By Dan Gardella
Every season in college basketball, non-conference play has the power to make strong distinctions between the contenders and pretenders across the country. The Big East on the other hand has shown something very few conferences have: Depth.
When Big East play kicks off, every team in the conference will be over .500, something many conferences cannot boast. The conference also has its fair share of success against fellow Power 5 conferences and resume-building wins.
As conference play begins, my first edition of Big East Risers and Tumblers prior to conference play will likely be nowhere close to the standings at the end of March.
But I’ll give it a shot.
3) St. John’s
4) Seton Hall
The Cream of the Crop: Marquette, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall
More so now than ever in the newly configured conference, Marquette’s window to win the conference for the first time since 1997 is open and the chances of making the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons are high. In the midst of the supposed “down” swing that the conference was undergoing due to loss of upperclassmen talent, the Golden Eagles’ only significant loss from last year to this year was Andrew Rowsey.
Marquette enters conference play with one of, if not the best resume in the conference. After a blowout loss to Indiana and failing to finish off Kansas in Brooklyn, Steve Wojciechowski’s team has won seven straight games. Within the winning streak, the team has wins against Louisville in the NIT Season Tip Off, and wins against Kansas State, Wisconsin, and Buffalo, all of who were ranked in the top 15 when facing Marquette have helped the Golden Eagles sit as the 18th best program in the country.
It has been a topsy-turvy season so far for the defending National Champions. This season, they have lost more games in the non-conference slate (4) than they had in the past three seasons combined (3). While it is unfamiliar for Jay Wright and company, they have abided by their “attitude” motto and still put together a fairly solid resume.
They won their sixth straight preseason tournament, capturing the AdvoCare Invitational title in November by knocking off then 14th ranked Florida State. That began a six game winning streak before suffering their second straight two-game losing streak to Penn and Kansas. They closed out conference play with a neutral court matchup against Connecticut.
They played to a tie in the first half before busting the lead wide open in the second half to take the convincing victory. In that game, Jahvon Quinerly, who had seen minimal time throughout non-conference play got his chance to shine with Collin Gillespie out. While they are not as loaded as they have been in previous season, don’t for one second count them out in the Big East.
St. John’s and Seton Hall took two different paths to the new year.
Entering the season with tons of talent, the Red Storm were seen as having one of the most talented rosters in the entire league with a strong chance to make the first NCAA Tournament under Chris Mullin. The Johnnies have not disappointed so far, winning all twelve of their games with a Legends Classic Championship thrown into the mix. Shamorie Ponds, who is a Big East Player of the Year favorite has taken his game to another level, being more efficient and unselfish.
Seton Hall on the other hand, lost one of the best senior classes in recent memory for the Pirates, resulting in culture change in South Orange. Behind All-Conference star Myles Powell, there were plenty of question marks. All they have done with those question marks is answer them loudly and clearly. A 9-3 non-conference record with wins against Kentucky on a neutral court, Maryland on the road, and a Wooden Legacy championship has put Kevin Willard’s team in the NCAA Tournament conversation.
Oh. By the way, St. John’s and Seton Hall meet in Newark to open conference play. You probably shouldn’t miss that one.
Middle of the Pack: Providence, Butler, and Creighton
Picking the top five or six spots in the conference is as difficult as it’s ever been. Similar to the teams atop the conference rankings, the middle of the pack has put together strong non-conference resumes. Take Providence for example. Similar to Seton Hall, the Friars lost a core of senior leaders that propelled them to last year’s Big East Tournament Championship and yet another NCAA Tournament appearance. With them gone, it is Alpha Diallo’s duty to lead the team.
He has certainly lived up to the task.
With star freshman David Duke struggling and fellow freshman AJ Reaves out due to injury, Diallo and company managed to go 10-3 in non-conference play, highlighted by road wins against Boston College and Texas.
Butler and Creighton enter Big East play as intriguing teams that are seen as “under the radar” good. Butler, who concludes non-conference play Saturday at Florida went 2-1 in a tough field in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November and picked up wins against strong SEC teams such as Florida and Ole Miss. With the loss of prolific scorer Kelan Martin, there were questions to be answered as to who would score behind Kamar Baldwin.
Enter Paul Jorgenson.
The senior guard has put his name atop the players in contention for the Most Improved Player in the conference, averaging 15.3 points per game, more than a five point increase from last year.
Creighton enters conference play with a 9-4 standing along with a preseason championship, one of four teams in the Big East to do so. The Blue Jays captured the Cayman Islands Challenge title, behind 36 points from Ty-shon Alexander, another Most Improved Player candidate. Out of Creighton’s four losses, two of which came to then-ranked teams, including an absolute shootout with Gonzaga. While the Blue Jays were picked to finish ninth in the conference, they could turn up the heat and finish near the top of the Big East.
Down, But Not Out: Georgetown, DePaul, and Xavier
Simply because teams are at the bottom of conference record-wise does not mean that they aren’t better than that. One word that can best describe the upcoming conference season is “Anarchy”. There is not one team that isn’t capable of sitting near the top of the conference by season’s end. The bottom three of the conference in my rankings, all have talent to reach New York at the end of the season with seven or eight wins in conference play.
The difference in play between last year’s Georgetown team and this year’s is significantly better. Behind Jessie Govan (17.9 PPG), the next three leading scorers for the Hoyas are freshmen. (James Akinjo 14.6, Mac McClung 12.3, & Josh LeBlanc 8.8). Akinjo has also provided stability at the point guard position as well as ball control, something the Hoyas struggled with last season. The one thing that may keep the Hoyas down is their inability to consistently play defense and finish out games. However, if they patch that up and get more productivity from Jamorko Pickett (5.3 PPG), watch out for Patrick Ewing and company.
I cannot see DePaul being the cellar dweller that they have been in previous seasons. Their talented duo of Max Strus (19.7 PPG) and Eli Cain (14.2 PPG) as well as key complementary parts in the rotation can help the Blue Demons become relevant in the conference.
Xavier suffered the worst from loss of talent from last year to now. The Musketeers not only lost Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura, and Karem Kanter, who combined for 43 points per game last year, but they also lost Chris Mack at the helm, who went to Louisville in the offseason. With Travis Steele running the team and new players stepping up, there is no doubt there will be some growing pains. However, with Quentin Goodin (14.3 PPG) running the point and the constant improvement of Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall, Xavier will be just fine.
It’s going to many different things throughout conference play: Chaotic, hectic, anarchy, exciting, and the list goes on.
But would you want it any other way?
PHOTO: Markus Howard/sportsillustrated