By Thomas Zinzarella ’21
With Feast Week wrapping up this past week, we are just over a month away from Big East conference play. The Big East took a hit early on in non-conference play with its strongest team, Villanova University, getting blown out by University of Michigan at home in a rematch of the National Championship game last year. They also lost to Furman University, out of the Southern Conference.
With Villanova losing four of its key players in Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVencenzo, Omari Spellman, and Mikal Bridges all to the NBA Draft in June, this is the widest open the Big East has ever been since realignment. Starting with Villanova, the Wildcats added a graduate transfer, Joe Cremo, from the University of Albany, who can knock down the three, while also bringing back some experience from the National Championship team: Eric Paschall, Collin Gillespie, and Phil Booth. Villanova added 5-star recruit Jahvon Quinerly and one of the best 3-point shooters in the Big East, Cole Swider. The Wildcats also picked up a quality win this past weekend in the Advocare Invitational by defeating Oklahoma State University and against #15 Florida State University in the Championship game. With this win, the Wildcats hoisted their sixth straight November tournament title and have reentered the Top 25 at #23.
One of the favorites to dethrone the Villanova Wildcats are the Marquette University Golden Eagles. Head Coach Steve Wojciechowski has the most talented team yet in his tenure, led by the power scoring duo of Markus Howard and Sam Hauser. Both combined to hit 206 three-pointers last year, which was good enough to place seventh in the country. This Marquette team is a potent offense especially with Howard who dropped 52 points on the Friars at the Dunk last year. This year’s team will have to focus on defense and Wojciechowski brought in two transfers in Ed Morrow from Nebraska and graduate transfer Joseph Chartouny from Fordham University, where he was among the nations leaders in steals.
Another team that has stepped into the light has been the St. John’s University Red Storm. The Johnnies bring back leading scorer Shamorie Ponds who is one of the best pure scorers in the country. This talent has garnered him the Big East Pre-Season Player of the Year and is on the watch list for the Bob Cousy Award (Best PG). Head Coach Chris Mullin was also able to pull in prized Auburn University transfer Mustapha Heron. The former 5-star recruit from Waterbury, Connecticut averaged 15.8 points per game in his first two years at Auburn and has now made St. John’s one of the best backcourts in the country. St. John’s will have to hope that their other players like Marvin Clark, Justin Simon, and L.J. Figueroa complement their uber-talented offense. If not, Chris Mullin may find himself in the hot seat.
One team that is consistently at the top of the Big East rankings is the Butler University Bulldogs. In year two under head coach LaVall Jordan, the Bulldogs look to make their 5th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. The Bulldogs will look towards Kamar Baldwin and guard Paul Jorgensen after the departure of Kelan Martin last year. Starting the spring semester of this year, Duke University transfer Jordan Tucker will be eligible to play for the Bulldogs. Tucker was ranked No. 40 in th ESPN 100 before transferring to Butler last December due to lack of playing time. Butler was able to knock off the University of Florida Gators in the Battle 4 Atlantis last week and has a good non-conference game against Indiana and a trip down to Gainesville to face the Florida Gators again.
A team that is well under the radar is the DePaul University Blue Demons. Yes, DePaul has been in the cellar of the Big East and the laughing stock for over the last decade but they are a team that is ready to make some noise. Dave Leitao and company are looking to get back to the tournament for the first time since 2004. The Blue Demons will be led by sharpshooting guard Max Strus, who averaged 16.8 points per game last year. DePaul also will see action from Illinois transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands and grad transfer from North Carolina A&T Femi Olujobi. Although DePaul may not finish high in Big East standings, this is a much-improved team and do not sleep on them when it comes to conference play.
The biggest surprise this year is the Creighton University Bluejays. Creighton was tabbed to finish ninth in the Big East pre-season polls and lost three starters from last year. Their best returning player Martin Krampelj is coming off a torn ACL but averaged 11.9 PPG and 8.1 RPG before the injury last year. This year, Creighton holds a 5-1 record with their only loss to #16 The Ohio State University and are fresh off a victory over previously ranked #16 Clemson Tigers to win the Cayman Islands Classic. A lot of their early season success has had to do with sophomore Ty-Shon Alexander. He only averaged 5.5 PPG as a freshman but has quickly emerged as a force to be reckoned with, averaging 19.2 PPG and shooting the three ball at just under 50 percent. Alexander led the charge with 36 points in the championship game against the Clemson Tigers. Damien Jefferson, a New Mexico transfer who sat out last year is providing a nice boost with 10.8 PPG and 5.5 RPG in the starting lineup. The Blue Jays have set themselves up with a rigorous non-conference that can help the conference if they win these games. Creighton hosts #1 Gonzaga on Dec. 1 and is also scheduled to play University of Nebraska and Gonzaga University.
Conference play should be exciting once again with this year being more of a learning curve, we may see some tight and exciting games. The Big East is always a dogfight and it looks to be the same again this year.