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Big East Preview: Conference Play Awaits! (Part 1)

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This morning’s installment features Creighton, Marquette, DePaul, Butler and Xavier

It’s gonna be hoops Russian roulette in 2016-17.
Image: @VUHoops

College basketball season began 46 days ago. Feels like longer, doesn't it? The roster and style of play are different from this moment back in 2015, yet the team's record and fanbase morale were looking achingly familiar before your Georgetown Hoyas pulled it together after Hawaii. Six wins in a row does not happen by accident and many of the players’ individual shortcomings are fixable. Things are looking up.

Let's be real - other teams have dealt with bad losses this year too. (The) Ohio State University lost to Florida Atlantic earlier in the month. Duke struggled to hold off Elon. There are lots of reasons to be optimistic about the Hoyas' chances heading into Big East play. However, you likely know what our team has been up to. Rehashing Georgetown’s own journey towards redemption is not going to amp up your level of holiday cheer.

The goal of this two-part series is to offer a general overview of what the preseason has shown about our conference-mates. From West to East, we start with...


Creighton Bluejays (12-0) - #9 (W12)

Best Win: Wisconsin

Worst Loss: N/A

Grads/Departures: Geoffrey Groselle, James Milliken

New Kids on the Block? Marcus Foster (transfer), Justin Patton (RS Fr.), Davion Mintz (Fr.), Kobe Paras (Fr.)

NCAA Basketball: Oral Roberts at Creighton
A versatile 7-foot freshman? Can’t wait to see him for four more years.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Tearjerker Award for making Hoyas fans sob into their post-game lunch? Justin Patton. The 7-footer will be primarily expected to fill the big man role vacated by Groselle. It seems that he can block shots on the defensive end, which will be a challenge for the Hoyas frontcourt that does not always finish their plays strongly. His passing and rebounding facilitates the Jays' offense, and the combination of solid midrange shooting and the ability to put the ball on the floor makes him tricky to stop.

Expectations: Creighton's well-balanced roster is led by Maurice Watson Jr. He is a phenomenally precise passer who averages nearly 10 assists per game and will look to create shots for his teammates, but is also willing and capable to score by the dozens when the opponents’ defense is not closing down the lane effectively. Adding Foster's 20 points per game alongside him spreads out the threat and is a large part of why Creighton has outperformed expectations and remained undefeated. Picked to finish 3rd in the Big East, the Jays are more than a one-man show this season and that puts Greg McDermott's crew in a better spot than this time in 2015.

...

Marquette Golden Eagles (9-3) - NR (W2)

Best Win: Vanderbilt

Worst Loss: Pitt, Michigan and Wisconsin are nothing to sneeze at.

Grads/Departures: Henry Ellenson (draft), Sandy Cohen (transfer), Traci Carter (transfer)

New Kids? Katin Reinhardt (transfer), Andrew Rowsey (transfer), Sam Hauser (Fr.), Brendan Bailey (Fr.), Markus Howard (Fr.)

Tearjerker: Andrew Rowsey. Not projected as a starter for Marquette at the start of this season, the transfer is shooting 40%+ from 3-point range and averaged 20 points per game at his previous school, UNC-Asheville. (He was sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules - we don’t know him.) Rowsey was lethal against Pitt in the 2K Classic and will likely capitalize on the extra minutes coming his way as a result of the Golden Eagles’ sudden shortage of scholarship players.

NCAA Basketball: Fresno State at Marquette
Deep in thought, realizing floor-slapping isn’t for everyone.
Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations: Wojo got a big $$$ extension last year and collected the best recruiting class in the conference, yet his players have been hit by the transfer bug at a rate greater than other Big East teams. The tally is now up to 7 departures in less than 32 months, per Anonymous Eagle. Sandy Cohen III and Traci Carter (who led the team in assists) were the latest defections, announcing their intentions to leave the program at the end of fall semester. Still, the Golden Eagles have still managed to hold it together and win the games they should. The bench may have been shortened, but the players that remain are talented. Their offensive efficiency is top-20 in the country. Jajuan Johnson and Duane Wilson disrupt passes and cause lots o’ steals. Luke Fischer is back for yet another season of rebounding and physical play in the paint. Getting the big man into foul trouble is the best way to expose Marquette’s lack of experienced frontcourt depth.

...

DePaul Blue Demons (7-6) - NR (L2)

Best Win: Robert Morris University

Worst Loss: UIC

Grads/Departures: Myke Henry, Tommy Hamilton IV, Aaron Simpson, Rashaun Stimage

New Kids? Chris Harrison-Docks (transfer), Tre'Darius McCallum (transfer), Algevon Eichelberger (Fr.), Levi Cook (Fr.)

NCAA Basketball: SE Missouri State at DePaul
The smartest play is taking it straight to the basket and forcing the defense to stop you.
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Tearjerker: Eli Cain. Yes, I know Billy Garrett Jr. is flirting with Scottie Reynolds-level longevity, but the sophomore guard has made the greatest impact on the Blue Demons this season. After a frustrating start to his freshman campaign where he struggled to score the way he had in high school, Cain sought advice from his coach and looked for tangible ways to improve his physical & psychological preparedness. His defensive ability improved and his scoring nearly tripled in the latter half of the year. A player who is willing to put his ego aside and think about how to locate his opponents’ weak spots is dangerous.

Expectations: DePaul is trapped in a feedback loop of losing seasons and difficult recruiting. Their backcourt has improved for this season, adding Harrison-Docks alongside Cain and Garrett Jr. Either of those two has the ability to ride the hot hand to a 20-30 point performance, with Cain relying primarily on outside shooting while Garrett Jr. is dangerous when he maneuvers his way into the paint. This will allow the Blue Demons to hang around (and potentially cause the upset) when their opponents underestimate the amount of defensive pressure required to shut the duo down. However, even consistent performance and management by their PG cannot change the reality that DePaul simply does not have the size up front to match up against other Big East teams.

...

Butler Bulldogs (11-1) - #13 (W3)

Best Wins: Indiana University (#9), Arizona University (#8)

Worst Only Loss: Indiana State (72-71, in-state rivalry game)

Grads/Departures: Kellen Dunham, Roosevelt Jones

New Kids? Avery Woodson (transfer), Kethan Savage (transfer), Kamar Baldwin (Fr.), Joey Brunk (Fr.), Henry Baddley (Fr.)

Tearjerker: Kelan Martin. He can score. He can be “that guy” who takes initiative for the Bulldogs when the rest of the team is struggling. The junior went on a 9-point run to end the half against the Hoosiers, creating momentum that carried through the rest of the contest.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Butler vs Texas Tech
Go. Fetch. Good boys.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations: Chris Holtmann's team has been the picture of backcourt consistency since Butler joined the Big East, with a seamless transition of authority from Alex Barlow to Dunham and Jones. This year, there were a lot more question marks. A quartet of guards who were unfamiliar with the team and eachother would be playing significant roles (and minutes) running the offense. The team's ability to blow through their challenging early schedule seems to indicate that Baldwin & Co. are handling the responsibility well. Butler's forwards are familiar faces, with the experienced pairing of Andrew Chrabascz (crabcakes!) and Kelan Martin reliably combining for upwards of 30 ppg on any given night. Where the Bulldogs will struggle is deep in the paint, as they don't have a true post presence who can block inside shots or put it on the floor to back down an opponent. To beat them, teams will need to exploit this.

(In other important news, Butler Blue III suffered a CCL [doggy ACL] tear in the offseason. He underwent surgery to repair the ligament on October 18th and with the help of a committed team of canine physical therapists, was able to make his return to the court in mid-December.)

...

Xavier Musketeers (10-2) - #17 (W3)

Best Win: Mizzou (83-82 in OT)

Worst Loss: Colorado or Baylor? Neither is terrible.

Grads/Departures: James Farr, Jalen Reynolds, Remy Abell, Makinde London (transfer), Myles Davis (*sexual assault charges - suspended indefinitely)

New Kids? RaShid Gaston (transfer), Malcolm Bernard (transfer), Quentin Goodin (Fr.), Tyrique Jones (Fr.), Makinde London

NCAA Basketball: Utah at Xavier
If he draws a phantom foul, that’ll just add insult to injury.
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Tearjerker: J.P. Macura. This one is instinct. Call it a premonition. Watching him for the first time in the Big East Tournament at the end of his freshman season, I got the feeling that his shot would one day be a problem for the Hoyas. He's shooting 40%+ from three and adding 15 ppg. This is the year he makes us pay.

Expectations: On Big East media day, the coaches predicted that Xavier would finish 2nd in the conference. They expected that much of Chris Mack and these Musketeers, even after the graduation of their two most experienced & productive frontcourt players. It looked briefly as though this was a miscalculation. Xavier never lost back to back games last season. This year, they dropped two in a row (on the road) to Baylor and Colorado before righting the ship against Utah. Talented though they may be, Edmund Sumner and Trevon Blueitt are still adapting to the absence of Myles Davis in the backcourt. The lack of effective rebounding across all positions nearly cost them a recent game against Wake Forest. Inconsistent execution on the offensive end prevents them from replicating the "step on the throat" second half mentality that previous Xavier teams have displayed. The Musketeers have the ability to iron out these wrinkles, and if they do, will challenge Villanova for top honors in the conference. Sumner is also frustrated that he is shooting a mere 30% from 3-point range at the moment, but somehow one imagines that his aim will be magically remedied against the Hoyas on New Year's Eve as 2016 takes a final shot at us all...


We’ll keep the train rolling later this afternoon with a survey of the remaining four teams. Until then, good luck with the slow transition back from holiday food coma to marginally functional adult human.

Happy (belated) Boxing Day!