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  • After losing four players from its national championship team, will Villanova's stranglehold on the Big East loosen? Burning questions for the Wildcats and the rest of the conference.
By Dan Greene
August 21, 2018

Now that it's August and we're just three months away from the start of college basketball’s regular season, it’s time to check in on each of the six major conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC). Every team in the country has questions at this point of the summer, some more pressing than others. So in addition to power-ranking each league, we’ll be asking some burning questions about the conference, whether they’re related to specific teams and players or the league as a whole. We already did the ACC and the Big 12, next up: the Big East.

Big East Summer Power Rankings

1. Villanova: The national champs lost more NBA-bound talent than originally expected, but after their recent history of succeeding while restoring themselves from within, they should be trusted to keep reloading until proven otherwise.

2. Marquette: Steve Wojciechowski’s fifth season in Milwaukee should be his best, as the Golden Eagles have the offensive weaponry needed to get them back to the NCAA tournament and win there.

3. Providence: After taking a major step as a sophomore, forward Alpha Diallo will be counted on to grow into an even bigger role after the graduations of Rodney Bullock and Kyron Cartwright.

4. St. John’s: If the NCAA allows Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron to play immediately (see below) a backcourt of Heron and Shamorie Ponds could get the Red Storm back to the NCAA tournament.

5. Butler: Guard Kamar Baldwin (15.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists per game in 2017–18) seems poised for a bigger breakout as a junior, but there are plenty of questions around him.

6. Georgetown: The Hoyas will be hoping last year’s tough sledding in Big East play was a growing experience for a young team returning roughly two thirds of its minutes.

7. Xavier: After being promoted from assistant coach to the Musketeers’ helm, new coach Travis Steele will have to replace his three leading scorers.

8. Seton Hall: With just two upperclassman returnees, this will be a year of transition for the Pirates, who will likely need to get back to the tight defenses of the recent past to stay competitive.

9. Creighton: The post-surgery health and effectiveness of big man Martin Krampelj, who averaged 11.9 points and 8.1 rebounds before tearing his ACL in mid-January, will be pivotal.

10. DePaul: The Blue Demons will need their offense to catch up to their defense in order to punch their ticket out of the Big East’s bottom three for the first time in a decade.

Burning Questions

Who steps up for Villanova?

Replacing Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges would have been difficult enough, but then Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo went and played their way into being first-round draft picks. Now Jay Wright needs to try to keep the Wildcats rolling while replacing four of his five minutes leaders from last season. The good news is that there are players he knows he can trust: Heady combo guard Phil Booth—a key contributor on both of Wright’s title teams—will be back for his redshirt senior year, as will forward Eric Paschall, a somewhat underrated scorer who went off for 24 points against Kansas in the national semifinal. Both will be counted on to continue their gradual progression into larger roles, as so many Wildcats have done successfully in recent years. Even bigger leaps will be needed from sophomores Collin Gillespie, a guard, and forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, both of whom showed flashes of readiness near the end of last season. But perhaps most intriguing is freshman guard Jahvon Quinerly, a five-star recruit who will likely see heavy court time out of the gate.

Can Marquette shoot its way to glory?

Markus Howard—a Big East Player of the Year candidate and 40.4% three-point shooter—and fellow junior Sam Hauser (48.7% from three last season) will likely help power one of the country’s best offenses, which ranked 12th in overall efficiency in 2017–18. But the Golden Eagles were just 182nd nationally and dead last during Big East play in defensive efficiency, which is how they ended up in the NIT. They should get a boost inside from Ed Morrow, a 6’ 7” Nebraska transfer who defended well and was an effective shot-blocker as a Cornhusker. But Marquette will need improvement from more than just his spot in order to shore up its woes on that end, which may make the difference between making noise in the NCAA tournament and watching it from afar.

How far can Jessie Govan carry Georgetown?

Among all the Hoyas’ returnees, none is more important than Govan, a 6’ 10”, 270-pound bruiser who averaged an efficient 17.9 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocks as a junior last season and flirted with entering the NBA draft this spring. Georgetown will still be fairly young overall and there should be stretches where it leans heavily on Govan’s all-league talent and seniority. Govan was one of many Hoyas who hit a wall early in Big East play last season but he finished strong, including a 30-point showing at Villanova in early March. Patrick Ewing & Co. will need more of that late-season form if they’re going to avoid repeating last season’s course of dominating a soft non-conference slate before struggling in the Big East.

Does Mustapha Heron suit up—and fit in?

Heron was a major part of Auburn’s surprise 2017–18 season, helping the Tigers earn a No. 4 seed by averaging 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds while taking a team-high 27.7% of their shots while on the floor. He left school to be closer to his native Connecticut, where his mother has been dealing with long-term complications from a concussion, and applied for a hardship waiver that would permit him to play for St. John’s immediately rather than sit out the requisite season that the NCAA normally requires of non-graduate transfers. Adding Heron would give Chris Mullin’s team a big injection of talent that could help the Red Storm climb the Big East ladder after hovering near its bottom for three seasons. But one thing St. John’s already has is an aggressive, shot-seeking guard in Shamorie Ponds, who scored 59 points over consecutive upsets of Duke and Villanova last February and is the only returning player from the All-Big East First Team. Fitting Heron and Ponds alongside each other while finding enough shots for them both to flourish will have to be a priority.

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How does Providence’s backcourt take shape?

With Kyron Cartwright and Jalen Lindsey having graduated, Ed Cooley won’t have much continuity to rely on among his guards. Talented sophomore Makai Ashton-Langford struggled as a freshman while junior combo guard Maliek White has yet to be relied on heavily; meanwhile new talent arrives in the form of freshmen David Duke and A.J. Reeves, both top-50 recruits. Alpha Diallo’s play inside should help ease some of the burden, but this is a largely untested group that will have to grow up together for the Friars to contend for an at-large bid, which they have the ability to do.

How will Xavier’s new era stack up to the ones before it?

The Musketeers have remained 21st century NCAA tournament stalwarts through the tenures of Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller and Chris Mack, the latter of whom matched Pete Gillen as Xavier’s longest-serving coach (nine seasons) since before World War II. With Mack off to Louisville, the program tapped longtime Mack assistant Travis Steele, who has been on staff since Miller’s final season a decade ago. Given that background, there’s reason to think things won’t change too much internally with the 36-year-old Steele in charge. But he will be tasked with handling significant roster turnover following the graduations of Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura and Kerem Kanter. The incoming freshman class is solid but not the highly-ranked groups of recent seasons, which means there may be some growing pains and much improvement will be needed from within. Steele should get some help from grad transfers Ryan Welage (San Jose State) and Kyle Castlin (Columbia), but this may be the first season in a while where you can’t pencil the Muskies into March.

Can anyone threaten Villanova?

Since the Big East reformed into its current 10-team, all-basketball iteration for the 2013–14 season, the Wildcats have ruled the roost, winning the first four regular season titles and the last two conference tournaments. Losing four NBA talents—and again being saddled with a defending champ’s burden—could make Villanova ripe for a challenge as the league’s alpha program, if only for a season. But there’s no obvious candidate given their competitors’ own question marks and faults and no real reason to doubt that Wright’s model of player development and team cohesion will renew the team once more.

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