Collin Gillespie, Villanova, Big East

Questions amount for Big East basketball teams as the conference sees many of its top stars returning, setting up for a marathon of a season.

Some Big East basketball teams will swim in new waters this season. Stars James Bouknight, Marcus Zegarowski and Sandro Mamukelashvili will be some of the biggest names to replace. However, that’s fairly mild compared to the year before, which saw generational players use up their collegiate eligibility.

Plenty of impact players do return, with Collin Gillespie, Julian Champagnie, Nate Watson, Paul Scruggs and Zach Freemantle serving as examples of the type of talent that will compete in the Big East this season.

However, the nature of this season is still the same as any other – finding ways to get players to buy in and maximizing the potential of each role on the roster. Each Big East basketball coach will have a unique question to answer in order to get the most out of their players.

Butler – Where will the rebounding come from?

Last year’s Butler Bulldogs team got crushed on the glass, finishing tenth in the Big East in rebounding margin. No one on the Bulldogs averaged above 7.7 rebounds per game, which was Bryce Nze’s average. Nze is a seasoned rebounder, but at just 6-foot-7, can’t be counted on against some of the taller players in the league.

Senior Bryce Golden could be a reliable option, given his massive 6-foot-9 and 260-pound frame. 6-foot-10 John-Michael Mulloy is another option, but on a Bulldogs team that returns its top seven scorers, there might not be a lot of open minutes for other returners unless they made a significant jump in the offseason.

One answer might be Ty Groce. While he’s not going to come in and completely control the glass, he did average 6.9 rebounds per game at Eastern Michigan last season. LaVall Jordan will need some type of positive change because the Bulldogs simply can’t survive if they get outrebounded consistently again this season. Last year, they only controlled the glass in 6 of their 22 Big East games.

Creighton – Who will lead the offense?

Losing Marcus Zegarowski is one big loss, considering he led the Bluejays in points, assists and steals. Greg McDermott losing a whole bunch of other scoring but should find a way to replace that given his offensive mind and incoming transfers with experience scoring elsewhere.

The real problem lies in the ball movement. Creighton was second in Big East basketball last season with 15.17 assists per game. They return less than 3.0 assists from last season, and will likely rely on two freshmen guards in the backcourt. Ryan Nembhard and Trey Alexander are both top-75 ranked recruits, but the maturity they’ll need to have to get the Jays’ offense in rhythm will have to be lightyears ahead of most freshmen.

Shereef Mitchell is the veteran on the team with a decent track record of ball movement. Mitchell’s play early on will go a long way in helping Creighton’s offense not too stagnant until the freshmen guards can fully adjust to Big East basketball.

DePaul – What impact will Tony Stubblefield have in year one?

Dave Leitao is out for the second time as head coach of the Blue Demons and his replacement is a proven recruiter in Tony Stubblefield. Stubblefield gave DePaul an early glimpse of what that can be like, convincing Jalen Terry to come along with him from Oregon and hitting on 4-star and top-1oo recruit Ahamad Bynum. Terry was a 4-star himself, so at least for the future, Stubblefield might have something brewing in Chicago, Illinois.

Perhaps the quietest addition is Kansas transfer Tyon Grant-Foster. DePaul’s had success in the past with former Jayhawks, with Charlie Moore serving as a crucial leader for two seasons. Big East correspondent John Fanta recently said Grant-Foster is “Depaul’s most talented player.”

However, DePaul fans are impatient and want a winning season now. They were let down in the past by great talent that couldn’t click under Leitao, so it will be up to Stubblefied to get the most out of his players. Having Javon Freeman-Liberty back is a good start as he was one of the top scorers in the Big East in 2020-21.

The Blue Demons have a lineup that covers all of what a team needs to be successful. Changing a culture can be difficult, but Stubblefield has a great track record and the assets to turn it around in year one.

Georgetown – Dante Harris or Aminu Mohammed?

Last year, Georgetown was the biggest surprise in Big East basketball, rattling off four wins in four days to take home the 2021 Big East Championship and earn the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

This season, the Hoyas will need to rely on different faces as veterans Jahvon Blair, Jamorko Pickett and Qudus Wahab went on different ventures from the Georgetown program.

That leaves Dante Harris as a sophomore with a lot of hype around him. Harris lighted up Madison Square Garden as a freshman, averaging 11.8 points, 4.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds during the Hoyas’ Big East Tournament run. This season, many expect Harris to be the man on campus for Georgetown hoops.

But there is another name drawing a lot of attention and that’s 5-star Aminu Mohammed. The McDonald’s All-American is Georgetown’s highest-ranked recruit since Greg Monroe in 2008. That type of incoming talent is too hard for Patrick Ewing to ignore. Of course, the Hoyas will be thrilled to have both guys sharing backcourt duties, but the anticipation is high on who will be the star of the team.

Marquette – How much will change under Shaka Smart?

We could see a major change in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as Shaka Smart replacing Steve Wojciechowski has to be one of the most differing head coaching changes in the history of Big East basketball.

Wojciechowski was all about offense, offense, offense. His Golden Eagles only finished worse than 5th in the Big East in points per game twice since taking over as head coach in 2014. The first time was his inaugural season and the second time was his final season.

Shaka Smart’s style of coaching is a complete contrast. His 1-2-1-1 ‘havoc full-court press’ was a staple of his VCU teams, finishing in the top 25 in the country in steals per game five times. His VCU Rams led the nation in takeaways per game on three occasions.

Smart’s defensive priorities didn’t translate at Texas, as they never once even cracked the top 150 in pilfers. Now Smart isn’t afraid of offense – the Golden Eagles won’t turn into Virginia. However, we could see a new Marquette team that really prioritizes turnovers and pressuring the ball all 40 minutes.

Providence – Can A.J. Reeves reach his full potential?

Playing in the shadow of a star guard like David Duke Jr. can be frustrating, but now is finally Reeves’ time to shine as the next star guard of the Friars. Reeves actually outperformed Duke Jr. during their respective freshmen seasons, but Duke Jr. eventually surpassed Reeves, taking total control of the offense as a junior.

With Duke Jr. off on his professional journey, it inserts Reeves into the role of playmaker and go-to scorer in the backcourt. Providence has had some of the best guards in Big East basketball history, and Reeves has the capability to join that list for the Friars.

However, it has to be somewhat concerning that his career highs in points, three-point percentage and field goal percentage are still from Reeves’ freshman season. In fact, Reeves has been the opposite of efficient, with an all-time low of 35.3 FG% this past year. Perhaps the confidence of knowing he’ll be the guy this year can help with those struggles. Nate Watson, Alyn Breed and Noah Horchler are also back and should put Reeves in a comfortable spot to succeed. However, the past two years are just not a solid foundation.

Seton Hall – Who will be the Pirates’ point guard?

After two overwhelming years of being blessed with Quincy McKnight, the Hall struggled under the leadership of Shavar Reynolds. Before you take that out of context, Reynolds was great in a lot of areas. He moved the ball as he was asked and delivered a scoring punch that not a lot of former walk-ons would ever come close to doing.

However, Reynolds was a turnover problem, coughing the ball up 2.2 times per game and getting worse as the season went on. Reynolds had 20 turnovers in his final six games for Seton Hall.

This year, Seton Hall has a lot of potential answers to become the next point guard. Syracuse transfer Kadary Richmond is a likely option, yet he had turnover problems as well, averaging 1.6 per game as a freshman in only 21 minutes per game.

Another transfer, Jamir Harris, has point guard qualities, but his 3.3 turnovers last season won’t fly in a Big East basketball conference where teams thrive on steals. After those two are sophomore guard Jahari Long and a freshman Ryan Conway, who will both likely fill the role of point guard off the bench.

My pick is Richmond, but you could make an argument for both he and Harris that either would thrive better as an off-ball scorer. Kevin Willard could elect to make the point guard duties fluid throughout the game, but most teams thrive when there’s one clear-cut ball-handler.

St. John’s – Is this the year of the Red Storm?

Where most of the teams on this list have position battles and players with room to grow, St. John’s has none of that. The Red Storm’s starting lineup is likely already set and players one through eight are all really, really good basketball players. Some analysts see St. John’s as the darkhorse in the Big East.

Posh Alexander, Stef Smith, Julian Champagnie, Aaron Wheeler, and Tareq Coburn are all more than seasoned veterans who combine for what could be the best blend of offense and defense in this hard-nosed Big East basketball conference.

So for St. John’s fans, the burning question all season long will be, “Just how high is this team’s ceiling?”

If I had to give an answer to that before the season started, I’d say a second-weekend team in March. My previous assessment of St. John’s basketball had them not getting past the round of 32, but that’s just unfair for the amount of talent Mike Anderson possesses in Queens, New York. You never want to place too much hype into a somewhat unproven team, but that’s what’s at stake for the Johnnies this year.

UConn – Will the Huskies be better off without James Bouknight?

I’ve raised this question before to my fellow UConn lads (I’m a CT native if you didn’t already know). In simplest terms, the current state of UConn basketball is a roster filled with players set on the college hoops stage – and James Bouknight.

Make no mistake, Bouknight was the most talented player on a really good UConn Huskies team last season. He made plenty of big shots, had a 40-point performance against Creighton and has the biggest professional upside of any player in Big East basketball last season.

I’m not doubting Bouknight’s loyalty to UConn, but it can be tough when one player’s potential is just so much higher than the rest of the team. I believe UConn is turning its program back to having multiple James Bouknight’s and that will be scary. But when it’s just one player of his caliber in the mix, it raises that burning question.

Now, UConn is bringing in a few talented freshmen and has a solid core of returning players back to Storrs, Connecticut. Something tells me they’re going to be a tough overall group to stop during conference play.

Villanova – Will Collin Gillespie be the same?

Villanova’s star point guard Collin Gillespie is using the extra COVID year of eligibility to man the Wildcats point guard position for the fourth consecutive season. The only problem is that he missed the entire summer and wasn’t cleared to practice until August 24.

Gillespie isn’t a high-flying athlete or someone who needs a ton of spring in his step to be impactful. Physical injuries don’t hamper things like court vision and leadership, so in most areas, he should be fine. There will still be worries about his overall health because when it gets down to it, basketball is a contact sport. Should Gillespie go down again, it would put Villanova in a tough spot this season.

If Gillespie is able to start every game as he has for the previous three seasons, his numbers shouldn’t take a hit and he’ll still have Villanova right there as a national title contender. However, if his knee injury begins to have repeated flare-ups post-surgery and he can’t play the same minutes as before, it’s at least food for thought. Gillespie runs the Nova offense, so the Wildcats need him to be on the court.

Xavier – What is the Musketeers’ peak?

Like St. John’s everything is in place for Xavier to have one heck of a season. The number 36 team in our pre-season countdown returns most of its core group of guys from last season and adds a pair of Big Ten transfers in 7-foot Jack Nunge from Iowa as well as a lengthy forward in Jerome Hunter from Indiana.

Big East basketball is usually run by teams with star power and veteran presence and that’s exactly what Xavier is made of. To top it off even more, they have a terrific backcourt and some really tough rebounders that aren’t afraid to use their muscle inside the paint.

Even with all of these positives, Xavier wasn’t a particularly great team last season. They finished under .500 in the conference and were outed in the opening round of the Big East Tournament.

How they turn that around and capitalize on what they have is what every Musketeers fan has on their mind. At Xavier’s best, they are a top-three team in the conference with the potential to shock every and win the Big East. At their worst, it doesn’t come together and they’re fighting for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.

I’d like to think they’ll have the first outcome, but isn’t that the point of all of these questions? You never truly now what to expect with Big East basketball.

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