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.
Rick Barnes Says He Would Have Left Tennessee if UCLA Paid Buyout
Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes could have been the next head coach for UCLA, instead of Mick Cronin, if only the Bruins were willing to open up their wallets.
Barnes says that if UCLA would have promised to pay Barnes’ $5 million buyout, he would have left Tennessee to take the job at UCLA.
“I think I would’ve been the coach at UCLA,” Barnes said (h/t ESPN). “I’ve said that to people before. I really felt at that time that’s what would happen.”
Barnes was honest and open with his decision process during the news conference, saying that he struggled with making a final decision due to financial matters.
Barnes has since agreed to a new deal with Tennessee that will pay him $4 million per year before increasing to a $6 million annual sum by the end of the contract and provide more cash for his assistants.
“I’m supposed to be at Tennessee,” Barnes said. “And it’s really above and beyond the basketball program. I’m in love with this community. I’m in love with this state. I just think we got a lot of great things going on in this town.”
“A lot of praying went into it, I can tell you that,” Barnes said. “There was a lot going on. When you get down to a situation like that, it has to make sense from a financial standpoint. Bottom line is we couldn’t work it out with the buyout.”
Barnes also informed UCLA that he would not depart Knoxville without talking to athletic director Phillip Fulmer and others in the community.
I told them point blank, ‘I’m not going to walk out of here and not meet with my team,'” Barnes said. “‘I’m not going to walk out of here and not meet with people here that have been really good to me.’ … I said, ‘You just can’t say send a plane tomorrow and we’re leaving. I’m going to make sure this is done the right way.'”
“There was one time in my mind I truly felt that’s what would happen,” Barnes said about potentially taking the UCLA offer. “It got to that point where I felt like my prayers had been answered.”
The Madness is Underway
As we inch closer to selection Sunday, many conference tournaments are underway finding teams who will automatically make the NCAA Men’s basketball. Here are the teams that currently in the tournament:
Atlantic Sun: Liberty
Big South: Gardner–Webb
Horizon: Northern Kentucky
Missouri Valley: Bradley
MEC: Fairleigh Dickinson
Ohio Valley: Murray State
Summit League: North Dakota State
Summit League: Saint Marry’s
Out of the 32 conferences with automatic bids in the tournament, 12 of them have been clinched. All the until selection Sunday the remaining 20 conferences will have their tickets punched. Who will that be? Stay tuned!
Tennessee Basketball Ranked 4th In (Early) Preseason Top 25
A school built on football lure now has a thriving basketball team to get behind. In a early CBS basketball poll, the Volunteer squad is ranked 4th in the preseason. This should bring relief to a fan base whose struggled with a lackluster football team in recent years.
Under Coach Rick Barnes (SEC Coach of the year 2017) the Vols went 26-9 last year, won a share of the regular season SEC title and reached the final of the SEC tournament. Tennessee should return most of their pivotal pieces for the 2018-19 season.
Admiral Schofield (2017-2018 ALL SEC second teamer) who tested the NBA waters has returned for his senior year to play along side Grant Williams (SEC player of the year) and Kyle Alexander. If they can stay healthy along with the supporting cast, this team has a legitimate chance to reach the final four.
According to Andy Katz, “Tennessee is the team to beat in the SEC this year,” and did I mention Coach Barnes recruiting is nothing to take lightly. Recently committed 5 star combo guard, Josiah James added his name to the class of 2019 and pushed the Vols recruiting into the top 10 nationally.
Although it’s too early to tell how this season will play out its certain the hype is warranted and reaching heights it hasn’t seen since the Bruce Pearl era.
Could it be!? Tennessee – a basketball school?
Follow the journey when the Volunteers tip off against Louisiana Lafayette on November 9th.
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