First Look: Villanova's returning talent will be tough to top in post-McDermott Big East
SI.com is taking a first look at the major conferences for 2014-15. The series will include the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC, American, A-10, Mountain West and Pac-12. Next up: the Big East.
The new Big East's first season featured old and new interwoven: Creighton's Doug McDermott was the face of the league in his and the school's first year as members, and holdovers Villanova and Providence wound up with trophies following the regular season and the conference tournament, respectively.
How the conference holds up without the drawing power of McDermott – not to mention the sheer newness of the venture – will be a broader challenge in year two. As for the basketball part, here's an early look at what's in store for the Big East in 2014-15:
State of the champions
One of the Big East's old standbys, Villanova, overcame Creighton and McDermott to become the first regular season champion of the refurbished league in 2013-14. Another old standby, Providence, got hot at the right time and won the league's tournament title. The Wildcats should be positioned to make yet another run at a championship, with Jay Wright's team losing leading scorer James Bell (14.4 points per game) from a 28-win squad but bringing back Darrun Hilliard (14.3 ppg), JayVaughn Pinkston (14.1 ppg) and veteran point guard Ryan Arcidiacono (9.9 ppg, 3.5 apg). That core should help the Wildcats maintain the exceptional ball movement – Villanova was 20th nationally with 15.6 assists per game – that fueled a full recovery from a 13-19 season in 2011-12. A pair of top 100 prospects -- guard Phil Booth and forward Mikal Bridges -- fit the mold of Jay Wright's attack and should provide reinforcements.
Providence will suffer a bit more from attrition, if only because Bryce Cotton's graduation leaves a gaping hole, having averaged 21.8 points, 5.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game while playing 39.9 minutes per game. Also gone is the inside force of 6-foot-9 forward Kadeem Batts, who was third on the team in scoring (12.3 ppg) and second in rebounding (7.4). Forwards LaDontae Henton (14.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Tyler Harris (11.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg) offer coach Ed Cooleya a foundation on which to rebuild, but Providence will be in search of an identity while Villanova should carry it over from last year.
Seemingly every would-be Big East contender in 2014-15 suffered significant personnel attrition in the offseason, and Xavier is no different. Semaj Christon set the offensive and defensive tone for the Musketeers as a sophomore, averaging 17 points and 4.2 assists while often checking the opposition's best scorer, but he left for the NBA. Head coach Chris Mack does bring back some key pieces, however, notably 6-10 center Matt Stainbrook (10.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and point guard Dee Davis (7.7 ppg, 4.7 apg). Then he added three recruits out of the nation's top 105 players, per Rivals.com's rankings, including 6-foot-5 swingman Trevon Bluiett (No. 34 recruit nationally), who should be able to offer some of the same two-way contributions as Christon. There's plenty of transition around the league and teams like Georgetown, St. John's or even a retooled, McDermott-less Creighton have the personnel to contend. But Xavier has some reliable pieces in place and more help coming.
Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
There will be some serious turnover in South Orange, N.J., as Kevin Willard's crew loses three of its top four scorers to graduation. But he also welcomes a potential impact freshman who may be the last hope in a reeling tenure: Whitehead, a 6-4 guard from Brooklyn ranked No. 16 nationally by Rivals.com, which deems him perhaps "the best one-on-one player in the class of 2014." There's something dangerous brewing there, too, given that a program starved for success -- Seton Hall hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2006 and has just two postseason appearances since then -- is welcoming a highly talented player who occasionally lapses into individual play. If Willard can coax Whitehead into a team concept, then the prized freshman can work with veteran Sterling Gibbs (13.2 ppg, 4.2 apg) to offer a formidable backcourt combo.
It was all-too-expected that parts of the Golden Eagles' incoming recruiting class -- top 100 guard Ahmed Hill and 6-10 center Satchel Pierce -- followed Buzz Wiliams to Virginia Tech. The moves left new coach Steve Wojciechowski looking for stability if only for a season. That brought him to the 6-2 Carlino, who averaged 13.7 points per game for BYU in 2013-14 before moving on to Marquette as a graduate transfer. There are some questions about Carlino's shot selection -- he made just 38.5 percent from the floor last season -- and a backcourt of Carlino and Todd Mayo might inspire Marquette to add blood pressure medication to the Bradley Center concession stands. But at least Wojciechowski will know what to expect out of Carlino, and that should give Marquette a chance to compete as its new coach molds the program.
Coach on the hot seat
Oliver Purnell, DePaulEven as the Blue Demons plunged to a 3-15 record the Big East that left them 9-57 in league play during Purnell's four-year tenure, there was no chance of change coming after the 2013-14 season. Athletic director Jean Ponsetto continued to believe this was a long-range rebuild, and there was personnel turmoil with leading scorer Cleveland Melvin mysteriously leaving the school midseason and freshman Billy Garrett Jr., battling through a debilitating health episode relating to his sickle cell disease. In addition, DePaul may have trouble getting out of a contract that is believed to pay Purnell in excess of $2 million a year. But a fifth season without any progress in 2014-15 might leave Ponsetto without another choice. As much as DePaul has declined, the depth of local Chicago-area talent suggests it can do much better than the 10.5 wins per year it has averaged in the last four seasons.