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Nyatawa: Villanova and Creighton are the preseason favorites in the Big East
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Nyatawa: Villanova and Creighton are the preseason favorites in the Big East

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Point guard Marcus Zegarowski, right, is one of four returning starters for a Creighton team that shared the Big East title last season.

Coach Greg McDermott said he took two trips in July to visit in-person with the two Creighton players who were, at the time, still weighing their options.

He wanted to make sure Denzel Mahoney and Damien Jefferson understood how important they would be to the Bluejays’ 2020-21 squad if they decided to wait one more year before turning pro. McDermott met with Mahoney in Las Vegas, then Jefferson in Chicago.

Both players revealed Aug. 1 that they’d be returning to CU — decisions that suggest they also see the potential next season for a veteran-filled squad that shared its first Big East crown last year.

“With everybody mainly coming back,” Jefferson said. “I feel like we’ve still got a strong enough team to come back next year and do the same thing we did (last year).”

Villanova is the only other Big East squad that’ll emerge out of the college hoops offseason with a similar amount of returning firepower. That’s why the Wildcats and Bluejays look like the league’s two early frontrunners.

They have the fewest questions to answer, the fewest unknowns to solve.

They’ll both return four starters — which is a rarity in this sport, and a luxury in 2020 after the league’s extensive starpower drain. Only three of the conference’s top 15 point producers will return. DePaul and UConn are the only Big East squads that bring back their leading scorers.

So it’s hard to know what to expect.

Consider, too, that there’s no guarantee the sport will play this season in the wake of the ongoing pandemic. All options — from a subtly tweaked schedule, to a late start, to a conference-only bubble, to a full cancellation — appear to be on the table.

But if games are played, Creighton has the pieces in place to replicate its 2019-20 success, when it finished the year No. 7 in the AP Top 25 and clinched the top seed in the Big East tournament.

“Experience matters in college basketball,” McDermott said. “Obviously, we have a lot of it back, especially at the guard position.”

Here’s The World-Herald’s offseason Big East power rankings:

1. VILLANOVA

2019-20: 24-7, 13-5 (tied for first)

Final NET ranking: 13th

Rotation players lost: Saddiq Bey (22.0% of scoring)

Starters returning: Four

Centerpiece: Collin Gillespie, 15.1 ppg in 2019-20

2020 recruiting class ranking: NR

Key additions: Transfer guard Caleb Daniels, redshirt freshman forward Eric Dixon

Big question: What’s the next stage of development for Jermaine Samuels? He has guardlike skills in a 6-foot-7 frame, and could be a mismatch nightmare. But Samuels hoists up a lot of jumpers. Last year, he ranked first among qualified Big East players in 2-point field goal percentage (64.7%), according to Ken Pomeroy’s data. Yet half of Samuels’ shots came from behind the 3-point line, where he made 27.6%. He’ll surely improve, but how much?

2. CREIGHTON

2019-20: 24-7, 13-5 (tied for first)

Final NET ranking: 11th

Rotation players lost: Ty-Shon Alexander, Kelvin Jones (25.0% of scoring)

Starters returning: Four

Centerpiece: Marcus Zegarowski, 16.1 ppg

2020 recruiting class ranking: 31st (247)/47th (Rivals)

Key additions: Transfer wing Antwann Jones, junior center Jacob Epperson, freshman center Ryan Kalkbrenner, freshman guard Rati Andronikashvili

Big question: Who takes over as Creighton’s lockdown defender? The Jays’ most effective defensive game plans the past few years have required the neutralization of the opponent’s top scoring threat. Alexander handled things last year. Khyri Thomas before him. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be a one-man job. CU has several versatile, long-armed and instinctive athletes. But Creighton will need to craft a new approach to contain perimeter playmakers.

3. PROVIDENCE

2019-20: 19-12, 12-6 (fourth)

Final NET ranking: 37th

Rotation players lost: Alpha Diallo, Luwane Pipkins, Maliek White, Kalif Young, Emmitt Holt (58.4% of scoring)

Starters returning: Two

Centerpiece: David Duke, 12.0 ppg

2020 recruiting class ranking: 88th/T-86th

Key additions: Transfer guard Jared Bynum, transfer forward Noah Horchler, freshman forward Jyare Davis

Big question: Who plays point guard? Duke is capable of running the offense — he did at times last year. But if the Friars can remove some of the playmaking pressure off Duke and A.J. Reeves, that talented duo could settle in on the wings and place a lot of stress on a defense. It seems likely that Bynum will emerge as the team’s floor general, but he’s a transfer who still has adjustments to make. That said, he showed potential during one year at St. Joseph’s, and he spent a year learning Providence’s system as a redshirt.

4. UCONN

2019-20: 19-12, 10-8 (tied for fifth in American)

Final NET ranking: 60th

Rotation players lost: Christian Vital, Alterique Gilbert (37.1% of scoring)

Starters returning: Three

Centerpiece: James Bouknight, 13.0 ppg

2020 recruiting class ranking: 23rd/24th

Key additions: Transfer guard R.J. Cole, freshmen forwards Adama Sanogo, Andre Jackson and Javonte Brown-Ferguson

Big question: How do the Huskies adjust to a new league? Granted, the return to the Big East feels like it’ll take the form of a homecoming celebration for UConn. But the rest of the league sees this year as an opportunity to humble a rebuilding blue blood. There’s a target on the Huskies’ backs. Plus, their coaching staff will have the challenge of scouting a new conference. But you know UConn will be highly motivated.

5. SETON HALL

2019-20: 21-9, 13-5 (tied for first)

Final NET ranking: 15th

Rotation players lost: Myles Powell, Quincy McKnight, Romaro Gill (55.7% of scoring)

Starters returning: Two

Centerpiece: Sandro Mamukelashvili, 11.9 ppg

2020 recruiting class ranking: 86th/70th

Key additions: Transfer guard Bryce Aiken, transfer guard Takal Molson, freshman guard Jahari Long

Big question: How do the Pirates pivot their schemes to feature the skills of Mamukelashvili? They’ll no longer play through Powell, who graduated. This is the Mamu show, which is intriguing. The versatile 6-11 forward averaged 15.1 points on 57.0% shooting (13 of 26 from 3-point range) during the final eight games last year. He considered entering the NBA draft but withdrew just ahead of the Aug. 3 deadline. Seton Hall’s glad to have him back but has to reorient a bit.

6. XAVIER

2019-20: 19-13, 8-10 (tied for sixth)

Final NET ranking: 47th

Rotation players lost: Naji Marshall, Tyrique Jones, Quentin Goodin, Bryce Moore (54.3% of scoring)

Starters returning: Two

Centerpiece: Paul Scruggs, 12.7 ppg

2020 recruiting class ranking: 24th/28th

Key additions: Transfer Nate Johnson, freshmen guards Dwon Odom, C.J. Wilcher and Colby Jones

Big question: Can Xavier find some continuity on offense? The Musketeers never seemed to sustain a consistent rhythm last season. Their long-distance shooting woes didn’t help (their 31.2% from 3-point range was last in the league) but the issues ran deeper than that. The good news for Xavier, though, is that its program identity is rooted in its gritty defense and bullish dominance on the glass. It’s comfortable grinding out wins.

7. ST. JOHN’S

2019-20: 17-15, 5-13 (tied for eighth)

Final NET ranking: 62nd

Rotation players lost: LJ Figueroa, Mustapha Heron, Nick Rutherford (39.0% of scoring)

Starters returning: Three

Centerpiece: Julian Champagnie, 9.9 ppg

2020 recruiting class ranking: 79th/61st

Key additions: Transfer guard Vince Cole, freshmen guards Posh Alexander and Dylan Wusu

Big question: How different is Year 2 under coach Mike Anderson? The Red Storm made things difficult on opponents with their attacking mentality on defense and movement/pace on offense. But they finished 1-5 in games decided by five points or fewer in Big East play. They weren’t as sharp as they needed to be in crunch time. Perhaps another offseason of integration with Anderson’s system will help eliminate inconsistencies. They’re still working to add talent, though.

8. BUTLER

2019-20: 22-9, 10-8 (fifth)

Final NET ranking: 19th

Rotation players lost: Kamar Baldwin, Sean McDermott, Jordan Tucker, Henry Badley (61.9% of scoring)

Starters returning: Three

Centerpiece: Bryce Nze, 9.2 ppg

2020 recruiting class ranking: 42nd/30th

Key additions: Transfer guard Jair Bolden, freshmen guards Chuck Harris and Myles Tate, freshmen forwards JaKobe Coles and Scooby Johnson

Big question: How quickly can the newcomers settle in? There’s a youth movement overtaking the program; LaVall Jordan and his staff have been praised for reeling in a promising 2020 class. And they’ve already secured three more local pledges for 2021. The makeup of the team is going to be vastly different soon. But how long will the transition take? The remaining vets, who’ve previously served as auxiliary pieces, will have to carry the load while the underclassmen get their feet wet.

9. MARQUETTE

2019-20: 18-12, 8-10 (tied for sixth)

Final NET ranking: 26th

Rotation players lost: Markus Howard, Sacar Anim, Brendan Bailey, Jayce Johnson (67.3% of scoring)

Starters returning: Two

Centerpiece: Koby McEwen, 9.5 ppg

2020 recruiting class ranking: 21st/27th

Key additions: Transfer guard D.J. Carton, freshmen forwards Dawson Garcia, Justin Lewis and Oso Ighodaro

Big question: How do the Golden Eagles replace Howard? The electric guard dazzled for four years, setting the Big East scoring record. He was the focal point for every defensive game plan. But Howard is gone, and adjustments are needed. There could be a silver lining, perhaps — other players can showcase their potential without a ball-dominant scorer. But that’ll take time. There may be some growing pains.

10. DEPAUL

2019-20: 16-16, 3-15 (10th)

Final NET ranking: 86th

Rotation players lost: Paul Reed, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Devin Gage (37.5% of scoring)

Starters returning: Three

Centerpiece: Charlie Moore, 15.5 ppg

2020 recruiting class ranking: 116th/NR

Key additions: Transfer guards Ray Salnave and Brian Patrick, transfer forward Pauly Paulicap

Big question: Can DePaul learn how to win? Last year, it had a probable NBA draft pick (Reed), one of the best point guards in the league (Moore) and one of the conference’s top pro prospects in the 2021 cycle (Romeo Weems). And it still finished last. But this is a league where the urgency is always high and margin for error is low. You need talent to win, yes, but there’s a mental toughness — an unflappable willpower — required for survival. The Blue Demons haven’t adopted that yet.

11. GEORGETOWN

2019-20: 15-17, 5-13 (T-eighth)

Final NET ranking: 65th

Rotation players lost: Mac McClung, Omer Yurtseven, Terrell Allen, Jagan Mosely (54.0% of scoring)

Starters returning: One

Centerpiece: Jamorko Pickett, 10.2 ppg

2020 recruiting class ranking: 53rd/55th

Key additions: Transfer guards Jalen Harris and Don Carey, transfer forward Chudier Bile, freshman forward Jamari Sibley

Big question: How long will another rebuild take? The Hoyas were expecting a breakthrough right about now, not a reset. The program’s stature had been gradually ascending — until the middle of last season. Then came the transfers, the injuries and the tough losses. Coach Patrick Ewing is a Georgetown legend, so he’s earned a considerable amount of grace, but the Hoyas are five years removed from their last NCAA tournament berth. Progress is needed soon.

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