Big East 2018-19 Preview

-Jim Root

Note - conference standing may not align exactly with Top 40 slot due to the Top 40 being a consensus ranking. Conference previews are up to the individual writer. 

Preseason Predictions

Player of the Year: Kamar Baldwin, Jr., Butler
Coach of the Year: Jay Wright, Villanova
Newcomer of the Year: Mustapha Heron, Jr., St. John's**
Freshman of the Year: Jahvon Quinerly, Villanova

** - if eligible. If not, Taurean Thompson, R So., Seton Hall

Team Previews

1. Villanova

See full preview here: #9 in our Top-40 countdown

2. Marquette

See full preview here: #26 in our Top-40 countdown

3. Butler

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

4. Xavier

See full preview here: #36 in our Top-40 countdown

5. Providence

See full preview here: #38 in our Top-40 countdown

6. St. John's

Key Returners: Shamorie Ponds, Marvin Clark, Justin Simon
Key Losses: Bashir Ahmed, Tariq Owens
Key Newcomers: Mustapha Heron (Auburn), LJ Figueroa (JUCO), Mikey Dixon (Quinnipiac), Sedee Keita (South Carolina), Greg Williams, Josh Roberts, Marcellus Earlington


Outlook: Let’s see what you’ve got, Chris Mullin. After several seasons of battling with young, undermanned rosters, the Red Storm finally have a cupboard full of legitimate Big East players (particularly in the backcourt), meaning it’s high time for Mullin to dig the storied Queens program out of the conference’s cellar (hasn’t finished better than 8th, tied for last in 2018).

Mullin has put together a roster of versatile, multi-positional players that should be able to exploit mismatches on both ends of the court. Defensively, they’ll continue to play a switch-heavy man-to-man that thrives on creating “events” – steals and blocks – and protecting the paint. The Red Storm ranked 7th and 6th nationally in block and steal rate, respectively, using their monstrous length up and down the lineup to drive opponents crazy. Justin Simon is the linchpin, a 6’5 destroyer who can guard nearly anyone (averaged 2.5 steals and 0.8 blocks per game), using his athleticism and anticipation to implode action before it even starts. Watch him eat Trevon Bluiett's lunch multiple times here:

Backcourt mate Shamorie Ponds is an on-ball nightmare in his own right, as well; playing against St. John's is like a root canal for opposing guards. The loss of Tariq Owens to grad transfer removes the conference’s best shot-blocker, but incoming South Carolina addition Sedee Keita and freshman Josh Roberts can replace some of that lost production.

The main defensive concerns are the three-point line, where the Red Storm were consistently scorched last year, and the glass. Both are products of the frequent gambling for steals and blocks, forcing a lot of rotations and too many blown assignments. Of course, the Johnnies were a Top 30 outfit nationally on this end due in large part to the turnovers that also resulted, so perhaps Mullin is content with the trade-off.

The offensive end is where the Storm struggled to find any rhythm last year, bricking their way to the league’s 9th-best offense. Ponds is an outstanding facilitator and lead scoring option, using an array of dribble hesitation moves to create space for himself, and he and Simon are both effective passers, as well. Unfortunately, his usually smooth lefty stroke abandoned him last year (25% from deep), and the roster just didn’t feature many other offensive weapons. Only Marvin Clark took great advantage of the many open opportunities that Ponds and Simon created, so Mullin went out and found some reinforcements to grease the scoring wheels.

Mustapha Heron is the best of the bunch, a true go-to guy and a physically imposing wing who should (should – it’s the NCAA, though) be eligible immediately following a tremendous season in which he helped resurrect the Auburn program back to relevance. He should be the efficient scoring wing that Bashir Ahmed never materialized into, and although the Ahmed JUCO experiment was largely uninspiring, Mullin brings in another highly-touted newcomer from those ranks: LJ Figueroa, a 20ppg guy at Odessa College. He and Quinnipiac transfer Mikey Dixon provide further scoring options behind the star-studded likely starting backcourt (and insurance in case the NCAA nails Heron to the bench for a year). Another stoutly-built guard, sophomore Bryan Trimble Jr., was a steadying presence in his rookie season, while trampoline-legged freshman Eric Williams Jr. offers a more high-risk, high-reward game.

Mullin will use all of these perimeter weapons in a guard-centric, PnR and isolation-heavy attack meant to give his guys as much freedom as possible. Ponds is excellent as the ball-handler off ball screens, attacking downhill or finding open kick-outs if doubled, and Simon’s height allows him to make pinpoint skip passes to shooters like Clark or any of the newcomers. Heron comes from a similarly open offense, and he should thrive as the defense is forced to help on a lightning rod like Ponds.

Bottom Line: Mullin has consistently brought in talented groups of players, whether it be freshmen or transfers, but that talent has yet to lead to consistent winning. The back-to-back scalps against Duke and @ Villanova (albeit missing Booth and Paschall) to start last February show the upside that this core has, and hopefully with the addition of more depth, we’ll see that peak version more frequently (the Red Storm ranked 347th nationally in bench minutes last season). Ponds and Simon basically never left the floor – there was a Big East stretch where Ponds played a possible 282 of 285 minutes (one game went to OT), while Simon played 41, 50, and 40 minutes in the Storm’s final three regular season games. This roster has the talent to get St. John’s back to national relevance and Mullin to his first NCAA Tournament, but they’ll need to show consistency and cohesion before that becomes the likely outcome.

7.  Seton Hall

Key Returners: Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Michael Nzei
Key Losses: Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez, Khadeen Carrington, Ish Sanogo
Key Newcomers: Taurean Thompson (Syracuse), Quincy McKnight (Sacred Heart), Anthony Nelson, Jared Rhoden


Outlook: “Starting over” is perhaps too strong a phrase, but with the graduation of four program pillars in Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez, and Ish Sanogo, Kevin Willard certainly has some work to do in Newark. That group finally broke through and won an NCAA tournament game this past season before giving Kansas a halfway decent battle, but maintaining that upward momentum is unlikely.

The 2017-18 version of the Pirates was a strange one, given the amount of continuity (12th nationally, per KenPom’s data). In 2016-17, they made their hay on defense, keying off Delgado’s gargantuan presence on the glass to become a physical pain to play against. In 17-18, though, the Pirates went as their offense went. Willard moved Carrington to point guard full-time and unleashed Myles Powell on the wing, pushing the tempo all while continuing the relentless Delgado-led assault on the offensive boards.

Given the makeup of this year’s roster, I’d expect Willard to continue with last season’s trajectory – high-scoring guard Sacred Heart transfer Quincy McKnight will join Powell in the backcourt, and although neither is a natural point guard, both can handle the ball and find teammates and will be best served in an open offensive attack. Sophomore Myles Cale, another tremendous open court player, is carrying a neon-light “BREAKOUT CANDIDATE” sign with him everywhere he goes this offseason, and that triumvirate forms the primary reason for optimism around campus.

The biggest question is, without a doubt, what happens to the rebounding? The Pirates were entirely reliant on Delgado (and Sanogo, to an extent) to clean the glass on both ends; optimists will say that Syracuse transfer Taurean Thompson fits perfectly into that role, but that would ignore his mildly alarming defensive rebounding rate at his previous stop. That could have been influenced by playing in the 2-3 zone (and he certainly appears to be a capable paint force), but the current on-court evidence is underwhelming. It’s also very possible Michael Nzei has a breakout on the glass without Delgado gobbling them up like a Hungry Hungry Hippo, and the freshman class includes widebody Darnell Brodie, so all is not lost.

With Powell and McKnight on the floor, the Pirates have a nice complementary offensive skillset in the backcourt: Powell is a bona fide gunner, while McKnight is a slasher who likes to get to the line (222 FTs his soph year at SHU). Sandro Mamukelashvili is a stretch big who barely scraped the surface of his potential last year; the possibilities he offers as a floor spacer have to intrigue Willard, given that he hasn’t played a big man that could shoot since Brandon Mobley in 2014-15. Freshman guards Jared Rhoden and Anthony Nelson are intriguing pieces, as well – like the McKnight/Powell combo, the two rookies complement each other. Rhoden has a smooth, compact shooting stroke, while Nelson is more of a slasher who offers some upside to be a lead ball-handler down the road.

As the offense got better last year, the defense faded somewhat. The rebounding suffered as the team collectively looked to get out in transition more, and opponents found more space to shoot threes – perhaps due to the Pirates playing zone on 10% of possessions, per Synergy, compared to 5% in 2016-17. Of course, that’s still a far cry from the ~30% zone Willard featured in 2014 and 2015, so it will be interesting to see if he trends back towards zone with a more inexperienced team (plus the loss of defensive whiz Sanogo). Thompson offers more potential than Delgado as a shot-blocker, which could help offset the rebounding loss.

Bottom Line: If McKnight and Thompson are ready to be high-level players right away, then Seton Hall could ride them and the two Myles to another NCAA Tournament bid in the wide open Big East. More likely, though, is that they need time to get acclimated and the Pirates have a bit of a transition year before becoming a true conference contender in 2018-19.

8. Georgetown

Key Returners: Jessie Govan, Jamorko Pickett, Jahvon Blair, Jagan Mosely, Kaleb Johnson
Key Losses: Marcus Derrickson, Jonathan Mulmore, Trey Dickerson
Key Newcomers: James Akinjo, Josh LeBlanc, Greg Malinowski (William & Mary), Grayson Carter, Mac McClung


Outlook: After a year of sitting at the kids table in the non-conference, Patrick Ewing has built some momentum at Georgetown, bringing in the #31-ranked recruiting class per 247 Sports and adding some intriguing games to the slate. Marcus Derrickson’s defection to pursue a career as the next Patrick Patterson hurts (and stops me from getting TOO bullish on the Hoyas), but there’s a collection of talent and shooting here that should get Georgetown comfortably clear of the DePaul Tier in the league.

The most glaring issue last year for Georgetown was taking caring of the ball, as they ranked 309th in turnover rate, too often punting possessions. To solve that, Ewing brought in Top 100 point guard James Akinjo, an exciting and lightning-quick pure point guard who can get in the paint or knock down an outside shot. Of course, it’s extremely rare for a non-elite PG recruit to avoid turnover issues as a freshman, but the upside Akinjo offers far exceeds any other option on the roster, and I’d guess Ewing lets him play through his growing pains.

After all, he’ll have plenty of options to whom he can pass. Slightly surprisingly, Ewing had the Hoyas playing at a quick tempo last year (probably dumb of me to assume they’d play like the physical Knicks of the 90’s, but let’s ignore that), opening up the offense and giving the youngsters chances to grow. Jamorko Pickett and Jahvon Blair had their own efficiency issues in their first Big East campaign, but playing next to a true PG should help, as should an offseason of development with Ewing and his staff. William & Mary transfer Greg Malinowski will be a knockdown shooter (although not offering a ton else), and Jagan Mosely is another guard who could benefit from Akinjo’s presence.

The other primary route to efficient scoring is to use stud big man Jessie Govan as an offensive fulcrum. Govan is both massive and massively skilled, a 6’10, 270-pound behemoth with impressive touch and an eye for passing, making him an excellent candidate to feature on the block or at the high post (and he can play some stretch five as well, if Ewing wants to open the lane more). Not many bigs have the footwork, patience, or touch to make this move (don't mind the scoreboard, I think Villanova was decent last year): 

His go-to post move is a quick reverse pivot jumper in the defender’s face, using his high release to get his shot off against nearly anyone. Given his production last year, he’ll likely face a lot of doubles, a situation he traditionally handles with aplomb.

Defensively, the Hoyas struggled mightily last year while playing almost exclusively man-to-man under Ewing (JTIII mixed in more zone). Govan + Derrickson wasn’t a particularly fleet of foot pairing, and despite his size, Govan struggled to protect the rim. As such, the Hoyas played a softer, conservative style, leading to few turnovers and a high-ish rate of three-pointers allowed. In a conference flush with shooting, that often spelled doom (Big East opponents shot 39% from 3 against Georgetown – yikes). More mobile forwards in Josh LeBlanc and Grayson Carter (along with more Pickett at the 4) should help alleviate that slightly, but shot-blocking is still a real concern.  

Last but not least – I’d be doing a major disservice to a Georgetown preview if I didn’t mention Mac McClung, internet dunking sensation. He’s actually much more than that (and has a reputation as a tireless worker and competitor), so here’s hoping he’s on ESPN highlight reels in a Hoya uniform sooner rather than later.

Bottom Line: The talent level is steadily growing in DC, and fan expectations will rise with it. I’d hope they’re still tempered this year, though, as many key players will still be underclassmen. Of course, the wide open nature of the Big East’s middle tier offers some opportunity to get some on-court momentum going, and the non-conf schedule is actually good enough to have a realistic tournament shot. That’s the best case for the Hoyas, but if the worst case is McClung banishing opponents’ souls during another (more competitive) transition year, well – that’s not such a bad thing, either.

9. Creighton

Key Returners: Martin Krampelj,Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitch Ballock, Davion Mintz
Key Losses: Marcus Foster, Khyri Thomas, Ronnie Harrell, Toby Hegner
Key Newcomers: Connor Cashaw (Rice), Marcus Zegarowski, Damien Jefferson (New Mexico), Christian Bishop, Sam Froling


Outlook: The Bluejays, like several other Big East squads, are picking up the pieces of a tumultuous offseason, and Coach Greggy McBuckets will need to revamp the rotation immediately given the turnover. Marcus Foster (and Toby Hegner) graduated, Khyri Thomas went pro a year early, and Ronnie Harrell grad transferred to Denver, thus making basically every Creighton player a breakout candidate this season with so many shots available. Even the team’s leading returning scorer, Martin Krampelj, has his own difficulties – he tore his ACL in mid-January, calling into question his availability for at least the non-conference portion of the schedule.

My favorite pick among the many breakout candidates is Mitch Ballock, a smooth-shooting sophomore wing who seemed to lose his stroke during conference play (37% in non-league games, 30% in 18 conference games). The jump from his first year to his second should help, but he’s missing a lot of time this offseason after groin surgery, so perhaps that will delay the breakout. In that case, McDermott likely turns to two other sophomores: Ty-Shon Alexander and Jacob Epperson.

Alexander has combo guard skills but appears more set to play on the wing this year; his combination of passing, driving, and shooting makes him a tough matchup at 6’4. Epperson was sitting out last year as a redshirt until the Krampelj emergency called him into duty, and though he was a beanpole playing against men like Angel Delgado and Tyler Wideman, he showed a lot of promise in limited action.

Of course, the Bluejays don’t necessarily need to have breakout stars to succeed. McDermott has talked this offseason about the unselfishness of his roster, noting how willing each player is to make the extra pass, and a balanced attack would not be surprising. Rice grad transfer Connor Cashaw is certainly an offensive threat (averaged 15.5ppg for the admittedly terrible Owls), and rising junior Davion Mintz has tantalizing skills and size at the point guard position. The rest of the newcomers offer some upside as well, particularly 4-star Tilton School grad (home of Wayne Selden, Georges Niang, and Nerlens Noel, among others) Marcus Zegarowski, New Mexico transfer Damien Jefferson, and skilled Aussie big Sam Froling. Zegarowski’s offensive ability will likely demand minutes immediately (pushing Mintz at PG in the process), and he should fit right into the multi-faceted offense McDermott is hoping to unleash.  

The plethora of ball-handling and shooting should allow McDermott to space the floor quite a bit and attack that way. Perhaps his biggest lineup decision, then, is how to manage minutes in the frontcourt once Krampelj is healthy. Playing him and Epperson at the same time might help the defense some (and they’re likely two of the team’s best five players), but it would cramp the floor compared to smallball with Cashaw or Ballock at the four. Creighton has had success in recent years playing a little smaller – Harrell was a major weapon there, and Cole Huff’s shooting was a constant threat – and again, playing more of the team’s deep stable of guards would make some sense.

I have confidence that the offense will stay potent, despite the roster turnover. Where change needs to happen, though, is on defense, where McDermott has failed to produce even a top 45 unit per KenPom in his 8 seasons in Omaha. The Bluejays are often deficient athletically and have never really had a true shot-blocker outside of one fleeting year of Justin Patton, so the possible development of Epperson in the paint would be a major boon. The loss of a nationally elite perimeter defender in Thomas is alarming, especially considering McDermott’s aversion to playing zone (only 3% of possessions last year). The Bluejays will likely continue to be ultra-conservative on this end, packing in their man-to-man and foregoing turnovers to avoid fouling and solidify the defensive glass, although the personnel does invite a slightly more aggressive scheme.

Bottom Line: Creighton should continue to play fast offensively with its slew of guards and relative lack of true star power, allowing for easier points in transition and not having to face the pressure of a winding-down shot clock. The gap between 2 and 9 will be narrow in the BE this year, so a tepid preseason preview like this one is far from a death knell in the team's chances to stay in the NCAA picture. It’s hard to envision the defense getting too much better, though, so unless the offense finds a way to replicate Foster and Thomas’s production through a more balanced approach, some regression seems likely for the Jays.  

10. DePaul

Key Returners: Max Strus, Eli Cain, Devin Gage
Key Losses: Tre'Darius McCallum, Marin Maric, Brandon Cyrus
Key Newcomers: Jalen Coleman-Lands (Illinois), Femi Olujobi (NC A&T), John Diener, George Maslennikov


Outlook: Filling out the Big East standings this year went like this:

  • 1) Place Villanova first.
  • 2) Place DePaul last.
  • 3) Put 2-9 in a randomizer and hope to get lucky.

So yeah, unfortunately for Dave Leitao, Chicago’s Big East Team is the consensus cellar dweller heading into the year. This team isn’t hopeless like Pitt last year, at least – Leitao has actually worked several avenues to bring in some talented players to join Eli Cain and Max Strus. Similar to last season, DePaul will have the ability to play spoiler for a would-be NCAA Tournament team down the stretch (just ask Marquette, and Providence barely scraped into the tournament after losing to the Demons in Rhode Island).

Cain is an interesting case and a kind of microcosm of the “stuck in the mud” nature of the Blue Demons program. After looking like a future star as a freshman (and kind of being one as a sophomore), he regressed mightily last year when asked to play more of a distributor role. He looked tentative, unsure about when to create for himself or create for others, and his shooting suffered mightily despite lower usage than his sophomore campaign – a triple slash of 35/31/66 is cringeworthy for a supposed junior leader. Leitao has to hope that he’ll settle into the senior leadership role far more comfortably. 

As Cain took a back seat, Leitao built the offense around Division II transfer Strus, a knockdown shooter with range well beyond the NBA line. He operated as a kind of Korver-lite, sprinting around screens and constantly drawing excessive defensive attention. He has the ability to shoot while on the move, making him an even tougher assignment, and with a year under his belt against D-I competition, expect another prolific campaign for the late bloomer. Outside of Strus, the team completely lacked competent shooters last year (335th nationally in 3P%), which makes the addition of Illinois transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands a gigantic one. The redshirt junior knocked down 40% of his 384 attempts for the Illini, giving hope that the Demons won’t again have enough bricks to build a second cramped downtown arena. New Zealander redshirt freshman Flynn Cameron only joined the team in January last year (explaining why he didn't play), but he was a prolific scorer in his prep days in Auckland, and John Diener should be a scoring threat right away, too.

With the defense so worried about bottling up Strus (and potentially Coleman-Lands) off of his many screens, openings emerged on the interior, of which the graduated Marin Maric often took advantage. His role will be filled by some combination of Jaylen Butz, the lanky Paul Reed, or (most likely) physical NC A&T grad transfer Femi Olujobi. Olujobi is undersized for the Big East, but he’s an energetic big who put up impressive numbers for a surprising MEAC contender, and he should be just fine as a garbage man/finisher while setting screens and darting to the basket.

Leitao actually put together a stout man-to-man defense last year, anchored by Maric in the paint and athletes like Cain, Brandon Cyrus, and Tre’Darius McCallum hawking the perimeter. The loss of Maric’s size and an iffy defensive combo on the wing with Strus and Coleman-Lands is concerning, but Reed and Butz look like difference-makers, and Olujobi will battle inside. The return of Devin Gage from injury should also aid the perimeter defense.

Oh, Austin Grandstaff is no longer on this team, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't matter.

Bottom Line: DePaul has some intriguing pieces (Strus even tested the NBA waters as a potential wing shooter), but there’s simply not enough collective talent and depth to consistently compete against the league’s deeeeeep middle tier. They’ll steal some wins here and there, but until they bring in more consistently productive recruits (like 2019’s Romeo Weems!), the Blue Demons will struggle to be relevant.