Big East Preview: Villanova, Seton Hall Lead Intriguing Group of Challengers

After a down year in hoops, the Big East looks primed to rebound in 2019-20.
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Big East basketball Villanova Seton Hall Marquette

As part of SI.com's preview of the 2019–20 college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the seven major conferences, plus the best of the rest. We've done the AAC and ACC; next up for our conference previews is the Big East, complete with our analyst's breakdowns of each team and a projected order of finish.

The Big Picture

The Big East is primed to bounce back from what was ultimately considered a down season in 2018-19, compared to recent standards. While all 10 Big East teams made some level of postseason play for the first time in the conference’s history, just four teams made the NCAA tournament—and none made it past the second round. National titles by Villanova in 2016 and 2018 have set the bar high for a conference that looks in shape to compete with the best in the nation, and a new face will be knocking on the Villanova Wildcats’ door for the Big East crown in preseason media poll favorite Seton Hall.

Conference POY: Myles Powell, Seton Hall

A sharpshooter that can turn in 30 points on a dime, Myles Powell is in position to shine in his senior season while surrounded by a deep roster. The Big East’s Most Improved Player in 2018 has now jumped to the league’s Preseason Player of the Year for the 2019-20 season, and will be fighting to be in the National Player of the Year picture by season’s end. While Powell will continue to bring his outside shot and offensive prowess, he will also have the stage to prove himself as a playmaker against top-ranked talent in Michigan State, Maryland and Big East foe Villanova. Powell at times struggled with consistency and had to shoulder a lot of the team’s weight offensively. In his senior season, though, Seton Hall has a stronger frontcourt in place and teammates to take the offensive load off his shoulders. While a strong senior season from reigning POY Markus Howard will give him a run for his money, Powell has the drive and foundation to empower the offense and lead Seton Hall to a Final Four run.

Newcomer of the Year: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova

Villanova has one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is a large reason why. Fresh off a gold medal with Team USA this summer in the U19 FIBA World Cup, Robinson-Earl is bringing his frame and versatility to a Wildcat roster in need of a standout forward. The freshman averaged 12.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game on 60.3% shooting with Team USA in Greece while starting all seven games, but his potential shines in his ability to bring size and mobility. His driving ability and aggression in the paint will likely land him in the starting lineup to start the season, while his developing shooting game can solidify his spot. With the Wildcats losing their top scorers in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, Robinson-Earl brings upside and can be the boost 'Nova needs to battle for another national championship.

Darkhorse Team to Win the Conference: Georgetown

While Seton Hall and Villanova stand out at the top, the Hoyas have a chance to break out of what will be a tightly-contested the middle of the pack in the Big East. While Georgetown has yet to break that barrier in Patrick Ewing’s tenure, it has the offensive weapons to make a statement. Georgetown finished the 2018-19 season strong, beating Villanova, Marquette and Seton Hall down the stretch, and showed promise with three Big East All-Freshmen Team players, including Freshman of the Year in James Akinjo. Looking to improve on their 19-14 record (9-9 in Big East) last season, the Hoyas have had time to grow in Ewing’s system. Along with Akinjo, Mac McClung and Josh LeBlanc anchoring the sophomore class, NC State transfer big man Omer Yurtseven will be eligible and will add his 7-foot frame to the frontcourt and to a team that has yet to show strength defensively. If Ewing’s rising stars continue their chemistry and improve on their freshman starts, and its defense starts to match the power of its offense, Georgetown can be poised to put pressure on the Big East’s best.

First Team All-Conference

Markus Howard, guard, Marquette
Myles Powell, guard, Seton Hall
Alpha Diallo, guard, Providence
Naji Marshall, forward, Xavier
Paul Reed, forward, DePaul
Sixth Man: KyKy Tandy, guard, Xavier

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Villanova

Villanova has won five of the last six Big East regular-season titles, and a mix of returning starts and a standout recruiting class can again lead the Wildcats to the top of the pack. While losing key cogs from last year’s squad that exited in the second round of the NCAA tournament in both Booth and Paschall, Jay Wright is returning junior Collin Gillespie alongside Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels while adding impressive freshmen in Robinson-Earl and Bryan Antoine. While rehab from shoulder surgery may sideline Antoine, the Wildcats are positioned to stay atop the Big East if the team’s returning starters and newcomers can make up for lost production. Wright is no stranger to making his player’s shine in his system, as he’s done with recent Wildcats drafted to the NBA such as Paschall, Ryan Arcidiacono, Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and more, and this season will likely be no different. Seton Hall will be right on Villanova’s tail, but the Wildcats’ talent level will make them tough to beat.

2. Seton Hall

Seton Hall’s ceiling starts and ends with Powell. After testing the NBA draft waters, the guard returned for his senior season in what is shaping to be an All-American-caliber year. After averaging 23.1 points per game last season on 36.3% shooting from three, Powell has proven to be one of the best shooters in college basketball and is motivated to lead the Pirates to the top of the Big East. What now makes Seton Hall a top-25 team is lineup depth, consistency and defensive acumen. The Pirates are returning four starters and their entire 2018-19 roster except one player, while adding a 7-foot, 2-inch shot-blocker in Florida State transfer Ike Obiagu. While Seton Hall struggled with offensive contribution last season outside Powell, players such as Myles Cale, Quincy McKnight and Sandro Mamukelashvili are primed for increased roles in their second years in the starting lineup. Seton Hall will need Powell to continue to score at will and come up in the clutch in order to oust Villanova in the Big East, and if so, this is a team that can go far come March.

3. Xavier

While there is a bit of a drop-off from Villanova and Seton Hall to the rest of the Big East, Xavier is another squad returning four starters and has added pieces to build off the team’s strong finish to last season. Xavier showed its potential after closing out Big East play on a 6-1 run to make up for a slow start in conference play, the surge largely led by junior forward Naji Marshall. Alongside returnees Paul Scruggs, Quentin Gooden and Tyrique Jones, Marshall leads a group of four double-digit scoring starters into the new season. While Xavier looks to get more help from its bench this season with a top recruiting class that includes two grad transfers in Ohio's Jason Carter and Western Michigan's Bryce Moore, the Musketeers will continue to find success defensively. In 2018-19 conference play, Xavier held teams to 71.2 points per game, good for second in the conference. Xavier also boasts a solid frontcourt, which led the Big East in rebounding margin (+4.3) in conference play, and Carter should bolster that strength. If Xavier can get an immediate impact from its grad transfers and five freshmen—including KyKy Tandy, who has impressed in practice so far—the team can fight to stand out from a crowded field in the middle of the Big East.

4. Marquette

After finishing second in the Big East last season and suffering a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament, Marquette had a rough offseason. Sam and Joey Hauser, the Golden Eagles’ second and third-leading scorers from 2018-19, both transferred out in the spring. While Steve Wojciechowski will miss the sharp-shooting starters, the coach returns a National Player of the Year candidate—and the 2018-19 Big East Player of the Year—in Markus Howard. Returning for his senior season, Howard can take back-to-back Big East scoring titles and is primed to become the conference’s all-time leading scorer (he needs 678 points to pass Troy Bell for the lead). Alongside Howard, Marquette returns two other starters and adds an impact transfer in guard Koby McEwen, plus seven-foot grad transfer Jayce Johnson and two freshman guards. If Marquette is to find itself at the top of the Big East pack, it will need to continue to improve on its top marks defensively in opposing field goal percentage (.405), blocked shots (4.3) and points allowed (69.5), which were all top-two in the conference last season. Marquette will face new challenges after losing two key starters, but has the pieces to make a fourth straight postseason appearance if led by a big season from Howard.

5. Georgetown

The mid-tier of the Big East is for the taking, and Georgetown is primed to take another step forward with its rising talent and tenacity. As the Hoyas move on without four-year starter Jessie Govan, the team will build off a 2018-19 season where Akinjo, McClung and LeBlanc put up standout freshman seasons as starters. Akinjo and McClung both averaged just over 13 points per game, helping the Hoyas lead the Big East in averaging 79.5 points per game in conference play. As the Hoyas are on the track to continue offensive success, Patrick Ewing’s squad will look for improvements defensively after allowing a league-worst 80.6 points in-conference last season. With transfer Yurtseven to help fill Govan’s void at center, Ewing will also have the challenge of incorporating six other newcomers to the team. The Hoyas will get more size with three new centers, which should help defensively, but it may take time to see the fruits of the team’s chemistry. While youth reigns large, Ewing’s third year leading Georgetown will see the Hoyas fighting to be the breakout team in a tightly contested middle of the Big East.

6. Creighton

Creighton returns many of its offensive pieces, but the team’s weak point may be its lack of size. After losing Martin Krampelj, its six-foot, 9-inch second-leading scorer in 2018-19, the Bluejays return redshirt sophomore Jacob Epperson and 6-foot, 11-inch grad transfer Kelvin Jones, who may offer needed help inside. While adjusting to that change, Creighton has still proven to make noise on the other side of the ball, led by perimeter shooter Ty-Shon Alexander. The team’s leading scorer from last season (15.7), Alexander shot 36.5% from three, alongside 41.9% three-point accuracy from Mitch Ballock. The Bluejays nearly led the league in three-pointers made last season (just eight behind Villanova), and in returning those playmakers it can do so again. Alexander may be set for another big jump in his game this season, but the team will need to find a rhythm on the inside to shoot ahead in the Big East.

7. Providence

Providence had a disappointing 2018-19 season, suffering from injuries and finishing with a 7-11 record in Big East play and an NIT bid. With the Friars still having their core intact this season, losing just reserves, Ed Cooley has a strong base and healthy roster to build on. The biggest part of that core is Alpha Diallo, who is as dynamic as they come in the Big East. Diallo led Providence in points (16), rebounds (8.1) and assists (3.1) last season, while also adding 1.6 steals per game. Nine players return alongside Diallo, and grad transfer Luwane Pipkins should have an immediate impact in a productive Friars offense, which ranked last in the Big East in 2018-19. Pipkins averaged 19.1 points, 4.0 assists, 11.2 rebounds and 3.0 blocks last season, and is a ready guard who can assist Diallo in the backcourt. Providence will succeed if it can lean on health, but its offense will have to find its rhythm if it wants to return to the NCAA tournament. Led by Diallo and bolstered by a returning rotation, the Friars have the pieces to compete in the Big East but will need to once again prove their standing in the league and postseason.

8. Butler

The Bulldogs return three starters from the last season to the 2019-20 squad: guards Kamar Baldwin and Aaron Thompson and forward Sean McDermott. While losing Big East Sixth Man of the Year and its second-leading scorer in Paul Jorgensen and starter Nate Fowler, respectively, Butler will depend on the trio of Baldwin, Thompson and McDermott as the core of LaVall Jordan’s lineup after starting every game together last season. Baldwin is the leading weapon that can give Big East teams problems, but Butler still struggled offensively last season, ranking next-to-last in the conference with 71.9 points per game and finishing with a 16-17 overall record. While allowing an average of 70.8 points per game last season, Butler will need to rely on 7-foot, 1-inch Valparaiso grad transfer Derrik Smits as a player to add size in the starting lineup, while Milwaukee transfer Bryce Nze will add a rebounding presence. Overall, Butler will need to fill the gaps left defensively and find consistency on offense to compete in the Big East this season, with a senior Baldwin being the point of focus for opposing teams.

9. St. John’s

A season after making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015, St. John’s enters 2019-20 after an offseason of flux. Following the departure of coach Chris Mullin, team-leading scorer Shamorie Ponds, Big East Defensive Player of the Year Justin Simon and others, the Red Storm have somewhat of a fresh slate. Mike Anderson is in as head coach and will bring his tough style of play to the roster, which will be led by Mustapha Heron and L.J. Figueroa. Both players are strong three-point shooters and averaged about 14 points per game in 2018-19, but questions remain on how Anderson will set up the lineup around the two leading figures. He has a few returnees among seven newcomers joining his squad, and it may take time to see the new-look roster meld after a coaching change. This is not a season where the Red Storm are set to make a statement in the Big East, but the team can find itself out of the bottom spot with strong play from Heron and Figueroa.

10. DePaul

The Blue Demons’ 2018-19 season was the team’s best in 12 years after reaching 19 wins, seven of those in-conference, and finishing as the runner-up in the CBI. But after taking that step forward, DePaul will find itself in a difficult position without leading-scorers Max Strus and Eli Cain. With the Blue Demons now losing that production and leadership, Dave Leitao’s squad will return two starters and bring in a ranked freshman class of seven newcomers in what will likely be a building year. DePaul returns last season’s Big East Most Improved Player in Paul Reed, who led the conference averaging 8.5 rebounds per game as a sophomore. DePaul led the Big East in rebound margin at +5.5 last season due to Reed and forward Jaylen Butz’s production, the latter of which averaged 5.7 rebounds per game. In addition to those returnees, transfer Darious Hall from Arkansas will give frontcourt help, and top-rated freshman Romeo Weems is also likely to see time in the starting lineup. The list of newcomers sees DePaul primed for future growth, but this season will be a regression as DePaul adjusts to being without top leaders and contributors in Strus and Cain.