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College Basketball Preview - Big East Conference

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -

OUTLOOK: The new-look Big East is no longer the college basketball beast that it once was with a staggering 16 teams. Conference realignment has been in the works for years and finally the Big East has become a bit more manageable with 10 programs, many of which still should be playing long after the 2013-14 regular season concludes.

Last season, the seven Big East schools that do not compete at the Football Bowl Subdivision level decided it was time to make a change and attempt to form some measure of uniformity for their other programs, the result being the revamped Big East in basketball.

Unfortunately, this league can not boast of having the defending national champion in Louisville, as the Cardinals have moved on and joined the newly- created American Athletic Conference. What remains are several top-quality squads that have made their presence felt in the Big East for several years now, as well as three additions from the Missouri Valley Conference and the Atlantic 10.

The Creighton Bluejays, one of only five programs in Division I with at least one postseason victory in each of the last six seasons, immediately became a factor after having moved from the MVC where they were a dominant force for several campaigns. Head coach Greg McDermott has been masterful in keeping Creighton in the national spotlight, and it doesn't hurt that he has had his son, Doug, as one of the top performers in the country the last three years.

But as great as young McDermott may be and as complete as the remaining roster is for the 'Jays, the program figures to still be chasing the likes of Marquette and Georgetown for the title this year.

Ranked 17th in the first Associated Press poll of 2013-14, the Golden Eagles are coming off a 26-9 season and a 14-4 league finish. Perhaps most impressive about Marquette is the fact that the team went undefeated at home (16-0), and that's the sort of advantage that should rattle foes of all abilities again this season.

The Hoyas had similar success at the Verizon Center where they dropped just one of their outings in 2012-13. Head coach John Thompson III has been slowly asserting himself as a top-notch, big-conference leader while working his way out of the shadow of his father who is still a legend at Georgetown. This could be the year that the Hoyas make a major play in the postseason, but that's only if they don't get beaten up during a long and grueling conference slate.

While they may have been dominant teams in the A-10 and Horizon League in previous seasons, Xavier and Butler, respectively, will most likely be chasing the pack in the Big East as they continue to evolve and redefine themselves in the coming years.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Marquette

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Marquette, 2. Georgetown, 3. Creighton, 4. St. John's, 5. Villanova, 6. Providence, 7. Xavier, 8. Seton Hall, 9. Butler, 10. DePaul

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

MARQUETTE: Led by head coach Buzz Williams, the Golden Eagles went from two straight years of reaching the Sweet 16, to breaking into the Elite Eight after winning a share of the Big East regular-season title for the first time. All of that is more than enough reason to think Marquette is again poised for bigger and better things, even though the group lost Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan. Forward Davante Gardner is the top returning scorer for the program as he averaged 11.5 ppg last season and won the Big East Sixth Man Award. Accounting for close to five rebounds per game as well, Gardner shot an impressive 58.5 percent from the floor and also showed great touch at the free-throw line (.835) for a team that finished second in the league in the latter department with 73.0 percent accuracy. Jamil Wilson will be another important piece to the puzzle after delivering 9.7 ppg and 4.9 rpg, but he too will have to prove that he has earned a spot in the starting lineup and can handle the additional work load of playing more minutes. Chris Otule and Juan Anderson were, by definition, recognized as starters a season ago, although their time on the floor may not have corresponded accordingly as they combined for less than eight points per outing. One area that coach Williams could stand to focus a bit more on is in the 3-point shooting department where the Golden Eagles made just 4.2 per game, ranking them 328th in the nation.

GEORGETOWN: It was only five seasons ago that the Hoyas finished in a tie for 11th place in the Big East standings, so the turn-around has been a solid effort by coach Thompson and his legions. However, in the last four years Georgetown has been one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament three times and that is simply not acceptable for a program that has such a storied history, particularly in this league. Unfortunately, the Hoyas will have to improve upon their 25-7 mark from a season ago without the services of Otto Porter, Jr. who was responsible for 16.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, while being a unanimous choice for Big East Player of the Year and a consensus First-Team All-American. The loss of Porter to the NBA will certainly hurt, as will the delayed start of forward Greg Whittington (12.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg) due to a knee injury, but there's no reason to abandon the G'town ship just yet. The Hoyas bring back a wealth of talent and experience, beginning with senior guard Markel Starks who generated 12.8 ppg as he shot close to 42 percent from beyond the arc. Starks was the leader in assists with 96 and one of the better defenders who captured 43 steals for a team that ranked fifth in the country in field goal percentage defense (.378) and 10th in points allowed (56.4 ppg). D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera (8.9 ppg) only figures to get better in his second season, while Nate Lubick (7.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) is the sort of role player that every program would love to have these days.

CREIGHTON: Make no mistake, Creighton is a team that lives and dies with the performances of McDermott, one of the most under-appreciated players in the nation. Part of the lack of respect for McDermott (23.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg) has been due to the fact that he's been trapped in the Missouri Valley Conference where the talent doesn't stack up nearly as tough as it does in the Big East, so now is the time for the big man to prove his worth. A two-time consensus All- American, McDermott is already the school's all-time leading scorer (2,216 points) who, should he play as well this year as he did in 2012-13 when he led the nation with 834 total points, has a chance to break the 3,000-point barrier for his career. While he might be eager to show his wares and prove his worth in the new conference against a different set of rivals, McDermott has to remember that center Gregory Echenique (9.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg) is no longer there to take some of the pressure off in the paint and that could provide opponents with opportunities to load up on the senior in close to the basket. Helping to clear space for McDermott to operate will be a three-guard offensive attack with Grant Gibbs, Austin Chapman and Jahenns Manigat. Gibbs is someone who can do it all, from scoring (8.5 ppg), to passing (5.8 apg) and rebounding (4.1 rpg) and it is because of him that the Bluejays ranked fourth in the country in assists with almost 17 per game last season. In terms of scoring margin, it will be hard for Creighton to top last year's plus-11.3 ppg (16th nationally).

ST. JOHN'S: So, you lead the nation in blocked shots with 7.3 per game and you wonder where that gets you? In the case of the Red Storm, all of that action overhead resulted in a record of just 17-16 overall and an 11th-place finish in the league standings with an 8-10 mark. St. John's did get a chance to participate in the postseason again, but the team was two-and-out in the NIT. Head coach Steve Lavin backed into the postseason after closing out the regular slate on a four-game slide and losing seven of eight games before the start of the NIT. The team has been one of the youngest in the country the last few years, but now those youngsters are rounding into solid, reliable performers who won't back down from anyone. The top five scorers are all back for the Red Storm, the group headed by D'Angelo Harrison who ranked third in the conference with 17.8 ppg, although in league play his average dropped to 15.3 ppg as he shot a mere 28.6 percent out on the perimeter. JaKarr Sampson (14.9 ppg) is capable of handling the action in the paint where he was responsible for 6.6 rpg, en route to being named the Big East Rookie of the Year, while Phil Greene (10.1 ppg) and Sir'Dominic Pointer (6.9 ppg) are more than capable of directing traffic on the floor after combining for 176 assists. After focusing so much on their interior defense, it might be time for the Red Storm to turn their attention to an area such as three-point shooting after making just 3.6 triples per game to rank 338th in the nation.

VILLANOVA: There have been many times over the last few years where the Wildcats have played some huge games against top-notch opponents, only to fall flat down the stretch and fail to make any real impact when the regular season has come to a conclusion. That was again the case for Villanova in 2012-13 as the team went from topping Louisville and Syracuse in a span of four days in Philadelphia, to bowing to the eventual national champions in the conference tournament and then losing to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. The false hope has become a calling card for head coach Jay Wright and his crew, unfortunately, and it may be the case again this year unless they can figure out a way to maintain a high level of success, if they ever reach that again. The team finished with a record of 10-8 in conference and 20-14 overall after being stung by the likes of Columbia and La Salle early on. Granted, the winning record was a major step in the right direction for Wright after the program posted a dismal 13-19 ledger in 2011-12, but still the season ended far too soon for the Villanova hopeful. This year, the fans are hopeful that JayVaughn Pinkston, an All-Big East Third Team selection, can continue his positive progress after putting up 13.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Another youngster to keep an eye on is Ryan Arcidiacono who took his place on the Big East All-Rookie Team after logging 11.9 ppg and 3.5 apg. Throw in Darrun Hilliard (11.4 ppg) and James Bell (8.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and the 'Cats could surprise a few folks before going cold again.

PROVIDENCE: For three straight seasons, beginning in 2009-10, the Friars finished with just four wins in 18 conference opportunities, yet in just his second campaign with Providence, head coach Ed Cooley was able to get the team to an even 9-9 last season. Granted, that .500 finish in Big East play was still only good for a ninth-place finish, but at least it is a move in the right direction. The Friars were rewarded with a trip to the NIT and did not disappoint as they put up wins against Charlotte and Robert Morris before bowing to Baylor. There are plenty of returning stars for the Friars and, with quality freshmen and talented transfers, they should be on the rise yet again. A major focus at the offensive end of the floor will be Bryce Cotton, who delivered on 18.3 ppg in conference play and was rewarded with a spot on the All-Big East First Team. Recognized as the most improved player in the conference, Kadeem Batts checks in with 14.2 ppg and 7.8 rpg for a team that maintained a rebounding advantage of 3.4 rpg. Also having a hand in the unit's strong efforts on the glass was LaDontae Henton who not only scored 13.0 ppg, but also cleared 8.3 rpg. Not to be overlooked, especially since he stands seven feet tall, is Carson Desrosiers, a transfer from Wake Forest. Something to keep an eye out for with this group is their ability to defend the perimeter after ranking second in the conference and 17th in the nation last season by limiting opponents to only 29.7 percent success beyond the arc.

XAVIER: Under head coach Chris Mack, the Musketeers had made it to the NCAA Tournament three straight years, but last season the team took a step backward with a 17-14 overall record and a mark of 9-7 in the Atlantic 10. Usually a team that cranks up the effort in the postseason, Xavier was ushered out of the A-10 Tournament by Saint Joseph's immediately, albeit by just a single point (58-57). The program has had some serious postseason success over the last decade nonetheless, appearing in the NCAA Tournament five times, and that includes a pair of trips to the Elite Eight, so the expectations are for the Musketeers to get back on track in short order. Xavier will lean heavily on sophomore guard Semaj Christon who won Rookie of the Year honors in the Atlantic 10 last season after producing 15.2 ppg and scoring in double figures in 19 straight outings to close out the campaign. Returning starters Dee Davis (8.2 ppg) and Justin Martin (7.9 ppg) have proven that they can contribute on offense, and now they just need to boost their effort to keep Xavier relative against a new set of foes. Last season, XU ranked second in the A-10 and 65th in the country in points allowed (62.5 ppg), but it didn't leave itself much room for error as the offense produced only 65.2 ppg (228th).

SETON HALL: Kevin Willard was able to coach the Pirates to the postseason following the 2011-12 regular slate -- an appearance in the NIT -- as the team posted a winning record of 20-14 overall. But last year, Seton Hall took a step backwards. The Pirates have been a bottom-feeder in the Big East for several years now, and in 2012-13 the squad was reduced to just three wins in 18 opportunities and finished in a 12th-place tie in the standings, so really the only way to go is up right now. One of the more exciting players in the league these days, Fuquan Edwin is someone who can light up the scoreboard for the Pirates, as long as defenses don't overwhelm him due to the fact that the rest of the Seton Hall roster is in need of better talent. Edwin, an All-Big East Honorable Mention, delivered 16.5 ppg and also pulled down close to six rebounds per contest, not to mention coming up with 2.4 steals per game as well. Eugene Teague and Brandon Mobley provided solid support in the paint and on the glass as the former combined his 11.2 ppg with 7.2 rpg and the latter contributed 9.0 ppg and another 5.5 rpg. Unfortunately, while those guys have the strength to battle down low, one of the more needy areas for the Pirates involves 3-point shooting after losing Aaron Cosby (12.6 ppg) and his team- best 66 triples.

BUTLER: Only a couple of years ago the Bulldogs were being compared to Gonzaga, a team which plays above and beyond its supposed mid-major categorization. Over the last six years, Butler has averaged a staggering 27.7 wins per season, en route to winning at least 20 games in 15 of the last 17 campaigns. Much of the recent success was attributed to head coach Brad Stevens who refused to budge from his pedestal in Indianapolis, until the NBA's Boston Celtics came calling earlier this year. With Stevens having moved on, the new skipper for the Bulldogs is a relative unknown in Brandon Miller who was enrolled at Butler himself just a decade ago and began his professional career as a video intern at Xavier under Thad Matta. Hired the first week of July this past summer, Miller is not that far removed from being a player himself, so it will be interesting to see how he handles being the boss for the first time. Working against Miller is the loss of several key performers (Rotnei Clarke, Andrew Smith), and now the squad will also have to deal with losing Roosevelt Jones to a wrist injury that will keep him out of action all season. With all of those changes, Butler has two returning starters that it will count on to pick up the slack. Khyle Marshall (9.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg) is the top returning scorer, while Alex Barlow (2.3 ppg) was little more than a role player last season. Kellen Dunham (9.5 ppg) can pack some scoring punch, but several newcomers will have to jump on the fast track to ensure that Butler is not made to look too bad in its first Big East season.

DEPAUL: With one of the most experienced head coaches in the Big East, now that the league has splintered off, the Blue Demons are hoping that Oliver Purnell can do something/anything to give them hope moving forward. Purnell has been in the business at the college level for a quarter century and has had success at each of his previous stops (Clemson, Dayton, Old Dominion and Radford), but still he is waiting to turn the corner with a DePaul program that has won just 40 games in the last three seasons. A year ago, the Blue Demons fell back to 11-21 overall and 2-16 in conference to finish last in the Big East standings, which means it can't get any worse. Purnell is bringing back four players who started at least 19 games a year ago, with the two most important performers being Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin who averaged 16.7 and 16.6 ppg, respectively. In addition to putting the ball in the basket, Young also dished out 4.6 apg, and Melvin cleared 6.8 rpg. Defense has to be a focus of the Blue Demons this season after the team ranked 326th in the country in points allowed (75.3 ppg), and 329th in field goal defense (.469).