It's defending champ Villanova and everyone else in the Big East in 2018-19

The defending national champion, Villanova, will lead the way for the Big East in 2018-19. There are few proven teams beyond the Wildcats, though Marquette might be capable of pushing them.

Here are five questions for the Big East:

1. How does Villanova replace its departing stars?

This is an unusual offseason for Jay Wright. A program based on continuity has to replace four players who left school early and were selected in the first 33 picks of the NBA draft. Wright has done it before on a lesser scale, finding the next batch of superstars to replace one or two studs. But four? At the same time? That's going to be difficult.

Fortunately, he has some young returnees who received extended minutes late last season in Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, a terrific recruiting class led by Jahvon Quinerly, Brandon Slater and Cole Swider, and Albany graduate transfer Joe Cremo. It's not Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, but Wright and Villanova will find a way.

2. Can Marquette improve defensively?

If the Golden Eagles can figure out how to guard, they will be the best team in the league outside of Villanova, and they could push the Wildcats if their transition is tougher than expected. Scoring has never been a problem for Steve Wojciechowski's team the past couple seasons, ranking in the top-15 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency.

Defense, on the other hand, has been a nightmare. Marquette has ranked right around the halfway point nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency the past two seasons and slotted in a distant last place in conference-only defensive efficiency last season. Wojciechowski is hoping the addition of Fordham graduate transfer Joseph Chartouny can bring some toughness.

3. Will St. John's take a step forward and finally live up to its talent?

The five-day stretch last season when St. John's beat Duke at Madison Square Garden and Villanova on the road in consecutive games was a microcosm of the Red Storm's potential. They have the talent to compete with anyone on a given night, but they haven't been able to put it together consistently.

Don't forget: Those two wins came on the heels of an 11-game losing streak. Can Chris Mullin finally get it rolling? Potential Big East Player of the Year Shamorie Ponds is back, as are Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II. The Red Storm will rely on transfers, as usual, but they're hoping Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron gets a waiver to play immediately. If that happens, this is an NCAA tournament team.

4. How deep is the league outside Villanova?

Who knows? You can probably order the league's 4-9 teams in a variety of ways and still look fine entering the season. To be honest, Marquette is no sure thing because of its defense, and Xavier is transitioning to a new coach with a load of graduate transfers, so the Musketeers could be overhyped entering the season.

Butler has pieces on the perimeter, Providence brings in a pair of top-50 recruits -- David Duke and A.J. Reeves -- in the backcourt, and Creighton and Seton Hall lose a ton of firepower.

St. John's is an enigma, and Georgetown needs to learn how to win games. Are you convinced by any of those teams on paper? Put Villanova at No. 1 and DePaul at No. 10, and the rest will play itself out.

5. Is Georgetown ready to be a factor under Patrick Ewing?

The Hoyas exceeded expectations in year one of the Ewing era, despite finishing .500 overall and 5-13 in the Big East. They lost eight games by single-digits and went just 1-4 in overtime games. Flip a few of those around, and we're talking about a team with 18 or 19 wins.

Marcus Derrickson left early for the NBA draft, but Jessie Govan and Jamorko Pickett both return up front, and Govan could be ready for an all-conference season. The key will be point guard play, and one-time UConn signee James Akinjo could be a difference-maker from day one. It wouldn't be much of a surprise if the Hoyas find a way to push for a top-half finish.

Five players to watch

1. Shamorie Ponds, St. John's

Ponds is one of the best returning scorers in college basketball. He hit the 30-point mark six times last season, including a 44-point effort against Marquette. He'll need help if St. John's is going to take the next step, but he can do much of it on his own.

2. Markus Howard, Marquette

Howard averaged better than 20 points per game last season, and now leading scorer Andrew Rowsey is out of eligibility. What sort of numbers await Howard in 2018-19? His 52-point performance against Providence in January could be a preview. That's only a slight exaggeration.

3. Naji Marshall, Xavier

The Musketeers are in the midst of a transition, with Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura gone, along with head coach Chris Mack. New head coach Travis Steele will rely on his rising sophomore class, and Marshall could be the most likely to break out.

4. Jahvon Quinerly, Villanova

A five-star point guard in the 2018 class, Quinerly will get the rock from day one and hope to replace Brunson. He's a bit more flashy than the usual Villanova guards, but he has swagger, can make 3-pointers and knows how to run an offense.

5. Kamar Baldwin, Butler

With Kelan Martin gone, LaVall Jordan will have to find alternate means of scoring. The most obvious choice is Baldwin, who is a terrific playmaker. He showed flashes of his scoring last season, hitting 25-plus points five times.