- Many of the Big East's usual challengers—like Villanova, Xavier, Seton Hall and Creighton—will have new looks this year, but which ones remain contenders?
As part of SI.com's preview of the 2018–19 college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the seven major conferences, plus the best of the rest. Our predicted order of finish for each league is drawn from our master 1–353 rankings, the full list of which will be revealed later this month. We did the AAC and the ACC; Next up for our conference previews is the Big East, complete with our analyst's breakdowns of each team and anonymous scouting takes from coaches or assistants around the league.
The Big Picture
The Big East has boasted the national champion in two of the past three seasons (Villanova in 2016 and 2018) and had two No. 1 seeds just last year (Villanova and Xavier). However, the conference lost 19 of its top 30 scorers from a year ago to the NBA and graduation, so the league is going to be in rebuilding form this year. Having said that, every team is facing questions and has young talent that’s been waiting in the wings to fill roles. We may see the league take a small step back or we could see it send six or seven teams to the NCAA tournament.
Conference Player of the Year: Kamar Baldwin, Butler
Kamar Baldwin will pick up the load for Butler after losing senior leaders Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman. As a sophomore playing behind Martin, he averaged 15.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, and is only expected to improve from there. Baldwin is confident with the ball in his hands, wreaks havoc defensively and could be the reason the Bulldogs make the NCAA tournament this year.
Newcomer of the Year: Jahvon Quinerly, Villanova
With so much experience leaving the conference, young players will be on display. Perhaps the most intriguing freshman in the league is five-star guard Jahvon Quinerly, who will likely see a lot of playing time for Villanova given how much talent Jay Wright lost from last year’s championship team. Quinerly has impressive ball handling skills, creates separation and is a natural replacement for Jalen Brunson, who scored 18.9 points per game and shot 52.1% from the field in his final season with the Wildcats.
Dark Horse to Win the Conference: St. John’s
It wouldn’t be unthinkable for Villanova, winner of three of the last four Big East titles, to have a challenger this year. St. John’s might actually have the most talented team in the league this year with the addition of Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron, who was granted a waiver from the NCAA and will be immediately eligible to play this season. The 6’ 5” junior guard averaged 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds for the Tigers last season. Group him with preseason player of the year Shamorie Ponds and Justin Simon, and the Red Storm have a scary backcourt that should challenge for the league title and an NCAA tournament bid.
Predicted Order of Finish
The Skinny: Despite losing first-round draft picks Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo, the Wildcats should be in contention like they always are. Now teams just have to switch their focus to Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, who have experience playing and winning big games. Villanova also added graduate transfer Joe Cremo, who averaged 17.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game last season for Albany, plus four freshmen that make up the nation’s No. 9 recruiting class.
Scout’s Take: “I think the biggest thing is Eric Paschall could very well be the Big East player of the year. I would guess they end up going small ball a lot with him at the 5, which poses a lot of problems for other teams. I think they’ll just be right back where they always are contending for championships.”
The Skinny: Markus Howard, who averaged 20.4 points per game last season, is still a scoring machine and could challenge for conference player of the year. He’ll lead arguably the deepest team in the conference that didn’t earn an NCAA bid last year, but should this year if its defense improves. The Golden Eagles also have a challenging schedule with non-conference games against Indiana, Kansas, and 2018-tournament Cinderella UMBC to start the season.
Scout’s Take: “They have been a circus act on offense with their ability to have multiple guys make shots. Markus Howard is as explosive of a scorer as anybody in the country—he had 50 at Providence last year, which tells you all you need to know. They have some highly touted freshmen plus transfer Ed Morrow was sitting out last year and he should provide them with toughness. They’ve always been able to score the ball, and they may be the deepest team in our league.”
The Skinny: Alpha Diallo, who was Providence’s second-leading scorer (13.2 ppg) and top rebounder (211 total) last season, and Kalif Young (21 blocks as a sophomore) return to the starting lineup. So does senior forward Emmitt Holt, who took a redshirt last season after suffering an abdominal injury, and will provide a frontcourt boost. The Friars are hoping Holt’s production looks like it did two years ago, when he averaged 12.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
Scout’s Take: “Emmitt Holt didn’t play last year and will provide them a nice little jolt in their front court. They lost a ton of experience off last year’s team losing three really good seniors, but they’re replacing them with one of the best recruiting classes in our league coming in. And Ed Cooley always just figures it out. They’re always known for toughness.”
4. St. John’s
The Skinny: St. John’s got a big boost this offseason when Auburn transfer guard Mustapha Heron received a waiver from the NCAA to be immediately eligible to play this season. Heron was an integral part of the Tigers’ surprise 2017–18 season, helping them to a No. 4 seed by averaging 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. He left Auburn to be closer to home in Connecticut, where his mom is dealing with health problems. Pair Heron with preseason Player of the Year Shamorie Ponds and Justin Simon, and Chris Mullin has a powerful team on his hands.
Scout’s Take: “One of the best backcourts in the country with Shamorie Ponds and [Auburn transfer] Mustapha Heron. The guy people don’t talk a lot about in their backcourt is Justin Simon. I think you’re going to see this team elevate themselves. They got off to a slow start in conference play [last year] going 0–11, but then they knocked off Villanova and Duke back-to-back. And they were in every single game, just came up a little short. This year is a breakout year.”
The Skinny: Guard Kamar Baldwin is poised for a big season after averaging 15.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game as a sophomore in 2017–18. The questions surrounding this team are who will step up around him? Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman graduated, so LaVall Jordan will ask for more from guys like Nate Fowler and Sean McDermot in order to contend for a conference title.
Scout’s Take: “Butler lost a lot with Kelan Martin, who provided a huge scoring punch for them, and they also lost Tyler Wideman, a solid four-year guy who provided toughness up front. But Kamar Baldwin is really good. He’s dynamic with the ball, he can create a little havoc on the defensive end with steals and deflections, and I think he’s more than capable of taking on the scoring load.”
The Skinny: The Hoyas most important returnee is Jessie Govan, who comes in at 6’10”, 270 pounds and averaged 17.9 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocks as a junior last season. He’ll need to take that next step for Georgetown after losing forward Marcus Derrickson. This is a young team that will lean on Govan’s talent (he scored 30 points in a loss to Villanova late last season) and experience.
Scout’s Take: “Jessie Govan is as talented of a big guy as there is in the country. You just sometimes wonder if he knows that. He can score it on the low block, he can step out and make a shot, and they do a real nice job of getting the ball to him. He’s going to have to shoulder the load for those guys after losing Marcus Derrickson, who was probably the biggest mismatch in our league. I think that will be a lot for them to overcome. But Jessie Govan is more than capable of taking that next step and becoming that true dominant big man.”
The Skinny: Chris Mack left for Louisville, so now former assistant turned head coach Travis Steele has the challenge of replacing three leading scorers from last year’s team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Remember Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura and Kerem Kanter? They’re gone now. There will be growing pains with the incoming freshman class, but Steele can lean on graduate transfers Ryan Welage and Kyle Castlin to provide some stability.
Scout’s Take: “Naji Marshall is as athletic and talented—with size—as anybody in our league. He’s a mismatch problem just because of how athletic he is. He’s 6’ 6”, his skill developed last year, and he made shots as the year went on so I’m sure they expect big things out of him. It will be hard to guard him.”
8. Seton Hall
The Skinny: It’s going to be a season of transition for a team that came close to pulling an upset against Kansas in last year’s NCAA tournament. Only two upperclassmen return, and Seton Hall will be looking for guard Myles Powell, who was the Big East’s most improved player last season, and guard Quincy McKnight to be more dominant. Key transfer Taurean Thompson from Syracuse is expected to make an instant impact.
Scout’s Take: “They lost really four guys that transformed their program and took them to three straight NCAA tournaments. I think they do have a lot of talent in program. Myles Powell can really make tough shots and Syracuse transfer Taurean Thompson will step in and make a huge, immediate impact. The biggest question mark is point guard play. If they can get good point guard play that will put them back where they’ve been. If they don’t, then they could take a step back.”
The Skinny: The success of this team hinges on the health of big man Martin Krampelj, who had surgery to repair a torn ACL in January. He averaged 11.9 points and 8.1 rebounds before his injury, and will lead a group of young players hoping to make its third consecutive NCAA tournament.
Scout’s Take: “They lost as much as anyone in the league. Marcus Foster was a dynamic scorer, and between him and Khyri Thomas, those two guys were as good of any players in our league. They had a really talented freshmen class last year so those guys will be sophomores. Their success is based on the development of those guys and how much they can impact.”
The Skinny: Max Strus, who averaged nearly 17 points per game last year, is back after declaring for the NBA draft. But who else can step up around him? Eli Cain and Illinois transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands are options, as well as Matt Gage, who returns after only playing eight games last season before tearing his Achilles. Can these players help the Blue Demons finish outside the bottom three spots of the conference for the first time in a decade?
Scout’s Take: “They have high level guards in Eli Cain and Max Strus and Illinois transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands is a shot maker. Their question marks are that they lost a lot in their frontcourt. I think for DePaul to take that leap forward, their perimeter pieces are there, it’s just what happens in the frontcourt.”