Big East men’s basketball preview: Shaka Smart, Marquette ready to overtake defending national champs

The 2023-24 men’s college basketball season begins on Nov. 6. Come back each day this week as we break down the biggest conferences, teams and more leading up to the season. Check out our previews on the Big 12, the ACC, the Big Ten and the SEC.

Normally, the focus would be on last year’s defending national champion.

Honestly, maybe it should be here.

Yet Shaka Smart’s team at Marquette seems to have totally outshined UConn headed into the 2023-24 season in the Big East — which, when you see what the Huskies have, is incredibly impressive. Creighton, and maybe even Villanova and Rick Pitino’s St. John’s team could make some noise in the conference down the stretch, too.

With at least two very real national title contenders in the conference, the Big East is ready to run it back.

Ranked Big East Teams

No. 5 Marquette

No. 6 UConn

No. 8 Creighton

No. 22 Villanova

Others Receiving Votes: St. John’s (47), Xavier (8)

Odds via BetMGM

UConn +2000

Marquette +2000

Creighton +3000

Villanova +3500

Shaka Smart, Marquette starting with highest ranking in decades

Shaka Smart has gone on a few remarkable runs throughout his coaching career.

It’s time for another.

Smart has completely turned Marquette’s basketball program around in just two seasons at the helm in Milwaukee. He earned Coach of the Year honors last season after getting the Golden Eagles to a 29-7 record, though they were knocked out in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Smart is now ready to run it back. The Golden Eagles earned the No. 5 ranking in the first Top 25 poll of the season, which was the program’s highest mark since the 1977-78 season. Tyler Kolek is back and earned preseason All-American honors after averaging 12.9 point and 7.5 assists per game last season, where he earned the Big East’s Player of the Year award.

Kolek is one of four upperclassmen starters back this season for Marquette. The league’s reigning sixth man of the year David Joplin will fill out that starting lineup after he averaged 9.2 points off the bench.

The Golden Eagles have a solid non-conference slate ahead of them, including early games against No. 25 Illinois, UCLA, Wisconsin and No. 18 Texas. They’ll also have to fend off both UConn and Creighton, which is no easy task.

While they’ve not made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament in just more than a decade, Smart’s group should be looking ahead to what would be their second national championship next spring. That’s an absolutely obtainable goal for his experienced group.

“I think the experiences that we’ve had, it makes these guys carry themselves a little bit differently,” Smart . “Whether it’s winning or a tough loss like the Michigan State game [in the NCAA tournament], there’s a level of understanding that you gain from those experiences that these guys have that they didn’t have last year.”

Dan Hurley on quest for second straight title

While they are the reigning champions, UConn is flying a bit under the radar entering the season.

Well, as much as a team can when it starts the fall ranked No. 6 in the country.

The Huskies, who flew to a 17-point win over San Diego State to win the program’s fifth national championship in April, was picked to finish third in the Big East this season behind Marquette and Creighton. They’re bringing back just two starters from last year’s team this fall with fifth-year senior Tristen Newton and Alex Karaban. Newton put up 10.1 points per game last season while shooting a career-high 36.6% from the 3-point line, and Karaban — who earned preseason all-conference honorable mention honors — put up 9.3 points and 4.5 rebounds last season.

UConn also has 7-foot-2 center Donovan Clingan, who could very easily be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft next summer. Hurley also brought in five-star recruit Stephon Castle, who was the No. 10 best player in his class. Castle is the “most physically ready freshman” Hurley has ever seen, and could be a dangerous addition.

But it’s easy to question how good the Huskies will be this season after losing Jordan Hawkins, Adama Sanogo and Andre Jackson Jr. to the NBA Draft after they won their title.

While the doubt is there, Hurley isn’t paying any attention to what’s going on around him. He’s just focused on making his program the first to repeat as national champions in 17 years.

“It’s all a bunch of bull anyway,” Hurley . “It doesn’t matter. Jordan Hawkins wasn’t picked on an all-conference team last year and led us through a dominant run and was a lottery pick. We’re all about ball, all about pursuing championships. We’ll come into the season, maybe with more of a chip on our shoulder — maybe two chips — that’s why I think the program has been as successful as it’s been.”

Rick Pitino has made his return to the Big East.

Rick Pitino has made his return to the Big East. (Porter Binks/Getty Images) (Porter Binks via Getty Images)

What about Creighton, and Rick Pitino?

Greg McDermott has had Final Four quality teams over the past several seasons, yet they’ve always come up short.

He’s still got 7-foot-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner, who has dominated in the Big East in recent years and averaged almost 16 points per game last season. Guard Trey Alexander is back, too, and will help run the offense alongside Utah State transfer Steven Ashworth. They lost Ryan Nembhard to Gonzaga, however, and Arthur Kaluma left for Kansas State. The Blue Jays are nowhere as deep as they were last season, which could be an issue down the stretch.

But if things go right, don’t count McDermott’s group out. They’re fresh off an Elite Eight run, after all.

And oh yeah, Rick Pitino is back in the Big East. The longtime coach, who had been away from college basketball for years until he landed at Iona, will lead St. John’s this fall and attempt to revive that program — which has been to the tournament just three times in the past two decades. He’s got a long way to go, though, and the Red Storm already fell to Division II Pace University in an exhibition game.

Notable Early Games

All times ET | * Neutral site game

Nov. 13

Michigan at St. John’s | 6:30 p.m. | FS1 *

Xavier at No. 3 Purdue | 8:30 p.m. | FS1

Nov. 14

No. 5 Marquette at No. 25 Illinois | 8 p.m. | ESPN2

Iowa at No. 8 Creighton | 10 p.m. | FS1

Nov. 17

Butler at No. 4 Michigan State | 6:30 p.m. | FS1

Maryland at No. 22 Villanova | 8:30 p.m. | FS1

Nov. 19

No. 6 UConn at Indiana | 1 p.m. | ESPN *

Nov. 20

UCLA at No. 5 Marquette | 11:30 p.m. | ESPN 2 *

Nov. 22

Texas Tech at No. 22 Villanova | 2:30 p.m. | TBD *

Nov. 23

No. 10 FAU at Butler | 2:30 p.m. | ESPN2 *

Seton Hall at No. 21 USC | 5:30 p.m. | FS1 *

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