Villanova captured the regular season title for the third consecutive year. Now, it will have a chance to earn another trophy and defend the title. Wednesday marks the beginning of the Big East Tournament in New York. A few Big East teams are slated to go dancing later in March, while a couple of teams could use a few more wins to add to their resume and solidify a spot. Here’s an in-depth look at the Big East Tournament:
The Favorite: Villanova. The Wildcats enter the Big East Tournament as defending champions, a role that they haven’t been in 20 years. One of the main driving forces this season was last year’s Big East Tournament MVP, Josh Hart. Hart has further established himself as a scoring and rebounding threat in his first season as a starter. He averaged a team-high 15.3 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game, all while shooting an efficient 50.9 percent on the floor. Fellow junior forward Kris Jenkins has been hot as of late, averaging 17.3 points per game over the last month. Villanova also has its veteran leadership, with Ryan Arcidiacono facilitating the floor and Daniel Ochefu anchoring the paint. As a unit, Villanova has the top defense in the conference, only giving up an average of 63.3 points per game. However, one team was able to crack the code, dropping a season-high 90 points on the Wildcats…
The Challenger: Xavier. After finishing last year as the tournament runner-up, the Musketeers have enjoyed a solid season and pose a serious threat to Villanova’s title defense campaign. As a team, they have the top scoring offense in Big East play with an average of 80.2 points per game. Trevon Bluiett leads the team in scoring with 15.2 points per game but similar to Villanova, the Musketeers have a variety of options who can score the ball. With veterans Myles Davis, James Farr, and All-Freshman teamer Edmond Sumner all averaging in double figures, Xavier can pack a punch with its diverse array of players. It also has the depth on the bench with Big East Sixth Man of the Year J.P. Macura leading the charge. Chris Mack‘s squad has shown that it can beat Villanova before but that was at home. Can the Musketeers unseat the Wildcats at Madison Square Garden?
The Contenders: Seton Hall and Providence. What a difference a year makes for Seton Hall. The team changed from one that hated each other and people transferring out, to a team that believes and has picked up serious momentum heading into March. Isaiah Whitehead has been the main driving force of this team during their hot stretch to close the season. Seton Hall won nine of its last 11 games, losing both games to Butler. However, with Butler on the other side of the bracket, the Pirates don’t have worry about them. Whitehead averaged 17.9 points per game this season and leads a stacked sophomore class that has been the core of this team. In fact, the team’s top four scorers are all sophomores – Whitehead, Desi Rodriguez, Khadeen Carrington, and Angel Delgado.
As for Providence, it’s hard to ignore the Friars’ decline coming down the stretch, but it’s even harder to ignore what is the best one-two punch in the Big East in Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil. Bentil, who recently won Big East Most Improved Player Award, saw his production skyrocket to a conference-best 21.2 points per game and a solid 7.8 rebounds per game. Even when injured earlier in the season, he was still able to put up solid numbers. Then there’s Dunn, All-Big East First Teamer and potential NBA Lottery Draft Pick, who does a little of everything. This season, he averaged 16.3 points per game, 5.7 rebounds per game, 6.4 assists per game, and a conference-leading 2.7 steals per game. When those two take over the game, they can easily compensate for the team’s conference-worst 38.9 shooting percentage. If a third player can step in and contribute a solid amount, it can put the Friars over the top.
The Dark Horse: Creighton. The Bluejays have come back to life, having glimpses of success in the post-Doug McDermott era. They have a couple of solid wins such as Xavier, Seton Hall, and then-ranked Butler. Creighton might not be at the same level of where it was when it first joined the Big East, but Greg McDermott had his team going in a favorable direction this season. Unfortunately for he and his squad, they lost some momentum heading into March, losing seven of their last 11 games. During that stretch, only two of those losses were decided by more than 11 points. Boston University transfer Maurice Watson Jr. has excelled for the Bluejays in his first season of eligibility. Watson Jr. leads the team in points and assists, with 14.5 and 6.6, respectively. Also keep an eye out for 7-foot center Geoffrey Groselle, who scores at an extremely efficient rate. His 69.3 shooting percentage is the best in the Big East and fourth-highest in the nation.
The X-Factor: The stars. For the first time in the reshaped conference’s history, there is a lot more competition between a handful of different contenders vying for the conference crown. For some teams like Villanova and Providence, they have been in this situation before as a serious contender. While Xavier made it all the way to the Big East Tournament final, it came as a surprise. Now, it is a true contender, along with Seton Hall. For some of those guys, this is a new experience in which they come in at the top, instead of clawing and fighting from the bottom. At the conference’s biggest stage, can these big time players from these talented teams ramp up their play even further? Or will the pressure cause them to buckle and fold back down? In close games, will they be able to take their team over the top to victory?
Master Strategist: Chris Mack (Xavier). Mack has brought the Musketeers to one of their finest seasons in program history. He’s led them to their highest ranking in the AP Poll, as they reached the top five for the first time ever. Xavier has been able to topple Villanova before, knocking the Wildcats off at the Cintas Center in a rematch after a blowout loss on New Year’s Eve. Now at a neutral setting in Madison Square Garden, there is a possibility for another meeting with Villanova in the finals. Will he be able to lead his team to another win over the ‘Cats–even more importantly–attain the Musketeers’ first Big East tournament title?
Upset Alert: Butler over Villanova. Should the Bulldogs take down Providence, they’ll have the Wildcats feeling nervous. Now, Villanova will need to do its part to make such a hypothetical match happen, but the Bulldogs might be the team to put together a unsuspecting earlier-than-hoped exit for the ‘Cats. Butler’s defense has given Villanova fits in both meetings this season. If it can keep the game close and not let Villanova get off to a big run, an upset is not out of the question. The Bulldogs have kept both meetings with the Wildcats closer than Jay Wright and his staff would have liked.
Names to Know:
Xavier- Myles Davis, Edmond Sumner, Jalen Reynolds
Seton Hall- Isaiah Whitehead, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez
Providence- Kris Dunn, Ben Bentil, Rodney Bullock
Butler- Kellen Dunham, Roosevelt Jones, Kelan Martin
Creighton- Maurice Watson Jr., Geoffrey Groselle, Isaiah Zierden
Marquette- Henry Ellenson, Luke Fischer, Haanif Cheatham
Georgetown- D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, L.J. Peak, Isaac Copeland
DePaul- Eli Cain, Myke Henry, Billy Garrett Jr.
St. John’s- Federico Mussini, Durand Johnson, Kassoum Yakwe
Outlook: This tournament could potentially be the deciding factor for which Big East team gets to have a 1-seed later in March, as Villanova and Xavier are on a crash course to meet each other. Who gets to have a 1-seed, or will another team dash their dreams?
The Road to the Finals: On one side of the bracket, an opening round game between Georgetown and DePaul has the Hoyas coming in as the favorite. Not just because they have the higher seeding, but that DePaul has only won three games in conference play. This will set up for a third Villanova-Georgetown meeting. It’s been a rough season for the Hoyas, who finished the regular season under .500 for the first time under John Thompson III‘s watch. The Wildcats should win to move onto the semi-finals. From there, they’ll face the winner of Providence-Butler. The Bulldogs closed out the regular season winning seven of their last nine games, with the two losses coming from top five ranked Villanova and Xavier. The Friars salvaged their season from spiraling out of control by winning their final three games of the season, although against weaker competition. Butler may have been swept by Providence, but that was in the earlier stages of conference play. The third time is the charm for the Bulldogs, who will pull off the win. If Villanova and Butler win, it will be another closely contested game, but the Wildcats should come out on top.
As for the other side, it’s safe to pencil in Marquette as the winner of the play-in game against St. John’s to move on and take on Xavier. The quarterfinals round should be all chalk. Xavier should beat Marquette, and Seton Hall should take down Creighton. This is a much more tougher side of the bracket in terms of competition and what teams are on this side. With the way Seton Hall is playing right now, the Pirates are a team that should be feared in March. They have beaten the Musketeers in their most recent meeting. The Pirates are playing with a chip on their shoulder and Whitehead is navigating the ship in the right direction.
The Championship Game:
Villanova has to feel fortunate that it took down Seton Hall earlier in the season, way before the Pirates started picking up momentum to become the wrecking ball that it is now. It will come down to whether or not Seton Hall will be able to dismantle Villanova’s defense. Whitehead and Co. will need to have an excellent team game on offense. On the other end of the court, the Wildcats will need to force Seton Hall to look at other options. Whitehead doesn’t exactly take great care of the ball. Forcing turnovers and establishing the press early will be crucial for Villanova if it wants to win. The offense will come in the team-oriented style of attack. Whichever team can create a firm foundation first, will be able to take control of the game in an intense Big East Tournament final.
The Tournament Forecast:
Big East Final Four/Semi-Finals:
Villanova, Butler, Seton Hall, Xavier
Villanova over Butler
Seton Hall over Xavier
Championship Game: Seton Hall over Villanova
Josh Hart, Villanova
Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
Desi Rodriguez, Seton Hall
Kelan Martin, Butler
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Tournament MVP: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall