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Big East Preview: Villanova (Again) Sits Atop a Deep Crop of Teams

Villanova looks primed for a fifth-straight regular season Big East title, but the conference should have plenty of depth behind the Wildcats in 2017–18.

Sports Illustrated’s 2017–18 preview is guided by data from our College Basketball Projection System, a collaboration between economist Dan Hanner and SI’s Chris Johnson and Jeremy Fuchs. We project teams on a player-by-player, lineup-based level and then simulate the season 10,000 times to generate our 1–351 national rankings and conference forecasts.

These are the model’s projections for the Big East, including individual awards, the teams’ order of finish and (advanced and raw) stats for the top seven players in each school’s rotation.

The Big Picture

Villanova has lorded over the Big East in the four seasons since it became a 10-team conference composed of the Catholic Seven plus Butler, Creighton and Xavier. The Wildcats can and should run their regular-season league title streak to five in 2018, but they’ll have to do it without first-team All-America Josh Hart and 2016 national championship game hero Kris Jenkins. The squads best positioned to take advantage if Villanova stumbles are Xavier and Seton Hall, the first of which is led by National Player of the Year candidate Trevon Bluiett and the second of which returns a tough veteran core headlined by double-double machine Angel Delgado. The Big East shouldn't be short on depth, either: It’s possible seven of the league’s squads hear their names called on Selection Sunday.

Player of the year: Jalen Brunson, Villanova

Hart has commanded the Villanova spotlight since Brunson arrived in Philadelphia as a five-star recruit in the class of 2015. The 6' 3" junior will be the protagonist in the Wildcats’ next season-long show of force, and his body of work over two college seasons suggests he’s definitely ready for it. Brunson made a huge leap in offensive efficiency from his freshman to his sophomore year, and he managed to slash his turnovers even while taking on a larger share of the playmaking burden. With Hart out of the picture, the Wildcats will demand more scoring from Brunson while also counting on him to run the show as smoothly as he did as their steady floor general last season.

Newcomer of the year: Kaleb Joseph, Creighton

Joseph is looking to reboot his college career in Omaha after a lousy 50-game stint at Syracuse in which he shot 35% from the field and was supplanted by other players in the Orange’s backcourt depth chart. The Bluejays offer a soft landing spot for the former top-60 recruit: They’ve played top-50 offense the last two seasons and should hit that mark with plenty of wiggle room in 2017–18. Creighton probably won’t call on Joseph to score in bunches. It has Big East scoring title frontrunner Marcus Foster, himself a former transfer from Kansas State, and long-range shooting threat Khyri Thomas returning from last season, plus two four-star freshmen ready to chip in from Day One in guards Mitchell Ballock and Ty-Shon Alexander. If Joseph can keep the Bluejays’ offense moving and minimize mistakes, they should wrap up an at-large bid well before the end of the conference schedule.

All-conference team & Sixth man

G: Jalen Brunson, Villanova
G: Marcus Foster, Creighton
G: Markus Howard, Marquette
F: Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
F: Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Sixth man: F Kelan Martin, Butler

Projected order of finish

(For teams with the same projected conference record, the tiebreaker was their place in SI’s ranking of teams 1–351, which will be revealed later this month.)


The Skinny on each team

1. Villanova (13–5)


Mikal Bridges has been a useful complementary player during his first two seasons at Villanova. SI projects Bridges to post the highest offensive rating among Big East rotation players (albeit on low usage) in 2017–18, which, if early mock drafts have it right, could turn out to be his final campaign on campus. And Big East opponents should take note of the artist formerly known as the Michael Jordan of Delaware, Donte DiVincenzo.

2. Xavier (12–6)


After carrying the Musketeers to three tourney wins and a meeting with eventual national finalist Gonzaga in the Elite Eight last season, Trevon Bluiett entered the NBA draft pool but later decided to return to Cincinnati for his senior season. He’ll be the hub of an offense we project to rank among the top 10 in the country, as well as Brunson’s biggest challenger for Big East POY honors.

3. Seton Hall (11–7)


Pirates head coach Kevin Willard was a fixture on hot seat lists just a couple of years ago. He’ll have his best team at Seton Hall this season, a veteran group with a stat-stuffing frontcourt linchpin (Angel Delgado), an underrated floor general (Khadeen Carrington) and the defensive chops to unnerve Brunson and Villanova when they visit Newark in late February.

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4. Creighton (10–8)


The Bluejays lost two of their most accurate three-point shooters this offseason in Cole Huff (46.2%) and Isaiah Zierden (43.0%), but they should have enough long-range firepower to strain opposing defenses. Toby Hegner hit 43.7% of his 71 tries behind the arc last season, Khyri Thomas connected at a 40% clip on 115 attempts and freshman Mitchell Ballock is highly regarded for his ability to stroke jumpers from downtown.

5. Providence (10–8)


Kyron Cartwright assisted on a higher percentage of his teammates’ baskets while he was on the floor than any other player during Big East play last season. He’s entering his final year of eligibility, but Providence has brought in a highly touted successor at point guard, Makai Ashton-Langford. The former UConn signee, rated No. 39 in the class of 2017 Recruiting Services Consensus Index, will provide depth in the Friars’ perimeter corps.

6. Butler (10–8)


LaVall Jordan took over this program late in the offseason after Chris Holtmann left for Ohio State, but the former Bulldogs assistant does inherit one of the most impactful two-way players in the Big East, senior Kelan Martin; a promising guard, Kamar Baldwin, who exceeded the performance expected of a three-star recruit last season; and a backcourt transfer with prior experience in a competitive conference, George Washington’s Paul Jorgensen.

7. Marquette (9–9)


The most surprising inclusion in the top 10 of our list of the projected top 100 scorers in the country is Markus Howard. SI’s model likes him to raise his points per game average from 13.2 to 18.7 while powering the No. 2 offense in the Big East behind Villanova’s. Andrew Rowsey is a good bet to vie for the major-conference lead in free-throw percentage this season. (He hit 92.6% of his tries from the stripe in 2016–17.)

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8. St. John’s (6–12)


The sophomore backcourt pairing of Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett projects to account for more than 34 points on a per-game basis this season, and they’ll have help from Division I transfers Justin Simon (Arizona) and Marvin Clark Jr. (Michigan State). But on balance, this rotation isn’t sturdy enough to support the program’s first run to the NCAAs since head coach Chris Mullin took over prior to the 2015–16 season.

9. DePaul (5–13)


Marin Maric elected to transfer to DePaul after playing in 96 games over four seasons at Northern Illinois and rating out as one of the best rebounders in the Mid-American Conference in 2017. Our model sees him and Division II Lewis University transfer Max Strus being a bigger part of the Blue Demons’ offense than former four-star recruit Austin Grandstaff, who’s now on his third school after previous stops at Ohio State and Oklahoma.

10. Georgetown (4–14)


New head coach Patrick Ewing doesn’t have a roster that’s ready to win more than a few Big East games in his first year at the helm, but the Hoyas should stack up some victories during a soft non-conference schedule that no longer includes the Thanksgiving-week tournament celebrating Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday after the program withdrew from the loaded field. (DePaul is taking Georgetown’s place.) Four-star forward Jamorko Pickett, who committed to Georgetown in July, was an important late pickup.