- Will Villanova still dominate the Big East without Josh Hart? Here's where every team in the conference stands as the offseason wears on.
After playing host to the reigning national champions’ victory tour all season, the Big East had the script flipped in March, as Villanova failed to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, while Xavier made an improbable Elite Eight run. What’s in store for the 2017–18 season? Below, we examine the pecking order as tipoff on a new season nears.
Can Paul Jorgensen or Aaron Thompson be the answer at point guard?
The graduation of Kethan Savage and Tyler Lewis left the Bulldogs without a returning primary ballhander to pair with rising talented sophomore Kamar Baldwin in the backcourt. New head coach LaVall Jordan has two main options at the one: junior transfer Paul Jorgensen, who sat out last season after coming to Indy from George Washington, and incoming four-star freshman recruit Aaron Thompson. Jorgensen is the option with more experience, having played two years at GW (he averaged 4.9 points and 2.1 assists in 15.7 minutes as a sophomore). The 6' 2" guard led Butler with 20 points in a recent summer win in Spain, and Jordan has praised Jorgensen for his conditioning, shooting and assist-to-turnover ratio in offseason play. Thompson, meanwhile, is the Bulldogs’ highest-rated recruit, and the team’s trip abroad gives him an opportunity to get acclimated early that many freshmen don’t get. Butler’s point guard situation is one to watch, and if either Jorgensen or Thompson—or both—can get the job done, the program will be in good shape.
How much production will the Bluejays get from their new additions?
After Marcus Foster and rising junior Khyri Thomas, there’s a lot of question marks with Creighton, and a lot of new faces. Three freshmen come in, including four-star center Jacob Epperson and four-star guard Mitchell Ballock. Greg McDermott also adds Syracuse transfer Kaleb Joseph, who already sat out and is now eligible, plus Division II grad transfer Manny Suarez. Creighton will need fast adjustments from these players, considering its nonconference slate includes games against Northwestern, UCLA, Gonzaga and either Baylor or Wisconsin. Foster—a former transfer himself—is in line for a big year, but he can’t do everything. Establishing a consistent, solid rotation around Foster and Thomas from among the Bluejays’ additions and returnees will be key.
Can the program make strides in a deep conference?
The Blue Demons went 7–6 against a soft non-conference slate last season before slogging through a 2–16 Big East campaign. Even if the team is improved this year, will it be enough to show up in the standings? The conference as a whole could be even deeper in 2017–18, and it’ll be a battle night in and night out for DePaul. And unlike 2016, the Blue Demons’ non-conference schedule will present a stiff challenge. Their whole schedule hasn’t been released yet, but the November slate includes games against Notre Dame and Illinois before facing national title contender Michigan State, either Connecticut or Oregon and possibly another Power 5 team at the PK80 Invitational. DePaul will have its hands full early, and things won’t get any easier once it hits league play.
Can the Hoyas turn their recent disappointment into something to build on in Ewing’s debut season?
It’s a new era in Georgetown after 13 years with JTIII at the helm—the Patrick Ewing era. Ewing already scored a recruiting win when he landed four-star 2017 forward Jamarko Pickett, who was released from his Letter of Intent by Ole Miss this summer, over local rival Maryland. The late addition of Pickett was huge for a Hoyas team that is in rebuilding mode and could struggle to produce offensively. Look for Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson to step up in their junior seasons, but otherwise there are plenty of opportunities for Georgetown’s returning role players and incoming freshmen (plus grad transfer Gregory Malinowski) to try and emerge as solid contributors. This won’t be the year for the Hoyas, but it’s an important year nonetheless.
Will the Golden Eagles find the consistency that was too often missing last year?
Marquette’s 2016–17 season could aptly be described as a roller coaster, especially when conference play hit. Starting with their Big East opener win over Georgetown, the Golden Eagles never won more than two games in a row—but never lost more than two in a row, either. After securing the biggest win of Steve Wojciechowski’s tenure by beating top-ranked Villanova in January, Marquette turned in back-to-back losses, to Providence and St. John’s. The challenge this year will be finding more consistency while trying to maintain its edge in offensive efficiency, where it ranked eighth in the nation last year. The door is open for players like Sam Hauser, who shot 45.3% from three as a freshman, and juniors Haanif Cheatham and Matt Heldt to make a leap after the departures of the likes of JaJuan Johnson, Luke Fischer and Katin Reinhardt.
Can the Friars improve on the offensive boards?
The Friars bring back all the key pieces from last season’s surprise NCAA appearance, but one area the team struggled in was rebounding, particularly on the offensive side. Rodney Bullock and Emmitt Holt were the Friars’ leading rebounders last season and both are back, but they could use some help. Rising 6' 9" sophomore Kalif Young is a candidate to shore up the boards after performing well there in limited minutes in 2016–17, and incoming four-star freshman Nate Watson, a 6' 10", 260-pound center, could make a difference if he can take a leading role with rebounding. The Friars shot just 48.5% from inside the perimeter last year—eighth in the Big East—leaving plenty of room for second chances.
With four starters back, which area of weakness needs the most work?
Seton Hall brings back an envious senior trio of Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado, who combined to averaged 48 points per game last season, but how can they improve on a 10–8 Big East mark and first-round NCAA tournament exit? Two of the Pirates’ main areas of weakness in 2016–17 were free-throw shooting and turnovers. They shot just 64.3% as a team from the charity stripe, including going 4-of-9 in a two-point Big East tournament loss to Villanova and 13-of-21 in a six-point NCAA tournament loss to Arkansas, and their turnover margin of negative-1.4 ranked 269th in the nation. If Seton Hall can take better care of the ball and convert more of its chances at the free-throw line—Carrington and freshman Myles Powell were the only Pirates to hit at least 70% from the stripe last season—it can take the next step as a team.
How high can Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett take this team?
The Red Storm made strides last season largely on the back of Ponds and LoVett, who both came in as freshmen and placed in the top 10 in scoring in the Big East at 17.4 and 15.9 points per game, respectively. It wasn’t a case of chucking inefficiently, either—both shot over 37% from three and over 43% from the field. Heading into 2017–18, the two may be the conference’s top backcourt duo, and along with senior forward Bashir Ahmed, they will lead the charge as the Red Storm try to get back to the NCAA tournament. Top-50 small forward Sidney Wilson and three-star Bryan Trimble also come aboard, creating optimism in Queens that year three could be the turning point under Chris Mullin.
Is Jalen Brunson ready to step into Josh Hart’s vacated leadership role?
Brunson, a rising junior who averaged 14.7 points last season, is the lone remaining starter from the national championship team of two years ago. With both Hart and Kris Jenkins having graduated this past spring, it’s Brunson’s time to be the team’s leader and grizzled veteran. The point guard will have help in that department from classmates Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall, and the return of a healthy Phil Booth will be a boost, but make no mistake—this is Brunson’s team. Losing a player of Hart’s caliber is undoubtedly significant, and the Wildcats tended to rely on him late in close games. Will Brunson become that late-game answer, either as a go-to scorer or a playmaker? Villanova has what it takes to compete for a second national title in three years, but it needs a big year from its point guard.
Will this year’s Musketeers resemble more of the team that made the Elite Eight or the one that finished the regular season 1–7?
When looking back at Xavier’s 2017 Elite Eight trip in a few years, few outside of the school’s fans will probably remember that the team nearly missed the NCAA tournament entirely after a dismal end to the regular season. The hope for next year’s Musketeers is that those struggles are behind them and that their deep March run was more of a testament to who this team really is. There’s plenty of reason for optimism: At least part of Xavier’s late-season struggles can likely be attributed to the adjustment period that followed the season-ending injury suffered by Edmond Sumner, who went in the second round of this June’s draft. And beyond bringing back key pieces like Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura, who in addition to their on-court talent will anchor the team’s leadership as seniors, the Musketeers bring in a strong freshman class led by four-stars Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall.