The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.
Today’s focus: The Big East.
Last season was one of the stronger conference-wide performances by the Big East in recent memory. Seven of the league’s 10 teams collected 20 or more wins, and three finished in the top 25 of the final AP Poll.
This season, for the third year in a row, the Wildcats were the unanimous pick in the preseason coaches’ poll to win the regular season title. In all likelihood, that title is theirs to lose, but the nine other teams in the Big East aren’t going to lay down and give it to them.
Last season, the conference named six players to its All-Big East First Team. Four of those players — Providence’s Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead, and Marquette’s Henry Ellenson —are gone to the NBA. The fifth, Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett, returns for his junior season as the de facto leader for the Musketeers. The final player from the 2015-16 All-Big East First Team is Villanova’s Josh Hart.
Hart, the 6-5 senior guard, finished in the top 10 of the Big East in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage. His 15.5 points per game led Villanova, and his 6.8 boards were the most among all guards in the conference. But while Hart’s regular season was certainly impressive, it was his postseason play that truly shined. The junior was named to the NCAA All-Final Four Team after averaging 17.5 points and 8.0 rebounds in the two games against Oklahoma and North Carolina.
Villanova is receiving national attention again this season as the Wildacts have the potential for another deep March run this year. Hart, with more experience and responsibility, will be a large part of whether or not that happens.
Also deserving mention is Bluiett, who also finished in the top 15 of scoring and rebounding in the Big East, averaging 15.1 points and 6.1 rebounds. Bluiett also shot 39.8 percent from beyond the arc, hitting 78 three-pointers on the season, second only to Kellen Dunham and Kris Jenkins. Xavier was picked to finish second in the league in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Villanova returns three of five starters from its championship team in Hart, Jenkins (who hit 100 three-pointers on the season, including the game-winning buzzer-beater against North Carolina) and sophomore guard Jalen Brunson. Yes, the Wildcats will be missing starters Ryan Arcidiacano and Daniel Ochefu, but the team should be able to cope.
Bench players Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges both played in every game last season, and averaged more than six points and two rebounds per game and, combined with Darryl Reynolds, add welcome depth to the team.
The Wildcats may have lost two of the most prolific players in school history, but the 2016-17 roster shouldn’t miss a beat as it looks to become the fourth straight Villanova team to win the Big East regular season title.
Two seasons ago, Creighton broke a streak of three-straight NCAA tournament round of 32 appearances when the Bluejays went 14-19 and failed to make any postseason tournament. It could have been the start of a downward spiral in Omaha, but coach Greg McDermott was able to right the ship last year, guiding his team to a 20-15 campaign that included a run to the quarterfinals of the NIT.
Of course, the 2015-16 season also saw the end of two Bluejays’ careers when starters Geoggrey Groselle and James Milliken graduated, but Creighton’s roster should be at least as potent if not more dangerous in the upcoming year.
The Bluejays added 6-3 junior guard Marcus Foster, who transferred from Kansas State where he averaged 14.1 points and 2.2 assists per game in two seasons. Among others, he’ll support senior Maurice Watson, Jr. — the only Creighton player to start in all 35 of the Bluejays’ games last season. Watson averaged 31.4 minutes and a team-high 14.1 points per game last year, and enters his senior campaign as the nation’s active career assist leader with 639 to his name after he averaged 6.5 per contest last season — best in the Big East.
Freshman to Watch:
St. Johns finished last season 8-24, failing to tally 10 wins for the first time since 2005. It was a tough campaign, but it wasn’t without hope. The Red Storm’s young team — four freshman started nine or more games last season — has a season under their belt and valuable experience to draw on. One potential player who will benefit from that experience is true freshman Shamorie Ponds.
A Brooklyn native, Ponds is the all-around guard that St. John's lacked a season ago. He can shoot, pass, handle and defend; Ponds is likely to become a household name in the Big East for years to come.
This season, Big East coaches expect to see a marked improvement in the Red Storm, as the preseason coaches’ poll picked St. Johns to finish eighth in the league. If that improvement is going to happen, look for Ponds to be at the center of it.