Big East Preview 2017-18

-Matt Cox

Note: Predicted conference standings may not line up exactly with our Top 40 rankings; this is because Top 40 were ranked via consensus voting, while individual conference ranks are up to the specific writer.

Preseason Predictions

Player of the Year: Trevon Bluiett, Sr., Xavier
Coach of the Year: Kevin Willard, Seton Hall
Newcomer of the Year: Omari Spellman, R Fr., Villanova
Freshman of the Year: Omari Spellman, R Fr., Villanova

Team Previews

1. Villanova

See full preview here: #5 in our Top-40 countdown

2. Xavier

See full preview here: #13 in our Top-40 countdown

3. Seton Hall

See full preview here: #17 in our Top-40 countdown

4. Providence

See full preview here: #29 in our Top-40 countdown

5. Creighton

See full preview here: #39 in our Top-40 countdown

6. Butler

See full preview here: #37 in our Top-40 countdown

7. Marquette

Key Returners: Andrew Rowsey, Markus Howard, Haanif Cheatham, Sam Hauser, Matt Heldt
Key Losses: JaJuan Johnson, Luke Fischer, Katin Reinhardt
Key Newcomers: Harry Froling (SMU transfer)


Postseason Projection: 9 - 12 seed

Outlook:  Henry Ellenson's decision to take his talents to the NBA after just one collegiate season paved the way for Steve Wojciechowski to institute a stylistic makeover last season – one that looked very good on Marquette once fully applied. The exit of Ellenson, combined with the arrival of four long-range marksmen, including a pair of top-100 prospects in Sam Hauser and Markus Howard along with two impact transfers in Katin Reindhardt (USC) and Andrew Rowsey (UNC-Asheville), morphed the Golden Eagles from an interior-focused, defensive minded squad to a run-and-gun, perimeter-oriented offensive juggernaut.  In hindsight, Ellenson’s jaw-dropping combination of size, skill and mobility simply didn’t translate into dominance at the college level. His inefficiency as a scorer significantly reduced Marquette’s offensive ceiling, given a large chunk of the Golden Eagles' possessions ran through him two years ago. However, last season, those possessions were re-distributed to an array of 3-point snipers, each of whose precision resembled the accuracy of Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates.

The Eagles shot a kerosene-hot 42.9% as a team from behind the arc last year, tops in the nation by 170 basis points. To put that in perspective, look at the margin between each of the top-20 3-point shooting squads last year on a percentage basis. For all the hoopla surrounding Lonzo Ball and UCLA's offensive firepower last season, you’ll notice Marquette was a whole 2% more accurate from the land of plenty.

What's scary is that three of those four sharpshooters are back this year, meaning the nets in the Bradley Center may need a fireproof coating applied before every home game.  

The backcourt duo of Rowsey and Howard meshed seamlessly in their first season playing together, collectively owning the primary ball handling responsibilities and spearheading the fast-break attack whenever the opportunity arose. And while Luke Fischer was projected to get the vast majority of the minutes with Ellenson out of the mix, Matt Heldt came into his own late in the year. In fact, he earned the starting nod over Fischer in 6 of the Eagles' final 7 contests - Heldt proved to be a low-usage, high-efficiency asset on the offensive end and hauled in an impressive 6 boards a contest in just 20 MPG during that 7 game stretch. Wojo should have a formidable front court tandem in Heldt and Hauser entering the 2017-18 campaign, assuming they can replicate their on-court combined effectiveness from last year - just refer to the uptick in the Eagles' efficiency when both were on the floor together:'s "PPP Differential" statistic (the advanced statistical variation of individual +/-) validates Wojo's decision to award more minutes to Heldt as the season matured. His 0.21 overall PPP Differential was 2nd best on the team and during the 759 defensive possessions that Heldt was on the floor, opponents scored just 0.99 PPP against the Eagles, the lowest of anyone on the roster earning significant minutes. This was shockingly superior to Fischer. Despite posting the Big East's 3rd highest block rate, Marquette surrendered 1.10 PPP with Fischer on the floor, which was tied with Reinhardt for worst on the team. Those who are bullish on Marquette this season could foresee a defensive improvement via the "addition by subtraction" theory with Heldt in line to gobble up most of Fischer’s minutes and with Reinhardt no longer in the mix. 

However, Heldt's inconsistency throughout the entire duration of the season, which featured a few head-scratching outings (see two games in which he fouled out, along with a no-show against South Carolina in Marquette's 1st round NCAA tournament loss to South Carolina), make this notion a rather large leap of faith. The roster turnover alone won't be enough to fix many of the gaping holes that surfaced in the Big East's 2nd worst defensive unit last year, but the offseason acquisition of Harry Froling from SMU should provide a huge boost to a thin frontline once he becomes eligible in December. Until he's ready to go, a pair of freshmen in Ike Eke and Theo John may get early opportunities to prove their worth and get the reps they need to prepare for the Big East gauntlet.

Bottom Line: The backcourt combo of Howard and Rowsey, along with Heldt, Hauser and versatile lefty scorer Haanif Cheatham shape up to be one of the most prolific offensive lineups in the nation this season. However, the exodus of Reinhardt and JaJuan Howard - who often bailed out the Eagles' shaky defense with his lightning-quick hands and feet - puts a dent in what was a relatively deep bench. Rowsey, Howard and Cheatham possess neither top-notch foot speed nor plus size necessary for their respective positions, a major reason why Marquette was gashed by opposing guards on multiple occasions last year. Unless Froling or the newcomer bigs can cover up some of the perimeter defensive deficiencies, expect a similar brand of basketball this season. No doubt their high-octane offense should keep them in contention for an at-large berth, but getting consistent stops will be pivotal to dodging any bad losses that could tarnish their resume. 


8. St. John's

Key Returners:  Shamorie Ponds, Marcus LoVett, Bashir Ahmed, Kassoum Yakwe
Key Losses: Yankuba Sime (transfer), Malik Ellison (transfer), Darien Williams (transfer), Federico Mussini
Key Newcomers: Marvin Clark (Michigan St. transfer), Justin Simon (Arizona transfer)


Postseason Projection: 11 seed - NIT

Outlook: Chris Mullin has come a long way in just two years at his alma-mater.  The "rebuilding excuse" was quickly applied to a disastrous first season two years ago, in which the Johnnies tallied just one Big East victory. In only two full recruiting cycles, though, Mullin quickly replenished the talent void with the additions of two premier prospects in Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett (who was forced to sit out 2015-16 by the NCAA), along with a JUCO standout in Bashir Ahmed. This three-headed monster quickly wiped away the offensive stink from the 2015-16 campaign as the Red Storm leaped from 302nd all the way to 90th in's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings. With the backcourt of the future already intact, the timing couldn't be better for a pair of newly eligible, high-major forward transfers to join the squad - Michigan State's Marvin Clark and Arizona's Justin Simon. Throw in two more top-notch rim protectors in Kassoum Yakwe and Tariq Owens, and it becomes clear why many national pundits are all-in on the Red Storm this season.

Mullin's fingerprints are all over the Johnnies breakneck, run-and-gun style of ball - one that closely resembles the "Run-DMC" attack from his professional playing days at Golden State. Mullin has given Ponds and LoVett a level of freedom offensively you won't even see at a pickup game at the YMCA. They have a perpetual green light to shoot, drive, and create for others offensively, and they are hyper-aggressive at seeking steals on the defensive end. This freedom also extends to the Johnnies paint patrollers, Yakwe and Owens, who roam the lane salivating for any opportunity to send a weak side layup 10 rows up into the stands.  

However, this "high-risk, high-reward" brand of basketball, combined with a lack of Division I experience, naturally resulted in "consistent inconsistency" last season. The Johnnies "good wins" column of their NCAA tournament resume was rather impressive (Butler, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, Syracuse), but was abruptly negated by the "bad losses" column that featured names such as "Delaware State" and "LIU Brooklyn". Ponds and LoVett are both elite shooters with deep range capable of blitzing opponents with a flurry of tough shots, but each need to shake a bad habit in their offensive tendencies. Per, LoVett took a whopping 37% of his FG attempts from the notoriously inefficient mid-range area and Ponds converted just 55% of his shots at the rim (low-to-mid 60s is preferred). However, both of these deficiencies can easily be corrected with court awareness and improved strength in their 2nd full seasons at the D-I level, so I expect these flaws to be hashed out as they mature.  

While the aforementioned flaws for Ponds and LoVett may be a tad bit nit-picky, it is Ahmed who is the most deserving of similar criticism. He also took his fair share of mid-range jumpers and converted just 29% of those attempts, 5% worse than his 34% conversion rate from behind the arc. Ahmed, along with the newcomer Justin Simon from Arizona, are the two major wildcards for the Johnnies this year. Simon was buried behind the laundry list of blue-chippers at Arizona two years ago, but he should get major minutes right away playing alongside Ponds and LoVett in what should be an electric backcourt.

It's easy to fall in love with the sexy per game statistics posted by Ponds, LoVett and Ahmed, along with the pedigree of the incoming transfers, but there are still major questions on the defensive end that have yet to be addressed in Mullin's first two seasons. He chose to ramp up the defensive intensity last year as the Johnnies pressed on roughly one of every five defensive possessions (21%) - twice as often as the two prior years (9% and 8%, respectively).

The "high-risk, high-reward" theme associated with how the Johnnies tend to play is especially evident on the defensive end. The positive side of the coin shows that Johnnies forced more turnovers than any other team in the Big East last year, and blocked the 6th-most shots in the entire country on a per possession basis. However, an overemphasis on generating steals and swatting shots at all costs resulted in far too many fouls and routinely surrendered easy shots around the rim, either in transition, in the half-court or off second chance opportunities.

Bottom Line:  Picking the Johnnies to finish 8th in the Big East should not be taken as disrespectful. After the top-4 teams in the Big East (Villanova, Xavier, Seton Hall and Providence), projecting where Creighton, Butler, Marquette and St. John's will end up in the final standings is essentially guess work. To date, Mullin has been quick to pull the youth and inexperience card as a defense for the Johnnies' spotty commitment on the defensive end and questionable shot-selection at times on the offensive end. Expectations are rising fast as we enter year 3 of the Mullin era, however. It's time for Mullin to show he's capable of extrapolating the full potential out of a roster that's oozing with talent - something his predecessor failed too often to accomplish.


9. DePaul

Key Returners: Eli Cain, Tre'Darius McCallum, Brandon Cyrus
Key Losses: Billy Garrett Jr.
Key Newcomers: Marin Maric (Northern Illinois transfer), Austin Grandstaff (Ohio St. transfer), Max Strus (JUCO)


Postseason Projection: NIT

Outlook:  Heading into the 2016-17 campaign, DePaul finds itself in a similar spot as their Big East foe, St. John's, with a relatively new head coach (in this case Dave Leitao) entering year 3 of his contract. However, the situation in Chicago is unique in that the man in charge is on his second stint as the program's leading man - for those who don't follow DePaul closely, Leitao was the Demons head coach from '02-'05 before parlaying his early success (he's the last coach to lead DePaul to the NCAA tournament) into a better job at Virginia. But after DePaul whiffed on their next two coaching hires (Jerry Wainwright and Oliver Purnell), Leitao got the opportunity to return to his former employer just a decade later in the summer of 2015. 

His first two seasons in his second leg as DePaul's head coach have been marked by continuous frustration - the Demons have racked up a grand total of five conference wins over that span. However, with recent notable victories on the recruiting trail and the addition of three talented newcomers set to join the mix this season, Leitao has spun the offseason storylines from a rear-view, irritative tone to a forward-looking, optimistic narrative. The grand opening of DePaul's new Wintrust Arena has certainly helped propel momentum forward, which should be a massive upgrade over the outdated and inconveniently located Allstate Arena.

With the arrival of D2 standout Max Strus and ex top-50 recruit Austin Grandstaff, it appears that the Demons are finally conforming to the new era of "pace and space" basketball, which places a premium on 3-point shooting. Everything I've seen, read and heard about Strus this offseason indicates he is poised to take the Big East by storm this season. Per an interview with Dan Stack of Fan Rag sports, a timely growth spurt has helped Strus ascend to a new level as a basketball player. Strus is a lethal shooter and a sneaky good athlete, which combined with his newfound size has unlocked a whole new set of moves in his offensive repertoire. And while Strus has flown under the radar his entire career, Grandstaff's pedigree speaks for itself.

As a former blue-chip prospect touted as one of the top shooters in the class of 2015, Grandstaff received offers from a few programs you may have heard of: Arizona, Georgetown, Florida, Maryland and finally, Ohio state, which is where he eventually committed coming out of high school. He decided to transfer out of Columbus just ten games later after quickly finding himself buried in the Buckeyes' depth chart (and didn't last long on a short-lived commitment to Oklahoma).  Based on his father's comments from a follow-up interview back in 2015, Grandstaff is surely expecting to receive major minutes right out of the gate in his first season in a DePaul uniform. The irony is that the addition of Strus, along with a pair of incumbent guards who each got major run last season - Eli Cain and Brandon Cyrus - make Grandstaff's starting spot and guaranteed minutes far from a foregone conclusion.

Even with an infusion of new talent that Leitao brought in to complement the scoring prowess of Cain (Strus, Grandstaff and Northern Illinois grad transfer Marin Maric) the loss of Billy Garrett cannot be glossed over. His efficiency struggles last season may have been a byproduct of basic "wear and tear" - he was leaned upon heavily for the entirety of his four-year career and led the entire Big East in usage last season. Devin Gage appeared to be stepping into the de-facto backup point guard spot last year, but a shoulder injury suffered early on against Rutgers appeared to stunt his development as a freshman. His minutes per game varied widely all season long, making the his role next year difficult to predict. Leitao may opt to slide one of the aforementioned off-guards over the point in order to maximize the minutes available for his most talented players.

Bottom Line:  Since the "new" Big East's inception in 2013-14, the league has finished in the top-5 of's overall conference rankings in each of its four years of existence. However, the DePaul Blue Demons have consistently been the anchor, failing to crack kenpom's top-150 overall adjusted efficiency rankings in each of those four seasons. Garrett once represented a ray of hope for the future of the Blue Demons' program when he chose to come to DePaul back in 2013 as a top-100 recruit out of nearby Morgan Park High School. His commitment was a refreshing sign that the basketball program's waning luster could still have cache with local prospects. And while the momentum has been slow to get rolling, the next few seasons could define where the program's long-term trajectory is headed.


10. Georgetown

Key Returners:  Jessie Govan, Marcus Derrickson, Jagan Mosely
Key Losses: Rodney Pryor, LJ Peak, Bradley Hayes, Isaac Copeland, Akoy Agau (transfer to SMU)
Key Newcomers: Trey Dickerson (South Dakota transfer), Greg Malinowski (William & Mary transfer), Chris Sodom, JaMarko Pickett


Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT

Outlook: Since 1972, the Thompson family has been synonymous with the Georgetown basketball program.  A 5-year stint with longtime assistant Craig Esherick at the helm beginning in 1999 bridged the gap from the "Golden Age" of Hoyas basketball (led by the legendary John Thompson II) to a new era under the rule of his son and heir apparent to the throne, John Thompson III. 

Fast forward 13 years later and the JTIII chapter of Georgetown basketball history has officially come to a close. While his tenure in D.C. would be considered a success by the standards of most college programs, JTIII's legacy in the eyes of the Georgetown faithful will always be, for right or for wrong, compared to his father. The fatigue with recent mediocrity grew to be too much for the athletic department to defend any longer, paving the way for a headline-grabbing hire of Patrick Ewing this offseason.

Ewing's first few months as the new king of the Georgetown basketball kingdom have been far from uneventful. His coaching inexperience at the collegiate level was quickly exposed in an interview with Dan Patrick, in which he hinted at his intentions to get former Hoyas star Allen Iverson involved in the recruiting process (this is by definition a violation). And more recently, athletic director Lee Reed announced a head-scratching decision to withdraw from the field of one of the most prominent mid-season tournaments in the history of college basketball: the PK80 (see quote from Reed below):

"The Georgetown's men's basketball program is in the midst of an exciting time of rebuilding.  Georgetown has a prominent, seasoned head coach who has begun this process, which will continue to develop in the fall. After considerable consultation with ESPN, we have reached a mutual agreement that Georgetown will not participate in the PK80 Phil Knight Invitational this November. The University values its longstanding partnership with ESPN and looks forward to participating in future events. We appreciate the understanding of the fans and organizations associated with this event and wish success to all involved."

It seems like national exposure on ESPN, along with early non-conference tests against some of the nation's elite teams, would be advantageous for the rebuilding process, but perhaps this is indicative of just how far the Hoyas have yet to go...

Ewing's most pressing order of business will be determining how to divvy up minutes between his returning upperclassmen - many of whom would not be characterized as impact players by Big East standards - and the incoming freshmen, who hold the keys to the program's future. The strength for this year's roster aligns with Ewing's area of expertise, the paint, which will be anchored by two behemoths in weighing in at a combined 520 pounds, Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson.  But don't let their listed size fool you - both are versatile and deceptively mobile on both ends of the floor.

While Govan's ox-like strength causes him to gravitate to the low-block as his preferred area to score, he's also effective as a screener in pick-n-roll action and even possesses a soft shooting touch from the outside. Derrickson is the more fleet of foot of the two junior forwards - his size and lateral quickness make him a fungible asset on the defensive end of the floor. Offensively, he prefers to assume the role of a prototypical stretch-4, evidenced by a high volume of 3-point attempts, relative to the number of shots he took inside the arc and from the free throw line. While Derrickson made a pedestrian 34% of his 93 treys last year, an 83% conversion rate from the charity stripe is an encouraging metric pointing to a potential improvement in his long range shooting efficient this year. Improvement in this area will be critical now that the clipboard is in Ewing's hands. The ex- Georgetown legend has already stated his desire to bring the NBA style of game to his alma-mater (see quote below from an interview with the New York Post):

“My vision is to play a style of ball that’s conducive and similar to the style we play in the NBA: up-tempo, push the ball, shoot the 3s when you have them. Similar to the way we play in Charlotte,” Ewing said.

This brand of basketball should suit newcomer Greg Malinowski well. The former William & Mary wing shot 41% from downtown last year, so expect him to earn major clock as a floor spacer for Ewing this season. Unfortunately, no other returning guard has proven to be a reliable shooter from distance, which could make the "pace and space" brand of basketball challenging to execute efficiently in Ewing's inaugural season.

Bottom Line:  The backcourt is where the concerns lie for this year's Hoyas. Along with Derrickson and Govan, a pair of 4-star freshman in Chris Sodom and JaMarko Pickett give Ewing one of the deeper and more talented front lines in the conference. However, Jagan Mosely, Jonathon Mulmore and South Dakota grad transfer Trey Dickerson all remain relatively unproven and will be challenged to adapt to Ewing's new system while simultaneously stepping into more featured roles this season.