As the countdown begins to the start of the 2019-20 college basketball season on Nov. 5, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation's top leagues. We begin with the Big East, where the Villanova Wildcats will begin a defense of their fifth regular-season title in the past six years, albeit in a league that has recently been one of the nation's toughest gantlets from top to bottom:
We've reached a stage where Villanova gets rubber-stamped as the No. 1 pick in the Big East annually, but if we forced you to ID Villanova's potential fatal flaw and pick another team to win the league, what would you say?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: Since the 2016 national title run, Villanova has produced eight NBA players (six draft picks, plus undrafted Ryan Arcidiacono, who played 81 games for the Chicago Bulls last season, and Phil Booth who is with the Washington Wizards) -- its fatal flaw is a lack of next-level, veteran talent. Now, the young players on this roster could evolve into pros, but you can't tell the Nova story without admitting that the Wildcats have been one of college basketball's most talented and experienced programs for the last four years.
I'm picking Seton Hall because the Pirates have the experience we're accustomed to seeing on Jay Wright's roster. Myles Powell's return along with the bulk of the key contributors from last year's 20-win squad is a formula for a Big East title.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Villanova relied heavily on Booth and Eric Paschall, and now both are gone -- without any ready-made stars in place to fill their shoes. Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels will have to step forward, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl will have to make an immediate impact as a freshman.
If it's not Villanova, the pick has to be Seton Hall. The Pirates return pretty much everyone from a year ago and add Florida State transfer Ike Obiagu, one of the nation's best shot-blockers. There are some questions about how they will consistently score outside of Powell, but Kevin Willard's team is best-positioned to make a run at the Wildcats.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: The rubber stamp was actually incorrect (gasp!) two years ago when Xavier won the league outright, but, yeah, all Villanova did that season was to go on to win the national title. So, basically, the stamp is pretty smart, but if I must disagree, I'll go with Marquette. Yes, the Hausers transferred, but it seems like what people still aren't getting is just how good this defense was last season.
As for Villanova, its fatal flaw, relatively speaking, is youth, or at least what qualifies for youth in Jay Wright's system. That was the culprit last season when the Wildcats lost back-to-back games at home to Michigan and Furman. True, that youthful team was still good enough to go on to win a Big East that didn't place any teams in the NCAA tournament higher than the No. 5 line. Expect more of the same this season: Wright has lost Paschall and Booth, but I suspect the combination of Wright, Collin Gillespie, a couple other veterans and a really nice recruiting class may still be enough to win this 2020 Big East. But no, it's not a 2016- or 2018-vintage Nova.
Which team in this league (not mentioned in the first question above) do you think can surprise people?
Medcalf: Georgetown finished the regular season with a 4-2 mark in its last six games. That's not an inflated rally -- the Hoyas beat Villanova, Marquette and Seton Hall during that stretch. They made 37 percent of their 3-pointers in Big East play, and if they can correct their defensive woes (opponents made nearly half of their shots inside the arc), Georgetown could finish strong in Patrick Ewing's third year and build on last year's 19-win campaign.
Gasaway: How about Creighton? The Bluejays were superior, in per-possession terms, to Seton Hall in (analytically convenient round-robin) Big East play last season, and everyone seems pretty revved up about the Pirates. No, Greg McDermott doesn't have Myles Powell, and he doesn't bring back quite as much experience as what's Kevin Willard's returning. But the key word here is "surprise." Ty-Shon Alexander, Davion Mintz and Mitch Ballock are back, and CU, per usual, projects as a group that will make its shots. Heck, if this defense forces an occasional miss inside the arc and the offense decides to attempt anything close to a league-average number of shots, look out.
Borzello: I think there are seven teams in the Big East capable of making the NCAA tournament and even pushing for a spot in the top 25 at some point in the season. With Myron and John taking Georgetown and Creighton, I'll go with Providence.
Ed Cooley returned to the Friars after flirting with the vacant Michigan job and also brings back all five starters. More importantly, they add UMass graduate transfer Luwane Pipkins -- who will likely see his scoring numbers decrease as he adapts to more of a pure point guard role. But what he allows Cooley to do is play A.J. Reeves and David Duke with more freedom, almost entirely off the ball. And that's not even discussing Alpha Diallo, a first-team all-conference-caliber player. This team is going back to the NCAA tournament.
You can pick one player from this league to win you a game. Who ya got -- Marquette's Markus Howard, Seton Hall's Myles Powell or 'other'?
Borzello: Markus Howard. Listen, I love Myles Powell, and some of his personal runs late in the season were out of this world, but I think the tiebreaker is simply the fact that Howard is better from behind the arc and better from the free throw line. Howard will run off screens, he'll run off pin-downs, he simply finds ways to get open -- and then he's deadly if he gets any sort of space. He shot better than 40 percent from 3 and missed a total of 13 free-throws in Big Easy play. Oh, and he'll also find open guys if teams run two or three guys at him. I just trust him a little bit more than Powell late in the clock.
Medcalf: Oh, give me Markus Howard all day. Yeah, I know. He went 5-for-23 from the 3-point line in two NCAA tournament games last season, demonstrating the ways his ambitious style can cost his team. But he gets the rock in that situation. Every time. He was a 40 percent 3-point shooter and he connected on 89 percent of his free throw attempts during the 2018-19 season. He's the best player in the league and he loves those moments.
Gasaway: I'll toss Butler's Kamar Baldwin into this hero-ball mix just to spice things up. Pay no mind to that dismal 3-point shooting last season from the veteran Bulldog. A career 80 percent mark on free throws (85 percent in 2018-19) says that won't last. Plus Baldwin's pretty much always been trusty on his 2s. I say Kamar will hit from far. Give him the rock, Coach LaVall Jordan!
Who's going to be the final Big East team playing this season?
Borzello: It's the easy option, but I'm picking Villanova to win the league, and I think the Wildcats will be hitting their stride late in the season.
Early returns out of the Main Line say that Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels are growing into their roles as experienced options, while Collin Gillespie is back for another year at the point. I love Jeremiah Robinson-Earl up front and think he has a chance to be the best freshman in the league. The X factor is Bryan Antoine. One of the best scorers in the 2019 high school class, he underwent shoulder surgery before the summer, which could delay his early-season impact. But it wouldn't be a surprise to see him develop into the go-to-guy for Jay Wright by the time March rolls around.
Offense has rarely been an issue for Villanova under Wright, and the defensive specifics the Wildcats teach will be easier with the young guys from last season now a year older. It's a second-weekend NCAA tournament team.
Gasaway: Seton Hall. I like the Pirates' chances to nab one of those sneakily advantageous seeds in the Nos. 8 to 9 slot. No feisty mid-major opponents with double-digit seeds there, just talented but desultory underperformers from the major conferences. Easy pickings and a relatively safe ticket to the round of 32. Plus I suspect Powell will have means, motive and opportunity to go out with a bang, a la Carsen Edwards.
Medcalf: The value of coaching is magnified in the postseason. I like Kevin Willard's squad, but he still hasn't found a way to reach the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. I think, especially with the right draw, a Villanova team that's grown throughout the course of the regular season could be the last Big East team standing. Wright always has a chance. Here's a stat: he's coached six consecutive teams that have finished within the top-25 of Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings.
Big East 2019-20 predicted order of finish
Big East 2019-20 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Markus Howard, Marquette
Borzello: Markus Howard, Marquette
Gasaway: Markus Howard, Marquette
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Luwane Pipkins, Providence
Borzello: Omer Yurtseven, Georgetown
Gasaway: Koby McEwen, Marquette