Big East Key Questions: Part 1

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on November 24th, 2020

With the 2020-21 season only one day away (hopefully), here are some of the most interesting things to monitor as we head into live game action. The biggest elephant in the room is clearly what will happen with respect to COVID-19 cancellations, protocols, schedule flexibility, and ultimately, the monumental task of selecting an NCAA Tournament field. But this post and its subsequent version will focus on the biggest on-court questions in the Big East.

  1. Is UConn hype warranted? Can the Huskies be a legitimate factor at the top of the Big East?
Dan Hurley is Happy to Be Back in the Big East (USA Today Sports)

Even after missing four straight NCAA Tournaments, expectations are extremely high for the Huskies among both their fan base and many national analysts. Several Top 25s include UConn among their rankings, and the Huskies are almost unanimously picked to finish in the top half of the Big East standings. And there are plenty of reasons for optimism in Storrs: a strong finish down the stretch last season; multiple impact transfers; and the emergence of James Bouknight as a potential star.

However, it says here that expectations need to be somewhat dialed back. Slotting the Huskies anywhere from third to fifth in the Big East is reasonable, but it is highly unlikely they can join Villanova and Creighton in the elite tier. UConn is undeniably deep with eight or nine legitimate rotation players, but most are underestimating how an abbreviated preseason will affect the chemistry of a newcomer-heavy group. Two of UConn’s best players and probable starters are transfers — RJ Cole and Tyrese Martin — and two other key pieces — Akok Akok and Tyler Polley — are coming back from major injuries. It also seems like UConn is being treated as a team that returns all of its talent, but Christian Vital was one of the AAC’s best players last season.

Nationally, the Huskies look like a top 40 team or, in NCAA Tournament terms, a #8-#10 seed. While this would disappoint UConn fans thirsty for national relevance, it would be a great step forward in Dan Hurley‘s multiple-year rebuild. With an excellent 2021 recruiting class pending and another year of development from a deep rotation of players, it won’t be long before UConn is once again consistently at the top of the Big East.

2. Ty-Shon Alexander’s stellar two-way play was a huge part of Creighton’s success. Can the Bluejays replicate last year’s success without him?

Creighton has no one on its roster who can replace the two-way talent of Ty-Shon Alexander — with his three-point shooting, secondary playmaking, and perimeter defense, the current Phoenix Suns guard was one of the best players in the Big East over the last two years. Hopefully for Bluejays’ fans, though, the additions of Antwann Jones and another year of development from Shereef Mitchell can help to stop the bleeding. Mitchell is a pesky guard known for his defense and was a bigger piece than people realized as a freshman, while Jones is a versatile wing who has excellent potential as a scorer. Rati Andronikashvili’s season ending injury hurts, but Creighton will mostly make up for Alexander with improvements from the rest of its core of returning players.

Marcus Zegarowski is an All-American point guard and is arguably the best player in the Big East. Mitch Ballock is an elite shooter and an underrated creator and passer. The frontcourt trio that ate up most of Creighton’s minutes in the post last season all return and each adds something different — Damien Jefferson as an athletic glue guy; Christian Bishop as a versatile defender and finisher; and Denzel Mahoney as a sixth man scorer and intriguing small-ball five. All in all, five of Creighton’s top six players return from last year. Incremental improvements from the returnees plus competent play from Jones and Mitchell should allow Greg McDermott‘s club to regain its top-10 status from last season and collectively replace the diverse skill set of Alexander.

3. Butler suffered significant losses with its three best offensive players Kamar Baldwin, Sean McDermott, and Jordan Tucker all moving on. Can defense alone keep Butler in the NCAA Tournament picture, and who will step up on offense?

LaVall Jordan Faces an Offensive Quandary This Season (USA Today Images)

Butler’s defense should again be very good with Aaron Thompson on the perimeter and Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden controlling the paint. However, scoring will be a major issue as the trio of Baldwin, McDermott, and Tucker were Butler’s three best shot makers and long range threats. South Carolina grad transfer Jair Bolden is a proven shooter and three-star freshman Myles Tate profiles as a scoring guard, but the pair alone will not be enough to carry Butler’s offense to an NCAA Tournament bid.

Expect incremental improvements from Nze and Golden, but Thompson — the ultimate glue guy — isn’t the right point guard for this roster. If ETSU transfer Bo Hodges gets a waiver (as of 11/24/20, he has not), then Butler is an NIT/bubble team. While Hodges brings some ability to create, he is also not a shooter. This is where Jordan Tucker’s departure really stings. Tucker would have been given free rein to become the Bulldogs’ go-to scorer. The rest of the lineup would provide the defensive infrastructure needed to allow him to work through his inconsistencies. File Tucker’s impact on this Butler roster as one of the most intriguing what-if scenarios in the Big East this season.

4. DePaul has again built a talented roster. Is this the year that the Blue Demons turn the corner after last season’s Big East collapse?

If Javon Freeman-Liberty gets his transfer waiver (no word as of 11/24/20), then DePaul can claim to have legitimate NCAA Tournament talent. But after last year’s 3-15 Big East debacle, there is no way to rely on the Blue Demons. Huge non-conference wins over Iowa, Minnesota and Texas Tech meant that just seven or eight Big East wins were all it needed to make the Big Dance — and yet, a 1-12 start doomed Dave Leitao‘s team.

Paul Reed, now on the Philadelphia 76ers, was an enormous loss (especially on the defensive end), and it now looks like starting center Jaylen Butz will miss some time as well. Even with those impacts, DePaul should be a little better. Leitao has three of the top 15 or 20 players in the Big East with Charlie Moore, Romeo Weems and Freeman-Liberty, but it is hard to make a case for a higher position in the standings after losing an NBA player off last year’s squad.

Brad Cavallaro (16 Posts)

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *