by Dan Gardella
What a wild ride it has been in the past two and a half months. The biggest storyline being that Villanova’s reign atop the Big East come March has come to an end as Xavier wrapped up their first outright Big East title in school history. Three teams also finished 10-8 in league play with Seton Hall grabbing the third seed, Creighton taking the fourth seed, and Providence snatching the fifth seed.
As the bracket became finalized Saturday evening, it seemed almost fitting that a Mullin vs. Ewing coaching matchup kicks off this season’s tournament. Marquette, who needed a Butler win against Seton Hall Saturday evening to avoid playing Wednesday night will match up with DePaul to conclude day number one. From there, the madness truly begins as eight teams do battle on an action-packed Thursday inside the World’s Most Famous Arena.
Before the circus comes to Manhattan, here are some storylines for each team heading into the tournament.
After many years of falling short, the Musketeers have finally proved they were the best in the Big East. At least, for the regular season. Entering New York, Chris Mack and company’s only blemishes were at the hands of Villanova twice and Providence. The point of emphasis is to take the tournament one game at a time. After Villanova won their first regular season title since 2006 in 2014, the first year of the newly configured Big East, the Wildcats saw their tournament get cut short at the hands of Seton Hall in the tournament. Xavier faces either Georgetown or St. John’s, who both enter New York upset-hungry.
The Wildcats have not been a seed lower than one in the Big East Tournament since Ryan Arcidiacono was a freshman in 2012-13. While they are a seed lower, they are still looked at as a favorite to take home their third tournament title in five years. With two All-Big East first team selections in Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson along with All-Big East Rookie team selection Omari Spellman, the Wildcats have plenty of options offensively as well as defensively. The key factor for Villanova is efficiency. This season’s team has been one of the most efficient offenses that Jay Wright has had. If ‘Nova wants to take home the title, going cold is not an option. The Wildcats face the winner of Marquette and DePaul. If there is one team in the conference with as much offensive fire power as Villanova, it’s the Golden Eagles.
The Pirates are heading to Madison Square Garden as one of the hottest teams in the conference. After sitting at 7-7 and in a clump of teams in the middle of the conference, Seton Hall finished the final two weeks 3-1 to take the third seed in the tournament. Their one loss the last two weeks? A one point, overtime loss to Villanova. Kevin Willard’s team has hit their stride at the right time after playing below expectations for what seemed like weeks. They match up with Butler in the quarterfinals. The Hall took down the Bulldogs 77-70 in the season finale Saturday evening. The Pirates will also likely enter New York at full strength as Desi Rodriguez, who has been fighting a sprained ankle should be back by Thursday evening.
The Blue Jays enter the Big East Tournament winners of two of their last six Big East games after starting the year 8-4 in conference play. Given, the loss of Martin Krampelj midway through conference play didn’t make things easier. The Blue Jays will have to rely on the star power of All-Big East first team selection Marcus Foster and All-Big East second team selection Khyri Thomas to carry them to a run in New York. If the Blue Jays want to be successful in the tournament, they will need role players such as Ronnie Harrell Jr. and Toby Hegner to give a lift outside of Thomas and Foster.
The Friars have ridden their senior leadership to what looks like their fifth straight trip to the Big Dance next week. The Friars finished the season 19-12 including a 10-8 record in the Big East, resulting in the five seed in the Big East Tournament. They face off with Creighton, a team that they split their meetings with in the regular season. The Friars will need to once again lean on the leadership of Rodney Bullock, Kyron Cartwright as well as sophomore Alpha Diallo.
Butler had an opportunity to finish the regular season as high as a four seed in the Big East with a win but failed to do just that as they fell to Seton Hall in the season finale. However, they will get another crack at the Pirates with revenge on their mind in the final quarterfinal game on Thursday. It is safe to say that Butler has not had the best luck in the Big East Tournament since joining the conference. The Bulldogs are winless in the newly configured conference tournament including a one-point loss to Seton Hall in the first round back in the 2014 tournament. If Butler wants to get that illusive win in the Big East Tournament, they will need strong production from All-Big East first team selection Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin.
Marquette comes into New York with the momentum they need. In the final week of the season, the Golden Eagles took down Georgetown and had an emotionally fueled win over Creighton, essentially putting them on the good side of the bubble heading into the Big East Tournament. The Golden Eagles have become a three-headed attack on offense in Markus Howard, Andrew Rowsey, and Sam Hauser. These three players will determine whether Marquette is a quick out in the tournament, or if they shock the conference and make a run at the title with their hot shooting.
What a first season for Patrick Ewing. The Hoyas finish the season a spot above what they were projected to in the preseason poll. The Hoyas however, limp into New York losers of four straight. They take on St. John’s to open the entire tournament Wednesday evening. The Hoyas will be looking to avenge their one-point loss from last season’s Big East Tournament against the Red Storm. If Georgetown wants to win a game or two in the tournament, they will need to be efficient on the offensive side of the ball between shooting the ball with some consistency and protecting the pumpkin.
In mid-December, the Johnnies sat at 10-2 and were primed for their first NCAA Tournament appearance under Chris Mullin. Then Marcus LoVett left. Then Shamorie Ponds got injured. Now the Red Storm enter New York with a 15-16 record and another first round date with Georgetown, a team who beat them twice this season. The Johnnies have looked better and are a dark horse as the tournament approaches. The lone issue is St. John’s lack of depth. The Johnnies feature a six-man rotation that more likely than not will burn out in the event of a surprise run. Simply put, St. John’s will go as far as Shamorie Ponds will carry them.
DePaul has sat in the cellar of the Big East all season but still are not a team to overlook. They are able to spread out the floor with four different players averaging double figures highlighted by breakout player Max Strus. The Blue Demons take on Marquette in the first round Wednesday night. DePaul will have to play its best basketball of the season as they hope to play the spoiler this week.
My Big East Tournament Predictions:
St. John’s over Georgetown (75-71)
Marquette over DePaul (81-64)
Xavier over St. John’s (86-68)
Creighton over Providence (71-65)
Villanova over Marquette (95-87)
Seton Hall over Butler (71-60)
Xavier over Creighton (67-65)
Seton Hall over Villanova (75-64)
Seton Hall over Xavier (81-80)
It’s “elusive.” Also, SHU won’t be at full strength if only Rodriguez returns from injury. What is Sanogo’s status?