As part of Sports Illustrated’s preview of the 2021–22 men’s college basketball season, we’re breaking down each of the seven biggest conferences (AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC), plus a “best of the rest.” All will be complete with our analyst’s breakdown of each team, plus a projected order of finish drawn from SI’s master 1–358 rankings, to be revealed before the season’s kickoff. Next up is the Big East.
The Big Picture
The Big East finds itself in an all-too-familiar position: with Villanova as the top threat and potential national championship contender, and the rest of the field vying for an upset. UConn is shaping up to be the Wildcats’ top competitor this season for the Big East crown, despite James Bouknight’s departure. Meanwhile, more intrigue in the conference lies in new Marquette coach Shaka Smart and the identity he will bring to the Golden Eagles’ program. Xavier and Seton Hall will be among the teams vying for the top as well, but there is a distinct gap between Villanova and the rest of the conference. Which team will be the one to step up?
Conference Player of the Year: Collin Gillespie, Villanova
Collin Gillespie was named Big East Player of the Year alongside teammate Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Seton Hall’s Sandro Mamukelashvili last season, and he may very well go back-to-back with the honor this year. The Villanova captain has unfinished business after suffering a season-ending knee injury late last season and opting to return for a fifth year. The Wildcat guard paced the team last year with averages of 14.0 points and 4.6 assists, while sporting a conference-best 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio. Gillespie’s steady hand and leadership puts him at the forefront of impact players in the Big East in 2021–22.
Newcomer of the Year: Aminu Mohammed, Georgetown
A McDonald’s All-American, incoming guard Aminu Mohammed is expected to make an immediate impact on a Georgetown squad lacking veteran talent. Mohammed has the potential to be explosive offensively for the Hoyas after scoring 2,709 points in his prep career. Georgetown will have a young group, losing its leaders from last year’s Big East tournament–winning season, and Mohammed will have a great opportunity to contribute at a high level under Patrick Ewing’s guidance.
Dark-Horse Team to Win the Conference: St. John’s
Is this the year St. John’s breaks through to the Big Dance under Mike Anderson? The Red Storm found their stride down the stretch with a six-game winning streak last season, but it wasn’t quite enough for a March Madness berth. With Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander leading the way, the Red Storm are well-equipped to make some noise in the Big East.
Collin Gillespie, Grad., Villanova
Paul Scruggs, Grad., Xavier
Julian Champagnie, Jr., St. John’s
Jared Rhoden, Grad., Seton Hall
Nate Watson, Grad., Providence
SI's Predicted Order of Finish
The Wildcats again find themselves with a top-five preseason ranking and have their sights set beyond last year’s Sweet 16 exit. The team returns four of last year’s starters, though it will greatly miss Robinson-Earl, who entered the NBA. Villanova does return Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, who will each be key in the team’s success. If the team can strengthen its defense and interior presence to complement its exterior threat, a third championship in seven years is not out of the question.
Despite losing top player Bouknight, all the pieces seem to be falling into place for UConn. Coming off a third-place Big East finish and NCAA tournament berth last season, the Huskies enter the new year with their first preseason top-25 ranking in five years. R.J. Cole and Tyrese Martin will be depended on to make up for Bouknight’s lost production, while a strong freshmen class will be worked in to strengthen the rotation. If UConn can match its offensive production to its strong defense, it will have the best chance to challenge Villanova at the top.
3. Seton Hall
The Pirates fell short of the NCAA tournament last season after losing momentum down the stretch. Though the team lost star Mamukelsahvili to the NBA, it returned guards Myles Cale and Bryce Aiken and adds a transfer class highlighted by Kadary Richmond. Meanwhile, the team will look to senior guard Jared Rhoden, who has the potential to be a conference Player of the Year candidate, as the new leader. Questions remain as to Seton Hall’s chemistry and consistency, but the talent is there to return to the Big Dance.
The Musketeers’ depth will be tough to beat this season, led by two of the best players in the Big East. Paul Scruggs and Zach Freemantle, who is rehabbing a foot injury but is expected to play this season, anchor Xavier’s attack while returning seven of last season’s top scorers. Transfers Jerome Hunter and Jack Nunge add to the team’s arsenal that is looking to break through offensively. If the three-point scoring can take a step up this year and the team can stay healthy, Xavier could find itself moving its way up the AP Top 25 poll.
5. St. John’s
The Red Storm have the pieces in place to establish themselves as a top Big East opponent. Much of the excitement revolves around Champagnie, who led the Big East in scoring last year and opted to return to St. John’s for his junior season. Alexander is also expected to be among the best players in the conference and help make St. John’s a contender. The Red Storm will be motivated to prove themselves as a tournament team, and if the supporting cast can step up, St. John’s can be a dangerous opponent come March.
The Friars have proven themselves to be a tough out each year under coach Ed Cooley, and that doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon. Providence lost top guard David Duke to the NBA, leaving Nate Watson to step into the spotlight. Watson was third in scoring in the Big East last season (16.9) while A.J. Reeves and transfers Justin Minaya and Al Durham round out the picture. It is a mistake to ever underestimate a Providence team, and this season will be no different with Watson at the forefront.
The Bulldogs sport a mix of new and returning talent that will have to prove it can hold its own against the Big East’s top teams. Chuck Harris is fit for another explosive season after leading Butler in scoring as a freshman. Though Harris is young, Butler’s roster will be veteran-heavy with six seniors, including graduate big Bryce Nze. With scorers young and old, Butler will be challenged to find a balance among its talent, while Harris can continue to blossom as a star in the conference.
The Bluejays will have a brand new look after losing their top five scorers from last season. Still, Creighton enters the new year with its best-ever recruiting class, which includes seven freshmen who have the potential to make an immediate impact. The team also added two graduate-level players in Ryan Hawkins and KeyShawn Feazell, while Ryan Nembhard will be among the team’s top weapons. The Bluejays will be inexperienced, but could be among the more fun and explosive teams in the conference with their young talent.
The Golden Eagles enter the season with new leadership under former Texas coach Smart. The roster is nearly brand new, too, with eight new players joining and just two top-rotation players remaining. Smart may have an instant impact on Marquette’s style of play, but transformation into a contender will likely take more time beyond the 2021–22 season.
The Hoyas will have to prove themselves once again, despite winning the Big East tournament last season. Georgetown lost much of its top talent and will welcome six newcomers, but Dante Harris and Donald Carey will be expected to lead the way along with Freshman of the Year candidate Mohammed. The Hoyas have the ability to get hot at the right time, but the team will first have to find chemistry among a roster of new faces.
The Blue Demons are expected to be at the bottom of the conference once again as the team continues to rebuild. Tony Stubblefield is entering his first year as coach and will attempt to navigate a difficult conference. DePaul’s roster may not be expected to make a lot of noise, but do not count it out from making an upset or two throughout the season.
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