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Big East Offseason Reset: Will Villanova’s supremacy be challenged again?

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The grad transfer market is still in full swing, but for the most part, we know what the meaningful parts for the majority of the teams around the country will be.

That means that it is time to start talking about what is coming instead of what was.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at key personnel changes, the impact of the coaching carousel and the most important storylines heading into the 2019-20 season for each of college basketball’s top seven conferences.

Today, we are talking Big East.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

HOW REAL IS THE COMPETITION AT THE TOP?: Villanova has won all but one regular season championship since the Big East went to 10 teams and the Wildcats will be favored again this year, but there does appear to be some serious challengers to their crown. The Wildcats have established themselves as one of the country’s premier programs with national titles in 2016 and 2018, and they’ve shown themselves more than capable of reloading when key players from hugely successful teams move on. Last year wasn’t a NCAA championship season, but it was still a winner and Jay Wright has to replace Phil Booth and Eric Paschall. He seems well positioned to do that with a number of returners and a top-tier recruiting class.

Still, Wright and the Wildcats aren’t going to waltz to a Big East title. Seton Hall looks to be extremely formidable with a strong group of returners, headlined by Myles Powell, with talent and experience. Xavier should be improved in Year 2 under Travis Steele while Creighton is an intriguing team. Villanova is the favorite, but its lead on the rest of the pack isn’t extensive.

Joey and Sam Hauser (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

HOW WILL MARQUETTE ABSORB THE LOSS OF THE HAUSER BROTHERS?: We had the Golden Eagles ranked fourth in our preseason rankings after Markus Howard returned to school, but when the shocking decision came from Sam and Joey Hauser to transfer out of Milwaukee, Steve Wojciechowski’s program slid all the way out of our top-25. In one fell swoop, Marquette went from legitimate title contender to perhaps a bubble team. It was, simply, a crushing blow.

The good news for the Golden Eagles is that Markus Howard eschewed the opportunity to go pro in order to return for his senior season, and he’ll be all over preseason All-American lists as one of the country’s best scorers. His presence alone makes Marquette both entertaining and interesting heading into next season, but will there be enough around him avoid a missed NCAA tournament for the fourth time in six years under Wojo?

WHAT WILL THE EVENTUAL ADDITION OF UCONN MEAN?: In a league where there’s been plenty of jockeying for position behind Villanova, the addition of Connecticut to the league – whenever it comes – is going to throw a lot of that into flux. The Huskies have taken a major hit since that 2014 title – their first year in the AAC – and a return to a more natural fit of a conference which emphasizes basketball under the leadership of Dan Hurley might be the catalyst needed to return the program to the heights it enjoyed over the previous two decades when national championships were the goal.

If that’s the case, the pecking order of the league is going to be an even tougher competition than it already is. If UConn is a winner in this move – and it’s hard to see how the Huskies aren’t – it wouldn’t be surprising to see there be a loser in the Big East. Does UConn coming back stifle Georgetown’s rebuild? Do things get tougher for Seton Hall or Providence? Honestly, Villanova might be the only program who isn’t, to some degree, threatened by the Huskies’ move back. Of course, UConn’s return to glory isn’t guaranteed by their return to the Big East, but how things all unwind will be fascinating to watch.

DOES PATRICK EWING’S GEORGETOWN RENAISSANCE CONTINUE?: The Hoyas got over the .500 hump in Patrick Ewing’s second season back at his alma mater in D.C., and they were sneakily one of the more entertaining teams (Non-Contender Category). James Akinjo and Mac McClung are a ton of fun as a freshman backcourt with energy and highlight-reel plays to spare. Still, the Hoyas took a step in the right direction with senior center Jessie Govan in the middle, and his departure will be a bigger burden on that young backcourt. There are reinforcements coming, however, with 7-footer Omer Yurtseven eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer from NC State. There are some intriguing pieces here, and the Hoyas’ trajectory will be something to keep an eye on in Year 3 on the Ewing Era.

WHICH WAS DOES DEPAUL GO?: The first three years of Dave Leitao’s second stint with the Blue Demons were pretty devoid of success, with the program going 29-65 overall and 9-45 in the Big East, but there was progress last year as DePaul posted a 19-17 record with a mark of 7-11 in the conference. The question is, with a senior-heavy roster, was that the turning point or the pinnacle? If the Blue Demons can’t sustain that moderate level of success, Leitao may be leaving Chicago for the second time but without the promotion on this go-round.

IS XAVIER POISED FOR A JUMP?: A six-game losing streak last winter put the Musketeers at 3-8 in the Big East, leaving first-year coach Travis Steele in a tough spot as he tried to continue the success of now-Louisville coach Chris Mack. Xavier and Steele righted the ship, winning six of seven to finish the regular season and then advancing to the second round of the NIT where they lost in overtime in Austin to Texas. Ryan Welage and Zach Hankins are now gone, but but the core of Quentin Goodin, Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs  and Tyrique Jones welcoming a top-25 recruiting class, Xavier looks to be on solid footing.

Naji Marshall (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

WHO’S GONE

  • SAM and JOEY HAUSER, Marquette: It was one of the most surprising moves of the offseason, with the Wisconsin natives bolting to Virginia and Michigan State, respectively, and leaving the Golden Eagles behind. The Golden Eagles looked like title contenders with the brothers, but without them, the ceiling lowered considerably in Milwaukee.
  • ERIC PASCHALL, PHIL BOOTH and JAHVON QUINERLY, Villanova: The Wildcats lost a pair of mainstays in Paschall and Booth to graduation while the unremarkable Villanova career of Quinerly ended after one season with a transfer to Alabama.
  • MICHAEL NZEI, Seton Hall: The Pirates have a loaded squad this season, though it doesn’t include the forward who was a four-year stalwart.
  • RYAN WELAGE and ZACH HANKINS, Xavier: The Musketeers return quite a bit in 2019-20, but these two seniors will leave a void that will need to be filled.
  • SAM FROLING, MARTIN KRAMPELJ and KALEB JOSEPH, Creighton: A trio that didn’t provide a lot of punch in 2018-19 for the Blue Jays.
  • JESSIE GOVAN, Georgetown: Patrick Ewing has a promising young roster, but it was Govan that provided the most production last season that will have to be replaced with his eligibility exhausted.
  • SHAMORIE PONDS and CHRIS MULLIN, St. John’s: Ponds was one of the more electric players in the conference last year, and his absence will be felt considerably. The bigger departure, though, was Mullin’s abrupt resignation after St. John’s saying he would return for a fifth season at his alma mater after four years in which mediocrity was the highwater mark. Mike Anderson takes over in NYC to try to succeed where Mullin failed.
  • MAX STRUS, DePaul: The Blue Demons had their best season in Dave Leitao’s return to Chicago, but building on it will require keeping momentum without their best player, who was lost to graduation.
  • JOEY BRUNK, Butler: Brunk shot 62 percent from the floor as a sophomore, but the 6-foot-11 center decided to leave the Bulldogs program this offseason, making an intrastate move to Indiana and  the Big Ten.

WHO’S BACK

  • COLLIN GILLISPIE, SADDIQ BEY and JERMAINE SAMUELS, Villanova: A talented and experienced group, but one that will have to excel in expanded roles for the Wildcats.
  • MYLES POWELL, QUINCY MCKNIGHT, MYLES CALE, SANDRO MAMUKELASHVII and IKEY OBIAGU, Seton Hall: Kevin Willard’s program’s hopes of unseating Villanova will rest squarely on the shoulders of his returners.
  • QUENTIN GOODIN, PAUL SCRUGGS, NAJI MARSHALL and TYRIQUE JONES, Xavier: The Musketeers have a strong 2019 recruiting class that will help this season, but the strength of the team is here.
  • DAVION MINTZ, TY-SHON ALEXANDER, MITCHELL BALLOCK and JACOB EPPERSON, Creighton: Greg McDermott’s group might not have a ton of star power, but it is a talented and experienced group that should make some noise.
  • KAMAR BALDWIN, Buter: The Bulldog doesn’t get the same recognition as Howard or Powell, but he’s a dynamic scorer who will be one of the league’s best offensive players.
  • ALPHA DIALLO, Providence: The 6-foot-7 guard averaged 16 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last year, and he’ll be a conference player of the year contender this season.

WHO’S COMING

  • JEREMIAH ROBINSON-EARL, JUSTIN MOORE, ERIC DIXON and BRYAN ANTOINE, Villanova: Jay Wright welcomes a top-five recruiting class to Philly, and the Wildcat machine looks to keep on moving despite another year of significant losses.
  • ROMEO WEEMS, DePaul: A 6-foot-7 top-65 recreuit, Weems picked DePaul over a number of heavy-hitters, giving some hope to a Chicago revival.
  • LUWANE PIPKINS and GREG GANTT, Providence: Pipkins led UMass in scoring last season before grad-transferring while Gantt is a four-star recruit.
  • JAYCE JOHNSON and SYMIR TORRENCE, Marquette: Johnson, a 7-footer, put up 7 points and 7 rebounds while shooting nearly 60 percent from the field for Utah last year. Torrence, a four-star recruit, picked the Golden Eagles over the likes of Butler and Cincinnati.
  • JASON CARTER, Xavier: The Ohio transfer has two years of eligibility after averaging 16.5 points and 6.7 rebounds for the Bobcats.
  • OMER YURTSEVEN and TERRELL ALLEN, Georgetown: Yurtseven is one of the country’s most high-profile transfers while Allen is a grad-transfer from UCF who averaged 6.7 points last year.
  • DERRIK SMITS, Butler: The son of former NBA star Rik, Smits comes to Butler from Valpo after picking the Bulldogs over NC State and Arizona State.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-BIG EAST TEAM

MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette (Preseason Player of the Year)
MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall
KAMAR BALDWIN, Butler
ALPHA DIALLO, Providence
NAJI MARSHALL, Xavier

Markus Howard and Myles Powell (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. Villanova: It would be silly to bet against Jay Wright’s program at this point, but the Wildcats have more than a name and pedigree this season. They’re loaded with talent and experience with a great recruiting class. They’re not in the top-tier of national title contenders this preseason, but they’re not far behind, either.

2. Seton Hall: The distance between Villanova and the Pirates is relatively narrow, with Seton Hall returning a ton of talent from last year’s NCAA tournament 10-seed. Myles Powell is a difference-maker on both ends, and it’s far from a one-man squad. This group will have to improve, but it’s got the profile of a team that’s capable of making a significant leap.

3. Xavier: The Musketeers aren’t all that different than Seton Hall, with talented returners from a good team needing who fit the bill of a team on the rise. It’s easier said than done, and they’ll have to deal with increased expectations, but this team has the chops to be the best in the conference if things break their way.

4. Creighton: This is a team that will be knocking on the door of preseason top-25s on the strength of a solid-though-not-remarkable returning core. Ty-Shon Alexander is a serious breakout candidate, if such a distinction fits for a player who averaged nearly 16 points per game last season.

5. Providence: Alpha Diallo is one of the conference’s best and most productive players, but the Friars have to improve offensively if they’re going to get back to the NCAA tournament after a five-year streak was snapped last season.

6. Marquette: The Golden Eagles may have been the favorites to win the conference had the Hauser brothers not elected to transfer, but their departures throws this season into question for Marquette. The cupboard is obviously not bare even beyond Markus Howard, who might just power the program to near the top of the league on his own, but it’s certainly a harder team to peg.

7. Georgetown: The Hoyas were really fun to watch last season, but the trick for them is going to be making the transition from entertaining young squad to a still-green-but-successful team. The easiest path to that would be improved shooting as the youthful Hoyas struggled to connect from distance consistently.

8. Butler: The Bulldogs are probably the best candidate to outperform these rankings, on the strength of Kamar Baldwin’s talent alone, but they just haven’t proven enough beyond Baldwin to slide them further up the list.

9. DePaul: The Blue Demons got over .500 last season, but it came on a diet of non-conference cupcakes and then four wins in the CBI. Without Max Strus, here’s betting DePaul takes a step back this season.

10. St. John’s: Mike Anderson has his work cut out for him after Chris Mullin was only able to get a First Four appearance in four years with the Red Storm. St. John’s has only been in the NCAA tournament proper twice since 2005.

Recruitments of Zion Williamson, Marvin Bagley discussed on wiretaps as federal trial continues

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Wednesday’s proceedings in a courtroom of the Southern District of New York brought Sean Miller, Rick Pitino, LSU, Michigan State and Deandre Ayton into discussion. Thursday added Zion Williamson, USC, TCU and Marvin Bagley, among others, into focus as the second trial of the federal government’s investigation into corruption in college basketball continued

“Nike schools pay, too,” video wiretap catches former adidas and Nike employee Merl Code saying, according to CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander. “In some form or fashion, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Kentucky and all of those schools are doing something to help their kids.”

It was another embarrassing day for the sport, whose underbelly continues to exposed for what it was so long thought to have been – dirty – with each passing day.

“It’s a mess,” Code said on a wiretap, “because there’s so much money involved.”

Williamson, the presumptive No. 1 pick in June’s draft and college basketball’s biggest star after his stellar freshman season at Duke, was the topic of discussion on a wiretap between Clemson assistant Steve Smith with Christian Dawkins and Marty Blazer, both of whom have been at the center of the government’s case, and an undercover FBI agent, according to Norlander.

“Duke is gonna have their resources. UNC is UNC. Kentucky is gonna have their resources,” Dawkins said on the recording. Blazer testified he understood Dawkins’ comments to be in reference to Williamson’s family receiving money to attend those schools.

Another former Blue Devil, Bagley, also was at the center of testimony Thursday. The government showed video of a Las Vegas suite in 2017 in which assistants Tony Bland of USC, Preston Murphy of Creighton and Corey Barker of TCU were shown accepting cash. Bland discussed his efforts to bring Bagley to USC in the video, according to Norlander.

“Tony (Bland) needed money to get to Marvin (Bagley),” Blazer, a cooperating government witness, testified. “Tony was confident he had Marvin Bagley locked in at USC. When Marvin Bagley signs with USC, I need you guys on campus the moment he signs, be ready to get it to him ASAP.”

Bagley ultimately reclassified to the 2017 class and signed with Duke before going on to be the No. 2 pick in last year’s NBA draft.

While there may have been no shocking revelations in testimony Thursday, it was yet another day spent in which college basketball insiders exposed how the game outside the game is seemingly played by many. Who knows how much more we’ll learn tomorrow. Or any subsequent day.

Thursday’s Things To Know: Fall family reunion, Clemons passes McBuckets and ASun title game set

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There wasn’t a ton of action across the country of major significance Thursday – that’s what happens when the Pac-12 becomes an afterthought – but there was some notable moments that you need to know. Get caught up: 

TACKO FALL’S MOTHER SEES HER SON PLAY FOR THE FIRST TIME

A lot of good things happened Thursday for UCF. The Knights took a big step forward in solidifying their NCAA tournament resume as they earned a second top-25 win of the season – a program first – by beating No. 19 Cincinnati, 58-55, on senior night.

The best thing, though, was the reunion between UCF senior star Tacko Fall and his mother after the pair had been separated for seven years.

She never saw me play before,” Tacko told reporters. “We haven’t been together in so long.

“It felt like a dream.”

Tacko hadn’t seen his mother, Marianne, since he left his native Senegal to pursue basketball.

“I left my home in Senegal seven years ago to learn to play basketball, to get an education and to make a better life for me, my mom and my family,” Tacko said, per the Orlando Sentinel. “I’m just so glad she’s able to see me play at UCF, so she will know now that it’s all been worth it.”

On the heals of last week’s win over No. 8 Houston, it’s hard to imagine a better few days for UCF and its 7-foot-6 senior, who came to the United States to escape poverty.

“There were times when I went to school hungry and other times when the electricity got cut off,” he said, “but my mom worked all different jobs to keep us going. I owe her so much for all the sacrifices she made for us. The final sacrifice was letting me come to America.”

Now Fall will likely finish his career with an NCAA tournament appearance, with his mother having seen him live out his dream after a seven-year separation.

“It was like the day he was born when I held him in my arms,” Marianne said. “I can’t describe the joy of seeing my son play for the first time.”

(AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.)

CHRIS CLEMONS PASSES DOUG MCDERMOTT ON SCORING LIST

Playing at Campbell doesn’t provide a major platform or spot light from Chris Clemons, so his numbers will have to do the talking.

The senior star moved up to fourth place on the NCAA’s all-time scoring list after scoring 34 points in a win over Hampton, edging past Doug McDermott and Alphonso Ford with 3,170 points.

He’s now just behind Lionel Simmons (3,217), Freeman Williams (3,249) and Pete Maravich (3,667).

Not bad for a guy who shoots free throws like this.

FIRST CONFERENCE TITLE MATCHUP SET

We’re a few days away from conference tournament ramping up to high gear, but we’ve already got our first championship matchup set.

Liberty and Lipscomb will meet Sunday to determine the ASun title after Liberty topped North Florida (63-71) and Lipscomb throttled NJIT (78-55) in the semis Thursday.

The ASun has the first title matchup, but won’t be the first conference to get a team an autobid as the OVC finals will be played Saturday night.

LSU’s Will Wade reportedly on wiretap talking recruiting ‘offer’

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The federal investigation into corruption in college basketball isn’t done making headlines yet.

The latest came Thursday when Yahoo Sports reported that LSU coach Will Wade was on a wiretap discussing an “offer” he made to a recruit while federal prosecutors alleged that Christian Dawkins, the convicted would-be agent, made payments to assistants at two other schools, reported to be Creighton and TCU.

It’s been nearly 18 months since this investigation came public and the fallout has been more contained that originally thought, but these developments – and those expected to come in future court proceedings – are a reminder that there is still plenty of string to play out here.

For Wade, the transcript of a call with Dawkins looks potentially damning.

“I was thinking last night on this Smart thing,” Wade said according to Yahoo. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m (expletive) tired of dealing with the thing. Like I’m just (expletive) sick of dealing with the (expletive). Like, this should not be that (expletive) complicated.”

While it’s not explicit in the conversation, the “Smart thing” could appear to refer to Javonte Smart, a former top-50 recruit currently a Tigers freshman.

“I went to him with a (expletive) strong-ass offer about a month ago. (Expletive) strong,” Wade said, per Yahoo, of a third-party. “The problem was, I know why he didn’t take it now, it was (expletive) tilted toward the family a little bit,” Wade continued. “It was tilted toward taking care of the mom, taking care of the kid. Like it was tilted towards that. Now I know for a fact he didn’t explain everything to the mom. I know now, he didn’t get enough of the piece of the pie in the deal.”

Whatever the “offer” was or it was ever accepted is unclear, according to the Yahoo report.

Wade, who took over at LSU from VCU in 2017, is reportedly set to receive a subpoena for his testimony in the case.

Elsewhere, federal prosecutors issues a superseding indictment that alleges Dawkins made two $6,000 bribes to assistant coaches, which Yahoo reports are Preston Murphy of Creighton and Corey Barker of TCU. No new charges were filed by authorities.

Dawkins’ trial is scheduled to begin April 22.

Big East Reset: Has Marquette taken control of the conference?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?

What is still left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Big East.

MIDSEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Markus Howard, Marquette

The junior guard has been outstanding so far for the Golden Eagles. Since December started, Howard has caught fire in multiple games, as he’s put up two 45-point outings against top-25 teams.

Averaging a conference-leading 25.0 points per game, Howard also chips in 4.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds per contest on 40 percent shooting from three-point range. Devastating when he gets on scoring runs, Howard is one of the only players in college basketball who is a nightly threat to drop 50. He’s talented enough to single-handedly win a game with his scoring but savvy enough to win a game using guard skills to get others involved if his shot isn’t falling.

Howard is one of the very best players in college hoops this season and it’ll be exciting to see what he’s capable of in the Big East.

THE ALL BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • Markus Howard, Marquette:
  • Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s: Maintaining his across-the-board presence with improved efficiency, the 6-foot-1 Ponds is making a strong case for All-American status. He’s putting up 19.6 points, 6.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game.
  • Myles Powell, Seton Hall: Another big-time scoring guard, Powell is averaging 23.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. Also capable of 40-point nights thanks to his perimeter shooting prowess, the junior has elevated his play against good competition this season.
  • Alpha Diallo, Providence: Developing into a strong and dependable junior wing, Diallo is tops in the Big East in rebounding (8.5 rpg) while sixth in scoring (17.4 ppg) for the Friars. Also putting up 3.4 assists and 1.7 steals per game, Diallo is getting it done in a variety of ways.
  • Max Strus, DePaul: The senior has been a dependable presence for the Blue Demons, putting up 19.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. The streaky Strus is capable of putting DePaul on his back if he gets hot.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Marquette, St. John’s, Villanova, Butler, Seton Hall, Creighton
  • NIT: Xavier, Georgetown, Providence
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: DePaul
(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Villanova is beatable after being dominant in the past

Over the last several years, the Wildcats have, more-or-less, ascended into blueblood status. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you win two out of three national titles and send multiple players to the NBA.

But with a lot of roster turnover from those teams, Villanova has looked beatable to this point in the season. Surprising non-conference losses to teams from one-bid leagues like Furman and Penn already went down. Villanova also sustained a blowout home loss to Michigan in a rematch of last March’s NCAA title game.

The Wildcats haven’t seen much from the freshman class. They look overwhelmed. Other role players haven’t ascended into dependable players. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are still vets who can make plays. Collin Gillespie has solid numbers. But Villanova has a lot of question marks entering Big East play and they’re far from a runaway favorite.

2. The Big East doesn’t have many (if any) title contenders

The Big East has seen multiple teams in the picture for solid NCAA tournament seeding over the last several years. Just last season, Xavier was a No. 1 seed and Villanova was the dominant champion as a No. 2.

Thanks to a sluggish non-conference portion of the schedule, the Big East isn’t in any such position to earn great seeds for this year’s tournament. Villanova, Butler and Marquette are the only Big East teams in the KenPom top 30. All of them have put up some questionable performances to this point. Others like Creighton, St. John’s, Providence and Seton Hall all likely have work to do just to safely get in the field.

If a team dominates conference play and only losses a handful of games, we might see a Big East team crack a top-four seed for the NCAA tournament. But as it stands right now, the Big East has a lot of work to do if it wants to get a team back to the Final Four.

3. But the Big East won’t have any easy outs

Even if the Big East doesn’t have many top-flight teams, they don’t have any awful teams either. The league doesn’t have a bloated membership number to begin with so that helps. But every Big East team currently is in the top 113 on KenPom as even bottom teams like DePaul and Georgetown have looked dangerous. Xavier also lurks as a team with some talent that hasn’t figured things out.

The Blue Demons have been easy to beat in recent years, but their senior core of Max Strus, Eli Cain and Femi Olujobi is solid. Georgetown has the league’s best big in Jessie Govan while James Akinjo and Mac McClung have been better than many believed. Xavier played tough despite a 1-2 record at Maui while they’ve also faced Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Missouri. The Musketeers haven’t knocked off a credible opponent under new coach Travis Steele, they have the ability to pick off anyone in the league at home.

Things are going to be brutal in the Big East this season as a lot of these teams are pretty evenly matched.

(Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. Is St. John’s a credible threat?

The Red Storm are one of college basketball’s only undefeated teams remaining. They’ve also played the No. 344 non-conference strength of schedule to this point — according to KenPom.

So how seriously should we be taking 12-0 St. John’s? To this point, the Red Storm’s best wins are neutral wins over Cal, Georgia Tech and VCU with a road win at Rutgers added in the mix. It’s very possible St. John’s hasn’t played a legitimate NCAA tournament team to this point in the season.

We’ll learn very quickly how good St. John’s is once Big East play begins. Many of the Big East’s coaches and older players will know what to expect from the Red Storm with the true home-and-home conference schedule. Shamorie Ponds, Mustapha Heron and company are still going to be tough to stop. But is this St. John’s team a group that ascends into a top-five seed? Or will they finally come back to Earth and end up closer to the bubble?

2. Do any teams separate themselves from a large pack in the middle?

Entering conference play, the Big East has seven teams within the 18 to 61 range on KenPom’s rankings. A lot of teams are lumped together in the middle. Villanova, Butler and Marquette have the only top-30 rankings among the conference. But a lot of the league is right in the mix in the next 30 or so spots.

The key for some of these next-tier teams like Creighton, St. John’s, Providence and Seton Hall will be earning wins over one another while avoiding bad losses to non-tournament teams. If these teams keep beating each other and piling up good wins, it will be hard to keep them out of the tournament with the Pac-12 having such a down year.

It’ll be interesting to see if St. John’s is real or if Creighton, Providence or Seton Hall can elevate their play the next few months.

3. Can Marquette break through for a Big East title run?

Since Villanova doesn’t seem like a juggernaut, and the Big East doesn’t have a clear frontrunner, there’s a case to be made that Marquette is the real team to watch. The Golden Eagles have the league’s most potent weapon in guard Markus Howard and Sam and Joey Hauser are both talented double-figure scorers and 40 percent three-point shooters.

Marquette has only lost on the road at Indiana and led Kansas at the half before succumbing to the Jayhawks the second frame. Over the last month, the Golden Eagles have picked off ranked teams like Kansas State, Wisconsin and Buffalo. They’ve shown consistency on both ends. Brutal defensively a season ago, Marquette stands at a respectable No. 50 on KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings as they have made great strides to become a more complete team.

With only one Big East title since joining the league in 2005, Marquette could be talented enough to bring home a conference title if their defense sustains.

(AP Photo/Darren Hauck)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Villanova turns things around and competes for a Big East title

It feels odd that Villanova finds themselves outside of the top 25 as conference season is beginning. But the Wildcats also have a lot of good things going for them as they’ll remain a major contender for the Big East title.

With title-winning players like Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to lead, the Wildcats will figure things out as long as other role players consistently step up. With a great win over Florida State and a close loss to Kansas, Villanova can knock off good teams and hang with great teams on certain nights. They’ll still be favored against most in the Big East.

We can’t expect the freshman class to develop into consistent pieces given their slow starts, but others like Joe Cremo and Dhamir Crosby-Roundtree are great role players who help in very specific ways. Even with some troubling early losses, Villanova should be fine.

2. Marquette claims the Big East title with Markus Howard claiming Player of the Year honors

Let’s be real here, the Big East is seriously lacking star power and great teams this season. So picking the top talent in the conference, on an intriguing team, seems like a solid pick to win the Big East title.

It’s also not as easy as it seems. Marquette has only made one NCAA tournament appearance in four seasons under Steve Wojciechowski as they never finished about fourth in the Big East during that same span. The history just hasn’t been there in recent seasons.

But Howard has serious All-American potential and the Hausers act as great scoring compliments. The Golden Eagles also have a deep and experienced roster filled with upperclassmen who have contributed in multiple ways. Marquette has all of the pieces to make a run for the conference title. It starts with Howard sustaining his tremendous early-season play.

3. The Big East gets six teams in the Field of 68

Although the Big East is noticeably down this season in terms of top-flight teams competing for high seeds, it’s still a league that should have some solid depth once we see conference play unfold. With the league having no true bottom-feeders, the competitive Big East should be able to do enough to get six teams back into the Field of 68.

The only dilemma comes as long as teams don’t beat each other up too bad. Plenty of Big East teams are already in strong NCAA tournament range with opportunities for plenty of big wins. The conference’s scheduling format will only help. But it could also go bad if some of the middle-of-the-pack teams can’t earn a signature win and they lose to teams like Georgetown and DePaul.

Villanova, Butler and Marquette are already looking good while St. John’s is unbeaten. Creighton and Seton Hall have also earned some early quality wins but they join Providence as teams that could find themselves near the bubble come Selection Sunday.