By John Fanta
NEW YORK – With official practices revving up next week, another college basketball journey is not far away. 46 days until tip-off, in fact. With that in mind, you know the major storylines in the Big East heading into the 2019-20 campaign. Reigning conference player of the year Markus Howard and Seton Hall’s Myles Powell headline quite a race for the league’s top individual honor, while the Pirates, Villanova and Xavier are the most common answers to be the top team in the league. With much more experience on the table after a retooling 2018-19 campaign, over half of the Big East is projected to make the NCAA Tournament in the latest NCAA.com projection.
What you may not know as much about is some of the X-factor players in the conference, whether they are flying under the radar or may be the key underlying variable for how a team performs. Here’s a look at one from each team to remember as the preseason begins.
Butler – Bryce Nze, Redshirt Junior, 6-foot-7
A major priority for the Dawgs in the offseason was to improve their post play. With a -2.3 rebounding margin last season, Butler had a hole down low to replace with Tyler Wideman wrapping up his career after the 2017-18 season, and the Dawgs’ production on the interior lacked consistency at times. Nze is expected to play a role in changing that in 2019-20. The Milwaukee transfer played for Dawgs head coach LaVall Jordan in the 2016-17 season for the Panthers, averaging 10.3 points and 8.5 rebounds as a freshman. He’s regarded as a glue guy by those around Butler, one that embraces his role with the little things. Expect him to play some sort of a role at power forward for the Dawgs.
Creighton – Christian Bishop, Sophomore, 6-foot-7
Martin Krampelj’s departure last spring opens up a hole for the Jays inside. In Greg McDermott’s system, which mobile posts can feed off on the pick-and-roll, that could lead Bishop to making process in his second year in Omaha. Over CU’s final five contests last season, Bishop started to find a role averaging 6.0 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in 13 minutes per contest. Expect the minutes to increase and Bishop to get his chance at playing a much more significant part for the Jays on the interior.
DePaul – Romeo Weems, Freshman, 6-foot-7
Romeo Weems isn’t flying under the radar, but just how big his impact is as a freshman will be a key measuring stick for the Blue Demons this season. The four-star prospect has those around DePaul buzzing that Weems is the present and future of the program. While DePaul has reigning Big East Most Improved Player of the Year Paul Reed back, losing Max Strus and Eli Cain is big. Some highly-touted new additions come in, and Weems could be at the forefront of that movement in Chicago.
Georgetown – Jamarko Pickett, Junior, 6-foot-8
A member of Patrick Ewing’s first recruiting class, the Washington, D.C. native put up a strong freshman season, but just averaged 6.2 points per game on 38 percent shooting as a sophomore. Ewing liked the way Pickett defended, and he continued to get solid minutes, but a second-year offensive struggle kept him from breaking out alongside a star-studded freshman class. If Pickett’s perimeter shot can find consistency and he can take the next steps offensively as a junior, that could be a key variable as the Hoyas try to return to March Madness for the first time since 2015.
Marquette – Brendan Bailey, Sophomore, 6-foot-8
With the transfer of Sam and Joey Hauser, roles take on a big boost for the returnees at Marquette. Brendan Bailey is a prime example of that, and Golden Eagles head coach Steve Wojciechowski believes the 22-year-old sophomore could take a big step this season. It’s important to remember that Bailey was out of basketball for two years before last, due to a Mormon mission. While he posted just three points per game as a freshman, Bailey did show some signs of what he could be last March. He scored 11 points against Georgetown in the regular season finale before putting up eight points, five rebounds and three steals in the NCAA Tournament first round game against Ja Morant and Murray State.
Providence – AJ Reeves, Sophomore, 6-foot-6 (Hear me out…)
I know what you’re thinking, this isn’t an X-factor. You know about AJ Reeves. But I think the WAY in which you think about him could change. People forget that Reeves was the Big East Freshman of the Year frontrunner before getting sidelined with a foot injury last season. Those around Friartown believe that he could be a pro down the road based on the raw athleticism. Nationally, Reeves and his teammate David Duke got a lot of attention on the recruiting trail but that’s dropped after the Friars ended a five-year NCAA Tournament streak last season. That attention could all change in the other direction again this year if the Friars return to the dance floor. If they do, it will be Reeves who fully blossoms and stays healthy throughout the campaign.
St. John’s – Greg Williams Jr., Sophomore, 6-foot-3
Williams played in 28 games as a freshman, but only averaged eight minutes in those contests. Expect that minutes-load to rise as Mike Anderson enters his first season. Word out of Queens is that Williams has made strides in the offseason. Williams did shoot 20-of-40 from the field as a freshman and was regarded as someone who could provide a defensive lift, but with little sample size, it was tough to know what his full capabilities could be for the Johnnies. There’s no question Williams will get an opportunity to become a backcourt staple this season.
Seton Hall – Jared Rhoden, Sophomore, 6-foot-6
At Pan American Games training camp over the summer for the Big East All Star team, Kevin Willard was raving about Rhoden’s progress in the offseason. At 6-foot-6, the second-year wing can cause matchup problems, boasting a perimeter game and defensive capabilities that were noticeable in his first season. Rhoden has the mold of a Willard-type player for The Hall, as someone who played within himself and handled any assignment well in just his first year. That’s how he found his way to nearly 15 minutes per game as a freshman on an NCAA Tournament squad. That minutes-load is only going to rise, and that’s saying something on a deep Pirate roster.
Villanova – Cole Swider, Sophomore, 6-foot-9
A fractured bone in his shooting hand held Swider out for 12 games this past season, and for that to happen to him as a freshman leaves a level of unknown for the Wildcats second-year forward. Jay Wright talked about Swider’s perimeter game and passing ability heading into his freshman campaign, and there’s an opportunity there for the Rhode Island native to play some sort of a 6th man role potentially in 2019-20. While Saddiq Bey is the top returning sophomore for the Cats, don’t write off Swider to make some serious strides after totaling three points per game this past season.
Xavier – Jason Carter, Junior, 6-foot-8
The Ohio University transfer committed to Xavier just a little more than 24 hours after the Musketeers’ season ended at Texas in the NIT this past March. The former Bobcat could be a key to a return to the Big Dance for a Xavier program that has that expectation year in and year out. Last season, Carter averaged 16.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Musketeers head coach Travis Steele got a front row seat for Carter when Xavier beat Ohio 82-61 last season at the Cintas Center. Carter put up 17 in the loss, and showed a glimpse of what he could be in Cincinnati. While Tyrique Jones is the lead returning big man, Carter can fill the hole left by the departing Zach Hankins.