The Musketeers are Final Four good. Chris Mack has been to three Sweet 16s since taking over in 2009. This team, entering Big East play as the only remaining unbeaten in the conference, has the chance to go further this season. The Musketeers are deep, balanced and versatile. Only one player averages more than 30 minutes per game, while five players average between 10 and 14.7 points per game. The Musketeers start with a four-guard lineup (considering Trevon Bluiett a guard), but can play big when they insert sixth man James Farr into the lineup. Defensively, Xavier can switch it up, going from a man-to-man to a 1-3-1 zone with great length all around. Xavier looks like the best team in the Big East and has the chance to prove that in the first week, traveling to Villanova on New Year’s Eve before playing host to Butler on Jan. 2.
Frank Victores-USA TODAY SportsFrank Victores
Can run … and score! Butler is running and gunning. The Bulldogs are playing at a much faster pace and scoring a ton of points. Butler is rated seventh in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, the highest ranking in that category since 2007. Tyler Lewis, the N.C. State transfer, has helped push the tempo as the team’s new point guard. Butler’s offense has benefited from the ability to go small with Roosevelt Jones and Kelan Martin playing forwards alongside Andrew Chrabascz. Speaking of Martin, the sophomore is second to Kellen Dunham in scoring at 13.8 points per game. Martin is the sixth man. Butler opens league play with a pair of top-10 games: Providence (Dec. 31) and Xavier (Jan. 2).
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY SportsBrian Spurlock
Kris Dunn has been as advertised, but Ben Bentil has become a star. Kris Dunn entered the season as a Player-of-the- Year candidate and a nightly triple-double threat. So far this year he’s met those expectations, but heading into conference play, he’s not PC’s top scorer. That would be Ben Bentil, the Big East’s breakout star. The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging a conference-best 18.8 points and 8.0 boards per game for the Friars, recording three double-doubles. Bentil’s development as an all-conference-caliber big man has launched the Friars from a fringe NCAA tournament team to a top-15 team in the nation.
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY SportsMark L. Baer
The reigning champion will have no shortage of competition. Back in the preseason, Villanova was the only Big East team ranked in the Top 25. Heading into conference play, the Wildcats have some company in the AP poll. In fact, they’re looking up at Xavier, Butler and Providence. Villanova holds a 9-2 record, but those two losses came against ranked opponents. Poor shot selection led to poor 3-point shooting in a blowout loss to Oklahoma earlier this month. The Wildcats attempt the most 3-pointers out of any Big East team, however, they shoot a conference-low 32 percent. Rebounding was the issue against Virginia several weeks later, as the Cavaliers outrebounded the Cats 31-19. Villanova will need to correct those issues against Xavier, a great defensive and rebounding team, on New Year’s Eve.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY SportsEric Hartline
The Young and The Talented. After losing by 28 points at home to Iowa, Steve Wojciechowski decided his team did not need to wear its Jordan-sponsored apparel. For the past nine games, the Golden Eagles, coaches included, have wore plain white T-shirts and plain navy shorts for practices and pregame warmups. The results? Nine straight wins. A young roster, headlined by three freshmen in the starting five, will continue to go through growing pains. Henry Ellenson, one of the best freshmen in the country, headlines a young roster that includes fellow freshmen Haanif Cheatham and Traci Carter and sophomores Sandy Cohen III and Duane Wilson. Ellenson and frontcourt partner Luke Fischer lead the team in both scoring and rebounding.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY SportsJeff Hanisch
The Big East’s most dangerous team. Remember that loss to Long Beach State? Yeah, that seems like a long time ago. The Pirates have won eight of their last nine, including an overtime victory over a healthy Wichita State team. Seton Hall’s quartet of sophomores – Isaiah Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado – experienced the highs of last year’s start to conference play, picking up back-to-back wins over ranked opponents. But they also endured the lows: losing nine of 10 games to close out the 2014-15 season. The Pirates can finish in the top half of the league, but they’ll a few teams standing in their way. One of them will be Marquette, the team they play in the Big East opener on Dec. 30.
Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY SportsJim O'Connor
What to make of the Hoyas? Georgetown was expected to be near the top of the conference, contending with the likes of Villanova, Butler and Xavier. But the Hoyas begin Big East play with five losses, three of which were home losses to mid-major teams. The other two losses were to Duke and Maryland by a combined six points. So, maybe it’s wise not to rule out the Hoyas just yet. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is still one of the best players in the league, while Isaac Copeland is coming on as one of the more improved players. Given the Big East’s home-and-home schedule, the Hoyas will have ample chances to pad its resume. Of course, eight combined games against the likes of Xavier, Villanova, Butler and Providence could bury the Hoyas just like opponent’s 3-point shooting has done to them this season.
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY SportsJim Dedmon
The Bluejays can score, but can they defend? The Creighton lineup features three new faces: transfers Maurice Watson Jr. and Cole Huff and freshman wing Khyri Thomas. Rounding out the starting five is a healthy Isaiah Zierden and Geoffrey Groselle. That makes for a lineup that can certainly score, as almost all of them are averaging double figures. But the Bluejays will need to defend if they want to make a push up the standings. Entering league play, Creighton ranks ninth in the Big East in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Creighton is coming off a last-place finish last season. Half of the team’s 14 conference losses came by five points or less. Getting stops at the end of the game will be the difference between spending another year in the basement or contending for a top-5 finish.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY SporSteven Branscombe
Blue Demons still adjusting to Dave Leitao era 2.0. This is the first year of the second Dave Leitao era at DePaul. Leitao was the last coach to led the Blue Demons to the NCAA tournament (2004) but isn’t off to the start he had hoped when he was rehired in March. DePaul is 6-6 and ranks last in the conference in defensive efficiency, something Leitao and his staff wanted to improve on in Year 1. Yes, the Blue Demons lost by 22 to Arkansas Little Rock, but they enter Big East play coming off a win over No. 20 George Washington. Billy Garrett Jr. and Myke Henry should be able to keep games interesting, as they did last year. DePaul will begin Big East play against another team desperate for a good start, playing host to Georgetown on Dec. 30.
Matt Marton-USA TODAY SportsMatt Marton
Chris Mullin’s return has had its ups and (more) downs. It was obvious that Mullin’s homecoming would be an uphill battle. The Red Storm had 10 new players looking to replace 95 percent of the team’s scoring from a season ago. The Johnnies limp into Big East play on a three-game losing streak. The loss to undefeated South Carolina was preceded by home losses to Incarnate Word, which hadn’t beaten a Division I opponent all season, and NJIT. But there have been positives in Mullin’s first season. St. John’s played its best game against rival Syracuse, picking up an 84-72 victory. Also, the play of freshmen Federico Mussini, the team’s leading scorer, and Yankuba Sima, third in the nation in blocks, inspire optimism for the future of the program.