St. John’s will have to go small as starting big man Sedee Keita is expected to miss four-to-six weeks to recover from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. The school announced the successful procedure in a release on Wednesday.
The 6-foot-9 Keita suffered a knee injury during St. John’s win last Friday over Bowling Green as he only played four minutes after starting the contest. According to Zach Braziller of the New York Post, an early MRI on Saturday proved inconclusive, but the follow-up MRI revealed that surgery was necessary.
A former South Carolina transfer who doubles as the only big man on the Red Storm roster with significant Division I experience, the loss of Keita is a big blow to St. John’s. Now the Red Storm will likely go to a more small-ball look during non-conference play with Marvin Clark II playing a lot at the five. Freshman Josh Roberts could also see additional minutes, but the 6-foot-9 big man wasn’t expected to be a major contributor heading into the season.
Either way, St. John’s needs Keita to ideally be healthy in time for conference play as the Red Storm are trying to make an NCAA tournament run behind a talented backcourt that includes Shamorie Ponds and Mustapha Heron.
The off-guard position in college basketball has a lot of intriguing questions heading into the 2018-19 season.
While the group is headlined by some strong returning players and some five-star freshmen, it seems as though many of the players on this list still have something to prove. Whether that is perimeter shooting, becoming a more complete player or bringing more consistency, the off-guard spot in college hoops could be in a great place this season if many of these guys make standard improvements.
Here’s a look at 20 of the key off-guards to watch this season.
1. CALEB MARTIN, Nevada, Sr.
The reigning Mountain West Player of the Year nearly left for the NBA before deciding to return with his twin brother, Cody, at the 11th hour. With the Martin twins back in the fold, many are projecting Nevada as a top-ten preseason team. Caleb had a huge junior season as he put up 18.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game as he was the clear go-to player on a deep Wolf Pack team.
Also a 40 percent three-point shooter, Martin’s ability to score from all over the floor is what separates him from many of his peers and it helps make Nevada’s offense one of the best in the country. This season, Martin won’t have to do as much since he’s playing on a veteran team that should be significantly deeper. But don’t discount Martin having a huge year and potentially vaulting into All-American status.
2. QUENTIN GRIMES, Kansas, Fr.
The prized pledge of another solid Kansas recruiting class, the 6-foot-5 Grimes should have a huge impact on the Jayhawks this season. The former McDonald’s All-American really came into his own as a more complete guard during his senior season as some believed he was the best guard prospect in the Class of 2018.
Capable of playing the one, but more likely to play the two given the Kansas backcourt situation, Grimes is a tough-minded two-way player who can score or distribute. The key for the reigning MVP of the 2018 FIBA Americas will be perimeter shooting. If Grimes can consistently knock down three-pointers then the Jayhawks should have an incredibly dangerous offense.
3. ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana, Fr.
Huge expectations will be lingering over Langford’s head all season, as the Hoosier faithful are hoping this in-state product can return Indiana basketball to glory. The former Mr. Basketball in Indiana is one of the most celebrated high school players to ever come out of the basketball-crazy state after putting up monster numbers.
At 6-foot-6, Langford is capable of 40-point outbursts where he’s scoring from all over the floor. Also a capable wing defender thanks to his length and athleticism, Langford is a likely one-and-done prospect if he lives up to his five-star billing. Consistency will be one of the keys to watch for with Langford. For as good as he can be, Langford had a tendency to disappear for minutes at a time for portions of his grassroots career. As long as Langford is engaged, he should be a force in the Big Ten.
4. LINDELL WIGGINTON, Iowa State, So.
After an impressive freshman season in which he was fifth in the Big 12 in scoring, Wigginton gets his chance to shine on a much deeper and more talented Iowa State team this season. Averaging 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range, the 6-foot-2 Wigginton showed natural ability as a scorer last season, as he’ll look to become more of a complete guard in his second season.
Testing the NBA waters this offseason, Wigginton can enhance his national reputation, and pro stock, by helping the Cyclones win games after the team finished only 13-18 last season. With another year to grow, and more help around him, Wigginton should be among the Big 12’s leading scorers once again.
5. JALEN HUDSON, Florida, Sr.
The leading scorer for the Gators last season, the 6-foot-6 Hudson will be counted on for points once again this season. It’s going to be the other things Hudson can give Florida that ultimately helps dictate how they might finish.
If Hudson can show more leadership, while also helping to set up teammates, then he’ll help offset the huge loss of point guard Chris Chiozza. The Gators don’t have an obvious replacement at lead guard for Chiozza, so Hudson’s impact in the backcourt beyond scoring will be something to keep an eye on. Even if Hudson is only trying to get buckets, he’s a 40 percent three-point shooter who put up 15.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season. The Gators just ideally need him to contribute a bit of everything.
6. KELLAN GRADY, Davidson, So.
Putting together the best freshman season at Davidson since Steph Curry, the 6-foot-5 Grady made his own mark for the Wildcats last season. Although not quite as gifted a perimeter shooter as Curry (but really, who is?) Grady is no slouch in that department after shooting 50 percent from the floor and 37 percent from three-point range while averaging 18.0 points and 3.3 rebounds per game.
With Davidson leading scorer Peyton Aldridge moving on from the program, the reigning A-10 Rookie of the Year is going to be the go-to guy for a Wildcats team with NCAA tournament aspirations. Since Davidson doesn’t have a lot of experienced pieces returning from last season’s tournament squad, then we could be seeing a lot of 20-point games from Grady.
7. KY BOWMAN, Boston College, Jr.
Although backcourt running mate and NBA first-round pick Jerome Robinson received much of the attention for Boston College last season, Bowman also had a monster campaign. As a sophomore, the 6-foot-1 Bowman averaged 17.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free-throw line.
A North Carolina native who seems to play at his best when facing the in-state teams that passed him over in the ACC, Bowman just missed a triple-double in a win over Duke last year. Now that Robinson is gone, Bowman will be asked to do even more this season, as the Eagles are going to be counting on Bowman for a potential All-American season. If Bowman can lift his three-point percentage closer to the 44 percent he shot as a freshman, then he could very well reach that status.
8. MUSTAPHA HERON, St. John’s, Jr.
Immediately eligible after the NCAA gave him a hardship waiver, the 6-foot-5 Heron is a monster addition for the Red Storm. Coupled with a potential All-American at point in Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s now has one of the best backcourt tandems in all of college basketball.
Spending his first two seasons at Auburn, Heron averaged 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game for the Tigers as a sophomore. The 220-pound Heron and his power and athleticism should pair well with Ponds’ slippery ability to get to the basket as the duo should be immensely fun to watch this season.
If Heron can find his three-point consistency like he showed during freshman season (42 percent from three-point range) then his perimeter shooting would also greatly open things up for Ponds as he attacks off the dribble.
9. KRIS WILKES, UCLA, So.
Quietly putting up good numbers as a freshman last season, the 6-foot-8 Wilkes was second on the Bruins in scoring and rebounding at 13.7 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Now the versatile perimeter threat will be asked to become a team leader on a young, but talented, Bruins team.
Wilkes flirted with staying in the NBA Draft, but by coming back for another year in the Pac-12, he has a chance to improve his average 35 percent three-point shooting while displaying more overall leadership for an intriguing team. Potentially an All-Pac-12 player with a big season, Wilkes will get asked to take a lot of big shots at UCLA this season.
10. MATISSE THYBULLE, Washington, Sr.
The offensive numbers won’t jump out at you. That doesn’t mean this 6-foot-5 senior doesn’t make a giant impact on all of Washington’s games. The Pac-12’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Thybulle can make game-changing defensive plays on one end while contributing quite a bit to other facets of the game.
Thybulle scored 11.2 points per game while getting 2.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game last season. But getting 3.0 steals per game and 1.4 blocks per game had an immense impact on a Washington team that finally showed signs of life on the defensive end. Also a 36 percent three-point shooter, Thybulle is the perfect three-and-d wing for a Washington team with a sneaky amount of talent this season.
11. ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga, So.
Gonzaga’s most consistent and versatile scorer has a chance to be a better all-around player as a sophomore. The 6-foot-5 Norvell put up 12.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range. If Norvell improves defensively, then he’ll be one of college basketball’s best two-way guards.
12. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech, So.
Consistency will be the key for this ultra-talented 6-foot-5 guard. There were times last season when Alexander-Walker looked like Virginia Tech’s best players and other games where he was barely contributing. If Alexander-Walker finds a better balance, he could be a force in the ACC this season.
13. KYLE GUY, Virginia, Jr.
A veteran scorer who acts as Virginia’s top perimeter shooter, the 6-foot-2 Guy would put up even bigger scoring numbers in a more uptempo offense. Guy averaged 14.1 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game while shooting 39 percent from three-point range.
14. T.J. GIBBS, Notre Dame, Jr.
Coming on strong during his sophomore season, the 6-foot-3 Gibbs is going to be asked to do even more for a young Fighting Irish team. The good news is that Gibbs is already used to being the main scorer. Gibbs scored double-figures in 19 of 21 ACC games last season while averaging 15.3 points, 3.0 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game.
15. D’MARCUS SIMONDS, Georgia State, Jr.
The reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year made a huge impression by putting up 21.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game last season. If Simonds can improve his woeful 29 percent three-point shooting then he’ll become one of the most complete scorers in the country.
The 6-foot-4 Weatherspoon saw his scoring numbers and three-point percentage dip from sophomore to junior season. But Weatherspoon also became a more well-rounded guard as he nearly doubled his assist total. If Weatherspoon lifts his perimeter shooting, then he could make this ranking look silly.
17. FLETCHER MAGEE, Wofford, Sr.
The SoCon Player of the Year is arguably the best pure shooter in college hoops. Just missing a 50/40/90 season as a junior, MaGee averaged 22.1 points per game while making 4.4 three-pointers per game at a 43 percent clip. Magee is perhaps most well-known for his 27 points in the Dean Dome last season when Wofford upset North Carolina.
18. PHIL BOOTH, Villanova, Sr.
It seems like Booth’s been with the Wildcats forever. This season the 6-foot-3 guard has more of a chance to shine. Already dropping 41 points, and nine three-pointers, on North Carolina in a preseason scrimmage, Booth appears to be ready to take a high number of shots in Villanova’s high-octane offense.
19. BRYCE BROWN, Auburn, Sr.
As dangerous as it gets from the perimeter, the 6-foot-3 Brown led the SEC with 107 made three-pointers last season. Auburn’s uptempo attack gives Brown a lot of makeable shots, as he averaged 15.9 points per game on 38 percent three-point shooting last season.
20. HERB JONES, Alabama, So.
Expectations are very high for the 6-foot-7 Jones to make a major leap this season. A potentially elite two-way guard who shows very strong defensive traits, Jones has the upside to make a leap to the pros. Jones has to expand on the modest minutes and numbers he put up last season, but he has major upside.
This season’s crop of lead guards doesn’t have a lot of star power or guaranteed All-Americans.
Most of the top players in college basketball this year reside at other positions. There just aren’t that many impact point guards this season when it comes to the game’s elite players. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a ton of players who won’t make a giant impact.
As you look through this list of college basketball’s top lead guards, you’ll notice that a healthy amount of the group is upperclassmen. That type of experience and leadership usually means that some of these teams could surprise this season thanks to some big games out of the backcourt.
This season’s freshman class also doesn’t add a lot when it comes to impact freshmen lead guards, as most of the top talents in the high school Class of 2018 come from the wing and interior.
So it should be a unique year for lead guards at the college level. This list already includes a lot of decorated players and 1,000-point career scorers. Many of these guys might be underrated, but they can also play.
1. CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue, Jr.
Get ready for a fun season of Carsen Edwards. The 6-foot-1 junior will be among the nation’s leading scorers this season after Purdue lost the four other starters that played with Edwards last season.
Running with all that talent around him last season, the Boilermakers made the Sweet 16 for the second straight season as Edwards put up 18.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. Now that Edwards will need to have even more of an impact on Purdue’s offense, he could put up massive scoring numbers. Expect Edwards to be a high-volume guard who gets tons of shot attempts this season while trying to get his new teammates involved as well.
Not many players in the country will have more resting on their shoulders than Edwards at Purdue. He’s also talented enough to put up 40 points and single-handedly carry an offense for a night. It’ll be fascinating to see how the newcomers step up, and how much Edwards can carry on his own.
2. TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse, Jr.
Battle’s decision to return for his junior season proved to be a pivotal one for the Orange as they become one of the country’s most intriguing teams. Syracuse’s best offensive option by a mile last season, the 6-foot-6 Battle often had to do a lot to score as he put up 19.2 points per game.
Also logging a ridiculous 39 minutes per game last season, Battle almost never left the floor for the Orange. He was counted on to be productive on both ends of the floor at nearly all times. One of the game’s biggest warriors, Battle should also get more help around him this season. The Orange have more perimeter weapons. They get a year older and better. That should contribute to Battle improving his 39 percent field goal percentage.
3. MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette, Jr.
If it weren’t for Trae Young generating so much attention last season then this 5-foot-11 guard might have received more headlines on his own. One of the most exciting perimeter scoring guards in college hoops, Howard had some monster games during his sophomore season.
Teaming with another high-quality shooter in Andrew Rowsey, Howard averaged 20.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game last season. A 40 percent three-point shooter who can get absurdly hot from distance, Howard had two games with 11 three-pointers last season — including a memorable 52-point outing in a road win at Providence.
Defenses are going to focus even more on Howard this season with Rowsey moving on, but the Golden Eagles also have a more complete team filled with complimentary pieces. Howard could be in line for an All-American season if things go right in Milwaukee.
4. SHAMORIE PONDS, St. John’s, Jr.
The 6-foot-1 Ponds is one of the Big East’s elite players, as he put up monster numbers for the Red Storm last season. Putting up 21.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game, Ponds produces the type of all-around numbers that make him a prime Player of the Year candidate.
And it will help Ponds immensely to have more help around him this season. With the addition of Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron, St. John’s has a chance to be one of the best (and most exciting) backcourts in the country this season. That means that Ponds doesn’t have to take so many forced looks. If Ponds shoots more like he did freshman season (37 percent three-point range) than he did sophomore season (25 percent) then he’ll be nearly impossible to defend.
5. TREMONT WATERS, LSU, So.
There might not be a guard who is more fun to watch than this 5-foot-11 sophomore. Breaking LSU’s freshman school assists record while pumping in tons of tough shots, Waters averaged 15.9 points, 6.0 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game last season. With flashy handles and deep perimeter shooting ability, Waters was made to make highlights as he can single-handedly ignite an offense.
With more tools at his disposal this season, Waters also has a chance to improve his efficiency. LSU’s offense has more legitimate big men this season, which should help Waters improve his 41 percent shooting. The Tigers are young and talented, but they have a shot at a great year if Waters plays as well as everyone believes he can.
6. CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State, Jr.
The junior hasn’t received significant attention because of his NBA lottery-pick teammates. That will change this season. Winston is one of the most efficient and talented point guards in the country as he led the Big Ten in assists and three-point percentage last season.
It’s hard to ask for anything better than a point guard that just misses going 50/50/90 with 6.9 assists per game. Now that Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson are gone to the League, Winston should produce more points on his own. The Spartans will need Winston to up his scoring this season, as they haven’t found a capable go-to scorer over the last several seasons.
7. JALEN ADAMS, UConn, Sr.
One of the lone bright spots for the Huskies the past few seasons, the 6-foot-3 Adams has a chance to leave the program on a high note this season. A do-it-all guard who can score or make plays for others, Adams can put up flurries of points with the best of them.
Adams had eight 20-point games in the American last season and also dropped 20-plus on quality teams like Arkansas, Michigan State and Syracuse. While Adams hasn’t had the most desirable of field percentages during his career, he also hasn’t had the most consistent amount of help. If Adams improves efficiency and gets a little more help, then the Huskies could surprise this season.
8. JON ELMORE, Marshall, Sr.
Becoming a national darling during Marshall’s surprising NCAA tournament mini-run last season the 6-foot-3 Elmore put up absurd numbers playing in the Thundering Herd’s high-octane offense. Producing multiple triple-doubles during the season, Elmore put up 22.7 points, 6.8 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game last season while shooting 43 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range.
With the national spotlight more on him this season, Elmore is going to get a lot of attention from opposing defenses. Thankfully for Elmore, high-scoring backcourt running mate C.J. Burks has also returned as they form one of the best perimeter tandems in the country.
9. ANTHONY COWAN, Maryland, Jr.
It’s weird to think that this 6-foot-0 junior might be underrated. That’s also the burden of playing in Melo Trimble’s shadow. But now that Cowan has made a name for himself last season, he has a chance to be a breakout player for an intriguing Maryland team.
At 15.8 points, 5.1 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game last season, Cowan contributed in every facet of the game. He was also irreplaceable for the Terps. Cowan barely left the floor as he averaged 37 minutes per game. Underrated defensively, Cowan was also named to the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team. Playing with a young supporting cast that is talented, but inexperienced, Cowan’s leadership will also be counted on in a major way.
10. MCKINLEY WRIGHT IV, Colorado, So.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of any freshman last season, the 6-foot-0 Wright led the Buffaloes in scoring, assists and steals as they had a winning record. Now with the chance to once again be the leader of a young team, Wright could be in line for a huge sophomore season.
A former Dayton commit who switched to the Buffaloes in the spring, Wright averaged 14.2 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game while also consistently getting in passing lanes. If Wright can improve his assist-to-turnover ratio by limiting turnovers, while also improving his inconsistent perimeter jumper (30 percent three-point shooting) then he has a chance to be an elite player this season.
11. BARRY BROWN, Kansas State, Sr.
Underrated during his career with the Wildcats, the 6-foot-3 Brown is comfortable playing either guard spot and both sides of the ball. With over 1,200 career points, Brown is one of the best guards in college hoops at scoring near the basket. He just has to improve his 31 percent perimeter shooting.
12. CHRIS CLEMONS, Campbell, Sr.
If Edwards doesn’t lead the nation in scoring then this 5-foot-9 guard has a good chance to do so. Clemons has over 2,200 career points as he’s a lightning bolt on the offensive end. Capable of getting in the lane at will, if Clemons improves his assist-to-turnover ratio then he’ll have All-American potential.
13. TY JEROME, Virginia, Jr.
The 6-foot-5 junior still has two more seasons after a promising sophomore season that saw him become one of the ACC’s most complete players. Capable of controlling tempo, scoring and finding others, Jerome is a plus perimeter shooter (37.9 percent three-point range) and one of the college game’s best closers at the line (90 percent).
14. DARIUS GARLAND, Vanderbilt, Fr.
The McDonald’s All-American gives the Commodores plenty of immediate hope. At 6-foot-1, Garland is smaller in stature, but he makes up for it with a ridiculously high skill level. Garland can score with a sweet off-the-dribble jumper while also setting up others.
15. PAYTON PRITCHARD, Oregon, Jr.
Already appearing in a Final Four, this 6-foot-2 floor general has a lot of big-game experience. A deadly three-point shooter, Pritchard averaged 14.5 points, 4.8 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game last season. Pritchard will be the catalyst behind an intriguing Oregon offense.
16. ASHTON HAGANS, Kentucky, Fr.
Reclassifying late from the Class of 2019 to immediately join the Wildcats, Hagans looks like a potential two-way stud. Potentially Kentucky’s best perimeter defender, Hagans is also capable of helping on or off the ball on offense. Kentucky’s backcourt will be crowded, but Hagans has a defensive ability that could separate him from the pack.
17. TRE JONES, Duke, Fr.
The younger brother of former Duke star Tyus Jones has some big shoes to fill as the team’s starting point guard. Craving stability at lead guard the past few seasons, Jones should be able to capably run an offense while providing leadership, athleticism, and some better defense than his brother.
18. JUSTIN ROBINSON, Virginia Tech, Jr.
The 6-foot-1 senior helped the Hokies make the Big Dance in back-to-back seasons as he now Virginia Tech tries to make a deep tournament run. Robinson averaged 14.0 points, 5.6 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game — and those numbers went up during ACC play. Robinson is also a lethal perimeter shooter.
19. CODY MARTIN, Nevada, Sr.
Moving to point guard late last season when Lindsey Drew went down with injury, the 6-foot-7 Martin can be counted on to do a bit of everything for the Wolf Pack. Brother Caleb is the go-to scorer, but Cody is reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year while adding plenty of points, steals and rebounds.
20. KAMAR BALDWIN, Butler, Jr.
Wired to score during his first two seasons with the Bulldogs, the 6-foot-1 Baldwin will be asked to do more as a floor leader this season. Capable of being one of the best two-way guards in college hoops, Baldwin must improve his ability to help others while also improving his three-point percentage.
On Tuesday, Rob Dauster was joined by Travis Hines to walk through the Big East team by team. Is this Villanova’s league to win again? Just how good is St. John’s now that Mustapha Heron is eligible? Can Marquette actually get any stops this season? Can Providence, Creighton or Seton Hall sneak into the top five of the league? Where is Xavier in the post-Chris Mack era?
You can get it all here:
40:50: Seton Hall
49:55: St. John’s
2018-19 Big East Preview: Can Villanova withstand losing NBA draft picks?
Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Big East Conference.
What do we make of the Big East this season?
Villanova is the headliner after winning its second national title in three seasons, but Jay Wright’s program is also emblematic of what’s going on across much of the league – turnover.
The Wildcats lost four of their top players.
Xavier turned over its roster and lost its head coach.
Creighton said goodbye to its backcourt.
Seton Hall bid farewell to Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington.
Does all that change clear a path for new challengers like Marquette or St. John’s, or does it simply mean more of the same with reloading over rebuilding?
Let’s dive into the Big East.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. Are the ‘Cats back?
Jay Wright might not be in the one-and-done business, but he’s about to be tasked with something his colleagues who are, like John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski, go through each and every year — rebuilding a winner from near-scratch. Villanova lost its top four scorers (to the first 33 picks of the 2018 NBA Draft) off a team that won a second national title in three years, and while a step back is probably inevitable, the size of the stride might be negligible.
Sure, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVencenzo and Omari Spellman are collecting NBA paychecks, but Eric Paschall and Phil Booth are still Villanova students, as are five-star freshman point guard Jahvon Quinerly and the rest of rest of Wright’s top-10 2018 recruiting class. Things ain’t exactly dire for Villanova. How far the ‘Cats slide — or how high they fly, depending on your perspective — may very well hinge on how Paschall steps into a starring role. He was an exactingly efficient offensive player a year ago, but he was also playing with four soon-to-be draft picks. If he’s able to join those ranks in a few months, Villanova probably isn’t going to be far off from the top of the Big East standings.
Or national rankings.
2. Xavier bets on itself
It’s always struck me as a little wild that you can draw a straight line from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle. The first taught the second, who taught the third. That’s some serious historical firepower, all one after the other. Now, I’m not saying Xavier’s coaching lineage is comparable to the development of the philosophy that has served as one of the primary influences of western civilization, but maybe I am?
Skip Prosser to Thad Matta to Sean Miller to Chris Mack. That’s incredibly impressive longevity* with home run hire after home run hire. Xavier really is a model of consistent excellence on the bench. So, um, no pressure, Travis Steele.
*And, not that we’re keeping score or drawing out this dumb comparison, but that’s four (4) super successful college basketball coaches to three (3) revolutionary philosophers. Draw your own conclusions, is what I’m saying.
With Mack moving on to Louisville to replace a Hall of Famer, X turned to Steele, a Musketeer assistant for 10 years. Spending a decade at Xavier and working for both Miller and Mack seems to be resume enough to take over the program, given its history. Steele, though, will have to do more than rely on Xavier’s legacy of winning as Mack’s departure coincides with those of Trevon Bluiett, Kerem Kanter and J.P. Macura, a trio that won a lot of games in Cincinnati. Quentin Goodin, thankfully for Steele, is still with Xavier as are a host of grad-transfers that will help hold the fort until Steele’s top-15 2019 recruiting class gets to campus.
If, as my man Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit,” then Xavier certainly has developed a habit over the last 20 years. Can Steele maintain the routine?
3. Mullin’s make-or-break
Whatever designs St. John’s had on a quick rebuild when it hired legendary alum and Dream Teamer Chris Mullin have not materialized. Mullin has three successive losing seasons to his credit in Queens (though the Red Storm have increased their win total each year) and seven conference wins has been the high-water mark. St. John’s dreamed of the instant-turnaround that Fred Hoiberg, who also had NBA front office experience but no coaching resume, produced at his alma mater, Iowa State, but all they’ve done is exacerbate the slide that started under Steve Lavin.
If that’s going to change, it’s probably going to have to happen this season.
Mullin has without a doubt his most talented roster, and it’s one that has the look of being capable not only of breaking that .500 barrier, but competing, truly competing, in the Big East. Shamorie Ponds flirted with an NBA future, but instead returned for his junior season and will be a conference player of the year candidate. The Red Storm also were given a gift when the NCAA declared Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron immediately eligible, giving them one of the country’s most dynamic backcourts. St. John’s also has Justin Simon and Marvin Clark back plus some other intriguing transfer options.
With talent in tow, consistency and identity will likely be what determines St. John’s level of success this season. They’ve never really had either under Mullin, but they haven’t had this kind of roster, either.
4. Ewing’s Year 2
Mullin isn’t the only Dream Teamer in the Big East, and he’s not the only one looking to build his alma mater back to former glory. Patrick Ewing’s first season at the helm at the Hilltop was something of a mixed bag in that the Hoyas didn’t win a ton of games, but the expectation wasn’t really that they would. Georgetown was pretty middling at everything (84th in offense and 119 on defense, according to KenPom) and the only two wins of note came back-to-back in February when the Hoyas beat Seton Hall and Butler.
So what’s the expectation for Ewing’s second season? Well, they’re not exactly raised exponentially. They are, however, raised, especially with Jessie Govan’s decision to return for another season. The 6-foot-10 big man averaged 17.9 points and 10 rebounds per game as a junior, flashing elite skill on the boards and production on offense. Freshmen James Akinjo and Mac McClung inject some talent and excitement into the program as well. None of that likely adds up to a ton of wins, but there’s enough there to believe that Ewing has the Hoyas on a positive trajectory.
5. Marquette’s offense leads the way
Steve Wojciechowski may have lost Andrew Rowsey, who made 41.5 percent of his 301 3-point attempts, from last year’s team, but there remains plenty of offensive firepower in Milwaukee, starting with Markus Howard. The 5-foot-11 junior is among the country’s best shooters after going 46.4/40.4/93.8 last season, and will be a frontrunner for conference player of the year honors. Pair him with Sam Hauser, who shot 48.7 percent from 3 last year, and you’ve got yourself some long-range threats. Hauser’s younger brother, Joey, will also join the ranks this season, and the top-55 recruit should only bolster Marquette’s march toward being one of the best offenses in the country.
PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: SHAMORIE PONDS, St. John’s
There are plenty of contenders here in what will be a wide-open race, but the nod goes to Ponds, who will need to put up huge numbers if the Red Storm, even with Mustapha Heron in the fold, are going to find some success and get back to the NCAA tournament. He averaged 21.6 points per game last season, but also had one of the better assists rates in the country. Ponds also was productive defensively with 2.3 steals per game.
Ponds’ raw numbers might not duplicate what he did last year, but Heron’s presence should ease some of the burden that Ponds had offensively last year as he carried St. John’s offense with a huge usage rate. That should come down and allow his efficiency numbers to tick up – though his 3-point shooting will have to revert from his sophomore season (25.1) to his junior numbers (37.5) – and keep the Red Storm offense humming.
THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM
MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette: One of the country’s best shooters, Howard will be the engine of Marquette’s offense.
ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova: With much of last year’s national championship roster in the NBA, Paschall will move into a major role – with major responsibilities.
KAMAR BALDWIN, Butler: Baldwin took an expanded role and ran with it last year, and he’s on pace to be one of the best scorers in Butler history.
PHIL BOOTH, Villanova: Booth had a strong 2017-18 dispute injury and he’ll be called upon to keep the Wildcats’ elite status.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW
SAM HAUSER, Marquette
ALPHA DIALLO, Providence
MUSTAPHA HERON, St. John’s
MAX STRUS, DePaul
MARTIN KRAMPELJ, Creighton
Markus Howard is going to generate the headlines and most of the attention for Marquette heading into the season, but Sam Hauser deserves some notice as well. The 6-foot-8 Wisconsin native shot an eye-popping 48.7 percent from 3-point range, and it wasn’t a product of a small sample size as he hoisted 195 shots from distance. He needs to defend better to transform into something special, but his shooting alone makes him likely to have a couple monster nights in the Big East.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE
Dave Leitao took DePaul to the NIT and back-to-back NCAA tournaments in his first stint with DePaul back in the early 2000s. His first three years back with the Blue Demons have gone…not as well. DePaul has gone 29-65 overall and 9-45 in Big East play during his second tenure. Safe to say, a program like Virginia ain’t about to come calling like the last time. It’s a very different world for the Blue Demons since Leitao led them to success, starting with the fact competing in the Big East is vastly different than doing it in C-USA. Given Leitao’s track record with the Cavaliers and now a three-year sample at DePaul, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of reason for hope that things will turn around for the Blue Demons.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …
The Big East doesn’t have any national-title favorites, but the strength of the league could put a few teams into the second weekend.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …
The conference’s guard play, from St. John’s Ponds-Heron duo to Marquette’s 3-point specialists to Villanova’s quest to replace Jalen Brunson to Kamar Baldwin running the show in Indianapolis, there’s a lot to like about the Big East’s backcourts.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR
Dec. 15, Villanova vs. Kansas
Dec., Georgetown vs. Syracuse
Dec. 29, Butler vs. Florida
Dec. 1, Creighton vs. Gonzaga
Dec. 1, Seton Hall vs. Louisville
1. VILLANOVA: Yeah, there are plenty of questions about how Villanova will reload given the heavy losses it sustained, but with how Jay Wright has navigated the program in recent years, is there really any doubting him? The Wildcats have put themselves among the premier programs in the country, and they’ve done it by replacing stars with stars. There are candidates on this roster, and here’s guessing they reach their potential.
2. XAVIER: Xavier decided to do what it does when it promoted Travis Steele, and given the history of hires at X, there are two ways to look at it. Either, one, this is a school that simply does not miss on coaches, or, two, they’re due for a dud.
Here’s guessing Xavier knows what it’s doing.
The Musketeers will have their work cut out for them this season with losses like Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura (plus Sean O’Mara, Kerem Kanter and Kaiser Gates), but the infrastructure and culture remain and there is still talent on the roster. They’ll need more from Quentin Goodin and Naji Marshall and the graduate transfers like Zach Hankins, Ryan Welage and Kyle Castlin will have to contribute, but Xavier has been through this before. It’s worked out.
3. PROVIDENCE: The Friars have been to five-straight NCAA tournaments and coach Ed Cooley has some major holes to fill after the departures of Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock, but the presence of Alpha Diallo and a healthy Emmitt Holt could be enough to catapult them to toward the top of the league. The 6-foot-7 Diallo will be asked to shoulder a significant burden on both ends of the floor, but his versatility and ability to score around the bucket make him a strong candidate for that role. An abdominal injury robbed Holt of last season, but if his health holds up this season, he and Diallo make for a formidable one-two punch.
4. ST. JOHN’S: The Red Storm already looked poised to make a move up the standings when Shamorie Ponds decided to return for his junior season, but the NCAA’s decision to grant Mustapha Heron immediate-eligibility after his transfer from Auburn solidifies the expectation that this is the year Chris Mullin breaks through to an NCAA tournament. That’s what happens when you’re projected to have one of the best backcourts in the country.
The Red Storm actually put up strong defensive numbers last season after being pretty mediocre on that end in Mullin’s first two years, but the offense sagged with Ponds simply carrying too much of the load. If they can build on what they did defensively last year and use the Ponds-Heron backcourt to power the offense, the hopes the program placed in Mullin might prove justified.
5. MARQUETTE: The Golden Eagles are going to score. A lot, probably. Markus Howard is going to get buckets. So is Sam Hauser. Joey Hauser, probably too. Fordham grad transfer Joseph Chartouny is a nice addition as well. Marquette is going to put the ball in the basket.
Can they keep their opponent from doing the same with any sort of consistency? That’ll determine their season’s fate. Marquette’s defensive ranking at KenPom has slipped in every season under Steve Wojciechowski, from 69th in his first season to 182nd last year. That’s kept the last two teams, both having awesome offenses, from thriving. If it doesn’t improve this year, it’ll likely make it three in a row.
6. BUTLER: This feels too low for a Bulldogs team that weathered the loss of Chris Holtmann a year ago to go to a fourth-straight NCAA tournament and returns three starters, including Kamar Baldwin, but they’ll have to do some serious retooling after the graduation of 2,000-point scorer Kelan Martin, around whom everything revolved offensively.
Baldwin will be the key here as he steps into a bigger role and will be the focal point of defensive strategies. He was good last year, but also was short of great and that was with an All-American candidate by his side. If he grows along with his role, the Bulldogs will be just fine in their second year under LaVall Jordan.
7. SETON HALL: It’s a new chapter of hoops for Seton Hall and coach Kevin Willard with the losses of program stalwarts Desi Rodriguez, Khadeen Carrington and Angel Delgado, who helped lead the Pirates to three-straight NCAA tournaments and arguably keep Willard in place at Seton Hall after five-straight NCAA tournament-less seasons previously. That’s the type of chapter Seton Hall would just assume not re-read.
Myles Powell’s ability to assume a huge role will likely determine how the Pirates’ season unfolds. He was a supporting character a year ago, but was effective in his limited workload, converting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep and 43.3 percent overall. He’ll need to improve as a distributor and trim the turnover rate, but he’ll be given the opportunity to flourish.
8. GEORGETOWN: Most believe that Patrick Ewing is doing good things with his alma mater. That the program is poised to make progress and that, eventually, he’ll get the Hoyas back in the NCAA tournament. There’s maybe just not all that much to get excited about this season.
Jessie Govan is undoubtedly one of the Big East’s top players, but it’s hard to look at the rest of the roster and forecast a major improvement from last season’s team that won just five conference games. If some of the youngsters pan out immediately, maybe, but the upside just doesn’t appear to be all that significant for Ewing’s Hoyas in Year 2.
9. CREIGHTON: If history is a guide, Greg McDermott will get Creighton back to the NCAA tournament. It just might take a little bit. The Blue Jays will have to rebuild after losing their do-everything backcourt of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas but there are pieces in place to make that happen. Maybe just not this year.
It’s not unlike McDermott’s job after his son, Doug, wrapped up a historic career. The Blue Jays went to three-straight tournaments before a two-year hiatus gave way to the last two seasons’ success. Creighton may hit pause this year, but the Mitchell Ballock has the look of a potential future star and Creighton has raised its profile enough to believe it’ll be able to find a third era of success under McDermott.
10. DEPAUL: The Blue Demons have steadily upped their talent level as Dave Leitao makes another go at it in Chicago, but it has been significant enough through three seasons to really matter as they’ve finished last in the Big East in back-to-back years after finishing ninth in Leitao’s first season back at DePaul.
Max Strus proved he was a Big East-caliber player after starting his career in Division II, and Illinois transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands is a 3-point threat. The rest of the roter, though, remains largely unproven.
Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron ruled eligible to immediately play at St. John’s
Mustapha Heron has been ruled immediately eligible after an offseason transfer from Auburn to St. John’s, the school announced on Saturday. Heron’s eligibility was first reported by Adam Zagoria.
One of the biggest transfers to make a move last offseason, the 6-foot-4 Heron gives the Red Storm a potent double-figure scorer as expectations will now be sky-high for St. John’s to make a run for a bid to the NCAA tournament. Heron is receiving a hardship waiver from the NCAA, as the Waterbury, Connecticut native moved closer to home so that he could be near his ill mother.
As a sophomore with the Tigers last season, Heron put up 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, helping lead Auburn to a surprising season in the SEC. Entering the 2018 NBA Draft process before pulling his name out and transferring, Heron is a former five-star prospect who brings a lot of hype to the Red Storm for this season.
St. John’s now as four returning double-figure scorers in the lineup for next season, including two All-American candidates in Heron and junior guard Shamorie Ponds. That duo, along with junior guard Justin Simon, and senior forward Marvin Clark II, gives the Red Storm one of the most intimidating lineups in the Big East. Finding a big man who can rebound and protect the rim might ultimately be the key to the ceiling of St. John’s season, but adding a high-caliber weapon like Heron is huge step for the Red Storm.