By Jake Zimmer
Two months are in the books in the 2019-20 season. Here are the top 5 things we’ve learned about the BIG EAST Conference through November and December.
1. DePaul…who? The Blue Demons were picked to finish dead-last in the conference by BIG EAST coaches, and they’re quickly proving the masses wrong. DePaul entered the 2019-20 season already disadvantaged by graduating three starters in Max Strus (20.1ppg), Eli Cain (13.1ppg), and Femi Olujobi (12.8ppg), so naturally, the outlook was bleak. But all throughout November and December, DePaul just kept winning…and winning…and winning. Key matches include a 15-point win over Iowa, a 5-point win over Minnesota, and a double-overtime victory over Texas Tech. Many knew that junior forward Paul Reed (15.5 ppg. so far this year) would be a major thorn-in-the-side of any opponent he played this year, but fifth-year head coach Dave Leitao is realizing he has more weapons at his disposal than many originally thought. Kansas transfer Charlie Moore has been a major offensive catalyst this year; he leads the team in both points per game (16.5) and assists (87 – the teammate that trails him only has 25). Senior Jalen Coleman-Lands and freshman Romeo Weems have also been role-players for the Blue Demons so far. Dave Leitao knows there’s something special going on in Chicago this year – he told our own John Fanta this: “There’s a togetherness about this group that I’ve seen in other really good teams that I’ve been around. That’s really important, because chemistry has to come from that.” We’ll see how well the Blue Demons adjust to bigtime conference foes.
Oh – and DePaul should unquestionably be a ranked team.
2. Butler and St. John’s surprised us. They were picked to rank 8th and 9th – they’re now 2nd and 3rd. For the Butler Bulldogs if their 11-1 start is any indication of what BIG EAST play will bring them this year, the Bulldogs fans are in for a treat. Butler’s impressive resume features dominant wins over Purdue, Florida, Ole Miss, and Missouri. BIG EAST fans know the name Kamar Baldwin – mostly because he’s probably carved apart their team over the past three years, but also because he is also establishing himself as one of the best players in the nation, and a potential NBA prospect. But it’s not all about Baldwin, according to head coach LaVall Jordan: “Nobody cares who scores. We talk about moving the basketball and hitting the open man. They look for each other, share the ball and stay connected.”
Similarly, the St. John’s Red Storm couldn’t find any success under Chris Mullin, so they went back to the drawing board and snatched up former Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson. The tough-lovin’ New York media & Red Storm fans ripped this decision apart, but after an 11-2 beginning to the season, we’ve learned that Anderson is certainly looking like the right man for the job. The Johnnies are already displaying that they’re the deepest team in the BIG EAST – 8 of the 11 players that have appeared for the Johnnies this year have played more than 40% of their possible minutes in each game; essentially, Mike Anderson is squeezing all that he can out of the Johnnies. Watch out for sophomore forward Josh Roberts, LJ Figueroa and senior combo-player Mustapha Heron to cause a problem for BIG EAST opponents down the stretch.
3. Don’t sleep on Seton Hall and Creighton. We knew how good senior Myles Powell would be for the Seton Hall Pirates, but after being plagued with some early-season injuries, other teammates needed to fill his void. Enter senior Quincy McKnight and sophomore Jared Rhoden, who have picked up the scoring slack during Powell’s absence. The preseason favorites will finish conference play 8-4, with big wins against #13 Maryland and Iowa State. Their four losses were against very high-quality opponents, which include a three-point loss to #14 Michigan State, and a two-point loss to #6 Oregon. Look for Seton Hall to utilize their depth and prolific scorers to live up to their expectations to finish at the top of the league this year.
Likewise, we learned a lot about the Creighton Blue Jays, and their ability to upend the BIG EAST preseason rankings. It appears that sophomore guard Marcus Zegarowski (18.4ppg, assists team leader) is destined for a breakout year, while juniors Ty-Shon Alexander (16.3ppg) and Mitch Ballock (13ppg, 5.4 rebounds/game) round out the Blue Jays’ offensive effort. Take it from CBS’s own Jon Rothstein: “Creighton’s combo of Marcus Zegarowski and Ty-Shon Alexander has emerged early as the BIG EAST’s top back court. Both can REALLY shoot it and also rebound their position extremely well.” Zegarowski knows what needs to happen to win the conference, though: “We’re not the biggest team. We’re not the strongest team. But we can be the toughest team.” We will learn a lot about Creighton’s legitimacy in their first three BIG EAST games, in which they take on Marquette, Butler, and Villanova.
4. Providence struggled, and Georgetown faces some question marks. The Friars, who were chosen by BIG EAST coaches to finished tied for fourth place with Marquette, have not lived up to expectations at all. They have a turnover rate that’s smack-dab in the middle the nation’s teams – at 19.5%, they’re turning the ball over nearly once every five plays. At 46.8%, Providence also has one of the worst effective field goal percentages (essentially, field goal percentage with 50% more credit for three-pointers made) in the nation. They’ve seen better days, and head coach Ed Cooley knows it – but he knows what the stakes are and has a plan to move forward with positivity and determination. “In the early part of the season we didn’t play how we want to be playing,” he told us after a dominating 70-48 win over Texas last week. “But we will continue to talk about what we can be, and what we will be.”
As many now know, Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas are also in some hot water. Weeks ago, freshman prospect Myron Gardner was accused of sexual harassment, while junior Galen Alexander and sophomore Josh LeBlanc were served allegations of burglary. While it is still being determined what exactly the outcome will be for these three, they are no longer with the team. Now, with only twelve on the roster, the Hoyas are facing questions on their determination and how much they can make of their season with such a thin roster. Georgetown does have some quality wins over Oklahoma State, Texas, and Syracuse, but we will have to see where their 9-3 record fits into a conference schedule that begins with Providence, Seton Hall, and St. John’s.
5. Right now, 6-7 teams are NCAA tournament contenders – but at the end of conference play, all 10 of them could be. At the end of December, each team’s record resets to 0-0 – this is a much needed reset for some teams, and for others, it will erase a record of over-performance. But this means the nation’s premier basketball conference is entirely up for grabs. Take the reigning champs, the 9-2 Villanova Wildcats, who quietly fell out of the limelight amidst all of the successes of their BIG EAST counterparts this year. If you think Jay Wright will let the winning ways of others derail his star-studded team, you’re fooling yourself. Centered around junior Colin Gillespie and complemented by freshmen Jeremiah Robinson-Earl & Justin Moore, Villanova is sure to be a national championship contender once again. People magically are forgetting that Marquette has a potential player of the year on the roster. Markus Howard – after being the lone contributor (26pts) in a 19-point trouncing by #12 Murray State in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year – somehow got even better, even with the loss of key contributors Sam & Joey Hauser to create opportunities for him. Don’t forget about Xavier, either – the Musketeers are back to their winning ways after losses to Florida & Wake Forest, and surviving scares from UConn & Missouri. We’ve learned that senior Tyrique Jones and junior Naji Marshall make a great front-court combo, and junior Paul Scruggs just keeps on making baskets.
The bottom line? It’s anyone’s conference. Buckle up.