With the 2023-24 men’s basketball season just around the corner, it’s time to take a look at UConn’s competition around the Big East.
The 2023-24 Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll slotted the Huskies in at third, but that’s hardly a slight given the quality of this league.
For the first time since 2012, the AP Preseason poll boasts three Big East teams ranked in the top 10. At No. 5 comes Marquette, UConn checks in at No. 6, and Creighton at No. 8, and don’t forget about Villanova, who rounds out the Big East blue chips coming into this season ranked 22nd.
Preseason polls mean nothing but locker room material in the long run, but until the lights come on, it signals an exciting year ahead for the Big East.
Marquette Golden Eagles
Head Coach: Shaka Smart (third season)
2022-23 Record: 29-7 (17-3 Big East)
Final 2022-23 KenPom.com Ranking: No. 10
2023-24 KenPom Ranking: No. 11
2022-23 in review
If it wasn’t for UConn’s dominant run in the NCAA tournament, Shaka Smart and Marquette were the story of the Big East. The Golden Eagles, led by Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek, stormed their way to a regular season title and then blitzed Madison Square Garden en route to the school’s second conference tournament championship. A disappointing second-round exit to Tom Izzo’s Michigan State is the only blemish on a breakout season for the elite program Smart has built up in Milwaukee.
For an encore, Marquette returns eight players and 84% of its points from its nine-man rotation, but the loss of Olivier-Maxence Prosper to the NBA draft is seismic on the defensive end. His versatility a la Andre Jackson gave Marquette balance on both ends of the court — just ask Jordan Hawkins after the Big East tournament semifinal.
Look for 6-foot-3 junior Stevie Mitchell, one of the conference’s toughest on-ball defenders, to draw the toughest assignments now.
The Golden Eagles will run one of the best offenses in the country thanks to three dangerous guards that can attack in a variety of ways. Leading the way is Kolek, a 6-foot-3 senior and preseason AP first-team All-American who became arguably the best point guard in the country last year thanks to an improved outside shot (40% from three).
Kolek won’t sneak up on anyone this year, ranking 17th nationally in Evan Miya’s Bayesian Performance Rating (BPR). Rounding out the backcourt trio are 6-foot-5 junior Kam Jones and Mitchell, the former a 15.1 ppg scorer and the latter a bulldozer at the rim.
What makes Marquette terrifying though is 6-foot-11 senior Oso Ighodaro, a hyper-athletic rim-runner (7th in the nation in FG%) with a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio that unlocks the scoring prowess of the backcourt trio. Junior David Joplin and 6-foot-11 sophomore Ben Gold will step into larger roles as well. The lineup of Kolek, Jones, Mitchell, Joplin, and Ighodaro will be one of the toughest five-man offenses in the country. If Smart can find a way to replicate O-Max’s defensive impact somewhere on the roster, the Golden Eagles will be soaring come March.
Creighton Blue Jays
Head Coach: Greg McDermott (14th season)
2022-23 Record: 24-13 (14-6 Big East)
Final 2022-23 KenPom.com Ranking: No. 12
2023-24 KenPom Ranking: No. 12
2022-23 in review
We’ll never know what that 2022-2023 team would have done if not for the mono that knocked out 7-foot-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner for 10 games. Creighton righted the ship when the calendar turned to 2023 after a disastrous six-game skid across November-December. And while they got their doors blown off by Xavier in the Big East tournament semifinal, they rallied once more to make the Elite 8, only to lose by one point to San Diego State. A very questionable phantom call twisted the knife even further, leaving Blue Jay fans wondering what could have been.
Gone are Ryan Nembhard and Arthur Kaluma, the former a steady point guard and the latter the Blue Jay’s switchy defensive anchor. Utah State transfer Steven Ashworth steps in to fill Nembhard’s shoes, and don’t expect much drop-off; the 6-foot-1 senior shot 43% from three last year and averaged four assists per game.
Backcourt partner Trey Alexander, meanwhile, fresh off a preseason All-Big East first-team nod, is generating NBA buzz after improving his outside shot (41% from three, sense a pattern?) and solidified his status as a plus defender, leading the conference in steals.
Baylor Scheierman is back and still a matchup nightmare, with the 6-foot-7 senior capable of dragging defenders out of the paint while still averaging eight rebounds per game, good for third in the conference. His shooting and vision open up space for Kalkbrenner, a fellow preseason all-Big East first-teamer who anchors Creighton’s league-best defense (led the conference in blocks) while shooting 69% from the field, good for third in the nation.
Scheierman and Kalkbrenner are both preseason top 10 in BPR, and Alexander checks in at No. 25. Ashworth can pull the strings on offense with the best of them, and any defensive weaknesses get wiped away at the rim by Kalkbrenner. Depth is once more a concern, though, with the overall polish of those top four, Creighton will be one of the toughest teams in the country, barring injury.
Head Coach: Kyle Neptune (second season)
2022-23 Record: 17-17 (10-10 Big East)
Final 2022-23 KenPom.com Ranking: No. 51
2023-24 KenPom Ranking: No. 23
2022-23 in review
The Kyle Neptune era got off to an auspicious start, with the Wildcats suffering their worst season since 2012. Justin Moore and Cam Whitmore both had injury setbacks, while the lack of a point guard exacerbated matters. The loss to Portland in non-conference was a harbinger of things to come. There were flashes in Big East play, such as wins vs. Xavier and Creighton in late February, but any time your season ends in the first round of the NIT with a loss to Liberty, it's not up to the standard in outer Philly.
Don’t for one second feel bad for Villanova, as tales of their demise are greatly exaggerated. Neptune went to the portal and came out with one of the most fascinating rosters in the Big East.
Moore is back and healthy, ready to back up his preseason All-Big East first-team status as the most dangerous scorer in the conference. While not playing at full strength last year, he averaged 13.5 ppg and shot 42% from the field. Senior Eric Dixon is an anchor inside who was eighth in the conference in scoring last year (15.4 ppg) but also connected on 38% from three. Pick-and-rolls with those two will be a nightmare for defenses.
Transfer TJ Bamba is also a 15-point-average scorer from Iowa State, while 6-foot-7 Tyler Burton from Richmond and Hakim Hart of Maryland are well-rounded complements to the returnees. Senior big Lance Ware may just have needed a change of scenery too, after languishing for three years at Kentucky. If sophomore point guard Mark Armstrong can set the table effectively, and Neptune can pull the right levers, then last year will prove to just be a blip on the radar for Villanova.