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The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

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The State of The Big East Conference

As teams in the conference retool, who should St. John’s watch out for?
TORCH PHOTO/ Brady Snyder
TORCH PHOTO/ Brady Snyder

The Big East Conference, after regaining the University of Connecticut last season, is firmly on the rise after a tumultuous last decade which oversaw the restructuring of the conference. In fact, the conference is so stable at the moment that legendary commissioner Val Ackerman is considering expansion of the conference in the next five years. 

The success of the St. John’s Men Basketball team will largely relate to their success in the Big East, where they secured a winning record last season for the first time in over five years. With a relatively light non-conference schedule, the Johnnies need to control conference play in order to get back into the NCAA Tournament. Let’s take a look around the conference, in the order of last season’s regular season standings, to see who might pose a threat to the Red Storm. 

Villanova, 18-7 (11-4 Big East)

There is no doubt that Villanova, the reigning Big East regular season champion, is the favorite to win the conference this season. Of all the coaches eligible to vote for the Wildcats – Jay Wright could not vote for his own team – their decision was unanimous: Villanova is the preseason pick to win the conference according to Big East coaches. Head coach Wright may be the main reason why, having sustained success in the conference and in the NCAA tournament. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, along with commissioner Ackerman, as a member of the 2021 class. 

The on-court success will largely depend on what version of Connor Gillespie we see after he tore his MCL at the end of last season. Clearly the Big East is expecting a return to form, since their coaches named him Preseason Big East Player of the Year in advance of the 2021-22 season. Gillespie was the co-Big East Player of the Year last season as he averaged 14 points per game as Villanova’s point guard. 

He’s joined by graduate forward Jermaine Samuels and junior guard Justin Moore, both of whom averaged double-digits in points per game last season. Wright also gains the #22 recruiting class in the country highlighted by Jordan Longino and Nnanna Njoku, who are both top 100 prospects in the country. With all of this talent to work with, Nova will be a force to be reckoned with and are the surefire favorites in the conference.

Creighton, 22-9 (14-6 Big East)

Creighton had the most wins in the conference last season and yet could find themselves in the lower half of the standings this season. What was a highly seasoned roster last year now becomes one of high upside, but low experience. The team loses their top five scorers from last season and, in essence, all of the players that powered their Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament. 

It’s not all bleak for the Bluejays, who are poised to quickly return to form with the fifth-best recruiting class in the country and the best in the conference. Freshmen forward Arthur Kaluma, guard Ryan Nembhard, forward Mason Miller and guard Trey Alexander are all top 75 prospects in the country. Their ability to acclimate to Division I basketball, and the Big East, will determine Creighton’s success this season. For that reason, the Bluejays are the wild card of this conference. They are a team that cannot be overlooked by any team looking to take the next step, like St. John’s.

Connecticut, 15-8 (11-6 Big East)

UConn returned to the Big East in dominant fashion last season, securing a seven seed in the NCAA tournament. Despite losing star James Bouknight to the NBA draft, the Huskies are expected to remain a threat in the conference. Connecticut has been picked to finish second in the conference in the preseason coaches’ poll and was AP’s No. 24 team in the country. 

That’s because all six of the Huskies’ leading scorers after Bouknight are returning this season. Graduate student RJ Cole and senior Tyrese Martin both scored double figures last year, and they both should benefit from more looks after Bouknight’s departure. Sophomore Adama Sanogo, graduate student Tyler Polley and junior Jalen Gaffney all have the potential to step up with an increased role as well. 

UConn’s defense stands to get better if graduate student Isaiah Whaley improves on his tremendous 2020-21 season, which saw him grab 6.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game last season. 

To add to all of this potential, the Huskies bring in the #14 recruiting class in the country and the second best in the Big East, led by Jordan Hawkins, Samson Johnson and Rashool Diggins. As soon as head coach Dan Hurley uncovers how to best utilize his roster in the absence of Bouknight, UConn will be one of the best teams in the conference. 

St. John’s 16-11 (10-9 Big East)

St. John’s has a new-look roster after nine scholarship players who contributed to the team’s successful third season under Mike Anderson’s tenure. The concerns of the team’s culture are something to follow, but regardless of the reasons for the roster turnover, Anderson has a new unit of players to build this team around.

The three returning players to St. John’s this season are arguably the most important ones. Junior guard Julian Champagnie returns after leading the Big East in scoring last season and testing the NBA draft. He’s joined by reigning Big East Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Posh Alexander, who should be even better for the Johnnies down the stretch after a full recovery from the thumb injury that gave him trouble late last season. Dylan Addae-Wusu, who is still recovering from ankle surgery, figures to be a key part of Anderson’s rotation after his impressive performances off the bench in his freshman campaign. 

With some of the best players in the conference returning, somehow St. John’s has even more intriguing players joining the team through the expanded transfer rules in 2021-22. Joel Soriano, a junior center from Fordham who looks to be a double-double threat on a nightly basis, is fully buying into Anderson’s fast pace of play by losing weight and improving his quickness.  Tareq Coburn also joins the roster from Hofstra, where he’s won championships and demonstrated the ability to consistently make shots from long range. Stef Smith is expected to figure in as well, a graduate student who averaged double digit points in the America East conference, where he received All-America East honors twice. 

With a relatively light non conference schedule, despite landmines in Indiana and Kansas, Anderson will have ample time to improve his roster before conference play. The Red Storm are set up to be even better than last season, but they’ll face a tall task in trying to unseat conference stalwarts Villanova and UConn. 

Seton Hall, 14-13 (10-9 Big East)

Seton Hall was expected to make a run for the NCAA tournament last season if not for a late-season collapse that saw the team lose five of their last six games of the season. The Hall is expected to finish around the middle of the conference, according to Big East coaches. That all depends on whether they find “the guy” in Myles Cale or Jared Rhoden. 

Every year since they started their run of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances starting in 2015, the Pirates have had a dominant scoring threat to lead them. It started with Desi Rodriguez, continued with Myles Powel and saw co-Big East Player of the Year Sandro Mamukelashvili step up last season. With the departure of Mamukelashvili, the senior Rhoden and graduate student Cale need to fill his shoes. 

Both Rhoden and Cale scored double figures in points per game despite Mamukelashvili’s offensive game plan, so it’s reasonable to think they may benefit from increased looks. The Hall will need more than that to continue their run of success though, and they might find it in Bryce Aiken. The guard has the potential to make an impact, but has dealt with numerous injuries throughout his career. 

The key to the Pirates’ success might just be Jamir Harris, a transfer guard from American University who scored 20.5 points per game last season. Harris’ ability to transition from the Patriot League to the Big East might be the difference between Seton Hall finishing in the middle of the standings or finishing near the top of the standings in the 2021-22 season. 

The Field

The remaining conference teams aren’t expected to compete for the conference title, with the exception of Xavier, who was picked to finish third in the conference in the preseason coaches’ poll. The Musketeers are returning all of their top seven scorers from last season, despite losing their star forward Zach Freemantle for an indefinite period due to an injury. Xavier suffered from multiple COVID-19 pauses last season, and with an uninterrupted season and an experienced roster, should compete for the conference this season. 

As for the rest of the conference, the lower-half of the field is in a rebuilding stage. Both DePaul and Marquette have first-year coaches in Tony Stubblefield and Shaka Smart, respectively. Georgetown shocked the conference with a Big East Tournament victory last season, but are still a flawed team that was picked to finish second to last in the preseason coaches’ poll. 

Providence is expected to finish in the middle of the pack, but their upside is limited by the departure of their second-leading scorer, David Duke. No clear replacements are on the way or on the roster, because the Friars have the worst recruiting class in the Big East. 

Butler, like Providence, is expected to finish in the dead center of the conference, but has some upside as they return ten of their top 11 leading scorers from 2020-21. They did have their worst record in 28 years last season, and will have to take a big leap to finish in the top half of the conference. 

The Big East has more parity than in recent memory – at least in the conference’s two halves. Any of the top five teams could win either the regular season or postseason titles, and any of the remaining six teams could finish in positions six through 11 in the standings. One thing is for sure: St. John’s success against these 11 teams will determine whether the Red Storm make it back to the NCAA Tournament in the 2021-22 season. 

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Brady Snyder
Brady Snyder, Editor-in-Chief
Brady is a senior journalism student currently serving as Editor-in-Chief. He joined The Torch in 2021, and previously served as Sports Editor. Outside of The Torch, Brady covers consumer technology and new innovations for ScreenRant, where he has nearly 100 published articles. When he isn’t writing, Brady is usually running or catching a sporting event. Brady can be reached at [email protected]
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