As the countdown continues to the start of the 2021-22 college basketball season on Nov. 9, ESPN.com’s panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation’s top leagues. After taking a look at Gonzaga and the best teams from the mid-major conferences (Atlantic 10, C-USA, Ivy, MAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, SoCon, Sun Belt and WCC), followed by Memphis, Houston and the AAC, we continue this week with the Big East Conference.
The Villanova Wildcats, whose hopes of a fourth national title were dealt a serious blow when Collin Gillespie suffered a season-ending knee injury late last season, are back with Gillespie in tow, and Jay Wright and Co. are again thinking big. But the rest of the league may be getting closer. UConn reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in the Dan Hurley era in March, Creighton was a second-weekend team for the first time in school history, and others including St. John’s, Seton Hall and Providence are coming in with high expectations after some struggles down the stretch last season.
With that in mind, ESPN.com’s writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi made their predictions and weighed in on all the conference’s top issues.
Big East 2021-22 superlatives
Player of the Year
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Aminu Mohammed, Georgetown
Borzello: Aminu Mohammed, Georgetown
Gasaway: Aminu Mohammed, Georgetown
Lunardi: Aminu Mohammed, Georgetown
Big East 2021-22 writer roundtable
Villanova is once again the Big East’s team to beat, and possesses the conference’s best team again on paper. Is another national title overly ambitious thinking? What’s your biggest worry about the Cats?
Medcalf: I don’t think a national title is too ambitious for a program that made a run to the Sweet 16 weeks after losing starting point guard Collin Gillespie to a torn MCL last season, and lost to the eventual national champion. Those injuries tend to derail most programs. But Villanova was still a second-weekend squad. The Wildcats were 6-1 in their last seven games of the lost 2019-2020 campaign, too. Who knows what might have happened in both years, but they had a shot. Now, Villanova returns Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels and the supporting cast to back the forecasts that project Villanova as a Final Four team. It’s never smart to doubt Jay Wright.
My concern is the loss of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. At Villanova, Jay Wright lives by the “next man up” principle. The next group always finds a way to fill the voids. But Robinson-Earl had a significant impact on the players around him. Villanova made 54% of its shots inside the arc with Robinson-Earl on the floor last season and also held opponents to 95 points per 100 possessions, per hooplens.com, when he played. In the NCAA tournament, without Gillespie available, Villanova committed turnovers on 14% of possessions when Robinson-Earl was on the court. Yes, this team is loaded. But a 6-foot-8 player with Robinson-Earl’s skill set will be difficult to replace.
Borzello: In an historical context, it might sound overly ambitious to win three national championships in seven seasons, but it’s equally as ambitious to win two national titles in three seasons — so no, I don’t think putting the Wildcats in the Monday night discussion is too aggressive. Jay Wright tends to do his best with guys that have been in his program for multiple years, and he’s bringing back an older group with four returning starters from last season. Gillespie should be one of the best point guards in the country and Samuels took a big step forward last season. They’ll need some role players to step up, with Brandon Slater generating some positive preseason buzz.
My biggest concern is on the interior. Robinson-Earl earned Big East Player of the Year honors last season, and he’s now gone. Villanova is often carried by its perimeter groups, but the Wildcats have always had solid bigs on their best teams (i.e. Omari Spellman, Daniel Ochefu, etc.) They also weren’t a good defensive team last season, ranking ninth in the Big East in both 2-point and 3-point percentage defense. Much will fall on the shoulders of returnee Eric Dixon and freshman Nnanna Njoku.
Gasaway: A fourth national title for Villanova would be big. It would lift the Wildcats above Kansas all-time and, as Jeff noted, it would give the program three titles in the span of just seven seasons. That’s pretty heady stuff, but, based on what we think we know now, that looks overly ambitious for this current team.
The Big East had no problem at all making shots against this defense last season, and in fact, Nova’s D ranked dead last in league play in terms of opponent effective FG percentage. That’s not the typical profile for a team one year out from a national title. Now, to be fair, the Wildcats were 11-4 in the Big East just the same and I do like them to win the league in 2022. We know from experience that guys like Gillespie, Samuels and Justin Moore will power what will most likely be a microscopic team-wide turnover rate. Still, cutting down the nets in April is going to be a tall order unless this defense forces some misses.
Lunardi: “This isn’t an elite Villanova team.” Raise your hand if you’ve eaten words like that anytime in the past 10 years. Still, this doesn’t appear to be an elite Villanova team. Very good, yes. Best in the Big East, probably. But Final Four or national championship great? I don’t see it.
The Wildcats did reach the Sweet 16 last March, but had the favorable path of Winthrop and North Texas. Gillespie may be back, but his injury wasn’t insignificant. The frontcourt is lacking star power. I don’t see the next Saddiq Bey or Jeremiah Robinson-Earl on their way to a handshake with Adam Silver.
In other words, we’re looking at another Jay Wright special. Once again, the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts for Villanova. Once again, the Wildcats will find a way to win the Big East regular-season crown. But unless (until?) a true NBA-level talent emerges, it says here that the Cats are a second-weekend team at most.
UConn has continued to make strides under Dan Hurley, but was disappointing in its return to the NCAA tournament last year. Is this the season the Huskies become a true brand name again in college basketball? Is this team a true threat to Villanova?
Borzello: I think there’s a gap between No. 1 and No. 2 in the Big East this season — but if Villanova stumbles due to some of the concerns mentioned above, UConn is best-positioned to push the Wildcats at the top of the standings. I went back and forth about the Huskies for much of the offseason, simply because of the way they struggled when James Bouknight was injured last season and the fact that Bouknight is now playing for the Charlotte Hornets. But I’m back on the bandwagon.
UConn brings back most of the roster besides Bouknight, the Huskies are going to be one of the best defensive teams in the country and they bring in four ESPN 100 freshmen. Replacing Bouknight’s scoring won’t fall to one player, but R.J. Cole has proven he can put up points, Andre Jackson should take a step forward now that he’s healthy and freshman Jordan Hawkins has reportedly looked very good in early practices. Hurley will figure it out.
Gasaway: In the big picture, these are the best of times for UConn. The Huskies are back in the Big East, they’re coming off an NCAA tournament appearance (however fleeting it may have been) and they are ranked in the AP preseason top 25 for the first time in five years. So, yes, replacing Bouknight is going to be a challenge, but that task is being addressed in an overall context of good news and great defense. Frankly, I thought Cole would carry a bit more of the load on offense last season than he did after transferring in from Howard. Instead, the attack was built around Bouknight as something of a Kemba Walker-like figure. Cole will surely have an opportunity to show what he can do as a senior.
Lunardi: Not sure I would categorize UConn’s return to the NCAA tournament as disappointing. The program had only one other appearance since its last national championship in 2014, along with more than a little upheaval off the court. The Huskies did lose to Maryland in the first round, but it was a 50/50 game and hardly embarrassing.
A third-place (11-6) return to the Big East seems pretty good to me, and the Huskies continue to climb that ladder. Another NCAA bid is almost certain, and it says here that UConn — maybe this season, maybe not — will be the program to eventually dethrone Villanova.
Medcalf: I think UConn moved forward last season despite the quick postseason exit. But it’s difficult to envision UConn as a national brand again until it is a consistent threat in the Big East again. If the Huskies can battle Villanova this season for that top spot, we’ll certainly hear a lot of the “UConn is back” talk. The floor in the Big East, however, is always so low. Since the 2014-15 season, only one team — Villanova, 2016-17 — has won the league title by more than two games. There is always room to fall short of expectations because of the depth in the conference. Still, if Cole and Tyrese Martin can build on last season’s effort — and that has to include a more consistent season for Martin — this can be a team that battles Villanova.
Shaka Smart takes over at Marquette, where he’ll look to impress a difficult-to-please fan base and turn the page on an inconsistent tenure at Texas. Will Smart prove to be a good fit in Milwaukee?
Gasaway: Am I allowed to say this was a good hire even if I’m picking the new coach’s team to finish next-to-last in the league this year? Then, yes, Smart should fit the bill at Marquette. “Difficult-to-please” fan bases are also rapturously happy when their team is good, and the new coach can make that happen in time. While the ball didn’t bounce his way in the NCAA tournament at Texas, he did earn the Longhorns the program’s highest seed in 13 years. Smart’s Wisconsin bona fides and proven track record as a recruiter at the highest level make him a home-run hire if you’re the Jesuits in Milwaukee. Not to mention the coach was born within days of Marquette winning the 1977 national title. Maybe it’s fate.
Medcalf: Marquette and Shaka Smart are right for each other. I think he views this as a Power 6 VCU-like opportunity. He’s in a major city that’s a stone’s throw from a number of recruiting hotspots throughout the Midwest. He’s near his family (his mother still lives about 90 minutes west of Milwaukee). And he just seems comfortable there thus far. He also doesn’t have to deal with football. The lie about “football schools” is they don’t care about basketball. That’s not true. They just don’t want to have to worry about their basketball product because they’re devoting the bulk of their energy to what happens on the football field. If you win and meet the mark, folks will leave you alone. If you can’t quite break through, which is what happened with Smart at Texas, the mood changes. Fast.
But I also think people should understand that Marquette’s expectations aren’t different. Marquette has a national title. Texas does not. I think Marquette fans will give Smart some time to put his stamp on the program. But this isn’t some “we’re lucky to have you” situation. Marquette wants to win. And they want to win soon.
Lunardi: I’m most interested in the style Smart chooses to play. Will he go full “Havoc,” a la VCU? Or will he have to dial it back some, as was the case when Big 12-level opponents were up to the task of fighting back? Whatever turns out, it should be fun.
The Golden Eagles were long overdue for a fresh start. Smart brings a real buzz back to the program. If he wins like the actual Buzz (Williams), and I think he’ll at least come close, college basketball will be better for having Marquette back on the stage.
Borzello: I think it will ultimately be a good hire, but it will take some time. Year 1 won’t be easy, given that only two players who saw extended minutes last season are back. But Smart is an adept recruiter who never had problems landing talented prospects at Texas, and that will carry over to Marquette. I also think the dynamics of the Marquette job suit Smart better; it’s a basketball job at a basketball school with huge resources, in a familiar city that supports and wants Marquette basketball to be good. That sounds a little bit like VCU, but on a bigger scale. Smart will be able to focus on building the roster, recruiting guys to fit his style and putting his imprint on the program.
Who’s the Big East team not nearly enough people are talking about entering 2021-22?
Gasaway: Xavier made less than 29% of its 3s in Big East play last season and still played its way into Bubble Watch membership. With merely average perimeter shooting in 2022, these guys could look much improved in a hurry. Travis Steele returns his top seven scorers, Paul Scruggs is an excellent scoring point guard and Zach Freemantle is one of the best big men in the Big East when he’s healthy. Steele also added two Big Ten transfers in Jack Nunge (Iowa) and Jerome Hunter (Indiana). The Musketeers will be deeper and quite possibly better than what we saw last season.
Lunardi: I have this sneaky suspicion that we are once again undervaluing Providence. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ed Cooley took the Friars to five straight NCAA tournaments. This season, he is back to the kind of ensemble cast that has served him well. Even with the premature loss of David Duke to the NBA, I see Providence in its accustomed spot — on the bubble.
Medcalf: Nothing, on paper, about Butler’s finish last year warrants a ton of optimism for this upcoming season. But it’s important to note that the turbulence of last year created a number of challenges for a program that just couldn’t find any momentum. Assistant Jeff Meyer retired just before the season began, citing concerns about the pandemic, and then shortly after Butler’s nonconference slate started, the program was forced to pause for three weeks because of COVID-19. By the time they’d faced Villanova on Dec. 16, 2020 (Butler suffered an 85-66 loss), the Bulldogs had lost nearly a month of prep.
They return this year with nearly every key contributor from last season. Chuck Harris (12.9 PPG) is one of five double-figure scorers coming back for LaVall Jordan, who will have one of the most experienced rosters in the country in a critical season for the program. Jordan’s squad beat Villanova and Creighton last season. A fresh start might be the catalyst for a better year at Butler and more quality wins.
Borzello: Almost unanimously among coaches in the league, it’s Seton Hall. Prior to last season, the Pirates had been to every NCAA tournament since 2015, and while they lose Sandro Mamukelashvili, three starters are back and three key transfers are entering the program. Talented Syracuse transfer Kadary Richmond could fill a vital role this season for Kevin Willard, Jared Rhoden is an underrated all-league player and Myles Cale has been a consistent offensive threat. If Bryce Aiken can stay healthy and the newcomers make an immediate impact, Seton Hall should get back to the dance.
Big East 2021-22 predicted order of finish
4. Seton Hall
5. St. John’s
6. Butler (tie)
6. Providence (tie)