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Big East men’s basketball preview: The contenders

UConn’s biggest competition for a shot at a Big East title is with Villanova, Xavier, and St. John’s

Kansas v Villanova Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

As the basketball season gets closer and closer, we’re taking a look at how the Big East figures to shake out this season from top to bottom. We started with the bottom, hit the middle of the pack, and now it’s time to take a look at the best teams in the conference. According to the Big East preseason coaches’ poll, Villanova, Xavier and St. John’s join UConn as four of the best teams in the conference.

Villanova Wildcats

Head Coach: Jay Wright (21st season)

2020-21 KenPom ranking: No. 12

2020-21 record: 18-7 (11-4)

AP Ranking: No. 4 | KenPom Preseason rank: 9th | Preseason Coaches’ Poll: 1st (of 11)

2020-2021 in review

After getting picked for the millionth year in a row to finish first in the conference, Jay Wright and Co. once again, finished as the top dogs (or cats?) in the Big East. It wasn’t an easy path for the Wildcats, who dealt with a smorgasbord of COVID issues that led to 11 game cancellations/postponements, but they found a way to get the job done once again. Creighton actually ended up with the most conference wins (14), but because Villanova’s win percentage was higher at 11-4, they were given the Big East regular season title.

While COVID was a major disruptor in the Wildcats’ season, the biggest downfall was the injury to senior point guard and co-Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie, who suffered a torn MCL in the penultimate regular season game. This was a devastating injury for Villanova as the team ran through Gillespie, and many thought the injury robbed them of yet another potential title run. Villanova may not have had enough juice to get past Baylor in the Sweet 16 even with Gillespie, but regardless, Villanova missed him dearly at the end of last season.

2021-22 outlook

Villanova fans and Jay Wright rejoiced on April 12 this year, as Gillespie and senior forward Jermaine Samuels (12.0 points, 6.4 rebounds) announced they would both return for another year, courtesy of the NCAA’s COVID-19 policy that granted athletes an extra year of eligibility. I don’t think anyone thought Gillespie was going to seriously go out the way he did, though. Because of him and Samuels staying another year with the program, Villanova is once again a serious national championship contender.

Jay Wright does lose his other co-Big East Player of the Year in bully-ball forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, or JRE as he is regularly called. JRE was a problem for almost every team in the conference — centers were too slow for him, and traditional fours were not strong enough to go pound for pound in the post with his 6-foot-8, 242-pound frame. His departure will put a lot more of the load on Samuels, who looks more like a tight end than a basketball player anyway, at 6-foot-7, 230-pounds. He should be able to handle the extra burden.

Caleb Daniels, another redshirt senior along with Gillespie and Samuels, also returns and will be counted on as one of the top marksman for Jay Wright. Wright predicates his offense on quick passing and efficient perimeter shooting, so guards like Daniels (career 38% three point shooter) and Justin Moore (35% career three point shooter) are perfect for this offense, being able to reliably knock down long range shots while also having the ability to take it to the rack.

The biggest wildcard on this team might be sophomore shooting guard Bryan Antoine, a former five-star recruit and top 20 player coming out of high school that just couldn’t seem to crack the rotation consistently amid all of the Villanova veterans. Unfortunately, this potential break hold will have to be put on further notice, as Antoine suffered a patella tendon injury in his right knee last month, sidelining him for about six to eight weeks.

This team is chalk full of physical specimens at nearly every position, and the starting five is one of, if not the, most experienced team in major college basketball. The Wildcats will once again be right in the national title mix come march.

Xavier Musketeers

Head Coach: Travis Steele (Third season)

2020-21 KenPom ranking: No. 66

2020-21 record: 13-8 (6-7)

KenPom Preseason rank: No. 26 | Preseason Coaches’ Poll: 3rd (of 11)

2020-21 in review

After an 8-0 start with quality wins over Cincinnati and Oklahoma, Xavier vaulted all the way to a No. 22 national ranking, just a couple of months being picked to finish seventh in their own conference. The Musketeers then proceeded to drop the next two when Big East play began, and their top 25 status never returned. As was the case with many teams in this league, game cancellations and postponements, as well as a tough conference slate, was too much to overcome. They proceeded to lose six of their last eight games after jumping out to an 11-2 record, bowing out in the first round of the Big East tournament to Butler, which ended their last-ditch effort to make the NCAA tournament.

2021-22 outlook

Head coach Travis Steele seemed to take step backwards last year in his quest to bring the program back to perennial contender status where Chris Mack left it, although it’s hard to knock any coach or program with how their season went due to the pandemic throwing a wrench in nearly every plan imaginable.

Steele has his best team yet this year, returning nearly every single relevant piece to a squad that looked tournament bound for a large portion of last season. Led by maybe the best guard/forward combo in the conference in Paul Scruggs (14.0 points, 5.7 assists, 1.6 steals) and Zach Freemantle (16.1 points, 8.9 rebounds), who both made the all-Big East Preseason first team this year, expectations this season are the highest they have been since Steele took over the job.

Deadly marksman Nate Johnson also returns with his 45.2% three point percentage, good for second in the conference last year. Johnson’s sweet stroke will be relied upon heavily once again when Scruggs collapses the defenses on tough drives and Freemantle looks to pass it out of the post on double teams, both situations will happen often.

The Musketeers have some great backcourt depth as well, returning Colby Jones (7.7 points, 2.9 assists), KyKy Tandy (6.6 points), Adam Kunkel (7.0 points), and former top-100 recruit Dwon Odom (6.6 points, 2.9 assists). They also added two Big Ten transfers in Jack Nunge (Iowa) and Jermone Hunter (Indiana). Nunge is a legit 7-footer who was productive and efficient when he saw the court at Iowa, averaging 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in less than 16 minutes per game. Hunter is mostly known for his dog-like defense, but is a serviceable offensive player and can occasionally step out and hit from downtown. Look for both of those guys to provide some added toughness down low and a little versatility to Steele’s offensive sets.

This is a deep and skilled team that Steele has at his disposal, and it should not shock anyone if they are right in the mix come march to win the league outright. Steele is going to need to field a very competitive team, because this season may be the defining one for him at Xavier.

St. John’s Red Storm

Head Coach: Mike Anderson (Third season)

2020-21 KenPom ranking: No. 69

2020-21 record: 16-11 (10-9)

KenPom Preseason rank: No. 51 | Preseason Coaches’ Poll: 4th (of 11)

2020-21 in review

After losing their top two scorers, one to transfer and one to graduation, St. John’s was considered an afterthought at the start of last season, picked to finish ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll. However, the Johnnies did what Mike Anderson teams have done throughout time: They scrapped their way to relevancy.

Julian Champagnie exploded to lead the conference in scoring (19.7 points per game) which bagged him the co-Most Improved Player honors. Posh Alexander, a Bronx native, showed from day one that he is one of the premiere on ball defenders in the country, which led him to sharing Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors with the wrench himself, UConn’s own Isaiah Whaley. This wasn’t enough to get the Red Storm to the NCAA tournament, but enough to give the program some momentum coming into this season.

2021-22 outlook

Mike Anderson returns his two best players in Champagnie and Alexander (10.9 points, 4.3 assists, 2.6 steals), which will be the backbone, engine, and throttle of this team. Other than these two, who else is going to step up and take advantage of the open minutes? That is the biggest question for Anderson, as Rasheen Dunn, Isaih Moore, Vince Cole and Marcus Earlington were all major contributors from last season’s team, combining for 34.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, 14.4 rebounds, and 6.6 assists, but are now gone.

How does Anderson replace them? By going out and getting exactly five of his own new guys from the transfer pool, lead by fifth-year Tareq Coburn (Hofstra), who poured in 15.1 points per game last season and also boasts a 40% career three point percentage. Him and fellow grad transfer Stef Smith, who posted over 1,200 points throughout his four years at Vermont, should be able to handle some of the scoring and play-making holes left by the gamut of players transferring out of the program. Like Xavier, St. John’s also brings in two Big Ten newcomers. Aaron Wheeler (Purdue) and Montez Mathis (Rutgers) should be big contributors to the team this year, with Mathis having a shot to crack the starting lineup alongside Alexander and Champagnie in the backcourt.

Center Joel Soriano (10.4 points, 9.2 rebounds) also comes over from Fordham and immediately gives the Johnnies a legitimate body down low that can carve out space and gobble up defensive boards, something they did not have last season. Anderson constantly deployed a five-guard lineup, putting the 6-foot-8 Champagnie on the opposing teams four or five, which usually did not end well for the opposing team’s big man.

UConn fans will note the time when Sanogo was dominating St. John’s inside all game while Champagnie was having an off-night, which caused Anderson to switch to the five-guard look, forcing Sanogo on Champagnie. Dan Hurley wasn’t having any of this, immediately pulling Sanogo and sitting him for the rest of the game. UConn could barely muster any offense the rest of the way and ended up losing that one.

However, now that Vince Cole and Isaih Moore are gone — two players that were the perfect guard/forward mold to allow this lineup to blossom — Anderson may have to deploy a more traditional lineup a majority of the time. There’s no doubt he will find ways to get Champagnie in mismatch situations throughout the year, but it may not be as easy as this past season.

While St. John’s is a true dark horse to win the conference, and they would have to have a lot of dominos fall their way to accomplish this gargantuan feat, it is not out of the realm of possibility. If one thing is for sure, the absolute maximum potential of this team is almost solely dependent on the silky smooth release of Champagnie. It’s a huge ask, but if he can consistently play at an All-American level, St. John’s may have a chance at usurping Villanova for the Big East throne.