by John Fanta
NEW YORK – A Saturday ago, it looked like order was reestablished in the BIG EAST. Notice the two key words there – “looked like.”
When Villanova rolled past Xavier, 95-79, to complete a season sweep of the Musketeers last Saturday, it meant that the two teams were tied in the loss column in conference play with three apiece. The Wildcats would own the tiebreaker if the two teams ended up with the same record, meaning it would be another ho-hum regular season title winner in the BIG EAST.
After Saturday’s results, the dethroning of the four-time reigning regular season champion has never been in question more than it is right now. Xavier has Creighton to thank for it.
The Bluejays did what is unheard of against Villanova, overcoming a 68-60 deficit with 4:30 remaining in regulation, forcing overtime and winning 89-83. In doing so, the Jays punched their ticket to a second straight NCAA Tournament. Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas combined for 52 points in the victory, which clinched Creighton’s third straight 20-win season. While the mood in Omaha to start the week was one of concern after the Jays suffered their third straight BIG EAST loss to Butler, it ends with the biggest win in Creighton Men’s Basketball history in terms of ranked opponents.
Villanova fell to 12-4 with the defeat, while Xavier, who is on a bye, moved into first outright at 13-3. The table is set for the Musketeers to win out for the crown, as Chris Mack’s team finishes with an up-and-down Providence team on Wednesday before visiting ninth-place DePaul in Saturday’s finale.
Creighton wasn’t the only BIG EAST team that all but locked up the NCAA Tournament berth on Saturday.
Seton Hall has flipped the switch behind its stellar senior class. Despite a valiant effort from Shamorie Ponds and St. John’s, the Pirates outlasted the Red Storm in an overtime thriller, 81-74. In what was the third straight win and the 20th victory of the campaign, the Pirates were guided by Khadeen Carrington and defense.
Taking over as The Hall’s #1 point guard hasn’t been easy for “Deeno,” but his calming presence has been experience on display for a Pirates squad that will dance for a third straight season. It’s no surprise that the senior’s been the key to the resurgence, as Carrington finished with 22 points, four rebounds, and six assists.
The defensive effort was powered by Ismael Sanogo, who was excited for the challenge of guarding Ponds in bits and pieces. While the sophomore star scored 25 points for the Johnnies, the Pirates forced him into a 9-of-22 outing from the field. The Hall closed with stops as well, holding St. John’s 0-for-its-last-7 to finish the game.
While The Hall hasn’t met the expectation of contending for a BIG EAST regular season title, the Pirates could still be as high as a 3-seed in the conference tournament and are peaking at the right time. Credit Kevin Willard, who pushed all of the right buttons in a tough road game without his leading scorer, Desi Rodriguez. The senior is questionable for Wednesday’s showdown with #3 Villanova, but the coaching staff is hopeful that he will return.
Meanwhile in Our Nation’s Capital, Providence did what it needed to do. The Friars grinded out a win at Georgetown, 74-69, to improve to 9-7 in BIG EAST play. With work to do to lock in another NCAA Tournament berth, Providence couldn’t afford the loss. Entering the day at an RPI of 48, the Friars still likely need one more win to feel good about themselves on Selection Sunday. They close the regular season at Xavier and home to St. John’s. The non-conference resume is not particularly strong, but Ed Cooley’s team owns wins over Villanova and Xavier. Those two carry so much mileage, which is why the Friars should be fine on Selection Sunday.
The team that won’t be fine is Marquette. The Golden Eagles took a big blow to the resume with a 70-62 loss at DePaul. Impact transfers Max Strus (20 and 11) and Marin Maric (13 and 13) each tallied double-doubles. Entering the day still on the outside looking in for most projections, a Quadrant 3 road loss means Marquette needs to win out this week (@ Georgetown, Creighton). It could very well also take a quality win in the BIG EAST Tournament.
So, with the final Saturday of February set and done, there is more clarity at the top of the conference, but absolute madness in the middle. Butler, Creighton, Providence, and Seton Hall sit in a four-way deadlock for third place at 9-7. All are likely to receive Big Dance tickets, but the final week of conference play will carry major implications for conference and NCAA Tournament seeding.