By John Fanta
NEW YORK — In a retooling year in the Big East, the conference is sending four teams to the NCAA Tournament. With some of the ups and downs throughout this season, getting four was not a guarantee, yet it happened and any disastrous situation for the national perception was avoided. The lead storyline is clear: the conference boasts the last team in the 2019 field, St. John’s. Yes, the Red Storm is dancing for the first time in the four-year Chris Mullin Era as the Johnnies will meet Arizona State in an 11-seed matchup Wednesday night. The First Four showdown in Dayton will decide who battles 6-seed Buffalo in the West Region on Friday in Tulsa.
While the Johnnies have dropped four of five heading into the Big Dance, the goal that Chris Mullin needed to accomplish with this roster has been accomplished. All that matters is that St. John’s has made it. Why? This program hasn’t won a tournament game since 2000. So, a W on Wednesday and a hungry fan base will be through the roof to finally get a successful result on the dance floor.
What’s in store for the matchup? Well, it’s quite the coaching showdown as Mullin meets the feisty Bobby Hurley. The Sun Devils own wins over Mississippi State, Kansas and Utah State while going 12-6 in the PAC 12. Those non-conference wins proved to be the difference for ASU to make the field, because in a down year in the conference, the Sun Devils controlled what they could. While the Johnnies did not put as much together out of the league, they did put it together against the Big East brass, going a combined 3-1 against Villanova and Marquette.
There’s two figures that stand out. For St. John’s, it all comes to transition opportunities. The Red Storm own a +5.1 turnover margin, good for fourth in the nation. Arizona State commits and forces roughly 14 per game, so it’s not a real factor for the Sun Devils on paper. What is a factor is a +4.8 rebounding margin for Arizona State to the Red Storm’s achilles heel, a -6.1 margin on the glass. Keep an eye on how these two play out in the matchup.
The second storyline that comes to mind for the Big East? Villanova has as easy of a draw that you could ask for as a 6-seed. The Wildcats are in the South Region and get 11-seeded Saint Mary’s on Thursday. With a win, the Cats draw either Purdue or Old Dominion. While the Boilers are fifth in the country in offensive efficiency, Villanova’s defensive growth as well as the improvement of Jermaine Samuels and Collin Gillespie to complement Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are reasons to believe the Wildcats could march on to the Sweet 16. If you stop Carsen Edwards, you stop Purdue. While he is an All American and the task will be steep, this is a manageable opportunity for Jay Wright’s group to once again appear in the second weekend.
Arguably the best 1 v. 1 player matchup in the first weekend features a Big East team, as Marquette’s Markus Howard squares off with Murray State’s Ja Morant. Let’s look at it at face value – Howard averages 25.0 points per game with four assists and rebounds as well. Morant’s ability to initiate separates him on a stat sheet, as the Racers’ sophomore and top-tier NBA Draft prospect is putting up 24.6 points per game with 10 assists and 5.5 boards. While Howard’s wrist was banged up in Friday’s Big East semifinal heartbreaking loss to Seton Hall, the junior said Sunday night that he is good to go for the NCAA Tournament. These two players could set Hartford on fire Thursday. The key to the game – Who is more complete? The Golden Eagles are a 5-seed because of their depth around Howard and improvement on defense. Now, that “D” needs to travel for them to limit Morant and company.
In South Orange, Seton Hall is dancing for a fourth straight season for just the second time in program history. It’s a first for the Pirates since a string of NCAA Tournament appearances from 1991-94. After losing an all-time senior class, the fact that Kevin Willard has led this team to the tournament is an accomplishment in and of itself. The Pirates were picked eighth in the Big East preseason poll yet finished third and reached the conference tournament title game. The draw is not easy, but SHU has a shot to be a double-digit dark horse in the field of 68. The 10th-seeded Pirates face 7-seeded Wofford in Jacksonville Thursday night. The main key? Stopping Fletcher Magee. The 6-foot-4 senior guard has averaged over 20 points per game with nearly five three-point makes per contest. It will likely be on Quincy McKnight, The Hall’s stalwart defender, to stay glued on Magee. Seton Hall counters Wofford’s star with Myles Powell, who’s one of the hottest players in America. The junior from Trenton has tallied 27.5 points per game in his last seven. What the Pirates do defensively in limiting Wofford, who averages 11 triples per game, could end up being the sole determining factor. This is one great 7-10 showdown to cap Thursday in the tournament.
John Fanta will have coverage of the BIG EAST throughout the NCAA Tournament, starting in Dayton with St. John’s First Four showdown with Arizona State in the West Region.
Full Big East Schedule:
#11 St. John’s vs. #11 Arizona State – 9:10 PM ET Wednesday, TruTV (Dayton, OH)
#5 Marquette vs. #12 Murray State – 4:20 PM ET Thursday, TBS (Hartford, CT)
#6 Villanova vs. #11 Saint Mary’s – 7:20 PM ET Thursday, TBS (Hartford, CT)
#7 Wofford vs. #10 Seton Hall – 9:40 PM ET Thursday, CBS (Jacksonville, FL)