College Basketball Preview: Villanova and the Big East Are Ready for Another Run
What could Kris Jenkins and the Villanova Wildcats possibly have planned for an encore?
Jenkins' buzzer-beater last April was, of course, the iconic ending to Villanova's National Championship win over North Carolina. In capturing the school's first national title since its improbable run in 1985 as an 8 seed, the Wildcats have proven that they may not always win it all, but when they do, it's sure to be memorable.
Jay Wright's team lost senior leaders Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu to graduation but returns enough talent and championship attitude to be considered a serious contender for the Final Four and more again in 2017.
Standing in the Wildcats' way is an improving group of teams from the Big East, a conference still in the early stages of its reboot following conference realignment. Legitimized by Villanova's impressive national title run against the likes of Kansas, Oklahoma, and UNC, the conference features several contenders that stand to make a national impact once again.
Team to Beat: Villanova Wildcats
As soon as Jenkins and leading scorer Josh Hart announced they were returning for their senior seasons, Villanova began drawing comparisons to the Florida Gators of 10 years prior, still the last team to have pulled off back-to-back national titles.
Hart, neither a captain nor the buzzer-beating hero, may have gotten lost in the shuffle a bit among Villanova's deep and balanced rotation. But there's no more hiding in anonymity for Hart this season after being named to the Associated Press' preseason All-America team. Hart, a talented slasher and defender, averaged 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game last season and comes into this season looking to add the offensive versatility necessary to get selected in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Joining the senior duo is a returning cast of champions that includes point guards Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth, Swiss Army knife swingman Mikal Bridges (perhaps the best NBA prospect on the team), and big man Darryl Reynolds. Villanova's ability to replace the size of Ochefu was hindered by the NCAA's ruling that five-star freshman Omari Spellman needed to sit out the season for technicalities surrounding his high school career. But the Wildcats' front line should receive help from Fordham transfer Eric Paschall, the Atlantic 10's Rookie of the year from two seasons ago.
Villanova's toughest challenge will once again be Xavier, a team that won 28 games last season and, like Villanova, entered the NCAA Tournament as a 2 seed. Shocked by Wisconsin's buzzer-beating upset in the tournament's second round, Xavier's hopes of a deep NCAA run may only be delayed a year, as returning stars Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett give Chris Mack's Musketeers enough firepower to again be a top-10 team.
On the Rise: Creighton Bluejays
Led at the time by Doug McDermott, Creighton was Villanova's top competition three years ago in the first season of the "new" Big East. McDermott's father, Greg, is still the head coach in Omaha, and he appears to have found the right combination of talent to return to the NCAA Tournament after a brief hiatus. Despite a 20-15 record last season, Creighton finished as a top-40 team in KenPom's efficiency ratings last season, signaling that the Jays may be ready to break out this season.
Creighton was electrified last season by transfer guard Maurice Watson, Jr. Only 5'10", the Philadelphia native averaged 14.1 points and 6.5 assists in his first season after coming over from Boston University. Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster, who led his former team in scoring in each of his first two collegiate seasons, pairs with Watson to create a backcourt with the potential to be one of college basketball's best. Creighton's already hit the ground running with an upset of ninth-ranked Wisconsin in their second game of the season.
On the Decline: Providence Friars
Providence went 10 years between NCAA tournament appearances before appearing in the bracket in each of the last three seasons. No one will blame Ed Cooley if he can't make it to a fourth straight tournament this year, after losing second team All-American Kris Dunn and leading scorer Ben Bentil to the NBA Draft.
Dunn, a two-time Big East Player of the Year, was drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves after stuffing the stat sheet with averages of 16.4 points, 6.2 assists, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.5 steals per game last season.
Rodney Bullock, who averaged over 11 points per game as a freshman, returns, and will look to turn the page for Providence after the departure of its two big-time stars.
Player to Watch: Jalen Brunson
As a freshman, Brunson showed flashes of future stardom, averaging just under 10 points a game. But after playing a supporting role last season, the former McDonald's All-American must now fill the shoes of last year's senior leader Ryan Arcidiacono, whose knack for coming up big in the biggest moments manifested itself in the assist on last year's championship-winning buzzer-beater.