by John Fanta, @John_Fanta
The road to the first Monday in April tips off Friday. Time flies, doesn’t it? It seemed like just yesterday that North Carolina edged Gonzaga for the national title, achieving redemption after experiencing heartbreak the year before to Villanova.
As college basketball revs back up, the expectation for the BIG EAST is that the national champion could once again come out of the conference. Will it be Jalen Brunson leading Villanova? How about Xavier building on the Elite Eight run from a year ago? South Orange is dreaming of 1989 again. Who can fault Pirate fans for that, right? Well, that’s a long way from here. For now, here’s a look at opening night across the BIG EAST. Eight games fill up the docket.
Fairleigh Dickinson @ #23 Seton Hall – 6:30 PM, FS2
The lid-lifter for the BIG EAST in college hoops pits two teams against each other that were both picked to finish second in their respective conference preseason polls. One of Kevin Willard’s areas of focus for Khadeen Carrington taking over at point guard was how Deeno would guard opposing “1’s.” The Hall’s star could end up defending the NEC Preseason Player of the Year, Darian Anderson. The FDU senior put up 17 points to go with 3.6 assists per game a season ago. It will be interesting to see how Carrington handles guarding Anderson if that is the case as the Pirates give the keys to the Brooklyn native. A season ago, the Pirates rolled past the Knights behind Angel Delgado, who had 22 points to go with 14 rebounds. Delgado had a double-double in every home game last year. Expect no different on Friday night.
New Orleans @ St. John’s – 7 PM, FOX College Sports
For a St. John’s team looking to take the next step in year three of the Chris Mullin era, Friday presents an opportunity for sophomores Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett to continue to get a feel with working alongside transfers Justin Simon and Marvin Clark. Meanwhile, the Privateers are coming off one of the most surprising seasons in all of college basketball. Picked to finish ninth in the Southland Conference Preseason Poll, New Orleans made an incredible SLC Tournament run to win the championship and Big Dance automatic bid. But Johnnies fans, take a breath. The Privateers, predicted to finish sixth in the SLC this year, lost three double-digit scorers from a year ago, including AP All-America honorable mention Erik Thomas (19.3 points per game last season). While defense is SJU’s biggest priority, shot selection is what will keep them organized on both ends of the floor. Let’s see how that plays out in the early season.
Morehead State @ #17 Xavier – 7 PM, FOX Sports Regional Networks
This isn’t exactly the ideal way to start a new season for the Morehead State Eagles, who welcome in 10 new faces to their roster this season. Meanwhile for Xavier, Trevon Bluiett is probable to play despite a shoulder injury in practice two weeks ago. While the Musketeers’ senior duo of Bluiett and J.P. Macura are fun enough alone to watch, keep an eye on two Xavier newcomers. Wisconsin-Green Bay grad transfer Kerem Kanter, the brother of the Thunder’s Enes, defines versatility at 6-foot-10 and can really stretch the floor. Meanwhile, 6-foot-7 freshman wing Naji Marshall has great potential to help Xavier significantly this year. Chris Mack has several “match-up nightmare” weapons. It will be fascinating to see how he uses them.
Kennesaw State @ Butler – 7 PM, FOX College Sports
The debut of LaVall Jordan at Butler will bring a renovated style from the Bulldogs with a sophomore taking over at point guard as well. While the Dawgs are picked to finish eighth in the BIG EAST Preseason Poll, exceeding expectations has been a normality for them. They’ll look to do just that behind Kamar Baldwin. Ironically, Baldwin was picked 50th in ESPN’s Top 50 players in college hoops earlier this week, yet he did not receive an All-BIG EAST preseason honoree. The Bulldogs turned the ball over just 10.2 times per game last year, which was the ninth-fewest in college basketball. Kennesaw State will pose a challenge to Butler’s defense on the perimeter. The Owls, led by Al Skinner, return three starters and are powered by 6-foot-6 senior Nick Masterson (54% from 3-point land last year). Kennesaw State shot 41.6 percent from downtown last season, which was second in the nation. The Dawgs must be ready to close out on Friday.
Houston Baptist @ Providence – 7 PM, FOX College Sports
The Friars’ opening week is crazy, but it starts with an almost sure-fire opportunity to start 1-0. After this one, Ed Cooley’s team hosts #15 Minnesota on Monday before facing Washington and either Virginia Tech or St. Louis in the 2K Classic next Thursday and Friday at Madison Square Garden. No rest for Cooley Nation, as always. What intrigues me about Providence is the size they have added. Freshmen Nate Watson and Dajour Dickens give Cooley a boost in the paint that the Friars needed. Combine the post additions with Kyron Cartwright, Rodney Bullock, and company and the Friars have a deeper roster than a season ago.
Columbia @ #6 Villanova – 8:30 PM, FS2
The last time the Lions and Wildcats met is a day that will live on in Columbia basketball lore forever. The Lions went into the Pavilion on Nov. 20, 2012, and knocked off the Wildcats, 75-57, at the Pavilion. All Jay Wright’s program has done since that lose is dominate college basketball with 129 wins in the last four years. And, oh yeah, a national championship in 2016 in one of the most epic finishes the sport has ever known. Friday’s match-up at point guard will be fun to watch. AP Preseason All-American Jalen Brunson is once again steering the ship for Nova after averaging 14.7 points and 4.1 assists per game last season. Meanwhile, Lions sophomore Mike Smith put up 13.6 points and 3.5 assists per contest a year ago, and is considered to be one of the best players in the Ivy League. Combine that match-up with the debut of Wildcats center Omari Spellman, and you better grab your popcorn.
Mount St. Mary’s @ Marquette – 9 PM, FOX Sports Regional Networks
This is turning into no simple opener for the Golden Eagles. Head coach Steve Wojciechowski announced Wednesday that star point guard Markus Howard is questionable with a sprained ankle and freshman Greg Elliott is also questionable with a sprained thumb. That would mean the Golden Eagles would turn to redshirt senior Andrew Rowsey to run the point. While Marquette should be okay, they just don’t have the same offensive capabilities without the nation’s leader in three-point shooting percentage from a year ago. Combine that with The Mount’s star, 5-foot-5 point guard Junior Robinson, and those are areas for the Golden Eagles to address. Averaging 14 points and three assists on the season, including over 20 in last year’s NEC Tournament title run, Robinson is a crafty court general. Marquette’s stressed defense all offseason. If they are missing Howard, they’ll need to be ready to get stops. All should be fine for the Golden Eagles on Friday, but it’s a game to keep an eye on, especially if Howard is out.
Yale @ Creighton – 9 PM, FOX Sports Regional Networks
We saved the best game for last. Yale is ranked 84th in the preseason kenpom ratings. No other BIG EAST opponent on Friday is inside the Top 200. The Bulldogs are one of the top teams in the Ivy League, returning star senior guard Makai Mason from injury in addition to a strong scoring cast. On the other side is a Bluejays team powered by the dynamic duo of Preseason All-BIG EAST First Team selection Marcus Foster as well as Preseason All-BIG EAST Honorable Mention Khyri Thomas. The biggest question for the Bluejays – Who will steer their ship at point guard? Syracuse transfer Kaleb Joseph has battled injuries in the preseason but is the man that will likely get the start. The Jays also have Ronnie Harrell Jr., whose 6-foot-7 height presents a match-up issue if he’s at the 1. They also could go with senior Tyler Clement, whose basketball IQ is something Greg McDermott loves to have on the floor. Sophomore Davion Mintz is also familiar with the role. The fact is that the Jays’ tempo can’t be out of rhythm on Friday night, because it could prove to be massive against the Bulldogs. Missing all of last season with a broken foot, Mason averaged 16 points and 3.8 assists per game in 2015-16 to lead Yale to an Ivy League title and NCAA Tournament upset win over Baylor. The 6-foot-1 guard put up 31 on the Bears in what was Yale’s first victory in the Big Dance in program history. Can Creighton have the same level of success that it has with its quick tempo without a firm answer at point guard? It will be an intriguing one to watch to cap off the night in BIG EAST hoops.
Follow John Fanta throughout the season over at @John_Fanta for college basketball coverage for the BIG EAST and beyond.