We are still four months away from the start of the 2016-17 college basketball season, but with the top recruits settled into their new homes and the major transfers off the board, we finally have an idea of what the landscape will look like in college hoops.
The Big East Conference is coming off an outstanding year as Villanova won the National Championship, the league had four players selected in the 2016 NBA Draft (including Kris Dunn at 5th overall), and conference play was uber competitive with Seton Hall winning the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
In 2016-17, Villanova will once again be the ‘big dog’ in the conference, as they return the majority of their core that launched them to their first title since 1985.
Xavier, who was a mainstay in the top-15 last season, will once again be one of the best teams in the country due to the return of Trevon Bluiett, while Creighton is expected to make a jump into the top-25 rankings with Maurice Watson Jr. and Marcus Foster manning their backcourt.
But who are some underrated teams that could creep up on these three? The Wildcats likely won’t be challenged for the conference title but teams 3-through-10 look to be relatively close in terms of talent level and possible production.
Without further ado, here’s my way too early top three underrated teams in the Big East Conference:
St. John’s Red Storm
After making the NCAA Tournament in 2015 (and losing in the first round), St. John’s opted to part ways with head coach Steve Lavin and brought in school legend Chris Mullin to be their new head man.
The Red Storm completely rebuilt their roster, starting what was expected to be a long rebuilding process.
And that it was.
The team only won eight games last year, went on a 16-game losing streak, were beaten by NJIT and Incarnate Word at home, and were completely uncompetitive on the defensive end at times.
While the Red Storm are certainly not expected to make the NCAA Tournament this upcoming season (it’s only year two of the rebuild), Mullin will have a lot more talent to work with.
St. John’s will bring in five new players, Tennessee transfer Tariq Owens, point guard Marcus LoVett (who was ineligible last season), and recruits Shamorie Ponds, Richard Freudenberg and Bashir Ahmed. While they also will have veteran transfers, Marvin Clark Jr. (Michigan State) and Justin Simon (Arizona), to compete in practice (both have to sit one season).
LoVett and Ponds, who are both four star recruits, will take pressure of Malik Ellison and Frederico Mussini in the backcourt, while Ahmed is one of the best JUCO players in the country. Owens will give the Johnnies even more length down low and Freudenberg adds outside shooting touch from the four-position.
Most importantly, the Red Storm are expecting major jumps from Kassoum Yakwe and Yankuba Sima. Sima was the best player on St. John’s through the first three Big East games before going down with a hand injury. He never regained his form, but Yakwe stepped in, took over his minutes and showed off his undeniable potential. The former Our Savior New American big blocked shots at the rim, finished with authority and played with toughness despite needing to add more weight to his frame.
Again, expecting the Red Storm to make the Big Dance is unrealistic, but being competitive in the Big East and pulling off some shockers is more likely to happen.
Marquette Golden Eagles
Even though the Golden Eagles lost their best player, Henry Ellenson, to the NBA, Steve Wojciechowski still has nice roster balance, with a mixture of veterans and youngsters.
Duane Wilson, Jajuan Johnson and Luke Fischer are the veterans of the bunch, while Haanif Cheatham, Traci Carter and Matt Heldt try to take a step forward as rising sophomores.
Having returning players is important, but the Golden Eagles have also added some pieces that might help them rise to the middle of the Big East.
UNC Asheville transfer Andrew Rowsey sat out last season and will be eligible starting in November, Katin Reinhardt is a graduate transfer who had a profound impact at USC and played in the NCAA Tournament last season, and the freshman will provide an immediate talent boost.
Four-star guard Markus Howard was supposed to be a member of the class of 2017, but decided to reclassify to 2016. As shown in the FIBA U17 World Championships, Howard is ready to play at the college level because of his high IQ, smart decision making and ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter.
Wojciechowski adds two other four-star recruits in Sam Hauser and Brendan Bailey, who should help increase the bench production.
One area the Golden Eagles will have to clean up immediately to be successful: Turnovers.
With Cheatham and Carter having a year under their belt and finally understanding the nuances of the college game, expect those turnover numbers to fall.
Seton Hall Pirates
Yes, they lost their best player and one of the best players in the conference in Isaiah Whitehead.
But no this team certainly won’t be irrelevant next season.
The Pirates return four starters from last season NCAA Tournament team, will add Kansas State transfer Jevon Thomas in December, and landed two impact freshman, four-star Myles Powell and three-star Eron Gordon.
The Pirates aren’t without issues though, as Kevin Willard has a major leadership void with the loss of Derrick Gordon, and the Pirates are transitioning Carrington to more of a lead guard role (Whitehead played that position last year).
All that said, this team still won the Big East Tournament last year (beating the eventual National Champions in the final) and still have a solid returning core.
Don’t count the Pirates out in the Big East.