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Villanova has clear challenger with Big East play set to open

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Big East play opens Friday, three weeks earlier than usual. It kicks off with Villanova playing host to Georgetown and St. John’s visiting Seton Hall in the far more intriguing game of the two.

Here are five storylines to watch this conference season:

COVID-19 Impact

Eight Big East teams have already entered a pause for positive tests. Connecticut is in its second shutdown. DePaul has yet to play a game. Butler has played just one. By Sunday, St. John’s, due to opponents being impacted by the virus, will have played five consecutive games that were not initially scheduled. The league still prefers its travel model over a bubble, but a bubble is still on the table if warranted. Prediction: At some point, the Big East will go into some form of a bubble for a short period of time, possibly in February when students return to campus, if not sooner.

UConn’s return

The Huskies looked like a NCAA Tournament team for most of their win over USC at the Mohegan Sun bubble on Dec. 3. Then the virus resurfaced. When UConn returns, it will have to jump back into league play, a major challenge. Fortunately, sophomore James Bouknight has the makings of one of the best young guards in the country and coach Dan Hurley has one of the deepest front courts in this league.

The challenger for Villanova

Creighton is capable of winning the league. It is again loaded at the offensive end, averaging 82 points per game, ranked eighth in the country and nearly won at Kansas this week before falling a point short. Marcus Zegarowski is one of the premier point guards in the country and Memphis transfer Antwann Jones is instant offense off the bench. The smart money, though, is still with the No. 9 Wildcats, who have already won at Texas and defeated Arizona State at Mohegan Sun, and possess the kind of depth even their national championship teams have lacked.

Big East
Creighton’s Antwann Jones makes a no-look pass.
AP

Local hopes

The non-conference season matched our preseason expectations for Seton Hall and St. John’s. The Pirates are tough, experienced and have one of the premier forwards in the country in Sandro Mamukelashvili. As long as Bryce Aiken (ankle) can produce upon returning from an ankle injury in a few weeks, and avoid any further injuries, they should go dancing for a fifth straight season. St. John’s has potential when it plays with pace and purpose, but is also inconsistent, expected for a young team that relies heavily on a sophomore (Julian Champagnie) and freshman (Posh Alexander). Look for the Johnnies to pull a few upsets, but also lose a few games they should win. They’re likely a year away from truly breaking through.

A Cincinnati surprise

Xavier was picked by Big East coaches to finish seventh. The Musketeers are the first team in the country to go 7-0 and they have quality wins over Cincinnati and Oklahoma. Sophomore forward Zach Freemantle of Teaneck, N.J., is playing like a star, averaging 18.7 points and 8.0 rebounds, and Gardner-Webb transfer Nate Johnson is shooting an obscene 57.9 percent from deep. Still, the Musketeers have yet to leave Cincinnati. That will change with a Saturday visit to Providence.

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