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Big East 2020-21 conference preview: The middle of the pack

The middle of the Big East is much stronger than the American.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Seton Hall Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

By Ryan Goodman

After taking a look at the cellar dwellers last month, we move on to the Big East’s middle pack— the teams that are on the cusp of either competing for the conference crown or being relegated to the basement. The coaches’ poll slots this tier as Seton Hall, Marquette, Xavier, and Butler. In this section we look back on the previous season for these teams, analyze what they bring to the table, and predict where they may end up at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season.

Seton Hall Pirates

Preseason Coaches’ Poll ranking: 5th

Head Coach: Kevin Willard (11th season)

2019-20 KenPom Rankings: 20th overall, 29th AdjO, 25th AdjD

2019-20 record: 21-9 (13-5)

Veteran head coach Kevin Willard enters his 12th season as the Pirates’ coach and looks to continue the momentum created from a season ago. Seton Hall was staring down a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the big dance before the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19.

2019-20 in review

Myles Powell, Myles Powell, and more Myles Powell. The 2019 Jerry West award winner and first team All-American guard was a scintillating attraction last season, finishing second in the Big East in scoring (21.0 points per game) behind his fellow All-American, Markus Howard. However it wasn’t just Powell leading the way for Seton Hall, as wiry point guard Quincy McKnight (11.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists) was counted on time and time again to run the offense and sometimes even iso-score when Powell was not on his game. Overall, the 2019-20 season was one of runs for Seton Hall, as they started the year ranked No. 12 in the nation, and then endured a brutal non-conference schedule that included the likes of No. 3 Michigan State, No. 11 Oregon, and No. 7 Maryland. The Pirates were able to win only one of those, and proceeded to lose two more games outside of conference play, dropping their second of two contests to Iowa State 76-66, and getting blown out by Rutgers 68-48.

After that, Seton Hall seemed to right the ship, as the Pirates cruised to eight consecutive victories to start conference play. Seton Hall slowed down a bit after that, splitting their next 10 games to round out the year 13-5 in conference, tied for first with Villanova and Creighton. Unfortunately for Seton Hall, the coronavirus derailed the most promising season they have had in recent memory.

2020-21 Outlook

Losing the most prolific scorer in program history stings. A lot. Powell’s ability to make heavily contested off-balance three pointers as well as a slew of other acrobatic shots seemingly at will, is going to be sorely missed by college basketball fans across the nation, especially Seton Hall die-hards. The program also loses Quincy McKnight, the Robin to Powell’s Batman, leaving Willard to completely re-tool the backcourt. Good thing he went out and grabbed the most coveted graduate transfer on the market this year in Bryce Aiken, a four-year player at Harvard who averaged 16.8 points and 2.7 assists for his career. Aiken will immediately attempt to fill the massive shoes that were left behind by Powell with his high-volume scoring pedigree (22.2 points per game in 2018-19). Joining him in the backcourt is another transferring 6-foot-5 Takal Molson from Canisius. Molson, an All-Metro Atlantic Selection a season ago, put up nightly averages of 16.9 points and 5.4 rebounds. Both of these combo-guards have score-first mentalities and are far from true floor generals, so it will be interesting how Willard splits the handling duties amongst the two.

In the frontcourt, the Pirates lose 7-foot-2 shot blocking extraordinaire Romaro Gill (7.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 blocks), who won the conference’s Defensive player of the year and Most Improved Player award, while also ranking third in the entire NCAA in blocks per game. So, it’s safe to say that his towering presence and elite rim protecting ability will definitely be missed. This leaves room for the continued development of Sandro Mamukelashvili, a 6-foot-11 senior forward from Tibilisi, Georgia, who was actually third on the team in scoring a season ago, and second in rebounding with 11.9 points and 6.0 rebounds. With the departure of Powell, McKnight, and Gill, Mamukelashvili will likely have a larger role in the offense and be counted on to lead the charge down low.

Junior guard Jared Rhoden (9.1 points, 6.4 rebounds) returns as well, complementing the high scoring duo of Aiken and Molson with tenacity and toughness on the boards and defensive end. Depth guards Shavar Reynolds (4.2 points, 1.8 rebounds) and Myles Cale (6.0 points, 3.7 rebounds) will definitely see an increase in minutes, helping round out a relatively deep backcourt for the Pirates. The recruiting haul for Seton Hall was fairly meager as they signed two three-star guards - Diminigus Stevens and Jahari Long - who will likely only see a few minutes of game action barring an injury to the two aforementioned lead transfers.

How they matchup against UConn

Get the popcorn ready. This backcourt battle should be one of the most exciting in the conference, as points will be scored in bunches when these two teams clash. Cole and Bouknight going head to head with the highly coveted transfers in Aiken and Molson is going to be a doozy. Overall Seton Hall matches up pretty well with UConn. A deep backcourt, as well as a legitimate weapon in Mamukelashvili, who the Huskies will definitely have trouble slowing down. A big question in these games will be if UConn’s bigs can stay out of foul trouble and do his best to limit Mamukelashvili. Even if this happens, the games will still likely come down to the wire.

Early Season Update

It has not been a great start to the season for the Pirates, as they sit at 4-3 right now. They can blame it on Bryce Aiken spraining his right ankle in their first game of the season which ended in a nail-biting loss to Louisville, but Seton Hall needs to figure out a viable solution to their struggles quickly or Big East play may not treat them well.

Marquette Golden Eagles

Preseason Coaches’ Poll ranking: 6th

Head Coach: Steve Wojciechowski (7th season)

2019-20 KenPom Rankings: 31st overall, 14th AdjO, 73rd AdjD

2019-20 record: 18-12 (8-10)

The Golden Eagles look ahead to life without one of the NCAA’s most prolific scorers and the highest scorer in Big East history, Markus Howard. Without a solid returning base, Steve Wojciechowski’s team could struggle early in the warzone that is the Big East conference.

2019-20 in review

The pandemic deprived college basketball fans everywhere of the opportunity for Markus Howard to get one more shot in the NCAA tournament, after the Golden Eagles were embarrassed by Ja Morant and Murray State in 2018. While Marquette was far from securing even an at-large bid to the big dance, going 18-12 overall and (8-10) in Big East play, there was still the hope that they could somehow, some way, win the Big East championship and get one of the most exciting scorers in the last 25 years to play in the tournament again.

The story for Marquette last year was the same old song and dance, as they were an adept offense team in points per game (77.8 - 28th in the country) and efficiency (14th AdjO per Kenpom), but porous on defense (73rd AdjD per Kenpom), which is what ultimately led to the aforementioned Murray State Racers dismantling them in the tournament two years ago. Of their 12 total losses last season, 11 of their opponents scored 70 or more points, and seven of the 12 put up over 80. But that’s just how Wojo’s teams roll, as Marquette has not broken the top 45 in AdjD during his six-year tenure as the head coach of the Golden Eagles, but they do have three top-15 finishes in AdjO in that span. The 2019-20 season was not going as poorly as their final record indicated for Marquette at a certain point in time, as they were sitting at 17-6 with a 7-4 mark in conference and were positioned to push for a top spot in the final conference standings. This was until they lost six of their next seven games to finish the year, netting them a sixth place finish in the conference.

2020-21 Outlook

It’s impossible to discuss Marquette basketball and not somehow mention Markus Howard, even if you are giving a preview for the season that he will not partake in. He leaves the biggest hole that any program will have to fill this season, as Howard led the NCAA in scoring at 27.8 points per game, pitching in 3.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per contest as well. He also shot a blistering 41.2% from three, on a crazy 9.2 attempts per game. He was a generational talent that will be nearly impossible to make up for with one, or even two guys in most cases. To add insult to injury, Marquette also loses their second leading scorer in Sacar Anim (13.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists) to graduation. Anim was a tough four-year player who did the dirty work for Marquette, usually strapping up the opposing team’s best offensive guard, jumping into passing lanes and creating transition opportunities, and laying out for loose balls. Senior guard Koby McEwen (9.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists) returns to lead the backcourt charge for the Golden Eagles, and he is joined by highly sought after Ohio State transfer D.J. Carton, who will be immediately eligible this season.

Carton, a former four-star recruit and top-40 player coming out of high school, took a leave of absence from the program in late January citing mental health reasons and, shortly after the season was canceled due to Coronavirus concerns, he announced his decision to transfer. McEwen and Carton could sneakily form a top-five backcourt duo in the Big East, and if former ESPN100 guard Symir Torrence can take a sizable leap in his development, Marquette could match up with a lot of talented backcourts in the Big East. The Golden Eagles will likely struggle in their 3-point shooting and in the frontcourt. Their most productive forward, Brendan Bailey (7.1 points, 5.2 rebounds), left two years early to pursue a professional career. Wojo loaded up on bigs for his 2020 recruiting class, though, as Marquette brings in three total newcomers, all power forwards, two of which are ranked in the ESPN100. Freshman Dawson Garcia (49th in ESPN100) is said to be a positionless player and inside-out scorer who will likely get the first crack at major minutes. Justin Lewis (71st ESPN100), a stout 6-foot-7 forward with a high motor and knack for snagging tough rebounds, will also provide depth.

How they matchup against the UConn

As mentioned before, this backcourt can be sneaky good. It wouldn’t be very surprising if Carton is an All-Big East performer this season. He has the talent to do it. Marquette seems to have a comparable roster makeup to UConn, albeit with less overall talent. Both teams with proven backcourts, experienced but mostly un-exciting frontcourts. The edge still does go to UConn though, as the backcourt depth for the Huskies should take over. However, these teams will likely split their games against each other this season. Marquette has just enough talent and promise to frustrate the Huskies for a game and scrap out a victory.

Early Season Update

Marquette has had just about as good a start as they can ask for, going 5-2 through their first seven games, with a home win against No. 4 Wisconsin. With their only losses coming to the Cade Cunningham-led Oklahoma State and on the road against UCLA, Marquette has to be feeling great going into conference play with a top 10 win under their belt, and a burgeoning star in freshman forward Dawson Garcia (12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds).

Xavier Musketeers

Head Coach: Travis Steele (3rd season)

Preseason Coaches’ Poll ranking: 7th

2019-20 KenPom Rankings: 45th overall, 103th AdjO, 20th AdjD

2019-20 record: 19-13 (8-10)

Travis Steele, who was promoted to the head coaching position after Chris Mack left for Louisville after the 2017-18 season, enters his third go-round as the leader of the Xavier program. With back to back seasons of 19 wins, the Musketeers will look to break the 20 win barrier for the first time in Steele’s career.

2019-20 in review

Last season was a decent sophomore campaign for third year head coach Travis Steele. The Musketeers didn’t quite live up to their fairly lofty expectations, as they were ranked No. 19 in the AP poll to start the season, and picked to finish third overall in the Big East behind heavy favorites Seton Hall and Villanova. They ended up finishing the year unranked, and seventh overall in the Big East. Non-conference play was up and down for Xavier, as they scrapped out a win against UConn in double overtime - a game known to many Husky fans as the James Bouknight coming out party, due to him dropping 19 points in his secnd career contest. Xavier came into conference play with a 11-2 mark. Xavier seemed to be unprepared for the Big East competition, as they proceeded to lose six of their first eight games during the start of conference play, and ended 8-10.

Xavier’s achilles heel was on offense, specifically ball security, as they ranked 103rd in AdjO per Kenpom, and 251st in the NCAA at 13.9 turnovers per game. This was mainly due to forwards Naji Marshall (16.8 points, 6.3 rebounds) and Tyrique Jones (14.0 points, 11.1 rebounds) having to shoulder much of the ball handling duties.

2020-21 Outlook

This upcoming season brings a lot of unknowns for Travis Steele’s squad. The aforementioned forwards, Marshall and Jones, are both gone and take a combined 30.8 points and 17.4 rebounds with them. Despite Jones shooting an abysmal 59.2% from the charity stripe, he was the only Musketeer since David West in 2002-03 to average a double double, which is a feat in and of itself.

Former top 30 recruit Paul Scruggs (12.7 points, 2.9 assists) returns to lead this Xavier team. Scruggs, a 6-foot-4 guard from Indianapolis, has not lived up to the hype he brought into Cincinnati with him when he joined the program three years ago, and will likely need a major breakout season for Xavier to really compete in the conference. However, as opposed to last year, Scruggs will not be completely alone in the backcourt. He will look to get some help from Dwon Odom, the No. 18 ranked point guard and No. 79 overall player (per ESPN100) out of the incoming freshman class. Odom will come in and immediately be thrust into a high-volume ball handling situation.

Xavier will likely want Scruggs and KyKy Tandy, a scrappy guard who made the All-Big freshman team a season ago, to play mainly off-ball because they will be counted on to make the bulk of the three pointers for the Musketeers. Joining them in the backcourt is highly sought after Gardner-Webb transfer Nate Johnson (13.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 71 made 3-pointers on 41.1% percent) who will also be counted on to make outside shots. Steele also brings in two freshman shooting guards C.J. Wilcher (No. 81 ESPN100) and Colby Jones. So, while the backcourt will have a good mix of veteran talent and incoming guys, the frontcourt will be a major question mark. With Marshall choosing to leave a year early for the NBA, Xavier returns two forwards in Zach Freemantle (7.5 points, 4.3 rebounds) and Jason Carter (6.9 points, 4.9 rebounds), who will be asked to anchor the frontcourt. Redshirt freshman Dieonte Miles will look to provide a legit presence down low, along with Bryan Griffin, Division II’s leading rebounder at 14.5 a night, will look to bring much needed depth up front. It remains to be seen how Griffin’s rebounding prowess will translate to the Big East, but if these two guys can earn solid rotational minutes and maybe even compete for a starting spot, then Xavier could potentially get back into the NCAA tournament mix.

How they matchup against the UConn

Only in the backcourt, and even then the edge would go to the Huskies. It’s strange to see that UConn seems to match up pretty well in the frontcourt with a lot of the teams here, on paper at least. This has been the achilles heel of the Huskies for quite some time. Unless Scruggs catches absolute fire in this game it shouldn’t be super competitive.

Early Season Update

Xavier had everyone going bonkers when they beat Oakland by 50+ in the first game of the season, and the people that were picking them as their dark horse candidate to win the conference were feeling great. Then, they proceeded to beat Bradley by only one point, Toledo by three, and needed overtime to best Eastern Kentucky. However, all these games ended in wins for the Musketeers, as did their next three, putting them at 7-0. So, while they have had some semi-questionable performances thus far, they are undefeated, which is significant during a season in where the motto ‘A win is a win’ appears to be more true than ever.

Butler Bulldogs

Head Coach: LaVall Jordan (4th season)

Preseason Coaches’ Poll ranking: 8th

2019-20 KenPom Rankings: 25th overall, 25th AdjO, 42nd AdjD

2019-20 record: 22-9 (10-8)

Fifth-year head coach Lavall Jordan looks to continue the momentum he built last year, as the Bulldogs were likely going to grab an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

2019-20 in review

What a turnaround year for Butler. After a disastrous 16-17 season in 2018-19, Butler came roaring back and cruised to a 22-9 (10-8) record, finishing fifth in the Big East. A major reason for the resurgent year was due to the high-level play of first team All-Big East guard Kamar Baldwin (16.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists), a smooth athletic lefty who was the heart and soul of this Butler team. Baldwin was the guy for Butler who always had the ball in his hands with the game on the line and delivered time and time again, highlighted by a buzzer-beating step back three to beat No. 10 Villanova in early February. Joining him in leading Jordan’s tough squad was versatile forwards Sean McDermott (11.7 points, 6.3 rebounds) and Bryce Nze (9.2 points, 6.6 rebounds), along with leading assist man Aaron Thompson (7.2 points, 4.7 assists). The Bulldogs were magnificent in the non-conference a season ago, going 12-1, only losing a nailbiter to then No. 11 Baylor 53-52. Defense was what the Bulldogs hung their hat on, ranking 12th nationally in points allowed per game (62.1), holding opponents to under 60 total points sixteen different times. Butler was also a fairly efficient offensive team as well, ranking 42 in AdjO per Kenpom, although they did not average a high number of points each night (68.5 points per game - 254th nationally). 2019-20 was a massive success for Butler, as LaVall Jordan righted the program’s ship and will look to keep it on a straight course this season.

2020-21 Outlook

Similar to Xavier, Butler is losing its top two scorers in Baldwin and McDermott, taking 27.9 points per game and 109 made three pointers with them. Point guard Aaron Thompson will likely have to take on a larger scoring burden this season (7.2 points per game in 2019-20), as he is already adept at setting up his teammates, ranking second in the Big East in assist /turnover ratio a season ago. Who will Thompson be feeding this year? The two Bryces, as they call them in Indianapolis (not actually), who round out the veteran frontcourt. This tandem consists of the previously aforementioned Bryce Nze, as well as Bryce Golden (7.9 points, 3.9 rebounds) the latter of which is a load to handle down low at 6’9” 260 lbs. Thompson will also get help from South Carolina transfer guard Jair Bolden (8.5 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists), who almost did the impossible last season and shot a higher three point percentage (41.2%) than overall field goal (41.7%). LaVall Jordan also secured a freshman class of five newcomers, headlined by four-star guard Myles Tate out of South Carolina. One of these guys won’t be seeing the court this season unfortunately, as small forward Carlos “Scooby” Johnson, who was going to potentially compete for a starting spot, tore his ACL during preseason workouts back in September. However, power forwards JaKobe Coles and Myles Wilmouth should help spell the two Bryces and provide much needed frontcourt depth. With a solid returning trio of Thompson, Nze, and Golden, and some promising incoming talent, the Bulldogs should be right in the middle of the Big East pack.

How they matchup against the UConn

Butler definitely has the edge in the frontcourt. UConn will most likely have their hands full with Nze and Golden. The most intriguing matchup will be the likely pairing of Whaley and Nze, and if Whaley can continue his tough defense play that really came on at the end of last season then Cole, Bouknight and Co. should be able to take care of the Bulldogs. Josh Carlton will need to stay out of foul trouble, however, and UConn can’t underestimate the incoming talent that Butler has at their disposal.

Early Season Update

Already having threegames postponed due to positive COVID tests, Butler has only played two games, a 66-62 win over Western Michigan and an 85-66 loss to Villanova to sit at 1-1 on the season.