by John Fanta
NEW YORK — Eight Big East teams are under .500 in conference play. In this final week of January, it’s put up or shut up time for those with NCAA Tournament hopes. Two of the four conference showdowns on Wednesday night feature pairs of three-win teams in league play. Here’s a look at the docket.
#10 Marquette @ Butler (6:30 ET, FS1)
Nobody has a bigger night in the Big East than Butler. The Bulldogs are 3-5 and have already dropped two conference home games. In this league, taking advantage of your home opportunities against Villanova and the Golden Eagles is more significant than in years past when there was plenty of room for eyebrow-raising wins for the committee. That is not the case this year, with just two teams inside the NET Top 40. Marquette checks in at #19 and Villanova is at #21. The Bulldogs need to avoid dropping three in a row and capitalize on this opportunity at Hinkle Fieldhouse. For what it’s worth, Butler has had success over Marquette since 2013, going 8-2 in Big East competition with the Golden Eagles. The key to this one? Of course, a lead guard match-up headlines it between Markus Howard and Kamar Baldwin. But, I have my eyes on how Butler handles Marquette’s frontcourt defensively. Over the last four games, Sam and Joey Hauser have averaged over 37 points and 13 rebounds per game. Butler will hope to have junior stretch-four Sean McDermott in the line-up. McDermott left Friday’s game at Creighton early with a sprained knee. If the Dawgs (NET 50) are going to get a signature win, this is their biggest remaining chance to do so.
Providence @ Seton Hall (7 ET, YES Network and FOX Sports Networks)
The Pirates, who started Big East play 3-1, are looking to snap a four-game skid that took a turn for the worse at Providence on January 15. After a hard-fought, no-shame loss at Marquette, The Hall turned the ball over a season-high 22 times in a 72-63 road loss at Providence. The win jump-started the Friars, who come into Wednesday having won three of their last four games and have star freshman guard AJ Reeves back. Reeves, who had missed nine games with a foot injury, put up 11 points in as many minutes in his return on Sunday, a 70-67 win over DePaul. For The Hall, the key is simple – stop the turnovers. The Pirates have given the ball away 68 times combined in the last four games. The good news for Seton Hall? The Pirates have as good of a non-conference resume that you will see in the Big East beyond Villanova and Marquette. A neutral win over Kentucky and a road win over Maryland carry serious mileage, but SHU has to find a way to 9-9 in the Big East now. With a road game at Butler on deck Saturday, the Pirates could use this one in Newark. What to watch for? Sandro Mamukelashvili. The stretch big man was held to just two points in 18 minutes due to foul trouble in the first meeting at Providence. That can’t be duplicated for Seton Hall to beat Providence. For the Friars, their backcourt depth could be advantageous. With Reeves back and David Duke, as well as Makai Ashton-Langford, Maliek White and Drew Edwards, Ed Cooley has options. Seton Hall needs Myles Powell to take control of the backcourt, and this team, to get on track. SHU is in Joe Lunardi’s Last Four In at the moment, so this one is crucial in so many ways.
#14 Villanova @ DePaul (8 ET, CBS Sports Network)
At 7-0 in conference play, it’s a good time to enter “perfection watch.” When will Villanova take its first loss? With Phil Booth and Eric Paschall playing at the level they have been on, that leaves as steep of a task as any for DePaul this season in Chicago on Wednesday night. Maybe the sub-zero temperatures in Chicago could cause the Cats to catch a cold spell. Villanova enters Wednesday’s affair averaging over 12 triples per game on 40 percent shooting during conference play. Think that’s impressive? Just look at Booth and Paschall. The duo has combined to average 41.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game during league play. Booth averages over five of those dishes, while shooting 48 percent from both the field and three-point territory. The key for DePaul? Frontcourt involvement. Paul Reed, Femi Olujobi and Jaylen Butz have caused problems for opposing defenses. It will be on the Blue Demons to try to create some mismatches inside to make Villanova work for things, instead of just making it a perimeter-oriented contest.
St. John’s @ Creighton (8:45 ET, FS1)
Last but certainly not least, something’s gotta give in Omaha. Creighton is 7-0 all-time at home against St. John’s, but the Red Storm greatly needs a win having lost four of its last five. A daunting road stretch opens Wednesday for the Johnnies, with trips to Duke (Saturday) and Marquette (Tuesday) on deck. It’s safe to say that the best chance on this swing for SJU to win comes in Omaha Wednesday, but Creighton has found itself with back-to-back wins and now seeks its first Top-50 win (for now) of the season. The Johnnies enter at #49 in the NET. This is really as close to a January must-win for St. John’s as it gets, but Creighton needs a 2-0 week at home to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes in a reasonable spot. In the first meeting between the two this season back just two weeks ago, Creighton led 28-19 with just over six minutes to go in the first half. The Johnnies proceeded to end the stanza on a 20-6 run to take a five-point lead into the break. A slow start can’t happen in Omaha for the red and white. A complete 40 minutes is needed to get their season on track. Coming off a deflating loss to Georgetown at Madison Square Garden, this is a major test for the Johnnies’ maturity in one of the toughest places to play in the Big East.
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