Last season was a banner year for the reconstructed Big East. Once the most dominating conference in college basketball, the hoops-only league will never be able to reach the heights of its predecessor. But if last season is as good as it gets, well, I think everyone will agree that's still pretty damn good.
The Big East sent half of its members (five teams) to the NCAA Tournament. Villanova won the National Championship. And Providence produced a Top 5 draft pick in Kris Dunn. The Beast was back, if only for a moment (or 12).
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Like the rest of college basketball, the Big East is retooling this season. But while players come and go all the time in this sport, things should remain pretty static at both the top and the bottom of this league. The two powers, Villanova and Xavier, retained the majority of the players from last year's squads (albeit minus some crucial contributors). Creighton and Butler are still stocked with transfers and upperclassmen that they will try to meld into competitors. And St. John's and DePaul both still stink.
Here are Doc's Sports 2016-17 Big East Conference college basketball predictions (with odds to win the conference title in parentheses):
The Favorite: Villanova (-300)
Kris Jenkins nailed one of the greatest shots in Final Four history - just moments after Marcus Paige hit one of the most incredible shots I've ever seen - to cap a dream season and National Championship for the Wildcats. Villanova might not have entered last season as a title favorite. But their 35-5 campaign capped an incredible three-year run that saw the Wildcats go 97-13 and serve as one of the best against the spread teams in college sports. Villanova won't be under anyone's radar this year, though. For the second straight season they lost a pair of multi-year starters at the core of the team, with point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and center Daniel Ochefu exhausting their eligibility. Villanova retained its best player (Josh Hart), its most versatile player (Jenkins) and its next potential star lead guard (Jalen Brunson). Jay Wright uses a tight eight-man rotation and he has several other players - Fordham transfer Eric Paschall, superb sixth man Phil Booth, and potential stud Mikal Bridges - to fill in around his top trio. Villanova will start the season in the Top 5 and should be one of the best teams in the country all winter long.
The Challenger: Xavier (+250)
Stellar wings Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both wisely decided against going pro and their return had Xavier in a position to potentially knock off Villanova this season. However, their title hopes took a blow when senior guard Myles Davis was suspended indefinitely after some nasty off-court altercations involving an ex-girlfriend. Super shooter J.P. Macura and grad transfer Malcolm Bernard will look to pick up the slack until Davis comes back (if he comes back). The Musketeers will need to be strong on the perimeter because they lost their two best forwards, James Farr and Jalen Reynolds. Reynolds, who was just a sophomore, declared early but went undrafted. Had he returned the X-Men would've been a Final Four favorite. Without him the Musketeers will probably have to settle for a Sweet 16 ceiling, and they will need role player Sean O'Mara and transfer RaShid Gaston to fill the massive void on the interior.
The Dark Horse: Creighton (+1000)
If Villanova happens to slip into a post-championship funk, I think that Creighton will be the team most likely to take advantage in the Big East race. This team is stacked with complimentary scoring options and they should perform as a consistent Top 25 team this winter. It starts in the backcourt with fearless lead guard Maurice Watson. The transfer averaged 14.1 points and 6.5 assists last year while taking every big shot. Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster should lessen his burden, however. Foster was run out of Manhattan by Bruce Weber after averaging 15.5 points and earning second-team All-Big 12 honors as a freshman. He could end up as one of the best guards in a Big East featuring several future NBA players. Fellow transfer Cole Huff is back for his senior season and slick shooting Isaiah Zierden gives the Blue Jays even more perimeter options. Throw in a pair of 6-foot-11 big men (stretch-four Toby Hegner and freshman pivot Justin Patton), and Creighton has a nice blend of high-end talent, experience, depth and role players. These guys are legit.
The X-Factor: Butler (+1500)
The Bulldogs have had only two losing seasons in 23 years and are the quintessential rags-to-riches success story for every mid-major program in the country. They have more than enough talent to secure another NCAA Tournament bid. And even though they don't have the goods to win it all, the Bulldogs will be an active player in the Big East race. This team is built on transfers. Kelan Martin (Purdue), Avery Woodson (Memphis), Kethan Savage (GW), and Tyler Lewis (N.C. State) will serve as the core of this team. They've played a ton of basketball between them and now need to find a way to develop the chemistry that seemed to be lacking from last year's squad. If Butler wants to bump off one of the top teams in the league this year then the Bulldogs need to get better defensively. Freshman Joe Brunk and sophomore Nate Fowler are the only two players taller than 6-7. They need to become a solid 30-minute-per-game duo. If they do, they will work with Tyler Wideman and Andrew Chrabascz to give Butler a frontcourt capable of stacking up with more athletic teams. Those two things - chemistry/offensive cohesiveness and defensive toughness - will define Butler's season.
The Disappointment: Providence (+1200)
Boy did I miss on the Friars last year. I did not see Ben Bentil coming, and he was an absolute animal for the Friars, averaging 21.1 points and 7.7 rebounds. Barring another such incredible emergence it will be impossible for Providence to replace the All-American production of Bentil and Dunn. Wing Rodney Bullock should break out. I like what I've seen from Jalen Lindsey and sophomore Ryan Fazekas. And if Indiana transfer Emmitt Holt can develop quickly then the Friars will have a strong, athletic core. Coach Ed Cooley is one of the last remaining coaches to feature a five-man flex offense. Flex teams are always tough underdogs, and Providence has enough athleticism on the perimeter to match up with the best teams in this league. However, after three straight NCAA Tournament trips I think the Friars will fall short this year, stepping back before taking a healthy step forward in 2017.
Georgetown (+800) - I almost used Georgetown as the Big East X-Factor because this is a very difficult team to wrap my head around. John Thompson III posted his first-ever losing season last year. But it was actually the second time in three years in which the Hoyas failed to make the NCAA Tournament. They also haven't been inside the Top 20 in any of the past three years. Is this a program in decline? Georgetown graduated its best player, D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera. But they brought back everyone else. Junior wings L.J. Peak and Isaac Copeland have a lot of upside, and the center position is in good hands with Bradley Hayes and Jessie Govan. The key will be the emergence of a point guard and the transition of transfer guards Jon Mulmore and Rodney Pryor. Both Mulmore (JUCO) and Pryor (Robert Morris) were high-volume scorers at their old schools. And how they fit in on a team stocked with forwards and centers will determine just how good this team is going to be.
Seton Hall (+500) - Isaiah Whitehead was the best point guard in the country that no one talked about last season. The Pirates, who made their first NCAA Tournament in a decade last year by winning the Big East Tournament, will be hard-pressed to replace his production. A trio of juniors, part of a class that entered South Orange together with Whitehead, will be the heart of this year's squad. Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado combined for 36.5 points and 17.4 rebounds per game last year. Reinforcements are coming by way of heralded freshmen Eron Gordon and Myles Powell, two guards with upside that will likely make a lot of rookie mistakes. They have a quality trio to build around, and Kevin Willard has done a great job of rebuilding this program. Seton Hall is good enough to threaten the top teams but not good enough to overtake them.
Marquette (+1200) - Steve Wojciechowski's intensity can be his greatest strength and his biggest weakness. And Wojo's approach clearly caused some issues this offseason with the Ellenson family, essentially cutting guard Wally after forward Henry declared for the NBA draft. Besides the bad karma, losing Henry robbed the Golden Eagles of their best player. Wojo still has plenty of pieces to work with. Center Luke Fischer is one of the best big men in the league and guard Duane Wilson is a three-year starter. Jajuan Johnson and Haanif Cheatham are both 6-5 and both averaged over 10 points per game last season. Three newcomers - freshman Markus Howard and transfers Katin Reinhardt and Andrew Rowsey - will provide more scoring punch. The Eagles were excellent at sharing the ball last season (No. 1 in the league in assists). But they need to improve defensively and they need to find a way to incorporate the new pieces into the existing core. All that falls on the excitable Wojo, and I think he'll be up to the task.
DePaul (+10000) - The Blue Demons have Billy Garrett Jr. and Eli Cain and pretty much nothing else. Garrett is a four-year starter and Cain made the league's all-freshman team. But they are surrounded by duds, and DePaul - despite its proximity to one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country - remains one of the worst programs in college basketball. Dave Leitao is working on it. And maybe the Demons can top last year's win total. But when that total is just nine wins, that's not saying much.
St. John's (+1800) - You wanna talk about starting a program from scratch? St. John's fielded one of the worst rosters in major college basketball last year. And now they've lost three of their top four scorers from a group that went just 1-17 in league play and won just eight games on the season. Things will likely get worse before they get better. But the good news for Chris Mullin is that low expectations and minimal talent has allowed him to give a lot of minutes to his young players. Sophomore's Federico Mussini, Kassoum Yakwe and Yankuba Sima showed solid flashes. And freshman guard Shamorie Ponds is a Top 20 recruit. That's something to build on at least.
Projected Big East Standings
6. Seton Hall
10. St. John's
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and has an unmatched streak of nine straight winning nonconference seasons and nine straight winning regular seasons. Robert's $100-per-Unit clients have banked $12,130 in profit with his sides and totals the last two years alone and he has raked in a remarkable $60,600 in the last nine years with his nonconference picks (November and December) alone. There is no better moneymaker in the nation and Robert is looking forward to another amazing season. You can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here.
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