2018 Big East basketball preview

Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

One season after sending seven teams to the NCAA tournament, the Big East won't be as deep and balanced, but it might be more interesting from a national perspective.

There are three teams -- Villanova, Xavier and Seton Hall -- that are consensus top-25 teams in the preseason, while Providence also has a strong case to be included in that upper group.

The Big East has two things that not every league has: stars and experience. The league, arguably, has three of the top 10 players in the country in Villanova's Jalen Brunson, Xavier's Trevon Bluiett and Seton Hall's Angel Delgado.

Villanova doesn't have any scholarship seniors on its roster, but the Wildcats are always battle-tested. Meanwhile, Xavier has Bluiett and J.P. Macura leading a four-deep senior class, and Seton Hall and Providence both return four senior starters. In fact, eight of the 11 players named to the All-Big East first or second teams last season are back, along with five of the six members of the all-freshman team. Especially early in the season, that could make a difference when it comes to key nonconference wins.

The league likely won't have seven teams hear their names on Selection Sunday again, but it could have three or four teams playing into the second weekend.

Number of teams that should make the NCAA tournament: Four. The top four in the league form a tier of their own, with all four bona fide preseason top-25 teams. Villanova is the favorite in the league once again, but Xavier and Seton Hall have closed the gap, and Providence returns all five starters from its tourney team. After that, there isn't a lock in the group. St. John's has the talent but hasn't shown consistency, while Creighton, Marquette and Butler lost several pieces from tournament teams.

The player who will own the conference: Jalen Brunson, Villanova.

This was a close call among Brunson, Xavier's Bluiett and Seton Hall's Delgado, but we'll go with the best player on the best team. Brunson, the next star in the Villanova pipeline, has already proven himself to be one of the best point guards in the country. He was a unanimous All-Big East first-team selection last season and will now shoulder more of the scoring load with Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins graduating. Brunson averaged 14.7 points and 4.1 assists a year ago, performing at an efficient rate. He also shot better than 62 percent on 2-point shots. As the clear-cut leader on this season's team, Brunson's game will go to the next level.

The freshman you will want to tune in to see every time he plays: Omari Spellman, Villanova.

This is sort of cheating, given that Spellman is a redshirt freshman after sitting out due to academic reasons last season. He also isn't a highlight-reel player, but the 6-foot-9 big man brings a dimension to Villanova's offense that hasn't been there in a long time. Spellman is a legitimate go-to option with his back to the basket, but he also has soft touch out to the perimeter. Jay Wright's teams are always going to be built around the backcourt, but Spellman provides some balance.

Coach with the toughest job: Patrick Ewing, Georgetown.

It isn't even close. Ewing has a massive rebuilding job on his hands, made more difficult by the fact he has never been a head coach at any level and hasn't been involved in college basketball since he left Georgetown for the NBA in 1985. Georgetown won a combined 29 games the past two seasons and lost Rodney Pryor (18.0 PPG) and L.J. Peak (16.3 PPG) from last season's team. Moreover, Ewing got a late start on landing reinforcements for this season, but he did end up getting former Ole Miss signee JaMarko Pickett, an ESPN 100 prospect who flipped from the Rebels to Georgetown in July.

The team that will surprise you: St. John's.

It's cheating to pick any of the top four teams, so the team that will take the biggest jump from last season will be Chris Mullin's Red Storm. The talent certainly isn't the question. St. John's brings back one of the most dangerous backcourts in the country in Shamorie Ponds (17.4 PPG) and Marcus LoVett (15.9 PPG), with Bashir Ahmed (13.4 PPG) also returning. Two transfers should also make an impact, with Justin Simon (Arizona) and Marvin Clark (Michigan State) now eligible. The biggest questions will be rebounding and consistency.

The team that will disappoint you: Butler.

Yes, it's basically sacrilege to predict a step back for Butler, as the Bulldogs have missed the NCAA tournament just twice since 2007. But Chris Holtmann left the program in June to take the Ohio State job and took its best 2017 recruit, Kyle Young, with him to Columbus. Four of the top seven scorers from last season are also gone. In steps LaVall Jordan, who returns to his alma mater to hopefully continue the "Butler Way." But he has only one year of head-coaching experience under his belt: an 11-24 campaign last season at Milwaukee. Kelan Martin (16.0 PPG) and Kamar Baldwin (10.1 PPG) are back to form a pretty good starting point, but Jordan has a tough task in year one.

The league title will come down to ...

Whether Villanova will skip a beat in its usual Big East dominance. The Wildcats have won four straight conference titles, going 63-9 in those four regular seasons. What separates them from everyone else is their ability to seamlessly replace departed stars. Wright has the pieces once again, with Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall ready for bigger roles. But any slip-ups in performance, and Xavier, Seton Hall and Providence are ready to pounce. Each of those contenders will start at least three or four seniors; they'll want to go out on top.