2014-15 Season Preview: Villanova is the heavy favorite in an uncertain Big East

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the Big East.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

The 10-team Big East debuted during the 2013-14 season. The relaunch season featured national player of the year Doug McDermott, who went on to be a lottery pick, and Villanova, which ended up being a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Villanova will remain a top-15 team heading into the 2014-15 season. After the Wildcats, there are several teams with questions that also have the tools to solve them over the course of the next five months.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Villanova will build off last season: The Wildcats had a disappointing finish to their 2013-14 campaign, but heading into this year, Jay Wright will have a more seasoned team. He gets four starters back, including Darrun Hilliard, JayVaughn Pinkston and Ryan Archidiacono. Villanova will be the flag bearers for the Big East as the only team ranked in the preseason. The Wildcats can make a statement in the non-conference, as they did last season, with games against VCU (potentially Michigan), Illinois and Syracuse.

2. St. John’s will go dancing again: In Steve Lavin’s first season at St. John’s, the Red Storm reached the NCAA tournament — Mike Dunlap, now at Loyola Marymount, was coaching while Lavin battled cancer — and hauled in a heralded recruiting class. The Johnnies won 20 games last season, but they did no favors by digging themselves into an 0-5 hole to begin Big East play. It’s been three seasons since St. John’s went dancing, and it would take some heat off Lavin and help the growth of the new Big East if the Red Storm could get back in 2015. And, if everything comes together, they should. D’Angelo Harrison, Phil Green IV and Sir’Dominic Pointer — all part of that heralded recruiting class — are now seniors. Chris Obekpa reversed his decision to transfer and, most importantly, x-facotr Rysheed Jordan is coming off a promising freshman campaign.

MORE: Can Kris Dunn ever be the player that he was coming out of high school?

3. Despite significant losses, Xavier has plenty of depth: Semaj Christon was drafted in the second round and Justin Martin decided to use his last year of eligibility at SMU. Despite the losses, Chris Mack will have plenty of options with six returners and seven newcomers — six freshmen and Indiana transfer Remy Abell. Seniors Matt Stainbrook and Dee Davis are back while Jalen Reynolds and Myles Davis could both be in line for big seasons.

4. Providence adds McDonald’s All-American: Kris Dunn was rated the top point guard in 2012 by Rivals. His collegiate career has gotten off to a slow start thanks to nagging shoulder issues that occurred before the start of his freshman season, limiting him to 29 games in two years. A redshirt sophomore, Dunn is finally healthy, giving Ed Cooley a lead guard to help fill the void left behind by Bryce Cotton. Add in LaDontae Henton, an all-conference caliber forward, and the Friars have a nice one-two punch.

5. March failure: The mark of a conference is how it fares in March. The 1985 Final Four featured three Big East teams, serving as the benchmark of NCAA tournament success. In 2014, the new Big East had 40 percent of the league dancing, only to hear the music stop playing after the first weekend. Xavier lost in the First Four, Providence nearly upset North Carolina, Creighton was caught in an unfavorable matchup against Baylor and Villanova was bounced by the eventual national champion UConn Huskies. Success in March will continue to be a topic of discussion for the Big East.

RELATED: The Big East will be better than their second season

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D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (AP)

PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown

As a sophomore, the 6-foot-3 Smith-Rivera averaged 17.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists en route to all-Big East second team honors. He finished top 10 in scoring and was one of the best rebounding guards in the conference. This season, with the graduation of Markel Starks, Smith-Rivera will also be tasked with handling the ball for the Hoyas.

THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM:

  • D’Angelo Harrison, St. John’s: Harrison is the conference’s top returning scorer, trailing only Doug McDermott and Bryce Cotton in points per game at 17.7 in 2013-14.
  • Darrun Hilliard, Villanova: The Big East Most Improved Player from a season ago averaged 14.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists for the conference’s top team.
  • JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova: The 6-foot-7 forward’s points, rebounds and shooting percentage all went up from sophomore to junior seasons. Arguably the best big man in the Big East.
  • Matt Stainbrook, Xavier: The Western Michigan transfer made an immediate impact last season with six double-doubles. The 6-foot-10 center will take on a greater role after the Musketeers lost several key players this spring.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Kellen Dunham, Butler
  • LaDontae Henton, Providence
  • Rysheed Jordan, St. John’s
  • Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
  • Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall

BREAKOUT STAR: Deonte Burton, Marquette

The former four-star recruit saw only 12.6 minutes of action a night, but was able to score 6.9 points per game during his freshman season at Marquette. The 6-foot-4 power wing showed what he could do in extended minutes last season with a season-high 23 points (in 24 minutes) in the last game of the year against Xavier in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Oliver Purnell, DePaul

There are several coaches feeling the heat heading into this season. But the hottest seat in the Big East belongs to Oliver Purnell at DePaul. The Blue Demons are 9-57 in the Big East over the last four years. And it’s not like he’s stockpiling young talent either. A handful of players have signed their letter of intent to play at DePaul, only to never play a single game.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : This league could be in line for five bids, but what if they only get one?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : A rivalry starting … somewhere … anywhere

At Big East Media Day I asked Georgetown head coach John Thompson III, who’s been around the Big East basketball since he was a child, about rivalries in the new league. “You know, the Georgetown-Syracuse rivalry didn’t happen in one year,” he said. It took battle after battle to develop those fiery rivalries back in the 1980s. In Year 2 of the Big East relaunch, hopefully we’ll start to see the foundation set for a new rivalry whether it be close game followed by an even better rematch, or controversial call that the losing team doesn’t forget the next time those two teams meet. Sooner or later a new rivalry will unfold.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 24, Villanova vs. VCU at the Barclays Center, Brooklyn
  • Nov. 26, Georgetown at Florida
  • Dec. 6, St. John’s at Syracuse
  • Dec. 10, Georgetown vs. Kansas
  • Dec. 20, Butler vs. Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW:

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Villanova: The unanimous pick to finish atop the conference standings for the second season in a row. Jay Wright has four starters back, as the Villanova adapts to having the target on its back.
2. Georgetown: With arguably the conference’s best player, the Hoyas look to bounce back from their 8-10 record in conference. Big question: how much of an impact will Josh Smith have?
3. St. John’s: Maybe the league’s most talented team, St. John’s has the pieces to not only finish in the top half of the conference, but could also be a threat to heavy favorite Villanova.
4.  Xavier:  The league’s deepest team will benefit from having seniors Dee Davis and Matt Stainbrook. That senior leadership can help the Musketeers reach their eighth NCAA tournament since 2007.
5. Providence: A healthy Kris Dunn helps combat the loss of PC’s two starting guards. Ed Cooley will have several young players who will need to make an impact. Come March, Friars could be back in the top 3.
6. Marquette: Hiring Steve Wojciechowski was a good move in the long run, but his Golden Eagles could surprise the rest of the league behind graduate transfer Matt Carlino and potential breakout star Deonte Burton.
7. Seton Hall: With five-star shooting guard Isaiah Whitehead, the Pirates bring in the conference’s top recruiting class.
8. Butler: Having Kellen Dunham back and Roosevelt Jones healthy is big for the Bulldogs, but for a program that has gone through a whirlwind of changes over the last five years, is this another transitional season?
9. Creighton: Greg McDermott and Co. are bound for a rebuilding season after graduating Doug McDermott and three other starters.
10. DePaul: The cellar is the likely destination for DePaul once again this season. Sophomore Billy Garrett Jr. is worth watching, though.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.