Conference Preview: Big East

Conference Preview: Big East

This article is part of our Conference Preview series.

The Big East looks to bounce back from a season in which it only had four teams represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament -- just the third time that's happened since realignment occurred starting in the 2013-14 season. That won't be the easiest of tasks, however, with the conference only returning three of its top-10 scorers and many teams going through a bit of a rebuild season. Villanova has more than done its part in representing the conference, winning the National Championship in 2018 and reaching the Sweet 16 last year along with Creighton. The Wildcats' squad won't look quite the same without its star big man, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, but with a trio led by Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels and Justin Moore, Villanova will have plenty of familiar faces and is the clear team to beat in the Big East.

While it's going to be difficult for anyone to challenge Villanova this season, UConn will attempt to do just that with plenty of new faces. Head coach Dan Hurley has his program on the rise in his fourth season. He brings in four top-100 recruits in a 2021 class that is led by Jordan Hawkins (four-star recruit, No. 50 nationally via 247sports), a talented shooting guard that is expected to step into a starting role right away with the departure of James Bouknight to the NBA. Returning to the team is second-leading scorer RJ Cole and the Big East Sixth Man of the Year, Tyler Polley.

The Big East looks to bounce back from a season in which it only had four teams represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament -- just the third time that's happened since realignment occurred starting in the 2013-14 season. That won't be the easiest of tasks, however, with the conference only returning three of its top-10 scorers and many teams going through a bit of a rebuild season. Villanova has more than done its part in representing the conference, winning the National Championship in 2018 and reaching the Sweet 16 last year along with Creighton. The Wildcats' squad won't look quite the same without its star big man, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, but with a trio led by Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels and Justin Moore, Villanova will have plenty of familiar faces and is the clear team to beat in the Big East.

While it's going to be difficult for anyone to challenge Villanova this season, UConn will attempt to do just that with plenty of new faces. Head coach Dan Hurley has his program on the rise in his fourth season. He brings in four top-100 recruits in a 2021 class that is led by Jordan Hawkins (four-star recruit, No. 50 nationally via 247sports), a talented shooting guard that is expected to step into a starting role right away with the departure of James Bouknight to the NBA. Returning to the team is second-leading scorer RJ Cole and the Big East Sixth Man of the Year, Tyler Polley. Both players shoot the three-ball well and will be able to take some of the pressure of the incoming class. Not to be forgotten is Isaiah Whaley, who returns as the conference's co-defensive Player of the Year.  

Meanwhile, Creighton will have its hands full if it wants to make it back to the second week of the NCAA Tournament, as the Bluejays will have to replace all five of their starters from last season. They were well prepared for those departures, however, as they feature the best incoming class in the Big East with four top-75 recruits. Led by power forward Arthur Kaluma (No. 48 recruit, per 247sports) and Ryan Nembhard (brother of Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard), the freshmen will be thrown into action immediately. One of the few players on the roster to have logged significant college minutes is transfer KeyShawn Feazell, who nearly averaged a double-double at McNeese St. last season. The Blue Jays will need his game to translate against better competition, as the post-player failed to make an impression in three seasons at Mississippi St.

Yet another team that is in the uncomfortable position of having to replace the focal point of its offense is Seton Hall, as Sandro Mamukelashvili accounted for 29 percent of the team's shots last season. Unlike UConn and Creighton, though, the Pirates will mostly turn to a couple of notable transfers in hopes of returning to the dance. American transfer Jamir Harris had two 30+ point games earlier this year, and Kadary Richmond is a top-100 recruit from the 2020 class who served as Syracuse's sixth man last season. Also looking to contribute is 25-year-old and former Harvard standout Bryce Aiken, who returns after a year that was riddled with injuries. If they're all able to gel with returning double-digit scorers Jared Rhoden and Myles Cale, the Pirates are capable of being a sleeper team in the league.

Those seem to be the four teams most likely to go dancing next March, but there doesn't appear to be a huge gap between most of the squads after Villanova. St. John's and Xavier both have a variety of scorers and are capable of elevating to being in the upper-echelon of the league if they play better on the defensive end than they did a season ago. The Red Storm are led by conference POY candidate Julian Champagnie and head coach Mike Anderson brings in a trio of impact transfers that all averaged double-figures last season. Meanwhile, Xavier will lean on one of the best 1-2 punches in the league in upperclassmen Zach Freemantle and Paul Scruggs. The Musketeers will look to bounce back after a 13-8 season in which they started 8-0, and that's certainly possible considering they went 1-4 without their best role player Nate Johnson to close the year.

Overall, the beginning of the season will be a matter of getting used to a lot of new faces throughout the league, which will be the case throughout the NCAA landscape after seeing more players go through the transfer portal than ever before. There will also be plenty of freshman talent joining the conference, with one five-star recruit and a total of 17 four-star recruits spread around the 11 teams in the 2021 class. Although the league didn't see too many games cancelled due to COVID-19 last season, the hope is that all the teams can return to the fully planned 20-game conference schedule for the 2021-22 campaign. 

Top Players

Overall: Collin Gillespie, G, Villanova

Gillespie was one of three players voted as the Big East Player of the Year for the 2020-21 season, and with fellow winners Mamukelashvili (Seton Hall) and Robinson-Earl (Villanova) both off to the NBA, Gillespie stands alone as the top returning player in the conference. He enters the season back at full strength after an MCL tear in early March ended his season, and he'll look to take over as the main contributor with Robinson-Earl gone. The fifth-year senior is one that opposing coaches will have wished didn't return due to his lack of weaknesses. Gillespie ranked third in the conference in assists last season, and he's efficient when driving to the basket while also shooting 37 percent from deep in his career.

Also considered: Julian Champagnie (SJU), RJ Cole (CONN), Jermaine Samuels (NOVA), Nate Watson (PROV)

Scoring: Julian Champagnie, F, St. John's

The Red Storm will feature many new faces in their rotation this season, but one thing will remain the same -- dominance from Champagnie, who was voted the Big East's Most Improved Player along with Xavier's Zach Freemantle last season. After initially declaring for the 2021 NBA Draft, Champagnie ultimately decided to return to St. John's and will look to improve his draft stock for next year, with his biggest area of improvement being his perimeter defense. There's not much he can't do on the offensive end, with shooting splits of 47/38/89 to finish second in the Big East at 19.9 ppg last season. With St. John's imploring a bit more size around Champagnie in his junior campaign, look for him to play the three at times, and his skill-set should lead to a near-flawless transition.

Also considered: Zach Freemantle (XAV), Collin Gillespie (NOVA), Jamir Harris (SHU), Nate Watson (PROV)

Rebounding: Zach Freemantle, F, Xavier

Freemantle led the conference in rebounds with a whopping nine per game last season and got better as the season went on, posting six double-doubles over his last seven regular season conference games. Iowa transfer Jack Nunge may appear like competition on the glass at first glance, but it's unlikely they'll be on the court at the same time all that often, and he didn't stop Luka Garza from averaging 8.7 boards last season. With the starting lineup remaining mostly intact, Freemantle should continue to dominate on the boards.

Also considered: KeyShawn Feazell (CRE), Tyrese Martin (CONN), Bryce Nze (BUT), Jermaine Samuels (NOVA)

Assists: Paul Scruggs, G, Xavier

Scruggs was the only player in the Big East to average over five assists per game last season (5.8 apg), and there's little reason to think he won't lead the conference in the category again. Freemantle is one of the best post players in the league and gives him a quality option in the paint, and Nate Johnson is a three-point specialist that averaged 2.6 makes from deep at a 45 percent clip last season. The only thing that seems to get in the way of Scruggs' passing game is his scoring ability -- the fifth-year senior had six 20+ point games last season.

Also considered: Jared Bynum (PROV), RJ Cole (CONN), Collin Gillespie (NOVA), Aaron Thompson (BUT)

Center: Nate Watson, Providence

Watson emerged as one of the most efficient players in the conference last season but was overshadowed by David Duke, who left early for the NBA after finishing third in the Big East at 17.2 ppg. Watson will now get his turn in the spotlight with an opportunity for an even bigger role after averaging 16.8 points and 6.6 boards last season. His 60-percent shooting among qualified players led the conference, and he also chipped in with 1.6 blocks over his final 10 games of the year. He's a darkhorse NBA post-player if he continues his upward trajectory.

Also considered: Bryce Golden (BUT), Kur Kuath (MARQ), Ike Obiagu (SHU), Isaiah Whaley (CONN)

Freshman: Aminu Mohammed, G, Georgetown

Georgetown doesn't return any of its four double-digit scorers from last season, leaving a golden opportunity for 5-star freshman Mohammed to contribute immediately. A likely future first-round pick, Mohammed is known for his ability to score off-the-dribble, as well as his strength and athleticism. Transfers Kaiden Rice (The Citadel) and Tre King (Eastern Kentucky) were proven scorers at their respective schools and should take some defensive pressure off Mohammed, but his superior talent should rise and leave him as the team's leading scorer when all is said and done.

Also considered: Jordan Hawkins (CONN), Arthur Kaluma (CRE), Jordan Longino (NOVA), Ryan Nembhard (CRE)

Sleepers

Alexis Yetna, F, Seton Hall

A fresh start will be welcome for Yetna after what has been an up-and-down collegiate career. The big man was ruled ineligible for his freshman season, and injuries cost him his entire 2019-20 campaign as well as the final five games last season. When he's been on the court, he's been quite productive, averaging nearly a double-double (12.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg) in 2018-19 and shooting 58 percent from inside the arc last season. With Mamukelashvili opening up minutes in the frontcourt, Yetna has a great opportunity to emerge for the Pirates.

Colby Jones, F, Xavier

Jones saw plenty of playing time as a true freshman after missing the first five games to start the season due contract tracing and entering the starting lineup in his third game of action. He never gave his starting spot back and finished the season strong, recording double-digit points in five of the team's final 10 games, including a career-high 20 against St. John's. Jones has the size and versatility to play either the two or three and may emerge as the best option offensively outside of Freemantle and Scruggs.

Chuck Harris, G, Butler

With Butler returning four double-digit scorers, it can get a bit muddled when trying to decipher the best of the bunch. It's easy to overlook the youngest of the group in Harris, but he looked like he could step-up as one of the better players in the Big East if he continues to progress. He finished the season strong, posting 20+ points in three of his final four games -- including a career-high 29 to close the regular season. If he can improve his efficiency when driving to the basket, Harris will be difficult to defend with how well he shoots it from deep.

Transfers

Jamir Harris, G, Seton Hall

The Pirates are hoping that they found a hidden gem in American transfer Harris, who averaged 20.5 points while shooting 44 percent from long-range over 10 games last season. He'll look to fill the vacated spot of Shavar Reynolds, as Seton Hall also has to replace the 17.5 ppg that were vacated from Mamukelashvili's departure. Although the team does return a pair of double-digit scorers in Jared Rhoden and Myles Cale, Harris is the most capable of creating and stepping up as the go-to-guy.

Ty Groce, F, Butler

After three mediocre college seasons, Groce erupted in his senior year at Eastern Michigan to average 15 points on an efficient 53 percent shooting. The graduate transfer will join a frontcourt that includes Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden, and it's likely that Butler will implore a bigger starting lineup and start all three. The biggest question mark will be how Groce is able to perform against tougher competition on a nightly basis, but considering he was able to post double-digit points in all but one game last season, it's likely he'll be up to the challenge.

Al Durham, Providence

The Friars added Durham as a graduate transfer, and they'll get both a double-digit scorer for Indiana last season and three-year starter. That's a much-needed addition for the program after losing Duke and his 16.8 ppg from last season. Durham will look to bounce back from his worst shooting season after only connecting on 39 percent of his field goals a season ago, but he's shown himself to be accurate from long-range. The offense will run through Watson, but Durham should step up as the most reliable option in the backcourt. 

Top-10 Players*

  1. Collin Gillespie, G, Villanova
  2. Julian Champagnie, F, St. John's
  3. Jermaine Samuels, F, Villanova
  4. Nate Watson, C, Providence
  5. RJ Cole, G, Connecticut
  6. Paul Scruggs, G, Xavier
  7. Aminu Mohammed, G, Georgetown
  8. Jamir Harris, G, Seton Hall
  9. Zach Freemantle, F, Xavier
  10. Arthur Kaluma, F, Creighton

*Note: These rankings are at the discretion of the article's author, and may not necessarily correspond with RotoWire's official 2021-22 player rankings.

Projected Team Standings

  1. Villanova
  2. Connecticut
  3. Creighton
  4. Seton Hall
  5. St. John's
  6. Xavier
  7. Georgetown
  8. Providence
  9. Butler
  10. DePaul
  11. Marquette

Projected Team Rotations

First NameLast NameSchoolPosition
BryceNzeButlerF
BryceGoldenButlerF
BoHodgesButlerF
AaronThompsonButlerG
JairBoldenButlerG
ChuckHarrisButlerG
TyGroceButlerF
MylesTateButlerG
AlexO'ConnellCreightonG
KeyShawnFeazellCreightonF
ArthurKalumaCreightonF
TreyAlexanderCreightonG
RyanNembhardCreightonG
MasonMillerCreightonF
ShereefMitchellCreightonG
RyanKalkbrennerCreightonC
JavonFreeman-LibertyDePaulG
YorAneiDePaulF
NickOngendaDePaulC
BrandonJohnsonDePaulF
JalenTerryDePaulG
CourvoisierMcCauleyDePaulG
TyonGrant-FosterDePaulF
DanteHarrisGeorgetownG
KaidenRiceGeorgetownG
TreyKingGeorgetownF
JalenHarrisGeorgetownG
DonCareyGeorgetownG
TimothyIghoefeGeorgetownC
AminuMohammedGeorgetownG
GregElliottMarquetteG
DarrylMorsellMarquetteG
TylerKolekMarquetteG
JustinLewisMarquetteF
KurKuathMarquetteF
OlivierProsperMarquetteF
StevieMitchellMarquetteG
NoahMitchellProvidenceF
NateWatsonProvidenceC
AlDurhamProvidenceG
JaredBynumProvidenceG
JustinMinayaProvidenceF
BrycenGoodineProvidenceG
A.J.ReevesProvidenceG
EdCroswellProvidenceF
MylesCaleSeton HallG
JaredRhodenSeton HallG
IkeObiaguSeton HallC
KadaryRichmondSeton HallG
BryceAikenSeton HallG
JamirHarrisSeton HallG
AlexisYetnaSeton HallF
TyreseSamuelSeton HallF
JulianChampagnieSt. John'sF
PoshAlexanderSt. John'sG
MontezMathisSt. John'sG
AaronWheelerSt. John'sG
TareqCoburnSt. John'sF
StefSmithSt. John'sG
JoelSorianoSt. John'sF
IsaiahWhaleyUConnF
TyreseMartinUConnF
TylerPolleyUConnF
AkokAkokUConnF
JalenGaffneyUConnG
AndreJacksonUConnF
RJColeUConnG
Jordan HawkinsUConnG
ColinGillespieVillanovaG
JermaineSamuelsVillanovaG
DhamirCosby-RoundtreeVillanovaF
JustinMooreVillanovaG
CalebDanielsVillanovaG
EricDixonVillanovaF
BryanAntoineVillanovaG
BrandonSlaterVillanovaF
ZachFreemantleXavierF
PaulScruggsXavierG
NateJohnsonXavierG
KykyTandyXavierG
AdamKunkelXavierG
DwonOdomXavierG
ColbyJonesXavierF
JackNungeXavierF

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Pohle
Ryan Pohle is a DFS Product Specialist at RotoWire and has written for the site since 2020.
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