Major conference preview: Each Big East team's biggest question this season
Providence was a founding member of the original Big East, but it wasn’t until last February that it captured its first regular-season conference crown in program history.
However, Villanova still proved to be the undisputed class of the Big East when the basketball schedule flipped to March, reaching its third Final Four in the last six years.
Only four games separated the Friars from fifth-place Marquette and Seton Hall. It’s shaping up to be another competitive race with some notable head coaches joining the conference.
Here’s one question for each Big East team as the 2022-23 campaign tips off.
* Last season’s overall record in parentheses
Creighton (23-12): Is Baylor Scheierman the final piece of the puzzle?
A trio of first-year Creighton players impressed during the previous campaign. Ryan Nembhard showed great promise at the point, winning Big East Rookie of the Year honors. Fellow guard Trey Alexander was a Big East All-Freshman selection. Meanwhile, forward Arthur Kaluma was among five Bluejays to average double digits in points.
With two-way threat Ryan Kalkbrenner returning alongside the three sophomores, the school already had arguably the best starting lineup in the conference. After adding Scheierman, the program might have one of the best first fives in college basketball. The South Dakota State transfer is a legitimate NBA prospect. He was the 2021-22 Summit League Player of the Year, averaging 16.2 points, 7.8 boards, and 4.5 assists over 35 appearances.
Creighton’s defense was rock solid, but it placed 112th on KenPom’s rankings for adjusted offensive efficiency last season. Scheierman’s versatile skill set should help the Bluejays improve upon that mark. If that’s the case, Creighton could make some serious noise in March.
Xavier (23-13): Were the Musketeers held back by coaching?
Xavier started strongly in each of the past two campaigns, only to falter down the stretch. The school fired head coach Travis Steele a day after the Musketeers’ opening-round win over Cleveland State in the NIT Tournament. The team subsequently rattled off four straight victories to claim the championship.
Sean Miller’s return could be just what this talented roster needs to get over the hump. The three-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year has a strong track record with big men, and he’s got one of the country’s top interior duos in Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle. Miller’s defensive-first approach should also be a difference-maker, assuming his players buy in.
Villanova (30-8): Can Kyle Neptune keep the Wildcats atop Big East?
Jay Wright’s shocking retirement this past summer brought Kyle Neptune back to Villanova as its new bench boss. The 37-year-old has only one season of head coaching experience, but he was essentially groomed as Wright’s successor. Neptune spent eight years as an assistant under the Hall of Famer and another two as his video coordinator.
The Wildcats have the pieces to succeed in Neptune’s first year in charge. Starters Eric Dixon and Brandon Slater are back from last season’s Final Four squad, along with key reserve Caleb Daniels. The trio is joined by five-star freshman and potential 2023 lottery pick Cam Whitmore.
Villanova should remain in the Big East hunt, even as Justin Moore recovers from a torn Achilles. Although there’s a new voice in the Wildcats’ locker room, don’t expect Neptune to rock the boat.
“I never focused on not being him,” Neptune said of Wright, per Dan Gelston of The Associated Press. “He’s a Hall of Famer. To me, the best coach in college basketball the last 10 years. I would like to be a lot like him.”
UConn (23-10): Is Jordan Hawkins ready to make a leap?
UConn needs a secondary scorer to emerge after losing RJ Cole and Tyrese Martin in the offseason. Hawkins is a prime candidate to take on an increased load in his sophomore year, especially with Andre Jackson sidelined to begin the season.
The 6-foot-5 wing is arguably the top floor-spacing option on the Huskies’ roster. Hawkins can drill catch-and-shoot triples, knock down jumpers coming off screens, and pull up from the mid-range when defenders run him off the 3-point line. Defensively, he’s got the length and lateral quickness to potentially guard multiple positions.
Providence (27-6): How will the Friars replace last season’s production?
Ed Cooley’s squad could have difficulty replicating last campaign’s results. Providence lost all five starters from its historic regular-season championship team. That group accounted for 53.2 points per contest or approximately 75% of the Friars’ scoring on a nightly basis.
Providence will lean on Jared Bynum at both ends of the floor with so many new faces on the roster. The senior guard earned a 2021-22 All-Big East second-team nod and is the conference’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year award winner. He’s set to move into a full-time starting role after averaging 12.2 points and drilling a team-high 41.3% of his triples last season.
Outside of Bynum, Cooley is banking on multiple transfers to make an immediate impact. Former four-star recruits Bryce Hopkins and Devin Carter arrive from Kentucky and South Carolina, respectively, with an opportunity for more playing time. While it’s certainly a risky formula, the Friars benefitted immensely from it a year ago.
St. John’s (17-15): Will a change of scenery help Andre Curbelo bounce back?
Curbelo’s future looked promising after a solid freshman year. The 6-foot-1 guard was an important contributor on a 24-win Illinois squad, averaging 9.1 points and 4.2 assists over 31 appearances during the 2020-21 campaign. He won the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year award and was named to the conference’s All-Freshman first team.
With Ayo Dosunmu off to the NBA, it was Curbelo’s turn to run the Fighting Illini’s offense. Many thought it would be a seamless transition. Heading into Curbelo’s sophomore year, he was among 50 players on the Wooden Award’s preseason watch list. However, the Puerto Rican floor general wasn’t the same player.
Curbelo battled concussion issues throughout the campaign and shot only 32.9% from the field. Fortunately, Mike Anderson’s up-tempo offense should be tailor-made for Curbelo. With Posh Alexander already in the fold, the Johnnies’ backcourt will be a handful if Curbelo re-captures his first-year form.
Seton Hall (21-11): Is Kadary Richmond poised for a breakout year?
Richmond showed flashes of his two-way potential throughout the 2021-22 campaign, recording 8.8 points, 4.1 assists, 3.6 boards, and 1.7 steals per game. The 6-foot-6 wing scored double digits in 16 of 32 appearances, including a 27-point outburst against UConn. He also finished third in the Big East in both defensive rating (95.8) and assist percentage (31.7%).
Richmond was a preseason All-Big East second-team selection. He’s set for a bigger role in Seton Hall’s offense as its top returning scorer and playmaker. Hiring Shaheen Holloway might elevate Richmond’s defense to another level. Saint Peter’s developed into one of the country’s stingiest units under the ex-Pirates great. Richmond’s quick hands, length, and natural instincts are a seamless fit in Holloway’s schemes, which emphasizes pressure and disruption.
Butler (14-19): Can Thad Matta bring the Bulldogs back to prominence?
It’s been over a decade since Butler captivated the nation with back-to-back runs to the national championship game. Since then, the school has advanced to the second weekend of the tourney just once, falling to eventual national champions North Carolina five years ago in the Sweet 16.
Butler fired head coach LaVall Jordan last April after his third losing campaign in four years. Longtime Ohio State bench boss Thad Matta takes the reins for a second stint following a five-year hiatus from the game.
The 55-year-old immediately put his stamp on the program, adding transfers Manny Bates, Eric Hunter, and Ali Ali to a talented young core headlined by Chuck Harris. An NCAA Tournament berth may be a lot to ask for, but Matta has never posted a losing season during his 17-year head coaching career.
Marquette (19-13): Will a lack of transfer activity hurt the Golden Eagles?
Shaka Smart raised some eyebrows when he didn’t add a single Division I player from the transfer portal this offseason. Marquette surely would’ve attracted some noteworthy talent as a member of a power conference, especially after a fifth-place finish in a competitive Big East. The Golden Eagles also lost leading scorers Justin Lewis and Darryl Morsell. Their next best offensive threat is sophomore guard Kameron Jones, who posted 7.4 points per game in his first collegiate campaign.
A player or two from last year’s roster is bound for a breakout season. Still, bringing in some experienced, proven talent would’ve raised the school’s ceiling while reducing the pressure on a squad featuring 13 freshmen and sophomores. Zach Wrightsil, the reigning NAIA Player of the Year, was Marquette’s lone addition. He put up great numbers for Loyola New Orleans last season, but will that translate to a higher level of play?
Georgetown (6-25): Is this Patrick Ewing’s last stand?
Ewing’s return to his alma mater has been underwhelming outside of a stunning run to the 2021 Big East Tournament title. Georgetown has never finished above .500 in the conference and exceeded the mark overall just once since his hiring five years ago. The Hoyas were blown out in their lone appearance in the Big Dance and ended the previous campaign on a 21-game skid, including an 0-19 record in Big East play.
The program can only go up from a winless conference season, but what will it take to save Ewing’s job? Another summer of transfers into and out of the program leaves the 11-time NBA All-Star with little continuity. However, Ewing does have a familiar face returning in Qudus Wahab. The center left Georgetown following his sophomore year, only to head back to the nation’s capital after a season with Maryland.
Fellow transfers Akok Akok, Jay Heath, and Brandon Murray should also help the Hoyas rebound from their embarrassing 2021-22 campaign. All three players were four-star recruits and bring starting experience from major conferences.
DePaul (15-16): Can the Blue Demons keep progressing without Freeman-Liberty?
Tony Stubblefield guided DePaul to a respectable 15-16 overall record during his first year as head coach. The program surpassed its win total in conference play from the past two seasons combined, going 6-14 in Big East play with six defeats by five points or less.
It was an encouraging sign for a program that last made the NCAA Tournament in 2004. The Blue Demons have finished .500 or better just four times since their last appearance in the Big Dance. Continuing that positive momentum will likely come down to how the team replaces Javon Freeman-Liberty’s production.
The 6-foot-4 guard was DePaul’s most dependable scorer over the last two seasons. He was eighth in the 2021-22 NCAA scoring race, registering a Big East-leading 21.7 points per contest. Transfers Umoja Gibson and Caleb Murphy should provide some offensive punch in the backcourt, along with junior guard Jalen Terry. Incoming freshman Zion Cruz may also help immediately with the Blue Demons in desperate need of outside shooting.