The Big East is coming off, statistically, its weakest season since, well, maybe the 1990s. It's not just the barely acceptable four bids to the NCAA Tournament (matching lowest the league's had in three-plus decades). Beyond that, if you go by KenPom.com's algorithmic evaluation, the Big East ranked No. 6 in 2020-21, matching its lowest standing dating back to the 2001-02 season, when the then-14-team, two-division conference at least sent six teams dancing.
Are we in for another four-bid run? History suggests no. Since realigning with the Catholic 7 in 2013, the league averages 5.3 NCAA bids, and it's been the fourth-best league on average in that span. We'll see. The good news is Villanova should still be elite, giving the conference a bona fide national title contender yet again. In fact, here are my top five Big East storylines heading into the season.
- Jay Wright, fresh off his Hall of Fame induction, aims for eighth league title in nine-year span
- Xavier and UConn vying for No. 2 status
- Georgetown's curious follow-up to magical Big East Tournament title
- Shaka Smart tries to reboot Marquette -- and his career
- Expansion on the horizon with Gonzaga? Wichita State?
That last one would be a biggie if it came to pass during this season. No indication the league definitely will expand (and you can make the argument it shouldn't), but it's at least earnestly considering that as an option as we speak. Now let's get to the awards and predictions.
Big East Preseason Player of the Year
Collin Gillespie, Villanova
The super senior has 118 games, 1,264 points, 361 assists, 304 rebounds, 115 steals, five kinds of league titles and a national championship on his Villanova résumé. He's heady, yet pugnacious when the situation calls for it. As the undisputed leader of the preseason favorite, Gillespie is the only practical choice for this award heading into November. Teammate Justin Moore might eventually prove as critical, while St. John's Julian Champagnie and Xavier's Paul Scruggs will also be in the conversation later in the year. But Gillespie -- coming off an MCL injury that ended his season in March -- is a big-stage point guard with consistent two-way ability, a reliable jumper and the poise to run the show for one of the very best programs in the sport.
Big East Preseason Coach of the Year
Jay Wright, Villanova
Xavier's Travis Steele and UConn's Dan Hurley finished right behind Wright for this, but who else are we supposed to award this to prior to the regular season? If you have the overwhelming preseason favorite despite losing a first round NBA Draft pick, then go ahead and take the fake hardware. Wright, 59, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September. He has won 72% of his games at VU (490-189) and should have the Wildcats comfortably successful and easily good enough to be an NCAA Tournament team for a 10th consecutive season.
Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year
Aminu Mohammed, Georgetown
Was the first five-star commitment of Patrick Ewing's coaching tenure going to be the next prestigious big man in Georgetown lore? Not exactly. Mohammed is a two-guard and someone who will likely be a stat stuffer immediately for the Hoyas. He was ranked 23rd in his class, No. 3 among shooting guards nationally. Critically, was a local prospect out of Washington, D.C. (Before he played in Missouri later in his high school career.) For Ewing to get someone from inside the District to stay home and play for Georgetown is huge. The Hoyas are undergoing another year of roster reconstruction, but you'll want to see Mohammed play often.
Predicted order of finish
|The Wildcats have Gillespie (14.0 ppg, 4.6 apg) to lead the way, but keep in mind that junior guard Justin Moore (12.9 ppg) may well become the team's best player by the end of the season. It's not unthinkable. He's comfortable working the post and yet does so much more than that -- all the small things that make Villanova Villanova. VU also returns Jermaine Samuels (12.0 ppg) for a bonus year, which cements this group atop the league. The one guy to look out for is Bryan Antoine, who will miss the start of the season because of injury but should be back in time for league play. Toss in returnees Eric Dixon and Caleb Daniels, plus incoming top-50 recruit Trey Patterson, and yeah, Nova stays winning.|
|This should be the best season yet under fourth-year coach Travis Steele. He has two preseason first team all-league guys in Zach Freemantle (16.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and Paul Scruggs (14 pts, 5.7 apg, 4.0 rpg), but the catch here is that Freemantle is out for at least the first five weeks of the season (foot), according to a source. Still, if he can be back by Christmas we like X to be No. 2 in the conference. If Freemantle's injury lingers, Xavier should be no worse than fourth and still in the NCAA tourney convo. The Musketeers return nine players from last season's team and add two solid transfers in Jack Nunge (Iowa) and Jerome Hunter (Indiana). Nunge's usage will certainly increase with Freemantle out. Xavier will win with a variety of looks, but it all starts with Scruggs, who has a case as the most reliable player in the conference. |
|Dan Hurley should have an NCAA Tournament squad for a second consecutive season. Your name to know is Adama Sanogo, who just barely missed the cut on making our top 101 players list. Sanogo is a 6-foot-9 big, high-level defender who will burn hot as this team's guiding force on both ends. For Connecticut, it's how the other players around him fill out the sheet, starting with R.J. Cole (12.2 ppg, 4.3 apg), who can't be an empty-calorie guy. The Huskies also have Isaiah Whaley, Tyrese Martin and Tyler Polley back. I don't expect the loss of James Bouknight to set this team back. In fact, I think UConn -- a No. 7 last season in the tournament -- will be one seed line higher in 2022. |
|Consider Johnnies fans like a college version of Knicks honks. They aren't as playfully maniacal as what we're seeing once or twice a week at the Garden these days, but there is a cheery optimism that's got some infectiousness to it in Queens. Julian Champagnie (19.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg) coming back is the biggest reason for that. With him in the frontcourt and Posh Alexander running point (mark me down for Alexander averaging 14 points, four assists and three steals), St. John's should make the NCAAs. The rub will be in how the transfers jell with the returnees. Mike Anderson must strike the balance as a coach to ensure this group is not just competent, but consistent.|
|The team too many are overlooking? Maybe. LaVall Jordan still has enough to keep Butler in a healthy spot in this conference. The returns of Aaron Thompson, Bo Hodges (currently injured) and Bryce Nze will prove to be gargantuan, as next season's team will need a good freshman class and a lot of growth from the younger guys in this group in order to keep Butler in the better half of the Big East. One such player is sophomore combo guard Chuck Harris, who will make that jump if his shot selection appreciably improves. |
|Toughest team to peg in the Big East. The Hall still has guys capable of beating almost any team in this league on a given night. Jared Rhoden, a 6-6 combo forward, will probably average 15 points, as could Myles Cale. That's a solid 1-2 wing duo. Why not make it a trio? Newcomer Kadary Richmond is getting a lot of buzz as the potential newcomer of the year in the conference. Richmond averaged 6.3 points, 3.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds in 21 minutes last season at Syracuse, so we'll wait and see on that. This team has one of the tougher nonconference schedules, so let's agree to grade on a curve before Christmas. |
|Who's going to be the guy in Omaha? Freshman Ryan Nembhard is projected to be the best of 'em, though I admittedly have a hunch that lead guard Rati Andronikashvili -- who sat out last season with a torn ACL -- is going to grow into a very good four-year player. A former top-100 prospect, Andronikashvili will get to play off another promising young player: Arthur Kaluma. Creighton is undergoing a rebuild, though. No Big East team had more changeover in roster than the Jays -- and that includes a new starting five. One returnee: 7-footer Ryan Kalbrenner, who was a 10-feet-and-in guy last season but should double his minutes in '21-22. |
|I have a soft spot for teams that wind up being escorted by traditional big men. It's not crazy-rare in college hoops, but it's no longer the way a staff seeks to build out its roster. Providence will be in that spot this year, though. Fifth-year big Nate Watson (who could be an 18-and-8 guy if he commits to rebounding) is one of the five best players in the Big East and will have to bring it every night to give the Friars a chance at making the Dance. He'll have help in the form of 6-6 wing A.J. Reeves. Ed Cooley was able to bring back enough to prevent this from being a lost season. Keep an eye out for Indiana transfer Al Durham, too. |
|It's not like Shaka Smart has nothing in his first season in Milwaukee. Marquette's primary issue will be how the parts fit and who can emerge and be the players who adapt to Smart's scheme and coaching style. MU fans can be encouraged by Maryland transfer Darryl Morsell, who could be a top-three defender in the conference. Justin Lewis will have a glow-up season as well. If MU can manage to make it to the NIT in Smart's first season, that would be a huge win. |
|As noted above, the Hoyas will try to recapture some of the magic they had during the league bracket at MSG in March. The fact that Georgetown will have Mohammed, a freshman, as its best player could be a good thing and a not-so-good thing. Kaiden Rice, a transfer from The Citadel, has tempting potential -- and he'll need to acclimate to transferring up to keep Georgetown in the middle of the pack in this league. Dante Harris returns, which is key, and here's a storyline you'll see plenty: freshman Ryan Mutombo joins the program where his father, Dikembe, started his Hall of Fame basketball journey. |
|DePaul fans have been waiting almost two generations for relevancy and reason for true optimism within the program. If new coach Tony Stubblefield is the guy, this will be the last time for a long time that the Blue Demons are placed at the bottom of the preseason ledger. DePaul has well-traveled vet Javon Freeman-Liberty atop its roster, while Oregon transfer Jalen Terry might only be a secret in this conference for a few weeks before his prospectus starts to change.|
Most overrated team
Butler will not be overrated on a national level; we are only discussing this in the context of our league preview and where we as a collective are projecting each team. So I will fade the Bulldogs, who I don't think are finishing in the top half of the league. Personal prediction: Seventh place and 19 wins at season's end.
I'm not saying Ed Cooley's team is a guarantee to make the Big Dance. But with Nate Watson firmly in the conversation as one of the five best players in the Big East, the Friars are being too collectively doubted by my colleagues above in the eight hole. Personal prediction: Sixth place, PC finishes the season with 23 wins and makes the NIT.