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Big East Preview: Is there a real challenger to Villanova?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big East Conference.

The Big East Conference landed six teams in the NCAA tournament last season. The Big East might not replicate that number come Selection Sunday, but the 10-league members should make for another unpredictable season.

Villanova should be the unanimous preseason pick, given what the Wildcats have accomplished over the past two years (two regular season titles and the 2015 Big East Tournament championship) and the key pieces they bring back, inclduding Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu and Josh Hart. Georgetown, Butler and Xavier should all pose as Villanova’s biggest competition, though the order in which they finish is up for debate.

The same could be said for the rest of the conference. St. John’s is likely out of the mix following a massive roster overhaul, but Nos. 5-9 could end up in a variety of ways.


1. Kris Dunn spurned NBA: Kris Dunn could have been a lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, but choose to return to Providence for his junior season. This is a gamble on Dunn’s part, given the recurring shoulder injury that plagued his first two seasons. But with the return of Dunn, arguably the top player in college basketball, the Friars eye an NCAA tournament for the third time in as many seasons, instead of focusing on a rebuilding year.

MORE: How Kris Dunn attacked the weaknesses in his game

2. Villanova postseason cut short again: In 2014, Villanova, a No. 2 seed, was upset by eventual champion UConn in the Round 0f 32. This past March, the Wildcats validated critics who believed that they were unworthy of a No. 1 seed, exiting the tournament in the Round of 32 again, this time at the hands of No. 8 N.C. State. Jay Wright led the Wildcats to the Final Four in 2009. In five tournament appearances since, Villanova hasn’t gotten out of the first weekend. Villanova can prove its among the top programs in the country with non-conference matchups against Oklahoma and Virginia, but it won’t matter unless NCAA tournament success follows.

3. Chris Mullin returns: After five seasons, St. John’s and Steve Lavin decided to part ways. This paved the way for a Chris Mullin homecoming. The Brooklyn native led the Johnnies to the 1985 Final Four before enjoying a Hall of Fame career as a player. Since retiring, he’s worked as both a broadcaster and in NBA front office’s but he returns to his alma mater with zero coaching experience. He inherits a team that lost its entire rotation, but Mullin has made tremendous strides in his first few months as a head coach, surrounding himself with talented recruiters, who have overhauled the roster and helped land a pair of four-star recruits.

4. Impact freshmen: The two highest-rated recruits entering the league is Marquette’s Henry Ellenson and Villanova’s Jalen Brunson. Both five-star prospects are expected to make immediate impact. This summer offered a glimpse of what to expect this season, with Ellenson putting up big numbers on Marquette’s European tour and Brunson leading USA Basketball to a gold medal in the FIBA U19 World Championships in Greece. Brunson averaged 14.0 points and 5.6 assists per game, earning MVP honors.

5. NBA Draft: For the first time in Big East history (dating back to 1979, not 2013), no player was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. In all likelihood, that will change this June, as Kris Dunn and Henry Ellenson are both projected as lottery picks.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule


  • Favorite: “I’d say Villanova. They’ve dominated our league. They’ve been the standard the last two years. They have a lot of guys back, a lot of experience, very, very good guard play. They can all shoot and drive. They’re all very good defensively, too.”
  • Sleeper: “I think Marquette has a chance to be a sleeper. I think Woj has done a really good job of upgrading the talent in the last year. They return just enough guys and I think he has some really good freshmen to help elevate them to the upper part of the league.”
  • Best player
    • “You obviously have to start with Kris Dunn … Ryan Arcidiacono as well. Those two guys headline our league. [Dunn] impacts the game on both ends of the floor. He’s a two-way player. He’s a phenomenal defender. At the other end, he’s just really hard to keep out of the lane. Arcidiacono stays more within himself. He can really shoot the ball, makes the right play, tough guy. He does a great job.”
    • “I think Arcidiacono is the best player … He’s truly a quarterback in that system. He makes average players very, very good and he pulls that team together. He’s an extension of Jay [Wright]. I’m probably a rare guy, but I think Arch is the best player.”
  • Most underrated player
    • “I think Daniel Ochefu is very undervalued. Obviously, he’s 6-foot-11, but he’s so mobile and he’s an extremely good defender around the rim and in ball-screen defense. Then he can score on the other end.”
    • “Roosevelt Jones. I think people talk about him, but I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. For not being able to shoot the ball, he’s extremely talented. He understands his role. He’s one of those guys that makes a team click.”
Kris Dunn (AP Photo)
Kris Dunn (AP Photo)


Dunn is a candidate for Preseason National Player of the Year honors, so it’s no surprise that he should be the runaway selection to repeat as Big East Player of the Year after he shared the honors last season. The 6-foot-3 Dunn, in his first full season, posted posted 15.6 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 steals per game as a redshirt sophomore. As opposing coaches mentioned above, he impacts the game on both ends of the floor, probably more so than anyone else in the country.


  • Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova: The experienced lead guard who shared Big East co-Player of the Year honors with Dunn last season, anchors the conference’s top perimeter attack, which includes Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth. Arcidiacono averaged 10.1 points and 3.5 assists per game and shot a career-best 37 percent from three.
  • Henry Ellenson, Marquette: The five-star recruit, rated No. 11 player in the class by Rivals, is the highest-rated prospect entering the Big East. The projected lottery pick will make up one of the top front courts playing alongside Luke Fischer.
  • Roosevelt Jones, Butler: His old-school game helped the Bulldogs turnaround the program’s first losing season in nine years. The 6-foot-4 redshirt junior, who missed the 2013-14 season due to a wrist injury, led the team in assists at 3.7 per game and added another scoring option, putting up points using his arsenal of unorthodox runners.
  • D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown: The key piece on a team loaded with talented underclassmen, the 6-foot-3 Smith-Rivera did it all for the Hoyas last season. The first-team all-conference selection averaged 16.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game.


  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
  • Kellen Dunham, Butler
  • Billy Garrett Jr., DePaul
  • Daniel Ochefu, Villanova
  • Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall

BREAKOUT STAR: Jalen Reynolds, Xavier

There are several players that could fit this category (Georgetown’s Isaac Copleand or Providence’s Ben Bentil ), but Jalen Reynolds has the ability to put up an all-Big East caliber season for the Musketeers. The 6-foot-10 forward, who plays with the attitude that he can dunk everything, may be the most athletically gifted player in the conference. He averaged 9.9 points and 6.1 boards per game as a sophomore and had two strong showings in Xavier’s Sweet 16 run.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Kevin Willard, Seton Hall

In five seasons, Willard is 30-60 in conference, taking the Pirates to only one postseason appearance (2012 NIT). Willard is also coming off a season of highs and lows. The highs being back-to-back wins over Villanova and St. John’s to propel the Pirates in to the top-25 rankings. The lows: a 1-9 finish and the departures of starters Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Can someone make run in March?

Through the first two years of the Big East relaunch, only one team has made it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. That was Xavier this past March, reaching the Sweet 16 by defeating No. 11 Ole Miss and No. 14 Georgia State.

Questions of the league’s strength will continue as long as postseason struggles do.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : The Gavitt Tipoff Games

Named in honor of the Big East founder, Dave Gavitt, the Big East and Big Ten will play eight games throughout the first week of the season. Kicking off slate of non-conference matchups is Georgetown traveling College Park to take on Maryland. The two teams haven’t played locally since 1993. The Terrapins host the Hoyas on Nov. 17.


  • Nov. 17, Georgetown vs. Maryland
  • Nov. 20, Xavier vs. Michigan
  • Dec. 7, Oklahoma vs. Villanova (in Honolulu)
  • Dec. 5, Syracuse vs. Georgetown
  • Dec. 19, Villanova vs. Virginia



1. Villanova: The conference’s most efficient offense and defense, returns a core of last year’s team. With deep guard play and a big man in the middle, Jay Wright’s team should expect to be back to the top spot in the Big East standings.
2. Georgetown: John Thompson III will rely on up to seven freshmen and sophomores. Isaac Copeland, L.J. Peak, Paul White and Tre Campbell were all part of the rotation as freshmen. First-year big men Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson both had impressive outings in the Hoyas’ summer trip. The return of D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera will Georgetown as the underclassmen develop over the course of the season.
3. Butler: It seems odd: a former McDonald’s All-American needing to fill the shoes left behind by a walk-on. But that’s the position Tyler Lewis finds himself in, replacing beloved Alex Barlow. The N.C. State transfer joins the veteran perimeter of sharpshooter Kellen Dunham and wing Roosevelt Jones. Like Villanova, Butler lacks depth up front, but third-year starter Andrew Chrabascz is a solid piece to have on the interior.
4. Xavier: Trevon Blueitt and Jalen Reynolds are poised for breakout years, but the Musketeers must combat the loss of both point guards, Dee Davis and Matt Stainbrook (yes, 6-foot-10 Matt Stainbrook). That point guard duties will fall on the committee of Larry Austin Jr., Myles Davis and Edmond Sumner, a 6-foot-5 freshman who sat out last season. There is still enough talent on the roster for another NCAA tournament appearance for Chris Mack.
5. Providence: Kris Dunn’s return is what keeps the Friars in the top half of the league to begin the season, but players like Ben Bentil and Jalen Lindsey will need to take major steps forward in their sophomore seasons in order for PC to still be there in February/March.
6. Marquette: The trendy pick as the dark horse in the Big East, the Golden Eagles could be in for a big turnaround in the Wojo’s second year. Henry Ellenson and Luke Fischer make for a good tandem on the frontline, while Traci Carter and Haanif Cheatham are other freshman to watch, playing alongside Duane Wilson in the back court.
7. Seton Hall: The Pirates are a dangerous team despite a dismal end to last season. Isaiah Whitehead, Angel Delgado and Khadeen Carrington all gained valuable experience as freshmen. Seton Hall will need contributions from players like Desi Rodriguez, another sophomore, and graduate transfers Braeden Anderson and Derrick Gordon if it wants to do more than pull off a few upsets.
8. Creighton: Seven of Creighton’s 14 conference losses came by five points or less, helping contribute to a last-place finish a season ago. Transfers Maurice Watson Jr. and Cole Huff should make an immediate impact alongside cast of returnees that includes James Milliken, Toby Hegner and Geoffrey Groselle. The Bluejays certainly got better, but is it enough to climb into the middle of the pack?
9. DePaul: Although the Blue Demons are slotted second from the bottom, this could be the team to surprise many this season. They return Billy Garrett Jr., Myke Henry and Tommy Hamilton IV, three double-digit scorers from last season.
10. St. John’s: Chris Mullin has covered a lot of ground since March, but the loss of last year’s entire rotation puts the Red Storm in the cellar for Year 1.

Selflessness, toughness among the attributes that make No. 3 Villanova a national title contender

Villanova will be a forced to be reckoned with in the NCAA tournament (Getty Images)
source: Getty Images
Villanova will be a forced to be reckoned with in the NCAA tournament (Getty Images)

One of the questions entering this weekend was who would earn the one-seeds alongside No. 1 Kentucky, and one team that merited serious discussion was No. 3 Villanova. Jay Wright’s Wildcats have been the class of the Big East all season and that was the case in New York, as they capped a three-game run through the Big East tournament with a 69-52 win over Xavier in the title game.

And as has been the case throughout the year, the list of contributors for Villanova wasn’t limited to a select few.

Each of the eight players who played 16 minutes or more managed to score at least four points, with Dylan Ennis leading the way with 16 points. Sixth man Josh Hart, who became the first reserve to win Most Outstanding Player honors in the history of the Big East tournament added 15 points and seven rebounds and Darrun Hilliard chipped in with 12 points.

The Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field (60 percent inside of the arc) and assisted on nearly 63 percent of their made field goals. Jay Wright’s team is a selfless group, one that doesn’t particularly care about who gets the credit provided that they’re collectively successful.

That was most evident in how happy the team was when Hart received his individual honor, and his play of late is a key for Villanova as they look to make a long run in the NCAA tournament. In three games in New York the sophomore made 21 of his 29 shots from the field (9-for-14 from three), and he averaged 17.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game.

It’s been said on multiple occasions that Villanova doesn’t have a bonafide star, with none of their players being in the conversation for the national individual awards. But if this weekend displayed anything, it’s that Villanova is a team of players who are focused solely on being stars in their own roles.

Ryan Arcidiacono, Big East Co-Player of the Year with Providence’s Kris Dunn, scored just three points but still managed to be a steadying influence for the Wildcats. And with Arcidiacono not scoring as he can, freshman Phil Booth contributed eight points off the bench before fouling out. Daniel Ochefu, who’s been rock solid in the middle all year long, may have scored just four points against Xavier but he still matched Hart with a team-high seven rebounds.

Attributes such as selflessness and toughness are what have not only placed Villanova in a position where they can claim the program’s first one-seed since 2006, but they also make the Wildcats a serious threat to win the national title. Up 20 with 1:36 remaining Arcidiacono and Hilliard both left the court in an attempt to save the basketball, and no one would have blamed either player had they simply let the ball out of bounds go given the time and score.

But to take a play off isn’t them, and it isn’t Villanova either. While the question of whether or not that will result in the reward of a one-seed won’t be answered until Sunday evening, this much is clear: Villanova earned the designation and the respect that comes with it.

New Year’s Resolutions: Villanova Wildcats

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source: Getty Images
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Conference play is right around the corner, so over the course of the next two weeks, College Basketball Talk will be detailing what some of the country’s best, most intriguing, and thoroughly enigmatic teams should resolve to do with the New Year right around the corner. What can we say, we’re in a giving mood. Thank Jessica Simpson.

MORE: The rest of our New Year’s Resolutions | Midseason catchups

VILLANOVA PROMISES TO: Get improved 3-point shooting from Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono

  • It will happen because: The Wildcats are actually shooting slightly better than they did during the 2013-14 campaign, where they sunk better than 35 percent of their threes. Despite the consistent numbers as a team, starting guard Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono have seen their percentages from deep dip from a season ago. Hilliard is down from 41 percent to 31 while Arcidiacono has nosedived to 21 percent. However, Hilliard has already shown improvement recently, knocking down 11-of-24 from beyond the arc over the last five games. On Friday, before Villanova’s rivalry game with Syracuse, Jay Wright told reporters after practice, Arcidiacono looks healthy this week, which could reverse the slide in his numbers.
  • But it might not because: Villanova might not need similar numbers from Hilliard and Arcidiacono. Villanova is an unselfish team, seeing five different players leading the team in scoring through 10 games. Dylan Ennis and Josh Hart are both averaging double figures in their second seasons in the program with both shooting the ball better from deep. Ennis is up to 46 percent and Hart is up to a 40 percent clip. Add in reserve forward Kris Jenkins and the Wildcats have ample perimeter shooting options. Yes, Arcidiacono’s scoring average has decreased each year, but he’s continuing to focus on his role, taking care of the ball with an assist-to-turnover that was 3.5-to-1 before the Temple game. He also had nine assists and zero turnovers against VCU’s Havoc defense.

VILLANOVA ALSO SWEARS THEY WON’T: Bow out early in postseason play

  • It will happen because: Villanova’s 29 wins were overshadowed by a quarterfinal upset loss to Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament followed by a loss to UConn, the eventual national champion, in the Round of 32 of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Despite the cast of returnees, the early exits caused preseason skepticism for the Wildcats. But this team is one year older, and should learn from past shortcomings. Villanova is incredibly balanced offensively and are experienced with three juniors and two seniors in the starting five. The Wildcats have had/will have their battles — not turning the ball over against VCU, a thriller against Michigan and Saturday’s rivalry game against Syracuse. The Wildcats will also get tested from a better Big East, going up against a tough defensive team in Butler, a talented Georgetown team and a St. John’s team that runs a smaller lineup. Xavier, Providence and Seton Hall also figure to be in the conversation come Selection Sunday.
  • But it might not because: While Villanova is tough to prepare for given its balance, last year saw the Wildcats end up on the wrong end of mismatches. In two blowout losses to Creighton, the Wildcats allowed the Bluejays to shoot 60 percent (30-of-50) from three. Another area of concern for the Villanova is its frontline. Jayvaughn Pinkston can provide a scoring punch as a mismatch for opposing forwards and Jenkins has seen a spike in production, but outside of 6-foot-11 Daniel Ochefu, the Wildcats roster lacks another true big man.