The Villanova Wildcats are the only school representing the Big East in preseason top-25 polls and are virtually unanimous favorites to win the conference, and for good reason.
Jay Wright only loses guard James Bell and back up point guard Tony Chennault from his 29-win but ultimately disappointing team from a year ago. Darrun Hilliard, Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart will be the key cogs in perhaps the conference's best back court while impact forward JayVaughn Pinkston and the rapidly improving Daniel Ochefu are back again to solidify Wright's frontcourt.
Villanova returns most of its key players from a team that was a mainstay in the college basketball top-25 last season and proved their worth against every school that they faced not named Creighton during their regular season. Building on their top-100 non-conference schedule strength from 2013-14, the Wildcats will run the gauntlet against VCU and Oregon/Michigan at the Legends Classic, a trio of December bouts with Big 5 opposition (Temple, La Salle, Saint Joseph's), Illinois in the JimmyV Classic, and a pre-Christmas clash with Syracuse. Factoring in that Villanova doesn't have to travel further than New York City (4x) until they trip to D.C. to take on Georgetown on January 19th, that is A-plus scheduling.
Roster subtractions: James Bell (14.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg , Tony Chennault (2.7 ppg, 1.8 apg)
Returnees to watch: Darrun Hilliard (14.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.6 apg), JayVaughn Pinkston (14.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Ryan Arcidiacono (9.9 ppg, 3.5 apg), Josh Hart (7.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg), Daniel Ochefu (5.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.5 bpg)
Key additions: Phil Booth (top-100 guard), Mikal Bridges (top-150 small forward)
Projected starting lineup: PG - Ryan Arcidiacono, SG - Darrun Hilliard, G - Josh Hart/Dylan Ennis, PF - JayVaughn Pinkston, C - Daniel Ochefu
It would appear that four starters positions are set while Josh Hart and Dylan Ennis will battle it out for time at the three to replace James Bell in Jay Wright's system. Peculiarly, Hart and Ennis finished with nearly identical three-point shooting numbers from last season, 26-83 and 25-83, respectively. Hart may have the edge right now after seeing more time down the stretch for the Cats last season and it would make sense if the non-starter of the two is the first guy off Wright's bench.
The next likely candidate to be used off of Villanova's bench is forward Kris Jenkins. Like Hart, the 6-foot-6 forward will prove a matchup problem when spelling Pinkston or Ochefu (Pinkston would slide to the five in this case) off the bench. Jenkins will battle with the taller and more post-worthy Daryl Reynolds as the two primary forwards off of Nova's pine. If Pinkston and Ochefu take their offensive production to the next level, that should work toward less reliance on the three-ball, which as Seton Hall fans saw in the Big East Tournament, can handicap a team if shots aren't falling.
In their perennially strong backcourt, top-100 freshman Phil Booth will take over the role of back up point guard for Tony Chennault as Ryan Arcidiacono and Darrun Hilliard will deservingly eat up most of the minutes in the traditional two guard roles. Both will need to pick up the slack left by James Bell's 85-229 (37%) showing from long range last season, which propelled Villanova to the 7th-highest 3PA/FGA ratio and 27th-highest percentage of points coming from beyond the arc.
Jay Wright has all the tools to bring home a Big East Championship this season, but improving upon a round of 32 exit in the NCAA tournament is ultimately the goal for Villanova. Guard play is usually the topic when discussing the Wildcats, but they also have arguably the best frontcourt pairing between JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu in the conference. On paper, only a capable Josh Smith and Mikael Hopkins at Georgetown would give them a run for their money. For these reasons and more, an intact core that won 29 games a season ago should be expected to receive the handing off of the baton from last year's squad and really sprint with it this time around.
For a look back at the rest of our Big East previews, check below:
- Will a Doug McDermott hangover relegate Creighton to the bottom-third of the conference?
- Providence has talented forwards, but Kris Dunn must take on a similar role to Bryce Cotton's
- Despite losses of Christon, Martin, and Philmore, there are high expectations for Xavier
- St. John's has an NCAA-caliber backcourt, will Chris Obekpa lead an inexperienced batch of forwards?
- 2014-15 looks to be a rebuilding year for Marquette after an exodus of talent and head coach Buzz Williams
- Will the Big East's best recruiting class and the return of Joshua Smith help Georgetown?
- Butler has a solid backcourt but questions at forward as they look to start season without Brandon Miller
- Losing Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young will have to be addition by subtraction for DePaul