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Big East 2020-21 Conference Preview: The Contenders

Isn’t it nice to play in a conference with real teams again?

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

One of the best things about UConn moving back to the Big East is the competition level. Gone are the days of sub-200 KenPom conference opponents, and lying in their stead is a conference that bottoms out at Georgetown and DePaul, the former of which has a Hall of Famer with recruiting ability at head coach, and the latter of which will send a player to the NBA Draft this year. That’s the worst the Big East gets. I’m downright giddy.

Of course, that increase in conference prestige brings with it a tier of opponent that can be described as “contenders” instead of “loses in the second round every year.” Two of the past four national championships have been won by a Big East team, and the conference allows for far more upward mobility than, say, certain Power Six leagues do.

This is all to say that when you describe a Big East team as a contender, that’s not just for first place in the conference, it means they could theoretically go all the way. These teams are the ones most likely to compete for that title.

Villanova

Jay Wright’s squad has turned into a national juggernaut since UConn was last in the Big East, winning a pair of national titles with (for the most part) different core players, and remain one of the country’s most promising teams. Losing only one key contributor in Saadiq Bey, the Wildcats are poised to have a top-10 ranking all season long if everything breaks right for them. Four double-digit scorers return, so the roster retains both chemistry and production this season. As always with Wright’s teams, they’ll have both an offense and defense by committee, spreading the ball around and entrusting the entire team to buy in to the defensive system, so they’re less reliant on a single player making the jump from contributor to leader. Colin Gillespie is an efficient point guard who doesn’t need to be the primary point of attack, Justin Moore is the shooter, Jermaine Samuels is the “Villanova four,” a forward hybrid with size who can also put the ball on the floor, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is the prospect with big potential who holds down the center position but can pop out to shoot as well. This is one of the easiest teams in the country to predict. They’re gonna be real good.

The Wildcats have lived up to expectations so far, defeating two ranked teams in Arizona State and Texas, which may be the best win any team has so far. They did drop one overtime loss to Virginia Tech, but the offense is as potent as ever and their odds of winning the conference title have seemed to have only increased since the season began. They sit at 6-1 as of today.

Creighton

The Bluejays snuck up on teams last year to finish the abbreviated season ranked No. 7 in the AP poll, and the team full of shooters may be able to repeat that performance even with Ty-Shon Alexander going to the NBA. There’s no new team philosophy here, as Creighton is annually built around their perimeter offense, and the roster seems perfectly capable of playing up to Greg McDermott’s expectations. Marcus Zegarowski should be considered the favorite to win conference Player of the Year honors, and Mitch Ballock is just as impressive with the ball in his hands. Defense is going to be a major question, as Creighton is a smaller team without either a perimeter stopper or a standout rim protector. Christian Bishop looked solid playing up a position for most of last season, but they’ll need help from 7-foot freshman Ryan Kalkbrenner if they want to avoid repeating the league’s worst mark in offensive rebounds allowed.

Creighton’s season has not had many surprises so far, getting a close win against decent mid-major North Dakota State, before crushing two weak opponents. The one-point loss at Kansas may have been a disappointment to the Bluejays, but playing a tough opponent that closely on the road should be seen as a very good sign. Creighton is 5-2 heading into their matchup against UConn on Sunday afternoon.

Providence

That’s right, Providence! Advanced metrics aside, there’s a reason the Friars finished third in the preseason poll, and it’s because of the upside this roster has, even if they have a ways to go in proving it. Providence has more roster turnover than any other team in this tier, but lead guard David Duke has a lot of potential and could provide enough of an offensive spark to carry the team to the conference title. A.J. Reeves and Syracuse transfer Brycen Goodine may outperform expectations as well, and one of them making the leap could take Providence over the top. Ed Cooley’s Providence teams have been steady but unspectacular, and this might be his best chance yet of winning the Big East.

The Friars haven’t quite clicked just yet, but this was always going to happen; they’re a young team and needed some games to work out the kinks before conference play. They’ve taken care of business against weaker opponents but two games against major-conference competition in Indiana and Alabama resulted in big losses. There’s still a chance they put it all together in about a month or so, but their play so far hasn’t befitted their third-place finish in the Big East preseason poll. Providence is currently 5-2 to start the season.

UConn

Well, we couldn’t just leave them out, could we? The Huskies do have the making of a conference contender, checking off several boxes a team needs in order to win. There’s returning NBA talent in James Bouknight and Akok Akok, veteran leadership in Isaiah Whaley, plenty of incoming talent to keep the rotations fresh, a deep bench, and a sure-thing scorer in R.J. Cole. The question marks are whether Akok and Tyler Polley fully recover from their injuries in enough time to make an impact on the Big East standings, and who leads the perimeter defense after Christian Vital’s graduation. Dan Hurley’s squad has the depth to be optimistic about the former, but the latter may not be answered until near the end of the season. The influx of freshman talent allows for a lot of volatility though— if just one of Andre Jackson, Adama Sanogo, or Richie Springs can break out, the Huskies will be in good shape.

The Huskies haven’t looked great yet, but an impressive win against a tough USC team where mismatches benefited the Trojans provides some hope going forward. With the schedule on pause for the time being due to positive COVID tests, UConn may remain rusty at the start of conference play, but has already shown the ability to beat high-level opponents.