Spin Cycle: 2021-22 Big East first teamers and how they played this season 

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The UConn men’s basketball team defeats DePaul 75-68 on Senior Day at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, CT on Saturday, March 5, 2022. This victory concluded the Huskies’ regular season. Photo by Sofia Sawchuk.

On Sunday, the Big East Conference announced its all-conference first team selections for the 2021-22 season. The selections, made annually at the conclusion of the men’s basketball regular season, are meant to acknowledge the finest hoopers that we get to see take the court in the Big East. This year, six players were selected to receive first team recognition, including two players from Connecticut, the only school with multiple selections. 

As a selection of players consisting of only the best players that suited up for the Big East this season, it is only fair to analyze the performance of each player to see just how special their seasons were. What were some of the best single-game performances? What were the best games that these players participated in this year? Those answers, and more, will be explained in this article. 

R.J. Cole, Graduate Student, Connecticut 

Cole, a transfer from Howard University in 2019, led Connecticut in scoring (15.8), assists (4.1), steals (1.2), 3-pointers made (53) and minutes played (33.3) over 30 games this season. He was fourth-best in the conference in points per game, third in free throw percentage, sixth in assists per game and seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio. Cole’s best performance this season came in a Nov. 26 matchup with the VCU Rams, a 70-63 overtime win for Connecticut in which Cole led all players with 26 points in 41 minutes of action. Behind Cole, UConn was able to claim victory in a tough double-overtime victory over the now fifth-ranked Auburn Tigers last November where Cole played 47 minutes and totaled 24 points in the back-and-forth affair. He also helped UConn to a 71-69 upset victory over No.11 Villanova in February by scoring the go-ahead basket and taking a charging foul with time winding down to secure the victory for the Huskies. A leader and the backbone for a solid Connecticut squad, Cole and the Huskies earned a first round bye in this year’s Big East tournament and will prepare for their quarterfinal matchup on Thursday. 

Adama Sanogo, Sophomore, Connecticut 

The second Husky on this list, Sanogo was one of five finalists for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award in his second season at Connecticut, as he finished second on the team to Cole in scoring (15.3). He led the Huskies in rebounding (8.6), offensive rebounds (3.5), and blocked shots (2.1). In the Big East, Sanogo led the conference in rebounding per game and field goal percentage (.509), was second in offensive rebounds, fourth in blocked shots and seventh in scoring. His biggest game came in that 115-109 double-overtime victory over No. 5 Auburn in which Sanogo led all players with 30 points. He also set a season-high with 18 rebounds – tied with Seton Hall’s Jared Rhoden for most in a single Big East matchup this season – to complement a 26 point scoring effort in an overtime victory over St. John’s in January. In Connecticut’s 71-69 upset victory over No. 11 Villanova in February, Sanogo led all players with 20 points as one of UConn’s go-to scorers. 

Justin Lewis, Sophomore, Marquette 

Marquette Golden Eagles forward Justin Lewis (10) shoots over St. John’s Red Storm guard Dylan Addae-Wusu (5) during the second half at Fiserv Forum. Photo by Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports.

Lewis, a redshirt freshman and this year’s Big East most improved player award recipient, led Marquette in scoring (17.1), rebounds (8.0), three-pointers made (55) and minutes played (32.4) over 30 games. In conference play, Lewis was the conference’s highest-scorer with an average of 18.2 points per game. In a massive 88-56 upset victory over now ninth-ranked Providence in January, Lewis led all players with 23 points as well as 11 rebounds to hand the Friars their first of only three Big East losses on the season. Through a three-game stretch in Jan. (all against ranked opponents), Lewis led the Golden Eagles to three straight victories, first over then-20th ranked Seton Hall and then No. 11 Villanova and finally No. 20 Xavier. In those games he had scoring totals of 18, 21 and 20 points, respectively. Lewis would again lead Marquette to victory in upset-style a couple of weeks later by defeating Villanova, 83-73, when he recorded a game-high 19 points. Lewis’ best game this year came on Jan. 26 when he tallied 33 points, nine rebounds and six assists in a 73-63 win over Seton Hall. After leading Marquette to the fifth-best record in the Big East, Lewis and the Golden Eagles will take on Creighton on Thursday in the quarterfinal round of this year’s conference tournament. 

Julian Champagnie, Junior, St. John’s 

After his selection to the 2021-22 Big East first team on Sunday, Champagnie became the seventh member in the history of the Red Storm to be named a conference first teamer in consecutive seasons. A finalist for the he Julius Erving Award, commemorating the top small forward in the nation, Champagnie finished the regular season ranked second in the league in scoring at 18.9 points per game, as he just missed leading the conference in scoring after Lewis overtook the top spot with a 28 point outing to end the season. Champagnie is also St. John’s leading rebounder (6.6) and ranked second in the conference in steals per game (1.9) and 10th in blocks per game (1.2). Despite consistently showing the ability to score double-digits on a nightly basis, Champagnie took his game to another level when he tallied 34 points and 16 rebounds, both season-highs, to beat DePaul 89-84 in early January. In one of St. John’s best games this year, the Red Storm upset Xavier in blowout fashion, winning with a final score of 81-66. In that game, Champagne totaled 19 points and eight rebounds to help lead his team. Champagnie and St John’s will take on Depaul in the first round of the Big East tournament this Wednesday at 7 p.m.. 

Jared Rhoden, Senior, Seton Hall 

The vocal leader for a Seton Hall program that has been solid all season, Roden paced the Pirates in scoring per game (16.2) and finished second on the team in rebounds per game (6.9). Rhoden really turned things up in conference play, where he ranks fifth in the Big East in scoring per game (16.2), 15th in rebounding per game (6.9), fifth in free throw percentage (80%) and eighth in minutes played per game (33.5). He is one of only three players that ranks in the top 15 in both scoring and rebounding. He set a season-high in points when he scored 30 in an 82-66 victory over Xavier in late February, a game in which he made 8 of 14 shot attempts, two of three 3-point attempts and 12 of 13 free throw attempts. He also set a season-high in rebounds when he pulled down 18 boards in a narrow 66-64 win over DePaul in February, tying him with Connecticut’s Sanogo for the most rebounds in a Big East game this season. In one of his better games of the season, Rhoden guided Seton Hall to a hard-fought 73-71 victory over Xavier in early February, as he totaled 25 points and eight rebounds to knock off the then-ranked Musketeers. Rhoden was also at the forefront of one of the best games in the Big East all season, a 90-87 overtime win over UConn, in which Rhoden chipped in 15 points and six rebounds while not committing a turnover in 41 minutes. After finishing as the sixth-best team in the Big East this season, Rhoden and Seton Hall will take on the Georgetown Hoyas in the first round of the conference tournament at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday. 

Collin Gillespie, Graduate Student, Villanova 

The only player to be unanimously selected to the Big East first team, Gillespie and Villanova enjoyed yet another successful season this year, as they currently rank as the eighth best team in the nation according to the Associated Press. Gillespie, the leader of the Wildcats, paced his team in scoring per game (16.3) and totaled exactly one quarter of Villanova’s assist total after leading the team with 92 assists over 30 games. Gillespie ranks fourth in the conference in scoring per game, first in 3-point shooting (43.1%) and first in free throw shooting (91.5%). A steady contributor, his best performance came in a tough 89-84 win over a stout Providence team when Gillespie racked up a game-high 33 points on 10 for 17 shooting, which included shooting five for eight on 3-point attempts and eight for eight from the free throw line. Gillespie and Villanova played exceptionally well all season, as they beat the Big East regular season champion in Providence twice in two matchups, handing their opponent two of what would only be three losses to conference foes. After finishing second in the Big East this season, Gillespie and the Wildcats earned a first round bye in this year’s conference tournament and will prepare for their quarterfinal matchup on Thursday. 

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