By John Fanta
NEW YORK, NY — The countdown is on. 55 days from now, the ball is tipped. With college basketball less than two months away, here are 10 preseason storylines to keep an eye on across BIG EAST Hoops.
- Mustapha Heron’s Eligibility — The Auburn transfer, a former five-star prospect and All-SEC selection last season, would significantly increase St. John’s potential for the upcoming season. Averaging 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last season, Heron would complement stars Shamorie Ponds and Justin Simon tremendously in the backcourt. Heron’s fate rests in whether he will get a hardship waiver granted to him by the NCAA. If Heron plays, stopping an already potent Red Storm backcourt is going to become arguably the toughest defensive task in the conference. St. John’s fans are dreaming of dancing in Chris Mullin’s fourth year. If Heron’s eligible, the chances of that dream translating to reality will take a big leap.
- Georgetown’s New-Look Backcourt — The defense was there for the Hoyas. They found scoring through Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson. But, what was missing in year one of the Patrick Ewing era was consistent backcourt play. That was addressed on the recruiting trail, with highly-touted prospects James Akinjo and Mac McClung coming to The Hilltop. Both freshmen are expected to make an immediate impact. It will be intriguing to see how Ewing’s rotation looks come Nov. 6 as Georgetown looks to take a step forward and potentially be a top-6 team in the league.
- Taurean Thompson — Replacing Angel Delgado? Well, those are enormous shoes to fill. Yet, that will be the task for Syracuse transfer Taurean Thompson at Seton Hall. The sophomore averaged 9.2 points and 3.8 boards per game for Jim Boeheim in his freshman campaign, and after sitting out last year, Thompson is expected to be a pivotal piece for the Pirates as they try to contend for a fourth straight NCAA Tournament bid. Thompson does have help, with senior Michael Nzei, junior Romaro Gill and sophomore Sandro Mamukelashvili all part of a deep frontcourt. So, all of the pressure isn’t on Thompson, but if he is a high-impact player, expect him and star guard Myles Powell to make up a dynamic duo for Hall Ball.
- The Depth in Friartown — Coming off a fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, Ed Cooley welcomes in a star-studded recruiting class. Yes, life is good in Providence. Now, the question will be who will make up the rotation. It’s deep with options, and the backcourt will be the key area to keep an eye on. Returnees Makai Ashton-Langford and Maliek White are joined by four-star freshmen David Duke and A.J. Reeves. Cooley has a good problem to have, and one would think that he’ll go with the two players who can set the tone defensively in a game as starters. But, down the stretch in games, it will be intriguing to see who has the ball in their hands. Cooley has been raving about the Duke/Reeves duo for a long time now, and the two have played together in AAU. More excitement is on the way at Providence.
- The Time is Now at Marquette — All of the stars are aligning for Marquette to contend for a BIG EAST Championship. The Golden Eagles have the look of a team that can make the second week of the NCAA Tournament, and perhaps beyond. Markus Howard and Sam Hauser are experienced now, and with the deep group that joins them, Steve Wojciechowski will have as good of a problem as any coach in the league in terms of depth. “Everyone in this roster is fighting for minutes,” said Hauser to me last week. That speaks for itself.
- A New Era at Xavier — The beat goes on at Xavier, as Travis Steele takes over for Chris Mack after spending a decade on the Musketeers’ staff leading up to this. Here’s what we know about Xavier – they will be defensively oriented. In fact, Steele has said before that he believes this could be the best defensive team that Xavier’s ever had. We also know the Musketeers will call on Quentin Goodin to engineer the offense and they’ll look for sophomores Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs to take a significant leap. The X-factor? Tyrique Jones. The 6-foot-10 junior dropped over 20 pounds in the offseason and has a new skillset. Watch out for him. BIG EAST Most Improved Player? He could be the lead contender.
- Creighton’s Backcourt — Losing Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas results in a steep task for Greg McDermott to retool his backcourt. We know the Jays have frontcourt pieces in Martin Krampelj, who returns from an ACL injury after averaging a double-double last season, as well as Aussie sophomore Jacob Epperson. In terms of guard play, junior Davion Mintz will presumably start at point guard with sophomores Mitch Ballock and TyShon Alexander in the fold at the wings. Four-star freshman point guard Marcus Zegarowski is a big get for Greg McDermott, but it’s tough to know at the moment just how large his role would be. Yet, think it’s important for Zegarowski to make some sort of an immediate impact for the Jays, who will be in a battle right in the middle of the league.
- Kamar Baldwin’s Star Role — Butler is Kamar Baldwin’s team entering this year. After averaging 15.7 points and 3.2 dishes per game last season, the expectation is for Baldwin to be playing at All-BIG EAST First Team caliber. He will be tasked with plenty, having to play the “1” and be a scoring guard. Baldwin is complemented by Aaron Thompson, who showed flashes as a freshman and was stout defensively. That will be the key for the Dawgs’ level of success this year — their guards know how to make a backcourt uncomfortable with the way they defend.
- DePaul’s Transfers — The Blue Demons possess as much talent as they’ve had in Dave Leitao’s second stint in Chicago. Max Strus and Eli Cain are back and will be a top scoring duo in the BIG EAST. Efficiency is important for both, but they are top-tier talents. For DePaul, transfers could be the difference for them to make a move. 6-foot-4 Illinois transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands is a junior sharpshooter who will bolster the Blue Demons’ perimeter game. Additionally, the Blue Demons nabbed a much-needed post presence with North Carolina AT&T transfer Femi Olujobi. The junior averaged 16.3 points and 7.7 boards per game this past year, with 20+ point efforts against Clemson and Virginia Tech.
- The Defending National Champions Reload — We saved the best for last. Jay Wright’s Wildcats are looked at as a Top-10 team nationally and the frontrunner once again in the BIG EAST, but losing four stars to the NBA Draft naturally leaves question marks. But, Wright has a plan to contend for another title. We know that Eric Paschall and Phil Booth will be the leaders and there is much anticipation surrounding freshman point guard Jahvon Quinerly and Albany transfer Joe Cremo. What really stands out to me, though, is how much Villanova’s sophomores develop. Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree both made limited contributions with Jalen Brunson and Omari Spellman shining as starters. Meanwhile, 6-foot-5 wing Jermaine Samuels is expected to be a sleeping giant of sorts after sitting out for a significant amount of time with a broken hand last year. How the second-year trio boosts their production will be a fascinating variable to watch.