As part of Sports Illustrated's preview of the 2020–21 men's college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the six major conferences. We've done the ACC and Big 12, and the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC are still to follow. All will be complete with our analyst's breakdown of each team and a projected order of finish.
The Big Picture
The Big East is beginning the upcoming season by welcoming a familiar face.
The conference is expanding to 11 teams in 2020–21 as the University of Connecticut rejoins the field. The program, one of the conference’s seven founding members, is returning after spending seven seasons in the AAC and winning the national championship in 2014.
The addition of UConn is no small challenge for its Big East competition: The Huskies tout a strong rising core and increasing chemistry following a 19–12 season. The Dan Hurley–coached squad will be put to the test against a conference that sent five teams to the NCAA tournament in 2019 and has been dominated by Villanova since its exit.
Last season, Seton Hall, Creighton and Villanova split the Big East regular-season crown before the conference tournament was canceled. The offseason then saw the faces of the conference, Marquette's Markus Howard and Seton Hall’s Myles Powell, graduate, while Georgetown’s Mac McClung and St. John’s LJ Figueroa transferred. Creighton also lost Ty-Shon Alexander to the NBA draft.
A reshaped Big East should provide for heightened competition and see new names rise to the top.
Conference Player of the Year: Marcus Zegarowski
The Big East’s top returning scorer, Zegarowski is primed to take the spotlight this season. The Creighton guard averaged 16.1 points on 48.8% shooting last year and is entering his junior season as the Blue Jays’ top weapon. Creighton will be without Alexander, who averaged 16.9 points last season, allowing Zegarowski to have more opportunities offensively. The Big East Preseason Player of the Year is also expected to get his teammates more involved coming off a season when he was third in the conference in assists per game (5.0). Villanova’s Collin Gillespie can challenge Zegarowski for Player of the Year, but the Creighton junior’s efficiency and distribution give him the edge heading into the new season.
Newcomer of the Year: Dawson Garcia
When taking into consideration immediate impact, Marquette freshman power forward Dawson Garcia can lead the pack. The 6' 11" forward leads the Golden Eagles’ top-25 recruiting class, bringing offensive prowess and double-double potential. The conference’s Preseason Freshman of the Year has the skill set to stretch the floor for Marquette, shooting 41.2% from three-point range in high school last year while averaging 31.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Marquette will be in need of production with Howard gone, leaving opportunities for Garcia to be a focal point of the team’s offense. Garcia may be challenged for the award by transfer teammate D.J. Carton, but his versatility should allow him to thrive and stand out in the Big East.
Dark-Horse Team to Win the Conference: Providence
The Friars finished the 2019–20 season on a six-game winning streak, and that momentum may very well carry into this year. The team is losing leading scorer Alpha Diallo, but Providence is expected to see a breakout season from junior guard David Duke, who was named to the Preseason All-Big East First Team. The Friars, who were chosen to finish third in the Big East this season in the preseason poll, have many skilled shooters, bolstered by St. Joseph’s transfer Jared Bynum. Providence is expected to be a hard out each year under Ed Cooley, but this may be the season it breaks into the top tier of the conference.
James Bouknight, guard, UConn
Collin Gillespie, guard, Villanova
Sandro Mamukelashvili, forward, Seton Hall
Marcus Zegarowski, guard, Creighton
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, forward, Villanova
Sixth Man: JaKobe Coles, forward, Butler
Predicted Order of Finish
The No. 3 Wildcats enter the 2020–21 season as legitimate national title contenders, falling in line with expectations of recent years. Jay Wright returns the core of his roster, including eight of last season’s top nine scorers, to reestablish Villanova’s offensive threat. Reigning Big East Freshman of the Year Robinson-Earl is expected to be a big contributor and provide balance inside as senior guard Gillespie builds on his 37.3% three-point shooting from last season. The team does not have a clear-cut go-to shotmaker, but with its offensive depth, it is not too large a concern. As the league has become accustomed to, another Big East title seems in the cards for Villanova.
The No. 11 Blue Jays, coming off their first share of the Big East regular-season title since joining the conference in 2013, are another group that will benefit from a largely unchanged core, led by preseason standout Zegarowski. The team will be without Alexander, who opted to stay in the NBA draft, but Zegarowski is set to take the spotlight in his junior season. Creighton has experienced top offensive efficiency with Zegarowski on the floor, branching from his three-point shooting (42.4%) and assists per game (5.0). Alexander leaves a void defensively, but Creighton is expected to build off momentum from last season and be a top challenger in the Big East and nationally.
3. Seton Hall
Seton Hall has experience on its side as it enters its first season without All-America first-teamer Powell. The Pirates lost scoring and size with the exits of Powell, guard Quincy McKnight and big man Romaro Gill, but they have upside entering the season with the addition of Bryce Aiken. The transfer guard from Harvard will be tasked with running the offense while helping fill the hole McKnight leaves defensively. Meanwhile, senior forward Mamukelashvili is expected to have a standout year after averaging 11.9 points and 6.0 rebounds in 20 games last season and testing NBA draft waters. The Pirates will have a veteran rotation, but how quickly it forms chemistry will decide where it falls with stiff competition in the middle of the standings.
The Huskies will be challenged when they enter the grind of Big East play, but the team’s depth gives it a chance to contend in its first season back in the conference. Sophomore guard Bouknight is in line for a breakout season after averaging 13.0 points and 4.1 rebounds on 46.2% shooting in his freshman year. He is joined by guard Jalen Gaffney and potentially forward Akok Akok, who is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, in a sophomore core that can make noise in the Big East. The Huskies’ size also falls to their strengths, led by seven-foot freshman Javonte Brown and 6' 11" Josh Carlton. If Bouknight becomes the go-to shotmaker and helps fill the absence of Christian Vital for UConn, the Huskies have a chance to challenge atop the Big East and return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016.
After a fourth-place finish last season, the Friars have the tools to be a top Big East threat. Though Cooley lost Alpha Diallo, Luwane Pipkins, Maliek White and Khalif Young to graduation, Providence returns talent in guards Duke and A.J. Reeves. Saint Joseph’s transfer Bynum can help facilitate and adds the playmaking abilities Providence needs. The team will have adjustments to make in losing its leaders, but if Duke can play up to his All-Big East First Team standards and the offense lives up to expectations, the Friars can make the jump to top three in the conference.
There is room for improvement for the Musketeers after struggling down the stretch last season. Xavier enters the new year with a top-25 recruiting class, highlighted by guards Dwon Odom, C.J. Wilcher and Colby Jones, and will look for a renewed focus on offense. Last season, the Musketeers ranked 193rd in the country in points (70.7) and 254th in turnovers (13.9) per game. Xavier will look to senior Paul Scruggs to step up as the offensive leader after averaging 12.7 points and 4.5 rebounds on 46.3% shooting last season, while sophomore guard KyKy Tandy will likely see an increased role. With more offensive weapons, the Musketeers will need to take care of the ball and find consistency in closing out games this season.
The Golden Eagles may need time to adjust to life without Howard, but they are entering the season with new length and depth. Marquette sports the Big East’s highest-ranked recruiting class, led by Ohio State transfer guard Carton and conference preseason Freshman of the Year Garcia. In the paint, senior center Theo John will anchor an expanded group of big men, including freshmen Osasere Ighodaro and Justin Lewis. The team will be without a clear volume scorer, but Carton can apply increased distribution in an offense that has largely been powered by Howard the past four seasons.
8. St. John’s
St. John’s has the depth and tenacity to surpass its eighth-place finish last season, but questions lie in who will step up offensively. The team returns a handful of rotation players, but it has to make up for losing its top two scorers and leaders from last season in Figueroa and Mustapha Heron. The Red Storm have upside in returning guards Rasheem Dunn and Julian Champagnie, the latter of whom averaged 9.9 points and 6.5 rebounds in his freshman season, and add transfer guard Vince Cole to the mix. St. John’s has proved to be a tough competitor under coach Mike Anderson, but the talent in the middle of the Big East field may have the edge heading into the season.
The Bulldogs enter the new season without reigning leading scorers Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott. The team boasts its best recruiting class in program history, led by top forward Coles, and will have to rely on its defense to help make up for lost production. Butler allowed just 62.1 points per game last season, best in the Big East and 12th-best in the country. The team returns three starters—guard Aaron Thompson, forward Bryce Golden and big man Bryce Nze—and should benefit from the addition of transfer guard Jair Bolden.
DePaul, coming off a 10th-place Big East finish, enters the new season with increased depth and a leader in Charlie Moore. A preseason All-Big East First Team selection, Moore has proved himself to be a challenge for Big East competition, ranking top-10 in points (15.5), assists (6.1) and steals (1.5) last season. Joining Moore will be three transfers, Ray Salnave, Javon Freeman-Liberty and Pauly Paulicap, who can provide more offensive options for the Blue Demons.
The 2020–21 season will be the Hoyas’ first without McClung, the team’s reigning leading scorer who opted to transfer to Texas Tech in the offseason. Georgetown’s roster has experienced heavy turnover over the past year and may look to take advantage of its size among the young roster. Sophomore big men Qudus Wahab and Timothy Ighoefe may be featured in the Hoyas’ scheme as the team lacks the offensive depth of its Big East competition.