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Big East men’s basketball preview: Middle of the pack

The middle class of the Big East will definitely challenge UConn.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Seton Hall vs Georgetown Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing our running series of opponent previews with a few articles looking at the lay of the land in the Big East. We started with the bottom, now we’re here. These three teams are not likely to contend for the regular-season crown, but as we saw last year anything can happen come tourney time.

Seton Hall Pirates

Head Coach: Kevin Willard (12th season)

2020-21 KenPom Rankings: 54th overall

2020-21 record: 14-13 (10-9)

KenPom Preseason rank: 50th | Preseason Coaches’ Poll ranking: 5th (of 11)

2020-2021 in review

The Pirates were the reigning Big East regular-season champions heading into 2020-21, their opportunity to win the conference tournament was taken away by the cancellation of the postseason due to COVID-19.

The following season was not as kind to the Pirates.

Seton Hall had a strong non-conference schedule, starting off with losses at Louisville, in a neutral-site contest with Oregon, and a road battle with Rhode Island on their way to a 1-3 start. After following that up by winning 8 of 10 and going 6-2 in the Big East record had the team and fanbases spirits high, but a COVID cancellation halted their momentum with a 10-day layoff.

The team was up-and-down through late January and February. The wheels truly fell off at the end, as Seton Hall lost five of six to end the regular season, including by 11 points at home to UConn on Senior Day. Their season ended with a loss to Georgetown in the Big East Tournament semifinals.

2021-22 outlook

Big East Player of the Year Sandro Mamukelashvili has departed for the NBA, taking his 17.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game along with him. However, Willard has gone to the transfer well often in recent years, as six of his current players have played at another Division I institution.

Three of these transfers are in their first season for the Pirates, headlined by sophomore Kadary Richmond, a four-star recruit who comes to South Orange by way of Syracuse after playing one year for the Orange. Willard has already committed to starting the Brooklyn product at point guard, who brings impressive size at 6-foot-6.

Willard also brought in Alexis Yetna, who is very familiar with UConn as he played at USF. The big, bruising forward grabbed 7.3 rebounds per game in his redshirt junior season for the Bulls. Yetna, who stands 6-foot-8, adds size to a roster that also includes 7-foot-2, 265-pound center Ike Obiagu.

The final new transfer is Jamir Harris, who went to The Patrick School in New Jersey and played at American prior to returning to the Garden State. He led the nation in three-pointers made per game last season, at 3.9 per contest, and his 44% 3PT shooting was seventh in the country.

The Pirates’ three-man freshman class is ranked No. 31 in the country by Rivals, which was good for sixth in the Big East. It’s headlined by Brandon Weston, a four-star forward from Glendale, AZ who stands at 6-foot-5, 190 pounds. The 74th-ranked player nationally, Weston can defend three positions and has the ability to score on the perimeter.

Willard has some pieces and experience to work with this season, including Big East preseason first-teamer Jared Rhoden, and has the mix of talent to make some noise in the Big East, especially if one of the contenders slips up or has some injury woes.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Butler Bulldogs

Head Coach: LaVall Jordan (5th season)

2020-21 KenPom Rankings: 120th overall

2020-21 record: 10-15 (8-12)

KenPom Preseason rank: 55th | Preseason Coaches’ Poll ranking: 6th (of 11)

2020-2021 in review

It was a trying season in Indianapolis, as the Bulldogs had just two wins heading into the New Year, including a loss at home to Southern Illinois. The beginning of the season was slow, as they opened the year November 25 with a win over Western Michigan, but did not play again until December 16, a span of 21 days.

Butler had to deal with numerous rescheduled games, as four games were played on alternate dates, including its home game with St. John’s, which was rescheduled twice.

Butler defended Hinkle Fieldhouse well, even without the help of fans, going 8-4 at home, though that record fell sharply to 2-11 away from Hinkle.

LaVall Jordan’s team did get some solid wins, beating Seton Hall and Villanova in back-to-back games in late February, the latter of which was on Senior Day.

2021-22 outlook

Jordan heads into a crucial year in his fifth season as head coach. Despite a 22-9 season in 2019-20 prior to the pandemic, his teams are still 34-40 in Big East play during his tenure. The Bulldogs have finished in the top half of the conference just once, combined with a 10th-place finish last season and ninth in 2018-19, when there were only 10 teams.

Butler will have experience on its side this season, as its top 10 players in terms of minutes played return this year. Merely 197 minutes of playing time, which is less than 4 percent of minutes played by Bulldogs players last season, will not be on the roster for 2021-22.

Jair Bolden, who was one of two Bulldogs to make an appearance in every game last season, will be one of the more important players as far as that experience goes. Now a graduate student, he averaged 10.5 points per game last season and led the team in three-point attempts, shooting 34.1 percent from beyond the arc in his first season with Butler after transferring from South Carolina.

Sophomore guard Chuck Harris was the team’s only representative on any of the preseason all-conference lists, comprising the honorable mention list with Adama Sanogo. The Virginia product led the team in scoring as a freshman, grabbing 12.9 points per game, as well as 3.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists. Jordan will be looking for the 6-foot-2 second-year player to take another step forward to avoid a sophomore slump.

The team’s recruiting class is tied for a No. 66 ranking by Rivals, with no four-star recruits. However, the newcomers also include graduate transfer Ty Groce, who is using his extra year of eligibility at Butler after four years at Eastern Michigan. He led the Eagles in scoring and rebounding last season and is 10th in program history in steals.

Syndication: The Providence Journal Kris Craig/The Providence Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Providence Friars

Head Coach: Ed Cooley (11th season)

2020-21 KenPom Rankings: 80th overall

2020-21 record: 13-13 (9-10)

KenPom Preseason rank: 85th | Preseason Coaches’ Poll ranking: 7th (of 11)

2020-2021 in review

The Friars, despite a difficult non-conference slate that included the Maui Invitational, started off 7-3 with road wins against Seton Hall and TCU. However, Ed Cooley’s crew had two separate three-game losing streaks the rest of the way, the second of which included a 17-point home loss to Seton Hall. Providence ended up bowing out of the Big East Tournament in the first round to DePaul.

Despite a losing conference record, Cooley’s 10th season on the bench had some highlights, including a victory over Villanova on Senior Day and a road win over Creighton. Each of those teams were ranked in the top-15 when the games were played, including No. 10 in the AP Poll for Villanova.

Providence also held strong at home, finishing 8-3 at Alumni Hall, as the Friars played full-time at their on-campus home for the first time since 1972. However, it did not go so well away from Rhode Island, as the team was 5-10 in away and neutral site games.

2021-22 outlook

While Cooley has had success over the past decade, at one point bringing the Friars to five straight NCAA Tournaments from 2014-2018, Providence has just one victory in March in that span and has not made it to the second weekend since 1997. They are also owners of a three-year tournament drought, though the Friars would likely have made the NCAA Tournament in 2019-20 if it happened.

Three players started each of Providence’s 26 games last season and were three of the four Friars to average more than 22 minutes per game. David Duke, who was second in scoring (16.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.3 rebounds per game), has departed for the NBA, but Nate Watson and AJ Reeves both return, while they should be joined by a fully healthy Jared Bynum. Along with Duke, two other rotation players, Jimmy Nichols, Jr. and Greg Gantt are gone. Nichols transferred to VCU and Gantt is now at NC State.

Watson was a unanimous selection to the all-Big East First Team in the preseason and will be the most important player for the Friars. An imposing presence on the defensive end, the 6-foot-10, 260-pound graduate student had 1.0 blocks per game to lead the team. He also faced Providence in points (16.9 points per game) and rebounds (6.7 points per game). Watson was second in minutes last season and will be relied upon to play strong defensively.

Reeves averaged 9.6 points per contest last season and was third in assists, so he’ll be a key player for this year’s team. Now a senior, Reeves will be counted on to take up some of Duke’s scoring load, as well as Jared Bynum, who plays the point for the Friars.

Cooley only brought in two freshmen. The two three-star recruits had the class ranked No. 74 nationally by Rivals.