Here’s the conundrum that is going to face voters in the top 25 this week: What do you do with Kansas?
When it comes to resume, Kansas probably has the strongest one of any team in the top seven. They’ve beaten Michigan State on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Tennessee on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Marquette on a neutral court. Every win they have in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year comes against teams ranked in the top 135 on KenPom.
And then there is this: Kansas has beaten Tennessee. Tennessee has beaten Gonzaga. Gonzaga has beaten Duke. Duke, according to some, can beat the Cavs, which officially means that Kansas is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
Or something like that.
The point is that it makes total sense to rank Kansas No. 1 based on what they’ve accomplished this season, but I think that even the most irrational Kansas fans will cop to the fact that these Jayhawks haven’t come close to hitting their stride yet this season, and that’s before you factor in the loss of Udoka Azuibuike to an ankle injury.
The difference between the top seven teams this season is marginal, particularly if you are not as high on Duke as I am, and while that means there really isn’t all that much difference between Nevada at No. 7 and whoever it is that you are going to rank No. 1, it does mean that a team like Kansas — who is in a bad run of form — drops to sixth in this ranking.
And to be frank, as long as your top seven is, in some order, the same as my top seven, your ranking is probably going to be just fine. I’d quibble with ranking Nevada in the top four, and I think it’s probably silly to have Duke, Tennessee or Gonzaga outside the top four, but there are arguments to justify it all. I’m sure Kansas fans will call me a Duke homer and say that Bill Self must ignore my calls, but the truth of it is that there are a lot of really good teams at the top this year. Parsing through a jumbled mess like that is never easy.
I dropped Kentucky all the way out of the top 25, as I did Kansas State, but I’ll go more in depth on that in the Monday Overreactions column.
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 most important thing that a college basketball team can have is good guard play.
Look at who has won national titles in recent seasons.
In 2013, Louisville started Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. In 2014, UConn’s backcourt consisted of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Quinn Cook joined Tyus Jones for Duke’s 2015 national title while Jalen Brunson teamed with Ryan Arcidiacono in 2016 and Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth to win the title in 2018.
Hell, even in 2017, when North Carolina won the title on the strength of an imposing frontcourt, they had an All-American in Joel Berry running the show.
I say all that to say this: Elite guards and perimeter players can erase a lot of mistakes.
These are the teams that will have the most talent in those roles this season.
Who did we miss?
1. DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Players: Tre Jones, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Alex O’Connell, Jordan Goldwire, Joey Baker*
While the Blue Devils did lose a considerable amount of backcourt production from last season’s Elite Eight team, with Grayson Allen having graduated and both Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr. turning pro, they’ve managed to reload. The nation’s top recruiting class includes three elite perimeter players in point guard Tre Jones and wings R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, with Barrett considered by some to be the best player in college basketball despite having not played an official game.
While Jones is the lead guard, both Barrett and Reddish have been used in playmaking roles during portions of Duke’s two preseason games. That trio will see plenty of playing time, with sophomores Alex O’Connell and Jordan Goldwire supplying the depth. The status of freshman Joey Baker also bears watching, as the 6-foot-7 wing is a good shooter who can potentially give Duke even more depth on the perimeter. The original plan was for Baker, who reclassified to 2018 when he committed to Duke, to redshirt.
2. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Players: Quade Green, Jemarl Baker, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson
The Wildcats are young on the perimeter, with just one returnee who played valuable minutes in 2017-18. That would be sophomore Quade Green, who made 13 starts and averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists per game last season. Redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker, who was sidelined by a knee injury for all of 2017-18, was considered to be one of the top perimeter shooters in the 2018 class and can be a contributor this season in that area. And as Kentucky has done throughout John Calipari’s tenure, they’ve got a crop of outstanding freshmen who are ready to make an impact.
Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley will compete for minutes at the lead guard position, and the same can be said of Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson on the wings. With all four freshmen being at least 6-foot-3, they’ve got the size to fill a variety of roles on the perimeter for Kentucky. Herro and Johnson both shot better than 44 percent from three during Kentucky’s summer trip to The Bahamas, while Quickley’s 18-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio during that trip was the team’s best. The competition will be better once the regular season begins, but there’s no doubt that this group is capable of doing some special things.
3. KANSAS JAYHAWKS
Players: LaGerald Vick, Charlie Moore, Marcus Garrett, Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Ochai Agbaji
Kansas lost its leader, Devonte’ Graham, and their best three-point shooter in Svi Mhykhailiuk from the perimeter rotation that led the team to the Final Four last season. But even with that being the case, the Jayhawks can boast one of the nation’s top perimeter rotations. Freshmen Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes are ready to be immediate contributors at the point and the two, respectively, and they’ll be competing for minutes with some solid returnees.
LaGerald Vick, who made the decision to enter the NBA draft after averaging 12.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game last season, had a change of heart and returned to Lawrence for his senior season. Sophomore point guard Marcus Garrett, who averaged 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in 19.6 minutes per game last season, also returns and Cal transfer Charlie Moore is eligible after sitting out last season. Moore was one of the Pac-12’s best freshmen during his lone season in Berkeley, averaging 12.2 points and 3.5 assists per game in 34 starts, and he’ll give Kansas valuable experience and production at the point.
Players: Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Lindsey Drew, Corey Henson, Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua, Tre’Shawn Thurman
Eric Musselman’s perimeter rotation is absolutely loaded, with the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline being the headliners. All three are redshirt seniors who had starring roles on last year’s Sweet 16 squad, with Caleb Martin having won Mountain West Player of the Year after averaging 18.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game and Cody being the conference’s best defender. As for Caroline, all he did in 2017-18 was average 17.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. With Nevada’s loaded front court, Caroline may see more time at the three this season than he did in 2017-18.
Those three aren’t the only seniors either, as Lindsey Drew makes his return after going down with a ruptured Achilles tendon in February and Omaha transfer Tre’Shawn Thurman is eligible after sitting out last season. Thurman averaged 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a junior at Omaha, earning honorable mention All-Summit League honors. Also eligible to play after sitting out last season are transfers Nisre Zouzoua (20.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg at Bryant in 2016-17), Corey Henson (two-time second team All-NEC selection at Wagner) and Jazz Johnson (15.8 ppg as a sophomore at Portland). The Wolf Pack won’t lack for talented options on the perimeter, one reason why the expectations for this team are so high.
Players: Franklin Howard, Tyus Battle, Howard Washington, Elijah Hughes, Oshae Brissett, Jalen Carey, Buddy Boeheim
Despite not having much in the way of depth, Syracuse still managed to reach the Sweet 16 last season thanks in large part to the triumvirate of Battle, Brissett and Howard. While it was Howard who served as Syracuse’s starting point guard, and will once again in his senior season, Battle doesn’t lack for opportunities to make plays within the Syracuse offense himself. As a sophomore the 6-foot-6 Battle averaged 19.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, earning second team All-ACC honors.
Brissett, who led the team in rebounding with an average of 8.8 caroms per game, and Howard were also double-digit scorers for the Orange last season. What will help this trio is the addition of some talented newcomers, most notably jet-quick freshman point guard Jalen Carey and off-guard Buddy Boeheim, the head coach’s son who was one of the leaders on a Brewster Academy team that won 26 games last season. And while Elijah Hughes may not have put up great numbers at East Carolina, the season in residency after his transfer to Syracuse should help in that regard. Rounding out the rotation is Howard Washington, who missed all of last season due to a torn ACL. Health is a bit of a concern early on with Howard, Washington and Carey all banged up at present time, but when whole Syracuse has one of the best backcourt rotations in the country.
6. MICHIGAN STATE
Players: Matt McQuaid, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Kyle Ahrens, Foster Loyer, Gabe Brown, Aaron Henry
Michigan State does have to account for the departures of leading scorer Miles Bridges and team leader Tum Tum Nairn, but there’s no shortage of perimeter talent at Tom Izzo’s disposal. Junior point guard Cassius Winston, who averaged 12.6 points and 6.9 assists per game last season, returns as do senior Matt McQuaid and junior Joshua Langford. Langford was Michigan State’s fourth-leading scorer in 2017-18, starting all 35 games, averaging 11.7 points per game and shooting 40.4 percent from three.
As for McQuaid, he’ll be asked to contribute a bit more after averaging 6.0 points in just over 20 minutes per game. Freshmen will supply much of the additional depth on the perimeter, with four-star wings Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry and three-star point guard Foster Loyer joining the program. Also looking to compete for minutes will be redshirt junior Kyle Ahrens, who missed all of the 2017-18 season due to a foot injury.
Players: Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Braxton Key, Marco Anthony, Kihei Clark, Kody Stattmann, Francesco Badocchi
Despite the loss of Devon Hall, the team’s second-leading scorer, Virginia projects to have a very good perimeter rotation to work with in 2018-19. The tandem of Jerome and Guy will lead the way, with the former being the Cavaliers’ assist leader and the latter back after averaging a team-high 14.1 points per game. And Virginia’s perimeter corps received a significant boost earlier this month when the NCAA granted an immediate eligibility waiver to Alabama transfer Braxton Key.
The 6-foot-8 Key, who averaged 7.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in an injury-shortened 2017-18 campaign, has the ability to serve as a supplementary playmaker on the wing. In theory that could open things up for Virginia’s other offensive options, making the Cavaliers that much tougher to defend. Freshmen Kihei Clark, Kody Stattmann and Francesco Badocchi will all look to work their way into the rotation, and with regard to Badocchi it’s important to note that Tony Bennett and his staff have had success with redshirts during their time in Charlottesville. Sophomore Marco Anthony will also look to earn minutes after appearing in only 13 games last season.
Players: Markus Howard, Joseph Chartouny, Sam Houser, Sacar Anim, Greg Elliott, Jamal Cain, Brendan Bailey
Can a backcourt lose its leading scorer, who averaged 20.5 points and 4.8 assists per game, and be better the following season? That could very well be the case for Marquette, which will look to account for the loss of Andrew Rowsey. Markus Howard, who averaged 20.4 points per game and is one of the nation’s best perimeter shooters, returns for his junior season and the versatile Sam Houser (14.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.9 apg) is back as well. Add in Sacar Anim, Greg Elliott and Jamal Cain, and the Golden Eagles don’t lack for experience on the perimeter.
So why can this group potentially be even better in 2018-19? The newcomers, most notably Fordham grad transfer Joseph Chartouny. Last season the 6-foot-3 Chartouny, who led the Rams in rebounds and assists while also averaging 12.2 points per game, led the nation with an average of 3.3 steals per game. Marquette struggled on the defensive end of the floor last season, and Chartouny has the size and skill needed to make an impact in that area immediately. Add in 6-foot-8 freshman Brendan Bailey, a versatile wing who will also factor into the fight for minutes, and this perimeter rotation is a big reason while Marquette is considered by some to be the team most likely to challenge Villanova in the Big East.
9. ST. JOHN’S
Players: Shamorie Ponds, Justin Simon, Marvin Clark II, Mustapha Heron, Mikey Dixon, L.J. Figueroa, Bryan Trimble, Greg Williams Jr.
The Chris Mullin era has yet to produce an NCAA tournament bid, but that could very well change in 2018-19 if his backcourt lives up to the preseason hype. In Shamorie Ponds the Red Storm possess a high-scoring guard who averaged 21.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game, and the preseason Big East Player of the Year is one of three double-digit scoring guards back on campus. Seniors Justin Simon (12.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 5.1 apg), who led the Red Storm in rebounding and assists, and Marvin Clark II (12.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) both return as well. While that trio is definitely a good starting point, St. John’s also boasts a really good crop of perimeter newcomers.
Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron received a waiver that makes him eligible to play immediately, and in the 6-foot-5 junior the Red Storm add a player who averaged 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game on a team that won a share of the SEC regular season title. Also eligible to play — after sitting out last season — is Quinnipiac transfer Mikey Dixon, who averaged 16.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game as a freshman. Junior college transfer L.J. Figueroa was a NJCAA All-American at Odessa College who’s already received rave reviews for his work in preseason practices. Freshman Greg Williams Jr., a four-star recruit out of high school, and sophomore Bryan Trimble will also look to earn playing time in what is a stacked backcourt.
Players: Carsen Edwards, Ryan Cline, Nojel Eastern, Sasha Stefanovic, Aaron Wheeler, Eric Hunter Jr.
It all starts with Edwards, who in the eyes of many is considered to be the preseason favorite for national Player of the Year honors. As a sophomore, Edwards led Purdue in points with an average of 18.5 points per game while also dishing out 2.8 assists per game. The question heading into 2018-19 for Edwards is how he’ll balance being that attack-minded scoring guard with the need to put his younger teammates in positions where they can be at their best. That wasn’t as much of a concern last season due to the presence of four seniors in the starting lineup. Also back from last season’s perimeter rotation are senior Ryan Cline and sophomore Nojel Eastern, with the latter viewed as a player who could be in line for a breakout season.
Eastern only averaged 2.9 points in 12.6 minutes per game as a freshman, but he has both the size and athleticism needed to join the list of off guards who have experienced success playing for Matt Painter. As for Cline, he was also a reserve and shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc in 2017-18. Redshirt freshmen Sasha Stefanovic and Aaron Weaver will look to turn the lessons learned from last year’s seniors into production in their first season of game action, and true freshman Eric Hunter Jr. is a four-star prospect who averaged 29 points per game as a high school senior. Edwards will be the leader for this group, but Purdue’s perimeter boasts talent beyond the Player of the Year candidate.
Honorable Mention: Clemson, Florida State, Gonzaga, Kansas State, Michigan, Mississippi State, N.C. State, Villanova, Virginia Tech, Washington
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.
Losing Graham is a major, major blow for this program, but they had as much talent sitting out this season as any program in college basketball. Cal transfer Moore should be able to step in and handle the point guard duties – if that role isn’t taken over by Dotson – while Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson will give Bill Self actual power forwards, something he has been yearning for the last two years. This team is talented, they are old, they are well coached and they have a functional point guard on their roster. There is a lot to like about the Jayhawks heading into the year.
As always, there is quite a bit of turnover on the Kentucky roster. Six key pieces from last year are gone, while the Wildcats bring in yet another loaded recruiting class. I think the combination of incoming backcourt talent and the remaining front court veterans is going to be a fun combination for Kentucky fans to watch, especially when Stanford grad transfer Travis is factored into the mix. The big question for Kentucky is going to be how they can put a team on the floor that can both shoot and play the kind of elite-level defense we all are expecting. Cal has plenty of weapons, and it will be fascinating to see how he decides to deploy them.
3. GONZAGA BULLDOGS
Who’s gone: Silas Melson, Johnathan Williams III
Who do they add: Geno Crandall, Brandon Clarke, Joel Ayayi, Filip Petrušev, Greg Foster Jr.
I’m not fully convinced that I love Perkins as a point guard, but with Norvell and Kispert a year older and Hachimura and Tillie on the front line, the Zags have a chance to be really, really good once again. Throw in the transfer additions of Clarke and Crandall as well as a couple more talented foreigners — Ayayi and Petrušev — and this is just about what you would expect for Gonzaga.
4. DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Who’s gone: Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr.
Who do they add: Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Joey Baker
Projected starting lineup: Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Javin DeLaurier
The Blue Devils are a team that has a lot left to figure out. Bagley, Trent, Duval and Carter are all following Allen out the door to make way for another loaded recruiting class. I’m still torn on how this Duke team — which will likely end up starting four freshmen — will play. That has not always been the path to success, but the talent here is impossible to ignore. There’s a non-zero chance that Barrett, Williamson and Reddish could end up going 1-2-3 in the 2019 NBA Draft. The big question with this group is going to be how well the pieces gel together and whether or not there is enough shooting (and willing defenders) to allow this group to play the way teams like Villanova, Golden State and Boston play. I explain that line of thinking more here.
Who do they add: Jahvon Quinerly, Cole Swider, Brandon Slater, Joe Cremo
Projected starting lineup: Jahvon Quinerly, Phil Booth, Jermaine Samuels, Eric Paschall, Cole Swider
Villanova did not fair well at the NBA early entry deadline, losing four of the top 33 picks in the draft. I’m still willing to ride with the Wildcats, as I think they are more experienced than they will get credit for — Paschall and Booth are fifth-year seniors after all — and because Jay Wright’s teams always have people ready to step in and contribute immediately. Expect a breakout year from Jermaine Samuels, and don’t be surprised when Paschall is an All-American and a first round pick come the end of the season.
6. NEVADA WOLF PACK
Who’s gone: Kendell Stephens, Hallice Cooke, Josh Hall
Who do they add: Tre’Shawn Thurman, Corey Henson, Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua, Kwame Hymes, Vince Lee, Trey Porter, Jordan Brown
Projected starting lineup: Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Trey Porter, Jordan Brown
Getting the Martin twins back is massive. Drew’s recovery from a torn achilles is also something that could be a problem, but this was a wildly talented team that came a point away from the Elite Eight despite losing their starting point guard and having their best player (Caleb Martin) deal with a foot injury the last two months of the season, and they basically bring everyone back. This is the best Mountain West team since Kawhi and Jimmer were running roughshod over the league.
7. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Who’s gone: James Daniel III
Who do they add: No one
Projected starting lineup: Lamonte’ Turner, Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden, Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams
Tennessee won the SEC last season and returns literally everyone from that team outside of Daniel, who came off the bench. Williams was the SEC Player of the Year last year, and Rick Barnes has plenty of perimeter talent and switchable players at his disposal. There are also some young, talented pieces on this roster — Bone, Bowden, Yves Pons, Kyle Alexander — that still have room to develop. I don’t think it’s crazy to think Tennessee could end up making a run at a No. 1 seed.
8. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS
Who’s gone: Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins, Nigel Johnson
Who do they add: Kody Stattmann, Kihei Clark, Francisco Caffaro
Projected starting lineup: Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Deandre Hunter, Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt
I’ll never doubt Virginia again (unless they are a No. 1 seed … kidding!), even when they are losing their best guard and their best defender. Hunter is ready to step up and be the star for this team, and I think Mamadi Diakite will have a chance to be an elite defensive presence. If there is a real concern here, it’s depth, but I trust Tony Bennett will be able to figure something out. Always trust in Tony.
9. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Who’s gone: Joel Berry III, Theo Pinson, Jalek Felton
Who do they add: Coby White, Nassir Little, Rechon Black
Projected starting lineup: Coby White, Kenny Williams, Nassir Little, Cam Johnson, Luke Maye
Where you rank UNC in the preseason is going to depend entirely on two things: How good you think their freshmen — White and Little — are going to be, and what kind of development you expect out of Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks. Will there be a returning player in college basketball this season that is better than Maye?
Auburn will lose Heron, who might have been their best player last season, but return everyone else from a team that won the SEC. Their guards are just so talented, and that was without Purifoy and Doughty. The health of McLemore, who suffered a dreadful ankle injury in February, will be critical, as well as the development of Chuma Okeke. But we saw what Pearl could do with these pieces last season, and that was with the FBI investigation hanging over their head.
11. KANSAS STATE WILDCATS
Who’s gone: No one
Who do they add: Shaun Williams
Projected starting lineup: Kamau Stokes, Barry Brown, Carter Diarra, Xavier Sneed, Dean Wade
This will probably be the highest that you see the Wildcats ranked heading into the season, but I really like this group. They have a crop of tough-minded, playmaking guards that can really get out and defend, and their best player might actually be a guy that the public at-large hasn’t really seen play in Wade. Bruce Weber is going to silence the haters!
12. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES
Who’s gone: Devin Wilson, Justin Bibbs
Who do they add: Jon Kabongo, Landers Nolley II, Jarren McAllister
Projected starting lineup: Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear
The Hokies bring back seven of their top eight players, but the key for this team is going to be the development of their rising sophomore class: Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede, P.J. Horne. We know how good Clarke, Robinson and Blackshear are, but if those three take a step forward we could be looking at a top ten team.
13. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Who’s gone: Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling, Tum Tum Nairn
Who do they add: Foster Loyer, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr., Thomas Kithier
Projected starting lineup: Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid, Josh Langford, Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman
I can’t help but look at this roster and see all the same issues that they had this past season, only without their two most talented players. Turnovers. Lack of star power. Some defensive issues. Winston has a chance to be a first-team all-Big Ten player, but Langford and Ward are going to have to live up to their potential. It feels like this group has nice pieces, but that those pieces doesn’t necessarily fit together. That said, who is better? What team is without warts?
14. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Who’s gone: Braian Angola, C.J. Walker, Brandon Allen
I really like this group in theory. They have a whole bunch of athletic, switchable wings that can score. Mann, Walker and Kabengele returning was key, as is finding a way to get point guard depth now that C.J. Walker left the program. Getting Cofer back for a fifth-year is enormous.
15. TCU HORNED FROGS
Who’s gone: Kenrich Williams, Vlad Brodziansky, Ahmed Hamdy
Who do they add: Kendric Davis, Kaden Archie, Angus McWilliam, Yuat Alok, Russel Barlow Jr.
Projected starting lineup: Alex Robinson, Jaylen Fisher, Desmond Bane, Kouat Noi, Kevin Samuel
Losing Williams and Brodziansky is going to be a blow, but there are still plenty of pieces. Bane and Noi should be in line for breakout seasons, and Jamie Dixon going small-ball with a two-point guard look should be fun to watch. Will Fisher ever be healthy?
16. UCLA BRUINS
Who’s gone: Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh, G.G. Goloman, LiAngelo Ball
Who do they add: Tyger Campbell, Shareef O’Neal, Moses Brown, Kenny Nwuba, David Singleton III, Jules Bernard, Cody Riley, Jalen Hill
Projected starting lineup: Jaylen Hands, Prince Ali, Kris Wilkes, Cody Riley, Moses Brown
This is a make or break year for Steve Alford. With every underclassmen except Aaron Holiday back, meaning that back-to-back top five-ish recruiting classes are on campus. It’s time for the Bruins to put up or shut up, and I think they’ll be right there as a favorite to win the Pac-12 … if they decide they want to play defense.
West Virginia has survived losing program guys in past seasons, but Carter and Miles were responsible for turning West Virginia into Press Virginia. Calling them program guys is a disservice. So we’ll see how this plays out. At this point, we have to trust that Bob Huggins will figure out a way to make it work.
18. OREGON DUCKS
Who’s gone: Elijah Brown, MiKyle McIntosh, Troy Brown
Who do they add: Bol Bol, Louis King, Miles Norris, Will Richardson
Projected starting lineup: Payton Pritchard, Louis King, Paul White, Kenny Wooten, Bol Bol
For my money, Oregon’s season hung on whether or not Brown returned to school, and he’s gone. Bol and King are both potential one-and-done players, and Wooten is an elite defensive prospect, but I’m in a wait and see mode with them. Personally, I’m not on the Bol Bol bandwagon, but I understand why he is, in theory, a high-level prospect. They’re here because of the talent and Dana Altman, and we bought into that.
19. SYRACUSE ORANGE
Who’s gone: Matthew Moyer
Who do they add: Buddy Boeheim, Jalen Carey, Eli Hughes, Robert Braswell
Projected starting lineup: Tyus Battle, Franklin Howard, Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj, Paschal Chukwu
The Orange had no depth and very little perimeter shooting last season, but it looks like that was addressed in the offseason. With Battle and Brissett back in the fold, this Syracuse team has a chance to match watchable offense with one of college basketball’s very best defenses.
20. LSU Tigers
Who’s gone: Duop Reath, Randy Onwuasor, Aaron Epps, Jeremy Combs, Mayan Kiir, Galen Alexander
Who do they add: Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams, Javonte Smart, Darius Days, Kavell Bigby-Williams
LSU is really young. They are also really talented. Waters is so entertaining, and the incoming trio of Smart, Reid and Williams is very good. Effort will be a key, as will their ability to play together, but they have a chance to be really good.
21. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Who’s gone: No one
Who do they add: Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard, Jethro Tshisumpa Mbiya, D.J. Stewart
Projected starting lineup: Lamar Peters, Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman, Abdul Ado
I am not totally sold on Ben Howland getting this thing going at Mississippi State, but this will be his most talented team. The Weatherspoon brothers are both going to be good players, Peters still intrigues some NBA teams and Holman should fill a role. Reggie Perry should be a nice addition and an impact player as well.
22. CLEMSON TIGERS
Who’s gone: Gabe DeVoe, Donte Grantham, Mark Donnal
Who do they add: John Newman III, Hunter Tyson, Trey Jamison, Javan White
Projected starting lineup: Shelton Mitchell, Marcquise Reed, David Skara, Aamir Simms, Elijah Thomas
With Mitchell and Reed back in the fold, plus Elijah Thomas in the paint, this has the makings of another team that will push for a top five seed.
Who do they add: Ignas Brazdeikis, David DeJulius, Brandon Johns, Adrian Nunez, Colin Castleton
Projected starting lineup: Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers, Jon Teske
Losing Wagner and Abdur-Rahkman, the program’s two best offensive weapons, are major blows for a team that struggled to score a season ago. Matthews’ decision to return is key and they will really be able to guard again, but one of their three big wings is going to need to take a major step forward for them offensively.
24. N.C. STATE WOLFPACK
Who’s gone: Omer Yurtseven, Al Freeman, Abdul-Malik Abu, Lennard Freeman, Sam Hunt
Who do they add: C.J. Bryce, Devon Daniels, Blake Harris, Saddiq Bey, Jericole Hellems, Derek Funderburk, Ian Steere, Immanuel Bates
Kevin Keatts is going to miss Yurtseven, because he doesn’t have any size on his roster anymore. He does, however, have half-a-million guards on his roster, and all of them can play. That’s enough for me to bet on Keatts getting it done.
25. MARQUETTE GOLDEN EAGLES
Who’s gone: Andrew Rowsey, Haanif Cheatam, Harry Froling
Who do they add: Ed Morrow, Joseph Chartouny, Joey Hauser, Brendan Bailey
Projected starting lineup: Markus Howard, Joseph Chartouny, Sacar Anim, Sam Hauser, Matt Heldt
Marquette will be the second-best team in the Big East if they figure out how to defense. Howard is an all-american, while the Hauser brothers will provide plenty of offensive firepower. Chartouny’s addition is key, as is Morrow’s. Both are tough, veteran defensive presences.