This weekend, as some would say, marks the unofficial start to summer. But before everyone settles into their people-watching and day-drinking ways, let’s power rank the Big East conference six months before the start of the season. And since that blazing star in the sky along with the copious amounts of alcohol is likely to destroy a few brain cells, we’ll revisit and likely modify this list in the fall.
1. Marquette Golden Eagles
It’s unlikely that anyone was tagging Marquette as a serious Final Four contender if Vander Blue had returned for his senior season, but their chances of reaching the third weekend of the NCAA Tournament would have been much higher if he did. Nonetheless, the Golden Eagles return big men Davante Gardner and Chris Otule, along with Todd Mayo to run the point and Jamil Wilson as a stretch forward. Juan Anderson has also elected to return to the team after contemplating transferring. That’s an already solid group that will allow Marquette to contend in the Big East, but they are also welcoming the best recruiting class in the conference and the 11th best in the country per ESPN. JaJuan Johnson, shooting guard, is the 27th ranked player in the 2013 class, Deonte Burton, small forward, the 39th, and Duane Wilson, point guard, the 53rd. So it seems safe to say that there should be plenty of talent on the floor at all times with this team. But we can’t forget their fearless leader, Buzz Williams, who could be the most important reason for this team’s success. My colleague, Frank O’Brien, recently analyzed the 10 Big East coaches and came to the conclusion that Buzz was the best of the bunch – an opinion that I agree with. Buzz has done nothing but win and has taken teams that the public hasn’t really cared for to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in each of the last three years. Marquette is the likely favorite – in my opinion – to win the newly reconfigured Big East, which would make the Golden Eagles back-to-back champs.
2. Georgetown Hoyas
Georgetown did not have a single senior on the roster last season, which actually meant something in the rough and tough ‘old’ Big East, and they still won a share of the Big East championship with Louisville and Marquette. Unfortunately, much of their success was a result of the play of first team All-American Otto Porter, who has since left for the NBA. Stating that losing Porter hurts is an understatement, but that doesn’t mean this team shouldn’t contend for a Big East title again this year. They will be returning the other four starters – Markel Starks at the point, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera who could be primed for a breakout season at the two guard, Nate Lubick down low and Jabril Trawick in a hybrid type role. The Hoyas will also bring in ESPN’s 63rd ranked player, Reggie Cameron, who is a 6-foot-7, 210 pound power forward. However, the most important player on the roster could be Greg Whittington, who will return after only playing 13 games last season before being suspended for the remainder of the season due to academic reasons. Whittington won’t be an All-American, but he’ll do a decent job filling the void left by Porter at that same position.
3. Creighton Bluejays
Unlike Georgetown, Creighton will be returning their first team All-American forward next season – that player being Doug McDermott. Dougie McBuckets fortunately opted to come back for his senior season and delay the NBA for one more year, otherwise the Bluejays transition into the Big East could have been a rough go. My colleague, J.P. Scott, did a post about a month ago focusing on the lineup Creighton could roll out next year. I suggest reading it, but in short, beyond McDermott there are question marks at almost every position. Gregory Echenique will no doubt be a tough body to replace, but there will be options. And if Grant Gibbs can somehow finagle a sixth year of eligibility, that would be a huge boost to their back court. Nevertheless, when you have a scorer as prolific as McDermott, you will be competitive each and every night. Now if they can only work on that defense this year…
4. St. John’s Red Storm
St. John’s, like Georgetown, didn’t have a single senior on the roster last season. Actually, they didn’t even have a single junior on the team a year ago. That youth showed when they sputtered down the stretch losing 9 of their last 12 games. The 2013-14 season should be different, and a NCAA Tournament berth will be expected with this squad. Most notably, the Red Storm return two key players who were freshman last season – JaKarr Sampson and Chris Obekpa. Sampson was the Big East Rookie of the Year while Obekpa lead the nation in blocked shots percentage. Along with those two, the other three starters D’Angelo Harrison (who will hopefully be more focused and disciplined this season), Phil Greene and Sir’Dominic Pointer all return. Amir Garrett is the only player who will be missing from last year’s squad as he has elected to transfer. However, the Johnnies got an enormous boost when they landed 5-star recruit Rysheed Jordan in April. Jordan, ESPN’s 17th ranked player, is a big point guard who should flourish on both ends of the floor given his athletic abilities. Jordan’s role should allow Harrison to play more freely, and these two with Greene will create a very dangerous back court. Jordan is the likely favorite for Big East rookie of the year, which would make three in a row for St. John’s – joining Sampson and Moe Harkless. I have a feeling Coach Lavin is going to have fun with this team.
5. Villanova Wildcats
In almost any other conference Ryan Arcidiacono would have been the likely favorite to win rookie of the year. But JaKarr Sampson was too consistently dominant on a weekly basis to not get that recognition. Nevertheless, Arcidiacono made the Wildcats an exciting and competitive team that was supposed to be in a rebuilding year. However, even after a rough start to the season where they lost to Columbia, the Wildcats squashed those low expectations and beat three top-5 ranked teams and earned an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. They will be losing some size heading into next season as Mouphtaou Yarou and Maurice Sutton have both graduated, but look for Daniel Ochefu to step up. And Villanova is bringing in two top-100 recruits – Kris Jenkins (73) and Josh Hart (92) – to keep the influx of talent at a high level. Jay Wright already has a star in Arcidiacono, but look for JayVaughn Pinkston to emerge as one of the best scoring threats in the conference. Last year Pinkston averaged 13.3 points in only 26.1 minutes played per game.
The Bulldogs will be making the transition to the Big East without their two best scorers from a year ago, Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith, who have both been lost to expired eligibility. Clarke was regarded as one of the finest sharp-shooters in the country, while Smith gave Butler a big presence in the paint. Roosevelt Jones, Khyle Marshall and Kellen Dunam will run this team, but they are all perimeter players for the most part. The Bulldogs will be welcoming four 3-star recruits, but not one of those guys is taller than 6-foot-8. And of the returning players who were in limited roles a year ago, not one of them is bigger than 6-8 either. Size could be a problem for Butler, but thankfully for them they aren’t entering the Big East of the last decade. And much like the rule of never discounting a Buzz Williams team, you should never overlook the work that Brad Stevens can do.
7. Providence Friars
Last year was supposed to be different for Providence. A highly touted recruiting class that included Kris Dunn and Ricky Ledo, along with incoming transfer Sidiki Johnson was supposed to team up with Vincent Council, Bryce Cotton and Kadeem Batts to form PC’s most talented team in quite some time. But things didn’t go as hoped when Ledo was ruled a partial qualifier, Dunn needed shoulder surgery that would sideline him till late December, Council tweaked his hamstring five minutes into the season and Johnson walked away from the team 11 games into the season. The loss of Council this year will no doubt hurt – he was one of the best true point guards in the country – but the loss of Ledo and Johnson is probably for the better of the program. Coach Cooley is in year three of turning the program around and he doesn’t need anyone around who will only make things more difficult. Everybody else returns, including Cotton to defend his Big East scoring title, but that will be much more difficult this year with McDermott in the picture. The Friars will welcome 4-star recruit and ESPN’s 56th ranked player, Brandon Austin, who will get time at small forward. Dunn will run the show, and we all know that Cotton can fill the bucket playing off the ball, but it could be Batts that emerges as the real difference maker on this team. Last year, while slightly disappointing, was still a step in the right direction for Providence. A trip to the NCAA Tournament will once again be the expectations and it seems they have the pieces in place to make that jump. I wanted to put the Friars higher, but I found it difficult to justify for the time being. Look for this upcoming Big East season to be filled with parody.
Xavier’s final season in the A-10 wasn’t very memorable. They finished in the middle of the pack of the conference, went one-and-done in their conference tournament, and didn’t even receive a bid for the NIT. The Musketeers are usually one of those teams that the casual hoops fan doesn’t pay attention to during the regular season, but they know they ought to pick them to win at least one game in the NCAA Tournament because they usually do just that. However, that wasn’t the case last year and likely won’t the case this year as they make the move to the Big East. Xavier will make the transition without arguably their best player from a year ago, Travis Taylor, who has since graduated. Brad Redford, easily their best 3-point shooter last year, and Jeff Robinson will also be missed after graduating. Semaj Christon returns, and will look to replicate his stellar freshman year in which he lead the team in points, assists and minutes played per game. Xavier did land top-100 recruit Brandon Randolph (86), a point guard, but without any other significant arrival of talent to look forward to, role players from last year will need to improve. This means that Dee Davis and Justin Martin, both starters last year now entering their junior season, will need to elevate their game so that Christon is not the only scoring threat on the squad. It seems as if Xavier’s first full season in the newly formed Big East could be a rough one, but they’ve done more with less in the past.
9. Seton Hall Pirates
It’s difficult to evaluate Seton Hall’s 2012-13 season as almost the entire team was hurt at one point or another throughout the year. Only four players played in all 33 games, and Fuquan Edwin, the team’s best player who was one of the lucky ones who managed to suit up for them all, was actually playing injured for most of the season. It’s also difficult to forecast the upcoming season for the Pirates given some turnover and players returning from these aforementioned injuries. Edwin returns for his senior year, as does Eugene Teague, who needs to become much more aggressive this year, and they are the only two healthy starters at the end of the year that will be back. Aaron Cosby has opted to transfer, Kyle Smyth graduated this spring, and Tom Maayan may or may not be serving an obligated military stint in Israel. Brandon Mobley, Patrik Auda, Haralds Karlis, and Kevin Johnson will all be returning from injuries and surgeries, but there is no telling at this point how effective or ready they will be at the start of the season. Seton Hall is bringing in three recruits including ESPN top-100 player Jaren Sina (96), a point guard, along with Jerron Wilbut, a 3-star shooting guard, and Stephane Manga, a small forward – so hopefully they will be healthy at the start of the year. It’s difficult to fathom that Seton Hall will be as unlucky with injuries this year as they were last. And if they are a bit luckier with the injury bug this year there is talent on this team, which means this ranking is probably too low. But until we see this team at full strength, the Pirates are relegated to the near bottom for now.
10. DePaul Blue Demons
Maybe the departure of some teams along with the entry of new faces into the Big East will be just what DePaul needs to finally turn it around. The Blue Demons haven’t made it back to the NCAA Tournament since 2004 and haven’t even won a Big East tournament game since 2009. Cleveland Melvin is a stud as a stretch forward and Brandon Young is a lethal shooter, and both will be back for their senior seasons, but these two need a lot of help. First of all, DePaul needs to learn that defense is not optional – it’s actually highly recommended. And secondly, they may want to try playing with some control this year. Last year’s run-n-gun style was fun to watch, but was far from effective. Four players, none of them starters from a year ago, have opted to transfer as I’m assuming they were sick of watching all that losing from the bench. But the Blue Demons are bringing in five recruits, including three with some considerable potential. Billy Garrett, Jr., a point guard, is the 94th ranked recruit in the 2013 class per ESPN, and will likely assume the point guard duties right away. R.J. Curington, a 3-star shooting guard, and Thomas Hamilton, Jr., a 2-star center, should both expect to get decent playing time immediately. DePaul is set to build a new arena and if they want any fans in it when it opens in a few years they better start winning now. Melvin can only do so much. Others need to step up. Until that happens, the rest of the Big East will be putting a ‘W’ in ink next to DePaul when the schedules come out in a few months.
Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend!
And one last thing before you light up the grill – be sure to like the Play For The Garden Facebook page and follow myself and the site on Twitter at @ShaneInBigEast and @Play4TheGarden. And yes, I know I have a terrible twitter handle. I’m working on fixing that.
Topics: Basketball, Big East, Butler Bulldogs, Creighton Bluejays, DePaul Blue Demons, Georgetown Hoyas, Marquette Golden Eagles, Power Rankings, Providence Friars, Seton Hall Pirates, St. John's Red Storm, Villanova Wildcats, Xavier Musketeers