Villanova captured the regular season title for the fourth consecutive year. After falling just short of the Big East Tournament championship, it will try to make it back to the finals for the third season in a row. Wednesday marks the beginning of the Big East Tournament in New York. Over half of the Big East teams are currently slated to go dancing later in March, but a couple of those 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. Despite dealing with a shortened rotation that was hampered by injuries, the Wildcats have been able to maintain their stellar play on the basketball court. Headlined by Big East Player of the Year contenders Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson, as well as the senior leadership and experience provided by Darryl Reynolds and Kris Jenkins, Villanova hasn’t really missed a beat. Hart, who’s also potentially looking at National Player of the Year honors, currently leads the Big East in scoring with 18.7 points per game. Brunson has provided a seamless transition from four-year starter Ryan Arcidiacono. Not only is he a capable scorer, but a great facilitator. As a matter of fact, Brunson’s assist rate this season is higher than Arcidiacono’s ever was (per KenPom). The ‘Cats are also fortunate to have Reynolds return just in time for the postseason, providing that much-needed frontcourt size. Lastly, is Jenkins primed for another explosion in March and beyond, just as he did last year? That remains to be seen, just like whether or not Villanova can overcome…
The Challenger: Butler. The Bulldogs have enjoyed a solid season that has exceeded preseason expectations. They went from a projected sixth-place finish, to second, behind the Wildcats en route to their highest seeding in a Big East Tournament since joining the conference back in 2013. Kelan Martin has been the team’s leading man, although he’s been doing it off the bench as of late. Since being shifted to the pine after an ugly one-point performance against Marquette, the junior forward has averaged just under 18 points per game as the team’s sixth man over the last six games. As good as Martin has been, he doesn’t do it alone. Andrew Chrabascz is an imposing player inside that can also stretch the floor. Kamar Baldwin, a Big East All-Freshman Team selection, wreaks havoc on both ends of the court. Overall, this is a smart, team-first squad that has played well this season, getting valuable contributions from its veterans and the newcomers.
The Contenders: Creighton and Marquette. These are two of the highest scoring offenses in the Big East. They are the only ones averaging over 80 points per game in the conference, with Creighton on top averaging 83.5 points, and Marquette is right behind with 82.7 points.
The Bluejays’ season went off the rails a bit since star point guard Maurice Watson Jr. sustained a torn ACL and subsequent off the court issues. Since then, Creighton is 5-7, and it has been point guard by committee–first trying Isaiah Zierden, freshman Davion Mintz, and now it seems like Khyri Thomas is the team’s primary facilitator. Over the last three games, he’s gotten just under seven dimes per game. He’s also a lockdown defender and solid rebounding guard–evidenced by his sharing of the Big East Defensive Player of the Year title. Creighton still has plenty of hope in Justin Patton, who bursted onto the scene as a freshman. The 7-foot center averages 13.1 points per game and a team-high 6.3 boards per game. He’s lethal in the pick-and-roll plays and is a solid finisher around the basket. The Bluejays also have high-scoring Marcus Foster, who is putting up career numbers since transferring to the team from Kansas State. This is an efficient team that shoots a conference-best 51.2 percent on the floor, but the same can’t be said from the free throw line, where they shoot a slightly subpar 68.8 percent.
As for the Golden Eagles, they’re one of the best offensive teams around. KenPom ranks them eighth in the country in terms of offensive efficiency, and they boast the top 3-point shooting percentage in the country (43.0 percent). This is an up-tempo type of team that likes to get out in transition and punish teams on fast break opportunities. Marquette closed out the season winning four of its final five games behind its solid 9-man rotation. Five different players average in double figures–Markus Howard (13.1 points), Jajuan Johnson (12.0), Luke Fischer (11.2), Andrew Rowsey (11.2), and Katin Reinhardt (10.9). As talented as this team is offensively, its vulnerable on defense. It will try to out-shoot some teams, but there has been a handful of times it would have liked and benefitted from an extra stop or two.
The Dark Horses: Providence and Seton Hall. Before the first basketball game of the 2016-17 season was even played, the Friars felt like they were on a mission. After losing NBA draftees and All-Big East talent in Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, Providence was tabbed ninth in the Big East preseason poll. The Friars were unhappy with their projected ranking, and at first, they were living up to the pundits and the conference’s prediction. However, since conference play started, the Friars have turned themselves around. They no longer look like the team that lost to a mediocre Boston College in non-conference play. The Friars enter the Big East Tournament on a six-game win streak and after decisive tiebreakers, enter as the tournament’s third seed. Kyron Cartwright (6.8 assists per game) has evolved into a premier point guard, one that leads the conference in assists and averages the third-most in the country—just averaging one assist less than UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. Rodney Bullock, Emmitt Holt, and an improved 3-point shooting Jalen Lindsey have been on the receiving end of Cartwright’s dimes and have also quickly grown over the course of the last few months. This is a team coming in with loads of momentum.
As for the Big East Tournament defending champs, the Seton Hall Pirates, they haven’t played as well as they did last year. Despite that, they are still a solid team. Angel Delgado serves as the team’s anchor in the paint, and on the team’s stat sheet. What the junior forward is doing should not be ignored, Delgado is a double-double machine and is putting up insane numbers. He averages 15.7 points per game and a Division I-leading 13.1 rebounds per game. He is a glass cleaner and a force to be reckoned with inside. The 6-foot-10 Pirate has had a double-double in 25 of 30 games this season. In the backcourt, Seton Hall has Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, who have evolved into full-fledged scorers—no longer the one-dimensional slashers they used to be. They are fantastic complementary pieces to Delgado, as he goes work inside. They both average over 16 points per game. As solid as this trio is, they aren’t great from the free throw line, shooting a combined 63.5 percent from the charity stripe—which is exactly what this team does as a whole.
The X-Factor: Matchups. Sure, it’s difficult to beat a team three times in a season. There’s no doubt familiarity and extra scouting time might be a difference maker, but it’s also hard to ignore a team getting swept or defeating another opponent twice. There is a ‘rock-paper-scissors’ theme in the Big East. Top-seed Villanova was swept by Butler, but the Bulldogs and their fans should be afraid of Creighton, who they may possibly face in the semi-finals. The Bluejays beat the ‘Dogs in both meetings this season, once pre- and post-Watson injury, but lost to Villanova twice. This is just one example of a three-way cycle that mimics the rock-paper-scissors feel. Yes, a team has to take care of business to advance, but there’s no doubt they’re rooting to see certain opponents over others. Depending on who advances or falls, the result of one game can easily make someone’s route to the title game more favorable or difficult.
Master Strategists: Chris Holtmann (Butler) and Ed Cooley (Providence). These are two Big East coaches who have lifted their teams to surpass the expectations set for them by the conference in preseason. Both Butler and Providence were expected to finish in the bottom half of the Big East standings. The Bulldogs graduated four-year fixtures in Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones, while the Friars said their early goodbyes to Dunn and Bentil. Despite what both rosters lost going into this season, both teams have played well.
Holtmann has guided Butler to a 6-2 record against ranked opponents, with marquee wins over Indiana, Arizona, Villanova, Xavier, and Cincinnati. As for Providence, it came on strong towards the end of the season and the rapid turnaround Cooley was able to help drive is impressive.
The Bulldogs are the first and only squad since 2013-14 Creighton to sweep Villanova. Can Holtmann do it again in a potential third meeting for a championship title? The Bulldogs haven’t won a Big East Tournament game since conference realignment, that’s about to change.
As for Providence, can it build on its win streak? The Friars are peaking at the right time. They are balanced, and Cooley has won a Big East Tournament title before in underdog fashion.
Names to Know:
Xavier- Trevon Bluiett, Quentin Goodin, J.P Macura
Seton Hall- Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez
Providence- Kyron Cartwright, Rodney Bullock, Emmitt Holt
Butler- Kelan Martin, Andrew Chrabascz, Kamar Baldwin
Creighton- Marcus Foster, Justin Patton, Khyri Thomas
Marquette- Markus Howard, Jajuan Johnson, Luke Fischer
Georgetown- Rodney Pryor, L.J. Peak, Jessie Govan
DePaul- Eli Cain, Billy Garrett Jr., Tre’Darius McCallum
St. John’s- Shamorie Ponds, Marcus LoVett, Bashir Ahmed
Outlook: This is the most competitive Big East Tournament since conference realignment. With four teams coming in with identical 10-8 conference play records, it’s best to throw out the seeds. Villanova is trying to lock itself in as a one-seed for the NCAA Tournament, but there are few teams looking to spoil that in a tightly contested tournament field.
The Road to the Finals:
On one side of the bracket, two traditional Big East teams will go against one another in St. John’s and Georgetown. The Red Storm enter as a clear favorite over the Hoyas, who limp into the Big East Tournament after suffering back-to-back losing season for the first time in decades, as well as a five-game losing streak. The talented young backcourt of St. John’s will help lift the Red Storm to victory. Unfortunately for the Johnnies, that is as far as their season will go. Despite the front court size and shot-blockers the Red Storm have upfront, they have been blown off the glass by opponents, especially in both meetings against a smaller Villanova squad that rebounded well as a team. Villanova is too talented and experienced to suffer a quarterfinals shocker. From there, the Wildcats will take on the winner of Seton Hall-Marquette, which is probably the biggest 50-50 split. This is the most evenly matched game going into the quarterfinals, as the regular season series was split once each and both were decided by three points.
A hot-shooting performance by the Golden Eagles sends them to the semifinals for a Friday night date with Villanova. Unlike the last time they met in Milwaukee, the Wildcats prevent a late-game meltdown and slow down the highflying Marquette attack. Also, ‘Nova takes advantage of a weak Marquette defense. Basically, as long as the Wildcats can stiffen up defensively and produce offensively, this should be decided. Villanova advances to the finals for the third straight year.
Looking at the other side of the bracket, Xavier should beat DePaul and face off against rival Butler. The Musketeers have taken a hard fall since Edmond Sumner went down with a season-ending knee injury, but Trevon Bluiett remains to be a force. Bluiett is capable of going off on any given night, but his efforts alone won’t probably be enough for an upset of Butler. Bulldogs will go on to face the red-hot Providence Friars, who will be fresh off of a quarterfinal win over Creighton. The Friars recently beat the Bluejays at the CenturyLink Center, where the ‘Jays lost only four times this whole season. Providence will beat Creighton again—this time–on a much bigger stage.
This is where it gets tough, two well-coached, physical teams face off against each other in the other semifinal game. Butler slightly edges Providence in an intense matchup to survive and advance.
The Championship Game:
For the first time ever since realignment, the top two seeds finally meet in the Big East Tournament. The Bulldogs used a pair of strong second half performances to separate themselves from the ‘Cats in the regular season. Both teams play a hard-nosed brand of basketball. Villanova with its hustle, and Butler with its physicality. The Bulldogs aren’t actually a phenomenal team defensively, they give up an effective FG% of 50.6 percent (183rd in the country). However, Holtmann just knows how to get his team to keep the ‘Cats in check. The 3-point line is a big part of what Villanova likes to do offensively, and Butler has been able to keep Villanova quiet from deep. Over the previous two meetings with the Bulldogs, the Wildcats shot a mediocre 12-of-50 (24.0 percent) from beyond the arc. The difference-maker in this game will be whether or not Villanova can find its stroke from long range, or will Butler get the necessary stops for its first ever Big East Tournament title.
The Tournament Forecast:
Big East Final Four/Semi-Finals:
Villanova, Marquette, Butler, Providence
Villanova over Marquette
Butler over Providence
Championship Game: Butler over Villanova
Josh Hart, Villanova
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Kamar Baldwin, Butler
Rodney Bullock, Providence
Markus Howard, Marquette
Tournament MVP: Kelan Martin, Butler