And Darrun Hilliard looks like the league’s breakout star

By Michael McCarthy

Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats should be strong again in 2014-15, but with the departure of Doug McDermott, it’s not clear whether Creighton — or any other Big East team besides Villanova — can contend for a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament.

That being said, there’s no shortage of optimism to be found surrounding the Georgetown Hoyasand Seton Hall Pirates. Both programs will greet the new season armed with outstanding crops of freshmen. The league might struggle to equal the seeds it earned in the last NCAA tournament, but recording more than two tournament wins might prove to be a perfectly realistic goal.

Here’s a look ahead at the Big East in 2014-15:

Favorite: Villanova Wildcats

The Wildcats are the defending regular-season Big East champs, and, with the significant exception of James Bell (who excelled as a senior last season), Wright returns his entire rotation for 2014-15. Last season Villanova was very good on both sides of the ball, furnishing a rare instance of a perimeter-oriented team that also played lockdown defense in the paint. Both characteristics should continue. A nucleus of JayVaughn Pinkston, Darrun Hilliard, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu projects to show solid results on both offense and defense.

Sleeper: Xavier Musketeers

Semaj Christon chose to try his luck at the next level after his sophomore season, and my colleague, Chad Ford, says it’s possible the erstwhile Musketeer could go “in the second half of the first round” if the 6-foot-3 combo guard proves he has NBA point guard skills. There’s no denying Christon’s potential, but his college production might prove much easier to replace than people think. Matt Stainbrook, Myles Davis and Dee Davis all return, Indiana transfer Remy Abellwill be eligible and coach Chris Mack will welcome two top-100 recruits in the forms of Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner..

Player of the year: D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown Hoyas

I’d say that Smith-Rivera is poised for a breakout season in 2014-15, but the truth is I think he just had one. It might not have garnered much notice, but the Hoya guard’s sophomore campaign was highly impressive. Most significantly, Smith-Rivera upped his 3-point accuracy to 39 percent and drew many more fouls than he had as a freshman while also displaying true combo guard skills for the first time. And while D’Angelo Harrison is the lone returning member of the 2013-14 All-Big East first team, his 39 percent 2-point shooting as a junior makes me hesitate before handing him next season’s Big East POY honors. I’ll go with Smith-Rivera.

Freshman of the year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall Pirates

This came down to a race between Whitehead and Georgetown power forward Isaac Copeland. I’ll give the nod to Whitehead, however, simply because he’s billed as being ready to produce as a scoring guard right away. When Whitehead makes the short journey from New York City’s Lincoln High School to the Seton Hall campus, he might be accompanied by his high school coach, Dwayne “Tiny” Morton. Head coach Kevin Willard pledged to Whitehead that signing with the Pirates would result in Morton being hired as an assistant coach. “I wanted [Whitehead] to understand how committed we were,” Willard explained later.

At this writing, Morton still hasn’t officially accepted the job offer from Willard.

Breakout player: Darrun Hilliard, Villanova Wildcats

With Bell having wrapped up his eligibility, Hilliard might inherit some additional shots and responsibilities in the Villanova offense. That would be good news for Wildcats fans, because the 6-6 senior to-be is close to automatic from both sides of the arc. Hillard also posted Villanova’s best steal percentage as a junior. He sums up his team nicely, an unusual combination of shooting accuracy and tough D.

Team with highest ceiling: Georgetown Hoyas

Villanova’s returning veterans make the Wildcats the favorites, but John Thompson III has brought in the league’s best recruiting class. I’ve already mentioned incoming freshman Isaac Copeland. He’ll be joined by L.J. Peak and Paul White. That’s three top-40 recruits to add to a rotation that already features Smith-Rivera, Jabril Trawick and Joshua Smith. This is not likely to be a highly polished team early in the season, but if the freshmen develop and give Smith-Rivera some help on offense (and if 6-9 Mikael Hopkins can improve on his career 42 percent 2-point shooting) the Hoyas could surprise some people.

Team on the decline: Butler Bulldogs

Butler finished 14-17 in 2013-14, marking the program’s first losing season in nine years. With the return of Roosevelt Jones from the injured list, the Bulldogs should beat that record in 2014-15, but the “decline” of which we speak here is over the long term. And anyway, Jones alone won’t be the cure for BU’s poor perimeter shooting or very weak defensive rebounding. The “Butler Way” remains a real presence — Brandon Miller’s team never committed turnovers last season, and North Carolina State transfer Tyler Lewis will certainly provide a big lift when he becomes eligible in 2015-16. But whether the Bulldogs can compete on a consistent basis in the Big East remains an open question.

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