As the countdown continues to the start of the 2020-21 college basketball season on Nov. 25, ESPN.com’s panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation’s top leagues. After looking at the American Athletic Conference and the nation’s top mid-majors, we move to the Big East, where UConn returns to test Villanova’s seemingly annual dominance at the top of the conference charts.
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton
Borzello: Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton
Gasaway: Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton
Lunardi: Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton
Newcomer of the Year
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: When UConn left, the focus was on the number of talented teams toward the top of the league. But the Big East has evolved into a “no-easy-games conference.” In UConn’s final campaign in 2012-2013, four teams finished with losing regular-season records. In the past two seasons, only two teams have ended the year with losing records. Since the 2016-17 season, only three Big East programs have fallen outside Ken Pomeroy’s top 100.
Last year, DePaul finished 3-15 in league play but had wins over Iowa, Texas Tech and Minnesota. Georgetown went 5-13 in the Big East but beat Creighton, Butler, Syracuse and Texas. St. John’s beat Arizona and West Virginia, then lost six of its first seven Big East games. It has always been difficult at the top of this league, then and now. But the new Big East is a true challenge.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Villanova runs the league now. Not that the Wildcats were bad when UConn was last in the league, but they’re now clearly the cream of the crop and that doesn’t seem likely to change this season. Two national championships in three seasons and a share of all but one league title since UConn left the league have that sort of impact on a program’s reputation.
As for UConn, I think the return to the Big East will provide a shot in the arm to the program. UConn is the Big East, the Big East is UConn — the Huskies in the American were never a natural fit. Dan Hurley grew up in Big East country, he recruits in Big East country, and players in those areas would rather play Villanova and Georgetown than Tulane and Houston. Hurley has his best and most talented team since he arrived in Storrs, and they’ll be ready to compete for an NCAA tournament bid from Day 1.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: UConn is back where it belongs. The Huskies were charter members of the Big East, as opposed to newcomers like, well, every team in the league except Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s and Seton Hall. (Even Villanova didn’t join up until Year 2.) The good news for Coach Hurley and his program is that the Big East is a step up in quality from what Connecticut has been seeing in league play these past few years. Recruiting should be an easier sell now, and UConn playing at Madison Square Garden in the Big East tournament will most certainly please the hoop gods.
The bad news is that a storied past plus Big East membership aren’t enough, by themselves, to guarantee a spot in the NCAA tournament. Look no further than the Hoyas, still searching for their first bid since 2015. UConn has an opportunity, and now the Huskies have to make the most of it.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: As John writes, UConn was among the seven founding members of the Big East. Then, as now, the focus was on basketball. In other words, the Big East to which the Huskies return is more like the league it helped form in 1979 than the one torn apart by football in 2013. This truly is a “back to the future” situation in Storrs, one in which the Huskies are well-positioned to thrive.
UConn has the right coach, its fan base will be energized by traditional rivalries and it shouldn’t be long before deep NCAA tournament runs are staged by more than the women’s team. It could even happen this year, as I expect the Huskies to be very close to Villanova and Creighton at the top of the conference. Everybody wins.
Borzello: I think it’s the balance that strikes me as a similarity. Jay Wright-coached teams are known for their perimeter prowess, and this team has plenty of that, but the two title-winning teams had some inside balance. The 2016 team had Daniel Ochefu on the interior, while the 2018 team had Omari Spellman as an inside-outside threat. This year’s group has Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, a nightly double-double threat who is poised for a breakout season as a sophomore.
In terms of concerns, I wonder if Villanova has that dynamic go-to guy who can get a bucket or take over a game if needed. Saddiq Bey had several big games last season, but he’s gone. Collin Gillespie could end up being that guy, but he’s not quite there yet. Who will be the Jalen Brunson or Josh Hart or Kris Jenkins or NCAA tournament Donte DiVincenzo? The best bet might be Gillespie, but keep an eye on Justin Moore.
Gasaway: This Villanova team shoots a metric ton of 3s just as the two national title winners did. You also can make a case that Wright’s defense is on pace to equal the excellence that those teams displayed on that side of the ball. Past that, however, I see more differences than similarities.
Creighton buried the Wildcats last season in terms of accuracy from the field in Big East play, an eventuality I didn’t think was possible as long as Wright is still on the sideline. In fact, Villanova didn’t even make half its 2s in conference play. (Somewhere Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are scowling.) Of course, we’re still talking about a rotation that won a piece of the 2020 Big East title and now returns eight of its top nine scorers. A third national championship is a possibility, but it looks like Gillespie and company might get there by forging their own path.
Lunardi: I would be extremely surprised if Villanova captures another title this season. These Wildcats, in spite of our preseason rankings, don’t compare well to the 2016 NCAA winners and they’re not even close to the genuinely elite 2018 champions. Those squads spun off seven NBA players not only still in the league, but producing at a high level. Robinson-Earl is probably next off the assembly line, but he’s not likely as a sophomore to carry a team to the Final Four and beyond. Villanova will keep winning because Wright is that good. He also has a roster and a system that doesn’t know anything else. I just think the Cats will be hard-pressed to maintain the level of a top five team.
Medcalf: I think Wright’s gift is the cohesion he’s able to create within his program. Kris Jenkins taking the game-winning shot over North Carolina in the 2016 national title game was proof of the chemistry Wright’s teams have enjoyed in their best years. I wonder if that’s more difficult to create in a year where the pandemic has robbed every program of normalcy.
There are so many things we don’t know about the 2020-2021 season, mainly how many games each team will play in November, December and beyond. All of the chaos could lead to a 2011-like NCAA tournament where the hottest team — or in this case, the team that has played the most games without interruption — will have the edge. Those unknowns, in my opinion, present the greatest challenge and difference from the two teams that have won titles under Wright.
Borzello: I actually think both teams will be pretty good, and both Kevin Willard and Steve Wojciechowski went out and recruited immediate-impact replacements, with Seton Hall nabbing Bryce Aiken as a graduate transfer from Harvard and Marquette getting Ohio State transfer D.J. Carton, who will be eligible immediately. But I do have Seton Hall higher in the rankings, so I guess I’ll say the Golden Eagles will have a tougher time moving on. And that makes sense, since the entire offense revolved around Markus Howard. Carton, Koby McEwen and freshman Dawson Garcia will have to shoulder most of the offense this season.
For one-on-one battles, I’ll go with Villanova’s Collin Gillespie vs. Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski. Two experienced guards, arguably the two best players in the league on the two best teams in the league. Gillespie outproduced Zegarowski in the two head-to-head battles last season, but without Ty-Shon Alexander, expect Zegarowski to dominate the scoring a bit more.
Gasaway: The Pirates appear to be in a better position than Marquette to weather losing one of the best players in program history. Willard’s defense was very good last season and, while losing Romaro Gill will obviously hurt, Ike Obiagu is waiting in the wings and Myles Cale and Jared Rhoden will still force turnovers. Plus the Hall could actually improve its performance on the defensive glass.
I want to see the entire St. John’s defense match up against UConn’s R.J. Cole. Not a true “1-on-1” collision, you say? Hear me out. The Johnnies play D as a single turnover-forcing swarm. True, their bottom line on defense was just average last season, but if there’s one thing Mike Anderson knows how to coach it’s the good old “40 minutes of hell” brand of ball he learned as an assistant and later as head coach at Arkansas. St. John’s recorded a high number of takeaways in Anderson’s first season at the helm, and Cole has already put more than 1,500 points on the board in just two seasons at Howard.
Medcalf: They were both superstars the sport will miss. They were must-see TV. But I think Howard was the kind of star who could change a game with a shooting barrage that’s difficult to duplicate. His departure creates a void that can’t be filled, and I do think Bryce Aiken and Seton Hall have depth that will help them move forward.
One-on-one matchups? I think it’s Marcus Zegarowski versus a player to be named at a later date. Plenty of candidates but I do think it will be clear early in the season that he’s the best player in the league, and one of the best players in the country, and the rest of the Big East will have to find a way to slow him down. When he was on the floor last year, Creighton averaged 113 points per 100 possessions, made 54% of its shots from inside the arc and 39% of its 3-pointers, per hooplens.com. He’s a force.
Lunardi: Seton Hall is in better position to move forward because its replacements are older and more tested. It’s also a fact that Markus Howard had the highest usage rate of any player in college basketball, so by definition Marquette has more to replace. And I’m up for any individual matchup involving Seton Hall transfer Bryce Aiken. The Ivy League’s loss is truly the Big East’s gain. Expect Aiken to more than hold his own against the likes of Collin Gillespie, Marcus Zegarowski and Saint Joseph’s transfer Jared Bynum at Providence. It’s still a very good league at point guard.
Jeff Borzello spoke to Big East coaches about their expectations for the league in 2020-21.
“It’s a different deal [in the Big East] for UConn, man. There’s great coaches in the American, there’s really good players, but over the last five years, you’re talking about Myles Powell, Markus Howard, Jalen Brunson … these are the top guards in the country. It’s a different level of competition they’re going to experience every night. They’re going to be really talented and really good, but half those guys they’re going to depend on have never played in college or in the Big East. I think they’re going to be a talented team, but they’re going to take time to put it all together.”
“Providence is just a bitch to play against, man. [Ed] Cooley is up there with [Tom] Izzo in terms of number of plays they run. He has so much stuff. They’re a really hard prep. With Creighton, you know what you’re going to get — play fast, mix in some quick-hitters. With Ed, he’ll try and beat you in a fast-break game, then in a half-court game, he’s got a million sets, you don’t know what exactly he’s gonna run. They’ll try to be more physical than you. Defensively, they’ll throw in a 3-2 defense they haven’t used in the first 20 games.”
“The strength of Villanova is the culture and the consistency in what they do. If you replace different guys from different eras, you still know what they’re gonna do and what they’re gonna try to run. Their culture will beat you. Guys start to appreciate and understand and do things at a high level with regards to culture as they get older. Last year, you looked at them, you thought, they’re really good, but just young. Justin Moore could be one of the more underappreciated guys in our league, and the kid from Tulane [Caleb Daniels] was sitting out. Now it’s about figuring out how to connect all those dots and put their team together.”
“Creighton plays so fast but so under control. [Greg] McDermott is such a good offensive coach, he can pick you apart. He finds any sort of weakness in you defensively. He’ll have nine new plays put in for that game. He’s one of the best offensive minds in all of college basketball. Zegarowski can get 25 but he can also have a game where he scored eight points but gets 12 assists. He’s a true table-setter. Whatever Creighton needs. He plays with unbelievable pace, he’s so good at getting guys shots, but he can also go off and get his.”
“[UConn’s] James Bouknight could be the best perimeter player in our league this year. Gillespie and Zegarowski are really good basketball players, but Bouknight has that level of athleticism that sets him apart.”
“Both Seton Hall and Marquette are still poised to win at a high level. Both teams are going to do it differently. Myles Powell and Markus Howard were guys that could take over a basketball game. You have some guys ready to break out into bigger roles. Marquette brought in D.J. Carton [Ohio State], he’s a bona fide NBA prospect. Bryce Aiken [Harvard] is a high-level guard who belongs in the Big East. Both guys can lead their team, make guys better, make clutch baskets. Then you take it down another layer, [Sandro Mamukelashvili] is one of the top two frontcourt players in our league in terms of his versatility. Marquette recruited [Dawson] Garcia and Justin Lewis, two young prospects at the same position as Mamu. [Seton Hall’s] Tyrese Samuel, he’s super talented. He can break out. On Marquette’s roster, Jamal Cain is back, big year [coming up] for Theo John. … Both Seton Hall and Marquette can still be major players in our league. But you need reps. And it will be who can adjust best.”
“[Providence’s] David Duke is a gonna be a first-team All-Big East player, Nate Watson is a load down low, one of the better low post scorers in the country. A.J. Reeves is obviously a terrific shooter, as a junior he probably turns the corner. With Alpha [Diallo] gone, he’ll have the ball a lot more in his hands. They have transfers, the kid from Syracuse [Brycen Goodine], the kid from St. Joe’s [Jared Bynum], the big kid from North Florida [Noah Horchler]. They’re just a tough out. Whatever your strength is, they try to take that away.”
“Late in the year, St. John’s started to embody what Coach [Mike] Anderson was trying to do. They got some talent through recruiting that fits the style of play for him. They’re really versatile, really disruptive. You have to beat St. John’s at their own game. It’s going to be a track meet, they’re going to make you play full-court basketball. They were starting to figure it out late. The interesting thing is because of COVID, everyone is on the same playing field. Most teams lost their summer, so some nights you just have to go play basketball. You might not have all your offensive sets in, and so the one advantage for St. John’s is they make you play basketball. It’ll come down to the most conditioned athletes that can make basketball plays.”
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