The upcoming college basketball season will be a milestone for the Big East as the University of Connecticut, one of the conference’s seven original members, makes its return.
UConn comes back to the Big East after spending seven seasons in the AAC, during which time the program won a national title in 2014. The Huskies, coming off a 19–12 season, will now carry their program and a strong recruiting class into a competitive Big East field.
The 2019–20 season saw Villanova, Seton Hall and Creighton split the regular-season crown. A largely up-for-grabs year will now be followed by one with new leaders, as the past two conference players of the year, Markus Howard and Myles Powell, have both graduated.
The Big East is coming off a bounce-back year after an underperforming 2018–19 season, but the upcoming year will be ripe with adjustments. The current offseason has seen the transfers of Georgetown’s Mac McClung and St. John’s LJ Figueroa, in addition to Ty-Shon Alexander declaring for the NBA draft. The conference’s standout player award will be for the taking in the reshaped Big East, providing for what should be an entertaining battle atop the league and with a returning challenger.
With a theme of change in the Big East’s offseason, here is an early look at power rankings and burning questions for the conference’s 2020–21 season.
Big East Summer Power Rankings
1. Villanova: The Wildcats will be expected to be in national-title-contender form as they return nearly their entire roster from the prior year, grounded by depth and strong shooting. The team loses Saddiq Bey to the NBA draft, but returns reigning Big East Freshman of the Year Jeremiah Robinson-Earl who will complement senior point guard Collin Gillespie in a year with high expectations.
2. Creighton: The 2019–20 season saw the Bluejays surge, setting up for a strong 2020–21 year—but the team has suffered a blow by Alexander’s decision to remain in the NBA draft. Still, Creighton is expected to thrive off its efficient offense and compete for the Big East crown, powered by a strong returning core and point guard Marcus Zegarowski.
3. Seton Hall: The Pirates will be without All-American first-teamer Powell, guard Quincy McKnight and big man Romaro Gil, who all grounded the team’s success last season. The trio’s exit leaves unknown expectations, but Seton Hall has established its place as a contender in the Big East over the past five seasons. The team will be led offensively by Sandro Mamukelashvili and buoyed by grad transfer Bryce Aiken, with seniors Myles Cale and Shavar Reynolds providing support in a season where Seton Hall will look to continue momentum without its reliable scorer.
4. UConn: A rising sophomore core of James Bouknight, Akok Akok (who is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon) and Jalen Gaffney have UConn positioned to continue the momentum from the end of its 2019–20 season. Under coach Dan Hurley for a third season and with a strong incoming class, UConn will be challenged but has the pieces to develop and hold its own in its first season back in the Big East.
5. Xavier: The Musketeers struggled to find an offensive identity in the 2019–20 season, ranking 193rd in the country in points per game (70.7) and finishing sixth in the Big East (19-13). In order for Xavier to break out of the middle of the pack, Paul Scruggs will have to help fill the offensive void left by Naji Marshall and Tyrique Jones’s departures, while players such as Zach Freemantle and KyKy Tandy will have opportunities to contribute more regularly in the lineup.
6. Providence: Coach Ed Cooley will have plenty of new faces on the court in 2020–21 with Alpha Diallo, Luwane Pipkins, Maliek White and Khalif Young all graduated, leaving David Duke as the team’s lone returning starter. Providence is looking to continue the momentum of its fourth-place Big East finish last season (19–12), and AJ Reeves and Nate Watson will be familiar faces looking to take a step up as starters.
7. Marquette: The Golden Eagles will enter the 2020–21 season without three starters from the previous year in Big East all-time leading scorer Howard, forward Brendan Bailey and guard Sacar Anim. Despite the losses, Marquette will have the opportunity to develop highly-touted power forward Dawson Garcia, along with top transfer guard D.J. Carton, who was granted immediate eligibility after leaving Ohio State.
8. Butler: The Bulldogs are another Big East roster that experienced great turnover in the offseason with the losses of leader Kamar Baldwin, Sean McDermott, Khalif Battle and Jordan Tucker. For Butler to separate itself among the bottom of the Big East, it will have to utilize big men Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden, while transfer guard Jair Bolden must help run an efficient offense.
9. St. John’s: In its first season under coach Mike Anderson, St. John’s took a step up offensively and proved to be competitive despite a 5–13 Big East mark—but the team was thrown a curveball during the offseason when leading-scorer Figueroa decided to transfer to Oregon. The Red Storm will have to rely on Rasheem Dunn, Gregg Williams, Marcellus Earlington and guard Julian Champagnie to lead the charge and adjust without Figueroa’s 14.5 points per game.
10. Georgetown: After a 2019–20 season that saw Georgetown lose key figures, Mac McClung dealt the team another blow when he chose to transfer to Texas Tech. The Hoyas, who were already expecting the loss of big man Omer Yurtseven to the NBA draft, will have to find a new go-to playmaker if they look to find their way to the middle of the Big East pack.
11. DePaul: Non-conference success for the Blue Demons last season turned into a poor 3–15 showing in conference play, and the loss of Paul Reed to the NBA draft will not make the 2020–21 season any easier. With the team also losing its third-leading-scorer, Jalen Coleman-Lands, as a transfer, DePaul will be left with another season to develop its young talent with senior Charlie Moore likely leading the way.
Big East Burning Questions
1. How large of an impact can UConn make in its first year back in the Big East?
Many UConn fans are likely happy to be out of the AAC, during which time the program reached the NCAA tournament just once after its 2014 title, but some may also have high expectations for the Huskies in the Big East. While losing leading-scorer Christian Vital, the team is gaining size in three top freshmen, including Andre Jackson and Adama Sanogo, and adding experience in Rhode Island transfer Tyrese Martin.
UConn has youth to its advantage, as its rising sophomore core of Bouknight, Akok (who is expected to return to the court in January) and Gaffney provide the foundation of the Huskies’ improved offense in 2019–20. Hurley will especially look to guard Bouknight to continue his production after averaging 13.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists in his freshman season. Bouknight can take a leap in the Big East—and potentially be a top contender in end-of-season awards.
The Huskies may find difficulty in the Big East grind and in facing top talents of Villanova, Creighton and Seton Hall, but if the group can continue its offensive efficiency and provide improvements on defense, it may be able to challenge for a top-three spot in the conference and the NCAA tournament.
2. Will Villanova have the tools to compete for another national title?
Villanova shared the spotlight atop the Big East last season, but the Wildcats are entering 2020–21 with the talent to challenge nearly any team in the nation. SI’s Jeremy Woo ranked Villanova No. 1 in his way-too-early top-25, citing the team’s stability in its returning roster and positional depth.
While the Wildcats lose their leading scorer from last season in Bey to the NBA draft, Robinson-Earl is coming off a standout freshman year in which he averaged 10.5 points and 9.4 rebounds and is expected to help fill in on both ends of the court. Senior point guard Gillespie and sophomore guard Justin Moore add reliability to the starting lineup, while Bryan Antoine will have a chance to grow with increased minutes. In addition, transfer Tulane guard Caleb Daniels should fit into coach Jay Wright’s system off the bench and on the wing.
Teams such as Gonzaga, Baylor and Virginia will be highly-ranked entering the 2020-21 season, but Villanova’s solid foundation combined with individual potential leave the team with high expectations in the Big East and NCAA. A third championship in the past six seasons is not off the table.
3. What is Creighton’s ceiling without Ty-Shon Alexander?
If one team is to challenge Villanova atop the Big East, it will likely be Creighton; the Bluejays run an efficient offense, while new pieces will likely help the defense this season. What may hold Creighton back from recording another regular-season title, though, is the exit of Alexander, who elected to remain in the NBA draft.
In his junior season, Alexander was named to the All-Big East first team after averaging a team-leading 16.9 points, along with 5.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists. While the team will not be as much of a threat without Alexander’s production, guard Zegarowski will be tasked to step into a leading role in his junior season. After being named to the Big East All-Freshman team in 2018–19, Zegarowski was named to the All-Big East second team last season as he averaged 16.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists on 48.8% shooting. If he can get a better handle of the ball and reduce his turnovers per game (2.6), Zegarowski will be best prepared to promote his teammates’ growth and continue last season’s success.
The Bluejays would have taken an extra step with Alexander’s production, but with Zegarowski leading the team’s core, and alongside seniors Mitchell Ballock and Damien Jefferson, Creighton can be better tooled to contend both in the Big East and NCAA.
4. Which team is better prepared to contend after losing its top star—Seton Hall or Marquette?
The Big East lost two first-team All-Americans and top-10 scorers in conference history with the departures of Powell and Howard, who graduated after last season. Both players had their senior seasons cut short due to COVID-19, losing chances at final runs in March Madness. Sharp-shooting Powell powered Seton Hall as he averaged 21.0 points while dealing with injuries, and Howard was the identity of Marquette’s offense while averaging 27.8 points.
Both teams will have growing pains in adapting to life without their leading stars, but Seton Hall should be better prepared to contend during the 2020–21 season. While losing their starting point guard, McKnight, and center, Gill, the Pirates are returning versatile forward Mamukelashvili while adding experience at guard with Harvard grad transfer Aiken. In addition, Seton Hall returns Cale and Reynolds, two players well-versed in coach Kevin Willard’s system and who have stepped up in big moments in past seasons.
Marquette, which also lost second-leading-scorer Anim to graduation, will have the larger adjustment, as it is losing an average of 40.9 points from Howard and Anim alone. Players like McEwen will have the opportunity to take a step forward, but the team is coming off a season in which it finished sixth in the Big East and lost six of its last seven games. With its roster, Seton Hall has better odds to continue its March Madness streak, while Marquette may use the season as a stepping stone year toward a larger resurgence in 2021–22.
5. What is Georgetown’s season outlook without Mac McClung?
Hoyas fans were expecting McClung to test the NBA draft waters, but his decision to transfer from the program was a bit of a curveball. Coach Patrick Ewing stated prematurely that McClung was planning to withdraw from the draft and return to Georgetown, but the now-Texas Tech commit said “a number of different events” led to his decision to leave.
The new reality leaves Georgetown yet again in rebuilding mode after a year with much turnover. Last season was aimed to be one in which the program would make its leap under Ewing, but the team ended up losing a majority of its core when James Akinjo, Josh LeBlanc, Galen Alexander and Myron Gardner transferred from the program. The actions occurred after LeBlanc, Alexander and Gardner were accused of harassing and threatening a female student on campus.
Georgetown experienced a taste of life without McClung last season as he dealt with a foot injury, but now without Yurtseven, the roster will likely have further ground to account for. Players such as Jahvon Blair and Jamorko Pickett stepped up down the stretch last season, while rising sophomore big man Qudus Wahab has shown potential. Georgetown tied for eighth in the Big East last season with a 5–13 conference record, and 2020–21 may bring more of the same—with hope for growth and consistency within the roster.
6. Which team is shaping up to be the sleeper of the conference?
The Big East is familiar with having a logjam of teams fighting for seeding by the time the end of conference play comes, and throwing UConn in the mix will likely provide for further drama with an added opponent. While Villanova and Creighton are on track to remain atop the Big East in 2020–21, much of the seeding will again be up for grabs based on the unknown from many of the offseason’s additions and subtractions.
Besides UConn’s status as a wild card, Butler will be a team to look out for as a sleeper to work up the Big East ranks.
For Butler, Baldwin’s departure is a tough blow. The Bulldogs are not only losing their leading scorer, but their top ball-handler and leader. In addition, Butler will be without its top perimeter shooters last season with the losses of McDermott and Tucker. To counter those departures, however, Butler is bringing in one of the top recruiting classes in the Big East, with South Carolina transfer Bolden looking to lead the way at point guard. The Bulldogs will also benefit from returning guard Aaron Thompson, who will look to take a step up in offensive efficiency while keeping up his top defense.
In addition, the Bulldogs can be built to surprise in the Big East with standout seasons from big men Nze and Golden, who are both coming off strong years. Butler has been known to overachieve based on preseason outlooks, and coming off a fifth-place finish in the Big East last year, the largely new-look team will be tested on how quickly it will mesh under coach LaVall Jordan. This may be a rebuilding year for Butler, but if it can make up for lost offense and leadership, it would not be surprising to see the Bulldogs work their way into the upper half of the conference.