The 2020–21 men’s college basketball season is in the books, but it’s not too late to look back on the year that was. We’re going conference by conference within the high-major leagues to examine what went right—and what went wrong—along with a brief look ahead to 2021–22. We’ve done the ACC and Big 12, next is the Big East.
The Big East’s 2020–21 season started with a new competitor and ended with an unlikely champion.
Georgetown, which finished eighth in the regular season, was crowned the tournament champ in a season that saw the Big East expand to 11 teams. UConn, one of the conference’s founding programs, rejoined the field and ended up as one of four Big East teams to make the NCAA tournament, joining the Hoyas, Villanova and Creighton.
Representation of the Big East in the Big Dance did not extend past the Sweet 16, where the Wildcats and Bluejays were both eliminated. Villanova was without co-Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie after he suffered a season-ending torn MCL injury.
Villanova’s Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Seton Hall’s Sandro Mamukelashvili shared Player of the Year honors with Gillespie in a year the Big East struggled to keep up with its competition. The conference boasted a cumulative .549 win-loss percentage in a season impacted by COVID-19 pauses and game cancellations. The mark is the lowest in the Big East’s 42-year history of men’s basketball.
The Big East did not prove to be a heavy hitter among the NCAA’s top conferences, but it produced some of the most memorable moments of the 2020–21 season. Here is what the conference can take away from a year unlike any other.
Most important thing we learned: UConn makes the Big East better
UConn returned to the Big East after spending seven seasons in the AAC and winning the national championship in 2014, and the Huskies immediately found themselves right at home. Not only did UConn hold its own amid the competitive nature of the Big East, but it placed third in the conference and clinched its first NCAA tournament bid since 2016. The Huskies’ Big East opponents may not be as thrilled with their arrival, as UConn proved to be a tough competitor in 2020–21, led by All-Big East honoree James Bouknight. The Huskies ultimately proved they belong in the Big East and take the field up a notch in the national landscape.
Best game: Georgetown vs. Creighton in the Big East championship
The Big East’s best game of the season was its last as No. 8 seed Georgetown pulled off the upset of No. 2 seed Creighton and won the Big East championship trophy, becoming the first No. 8 seed to win the Big East tournament and the lowest since No. 9 seed UConn in 2011. Georgetown blew out the Blue Jays, 73–48, while holding Creighton to 29% shooting in Patrick Ewing’s old home of Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas led by as many as 31 points as freshman point guard Dante Harris won tournament MVP.
The landmark night was also an emotional one as the title game came exactly 49 years after Georgetown hired the legendary John Thompson, with whom Ewing won three Big East tournament championships. Ewing also became the first person to win the Big East tournament as both a player and coach to cap off the historic night.
Best player: Collin Gillespie, Villanova
There were players with flashier numbers than Gillespie’s in 2020–21, but he perhaps had the greatest impact. Once a torn MCL prematurely ended Gillespie’s season, Villanova went on to lose its final regular-season game and later suffered a quarterfinals exit in the Big East tournament after previously holding championship aspirations. The Wildcats did reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, but they missed Gillespie’s production.
Alongside Robinson-Earl, Gillespie helped orchestrate Villanova’s efficient offense while the team clinched the Big East regular-season title. Gillespie finished third in the Big East in assists per game (4.6), third in free throw percentage (.833) and first in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.88). Though his senior season was cut short, Gillespie announced he is returning for one more year, which gives Villanova a steadying presence and floor leader for 2021–22.
Best coach: Mike Anderson, St. John’s
Mike Anderson helped lead St. John’s to a fourth-place finish in the Big East after the Red Storm were projected to place ninth in the coaches’ preseason poll. St. John’s won seven of its last 10 Big East games and finished above .500 (10–9) in conference for the first time since 2014–15. Anderson was named Big East Coach of the Year in his second season at the helm of the Red Storm as his offense put up the most points per game in the Big East this season (79.0).
Best newcomer: Posh Alexander, St. John’s
Posh Alexander double-dipped in the 2020–21 Big East awards as he was named Freshman of the Year while also sharing Defensive Player of the Year honors with UConn’s Isaiah Whaley. The guard, who was also named to the Big East All-Freshman team, ranked sixth in the NCAA with 2.6 steals per game while acting as the anchor of the Red Storm’s defensive scheme and averaging 10.9 points and 4.3 assists per game. Alexander’s standout freshman season helped St. John’s exceed preseason expectations, and he became just the fourth-ever freshman to win men’s Big East DPOY and the first since Georgetown’s Allen Iverson in 1994–95 to win both DPOY and FOY.
Biggest surprise: Georgetown’s Big East tournament run
The No. 8 seed Hoyas went on a spectacular run that saw them take down No. 9 seed Marquette, No. 1 seed Villanova and No. 5 seed Seton Hall on the way to their first Big East tournament title in 14 years. Georgetown blew out the Bluejays by 25 points in the championship game to capture the program’s eighth all-time title—the most in men’s Big East history—and give the Hoyas their first NCAA berth since 2015. It was all the more meaningful for Ewing and Georgetown as the upset victory came just over six months after legendary coach John Thompson’s death. Georgetown’s roster experienced great turnover after the transfer of Mac McClung, among others, entering 2020–21 but came together to deliver the top surprise of the Big East’s season.
Biggest disappointment: Depth of the conference
Were it not for Georgetown winning the Big East tournament, the conference likely would have had just three teams in the NCAA tournament—and UConn’s addition provided a fourth bid. The conference ended up having two Sweet 16 representatives in Villanova and Creighton, but neither were seen as a threat with Gillespie out and the competitors’ (Baylor and Gonzaga, respectively) talent too high.
Seton Hall had a chance at making the Big Dance but faltered down the stretch, while the Red Storm’s résumé was not quite strong enough—and every other team finished below .500 on the season.
The Wildcats have given the Big East at least one national title contender each season, but the conference has been represented by just four teams in the last two NCAA tournaments. Before that, the last time the Big East had fewer than five bids in the Big Dance was 2013–14. The Big East is known for its competitive play, but it needs to recapture the magic and talent of Villanova’s championship-winning seasons in 2016 and 2018.
Outlook for 2021–22
Villanova is once again looking to be a national threat next season after Gillespie and Robinson-Earl announced they both will be returning to the Wildcats for another year. Four of Villanova’s five starters from the 2020–21 season, during which they ranked as high as No. 3 nationally, will return for another run—placing them back into the title conversation.
Georgetown will look to build on its impressive Big East championship run with one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, featuring shooting guard Aminu Mohammed. UConn is also bringing in a top-15 recruiting class featuring three four-star commitments, while Marquette, led by new coach Shaka Smart, and Villanova are close on the Huskies’ recruiting tails.
The Big East will miss UConn’s Bouknight, a likely NBA lottery pick, and Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski, who both have entered the draft, while the Red Storm’s Julian Champagnie is testing the draft waters. Still, the influx of incoming talent has the potential to elevate the Big East and allow further competition among the top teams in the NCAA.
Villanova will once again bring familiarity and lead the way, but the Big East seems to have the foundation to elevate a competitive field in 2021–22 come March.
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