The 2020-21 men’s college basketball season is on the books, but it’s not too late to look back on the year before. We go conference by conference within the major leagues to examine what went right and what went wrong, along with a brief look ahead for 2021-22. We have done the ACC Y Big 12, the next is the Great East.
The 2020-21 season of the Big East started with a new competitor and ended with an unlikely champion.
Georgetown, who finished eighth in the regular season, was crowned tournament champion in a season in which Big East expanded 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 Hoyas, Villanova and Creighton.
The Big East’s representation in the Big Dance did not extend beyond Sweet 16, where the Wildcats and Bluejays were eliminated. Villanova was left without Big East co-Player of the Year Collin Gillespie after suffering a torn MCL injury late in the season.
Villanova’s Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Seton Hall’s Sandro Mamukelashvili shared Player of the Year honors with Gillespie in a year in which Big East struggled to keep up with their competition. The conference featured a cumulative .549 win-loss percentage in a season impacted by COVID-19 breaks and game cancellations. The mark is the lowest in Big East’s 42-year history of men’s basketball.
The Big East didn’t prove to be a great hitter among the major NCAA conferences, but it produced some of the most memorable moments of the 2020-21 season. This is what the conference can get out of a year like no other.
Most important thing we learned: UConn makes the Great 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 stand firm amid the competitive nature of the Big East, they ranked third in the conference and made their first NCAA tournament bid since 2016. The Huskies’ Big East opponents may not be there. so excited about his arrival, as UConn proved to be a tough competitor in 2020-21, led by All-Big East honoree James Bouknight. The Huskies finally proved that they belong to the Great East and take the field to a higher level on the national scene.
Best Game: Georgetown vs. Creighton at the Big East Championship
Big East’s best game of the season was the last when No. 8 seed Georgetown managed the surprise of No. 2 seed Creighton and won the Big East championship trophy, becoming the first No. 8 seed to win the Big tournament. East and the lowest since the University of Connecticut’s No. 9 seed in 2011. Georgetown defeated the Blue Jays, 73–48, while holding Creighton on 29% shooting at Patrick Ewing’s former home, Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas led by as much as 31 points when first-year point guard Dante Harris won MVP of the tournament.
The historic night was also emotional, as the title game came exactly 49 years after Georgetown signed 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 a player and coach to cap off the historic night.
Best Player: Collin Gillespie, Villanova
There were players with more striking numbers than Gillespie’s in 2020-21, but perhaps he was the one who had the biggest impact. Once a ripped MCL prematurely ended Gillespie’s season, Villanova lost its last regular-season game and then suffered a quarter-final outing in the Big East tournament after having championship aspirations. The Wildcats reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, but missed Gillespie’s production.
Along with Robinson-Earl, Gillespie helped orchestrate Villanova’s efficient offense as the team secured 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-loss ratio (2.88). Although his senior season was cut short, Gillespie announced that he will return for one more year, giving Villanova a consistent presence and a floor leader for 2021–22.
Best Coach: Mike Anderson, St. John’s
Mike Anderson helped lead St. John’s to fourth place in the Big East after the Red Storm was projected to rank ninth in the preseason coaches 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 scored the most points per game in Big East this season (79.0).
Best Newcomer: Posh Alexander, St. John’s
Posh Alexander made a double dip at the 2020-21 Big East Awards as he was named Freshman of the Year and also shared Defensive Player of the Year honors with Isaiah Whaley of UConn. The point guard, who was also included in the Big East All-Freshman team, ranked sixth in the NCAA with 2.6 steals per game while serving as the anchor of Red Storm’s defensive scheme and averaging 10.9 points and 4.3 assists per game. Alexander’s outstanding freshman season helped St. John’s exceed preseason expectations, becoming the fourth rookie to win the Men’s Big East DPOY and the first since Allen Iverson of Georgetown in 1994-95 to win as much DPOY as FOY.
Biggest surprise: Georgetown’s Big East tournament race
No. 8 seed Hoyas had a spectacular career that saw them defeat No. 9 seed Marquette, No. 1 seed Villanova and No. 5 seed Seton Hall en route to their first Big East tournament title in 14 years. Georgetown outscored the Bluejays by 25 points in the championship game to capture the program’s eighth all-time title, the biggest in Big East men’s history, and give the Hoyas their first place in the NCAA since 2015. It was even more significant for Ewing and Georgetown as the unexpected victory occurred just over six months after the death of legendary coach John Thompson. Georgetown’s roster saw a lot of turnover after the transfer of Mac McClung, among others, going into 2020-21, but they came together to deliver the Big East’s biggest surprise of the season.
Biggest Disappointment: Lecture Depth
If it weren’t for Georgetown winning the Big East tournament, the conference would likely have had just three teams in the NCAA tournament, and the addition of UConn provided a fourth offering. The conference ended up having two Sweet 16 representatives at Villanova and Creighton, but neither was seen as a threat with Gillespie out and the talent of the competitors (Baylor and Gonzaga, respectively) too high.
Seton Hall had a chance to do the Big Dance, but he faltered down the stretch, while Red Storm’s resume wasn’t strong enough, with every other team finishing under .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 Big East had fewer than five Big Dance offers was in 2013-14. The Big East are known for their competitive play, but need to recapture the magic and talent of Villanova’s championship-winning seasons in 2016 and 2018.
Outlook for 2021–22
Villanova once again looks to be a national threat next season after Gillespie and Robinson-Earl announced that they will both return to the Wildcats for one more year. Four of Villanova’s five starters from the 2020-21 season, during which they ranked No. 3 nationally, will return for another run, putting them back in the conversation for the title.
Georgetown will look to build on its impressive Big East championship run with one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, with guard Aminu Mohammed. UConn is also bringing a top 15 recruiting class with three four stars commitments, while Marquette, led by new coach Shaka Smart, and Villanova are close to the Huskies’ recruiting queue.
The Big East will miss UConn’s Bouknight, a likely NBA lottery pick, and Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski, who have entered the draft, while 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 for more competition among the top teams in the NCAA.
Villanova will once again bring familiarity and lead the way, but the Great East seems to have the foundation to elevate a competitive field in 2021-22 in March.
More college basketball coverage:
• Summary of the ACC men’s season
• SI’s Top 25 Way-Too-Early Men for 2021–22
• The many disparities between men’s and women’s college rings
• Holmgren Commit marks a turning point for Gonzaga
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.