrupt end when the team folded against North Carolina (79-77) in the NCAA Tournament. The sad part about the successful run is that Providence will probably not be back in that situation for a few years, at least not this season after losing Bryce Cotton (21.8 ppg) who was not only a scoring dynamo, he was one of the best passers in the conference with 205 assists over 35 starts. The good news for Cooley is that forward LaDontae Henton (14.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg) is ready to find his way into the spotlight for the Friars, his rebounding prowess making him one of the tougher matchups in the paint for the rest of the league. Tyler Harris (11.6 ppg) is entering his second season in the Big East, which hopefully means he will find a better handle on his 3-point shooting (.289) in league play. Center Carson Desrosiers (3.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg) will have more room to roam the paint this year after being a reserve for the Friars.
XAVIER: Another one of the more recent additions to the Big East, the Musketeers had another 20-win season under head coach Chris Mack, 21-13 to be precise, and even made it to the 2014 NCAA Tournament before losing to NC State (74-59) right out of the gate. Coach Mack managed to push his crew to a 10-8 record in league play and a tie for third place in the standings, but there is still much to be done if Xavier is to be fully accepted in its new league, and taking on stiffer competition in non-conference play will be a step in the right direction after the Musketeers tangled with the likes of Gardner-Webb, Morehead State and Abilene Christian early on in 2013-14. However, the move will not be an easy one given that guard Semaj Christon (17.0 ppg, 142 assists) opted to leave Cincinnati after two years and pursue a pro career. The loss of Justin Martin (11.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Isaiah Philmore (9.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) will also make the road a treacherous one as it leaves only Matt Stainbrook and Dee Davis as the sole returning starters. Stainbrook, who has been selected for the Preseason All-Big East First Team, is someone who could turn in a double-double on almost any night after putting up 10.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game last year, especially now that he has more room to flex his muscles in the paint. Davis (7.7 ppg) who shot just 39.8 percent from the floor can make up for that lackluster effort as long as he continues to feed teammates in the same manner he did a year ago when he lead Xavier in assists with 149, while turning the ball over just 62 times.
SETON HALL: It has now been a decade since the Pirates finished a season with a conference record over .500 and that trend doesn't appear to be changing any time soon. However, Seton Hall is heading in the right direction when it comes to overall victories, after splitting 34 contests in 2013-14 and winning two of three decisions in the conference tournament. Unfortunately for head coach Kevin Willard, formerly of Iona, he has guided the team to the postseason only once in his first four seasons in New Jersey. The team is coming off a campaign in which it ranked next-to-last in the Big East in scoring defense, allowing 69.9 ppg, which isn't all that bad until you consider how tough it is to score points in the league these days. Another knock against the Hall is that it finished last in rebounding margin, one of only two teams (DePaul) with a negative margin (minus-0.6 rpg). The problem moving forward is that the Pirates have lost a number of key members that could have helped immensely in both areas, particularly Eugene Teague (11.2 ppg) who was third in the league in rebounding with 7.9 per contest last season. The league's defensive player of the year, Fuquan Edwin graduated after posting 14.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 77 steals. What's left for coach Willard is Sterling Gibbs, a transfer from Texas who accounted for 13.2 ppg and a team-best 135 assists in 21 starts. Brandon Mobley (7.6 ppg) is the second-most productive scorer coming back, which tells you how much the Pirates have lost. Selected as the Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year, Isaiah Whitehead is a Brooklyn native who was a McDonald's All- American.
MARQUETTE: The big story in Milwaukee is not so much the players who will be on the floor for the 2014-15 campaign, but the coach who will be working on the sidelines. Direct from the Mike Krzyzewski tree of coaching comes Steve Wojciechowski, a spirited go-getter who was an assistant at Duke for several years and also served as a scout/court coach for the USA Basketball Men's Senior National Team that was involved in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. A no-nonsense scrapper who was named the top defensive player in the country during his senior season with the Blue Devils, Wojciechowski will bring that same level of intensity to Marquette, a team which was just 9-9 in conference and 17-15 overall a season ago. Coach Wojciechowski begins his tenure with the Golden Eagles without Davante Gardner (14.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg), a two-time winner of the Big East Sixth Man of the Year award, not to mention Jamil Wilson (11.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Todd Mayo (11.3 ppg), the latter leaving a year early in hopes of starting a pro career. What's left is senior guard Derrick Wilson, the most experienced player who has seen action in 100 games during his career, who managed to produce 5.0 points, 4.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds per contest last year. A member of the Big East All-Rookie Team, Deonte Burton (6.9 ppg) will be pressed into service after coming off the bench almost exclusively, while BYU transfer Matt Carlino (13.7 ppg) will be expected to made an immediate impact since he is eligible to play right away.
BUTLER: Perhaps the biggest news on the Bulldogs front is that head coach Brandon Miller, who has just one year under his belt at Butler, was forced to take a medical leave of absence, it was announced in early October. Filling the void for the time being will be Chris Holtmann, an assistant under Miller who was previously the head coach with the Runnin' Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb. Holtmann assumes responsibility over a program that was just 14-17 overall a season ago and a dismal 4-14 in conference play, its first in the Big East. Part of the problem for the Bulldogs last season was that they were competing without one of their best players in Roosevelt Jones who was injured over the summer. Jones is back for 2014-15, but it remains to be seen how well he will responds, particularly without Khyle Marshall (14.9 ppg) who was one of only two players to score in double figures for the 'Dogs last season. The good news for Butler and Jones is that Kellen Dunham is back, a Second-Team All-Big East pick who became one of the top guards in the league last season. Dunham led the team in scoring with 16.4 ppg and was one of the better rebounders for the group with four per game, not to mention leading the Bulldogs with 78 3- pointers, nearly half their 183 conversions over 31 contests. Providing punch in the paint is Kameron Woods (7.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg), while Andrew Chrabascz became a starter in the second half of the season, en route to scoring 6.3 ppg and being named to the Big East All-Rookie Team.
CREIGHTON: The curiosity of seeing the Bluejays move from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Big East was all due to having Doug McDermott on the roster. The consensus National Player of the Year as well as Big East Player of the Year under his father, head coach Greg McDermott, Doug led the nation in scoring with 26.7 ppg and had the team in the national spotlight from the outset, but that wasn't enough to carry the squad when it came to the NCAA Tournament where it defeated Louisiana (76-66) but was then demolished by Baylor (85-55). With his son now in the NBA, the elder McDermott will have to actually start coaching his players and formulating plays that do not involve one of the most dominant players in college basketball in the last decade. The problem is, the change at Creighton involves more than just the loss of McDermott, because Ethan Wragge, a scrappy 3-point specialist is also gone, as is Grant Gibbs. With that said, the top returning performer for a squad that figures to finish near the bottom of the conference is Austin Chatman, the lone returning starter. Third on the team in scoring (8.1 ppg), Chatman will have to do even more with the added responsibilities that are being hoisted on his shoulders. The same goes for Devin Brooks (6.5 ppg) who was a solid contributor off the bench for a program that led the Big East and was 24th nationally in scoring with 78.7 ppg. Needless to say, the Jays will have to scratch for every point this season.
DEPAUL: Now entering his fifth year with the Blue Demons, head coach Oliver Purnell has had very little success in the Windy City so it wouldn't be surprising to hear that he is on the hot seat right out of the gate. Granted, the team did shock Georgetown in the Big East Tournament last season, but since Purnell took over in 2010 that's the only time DePaul has gotten beyond the first round. There was certainly some measure of optimism last season when Cleveland Melvin (16.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg) was on the roster, but he was suspended after 20 games and never returned, which is a main reason why the squad finished just 12-21 overall and 3-15 in conference play. This year, the focus will be on guard Billy Garrett, Jr. who was named the 2014 Big East Rookie of the Year after leading all freshmen in scoring with 12.0 ppg. Garrett also accounted for 93 assists, so he is more than capable of getting his teammates involved. Now it is just a matter of getting Garrett to make better shot selections after shooting only 36.6 percent from the field and 31.9 percent behind the 3-point line. Fellow sophomore Tommy Hamilton, who was a member of the All-Big East Rookie Team with Garrett, was an instant contributor (7.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and is expected to grow along with the program, while Durrell McDonald (5.4 ppg) and R.J. Curington (4.9 ppg) will see their roles expand as well.