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Big East 2020-21 conference preview: The cellar dwellers

Taking a look at what the bottom of the Big East has to offer this season.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Tournament-Xavier vs DePaul Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

By Ryan Goodman

We begin our Big East preview at the conference’s basement. It sounds like a cool place to hang out, but this is the last place any teams want to be in their effort to stay afloat in the conference. St. John’s, Georgetown, and DePaul all reside in this preseason tier according to the 2020-21 coaches’ poll — these teams will likely be sitting at the bottom of the conference come season’s end.

St. John’s Red Storm

Preseason Coaches’ Poll ranking: 9th

Head Coach: Mike Anderson (2nd season)

2019-20 KenPom Rankings: 66th overall, 104th AdjO, 53th AdjD

2019-20 record: 17-15 (5-13)

Second year head coach Mike Anderson, who is best known for his high-intensity defense and full-court press that he perfected at Arkansas, enters his second season as the Johnnies man-in-charge, taking over for the failed experiment that was Chris Mullin.

2019-20 in review

Picked to finish in the exact same spot in the 2019-20 preseason conference polls (ninth), St. John’s ended last season with a 17-15 record, good for eighth overall in the conference. So, the Johnnies very slightly outperformed expectations, and were actually sitting pretty at 11-2 nearing the end of December, coming off an impressive 70-67 win over then No. 16 Arizona. However, conference play was not kind to the Red Storm, as they proceeded to drop three straight games, and nine of the next 12. Overall, the competitiveness of the Big East appeared to be too big of a challenge for this young team.

2020-21 Outlook:

St. John’s should be slightly better this time around in Mike Anderson’s sophomore campaign, although this is far from a given. Losing their best overall player to the transfer market in guard/forward LJ Figueroa, who will likely be a starter for the Oregon Ducks pending an outstanding waiver, definitely stings. Figueroa, a former JUCO All-American, led the team with 14.5 points and 1.9 steals per game, and St. Johns will likely struggle this season to fill his shoes. Senior guard and Brooklyn native Rasheen Dunn (11.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists) will have to shoulder much of the additional responsibilities in the backcourt, and he will look for assistance from another JUCO All-American in Vince Cole, who put up nightly averages of 18.7 points and 6.2 rebounds on USC-Salkehatchie last year.

Additionally, 6-foot-8 sophomore combo guard Julian Champagnie (9.9 points, 6.5 rebounds) will look to build on his impressive freshman campaign, and potentially be the leading scorer for this team. Forwards Marcellus Earlington (9.0 points, 4.7 rebounds per game) and Josh Roberts (5.0 points, 5.8 rebounds) should provide a solid veteran frontcourt presence as well, rounding out the starting five. Although, like the teams that usually hover near the bottom of the league, having consistent contributors off the pine is likely going to be a major issue for St. John’s this season.

How they matchup against UConn

The Loss of Figueroa effectively renders any chance St. John’s had of being competitive with UConn, and frankly, the rest of the league obsolete. The Red Storm will be very thin in the frontcourt for 2020-21, and while UConn is by no means a powerhouse in this realm, the rotating unit of Isaiah Whaley, Josh Carlton, Adama Sanogo, and Javonte Brown should be enough to keep the Johnnies in check, while the backcourt does it’s thing, leading to an easy UConn victory.

DePaul Blue Demons

Head Coach: Dave Leitao (6th season)

Preseason Coaches’ Poll ranking: 10th

2019-20 KenPom Rankings: 94th overall, 165th AdjO, 56th AdjD

2019-20 record: 16-16 (3-15)

Finishing in the bottom two of the Big East for seven straight seasons, and falling to last place for three straight years, the Blue Demons of DePaul will look to break this embarrassing streak and move out of the conference’s basement this season. Head coach Dave Leitao enters his sixth year as the head coach of DePaul, continuing his second stint in the position, having previously coached the Blue Demons from 2002-05.

2019-20 in review

DePaul got off to a hot start, going 12-1 over their first 13 games with wins over Iowa and Texas Tech. However, conference play started and hit the Blue Demons like a Yancy Gates sucker-punch, as they proceeded to lose 15 out of the next 19 games en route to a last place finish in the Big East, going 3-15 in the conference and 16-16 overall. The tale of the tape was mostly on the offensive end for DePaul, who ranked 165th in adjusted offensive rating (AdjO) per Kenpom, which was by far the worst in the conference. To put this into context, Xavier, who sat at No. 103 overall in AdjO, was the second worst. Led by heady point guard Charlie Moore (15.5 points, 6.1 assists) and athletic 6-foot-9 forward Paul Reed (15.1 points, 10.7 rebounds) DePaul just wasn’t able to get enough help from their supporting cast to be competitive in a deep Big East.

2020-21 Outlook

Unfortunately, 2020-21 looks to be more of the same disappointing basketball for Leitao and the Blue Demon, as DePaul was picked to finish last in the conference once again. This is mainly due to the loss of three of their top five scorers from a season ago. The lone bright spot for DePaul fans is the return of Charlie Moore, a crafty lead guard who led the team in scoring and assists last season. However, DePaul has their work cut out for them this year, and will look to get support from transfer guard Javon Freeman-Liberty, who led Valparaiso with nightly averages of 19.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists last season. Freeman-Liberty, a Chicago native, is currently awaiting a decision by the NCAA on his waiver for immediate eligibility, and if granted, he and Moore will likely form one of the highest scoring backcourt tandems in the Big East.

DePaul does return some key frontcourt pieces in forwards Jaylen Butz (10.1 points, 5.4 rebounds per game) and Romeo Weems (8.0 points, 4.9 rebounds), but the buck basically stops there for Leitao’s squad as depth will assuredly be a big issue for them. DePaul’s prospects this season will likely come down to the aforementioned eligibility waiver for Freeman-Liberty, as well as the development of former four-star center Nick Ongenda, who played less than 10 minutes per game last season, averaging 2.7 points and 2.0 rebounds. If both of these things can happen, then DePaul’s starting five could actually stack up against most in the Big East on paper, potentially leading to some sneaky upsets. However, if only one of these two things occur, then DePaul is likely going to see another bottom two finish in the conference.

How they matchup against the UConn

The backcourt battle of these two teams should be interesting, as Charlie Moore and Javon Freeman-Liberty (pending waiver) go head to head with UConn’s R.J. Cole and James Bouknight. However, the Huskies backcourt depth with Jalen Gaffney, Tyrese Martin and Brendan Adams should prove too much for the Blue Demons to handle. DePaul may have the slight edge in the frontcourt, but the Huskies have a much more complete roster and should take care of the Blue Demons with ease.

Georgetown Hoyas

Preseason Coaches’ Poll ranking: 11th

Head Coach: Patrick Ewing (4th season)

2019-20 KenPom Rankings: 67th overall, 36th AdjO, 125th AdjD

2019-20 record: 17-15 (5-13)

Fourth-year head coach Patrick Ewing is still trying to find his groove in D.C., and the seat may be heating up for the former hall of fame center. With a combined three-year record of 50-46, the pressure is on to start fielding more competitive teams. Georgetown is a school with a tremendous amount of basketball history. Mediocrity is simply not in their DNA. This year doesn’t look very promising for the Hoyas, however, and another slightly above .500 finish will likely be in the cards.

2019-20 in review

Georgetown had a fairly strong start to the season last year, going 10-3 through their first 13 games, beating No. 22 Texas, and playing No. 1 Duke incredibly tough. On paper, the Blue Devils should have easily handled the Hoyas, but Georgetown battled from tip to buzzer, actually tying the game at half but eventually losing 81-73. The wheels then seemed to fall off from this point forward, as the Hoyas proceeded to go 5-14 the rest of the way, dropping their final seven conference games to end the year. This collapse came alongside the news that three Georgetown players - Myron Garder, Galen Alexander, and Josh LeBlanc - had all been accused of sexual assault and theft and eventually transferred. Point guard James Akinjo (13.4 points, 4.8 assists for career), a former UConn commit, also decided to transfer. Overall, it was a forgettable season for Georgetown. They had to rely much too heavily on shooting guard and hoopmixtape phenom Mac McClung (15.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists), and junior center Omer Yurtseven (15.5 points, 9.8 rebounds) to eke out any wins. Unfortunately, the blows just kept on coming for the Hoya faithful, as McClung also decided to leave the program in the offseason, transferring to Texas Tech.

2020-21 Outlook

As noted previously, Georgetown was picked to finish last in the Big East preseason coaches poll for 2020-21. They dealt with a smorgasbord of issues in a turbulent 2019-20 season that ended in a second-to-last place finish in the conference, and three major program pieces seeking solace elsewhere.

Ewing’s new look squad is expected to be led by guard Jahvon Blair (10.8 points), forward Jamorko Pickett (10.2 points, 6.3 rebounds), and Arkansas grad transfer Jalen Harris, an experienced guard who played in all 32 games for the Razorbacks a season ago. Ewing also brings in a freshman class of four newcomers, headlined by center Ryan Mutombo (No. 95 ESPN100), the son of hall of fame center and Georgtown alumnus Dikembe Mutombo. This team will likely encounter many growing pains throughout the year, and is not expected to be very competitive in a tough Big East that just became harder to navigate with the addition of UConn.

How they matchup against the UConn

Even if he goes for 20 and 10 though, UConn’s perimeter game should be way too much for the Hoyas to handle.