by John Fanta
Fittingly, the opener of BIG EAST play was a double overtime tone-setter. It didn’t matter that it was a match-up between two teams expected to finish in the bottom third of the conference. Rather, it was a showcase of the intensity of the conference in Our Nation’s Capital, as Butler rallied from 20 down to edge Georgetown, 91-89.
The Bulldogs led the way on a night for the road teams, as No. 1 Villanova and No. 6 Xavier joined LaVall Jordan’s team with wins away from home at DePaul and Marquette, respectively.
Here are five observations from the night that was in the BIG EAST:
- Xavier hit another gear, looking comfortable down the stretch. The Musketeers showed why they are ranked sixth in the nation, breaking away from an 80-80 tie with a 5-0 surge in less than 30 seconds to pull away for a 91-87 win. Most teams may get fazed by a road conference opener. Not Xavier. That’s a byproduct of Chris Mack’s non-conference schedule, which featured road victories at Wisconsin and Northern Iowa. While Marquette countered the Musketeers with their sharpshooting of Andrew Rowsey (31 points) and company, it just wasn’t enough. Steve Wojciechowski’s team has NCAA Tournament potential, but he called this Xavier team a national championship contender earlier this week. The Musketeers did those words justice.
- The king of the conference held its throne with balance. Jay Wright said in the preseason that he felt like this version of Villanova was deeper than a year ago. He was right. Seven Wildcats scored in double-figures as Nova routed DePaul in Chicago, 103-85. One night it’s point guard Jalen Brunson. The next, it’s elite wing Mikal Bridges. On another, it could be freshman big man Omari Spellman. There’s just an infinite number of ways that Villanova can beat a team. That’s what makes them the top dog.
- As Kamar Baldwin goes, Butler goes. You may be surprised by this statement, because when you think of Butler’s top player, you think Kelan Martin. The senior forward put up 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting in the double OT win, but it was the sophomore point guard, Baldwin, who exploded for a career-best performance. Baldwin tallied 31 points on 12-of-21 from the field. The smoothness to his game on the attack is special, and he made Georgetown pay for giving him space multiple times. If the Bulldogs are going to progress, they need their sophomore point guard to keep taking steps forward. Martin’s contribution is a given for LaVall Jordan’s team. They need Baldwin to lead them in playmaking to reach the Dawgs full capabilities.
- Freshman shined. While Georgetown’s Jahvon Blair and Jamarko Pickett struggled to finish in the closing stretches against Butler, the two Hoyas will be better off because of that experience. They combined for 26 points, with Blair accounting for 17. Villanova’s Omari Spellman collected a 12-and-12 double-double in his BIG EAST debut, with Jermaine Samuels tallying 11. But, that wasn’t the best rookie performance of the night. That one came from Jamal Cain of Marquette. To notch a top-10 win as an unranked team, you need somebody to be a wild card. While the Golden Eagles didn’t pull it off, they came close because of Cain. The 6-foot-7 wing came in averaging just four points per game, but had 16 on 5-of-8 from the field. His counterpart, Xavier 6-foot-7 wing Naji Marshall racked up 11 points in 20 minutes. That’s a good opening night for a freshman class in a conference ruled by seniors this season.
- Georgetown’s length is a strength, but Hoyas went away from it. In Georgetown’s two biggest tests against Syracuse and Butler, Patrick Ewing’s team has lost leads of 13 and 20, respectively. Why? The Hoyas go away from Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson. With guard play lacking, they must continue to focus on their two big’s if they want to make some noise in the conference. This is a telling stat — Georgetown shot 3-of-6 from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes. Yet, in the second half, they hoisted to the tune of 4-of-13. The low percentage shots came with them stepping off the gas pedal. It’s a growing pain for a retooling team, but the Hoyas have to be kicking themselves. They must be persistent with their frontcourt duo, as Govan and Derrickson racked up a combined 42 points and 24 boards in the victory.
If opening night of the BIG EAST serves as any indication for what we’re in for during the rest of conference play, it’s going to be a wild ride. A double-overtime affair and a two-possession thriller? That just says fun. And, to get road wins in this conference is tougher than digging up buried treasure. Anything away from home in the BIG EAST is very, very valuable.
A ranked showdown highlights a two-game Thursday as No. 23 Seton Hall hosts No. 25 Creighton at 6:30 ET. The Pirates will look to make it a physical affair behind Angel Delgado (13.5 ppg, 11.3 rpg), but Seton Hall will be challenged by a versatile backcourt. Creighton owns two ranked road wins and is powered by BIG EAST Player of the Week Marcus Foster (19.5 ppg). He’s just one of a couple of weapons at the guard slots for CU.
At 7 ET, St. John’s hosts Providence. The 9-4 Friars have struggled due to injuries, and hope to have two mainstays in star point guard Kyron Cartwright and wing Alpha Diallo back from injury on Thursday. Both have been missing time due to ankle injuries. Meanwhile, St. John’s is 10-2 and in the NCAA Tournament conversation at the moment. Their hot start has come with Marcus LoVett (knee) missing action this month. He is doubtful for the conference opener.
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