The 2022-2023 Big East basketball season officially kicked off on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, as all coaches and some players from all eleven teams were in attendance for Big East Media Day. The Big East is coming off arguably their best season since realignment in 2013, with six teams being selected to the NCAA Tournament. In addition, Villanova made it all the way to the Final Four and Providence made tits first Sweet 16 since 1997.
This season will also mark a new era in the Big East, with the exit of legendary Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright and the additions of Thad Matta (Butler), Shaheen Holloway (Seton Hall), Sean Miller (Xavier) and Kyle Neptune (Villanova) into the league as well. With these four coaches entering the league and guys like Shaka Smart and Tony Stubblefield starting their second seasons, the league, similar to the sport of college basketball, is going through quite a bit of transition. This transition however, feels like a transition towards the top with the amount of optimism that is apparent all around the Big East.
Last season showed us how special a conference that only focuses on basketball, filled with some of the most passionate fan bases in the country can really be. With a ton of returning and new talent throughout the league, that excitement should continue this season.
Here is one key takeaway for each team after Big East media day.
1. Creighton is Ready for the Challenge of Heavy Expectations
At this time last year, Creighton entered the year as one of the youngest teams in college basketball, after losing all five starters off the school's 2021 Sweet 16 squad. After some ups and downs to start last year, America was able to see just how talented this young team was, having some impressive performances in some of the biggest moments. This included going on the road against a ranked UConn team unranked and leaving with the victory. In addition, Creighton blew out the Big East Champions Providence in the Big East Tournament to prove what they were doing to end the season was more than legitimate. And they did it all without starting point guard Ryan Nembhard, who got hurt with just a few games left in the regular season. Another projected starter Shereef Mitchell played just a few games early before suffering a season-ending injury himself.
Despite the injuries, a handful of different guys showed they were capable of playing at a high level on the big stage including guys like Arthur Kaluma and Ryan Kalkbrunner, with Kalkbrenner averaging 13 points, seven rebounds and 2.5 blocks and Kaluma emerging a legitimate NBA Draft prospect.
Both were at Media Day and Kaluma made it clear that the team's mindset can’t be any different due to the expectations and noise on the outside, but there is also confidence they will be able to get back to playing at such a high level.
The Jays will return four of their six leading scorers from a year ago, and some guys will be in for a bigger role after losing leading scorer Ryan Hawkins and another key veteran in Alex O’Connell.
The thing that makes this Creighton team so appealing is the fact that they have a number of guys who have a legitimate possibility of a breakout. Trey Alexander, did a phenomenal job filling in at point guard for Nembhard after his injury, and it will be interesting to see what Coach McDermott has in mind for a role for Alexander with Nembhard back.
In addition, Kalkbrunner suffered a knee injury in Creighton’s opening round NCAA Tournament victory over San Diego State. Kalkbrunner was adamant at media day that he spent all summer getting healthy, knowing just how good this Creighton team can be, as something to look at as a possible light at the end of the tunnel.
There are certain times, where a somewhat young team dealing with heavy expectations might be a detriment but that is not the case with this Creighton team at all. This has a legitimate chance to be the best team in Omaha since Greg McDermott took over, and the Jays are not only the clear team to beat in the Big East right now but are also among the best in the sport.
2. Villanova won’t see too much of a dropoff in their first year without Jay Wright, but it won’t be easy either
Since conference realignment in 2013, Jay Wright and Villanova dominated the “new” Big East winning two National Championships, and seven Big East Regular Season titles in that nine-year stretch. Not many knew last season that Villanova’s loss to Kansas in the Final Four would ultimately be the final game that Wright coached. He of course became the third coaching legend that announced his retirement in somewhat surprising fashion with Coach K and Roy Williams also calling it a career recently as well.
Had Wright returned, there would have been a legitimate argument to be made that Villanova would have been ranked in the top 5 of the initial AP Top 25 and the clear cut favorite to win the Big East. Instead, Villanova was ranked No. 16 and voted third in the Big East Preseason Poll behind Creighton and Xavier.
The Wildcats will return three of their top five leading scorers from last season, but one of those returnees, Justin Moore is still recovering from an Achilles injury suffered in the Elite Eight last season against Houston. Moore said earlier this summer that he expects to be back on the court sometime around the start of Big East play, which would be massive considering just how devastating the injury would have been. With guys like Caleb Daniels, Eric Dixon and Brandon Slater all returning as experienced leaders within the program, Villanova has one of the more appealing rosters in the sport.
The question though is how will Kyle Neptune fare in his first season, replacing a legend in Jay Wright. Neptune led Fordham to their best season since 2016, winning 16 games last season and is also familiar with the Villanova program. Neptune served as an assistant under Jay Wright from 2013-2020, after he started on staff as the video coordinator.
As impressive as Neptune was at Fordham, it is very difficult for anyone to be put in that position and it would be unreasonable to think that they wouldn’t miss Wright at all, especially early. With a pretty good roster, it will be fascinating to see how exactly Villanova does in their first season without their legendary coach.
3. There is Already a New Feeling of Optimism for Xavier
There wasn’t a more frustrating team in college basketball to watch last season then Xavier, considering they had one of the more talented and deep rosters in the Big East, but could never put it all together. It culminated in an NIT appearance that cost Travis Steele his job. But with a majority of those same players back under a brand-new head coach in Sean Miller, this Xavier team has a chance to do some serious damage in the Big East.
Miller had a great run at Arizona from 2009-2021, leading them to three Elite Eight's, five Pac 12 regular season titles and was a three-time Pac 12 Coach of the Year. This came after his original run at Xavier, in which he led Xavier to the Elite Eight in 2008. The Musketeers have one of the more underrated basketball programs in the country, as they made 16 NCAA Tournaments in a 19-year stretch, but the Musketeers have failed to get back to college basketball's biggest stage since Chris Mack left after the 2018 season.
Miller mentioned that at Media Day, saying:
“You can always sense when a team is hungry. We haven’t been to the tournament in four years, and this is a group that is really hungry to change that.”
Miller also mentioned that he has around 10 players that are capable of being in the rotation, and that is none of the early questions for Xavier heading into the season. The Musketeers couldn’t function with both Zach Freemantle and Jack Nunge on the floor at the same time last season, and how that issue was addressed will be one of the bigger questions in the Big East to start off the season.
Colby Jones, Nunge and Adam Kunkel all attended Big East Media Day and they make up one of the more talented and experienced top threes in the entire sport. With a coach in Miller that won in many different ways with many different rosters at Arizona, we should see that talent translate to more wins for the Musketeers compared to years past.
4. The Time is now for Dan Hurley and UConn
While it might seem like he just got to Storrs, this season will be Dan Hurley's fifth leading the UConn basketball program. After a great run at Rhode Island, Hurley has done a nice job bringing this UConn program back up from the dark spot they were in following their 2014 National Championship. Under Hurley’s watch the Huskies have qualified for each of the last two NCAA Tournaments and won 23 games last season, which was their most since 2016.
As great of a job as Hurley has done rebuilding the program however, there is one elephant in the room. It is the fact that in each of the last two seasons, UConn has lost to a lower seeded team in the NCAA Tournament. This is part of the reason why this season is so important for the Huskies, as they will once again have a very good roster that is expected to do big things.
Despite losing guys like RJ Cole, Tyrese Martin, Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley, who were all experienced, valuable pieces to the program, the overall talent level of this Huskies team is the best since Hurley has taken over.
Adama Sanogo was named Preseason Player of the Year in the Big East and has a legitimate argument as one of the better returning players in the sport. In addition, Jordan Hawkins will return after showing some great flashes as a freshman, showing both ups and downs as a freshman, while also battling a concussion. Hawkins didn’t get a chance to play consistent big time minutes last season with guys like Whaley, Martin and Cole still there, but that will not be the case this season with those guys no longer being there. Hawkins has the potential to be a first-round pick in next year’s NBA Draft.
Unfortunately, another breakout candidate for the Huskies, Andre Jackson, suffered a pinkie injury and will miss the start of the season. Dan Hurley said that UConn hopes to get him back for the PK85 around Thanksgiving time, but that is never a way you want to start a season, with one of your best players already missing time.
Even with that in consideration, this UConn team should be ranked in the Top 25 and finish towards the top of the Big East. The Huskies have a really good mix of returning experienced players, transfers and freshmen, along with a good coach which is usually a recipe for a good team.
5. Providence’s Culture is as Appealing and Apparent as ever
After leading Providence to their first Big East regular season title in program history, there wasn’t anyone at Big East Media Day with a bigger smile than Ed Cooley. What was so cool about Providence’s season last year, was the fact that so many people doubted them and it was clear they kept using it as motivation all the way up to clinching the Big East.
The narrative with this Providence was the fact that they were “lucky” last season, winning a lot close games by slim margins. But ask the guys on that roster, the real reason why they were so successful was the players and culture established in that locker room. That culture was on full display as the program welcomed in two transfers a season ago who played a major role on the Big East title team. Al Durham was never able to put it all together at Indiana, but once he put the Friars uniform on, he immediately became one of the better players in the Big East. In addition, Justin Minaya was the best on-ball defender in the conference last season after transferring in from South Carolina.
The reason why these developments are so important for this Providence team, is due to the fact that there are once again a ton of new transfers that will be coming in this season.
Bryce Hopkins comes in from Kentucky as a former Top-40 recruit and will have many more chances to make an impact, compared to his role in Lexington last season. Hopkins has great size and strength at 6’7” and 220 lbs and will definitely help Friars fans cope with the losses of Minaya and Noah Horchler on the wing. Providence will also add another SEC transfer in Devin Carter from South Carolina, who was really impressive and efficient as a true freshman last season. Carter averaged 9.0 points in only 18.7 minutes per game.
The heart and sole of Providence however, is Jared Bynum who will be back for his fourth season in the Friars program. Bynum hit so many clutch shots for the Friars last season at the most important times, including a game winner at Xavier. Bynum referred to his coaches and teammates that give him so much confidence in those difficult and tense moments.
Ed Croswell will also be one of the key pieces to this Providence team, after he played really well down the stretch last year including having 9 points and 6 rebounds in the Friar's Sweet 16 loss to Kansas.
For many other programs having this much roster turnover could be a detriment and even a disappointment after having such a successful season. Ed Cooley however, has built a tremendous culture that other players are gravitating towards especially after so many transfers had success in Friartown last season.
6. Seton Hall like Saint Peters, will play with a chip on its shoulder
Kevin Willard had an outstanding 12-year run at Seton Hall, that included the rebirth of a proud Pirates program that wasn’t having much success before he took over. Willard made four consecutive NCAA Tournaments with the Pirates from 2016-2019, and even had the Pirates in a prime position to make a deep NCAA Tournament run in 2020 before the tournament was canceled due to COVID. They then returned to the Big Dance a season ago.
Willard did a great job at Seton Hall, however the one critique you can have about his teams was that they needed to be tougher. It is impossible to advance in the NCAA Tournament without that quality and at times it looked like that was something Seton Hall was lacking especially in the biggest games. Despite coaching in the MAAC at Saint Peters, Holloway made it all the way to the Elite Eight last season, which is something Kevin Willard was not able to do at Seton Hall.
While it will obviously take some time for Holloway to establish that culture he built at Saint Peters, it will be very interesting to see a Seton Hall team with a ton of returning talent from last season and how different things look. Holloway said that “When you make a run like we did, to the Elite Eight , now you want a Final Four, a national championship, I’m hungry now, I've got to step up as a Head Coach.”
Those are the exact things you want to hear when you are a program that has had some success but are really trying to break through. Seton Hall will return Kadary Richmond, who should be in for a big season, playing great in the second half of last season after a somewhat slow start.
The Pirates have a chance to be the best defensive team in the Big East this season, with Holloway’s pedigree and a roster full of lengthy and athletic players. With Tray Jackson, Tyrese Samuel and Alexis Yetna all returning to school to make up the front court and guys like Dre Davis and KC Ndefo also transferring in, few will be able to match the length on defense of this Seton Hall team.
If they can play with a similar chip on their shoulder as their Head Coach, this Seton Hall team will be really good in Holloway’s first season.
7. Marquette isn’t Getting Enough Respect
There weren’t many better coaching jobs done in all of college basketball ast season than what Shaka Smart did at Marquette. After the Golden Eagles were voted to finish ninth place in the Big East Preseason Media Poll, Shaka Smart led them to a 19-win season that concluded in an NCAA Tournament berth.
It was clear since very early on last season that Marquette was a much better fit for Shaka Smart compared to Texas. As a Wisconsin native, Smart is familiar with the area and he doesn’t have to recruit at an elite rate which was never his strength to begin with. Smart built last year’s team through primarily the transfer portal, aside from a huge decision by Justin Lewis to play for the new staff.
This season, despite losing guys like Lewis and Maryland Transfer Darryl Morsell to the professional ranks, Marquette deserves better than to be voted ninth in the preseason poll again. Tyler Kolek is one of the better returning players in the Big East, after he started all 32 games for the Golden Eagles last season. Kolek also led the Big East in assists per game last year with 5.9 and is one of the best passers in the country.
When asked about Marquette being voted to finish in 9th place, Kolek responded with only two words
Marquette will also be returning some players that are in for big seasons with bigger roles. One of them is sophomore Kam Jones, who only averaged 7.4 points per game and shot 39.2% from three, in only 18.5 minutes per game. Oso Ighodaro is another player that should make a major leap, as the frontcourt will be his following the departures of Lewis and Kur Kuath.
Shaka Smart showed last season that he was capable of winning games, when not many expected him to and that is a trend that will continue at Marquette this season.
8. The Narrative Remains the Same for St. Johns
At this time last year, there wasn’t a program in the Big East with more optimism than St. Johns. The Red Storm were still looking to get to their first NCAA Tournament under Mike Anderson, and there was legitimate reason to think they could. Anderson was coming off winning Big East Coach of the Year in 2021, and the Johnnies had a ton of returning talent with some big time transfers.
Unfortunately, St. Johns was not able to live up to expectations, as they finished 17-14 and missed their third consecutive Big Dance since Anderson has taken over. Just like many recent offseason in Queens, St. Johns brought some optimism by bringing in Andre Curbelo and David Jones from the transfer portal.
There aren’t many transfer duos more talented than these two, considering their pedigrees. Curbelo was a former top 30 recruit out of high school and won the 2021 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award. After coming into last season labeled as one of the better players in the Big Ten, Curbelo unfortunately was never able to get things going, after suffering a neck injury early in the season.
Many people were surprised that Jones would leave DePaul after having such a successful season out of nowhere in 2022. Jones averaged 14.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game last season, which is really impressive for a guard. While he most likely will not have as much volume with the ball in his hands at St. Johns, there is no denying that this is a move any team in the Power 6 would make, especially considering he came from another Big East team.
Despite having a very talented roster that includes these two transfers, and experienced players Posh Alexander, Montrez Mathis, Joel Soriano and others, that is no guarantee that it will translate into wins for the Johnnies.
Going into last season St. Johns was fresh off a surprising 16 win season with basically all of their talent back, some really good transfers and the best player in the Big East Julian Champaigne. With that being said, they still were not able to make the NCAA Tournament, very similarly to the Chris Mullin years.
In order for me to believe it with this St. John’s team I will need to see it first.
9. Butler has the Largest Variance of Position Finished in the League
The one team in the Big East that I’m having a little difficulty getting a grip on, in terms of where they might finish, is Butler. The Bulldogs will bring in new head coach Thad Matta, who will be returning to the sidelines for the first time since 2017. Matta did a really nice job in the transfer portal, bringing in guys like Manny Bates from NC State and Eric Hunter Jr from Purdue.
The Bulldogs were never terrible during the LaVall Jordan era, but they were never as good as you wanted them to be either. There is a legitimate argument to be made that Butler should have given Jordan at least one more year, considering his best team in 2020 never got the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the talent level at Butler was closer to teams in the mid-major ranks compared to other teams in the Power 6. While Butler isn’t the first school that every top recruit wants to go to, they also have made two National Championship games in the early 2010’s and have had a ton of success. Their overall talent level is much better under Matta, which is a huge positive.
Jordan did have some talented guys that decided to stay and play for Thad Matta. Simas Lukosius is the one returning player in the Big East that is not being spoken about enough this offseason. The native of Lithuania, he dropped 27 points in Butler’s Big East Tournament victory over Xavier and continued to get better and better throughout the course of last season. Chuck Harris has also very quietly averaged double digit points per game, in each of his first two seasons playing college basketball in the Big East. Finally, Jayden Taylor was one of the bigger surprises in the Big East last season, starting each and every one of Butler’s 33 games as a true Freshman.
There is enough talent on this team to legitimately argue they will finish in the top half of the league as one of its surprise teams. However, at the same time it is totally unknown what Thad Matta will look like in his first-time coaching since 2017 and there is a chance Butler will take another step back.
There are a number of different outcomes for this Butler team that can end with them having success or not, and whichever one happens, I wouldn’t be totally surprised.
10. Don’t Count out DePaul as Long as Tony Stubblefield is their Coach
One under the radar storyline in the Big East last season was Tony Stubblefield and DePaul. In only his first season as head coach of DePaul, the man they call "Stubbs" led the Blue Demons to six Big East Conference wins and 15 overall, which was a massive upgrade compared to the final years of the Dave Leitao era. Despite the number of games DePaul won, it was the first time in a very long time that DePaul actually looked competent, organized and prepared for just about every game they played.
The Blue Demons collected some massive victories in their non- conference slate last season, including beating an NCAA Tournament team in Rutgers along with going on the road to Louisville and winning. Even though Rutgers lost in the First Four and Louisville had a very down season, the fact that DePaul actually won these games, when not many people expected them to do so, is a great sign going forward. This program was not winning games like this in years past and in only his first year Stubblefield did a great job helping turn the program around.
From the outside, this season is expected to go the same as all years past for the Blue Demons, considering they lost both of their star players from last season in Javon Freeman-Liberty and David Jones. These departures hurt in different ways, considering Freeman- Liberty did have one more season of eligibility remaining and Jones left for a conference rival.
I wouldn’t count out DePaul completely however, because Tony Stubblefield still has some talent on this roster. Big man Nick Onggenda will be returning to DePaul for his four season in the program and has kept getting better since he arrived on campus. The Canada native averaged 8.7 points and 4.3 rebounds last season, and was one of the more underrated players in the Big East.
In addition, DePaul added Oklahoma transfer Umoja Gibson, who played for Oklahoma each of the last two seasons. In 2021, Gibson was part of a Sooner team that made the NCAA Tournament and last year he really turned heads, averaging 13.3 points per game on an impressive 39 percent shooting form three.
DePaul might not be the team that jumps out on paper, but I have a very difficult time counting them out after what they showed last season.
11. Georgetown’s Talent Level is Much Improved but I’m Not Sure it will Matter
Georgetown has been in a very weird spot in recent years, considering it hasn’t worked out with the face of their program as head coach. The thing that has made this so frustrating is that, from a pure X’s and O’s coaching perspective, Ewing knows what he is doing, calling for NBA style sets and the Hoyas offense is really well designed and creative. However, that is not your only duty as head coach, as Georgetown has had a tough time finding the right players and keeping them in house.
It really seemed like Ewing could have been building something special with guys like James Akinjo, Mac McClung and Omer Yurtseven all in the program. Unfortunately, Georgetown was not able to hold onto them and all of these players are super talented and have gone on to have success at their next destinations.
Things were really looking bleak for the Hoyas in 2021, before the start of the NCAA Tournament when Ewing led the Hoyas to a magical run at his former home, all the way to the Big Dance. Prior to the start of last season there were a ton of people wondering what the conversation around the program would have been if that run never happened and ultimately we did learn.
The Hoyas finished last season in embarrassing fashion, going 6-25 overall and 0-19 in the Big East. The talent level of the Hoyas was clearly not good enough to legitimately compete in the Big East, but it also wasn’t bad enough to garner those types of results. This season, Georgetown made some major additions from the transfer portal, including ex Hoya Qudus Wahab, who played for Georgetown under Ewing from 2019-2021, after spending last season with Maryland. Georgetown also adds Brandon Murray from LSU, who should be one of the better players in the Big East after a great freshman season in the SEC.
The question is will it actually matter, considering it wouldn’t take much for this Georgetown team to upgrade in talent level after what they were dealing with last season. One story to track during the start of college basketball season will be what exactly does Georgetown and their administrators and their Athletic Department do if things keep spinning out of control? Year No. 6 for Patrick Ewing is a massive one.
Follow Zac on Twitter - @ZacKrull_
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