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The 2021 Big East Non-Conference Slate: A Retrospective

Writer emeritus Sam Newberry returns to give thoughts on the Big East going into conference play

NCAA Basketball: St. Peter’s at St. John Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Hello there. It’s been a while since I’ve done the posting thing here on Big East Coast Bias. Some of you might remember me from being that idiot Marquette alum who shouts a lot on Twitter and who was an infrequent podcast guest with Rob and Chris.

I’m back, baby. Feels good to be home.

Even though I’m now located well outside the footprint of the Big East (please add Gonzaga just so I can justify going to conference games, please), I still lavish most of my basketball attention on the best conference in the country. That’s right, the WAC. Catch the fever.

I kid.

With conference play starting this weekend, I figured I’d give my semi-biased takes out to the general public and see how well I have a finger on the pulse of the conference heading into the gauntlet. It’s an exciting time to be a Big East fan. A conference that was supposed to have maybe three or four teams in the tournament has what looks like 9 teams that all could find themselves in consideration with strong performances from here on out.

I’m going to give some thoughts on power rankings going into conference play, the most impressive teams, the most impressive single wins, the most disappointing teams, player of the year candidates, and more. Strap in.

Power Rankings

  1. Villanova - Yeah. I know. Three losses. I get it. But those three losses are to consensus top 5-top 10 teams, two of which happened in true away games. The Wildcats also own wins over Tennessee and Syracuse (not that impressive on this one, but any time you can dig Boeheim, you gotta do it). They’re not deep, they’re not worldbeaters like 2018, but until someone proves otherwise, they’re the best team in the league.
  2. Seton Hall - I agonized over this pick. There are 4 teams that deserve to be here (Hall, Xavier, UConn, Providence). However, of the 4 that I could have slotted in here, I think Seton Hall is probably going to be the best of them going forward (unless UConn’s injury situations resolve themselves sooner rather than later, then there’s a massive debate). I am fully on the Bryce Aiken hype train, and both he and Jared Rhoden have “Oh he’s THAT DUDE” moments that make them look unbeatable.
  3. Providence - They have one of the weirdest losses in the league, being curbstomped by a thoroughly mediocre Virginia team, but they also own wins AT Wisconsin and at home against a decent Texas Tech team. Time will tell if they can maintain, but the Friars have as much reason for optimism as for worry. Bump up the three point percentage numbers, get Jared Bynum back at full power, and a team no one really thought much of will be in the conversation for a top 5 finish and a first weekend Tournament date in March.
  4. UConn- This team gets healthy, and they might have the most talent to challenge Villanova at the top. Actually, scratch the might, they do have the most talent to challenge Villanova at the top. Of course, talent on paper needs to translate to results, but I’m not holding the two losses they have (Michigan State after one of the WORST calls I’ve ever seen handed the ball back to the Spartans in crunch time and a West Virginia team that capitalized on the distinct lack of Adama Sanogo and and Tyrese Martin, while Taz Sherman put up 32) against them. The Huskies own a great win over a sneaky terrifying Auburn team (I had them as a dark horse Final Four team). They may get pinged early in Big East play because of injuries, but when they’re firing on all cylinders in late February/early March, they’ll be terrifying.
  5. Xavier - Picking Xavier at 5 is brutal, because all of 2-5 could be at any of the spots. This is just how it fell. Great win over Ohio State in Cintas, a good away win against Oklahoma State (a tournament team this year if the NCAA didn’t have their head so far up their own ass they’re getting a lesson in the anatomy of the small intestine), and a shellacking of noted AAC school Cincinnati (heh). Zach Freemantle is back and contributing, Colby Jones looks awesome, Jack Nunge is one of the best if not the best transfer so far in the conference. This is a team that goes deep and will scare the bejesus out of people in the tournament.
  6. Marquette - So here’s the thing. Like the group of 2-5, the next 4 teams could probably be placed in various orders and not offend me in the slightest. They’re definitely tier 3 teams right now, but hey, that’s why you play conference games, to see if they can rise above. Anyway, Marquette. No one saw this year coming for Shaka (god, as an alum, it feels so good to not say Wojo, let me tell you). 9 new players, 7 freshmen status players, only three returners, a bag of question marks so big you could fit Mike Aresco’s I’m Not Mad ego in it. And it’s turned into a legit All Big East first or second team contender in Justin Lewis, 3 very good wins, and 3 losses that don’t suck in the slightest (except if you’re a fan, because you’ve watched the team get blown out early just to claw back to respectable margins of defeat). The Golden Eagles are much better than we thought they would be, but they still probably need at least 11 conference wins to make the tournament. No easy ask. I’ll go on record and say an NIT berth this year is a success considering how bad this team was SUPPOSED to be, but to be in the conversation is good.
  7. Creighton - The BYU win was really good. That’s.......kinda all I have here. Colorado State is goddamn legit, people, that’s a Sweet 16 team, but the Arizona State loss was a big Y I K E S. Creighton is turning the ball over every 1 in 5 possessions and shooting terribly from three, which is basically the antithesis of McDermott Creighton teams over the last decade. They rely a lot on young and new players, and while Kaluma and Nembhard are both going to be stars in the conference, they’re not wholly there yet. The Bluejays (along with Marquette) are the true enigmas of the conference. They could both finish very high if their players develop quickly, and they could both finish very low if they collapse and can’t recover.
  8. Butler - One good win at Oklahoma (take that, Porter), three very meh performances in the Las Vegas Pretends to be Maui Maui Invitational, some underwhelming displays against mid-major teams, and a date this weekend with Purdue looming. Butler’s best player (by my reckoning) Bryce Nze has been hurt for multiple games, so grain of salt, but this team sorta just struggles on offense at all times and doesn’t have an elite, elite defense to compensate. I think they’ll be okay, maybe better than okay, but there’s a lot of valid concerns in Indianapolis. This is a team that needs to find an identity fast, because they’re going to get eaten up in conference play if they don’t.
  9. St. John’s - Hear me out on this one. St. John’s is probably the best of this pack and will be grouped more with the group of 2-5 by the end of conference season. I know. They just ain’t played nobody and, when they did, they didn’t get results. Blown out by Kansas in MSG (no shame). Played close against Indiana in Bloomington (no shame). And then, well.......their best win is against Monmouth, by 5. They needed OT to beat NJIT. More questions than answers, and no results in the non-conference to show it. Champagnie and Posh are both great, but this team isn’t there yet. I have faith they will be, but right now, you gotta stick with results.
  10. DePaul - We need to have a conversation about Good DePaul. One loss to a good Loyola team. A good win in Louisville (Chris Mack thanks for the memories but it is time to say goodbye). Javon Freeman-Liberty playing like an All Big East stud. David Jones being an offensive powerhouse and rebounding machine. There is legit talent and finally no Dave Leitao to hold it back. There’s a very good chance DePaul finishes top 7 or 8 for the first time in a while. And that rocks. DePaul has good history (no seriously, ask your elders, that program has Final Four appearances, and more recently than you might think). Chicago basketball being good is good for college basketball, and Tony Stubblefield might be the guy to get DePaul back on the map. It’ll be interesting to see if JFL and Jones can continue to carry this team as hard as they have in conference play, but if they can, DePaul will be the most surprising team this year, and it’s not close.
  11. Georgetown - Oh Georgetown. What will we do with you? A miracle Big East championship run last year ended in a blowout to Colorado in the tournament, and everyone thought the Hoyas would build on that. Instead Quadas Wahab transferred, Dante Harris has taken only small steps towards growing into the point guard Ewing needs, and the Hoyas have lost to Dartmouth (oof), St. Joes (double oof), and South Carolina (yeesh). Aminu Mohammad is the real deal, and Harris is getting better, but this seems to be a recurring them with Ewing: you see the talent, you see the direction, you see the signs, and then they trip over themselves and everything goes to hell (barring said miracle run). Might be a long season in DC unless Harris and Mohammad make even larger leaps. At least you beat Boeheim, though. That’s always an objectively good thing.

Best Win(s)

I couldn’t pick one. I’m sorry. I couldn’t. I think there’s a tie. UConn over Auburn, and Seton Hall over Texas. Don’t @ me (if you want to, it’s @snewby22 on Twitter, hey what’s up hello). Tennessee is a very strange team and I don’t discount what Villanova did to them, but I think Auburn is better than the Volunteers in the SEC (as is Texas, which, lol, football conference realignment). Honorable mentions: Providence beating Wisconsin in Madison, even sans Johnny Davis, and Xavier over Ohio State.

Player of the Year

God, this is so hard. Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore are doing their respective things. Same with Bryce Aiken, Nate Watson, Jared Rhoden, Colby Jones, JFL, RJ Cole, and the duo of Posh and Julian. Sneaky good: Noah Horchler. But, gun to my head, right now, I’m picking Gillespie. So many good options, so little in the way of being able to recognize it. Can’t wait to see them all square off.

Newcomer of the Year

Jack Nunge, Darryl Morsell, Ryan Nembhard, Arthur Kaluma, Aminu Mohammad, Al Durham, Jayden Taylor, Kadary Richmond, Alexis Yetna, all good options. I think I’m most impressed with Nunge, Morsell, and Durham, but of the three, I’ll give it to Nunge right now. Any of this group could be the eventual winner, or even players like Kam Jones of Marquette if he goes off in conference play.

Most Impressive Team

Tie between Seton Hall and Providence. Seton Hall looks like a legit top 15 team. I knew they’d finish well in conference and that they’d most likely be a tournament team, but man, this is a GREAT performance by Hall so far.

As for Providence, basically everyone had them finishing in the bottom 3 or 4 teams in the conference and, yet, here they are. Watson is as good as ever, Al Durham is great, and the Friars are poised to be a tournament team come March. Ed Cooley is a good coach (I’ll be taking no comments on this, thanks), and this might be his best coaching job yet.

Most Disappointing Team

It depends on how you define this. Like, clearly Georgetown has been very not good. But with all the losses from that program, it’s hard not to see that happening. My pick here is St. John’s. They scheduled no one, didn’t get any good wins, and had more close games with bad teams than they should have.