by John Fanta
The thought around the country in the preseason was that the BIG EAST was Villanova’s to lose, but that the Wildcats would face their biggest challenges yet since the league reconfigured. Make no mistake about it – Villanova is loaded again, and looks even deeper than last year. The Wildcats didn’t just beat Gonzaga, but dismantled them behind Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth. Jay Wright’s team could rise to #1 in tomorrow’s AP Top 25, and rightly so.
But with conference play two weeks away, that preseason thought about Villanova getting challenged for the throne is picking up steam. #13 Xavier and #19 Seton Hall are turning potential into results. The two teams are riding four-game winning streaks, which both include a pair of Top 25 victories.
Not only are their resumes impressive, but the fashion that they both won by on Saturday says a lot too.
Trevon Bluiett scored 25 points as five Musketeers tallied double-figures in a 96-69 Xavier rout of Colorado. It was the fifth game that Xavier has scored at least 96, as a deep offense continues to roll. Why is this Musketeers’ team a dark horse Final Four contender? Chris Mack has scary-good depth. Bluiett’s in the driver’s seat and J.P. Macura’s the passenger, but there’s a bunch of Musketeers in the car that have broken out as well.
In a double-digit win over Baylor, junior Kaiser Gates surged for 19 points. Dynamic grad transfer Kerem Kanter followed up Gates’ act with 17 in XU’s Crosstown Shootout win over Cincinnati. The Bearcats had no answers for the 6-foot-10 big man, who poses a major match-up issue with his perimeter shooting ability. It’s that depth that can go a long way in March.
Like Xavier, Seton Hall’s offense is what has stood out so much throughout an 8-1 start. While Kevin Willard has built this program up with defense, the Pirates’ scoring depth can be the difference-maker The Hall needs to make an NCAA Tournament run. A year ago, SHU was below-average in the conference offensively. The Pirates were eighth in the conference with 73.2 points per game. Considering that Seton Hall has navigated through a difficult non-conference schedule, the 81.7 points per contest gets magnified.
You could argue that nobody’s a tougher match-up in the BIG EAST at the moment than Desi Rodriguez. The 6-foot-7 wing has averaged 19.7 points per game while shooting over 54 percent. The maturity of Rodriguez is on display through that efficient shooting percentage. Combine him with the rest of his senior class, consistency from Myles Powell (14.7 ppg, 43% from 3), and a contributing freshman class, and SHU is living up to the hype.
- Losing Justin Patton to the first round of the NBA Draft left a big void for Creighton’s frontcourt heading into the season. The Bluejays may not have a true center, but they’re getting on the glass with two X-factor weapons. Sophomore Martin Krampelj, just 6-foot-9, has put up over eight rebounds per game and has back-to-back double-doubles. Meanwhile, 6-foot-7 Ronnie Harrell Jr. has tallied nearly eight per game. Greg McDermott has answered preseason questions to the tune of a 7-2 start and two Top-25 wins. Guys like Krampelj and Harrell make Creighton a complete team, one that continues to get led by Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas.
- A week after losing at home to Georgia, Marquette needed to find a response of some sort. The Golden Eagles got it in resounding fashion, routing rival Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, 82-63. Marquette may experience life on the bubble this season, but Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey are even better than last year. They combined for 47 in the win. The Golden Eagles will go as far as the backcourt duo takes them.
- We’ll find out a lot about Georgetown on Saturday. It’s been impossible to judge the 7-0 Hoyas, who have the weakest schedule in America. This week, though, Patrick Ewing faces his first major test of his head coaching career when he faces Jim Boeheim and Syracuse. The old BIG EAST’s best rivalry will be renewed in D.C., but this time with Ewing facing Boeheim in a coaching showdown. The Hoyas have the size to give teams problems with Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson. Do they have the guard play? That’s necessary against Syracuse’s zone.
- You can sound smart at the water cooler tomorrow, if you’d like. BIG EAST teams are a combined 76-18 on the season and have won 37 of their last 42 games. If non-conference play ended today, the BIG EAST would hold its best record since 1988-89.