By John Fanta
Well, wow. I mean, where to begin?
The BIG EAST has had the season we thought we would see, with some minor exceptions. Villanova’s owned the conference, with Xavier looking like a Final Four candidate, and a logjam in place in the middle.
But if you were already looking forward to another BIG EAST Tourney at Madison Square Garden in March (answer: you are), you’re really geared up for it now. Why? The BIG EAST has injected a burst of March Madness into the first week of February.
We begin with St. John’s. After the Red Storm knocked off #4 Duke inside MSG Saturday, #1 Villanova had to take notice, right? RIGHT? No sir. The Red Storm upset the top-ranked Wildcats 79-75 behind a 26-point night by Shamorie Ponds. It marked SJU’s first win over the top team in the country since — get this — Chris Mullin leading the Johnnies as a player past Georgetown, 66-65, on January 20, 1985. To further explain just how historical the night was, it gives the Red Storm back-to-back Top-5 wins for the first time in program history.
How did this happen? For one, credit to Mullin. His team’s effort on both ends of the floor hasn’t wavered, and the Johnnies’ defense was as good as any has been against Villanova. Pair that up with the Wildcats missing starting 4-man Eric Paschall due to a concussion for the first game, along with the absence of Phil Booth, and the Wildcats were shorthanded. It showed beyond the arc. Nova shot just 8-of-33 from beyond the 3-point arc, just 24 percent. The Wildcats had hit 12 or more three-pointers in 10 of their last 12 games. Beyond Ponds, it was transfer Justin Simon who stepped up. The sophomore nearly had a TRIPLE-DOUBLE with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists. An effort that complete, paired with Ponds, is the material you need to beat #1.
Meanwhile in Newark, Marquette entered Wednesday’s showdown at Seton Hall looking from the outside of the NCAA Tournament picture. Losers of four in a row, the Golden Eagles were in great need of a win to flip the script on what looked like a season that could be marked by an NIT berth. When in doubt, count on Markus Howard. Seton Hall had no answer for the sophomore star, who put up 32 points on 4-of-6 shooting from three-point land in a statement-making 88-85 road win for the Golden Eagles. For Marquette, the win – and a sweep over a Pirate squad that came into the night in the Top 20 of the RPI – can’t be overstated.
Beyond the unpredictability in the conference this week, one thing that has been consistent in the BIG EAST is scoring this season. The games have provided for basketball that’s been fun to watch.
Tuesday’s Xavier – Butler clash was one of the best college hoops tilts of the season. The teams rode a combined 9-game winning streak into the game. Xavier went on a 25-2 run in the first half in the same game that Butler forced overtime in. Yep, you read that right. The Dawgs were down seven with a minute to go in regulation, but proceeded to go on a 9-2 run sparked by two straight Sean McDermott three’s and a Kamar Baldwin trey to force OT. In a one-possession game in the final minute of the extra period, Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett — and Indiana native — buried a dagger three. An All-American play from the hometown kid at Hinkle. You can’t script that much better.
Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, Creighton – DePaul and Georgetown – Providence were decided by a combined five points, with the Bluejays and Friars finding a way.
The point to be made here? The BIG EAST, at the top of all conferences in RPI, is delivering in the numbers and entertainment value. Don’t try to play the schedule game if you’re a fan, because a conference that has 70 percent of its teams in the NCAA Tournament conversation – and one team that isn’t in that 70 percent is St. John’s – allows for nothing easy.