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Burning questions for all 11 Big East teams

The season doesn’t tip off until November, but since the Big East dropped its conference schedule, let’s talk hoops!

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Creighton vs Georgetown Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The season doesn’t tip off until November, but since the Big East finalized and released the conference-play portion of the 2021-22 regular season, let’s start the conversation by taking a look at all 11 Big East teams.

Butler: Can the Bulldogs find consistency?

Last year, it was an up-and-down season for Butler, who was impacted by injuries and COVID-related pauses en route to its 10-15 finish. Through it all, the Bulldogs did have some highlights, like beating Creighton and Villanova at home, as well as an overtime win over Xavier in the Big East Tournament.

This season should be a better one for the Bulldogs, who return virtually everybody, including all five of their top scorers that averaged in double figures last season: Chuck Harris, Bryce Nze, Jair Bolden, Aaron Thompson, and Bryce Golden.

There’s a nice blend of veterans and young pieces that got a good amount of playing time as freshmen. Butler is now year older, wiser, and healthier, and ready to compete. It’ll be interesting to see how Harris follows up after an impressive freshman campaign, and how Thompson looks with his shoulder troubles behind him. He’s an important two-way fifth-year senior for them.

Connecticut: How do the Huskies move on from James Bouknight?

The Huskies will have to turn the page after James Bouknight’s showstopping sophomore season that helped him earn a lottery pick and an approximate deal with the Charlotte Hornets worth $19.1 million.

There’s no doubt that Bouknight carried a lot of the load last season, leading the way with 18.7 points per game, the second-highest scoring average in the Big East, and 5.7 rebounds per game.

UConn already has some experience playing without him, as Bouknight missed eight games due to injury last season. During this stretch, UConn went 4-4, but remained competitive even in losses.

Fortunately for UConn, it still has top returning scorer R.J. Cole, reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Polley, and the shot-blocking, Big East Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Whaley. On top of that, it also has Tyrese Martin, who averaged 10.3 points and 7.5 rebounds after transferring in from Rhode Island, solid frontcourt depth, and a top-10 nationally-ranked recruiting class that features a quartet of four-star prospects headlined by Jordan Hawkins ready to make their freshman debut.

Creighton: How will the Bluejays look after recent departures?

Considering the controversy surrounding the Bluejays’ locker room in the final month, Creighton ended on a fairly high note.

The Bluejays bounced back from late regular season losses and a blowout loss to Georgetown in the Big East Tournament finals, to making their way to the Sweet 16 and losing to eventual runner-up Gonzaga. That Creighton Sweet 16 starting five of Marcus Zegarowski, Damien Jefferson, Mitch Ballock, Denzel Mahoney, and Christian Bishop is no longer in Omaha.

Zegarowski was a second-round pick in the NBA Draft. Jefferson, Ballock, and Mahoney all chose to pursue professional opportunities, while Bishop transferred to Texas. That leaves 7-foot-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner as the Bluejays’ top returning scorer, with 5.9 points per game, and Shereef Mitchell as the returner who received the most minutes last season (14.4 per game).

There’s not a lot of continuity, but there is some promise. Despite five-star prospect TyTy Washington decommitting in the aftermath of Greg McDermott’s comments last March, the Bluejays still have a pretty good incoming freshman class. According to 247 sports, Creighton’s 2021 recruiting class was ranked seventh-best in the country and features a quartet of four-star prospects — Arthur Kaluma, Ryan Nembhard, Mason Miller, and Trey Alexander — as well as three-star guard John Christofilis.

DePaul: Can new coach Tony Stubblefield move the Blue Devils in a positive direction?

The Blue Devils fizzled out after the days of the Strus being loose in the Windy City, finishing 5-14 last season in Dave Leitao’s final year. That 2018-19 season headlined by former DePaul standout Max Strus was the first winning season for DePaul since 2006-07.

Now, Tony Stubblefield is heading the program after spending the last 11 seasons as an assistant at Oregon. Before that, he was an assistant for four years at Cincinnati and served as the interim head coach during the 2004-05 season at New Mexico State, where the Aggies went 2-12 under his watch. He also had various stops at Nebraska-Omaha, UT-San Antonio, and UT-Arlington.

Stubblefield comes into this head coaching gig with plenty more experience than he did back when he was 34. It won’t be easy, and he won’t be asked to move mountains right away, but some glimpses of promise can go a long way in his first year in Chicago. Maybe he can lay down a foundation in practice or on the recruiting trail. DePaul has a completely new team this year, with 11 players gone from last season, and plenty of new faces and transfers in the mix. It’ll be hard to get them to gel, but this season is more about setting anything up for the near future and beyond.

Georgetown: Started from the bottom and now...where are we?

Last preseason, they were picked to finish last in the conference and by the time the regular season rolled around, the Hoyas lost eight of their first 11 games. After that, they turned it up, caught fire in the postseason, and won a Big East Tournament title as an eight-seed.

They had a brief stay in the NCAA Tournament, but it looked like things were on the up-and-up for the future.

After a bunch of major departures, it looks like Georgetown will be out to prove itself, again. Chudier Bile, Jahvon Blair, and Jamorko Pickett all opted to go pro. Qudus Wahab was a notable transfer, while Jamari Sibley also hit the portal. So, who’s left?

Donald Carey got a good amount of playing time last season, as did Dante Harris, who earned Big East Tournament MVP honors as a freshman. Both guards averaged 8.0 points last season, and it will be interesting to see how they take a step up. Timothy Ighohefe got some burn in the rotation, but the 7-foot center should see a huge uptick in minutes after averaging just 9.1 minutes last season.

The Hoyas also have some newcomers that should make an impact right away. Graduate transfer Kaiden Rice comes to Georgetown after a successful career at The Citadel and will bolster the Hoyas’ perimeter game. Tre King comes in after three years at Eastern Kentucky and should add to the frontcourt.

However, out of all the new additions, most of the buzz will be around Aminu Mohammed, the crown jewel of the incoming freshman class. Mohammed is Ewing’s first five-star commit and was a McDonald’s All-American. He should be an impact player right away and possibly an early front-runner for Big East Freshman of the Year.

Marquette: Will Shaka Smart be the start of a golden age for Marquette?

The Golden Eagles have had great historical stretches, particularly in the 70s, and deep runs throughout their program’s history, so maybe the word ‘golden’ is a bit of a stretch. But with the way Steve Wojciechowski’s last couple of seasons went in Milwaukee, maybe it isn’t.

The last few years and postseason flame-outs have been disappointing for Marquette fans, and now it’s time for a fresh start with new coach Shaka Smart.

He’s best known for his “Havoc” defense and runs with VCU. Although he altered his defensive scheme for his time in Texas, his Longhorn squads still consistently performed well defensively and ranked in the top 40 in defensive efficiency every year according to KenPom.

Expect the Golden Eagles to buckle down defensively, but we’re still not quite sure what to expect from the team as a whole.

Leading scorer Dawson Garcia (North Carolina), Theo John (Duke), Jamal Cain (Oakland), Koby McEwen (Weber State), Symir Torrence (Syracuse), Dexter Akanno (Oregon State), and Jose Perez (Manhattan) all transferred out. Another top scorer, D.J. Carton, chose to go pro.

Greg Elliott and Justin Lewis are the only two returning pieces that had a good amount of playing time last season. Other than that, Marquette was busy recruiting in the transfer portal and added four new players — Darryl Morsell (Maryland), Kur Kuath (Oklahoma), Olivier-Maxence Prosper (Clemson), and Tyler Kolek (George Mason) — that will try to get the Smart era going and ease the rebuild.

Providence: With David Duke Jr. gone, how do the Friars divvy up the workload?

Duke was a do-it-all player, that even handled playmaking duties after point guard Jared Bynum got injured. Now, he’s running with the Brooklyn Nets, and the Friars will figure out how to move forward.

Fortunately for them, Bynum is back and should likely be the lead facilitator. They also have Nate Watson, who was a top-five scorer and big man in the Big East last season. A.J. Reeves is also a key returner, as well as Noah Horchler, who began to carve a bigger role by the end of the season and provide a three-point shooting threat for Providence.

They’ll have to pick things up after Duke’s departure, especially while incoming transfers Justin Minaya (South Carolina) and Al Durham (Indiana) get acclimated to their new surroundings. Other than that, there isn’t much else coming in.

It was a light recruiting class for Providence, who only had two commits, and had the second-lowest ranked class in the Big East after DePaul. Ed Cooley has a tight leash on freshmen anyway, so Providence fans will be happy to have those familiar faces back, but there will be a huge gap in production to fill.

St. John’s: With Alexander and Champagnie back, is there a storm brewing in New York City?

The good for St. John’s: Julian Champagnie flirted with the draft process, but decided to come back. A first-team all-Big East selection and the conference’s leading scorer at 19.8 points per game, Champagnie also led the Red Storm in rebounding (7.4 per game).

The Red Storm also bring back reigning Big East Freshman of the Year Posh Alexander, who impressed after averaging 10.9 points, 4.3 assists, and 2.6 steals in his first year. Together, they’ll be fun to watch in Mike Anderson’s fast-paced style of play. The Red Storm also bring back Dylan Addae-Wusu, a local product that played 20 minutes per game last season.

The bad: There were a good amount of departures as well. The Red Storm appeared ready to bring back almost everyone, but Rasheem Dunn, the lone senior in the rotation last year, opted to spend his bonus year at Robert Morris. Greg Williams, Isaih Moore, Vince Cole, and Marcellus Earlington also opted to leave. They did get some incoming transfers in return, but it’s going to take some time to gel.

With two of the conference’s top players back, the Red Storm have enough to make some noise. If they can get the pieces, depth, and solidify the rotation around them, then watch out.

Seton Hall: How will Jared Rhoden build off of his career year?

With Sandro Mamukelashvili now on the Milwaukee Bucks, the Pirates will figure out how to move on from their co-Big East Player of the Year. The answer will likely be in Jared Rhoden. Seton Hall fans know his value and while he missed out on the all-Big East Teams, that shouldn’t be the case this upcoming season. He might even be in the Big East Player of the Year conversation. Maybe not an early front-runner, but don’t be surprised if he’s one of the names in the mix by season’s end.

After playing in all 30 games and even making some starts during his sophomore year, he took a big step forward last season. He had 14.9 points per game (up from 9.1 in 2019-20), while also averaging 6.7 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and shooting 42.9% on the floor.

He’ll look to lead a pretty deep unit that also returns Myles Cale, who averaged double figures in scoring, as well as Tyrese Samuel, defensive specialist and 7-foot-2 center Ike Obiagu.

They also have promising graduate transfers in Jamir Harris (American) and Alexis Yetna (USF), and sophomore Kadary Richmond (Syracuse).

Seton Hall should still be a formidable team this season.

Villanova: How far can the Wildcats go?

After Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels announced their intent to use their bonus year of eligibility to return to the team, Villanova fans were salivating at what the 2021-22 season could potentially bring.

How could they not?

Looking back at the Villanova-Baylor Sweet 16 game, who would’ve thought that the Wildcats would put up that kind of fight against the eventual national champion without Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree? Despite the absences, the Wildcats only lost to the Bears by 11 points and were within striking distance for most of the game. That 11-point margin was tied with Arkansas for the slimmest margin of victory by Baylor during that NCAA Tournament run to the title.

Villanova gets a co-Big East Player of the Year back and almost everybody else, but now a year older and wiser.

Aside from projecting how high the ceiling is, or how far the ‘Cats can go, the only real glaring question regarding their roster is, who steps up at center? Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, another co-Big East Player of the Year, had been holding it down in the paint for the last two seasons.

The ‘Cats will lean on their Guard U roots in the meantime, but between Eric Dixon, Nnanna Njoku, Trey Patterson, Cosby-Roundtree (if healthy), and Samuels, it’ll be interesting to see how those frontcourt minutes are distributed.

Xavier: Will the Musketeers return to the NCAA Tournament this season?

Travis Steele hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament yet with the Musketeers, but there’s a good chance that changes this season. While a lot of college basketball teams were shaken up by departures and the transfer portal, Xavier came out of the offseason relatively unscathed.

Xavier did have three rotational players transfer out, Jason Carter, Bryan Griffin, and C.J. Wilcher, but it brings back all seven of its top scorers from last year.

Big man Zach Freemantle, a second-team all-Big East selection and the conference’s Most Improved Player award winner, leads the way after averaging 16.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last season. Point guard Paul Scruggs is back, after averaging 14.0 points, 5.7 assists, and 1.6 steals. The Musketeers also have Nate Johnson, who averaged 11.4 points and shot 45.2% from deep.

Colby Jones, Adam Kunkel, KyKy Tandy, and Dwon Odom might not have averaged in double figures, but they were all important members of the Musketeer rotation and will look to reprise their roles.

Xavier has the depth, skill, and experience, it’ll just be a matter of putting all that together and taking a step forward.

The Musketeers have to remember that it’s a marathon.

They started off last season with eight-straight wins, had their bouts with COVID, but then started to lose momentum during the second half of the season. They only won five out of their final 13 games and got bounced out early in the Big East Tournament.