By John Fanta
Before the college basketball season started, questions surrounded the Big East and how the league would perform after losing 11 of its 13 all-conference honorees. It’s the first week of March, and many questions remain unanswered. Somehow, someway we’re going to find some clarity in the next week and change, between tiebreaker scenarios and bracketologists’ conclusions.
With just nine games left on the slate, here’s a look at what to watch for this week.
- Regular season title race: With Marquette’s surprising stumble to Creighton on Sunday, just the Golden Eagles’ second home loss, the door has opened for Villanova to claim the regular season crowd. The reigning national champions are 13-4 and hold a half-game lead on Marquette, which stands at 12-4. With Georgetown and Xavier tied for third at 8-8, that carries significance for the top two teams in the conference. Why? Well, Marquette and Villanova split their regular season series, which means that the scenario then goes to their record against the next best team in the league. While Marquette is unbeaten against those two teams, Villanova has suffered losses to each of them. First, the Golden Eagles will have to win both this week and Villanova — on a midweek bye — will need to win Saturday for that scenario to come up. Coming off back-to-back losses, and considering how desperate the two teams’ opponents are, it’s far from a guarantee that they both win out.
- The race, and bubble hopes, run through Newark: Marquette and Villanova have one thing in common this week — they both have to get through Seton Hall to fulfill their goal of winning a regular season title. That said, the Pirates are in desperation for a Quadrant 1 win to continue to build their case for the NCAA Tournament selection committee. According to Bracket Matrix, a site that combines bracketologies across national platforms, the average projection for Seton Hall currently is the first team out of the field of 68. The Pirates, at 16-12 and with a NET of 63, could boost their profile with one win this week. Two would send them over the top and lock in a bid, but the mountain is very steep. SHU owns a 10-10 record against Quadrant 1 and 2 combined, which is why one win also becomes so huge for the standing of that record. The two biggest keys for Seton Hall? Turnovers and helping Myles Powell, who was denied in double overtime to Georgetown Saturday despite a 35-point outing. The junior guard has done everything in his power to get the Pirates to the doorstep of the dance. It’s on the players surrounding him to bang the door down.
- Creighton Inching Closer: With the 66-60 win on Sunday over Marquette, Creighton is right back into the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Jays jumped from 57 to 50 in the NET rankings with the victory. While they are 16-13, the metrics have been kind to Creighton, and it goes back to strength of schedule. CU ranks 12th nationally in SOS and 32nd in non-conference SOS. They also own no bad losses, with a 6-0 record against Quad 3 and 4 teams. At the moment, a 9-13 record between Quad 1 and 2 stands, with two Q3 opportunities this week against Providence (Wednesday) and DePaul (Saturday) in Omaha. If the Jays win both, they will enter the Big East Tournament, and with a quarterfinal win, would have a compelling case for the committee to look at. At the moment, Bracket Matrix has Creighton listed as a “First Four Out” team.
- Hoyas On the Rise: In just his second season, Patrick Ewing has Georgetown back on track. Based on the recruiting pedigree that Ewing has quickly built combined with what he has done in progressing this year’s Georgetown team, the potential is sky high for the Hoyas in future years. Whether it be NCAA’s or the NIT this year, that’s a significant step that can lead Georgetown to definitely going dancing in 2020. The Hoyas are currently tabbed as a “Next Four Out” team on Bracket Matrix. The good news? Georgetown has gotten through the wall of inconsistency, having won three of four games including a statement Q1 win over Villanova. The bad news? The Hoyas’ non-conference strength of schedule sits at 245. For Georgetown to get on the committee’s radar more seriously, a win at Marquette Saturday would be huge. The Hoyas first visit DePaul Wednesday. You also have to keep an eye on Georgetown in the Big East Tournament. Averaging over 81 points per game, the Hoyas have the guard play and scoring options to be a bid-stealer at Madison Square Garden.
- Johnnies Need a Win: St. John’s is back on the bubble. Considering the Red Storm was just 20-8 over a week ago and owning third place in the Big East, that seems hard to believe. Yet, letdown losses to Xavier and DePaul have the Red Storm at 8-9 in Big East play. This is where a weak non-conference schedule also hurts SJU. That’s why St. John’s is in great need of a win Saturday, but the task will be steep at Xavier, a bad matchup for the Johnnies because of the Musketeers’ size and zone defense. If SJU cannot get this one, a loss in the Big East Tournament Quarterfinals could kill their Big Dance chances. Considering this team has a 3-1 combined record against Villanova and Marquette, it’s hard to believe, but the inconsistencies have gone hand in hand with this group.
Here is the full schedule for the final week (all times EST):
Tuesday – Xavier @ Butler (6, FS1)
Wednesday – #17 Marquette @ Seton Hall (6:30, FS1)
Providence @ Creighton (8, CBS Sports Network)
Georgetown @ DePaul (8:30, FS1)
Saturday – Butler @ Providence (Noon, FOX Sports Regional Networks)
#23 Villanova @ Seton Hall (Noon, FOX)
Georgetown @ #17 Marquette (2:30, FOX)
St. John’s @ Xavier (5, FOX)
DePaul @ Creighton (8, FS1)
Follow @NCAAHoopsDigest and @John_Fanta on Twitter for coverage as the March to Madison Square Garden hits the home stretch.