Every season in college basketball, the top programs in the country seem to have new players take control of their team or make major unexpected contributions to vault them to another level. This can be the difference between being an NIT team and an NCAA tournament team by the end of the year. As is the norm with the current college basketball landscape, the Big East conference lost several key seniors to graduation and even a few underclassmen that left school to pursue professional basketball careers. Although Villanova is the clear favorite to win the conference this upcoming season, there are several contenders in the league that will have a chance to surprise everyone if some players blossom into stars. This is a list of five players who can give their respective teams a major boost if they can have a breakout year.
Kris Dunn, PG (Providence)- Ask any Providence Friars fan what the one key to another successful season will be and the answer should be unanimous: Kris Dunn. Coming off of his second shoulder surgery in as many years, he is looking to bounce back and show the country why he was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school. He will try to pick up where Bryce Cotton left off, running the show for the Friars. Although they are mirror opposites of each other at the point guard position, Dunn will look to duplicate Cotton’s consistency and leadership on the court. His teammates will enjoy having him back on the floor as well due to his natural ability to distribute the ball, run in transition and most importantly, play defense. If the Friars hope to defend their Big East title and make a run to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, they will rely heavily on Kris Dunn to have a breakout year.
Rysheed Jordan, SG (St. John’s)- There may not be a more gifted athlete in the Big East than St. John’s Rysheed Jordan. He will team up with point guard D’Angelo Harrison to make up the most explosive offensive backcourt in the Big East this season. Jordan is a natural scorer that can create his own shot any time he wants. If he keeps improving his outside shot, his defense and his decision making on the floor, he can be an All-Big East talent by the end of the year. There is no denying the talent that the Red Storm possess on their roster, it is just a matter of how well they play together. There would be stretches during the year last season where it seemed like a lot of individuals playing on the court for themselves. It is up to coach Steve Lavin to get the most out of Rysheed Jordan and the rest of the team in order to contend for a Big East championship of their own.
Jalen Reynold, F (Xavier)- There was a ton of attention paid to explosive guard Semaj Christon (left early for NBA draft) last season whenever an opponent would play the Xavier Musketeers, but he was not the only eye-popping athlete on the floor. Jalen Reynolds had a very impressive freshman season and is looking to build on that in his sophomore campaign. He is an incredibly physical rebounder and can finish with the best of them around the rim. Along with senior center Matt Stainbrook, they will surely make up one of the most powerful and imposing frontcourts in the Big East. He has the size and athleticism at 6’10 to be a solid NBA prospect in the future if he improves his post moves and shooting touch. Look for him to have a strong season and help make Xavier a contender in the conference.
Joshua Smith, C (Georgetown)- After only playing 13 games last season for the Hoyas due to poor academics, Joshua Smith is expected to have a rebound year. The UCLA transfer is by far the most physically imposing center in the conference. When he gets it going, it is tough to contain him because of his massive size. However, there have always been conditioning and effort questions surrounding him. Smith has had some big games, but often seems to disappear for stretches, which has frustrated coaches and fans at both UCLA and Georgetown. However, he is down about 30 pounds entering this season and the Hoyas expect him to have an extremely productive year. If this is the case, he can help Georgetown compete with Villanova as one of the top teams in the league.
Josh Hart, G (Villanova)- The Big East favorite, Villanova, returns four of its five starters from last year’s regular season championship squad. They have a ton of talent including All-Big East caliber players in Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston. However, one of its most important players this season could be sophomore wing player Josh Hart. He will replace James Bell in the starting five for Jay Wright’s Wildcats this season and could help vault the team into national title contenders if he has a breakout year. Coming off the bench last year as one of their key reserves, he had a very strong freshman year, averaging almost eight points and four rebounds per game. He is a long guard who can defend well and can help stretch the floor for their other star players when he is knocking down the three-ball. Expect him to improve on his three-point shooting and fill James Bell’s starting spot quickly this season to help Villanova become one of the premiere teams in the nation.