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ESNY’s Big East Men’s Basketball Preview is here

College basketball is back and for anyone in the Northeast, that means a steady diet of Big East hoops is coming. The Villanova Wildcats are going to be the top dog in the conference again, but don’t overlook everyone else as an also-ran. There are a handful of Big East schools that can make a play for an NCAA Tournament bid.

The St. John’s Red Storm and Seton Hall Pirates are two of those teams. The local metropolitan area schools both missed out on the Big Dance, but returning stars and incoming transfers could propel both teams into the Big Dance.

Let’s take a look at the Big East from top to bottom with a projected order of finish, awards, All-Big East, tiers, and three questions.

Big East Projected Order of Finish

  1.  Villanova
  2.  Xavier
  3. UConn
  4. St. John’s
  5. Seton Hall
  6. Providence
  7. Creighton
  8. Butler
  9. Marquette
  10. Georgetown
  11. DePaul

Big East Tournament Champion: St. John’s

Awards & All-Big East Teams

Coach of the Year: Travis Steele, Xavier
Player of the Year: Collin Gillespie, Villanova
Defensive Player of the Year: Posh Alexander, St. John’s
Newcomer of the Year: Kadary Richmond, Seton Hall

All-Big East 1st Team

Collin Gillespie, Villanova
Julian Champagnie, St. John’s
Paul Scruggs, Xavier
Jared Rhoden, Seton Hall
Nate Watson, Providence

Big East Tiers

Tier 1 — Villanova, Xavier, UConn

Villanova is the obvious choice to finish first in the conference. Collin Gillespie is the consensus pick to win Player of the Year and Jay Wright is one of the best coaches in the country. Year after year, guys leave Villanova for the NBA. And yet, year after year, Wright finds replacements for those guys. We expect more of the same in 2021-22.

This will be the best team Travis Steele has had since he arrived in 2018 and it’s going to be his first NCAA Tournament as head coach of the Musketeers. The duo of Paul Scruggs and Zach Freemantle might be the best in the Big East. Scruggs has length as a lead guard while Freemantle can bang on the inside.

UConn is going to have to replace their leading scorer after James Bouknight made the leap to the NBA Draft and ultimately the lottery. The good news for Dan Hurley is that he has the depth to do it. The Huskies return four starters, only losing Bouknight. It might take a few weeks for UConn to flesh out its offensive pecking order, but they have the talent for another NCAA Tournament berth.

Tier 2 — St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence

Xavier’s duo of Scruggs-Freemantle is going to be dominant, but St. John’s studs Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander might have something to say about “best in the Big East.” Champagnie decided to withdraw from the NBA Draft and that was music to Mike Anderson’s ears. If Champagnie and Alexander continue to grow, the sky is the limit for the Johnnies.

Seton Hall struggled to put all the pieces together last season, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. Losing someone like Myles Powell is tough to replace. The Pirates will have to do the same with the departure of Sandro Mamukelashvili to the pros after his monster senior season. Jared Rhoden showed he can take on the scoring load and he’ll have incoming Syracuse transfer Kadary Richmond to lend a helping hand in that department.

At times, watching Providence play is like a blast from the past. They are the only college team I can think of that consistently runs a basic flex set all the way through, multiple times, like a CYO team. With a big man like Nate Watson, keeping it simple isn’t a bad idea. The Friars lost a lot to the NBA (David Duke Jr.) and the transfer portal, but they can lean on Watson.

Tier 3 — Creighton, Butler, Marquette, Georgetown

Creighton is the team that could deviate from this preseason prediction the most. They have some experience on the roster, but they are a mostly young team. Ryan Kalkbrenner enters his sophomore year after being highly recruited out of high school. Creighton is bringing in the top-ranked freshman class in the conference according to 247Sports. This class includes nationally-ranked players like Arthur Kaluma and Ryan Nembhard.

Marquette could be the feel-good story in the Big East this year. Shaka Smart is returning home to Wisconsin to take over the program with eyes on a return to the Big Dance. That might be easier said than done. The Golden Eagles lost all five starters after finishing 13-14 in 2020-21.

Georgetown is another team that was decimated by the transfer portal and the lure of the NBA in the offseason. After shocking the world and winning the Big East Tournament, it looked like Patrick Ewing was finally building momentum. He might still be despite the losses to the transfer portal. Georgetown is bringing in the 16th-ranked recruiting class in the country according to 247Sports.

Tier 4 — DePaul

And then there was DePaul. The Blue Demons have finished in last place (or a tie for last) in six of the eight years since Big East realignment. They have never finished higher than seventh place and unfortunately for DePaul fans, we don’t expect that to change this year. Tony Stubblefield has his work cut out for him in Chicago.

Three Questions

Is it Villanova’s Year Again?

Do you want a quick answer? Yeah, it probably will be Villanova’s year again. The longer version?

The Wildcats have had a stranglehold on the Big East for a while. They have won four of the last six Big East Tournaments and have won at least a share of the conference’s regular-season title in seven of the last eight years. Jay Wright’s program is in a class of its own.

The fact that Villanova is a championship contender year in and year out helps bring credibility to the conference. Not to mention, it gives teams on the bubble a chance for resumé-building wins because make no mistake about it, the Wildcats don’t lose many Big East games.

With Collin Gillespie returning for what seems like his 10th year, the Wildcats are poised for another year on top.

How Many NCAA Tourney Teams?

The Big East can stand toe to toe with any other conference in the country. They might not be as strong top to bottom as the Big Ten or Big 12, but they have a championship contender in Villanova and a handful of potential NCAA Tournament teams.

Since conference realignment took place in 2014, the Big East has averaged 5.1 NCAA Tournament bids per year. However, the conference only received four bids in its last two opportunities (the NCAA Tournament was canceled in 2020).

Remember, there are currently 11 teams in the conference and there were only 10 before UConn rejoined in 2020. The most bids the conference received was seven in 2017. Even with the addition of UConn, seven feels like a high number.

The best-case scenario Big East fans should hope for is six with Villanova, Xavier, UConn, St. John’s, Seton Hall, making it comfortably with Providence sneaking in. Another Big East Tournament surprise like Georgetown last year might help the conference steal a bid.

But even six feels too high and five might be asking too much. The most likely scenario is that Villanova, Xavier, and UConn make the tournament with one of the local NY/NJ teams taking the fourth and final bid. So, who will it be: St. John’s or Seton Hall?

St. John’s or Seton Hall?

My lean is towards Queens on this question, but the margins are razor-thin. The duo of Champagnie and Alexander has the potential to be special in a way that we haven’t seen at St. John’s in some time. Champagnie can carry the scoring load while Alexander distributes, defends, and demands respect from the rest of the conference.

They have a strong supporting cast as well. Incoming transfers Montez Mathis and Joel Soriano from Rutgers and Fordham, respectively, should be immediate plug-and-play guys.

But would anyone be surprised if the Pirates were the better team in this cross-town rivalry? Jared Rhoden is poised to take the step from strong scorer to Big East star. Kevin Willard is also banking on Kadary Richmond coming in and helping to round out the team’s offense around Rhoden. And not to mention, the team is bringing back Myles Cale and Ike Obiagu, two starters with tons of Big East experience.

Whether or not Bryce Aiken can make an impact off the bench could be a major key for Seton Hall. With Aiken, Champagnie, Alexander, Soriano, Rhoden, and more, there are a bunch of local guys on both teams. It’s a great time to be a local hoops fan.

For a look at the Northeast’s mid-major conference, check out our MAAC Men’s Basketball Preview.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.