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2022-23 Villanova Big East schedule preview (Part 1): Butler, UConn, Creighton, DePaul

With a look at the non-conference opponents complete, we shift our attention to the Big East, starting with Butler, UConn, Creighton and DePaul.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Creighton vs Kansas Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Big East preview time. In this part we have the pre-season favorite, the team in Storrs, and two teams optimistic about laying a foundation in the Big East.

There’s a lot of talent in this preview and Villanova will be under pressure trying to come up with answers for some of these players.

Butler Bulldogs

Head Coach: Thad Matta (1st season as head coach, also coached Butler in 2000-2001)
Last Season’s Record: 14–19, 6–14 in the Big East
Key Returners: Chuck Harris (6-2, Jr., G), Jayden Taylor (6-4, So., G), Simas Lukosius (6-6, So., G/F)
Key Departures: Bo Hodges (6-5, G/F), Aaron Thompson (6-2, G), Bryce Nze (6-7, F) Bryce Golden (6-9, F)
Key Transfers/Newcomers: Eric Hunter Jr. (Transfer from Purdue 6-4, Gr., G), Jalen Thomas (Transfer from Georgia St. 6-10, Sr., F/C) Manny Bates (Transfer from N.C. St, 6-11, Gr., C) Ali Ali (Transfer from Akron 6-8, Sr., G/F)

Outlook: Thad Matta is back in college basketball and back at Butler as well. He coached Butler for one season in 2000-01. Matta left Ohio State in the summer of 2017 as health issues were affecting his ability to continue to coach. Before leaving Ohio State, Matta was one of the top coaches in college basketball. He won five Big Ten regular season titles and four Big Ten Tournament titles. He took the Buckeyes to their ninth and 10th Final Fours in program history.

Does Matta bring this level of success to Butler? He’s got to get Butler in the top half of the Big East first. Matta brought in some big time size to help do that.

Jalen Thomas transfers in from Georgia State and has averaged 8.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game the last two seasons. Even at 6-foot-10 he has a big frame and is improving as a rebounder. Manny Bates arrives at a long 6-11 after leaving N.C. State and is one of the best shot blockers in the country. Bates averages almost three blocks per game for his career. Butler will hope to get this production and more from their new big men as they ranked last in the Big East last season in rebounds per game. They also had the third worst rated defense in the Big East.

As much help as Butler needed up front, their season likely relies on the development of their returning trio. Chuck Harris, Jayden Taylor, and Simas Lukosius will be called upon to lead Butler this season.

Harris and Taylor are two guards that are both explosive and excel at getting to the rim, putting pressure on defenses. They will have to improve their pace of play and shot selection, especially with the limitations that the Butler offense will seem to have. They can’t afford to have possessions that end in forced shots with having an offense that will struggle at times.

Simas Lukosius is a natural playmaker and very creative off the ball. He will need to help Harris and Taylor get easy looks. Lukosius can break defenders down off the bounce and force help at will so we’ll see if Matta plays to this strength and lets Lukosius run a lot of the offense.

Connecticut Huskies

Head Coach: Dan Hurley (5th season as head coach)
Last Season’s Record: 23-10, 13-6 in the Big East — Lost in First Round of NCAA Tournament
Key Returners: Adama Sanogo (6-9, Jr., C), Andre Jackson Jr. (6-6, Jr., G/F), Jordan Hawkins (6-5, So., G)
Key Departures: R.J. Cole (6-1, G), Tyrese Martin (6-6, G), Isaiah Whaley (6-9, F) Tyler Polley (6-9, F), Jalen Gaffney (6-3, G), Akok Akok (6-9, F)
Key Transfers/Newcomers: Tristen Newton (Transfer from East Carolina 6-5, Sr., G), Hassan Diarra (Transfer from Texas A&M 6-2, Jr., G) Nahiem Alleyne (Transfer from Virginia Tech 6-4, Sr., G) Joey Calcaterra (Transfer from San Diego 6-3, Gr., G)

Outlook: This season in Storrs begins with Adama Sanogo and that’s as good as player to start with in the Big East. The coaches in the Big East think similarly, as they voted him Big East Preseason Player of the Year. Sanogo averaged 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks last season. These were all big jumps in production and we’re in for another jump from Sanogo this season.

The first thing that stands out when watching Sanogo is his hands. He catches the ball as well as a college big possibly can. It’s not just on clean post-up’s when he catches and makes a quick move. He excels at catching passes that might otherwise be turnovers or snagging offensive rebounds that would’ve just been a miss and end of possession. His soft touch makes him lethal around the rim and one of the elite finishers in college basketball.

Sanogo’s greatest strength is his fluidity for a big. He runs the floor like a wing and changes direction better than any big at the college level. This kind of movement makes him a face up mismatch for almost any big that tries to guard him. When he attacks off the bounce it’s impossible to keep him from getting to the rim. When he is there he exhibits great patience and doesn’t force the action. His over the shoulder jump hook works well whether he catches it on the low block on a post-up or uses his dribble to get to it.

As good as Sanogo is, UConn will need leaps by a couple of highly touted Huskies. Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson are the players who need to take those leaps.

Hawkins has a wealth of potential. He’s a two guard with a good frame and a threat as a jump shooter. His jumper will improve throughout the season and he’ll be one of the best catch and shoot players in the Big East.

His handle is pretty good already an allows him to create his own looks and makes him a threat in the pull up game. Hawkins has a real chance to be the go to guy on the perimeter for the Huskies. His explosion off the bounce puts added pressure on a defender. If they give him just a little too much space then he can rise up in an instant and knock down a pull-up jumper. If he’s crowded, he’s shown the ability to drive and finish at the rim.

Jackson is one of the top athletes in the country with ideal length for a wing in today’s game. Like Sanogo he has great fluidity for his size. He’s excellent in transition and side to side. It’s hard to imagine a player running the floor any better than Jackson. He’s smart when moving without the ball which makes him a weapon for UConn even when he doesn’t have the ball.

Something Jackson displayed last season that I think will really help UConn in the half court was his passing into the paint. Whether it was passing to Sanogo on the block or passing to a cutter, Jackson showed the ability to make good reads and be accurate.

UConn lost key leadership in R.J. Cole and Tyrese Martin which might be the biggest question facing the Huskies. If Hawkins and Jackson take the leaps that I think they will they’ll have a more talented team than last season. Intangibles will be a need for the Huskies and I’ll have an eye on whether they can fill that area or not.

Creighton Bluejays

Head coach: Greg McDermott (12th season as head coach)
Last Season’s Record: 23-12, 12-7 in the Big East — Lost in Round of 32 of NCAA Tournament
Key Returners: Ryan Kalkbrenner (7-1, Jr., C), Ryan Nembhard (6-0, So., G), Arthur Kaluma (6-7, So., F), Trey Alexander (6-4, So., G)
Key Departures: Ryan Hawkins (6-9, F), Alex O’Connell (6-6, G)
Key Transfers/Newcomers: Baylor Scheierman (Transfer from South Dakota State 6-6, Gr., G/F), Francisco Farabello (Transfer from TCU 6-3, Sr., G)

Outlook: This season’s Big East favorite for many, and when you see the talent one through five it’s easy to see why. They return Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Ryan Kalkbrenner. They return Big East Freshman of the Year, Ryan Nembhard. They’ve added last season’s Summit League Player of the Year, Baylor Scheierman. Those three alone in a starting lineup is enough to make a run deep into March and you’ll hear a lot about that trio. The exciting thing though about this year’s Bluejays team, in my opinion, is that we haven’t mentioned their two best players yet.

Hello, Trey Alexander and Arthur Kaluma. These two wings out of Omaha impact both sides of the ball at such a high level. To me, they have the widest spectrum of plays they can make while still getting their own look if needed.

Let’s start with Kaluma, who has shot up NBA draft rankings. He was named pre-season All Big East Second Team. He was also named to the Karl Malone watch list. As a freshman he averaged 14.4 points and 6.4 rebounds a game over Creighton’s last 10 games of the season. This stretch included a 24-point, 12-rebou effort against Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament. He followed this strong close to his freshman year with a fantastic performance this past summer in the FIBA African Qualifiers. Kaluma has always been devastating in space and in transition, but his ball skill has improved a lot in just the past year. He was creating looks for others during the FIBA Qualifiers. His handle has gotten tighter, and in return he is getting to his spots easier. From the eye test Kaluma has the look of a do-it-all modern-day hybrid wing and makes good on that look with his production at all levels. We haven’t even mentioned his plus athleticism yet. He makes elite plays at the rim and in the lanes. Adam Spinella has a great breakdown of Kaluma here.

Trey Alexander, my favorite Big East player not in a Villanova uniform. He’s got a silky-smooth game with the ball in his hands and always seems to play with great pace. He began last season as more of an off-ball guard. He was thrust into playing a lot of point guard after Ryan Nembhard’s season ended due to injury. Alexander responded by averaging 12.2 points and 4.3 assists per game over his final 10 contests. He had games of nine and eight assists during this stretch. He adds so much versatility for Creighton, being able to catch and shoot or being able to create something if asked. I definitely think Coach McDermott will have sets where Alexander is the primary ball handler, even with Nembhard on the floor. Here’s Alexander stepping up huge as just a frosh in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Creighton will be one of the best passing teams in the country if not the best. They may very well have the best offense in the country as well. Creighton has a great combination of high level ball skill guys that also have position versatility. Combine that with a singular game changer like Kalkbrenner, I think the components are there for Creighton to be playing on college basketball’s last weekend.

DePaul Blue Demons

Head Coach: Tony Stubblefield (2nd season as head coach)
Last Season’s Record: 15-16, 6-14 in the Big East
Key Returners: Nick Ongenda (6-9, Jr., C), Jalen Terry (6-6, Jr., G/F), Philmon Gebrewhit (6-5, So., G), Ahamad Bynum (6-2, Fr., G), Javan Johnson (6-6, Gr., F)
Key Departures: Javon Freeman-Liberty (6-4, G), David Jones (6-6, F), Brandon Johnson (6-8, F) Courvoisier McCauley (6-5, G)
Key Transfers/Newcomers: Umoja Gibson (Transfer from Oklahoma 6-1, Gr., G), K. T. Raimey (Transfer from Southern Idaho, Junior College 6-3, Jr., G/F) Eral Penn (Transfer from Long Island 6-6, Gr., F) Caleb Murphy (Transfer from South Florida 6-4, Jr., G) Zion Cruz (6’4, Fr., G)

Outlook: 2004, that was the last time that DePaul made the NCAA Tournament. They’ve only had one winning season since 2007-08. Tony Stubblefield enters his second season at the helm and hopes to build on his first season in Chicago.

He will attempt to do it while losing his top three scorers from last season. Javon Freeman-Liberty, David Jones, and Brandon Johnson combined for 46.7 points per game last season and none of them will be back. Losing Freeman-Liberty especially hurts as he was one of the best scorers last season at 21.7 a game. His season included three 30-point games including a 34 point game against Villanova.

In a day in age where many experienced players are up for grabs, Stubblefield was able to bring in two players who averaged double figures last season. Caleb Murphy and Umoja Gibson will both get a chance to find their shot with the Blue Demons.

Murphy is a former top 100 recruit who is coming over from South Florida. He’s a big guard with plus length and bulk for that position. He showed some of his promise in USF’s loss to Auburn last season. Auburn had one of the nation’s best defenses and the nation’s best rim protector in Walker Kessler. He did a great job of being intentional in his pull-up game.

Murphy was 9 of 18 from inside the arc, nailing multiple mid-range jumpers off the bounce. At this point he looks like DePaul’s best option to put pressure on defenses and create looks downhill.

Gibson is an elite jump shooter and could really benefit from Murphy’s ability to get into the lane. Gibson had 11 games last season with at least four made three pointers. His highest totals were eight against Texas Tech and seven against Kansas State. He’s also got some ability to pull-up and shoot in tight spaces. Gibson will knock down shots and when defenses can’t keep Murphy in front, he’ll possibly have easier looks.

The biggest wildcard for DePaul and one of the biggest in the entire Big East is Ahamad Bynum. Bynum didn’t play last season with eligibility problems. He showed on the EYBL circuit and in high school a lot of dribble drive explosiveness. DePaul is in need of talent so I expect Bynum probably be the first guard off the bench.

Eral Penn comes in from Long Island after averaging 16.6 points per game and 8.6 rebounds per game over the last two seasons. He’s an explosive forward with a quick first jump. He finishes really well around the rim and should get some easy looks at the rim via Murphy.

The Blue Demons lost a lot of production but Tony Stubblefield has brought in enough talent to take another step forward in DePaul’s road back to the tournament.