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Big East preview: Balance will be the hallmark of the debut season in this revamped league

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Marquette's Davante Gardner (Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports will break down the top 12 leagues for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 12 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 7 league, the Big East.

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For all the changes the Big East endured as a result of conference realignment, one thing about the new league's inaugural season will be reminiscent of years past.

The league title chase should be a lot of fun.

Every Big East team besides perpetually rebuilding DePaul enters year one in a new league with at least a glimmer of hope of reaching the NCAA tournament. Marquette, Georgetown and Creighton begin the season as the leading contenders to capture the Big East title, but guard-heavy Villanova and ultra-talented St. John's have dark horse potential, as do rapidly improving Xavier and Providence.

The strongest team from that group may be Marquette, which boasts a deep, experienced frontcourt and a wealth of young perimeter talent poised to help make up for the departure of leading scorer Vander Blue and fellow starters Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett.

Anchoring the frontcourt is senior Davante Gardner, an outstanding interior scorer who gets to the foul line consistently but must improve his conditioning to ensure he has the stamina to play more than the 21.5 minutes per game he managed last season. Versatile forwards Jamil Wilson and Steve Taylor and rim-protecting center Chris Otule will also contribute in the frontcourt, while juniors Todd Mayo and Derrick Wilson will be pushed for playing time by promising freshmen JaJuan Johnson and Duane Wilson in the backcourt.

Georgetown also lost its leading scorer in lottery pick Otto Porter and saw his potential replacement Greg Whittington suffer a potentially season-ending knee injury during the summer, but past history suggests overlooking the Hoyas would be foolish.

The backcourt will be a strength for Georgetown with Markel Starks and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera becoming the focal point of the Hoyas' offense and Jabril Trawick providing lockdown perimeter defense. More uncertain is the frontcourt, where Georgetown desperately needs UCLA transfer Josh Smith to be in good enough shape to provide consistent back-to-the-basket scoring without getting fatigued after two- or three-minute bursts the way he did with the Bruins.

Creighton could be the team who benefits if Marquette or Georgetown struggle to replace their departed stars.

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Optimism for the Bluejays centers around the return of All-American Doug McDermott and an experienced, skilled supporting cast headlined by playmaking point guard Grant Gibbs, jet-quick guard Austin Chatman and standout shooter Ethan Wragge. The big question for Creighton will be who can replace big man Greg Echenique, whose shot-blocking, rebounding and interior defense will be sorely missed.

The four teams chasing Marquette, Georgetown and Creighton all have the talent to crack the top three in the league.

Villanova returns four starters from an NCAA tournament team including standout forward JayVaughn Pinkston, but the Wildcats need to cut down their turnovers, improve their shot selection and knock down more 3-pointers to contend. St. John's has maybe the best individual talent in the league, but stars like D'Angelo Harrison and Jakarr Sampson did not translate into an efficient offense last season as the Johnnies displayed poor shot selection and were utterly anemic from behind the arc.

Maturity and experience may help Villanova and St. John's take a leap forward this season. Superior depth could be the difference maker for Xavier and Providence.

The no longer shorthanded Musketeers now have a far deeper supporting cast surrounding guard Semaj Christon, who all too often had to do everything to carry Chris Mack's team as a freshman. Providence too has more options with transfers Tyler Harris and Carson Desrosiers among those joining a nucleus that includes high-scoring Bryce Cotton, promising point guard Kris Dunn and interior double-double threat Kadeem Batts.

Those seven teams won't all make the NCAA tournament, of course. That's virtually impossible from a 10-team league. But in a revamped Big East that lacks a true dominant team in its inaugural season, outstanding depth and balance could translate into maybe five NCAA bids and one heck of a league title chase.

MAKING A LIST

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Creighton's Doug McDermott (Getty Images)

Best shooter: Ethan Wragge, Creighton. The best barometer for whether Creighton would win or lose last season wasn't Doug McDermott's scoring, Gregory Echenique's rebounding or Grant Gibbs' assists. It was Wragge's outside shooting. In Creighton's 27 regular season wins, Wragge shot 48.3 percent from behind the arc. That fell to 22 percent in the Bluejays' seven regular season losses. Wragge should again be a matchup problem for opposing big men because the 6-foot-7 forward could even see some time at center for the Bluejays with Echenique gone.
Best playmaker: Semaj Christon, Xavier. Forced to hunt for his own shot more often than he would have liked last season, Christon averaged 15.6 points per game as a freshman to lead undermanned Xavier to a better-than-expected season. The devastatingly quick Cincinnati native will still be Xavier's go-to scorer as a sophomore but he'll have a chance to distribute more often this season too thanks to the arrival of guards Myles Davis and Brandon Randolph and forwards Matt Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds.
Best defender: Chris Obekpa, St. John's. The nation's leading shot blocker last season was top-five NBA draft pick Nerlens Noel. The nation's third-leading shot blocker was Kansas star Jeff Withey. Wedged in between the two was Obekpa, a freshman who averaged 4.1 blocks per game despite playing only a modest 25.8 minutes per night. Obekpa's offensive game is still very raw, but the Nigeria native may be the nation's most feared rim protector this season thanks to his combination of quickness, instinct and tenacity.
Top NBA prospect: Semaj Christon, Xavier. From Creighton's Doug McDermott, to Georgetown's Joshua Smith, to the St. John's duo of Jakarr Sampson and Chris Obekpa, there are a handful of Big East players with NBA potential. The guy who may emerge as the best prospect of all of them by the end of this season is Christon, a point guard whose size, length, quickness and court vision intrigue NBA scouts. Christon spent the summer trying to improve his outside shot so teams can't play him to drive. If he makes progress in that area, he might be regarded as a top 20 pick by next spring.
Best backcourt: Georgetown. Questions about the Hoyas' frontcourt persist with Otto Porter in the NBA and Greg Whittington likely lost for the season, but nobody is doubting Georgetown's guard corps -- and for good reason. Senior Markel Starks shot over 40 percent from 3-point range last season, sophomore D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera averaged 11.1 points per game in Big East play as a freshman and junior Jabril Trawick is a physical defensive stopper who embraces his role and complements his fellow guards perfectly.
Best frontcourt: Marquette. Choosing between St. John's and Marquette for this category is difficult, but the edge goes to the Golden Eagles on experience. Incredibly, their top three frontcourt weapons are a senior, a fifth-year senior and a sixth-year senior. The senior is Davante Gardner, an outstanding interior scorer who excels at getting to the foul line but must improve his conditioning so he can play more than 21.5 minutes per game. The fifth-year senior is Jamil Wilson, a versatile forward likely to increase his role offensively this season. And the sixth-year senior is team leader Chris Otule, a formidable defender who spells Gardner when he needs a blow but may also play alongside him more this year.
Best recruiting class: Marquette In need of a recruiting class capable of immediately helping to absorb the loss of Vander Blue, Trent Lockett and Junior Cadougan, Buzz Williams delivered in a big way. His five-man class was ranked No. 9 nationally by Rivals.com and includes top 75 perimeter players JaJuan Johnson (SG), Duane Wilson (PG) and Deonte Burton (SF), all guys who can attack the rim and play with the effort and tenacity Williams values. A stress fracture for Wilson will keep him from earning Marquette's starting point guard job for now, but Johnson and Burton will have the chance to contribute quickly.
Coach on the rise: Ed Cooley, Providence. A shoulder injury to Kris Dunn and the ineligibility of Ricky Ledo kept Providence from doing more than going .500 in the Big East last year, but make no mistake, the Friars are going to be a factor in this league before long. Ledo's departure for the NBA hurts, but Dunn will join Bryce Cotton to form a potent backcourt, Kadeem Batts is an efficient interior threat and reinforcements arrive in the form of transfers Tyler Harris (NC State) and Carson Desrosiers (Wake Forest) and four-star freshman wing Brandon Austin. Providence has definite sleeper potential in the Big East this season. And if this isn't the year the Friars emerge, next year may be because three more top 100 recruits are slated to arrive.
Coach on the hot seat: Oliver Purnell, DePaul. Though he arrived in Chicago with a reputation for revitalizing moribund basketball programs, Purnell hasn't experienced much success at DePaul. He's 6-48 in Big East play in three seasons with the Blue Demons. It's possible DePaul remains patient with Purnell given his contract and track record, but school officials would surely like to see some semblance of progress this season, especially with senior leaders Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young in their final year in the program.

FACTS AND FIGURES

New coaches: Brandon Miller (Butler)
Regular-season winner last season: Georgetown, Louisville and Marquette
Tourney winner last season: Louisville
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: N/A (Essentially a new league)
NCAA bids the past three seasons: Teams from the new Big East have earned 15 bids during that stretch (Georgetown 3, Marquette 3, Creighton, 2, Butler 2, Villanova 2, Xavier 2, St. John's)

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