We are now less than two weeks away from the start of the 2021-2022 NCAA college basketball season. Last Word On Sports continues our coverage with our Big East preview. The Big East is coming off a tough season. It was really a rebuilding year for a lot of teams in the conference. The conference tournament surprised everyone when Georgetown ran through the event at Madison Square Garden and won the whole thing. Unfortunately, a bunch of the teams are still in a rebuild of sorts. Because of that, the bottom of the conference is a bit weak. But that does not mean that the league lacks firepower at the top, because the top looks good. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.
11. DePaul Blue Demons
Crucial Returners: Javon Freeman-Liberty
Critical Losses: Charlie Moore, Romeo Weems
Key Newcomers: Brandon Johnson (Minnesota), Jalen Terry (Oregon), Tyon Grant-Foster (Kansas)
DePaul. The cellar dwellers. The perennial rock bottom of the Big East. They have finished last in the conference in each of the past five seasons. The Blue Demons only won five games last season, and only two of those were in conference play. They lost almost every major contributor from that team. One can look at that two ways. One way is seeing it as an opportunity to start sort of fresh. The other way is to look at it negatively. Dave Leitao is still there as a part of his second stint as the school’s head coach. One would think this year could be his final one.
Javon Freeman-Liberty is back. The senior guard was tied for the team lead in scoring last year and should do so again. He was also their second-leading rebounder too. Former top 80 recruit Jalen Terry, a point guard, transfers in from Oregon. 6’7″ shooting guard Tyon Grant-Foster, a former Kansas Jayhawk, arrives as well. The biggest get though is Minnesota graduate transfer, Brandon Johnson. Johnson spent three years at Western Michigan before spending last season as a Golden Gopher. He is an excellent get for them. Leitao also brings in top 100 SG Ahamad Bynum, a local kid from right there in Chicago.
Projected Lineup: C – #14 Nick Ongenda, PF – #35 Brandon Johnson, SG – #13 Tyon Grant-Foster, PG – #3 Jalen Terry, PG – #4 Javon Freeman-Liberty
10. Marquette Golden Eagles
Crucial Returners: Justin Lewis
Critical Losses: Theo John, Koby McEwen, Dawson Garcia, D.J. Carton, Jamal Cain
Key Newcomers: Darryl Morsell (Maryland), Stevie Mitchell, Emarion Ellis, David Joplin
Marquette was weird last season. They had a win against #4 Wisconsin and one on the road against #9 Creighton. This year there is change everywhere. First, the school moved on from Steve Wojciechowski after seven seasons. He has been mostly solid there, but only made two NCAA Tournament appearances during his tenure. That is not going to cut it. Marquette made a big splash by luring Shaka Smart away from Texas.
Then you look at their roster. The Golden Eagles lost the top five players in both scoring average and minutes per game. That is all five starters. Yikes. But they made quality additions. The biggest one is former Maryland guard Darryl Morsell. The graduate transfer is an elite defender and can shoot from anywhere inside the arc (56.3% from two last season). Stevie Mitchell is a top 100 recruit. Both Emarion Ellis and David Joplin are also four-star recruits that should have significant impacts on this team.
Marquette’s non-conference schedule is pretty strong this season. There are a bunch of opportunities for quality wins, including two games against Preseason AP Top 11 teams. We will know in the first month of the season how good, or bad, the Golden Eagles are going to be.
Projected Lineup: PF – #23 David Joplin, SF – #10 Justin Lewis, G – #5 Greg Elliot, SG – #32 Darryl Morsell, PG – #4 Stevie Mitchell
9. Georgetown Hoyas
Crucial Returners: Dante Harris, Donald Carey
Critical Losses: Jahvon Blair, Jamorko Pickett, Qudus Wahab, Chudier Bile
Key Newcomers: Aminu Mohammed, Ryan Mutombo, Jordan Riley, Tyler Beard, Kaiden Rice (The Citadel)
Georgetown has a lot of roster turnover too. They really only have two known commodities left. Everyone else is gone. It doesn’t help that Tre King, the former Eastern Kentucky forward who transferred in and was projected to start, got dismissed from the team two weeks ago and subsequently entered the transfer portal. They do have a really good recruiting class coming in though. But because of all of that, they are a very young team. The Hoyas shocked the world at MSG in March by winning the Big East Tournament. But this season could be rough sledding for the defending champs.
The reigning Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player award winner Dante Harris has the keys to this offense and to this team. Once he became a starter five games into the season last year he never looked back. He only improved as the season went on and was great in the conference tournament. Look for him to make big strides this year. Donald Carey is the other impact returner. He played well last year after transferring in from Siena. Timothy Ighoefe returns too. He will probably start the year as the starting center.
Head Coach Patrick Ewing brings in his best recruiting class so far as the coach of his Alma Mater and it includes one of the highest-rated recruits that Georgetown has ever brought in. That guy is Aminu Mohammed. Originally from Washington D.C., Mohammed can do it all. He was voted as the Preseason Big East Freshman Of The Year and I think he’ll retain that title at the end of the year. Ryan Mutombo, the son of Hoya legend and basketball Hall Of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, comes in and is looking good.
Jordan Riley, Tyler Beard, and Jalin Billingsley are the three other incoming freshman who will all look to make an impact. And there will be plenty of opportunities. Kaiden Rice is now the lone transfer coming in. Rice is a grad transfer from The Citadel and he is coming off of the best year of his collegiate career.
The biggest question is who ends up playing center for the Hoyas. Tre King was supposed to be the one to do that. But he isn’t there anymore. Because of that, the team has to look somewhere else. I do not think that they want to start Mutombo right away. So the starter will probably be Ighoefe. It could also be Malcolm Wilson though. However, neither of those two have shown much promise so far while on The Hilltop. Because of that, the starting spot is really up in the air.
Projected Lineup: C – #5 Timothy Ighoefe, G/F – #11 Kaiden Rice, G – #0 Aminu Mohammed, SG – #13 Donald Carey, PG – #2 Dante Harris
8. Creighton Blue Jays
Crucial Returners: Ryan Kalkbrenner, Alex O’Connell
Critical Losses: Marcus Zegarowski, Denzel Mahoney, Damien Jefferson, Christian Bishop, Mitch Ballock
Key Newcomers: Arthur Kaluma, Ryan Nembhard, Trey Alexander
The theme so far in this Big East preview has been change. Like I said at the beginning, this is sort of a “rebuilding” year for most schools in this conference. There’s lots of roster turnover. And there’s more right here with Creighton. All five starters are gone, as is a guy who played thirty games off the bench. Because of that, this is a very young team. Head coach Greg McDermott is bringing in the nation’s seventh-ranked recruiting class and the best one in the Big East (Even better than Georgetown’s). Of the five nationally ranked recruits that they are bringing in, four are ranked in the top 75. Because of a desperate need, I think three of them start from day one.
Arthur Kaluma is the biggest prize of this class. The top 50 PF is a great defender with lots of upside, and he is a very good rebounder too. Ryan Nembhard (The younger brother of Gonzaga PG Andrew Nembhard) will run the point and facilitate the offense. Trey Alexander is good off-the-dribble and doesn’t need the ball in his hands to make plays.
Ryan Kalkbrenner leads the returnees. Towering over opponents at 7’1″, he has a chance to take a big step up in his game this season. Shareef Mitchell is the best three-point shooter of the returnees, and he should be thrust into a starting role. Former Duke guard Alex O’Connell will be a key piece off the bench in his second year in Omaha.
Projected Lineup: C – #11 Ryan Kalkbrenner, PF – #24 Arthur Kaluma, G – #4 Shareef Mitchell, SG – #23 Trey Alexander, PG – #2 Ryan Nembhard
7. Providence Friars
Crucial Returners: Nate Watson, Noah Horchler, A.J. Reeves,
Critical Losses: David Duke Jr., Greg Gantt
Key Newcomers: Al Durham (Indiana), Justin Minaya (South Carolina)
Finally, we have reached a team that didn’t lose everybody. They did lose their best player David Duke Jr., however, they brought a lot back and bring in two good transfer players. Those transfers will be the key. Providence unfortunately doesn’t have a great recruiting class. There’s is 10th out of the 11 in the Big East and 64th nationally. Point guard Aljami “Al” Durham comes over from Indiana. Durham started every game for the Hoosiers the past two seasons. Last season he averaged double-digit points per game for the first time in his collegiate career. Former South Carolina forward Justin Minaya comes in as well. Minaya can score some and is a very good rebounder for his position. Like Durham, Minaya also has a lot of starting experience. He started 75 of the 79 games he played in as a Gamecock.
Nate Watson returns for one last ride at Providence. He decided to take advantage of the free year of eligibility to return to college for a fifth season. Watson has become one of the best centers in the Big East. Last year was by far his best season as a Friar. He posted career-highs in almost every single statistical category. I expect to see more of that this season.
Noah Horchler is back as well. The forward who spent his first two years at North Florida, should become a full-time starter this season. If he can improve and play like he did as an Osprey. it will do wonders for this team. A.J. Reeves is the other returner and should once again be in the starting lineup every time out. Jared Bynum started eleven games last season and should be solid off of their bench this season. He could potentially even start.
Providence has a solid non-conference schedule. They could finish anywhere between 4th and 8th in the Big East this season. If the Friars play well enough though they could contend for an NCAA Tournament birth.
Projected Lineup: C – #0 Nate Watson, PF – #14 Noah Horchler, SF – #15 Justin Minaya, SG – #11 A.J. Reeves, PG – #1 Al Durham
6. Butler Bulldogs
Crucial Returners: Bryce Nze, Jair Bolden, Aaron Thompson, Bo Hodges, Bryce Golden, Chuck Harris
Critical Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Pierce Thomas
Numbers 4, 5, & 6 were close for me. But Butler comes in as a close #6. These Bulldogs get back nine of the ten players that averaged double-digit minutes per game last season. The one guy they lost only played in six games. They are experienced and they know how to play together. There are two issues though. Firstly, like Providence, their recruiting class isn’t great. But they do get a valuable grad transfer in former Eastern Michigan forward Ty Groce. The other is that, while these guys have played together a lot, they went 10-15 last season doing so. But I think they’ll be better this year.
A lot of these players have a lot of talent, especially the six that I named as “crucial returners.” Bryce Nze is probably the team’s best overall player. He can score and he was also third in the Big East in rebounds last season. Nze became one of the best power forwards in the conference last season. He and fellow PF Bryce Golden form a great duo for the Bulldogs. It took Bo Hodges until January 30th to get declared eligible by the NCAA. He only played in nine games (He missed three due to injury) but had an impact. Aaron Thompson is back and healthy. He averaged double-digit points last season and is one of the best defensive players in the country.
Jair Bolden is the elder statesman. He is one of the “super-seniors,” the sixth-year senior taking advantage of the free year of eligibility. Bolden played in all 25 games last season for Butler. He and Myles Tate were the only two Bulldogs to do that. Then we have Chuck Harris. All Harris did was come in and lead the team in scoring last season as a true freshman.
Projected Lineup: PF – #33 Bryce Golden, PF – #10 Bryce Nze, G/F – #1 Bo Hodges, SG – #52 Jair Bolden, PG – #2 Aaron Thompson
5. St. John’s Red Storm
Crucial Returners: Julian Champagnie, Posh Alexander
Critical Losses: Rasheem Dunn, Greg Williams, Vince Cole, Marcellus Earlington, Josh Roberts, Isaih Moore
Key Newcomers: Stef Smith, Montez Mathis, Aaron Wheeler, Joel Soriano, Esahia Nyiwe
St. John’s is weird. They could definitely be higher. They were #4 in the preseason Big East coaches poll. St. John’s even got 5 votes for the preseason AP poll. But for me, there is just so much uncertainty. Because of that, they could also definitely be lower. The Red Storm’s claim to fame this year is their excellent pair of guards. Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander were terrific a year ago. They are arguably the best duo of guards in the Big East and one of the best in the country. Champagnie is one of the best players in the country and should be at least in the conversation for multiple awards. He led the Big East in scoring and was tied for sixth in rebounding. Alexander led the conference in steals per game and was seventh in assists. Sophomore Dylan Addae-Wusu returns and should have a big role.
Other than them there are lots of new faces. Montez Mathis comes the relatively short distance over from Rutgers. Mathis had a slightly diminished role last season and decided to move over to NYC. Fordham transfer Joel Soriano goes from Manhattan to Queens. The big man will provide the size and rebounding that the Johnnies desperately need. Aaron Wheeler transfers in from Purdue and Esahia Nyiwe transfers in too. The best addition could be Stef Smith. Smith played four years and Vermont and he dominated the last three.
Champagnie and Alexander are both going to be very good. That is a given. But the big question is almost the entire rest of the roster. Six players transferred out of Queens. I am obviously not as high on this team as others are. The Red Storm will go as far as those two take them.
Projected Lineup: C – #11 Joel Soriano, SF – #1 Aaron Wheeler, G/F – #2 Julian Champagnie, G – #3 Stef Smith, PG – #0 Posh Alexander
4. Seton Hall Pirates
Crucial Returners: Myles Cale, Jared Rhoden, Ike Obiagu, Tyrese Samuel, Bryce Aiken
Critical Losses: Sandro Mamukelashvili, Shavar Reynolds, Takal Molson
Key Newcomers: Brandon Weston, Kadary Richmond (Syracuse), Jamir Harris (American), Alexis Yetna (USF)
Seton Hall lost a lot. But what has them at #4 is that they gained a lot too. Then there’s also the large amount of talent that they’re bringing back. I think they will make it to the big dance this season.
Two guys that played over thirty minutes per game last season are back this year in Myles Cale and Jared Rhoden. Cale has started all but five games the past three seasons for the Pirates. He is taking advantage of that extra year of eligibility. Rhoden became a full-time starter last season and thrived in that role. Ike Obiagu stands at 7’2″ and is one of the best defensive players in the country. He led the conference in blocks a year ago by far. Tyrese Samuel should be in for an increased role this year. Bryce Aiken can score but has been plagued by injuries in his collegiate career.
Small forward Brandon Weston is an incoming top 100 recruit. He could be in play for a starting spot. Jamir Harris broke out last year, scoring over twenty points per game for American. Granted it was a small sample size because Patriot League teams played very little last year. Alexis Yetna will bring valuable size to the post off the bench. Kadary Richmond comes down from Syracuse. Many people thought he should’ve had a bigger role with the Orange, but Jim Boeheim had some interesting words when asked about that recently.
Projected Lineup: C – #21 Ike Obiagu, PF – #4 Tyrese Samuel, G/F – #22 Myles Cale, SG – #14 Jared Rhoden, PG – #1 Bryce Aiken
3. Xavier Musketeers
Crucial Returners: Paul Scruggs, Zach Freemantle, Kyky Tandy, Nate Johnson
Critical Losses: Jason Carter
Key Newcomers: Jack Nunge (Iowa), Jerome Hunter (Indiana), Cesare Edwards
Xavier is my #31 team coming into this season, six spots outside of my preseason top 25. The Musketeers really only lose one guy, get a lot back, and bring in some good new players. They have a high ceiling. If they play well enough they could be the Big East runner-up and I think they could even potentially earn as high as a three seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Paul Scruggs returns for his fifth year in Cincinnati. He is the best player on this team and its veteran leader. Scruggs averaged 19 PPG last season in conference play. Kyky Tandy returns as their sparkplug off the bench. Nate Johnson is back for a second year there and is one of those so-called “super seniors.” Zach Freemantle was great last season, become one of the best PFs in the conference He led the Big East in rebounds last season and led the team in scoring. But he did recently suffer a foot injury which will sideline him indefinitely. The hope is that he can return by the start of Big East play in early December.
Iowa transfer Jack Nunge was already going to be a big contributor. That is even more true now with Freemantle injured. He was plagued by injuries at Iowa. The hope is that he can overcome those injuries and be a big performer in Cincy. Former four-star recruit Jerome Hunter transfers in after two seasons at Indiana. Freshman center Cesare Edwards should have an impact too.
This is an important year for Xavier head coach Travis Steele. After going to the NCAA Tournament in eight of nine years with Chris Mack, Steele has yet to take the Musketeers dancing. He could be on the hot seat. Because of that, I think it will be a big motivator.
Projected Lineup: PF – #24 Jack Nunge, PF – #32 Zach Freemantle, G – #3 Colby Jones, SG – #10 Nate Johnson, PG – #1 Paul Scruggs
2. Connecticut Huskies
Crucial Returners: R.J. Cole, Tyrese Martin, Isaiah Whaley, Adama Sanogo, Tyler Polley, Jalen Gaffney, Andre Jackson, Akok Akok
Critical Losses: James Bouknight
Key Newcomers: Jordan Hawkins, Samson Johnson, Rahsool Diggins, Corey Floyd Jr.
UConn was one of the hardest teams to keep out of my preseason top 25. They are looking pretty good coming into this season. They are bringing back pretty much everyone and boast the nation’s #9 recruiting class. The problem, though, is that the one guy they did lose just happens to have been one of the best players in college basketball the last two seasons. James Bouknight went 11th overall in the NBA Draft. They don’t necessarily have a replacement, but they still have a ton of talent.
Point guard R.J. Cole is back for his second season in Stoors. He was second on the team in scoring last season. Cole can definitely improve that this season, as evidenced by the two years he spent at Howard averaging 23.7 and 21.4 PPG respectively. Isaiah Whaley is back for a fifth season. He has become one of the best shot blockers in the country. Adama Sonogo is a good one too. He was great down the stretch last season. Tyler Polley is also back for a fifth year. He will compete for minutes along with other returners Jalen Gaffney and Andre Jackson. Akok Akok is healthy now too.
Look out for this super talented recruiting class. Head coach Dan Hurley brings in four top 100 recruits. Jordan Hawkins, the 50th overall recruit in the class of 2021, is the best of the bunch. Samson Johnson and Rahsool Diggins are also in the top 60.
Projected Lineup: PF – #5 Isaiah Whaley, PF – #21 Adama Sanogo, G – #4 Tyrese Martin, SG – #0 Jalen Gaffney, PG – #2 R.J. Cole
1. Villanova Wildcats
Crucial Returners: Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels, Justin Moore, Caleb Daniels
Critical Losses: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Cole Swider
Key Newcomers: Jordan Longino, Nnanna Njoku
This you all could have predicted from the start. Once again Villanova looks like the best team in the Big East. They have won at least a share of the conference regular-season title in seven of the last eight years.
As soon as Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels announced that they were taking advantage of the free year of eligibility Villanova automatically became one of the best teams in the country. Gillespie might be the nation’s best point guard. He has started every single game he’s played in the last three seasons (87 total games). Besides his immense talent, the Wildcats were clearly a different team without him late last season when he was injured. Samuels gets better every season. Last year during conference play he shot 45% from three. Justin Moore improved big-time offensively down the stretch last season. Caleb Daniels made a pretty good transition to major college basketball after spending two years at Tulane. Eric Dixon should be in for a vastly increased role this year.
Head coach Jay Wright brings in a top 25 recruiting class, headlined by two top 100 players. SG Jordan Longino is one of them. Longino, who grew up just north of Philadelphia, is the #53 recruit in the Class Of 2021. But he will have to compete with a slew of other guards for playing time. The other top 100 freshman, Nnanna Njoku, has a much easier path to playing time. Because of the hole left by Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, both Njoku and Eric Dixon will get minutes in the post. Either one of them can start. And if they play well, Nova has a very good shot of getting to yet another Final Four.
Projected Lineup: C – #22 Nnanna Njoku, PF – #23 Jermaine Samuels, G – #14 Caleb Daniels, G – #5 Justin Moore, PG – #2 Collin Gillespie
Big East Awards Predictions
Player Of The Year: Julian Champagnie (St. John’s)
Defensive Player Of The Year: Ike Obiagu (Seton Hall)
Sixth Man Of The Year: Kyky Tandy (Xavier)
Freshman Of The Year: Aminu Mohammed (Georgetown)
Most Improved Player: R.J. Cole (UConn)
Coach Of The Year: Travis Steele (Xavier)
All-Big East First Team: Nate Watson (Providence), Bryce Nze (Butler), Julian Champagnie (St. John’s), Paul Scruggs (Xavier), Collin Gillespie (Villanova)
All-Big East Second Team: Ike Obiagu (Seton Hall), Zach Freemantle (Xavier), Aminu Mohammed (Georgetown), Jared Rhoden (Seton Hall), Dante Harris (Georgetown)
All-Big East Third Team: Isaiah Whaley (UConn), Jermaine Samuels (Villanova), Bo Hodges (Butler), Darryl Morsell (Marquette), Posh Alexander (St. John’s)
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