Big East Tournament preview: Villanova looks to repeat at MSG

Photo: USA Today Sports

It was a fantastic regular season for the Big East, if only because two teams—Villanova and Xavier—managed to dodge losses while the rest of the elite college basketball teams often scuffled. The Wildcats and Mustangs have kept the Big East in the spotlight in spite of their limited television exposure and shrunken field.

But the Big East still has some serious depth. Seton Hall emerged as a team to reckon with this winter, while Butler and Providence showed flashes of greatness. Those five teams all will likely make it to the Big Dance this year, while five others need a surprise run in the Big East Tournament to make it to the NCAAs.

Here’s a look at each Big East team, organized by seeding, as the Big East Tournament approaches. The first round tips off Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.

 

1. Villanova Wildcats (27-4,16-2 Big East)

Photo: USA Today Sports
Photo: USA Today Sports

Villanova is a good offensive team and an elite defensive team. They’re experienced. And they rarely lose.

The Big East bullies have gone 16-2 each of the last three years, and this team is in some ways the culmination of their current wave of success. Senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono (11.7 ppg, 4.5 apg) has been there through it all, and he’s still the point of attack for the Wildcats. Star junior wing Josh Hart (15.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg) has been lighting things up of late for Villanova, which looks to earn a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if they can sweep through New York.

The Wildcats won the tournament last year and seem a solid pick to repeat.

 

2. Xavier Mustangs (26-4, 14-4)

What makes Xavier scary is that that it can get down a bunch in a game and come back easily. This is a quintessential second-half team that sometimes takes a while to get hot offensively.

They always seem to get hot eventually, though.

Xavier pounded their way through Big East play with a tough inside game complemented by sharpshooting guards Trevon Bluiett (15.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Myles Davis (11.3 ppg, 4.1 apg).

The Mustangs have scored at least 85 points in four of their last five games (they managed just 81 in a road loss to Seton Hall), and are near impossible to slow down. Only two teams held Xavier under 70 points in Big East play: Villanova and Creighton.

 

3. Seton Hall (22-8, 12-6)

After a slow start to Big East play in which they lost four out of their first seven games, the Pirates took the conference by storm.

Sophomore Brooklyn native Isaiah Whitehead (17.9 ppg) emerged as Seton Hall’s go-to scorer and one of the conference’s best players. Whitehead dropped 22 on Xavier in Seton Hall’s upset on Feb. 28 and gets help from two more sophomores—forward Desi Rodriguez (12.8 ppg) and guard Khadeen Carrington (13.9 ppg).

This is a program with an extraordinarily bright future. But they’re already good and looking to make a statement in New York.

 

4. Providence (22-9, 10-8)

After rising as high as No. 8 in the polls in January, Providence faltered in February. Injuries and poor shooting bothered the Friars during a stretch in which they lost six of eight.

Providence is an imperfect team, lacking in depth and heavily reliant on its two superstars. But it’s also an incredibly dangerous team.

Junior guard Kris Dunn is an dynamite two-way force, and sophomore forward Ben Bentil leads the conference in scoring at 21.2 ppg. The Friars will go as far their two stars take them.

Providence seems to be warming up at the right time, having won its last three games.

 

5. Butler (21-9, 10-8)

The Bulldogs are the real wildcard in the Big East Tournament. Butler has the talent to win the whole thing, and plenty of experience, but its season was more up-and-down than anyone could have predicted.

Like Providence, Butler comes into New York on a three-game winning streak, and picked up a solid win over Seton Hall during that stretch. Still, the Bulldogs are not a complete shoe-in for March Madness, and they’ve not beaten Villanova, Xavier or Providence this year.

Butler has considerable offensive firepower, and leadership in seniors Kellen Dunham (16.2 ppg) and Roosevelt Jones (14.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.7 apg), but it often struggled to close out games during conference play. It might be time to start finishing those out in Madison Square Garden.

 

6. Creighton (18-13, 9-9)

Remember the days when Creighton was the Doug McDermott show? Well that’s not the scene these days in Omaha. Now, the Bluejays rely on depth with a stable of solid scorers.

Junior guard Maurice Watson Jr. is the best of them, and a 32-point performance by the diminutive guard against Xavier on Feb. 9 allowed them to pull the upset.

Creighton appears to be on the outside looking in when it comes to the NCAA Tournament at present, but a surprise run in the Big East Tournament could change that.

 

7. Marquette (19-12, 8-10)

Marquette seems to be finding its legs in the new Big East, but subpar defense kept the Golden Eagles from soaring in conference play this year.

Freshman forward Henry Ellenson is the star of the show in Milwaukee, and Marquette will need him to explode in the Big East Tournament to have any chance of making a surprise run. The Golden Eagles will also need to tighten up their defense, having given up 95 points in a 21 point loss to Butler Mar. 5 and at least 87 points in each of their last three games.

 

8. Georgetown (14-17, 7-11)

It was a long,disappointing slog of a season for Georgetown. The team projected to finish 2nd in the Big East Coaches Poll (I put them 4th in my Big East preview) failed to meet even the most modest of expectations.

Georgetown enters the Big East Tournament on a five game losing streak. The Hoyas are suspect defensively, and have been unable to parlay a number of talented scorers, led by electrifying senior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (16.3 ppg), into a consistent offensive attack.

The Hoyas present problems with their size: senior 7-footer Bradley Hayes, freshman center Jessie Govan and sophomore forward Isaac Copeland are all, well big. But a massive frontcourt may not be enough for a surprise run from Georgetown in the conference tournament.

 

9. DePaul (9-21, 3-15)

Unlike Georgetown, DePaul was expected to struggle this year. And struggle DePaul did.

The Blue Demons finished the season last in the Big East in rebounding, last in assists, last in steals, second to last in blocks and second to last in scoring. Senior forward Myke Henry (13.9 ppg) had a decent season, but his solid offensive production was not nearly enough to save DePaul most nights.

There is little reason to think DePaul will make any noise in the Big East Tournament

 

10. St. John’s (8-23, 1-17)

The rebuild is on in Queens.

Coach Chris Mullin’s first team at St. John’s will almost certainly be his least memorable. The Red Storm returned just 3.8 percent of its scoring coming into the season, and Mullin’s youthful squad struggled all year. They scored just one win in Big East play—at home vs. DePaul.

Pitt transfer Durand Johnson is the closest thing St. John’s has to a player to watch, but you probably will only have one more chance to watch him. St. John’s takes on Marquette on Wednesday.

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