By John Fanta
A month into the college basketball season, the Big East stands at 64-18 (.780). It’s about where we expected it would be, taking somewhat of a step back considering the rich talent that the league lost, but also still showing its legitimacy with four Feast Week titles and resume-building wins.
With just three more weeks of non-conference play, there is not a more important day for the conference’s trajectory this season than Saturday. Just look at the marquee match-ups – Seton Hall – #9 Kentucky (MSG), #12 Wisconsin – Marquette, Creighton – #24 Nebraska, Georgetown – Syracuse, Xavier – Cincinnati, DePaul – Northwestern, #21 Villanova – Saint Joe’s.
For the Pirates, they could really use a split out of their two remaining resume-building chances, with the Wildcats on deck at The Garden on Saturday and a road game at #23 Maryland on Dec. 22. The better chance arguably comes against John Calipari’s Wildcats, who are 7-1 but have not faced a quality opponent since losing to Duke, 118-84 in the Champions Classic on Nov. 6. The good news for UK is that they’ve owned the glass yet again, with a +16.7 rebounding margin. Can the Pirates find secondary scoring to star Myles Powell? They have averaged just 62 points per game in losses to key opponents Nebraska, Saint Louis and Louisville. The positive for The Hall is their +5.0 turnover margin. That’s Kentucky’s flaw, as the Wildcats have given it away 122 times in just eight games.
Marquette has looked more of the part of a Big East title contender as of late, notching quality victories over Louisville followed by then #12 Kansas State last Saturday. But, a totally different monster awaits them this weekend. Wisconsin is back, and the Badgers are improved offensively. We know what Ethan Happ can do on the interior, but it’s a rise from 33 percent to a Big Ten best 41.6 percent from beyond the three-point arc that’s making Greg Gard’s team more than just a grind-it-out group. This match-up features two elite scorers, as D’Mitrik Trice faces Markus Howard in the backcourt. It’s a must-see showdown, and one that could go right down to the wire.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the Big East is Creighton, which was picked to finish 9th in the preseason poll but looks like a sure-fire Top 6 team in the league. Saturday brings a daunting test at Nebraska. Can the Jays dictate the tempo and force Nebraska into an offensive affair with them? Creighton’s Ty-Shon Alexander (19.4 PPG) vs. Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr. (17.4 PPG) is a treat alone, as both could easily put up a 30-spot in the blink of an eye.
It’s a tall task for any team to win at the Carrier Dome on a Saturday afternoon, nor alone a Georgetown team with an all-freshman backcourt. That’s the task at hand for James Akinjo, Mac McClung and company going up to Syracuse to renew the rivalry for the 94th time on Saturday. With Frank Howard back in the fold for the Orange, it’s already made the world of a difference, producing a four-game winning streak. The length of Syracuse stands out a lot against the smaller Akinjo and McClung, as well as reserve Jagan Mosely. Every starter in Boeheim’s line-up is at 6-foot-5 or taller, with Howard and Tyus Battle both owning the height advantage. If the Hoyas are going to stay in it, they need sophomores Jamarko Pickett and Jahvon Blair to be in rhythm on the perimeter against the 2-3 zone.
Let’s turn to the Crosstown Shootout. It’s a new year, and the same Mick Cronin. The Bearcats will defend as well as anyone in the country, and they have balance offensively. We’ll see how Xavier, which is riding a four-game winning streak, fares against that defense. For Travis Steele’s Musketeers, they need junior point guard Quentin Goodin to manage the game. Turnovers cost Xavier in a major way in two losses in the Maui Invitational, and if you give Cincinnati those opportunities, the Bearcats typically make you pay. Jarron Cumberland guides Cincinnati with nearly 15 points per game, one of four Bearcats averaging in double-figures. The Musketeers have that too in Goodin, Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs and big man Tyrique Jones, but it comes down to doing that efficiently on Saturday.
It’s this time of year that is so crucial, because it determines just how much teams can build their resumes once conference play arrives.
PHOTO: Ty-Shon Alexander/omaha.com
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