Big East preview: A big March is needed to raise the league's stature

Big East preview: A big March is needed to raise the league's stature

Yahoo Sports will break down the top 10 leagues for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 10 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 7 league, the Big East.

In its debut season, the new Big East produced a formidable top 10 team in Villanova, the national player of the year in Creighton's Doug McDermott and a charming underdog story in Providence.

All that was missing was some success in March.

All four Big East teams that made the NCAA tournament failed to advance to the second weekend as Xavier fell in the play-in round to NC State, Providence lost to North Carolina in the round of 64 and both Creighton and Villanova endured upsets in the round of 32. The third-seeded Bluejays were run off the floor by Baylor in McDermott's final collegiate game and the a late surge by eventual national champion UConn toppled the Wildcats.

The team with the best chance of delivering the deep NCAA tournament run the Big East so badly needs this season is Villanova, which enters the season as the well-established favorite to defend its regular season title from a year ago. The Wildcats return four starters from a team that won 29 games last year and add a couple of promising freshmen.

Between ultra-efficient Big East player of the year candidate Darrun Hilliard, breakout threat Josh Hart, top freshman Phil Booth and former Rice transfer Dylan Ennis, Villanova shouldn't have much trouble absorbing the loss of last year's leading scorer James Bell at wing. That group and hard-nosed junior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono form a skilled backourt worthy of Villanova's reputation for producing guards.

The bigger concern for the Wildcats is a lack of frontcourt depth. Forward JayVaughn Pinkston should remain one of the Big East's premier interior scorers, but 6-foot-11 starting center Daniel Ochefu is the only true big man on the roster. If Ochefu gets in foul trouble or injuries strike, Villanova will need 6-foot-6 sophomore Kris Jenkins or 6-foot-8 Darryl Reynolds to step up.

There's no clear-cut top challenger to Villanova this season in the Big East's second tier, but a handful of teams are capable of emerging in that role.

Georgetown could evolve into a potential Top 25 team if it can find enough scorers to complement Big East player of the year candidate D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera. Guard Jabril Trawick finished strong last season after recovering from a broken jaw. Immensely talented but seldom consistent Josh Smith should provide an interior focal point as long as the former UCLA transfer is in good enough shape to run the floor 20-25 minutes per game. 

St. John's might be the most talented team in the Big East, but it's always difficult to predict whether Steve Lavin will be able to harness that talent to form a cohesive team. D'Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan could form the Big East's most dynamic backcourt if the high-scoring Harrison can improve his dismal 38 percent shooting and the ultra-talented Jordan can become a more reliable perimeter shooter and can cut back his turnovers. The frontcourt is a concern, but the return of Chris Obekpa gives the Johnnies an imposing defensive presence in the middle.

Xavier has a chance to contend if freshman Trevon Bluiett and Indiana transfer Remy Abell provide some perimeter scoring to complement big man Matt Stainbrook and make up for the loss of leading scorer Semaj Christon. Providence could also be a threat if Kris Dunn can finally stay healthy enough to shore up the point guard position and help out returning standouts LaDontae Henton and Tyler Harris. Heck, even under-the-radar Marquette has NCAA tournament potential if the addition of BYU transfer Matt Carlino and redshirt freshman Duane Wilson gives its backcourt much-needed firepower.

Throw in a Butler team that gets Roosevelt Jones back and a Seton Hall team adding the league's best recruiting class, and there are as many as eight teams who enter the season with realistic NCAA tournament hopes.

What the Big East needs is for Villanova to be as good as advertised, for a couple challengers to emerge and above all else, for the league to have the March success that proved elusive last season. 

MAKING A LIST

More from Yahoo Sports' 2014-15 Season Preview:

Oct. 3: Eight key questions as practice begins
Oct. 6Preseason Top 25 with best-case and worst-case scenarios
Oct. 7: WCC Preview: Newcomers may tighten Gonzaga's grip on the league
Oct. 8: To become a more well-rounded player, Kyle Wiltjer changed his body and his game
Oct. 9: Ranking the 15 transfers who can make the biggest impact
Oct. 10: A-10 Preview: As VCU ascends, much of the league rebuilds
Oct. 13: Atoning for last March's costly gaffe drives VCU's JeQuan Lewis.
Oct. 14: Ten freshmen who will make the biggest impact
• Oct. 15: Mountain West Preview: Who will emerge to challenge San Diego State?
• Oct. 16:
Cody Doolin could be the ideal antidote to what has ailed UNLV
• Oct. 20: Ten coaches under the most pressure to win this season
• Oct. 21: Big East Preview: To raise its stature, the league needs a big March

Best shooter: Darrun Hilliard, Villanova. Timid and unsure of himself as a freshman, Hilliard rolled up his sleeves and went to work to make himself into a better shooter and a more well-rounded player. The result was steady improvement as a sophomore and a colossal upsurge last season when Hilliard averaged 14.3 points per game and shot 48.6 percent from the field and 41.4 percent from behind the arc. Hilliard should have every chance to meet or exceed those numbers this season with James Bell having graduated and Villanova leaning even more on him for perimeter scoring.
Best playmaker: Dee Davis, Xavier. The steady senior point guard has been a fixture in Xavier's starting lineup the past two years despite never averaging more than 8.2 points per game. The reason is Davis takes care of the ball, sinks timely jump shots, defends the opposing team's top scoring guard and finds teammates for easy baskets. Davis averaged 4.7 assists per game last season, the second most in the Big East behind graduated Providence star Bryce Cotton.
Best defender: Chris Obekpa, St. John's. Only a couple weeks after announcing he intended to transfer last April, Obekpa had a change of heart. The 6-foot-9 center decided returning to St. John's was his best option, a fortunate break for a Johnnies program that couldn't afford to lose him with Orlando Sanchez graduating and JaKarr Sampson turning pro. Obekpa's playing time evaporated late last season because he's not much of a scoring threat, but the premier shot blocker still averaged a ridiculous 6.83 blocks per 40 minutes.
Top NBA prospect: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall. The centerpiece of Seton Hall's best recruiting class in years is a 6-foot-4 combo guard ranked No. 16 in Rivals.com's Class of 2014 ratings. Whitehead will inherit Seton Hall's starting shooting guard position from Fuquan Edwin and should pile up the points right away thanks to his ability to score off the dribble or via pull-up jumpers. He isn't the most consistent player and he sometimes takes ill-advised shots, but the Pirates will have to live with that because they need his offense after losing three of last year's four top scorers.
Best backcourt:
Villanova. Just like previous top-notch Villanova teams, the Wildcats will be driven by their guards. Ryan Arcidiacono will never be an elite shooter at point guard, but the junior continued to make an impact with his hustle and clutch buckets while increasing his shooting percentage and lowering his turnover numbers. And at wing, Villanova boasts a wealth of options despite the graduation of leading scorer James Bell. Sharpshooting Darrun Hilliard is a Big East player of the year threat if he builds on his rapid improvement from last season, while sophomore Josh Hart should get the first crack at the vacant starting spot. Freshman Phil Booth and former Rice transfer Dylan Ennis also should contribute. 
Best frontcourt: Providence. If one key for the Friars is former McDonald's All-American Kris Dunn finally staying healthy at point guard, the other is the Friars' frontcourt performing up to expectation. Versatile 6-foot-6 forward LaDontae Henton should inherit the role of go-to scorer from Cotton after a season in which he averaged 14.3 points per game and finished second in the Big East in rebounding at 7.8 per game. Six-foot-9 double-double threat Tyler Harris can score at all three levels and has worked hard all offseason to evolve from an X-factor into a big man who can be counted on to produce consistently. Veteran Carson Derosiers and freshman Ben Bentil should provide frontcourt depth.
Best recruiting class: Seton Hall. Though five-star wing Isaiah Whitehead is the most decorated member of Seton Hall's banner 2014 class, there are several other potential impact players. Dominican native Angel Delgado is a late-blooming 6-foot-8 forward who emerged as a consensus top 75 prospect due to his incredible rebounding ability. Undersized power forward Desi Rodriguez is an undersized but athletic power forward who needs to develop an outside shot to go with his interior game, while shooting guard Khadeen Carrington is a scorer who's most effective attacking the rim.
Coach on the rise: Steve Wojciechowski, Marquette. Even though Wojciechowski has yet to coach a game at Marquette and likely lacks the frontcourt talent to achieve much in his first season, the former Duke assistant still has planted seeds for future success. He has landed a star-studded 2015 recruiting class highlighted by consensus five-star power forward Henry Ellenson and three other Rivals 150 recruits. That class should help Wojciechowski reinvigorate a Marquette program that endured a rare down season in Buzz Williams' final year. Marquette went 17-15 last season, terminating the program's eight-year streak of making the NCAA tournament.
Coach on the hot seat:
Oliver Purnell, DePaul. DePaul has shown patience with Purnell so far, but it has to be running out. In the four years since he left Clemson to try to resuscitate the Blue Demons program, Purnell has a 9-57 record in Big East play and has never finished better than a tie for last in the league. Last year, DePaul started 13 different players on its way to a 12-21 finish as leading scorer Cleveland Melvin left school after getting suspended and top freshman Billy Garrett Jr. battled health issues. Purnell desperately needs to show progress this season, but any resurgence will likely be because of Garrett and a wave of newcomers from the junior college ranks. 

FACTS AND FIGURES

New coaches:Steve Wojciechowski, Marquette; Chris Holtmann, Butler (Interim)
Regular-season winner last season:Villanova
Tourney winner last season:Providence
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2013-14: 4th, 3rd: 1st, 2011-12: 2nd
NCAA bids the past three years: 21 (Villanova 2, Georgetown 2, Marquette 2, Syracuse 2, Louisville 2, Cincinnati 2, Notre Dame 2, UConn, Pittsburgh, Providence, Creighton, Xavier, West Virginia, South Florida)

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!