Since the “new Big East” was formed four years ago, the Villanova Wildcats have won four straight regular season conference titles and have dominated the league, losing a total of just nine conference games.
So it was only fitting that at Big East Media Day on Wednesday, Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson was named 2017-18 Big East Preseason Player of the Year in a vote by all the league coaches.
Brunson averaged the second most points (Josh Hart was first) on last year’s team that won 31 games, captured the Big East Tournament and regular season titles and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats are again expected to be the class of the league, but there is one team that could potentially earn the first non-Villanova title in five years.
That squad: the Xavier Musketeers.
The Musketeers have been one of the most consistent programs in the country over the last several years under head coach Chris Mack, as they reached an Elite Eight (2017), two Sweet 16’s (2015, 2012) and five NCAA Tournaments since 2012.
They have developed a star forward in Trevon Bluiett and that’s why if I were to choose a Preseason Player of the Year in the conference (and make a prediction for POY at the season’s end), I’d go with the versatile talent from Indianapolis.
Bluiett was a Preseason First Team All-Big East selection, but surprisingly, didn’t receive as much love from the conference coaches as Brunson.
Why will Bluiett capture the Player of the Year award this season over Brunson?
Here are three reasons why:
The power of versatility
Bluiett is not only Xavier’s best player, but he is the most versatile player on their roster and possibly in the Big East as a whole. The 6’6″ senior can affect a game in numerous different ways, as he is an elite scorer (18.5 PPG), a solid rebounder (5.7 RPG) and an improving passer and defender.
When Xavier puts Bluiett in the front court as a small-ball four, he is a match-up nightmare because of his ability to extend the defense, beat slower power forwards off the dribble and knock down three’s when a big man is uncomfortable guarding on the perimeter.
Even when Bluiett isn’t scoring as a four-man, his presence poses a threat to the defense, spreading and opening the floor for Quentin Goodin, J.P Macura and freshmen guards Paul Scruggs and Elias Harden.
Xavier can also play Bluiett at the three in bigger lineups with Sean O’Mara, Tyrique Jones, Kaiser Gates and former Green Bay forward Karem Kanter at the front court spots. This will give the Musketeers an advantage on the glass and the strength and power to score in the post on the offensive end.
Brunson obviously has great versatility given his nature as a point guard, but does his presence at the one or the two impose as much of a matchup nightmare as Bluiett does when he slides down to the four?
Brunson will be the best player on the best team in the conference to open up the season and his value to Villanova is second-to-none. You could even argue that Brunson (14.7 PPG, 4.1 APG, 2.6 RPG) was the most valuable player on last year’s roster, given his ability to set the tempo, run the offense and distribute the ball within the confines of Villanova’s offense.
However, the Wildcats have other pieces to the puzzle that make them a top 10 team. Donte DiVincenzo is set for a breakout year at the other guard position. Mikal Bridges is an elite defender and a developing offensive player. Eric Paschall is a stretch four/five that thrived down the stretch off the bench last year. Omari Spellman, who was ineligible last year due to academic reasons, is a former five-star recruit with the ability to play inside-and-out. And don’t forget about Phil Booth, who was hurt all of last season with a knee injury, but scored 20 points in the National Championship game in 2016.
This is not to say that the Musketeers are thin and don’t have other great players, because they do — they have Macura, O’Mara, Gates, Kanter, Jones and Goodin. However, they will have to rely on Scruggs and Harden at times on the perimeter and Bluiett is the clear-cut go-to guy on this team, giving him more opportunities than Brunson for Player of the Year-caliber moments.
I expect Bluiett to increase his scoring for the fourth straight season and become one of the NCAA leaders in points per game, averaging more than 20 a night.
Musketeers’ team success
I’m not going to be the one to predict Villanova to finish lower than first place in the Big East for the first time in five years. I won’t do that…not yet anyway. However, what I can say is that the Musketeers will be neck-and-neck with the ‘Cats for the majority of the season.
Xavier has momentum as a program after finishing the 2016-17 campaign in the Eight Elite (they lost to Gonzaga). That was remarkable in it of itself because they snuck into the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed (they made a mini-run in the Big East Tournament) and played without their star point guard Edmond Sumner, who hurt his knee against St. John’s late in the regular season.
While Sumner won’t return, Bluiett is back to lead the show, Chris Mack is one of the nation’s best coaches and the roster is deep and experienced.
It’s not all that ridiculous to see the Musketeers as a top 10 team for a good portion of the season and beating Villanova at least once during the regular season.
If that’s the case, the argument for Brunson being “the best player on the best team in the league” could essentially get tossed out the window.
The margin between the value of Brunson to Villanova and Bluiett to Xavier is razor thin — that’s what happens when you’re comparing two talents on two great teams in a race for a postseason award. But when looking deep at both players before the 2017-18 season kicks off, I’ll take Bluiett — by a slim edge — to win Big East Player of the Year over Brunson.