College basketball conference previews: Big East
With the start of college basketball season less than a month away, we're previewing each team in nine conferences. Using a statistical projection system developed by economist Dan Hanner and SI's Luke Winn, which is now in its second season, we've forecast the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. Next up is the Big East:
Player of the year: Kris Dunn, Providence
Aside California’s Tyrone Wallace, no returning player from a major conference was utilized on more possessions last season than Dunn. This year, according to Luke Winn and Dan Hanner’s projections, the rising senior will likely maintain that level of output on a Friars team that’s projected to end the season in the middle of the Big East pack. While his scoring efficiency isn't likely to approach that of conference-mate D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Dunn’s numbers are nonetheless projected to be huge and could tilt the conference POY vote in his favor.
Coach of the year: Chris Holtmann, Butler
While the Red Storm’s native son Chris Mullin will have sculpted an entirely new Red Storm roster by himself, and while Villanova’s Jay Wright is positioned to win his third Coach of the Year award in three seasons, Holtmann is a serious contender and should be the pick. The Bulldogs’ leader took the reins five weeks before the start of the 2014-15 season amidst the still-unexplained departure of Brandon Miller. All his team did was go 23-11 (12-6 in-conference) and take Notre Dame to overtime in the NCAA tournament’s second round. If Holtmann makes half of those gains again this season, Butler will challenge for the conference title.
Freshman of the year: Jalen Brunson, Villanova
The extremely and deservedly hyped point guard who was also the coaches’ preseason projection for the conference rookie of the year award deserves the slight edge over a pair of 6'10" players—Marquette’s Henry Ellenson and Georgetown’s Jessie Govan. Why? Elite point guards with great name recognition before they ever play a collegiate game often receive awards, even if other players contribute just as much to their team’s success. In other words, the tie in this race goes to the player who put up 56 points in a high school game once—against Jahlil Okafor’s team.
Projected conference race
Each team's outlook in about 68 words
Despite any anti-hype, Villanova remains the team to beat in the Big East. No one questions Jay Wright’s regular-season dominance, and rising seniors Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono along with efficient shooter Josh Hart will surround Jalen Brunson with more than enough talent. The question here is whether the Wildcats will lose in the NCAA tournament’s first weekend as a top-10 team and a top-2 seed for the third consecutive year.
This is D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera's team, and the senior guard is so talented that he can carry them entirely by himself against the bottom half of the conference. The question is how a young, versatile frontcourt led by former top-25 recruit Isaac Copeland and incoming super-recruits Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson spells Smith-Rivera from time-to-time, and provides this roster with the balance it will need for a postseason run. The Hoyas might have the most talented team in the Big East.
The Musketeers always seem to lurk in the shadows until March and then perform really well at the right time. The catalysts for the 2016 version of this repeat performance will be forward Jalen Reynolds and wing Trevon Bluiett. With seven players at 6'8" or taller, Xavier should have the deepest front court in the league. The biggest question mark is backcourt depth behind Myles Davis and Remy Abell.
In 2014, expectations were as low for Butler as they’ve been since before the Final Four years. In 2015, Butler is expected to get back to being Butler—a defensively efficient, three-star-fueled machine that’s difficult to beat. With solely underclassmen in the post, look for 6'10" true freshman Nate Fowler to see modest court time with a veteran backcourt led by Roosevelt Jones. The Bulldogs are poised to be a bit overlooked again, which exactly where they're the most dangerous.
With an interior presence—three underclassmen comprise the team’s only post candidates—similar to Butler’s, the Golden Eagles and second-year coach Steve Wojciechowski will look to improve on last season’s dismal 4-14 mark. If Brunson doesn’t win freshman of the year, true freshman power forward Henry Ellenson likely will. The 6'10" forward will be asked to lead this team immediately.
Providence consistently seems like a team that’s just about to turn the corner, but doesn’t quite do so. Two seasons nearly identical in record and two straight NCAA tournament appearances have been a laudable improvement over past campaigns. Kris Dunn was the biggest reason for the Friars’ success last season, but he needs help. The departure of three of the team’s most utilized players beneath Dunn will force the potential POY to lead the team almost entirely by himself. It appears Friars fans will have to wait at least another year to see Providence get to the next level.
The Pirates’ implosion last season illustrated that no matter well you begin the year, you have to play a five full months of united, team-oriented basketball, not two. Derrick Gordon is a key veteran addition who will pair nicely with Isaiah Whitehead in the backcourt, but Sterling Gibbs is a key loss. With a schedule and key components similar to last year, how will coach Kevin Willard approach this season differently?
With the unfortunate timing of seven players all graduating concurrently, this looks to be a rebuilding year for Greg McDermott’s program. The future isn’t necessarily discouraging, though. Top-50 recruit Justin Patton is a nice piece to build around at the five position, although there are several promising post players—including Geoff Groselle and Zach Hanson—are among the team’s few returners. The depth behind guards James Milliken and newly recovered Isaiah Zierden is a concern.
11. That's the staggering number of players on last year’s Red Storm roster who won’t suit up for St. John’s this year. The exodus precipitated the arrival of nine new names (five recruits and four transfers), which new head coach Chris Mullin and his assistants acquired in less than five months on the job. The tumult alone has led to St. John’s projecting as one of the worst teams in the conference. The first chapter of the post-Steve Lavin era has began, though, and it’s unfolding quickly.
|Tommy Hamilton, Jr.||C||11.2||5.9||1.2||105.1||21%||72%|
The program and its (badly) losing records in nine of the last 10 seasons is a carousel of crushed dreams and discouragement. Its biggest accomplishment is bringing back former coach Dave Leitao, who was the last coach to put up back-to-back 20-win seasons at the school since the great Joey Meyer in the 1990s. But this step forward back to the past, combined with a lack of national recruiting presence—the Blue Demons can’t keep swapping out three-star recruits interchangeably—is just more of the same.