The stage is ready in the Windy City for the 2018 Big East Women’s Basketball Tournament to begin this weekend. All eyes are on the regular season co-champions, DePaul and Marquette, as expectations for a rematch in the championship game were already being discussed before the season even began. With Marquette sitting atop with the No. 1-seed and DePaul at No. 2, it seems that both teams are on a crash course to meet in the finals once again. However, there are a few other teams looking to crash the party.
The bracket is set. Here is an in-depth look at the upcoming Big East Tournament:
The Favorite: Marquette. The Golden Eagles have been deemed the favorite since the very beginning of the season. The defending Big East Tournament champs feature the Big East Player of the Year and the conference’s top scorer, Allazia Blockton. Blockton is the first Marquette player to receive those individual honors in program history. She’s been a key cog for the Golden Eagles since she first set foot on campus. Now a junior, she’s at the forefront of Marquette and the Big East. However, she’s not alone. All-Big East Second Team selection Erika Davenport wreaks havoc inside as a physical player on both ends of the court. She averages 12.1 points and is one of the league’s best rebounders with 8.6 boards per game. Aside from them, the Golden Eagles have three other players averaging double figures in scoring--Natisha Hiedeman (13.1 points per game), last season’s Big East Tournament MVP Amani Wilborn (12.1), and Danielle King (11.9). This is a very balanced and experienced team that only graduated one senior from last season’s run--and brought back every other important player. As good as Marquette is, it does have one weakness--its defense. It was especially exposed by the one team that was able to drop 95 points on them...
The Challenger: DePaul. With mastermind Doug Bruno at the helm, the Blue Demons have been a 20-win team year in and year out over the last decade. Since conference realignment saw other notable women’s basketball programs leave (UConn and Notre Dame, for example), the Blue Demons have taken over. They have captured at least a share of the Big East regular season title since 2013-14, and they have appeared in three of the last four conference tournament title games--winning two championships. DePaul is also very deep and balanced, with six players averaging at least nine points per game. They have a pair of All-Big East First Team selections leading the way, with Mart’e Grays emerging as the top scorer (14.4 points per game) and do-it-all sophomore Kelly Campbell in the mix. Campbell logged the only triple-double by a Big East player this season, when she notched 11 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists against Seton Hall. She does everything for DePaul--rebound, facilitate, defend, and is a solid secondary scoring option. Overall, this is a team filled with sharpshooters. The Blue Demons live and rarely die by the three. They have made a conference-best 358 three-pointers, 101 more than second-place Villanova. Ashton Millender is one of the top long range shooters in the conference, making 86-of-208 (41.3 percent) from deep. However, she’s not the only to watch out for, as nearly everyone can take off from beyond the arc.
The Contenders: Villanova and Creighton. If defense wins championships, then Villanova is in pretty good shape to make some noise. The Wildcats have one of the best defenses around the conference. Villanova is the only Big East team to hold opponents below 60 points, on average. Similarly, it has held opponents to a conference-best 38.1 percent on the floor and just 27.4 percent from long range. On the other end of the court, the Wildcats take excellent care of the ball, boasting the second-lowest turnover rate in the entire country. Led mainly by the play of their guards, when Adrianna Hahn, Alex Louin, and Kelly Jekot heat up--it can be problematic for their opponents. However, the Wildcats also have a not-so-secret-anymore weapon off the bench in Mary Gedaka, this year’s Sixth Woman of the Year and one of the most efficient players on offense in the conference. The Lady ‘Cats might have borrowed the motto of “shoot ‘em up, sleep in the streets” from the men’s team, since the three-point line is so vital to their game plan. They will go as far as the hot hand will take them, but may possibly save themselves with a tough defensive effort if shots aren’t falling. This team can be a bit inconsistent at times, but they have played their best basketball as of late, since starting off conference play slowly.
As for the Bluejays, they’re battle tested. They might have been up-and-down at a number of points this season, but they’re an impressive 5-1 in overtime games. Two of those wins needed double-overtime, while another needed quadruple-overtime. Creighton might have graduated two great contributors last season, but it still has plenty of experience and talent to go around. Senior guard Sydney Lamberty has been a staple for the Bluejays since her freshman year. She’s gotten better with each season and has certainly saved her best for last. Lamberty does a bit of everything for the Bluejays and has thrived since transitioning into becoming the team’s main facilitator. She’s averaging 11.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.4 assists--which is the second-highest in the conference, behind DePaul’s Campbell. Then there’s Audrey Faber, who has lived up to the hype of being Creighton’s first-ever top-100 recruit coming out of high school. Faber is an all-around threat at the forward position. She can score inside, as well as stretch out her game to the perimeter. Jaylyn Agnew rounds off this trio-dynamic at Creighton with her three-point shooting ability. She’s drained 38.5 percent of her long range shots and is also a tough defender on the opposite end of the court. While this trio leads the way, keep an eye out for Olivia Elger and Temi Carda coming in off the bench--two vital players in the rotation, with Carda being named to the Big East All-Freshman team.
The Dark Horse: Georgetown. The Hoyas might look unimpressive on paper, with their even .500 record and a No. 6-seed in the Big East Tournament. However, they are the only Big East squad that has been able to beat the top two teams--DePaul and Marquette--at least once this season. Georgetown is led by two-way stud Dionna White, who was given All-Big East First Team honors, as well as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award. She is a dangerous scorer when she gets into a groove and an absolute pest on defense. White will look to lockdown opposing team’s top guards, as well as be a turnover-generating machine.
X-Factor: Depth. There seems to be a common theme between the upper half of the conference and the lower half, and that’s depth. The better teams have a balanced dynamic, with multiple players that can contribute at a high level alongside their respective stars. Meanwhile, some of the lower-seeded teams appear to be carried by a single player or a tag team. It simply won’t work when there’s a game to be played every day. For those teams, other players will have to step up, or they’ll find themselves overwhelmed by the loaded squads in the conference.
Master Strategist: Carolyn Kieger (Marquette). She shared this year’s Coach of the Year Award with Villanova’s Harry Perretta, but Kieger has impressed since taking the head coaching job at her alma mater in 2014. Since her first season, when the Golden Eagles finished an ugly 9-22--they have only gotten better since with each passing year. Last season, they won the conference tournament title. Can she lead her team to back-to-back championships? Will she be able to adjust if Marquette has an off night and their not-too-impressive defense has to hold up?
Upset Alert: Georgetown over DePaul. Don’t let Georgetown’s 14-14 record fool you, this team has the potential to create shock waves throughout the tournament. The Hoyas lost both meetings against their No. 3-seed matchup Villanova by just one basket. Should they advance past ‘Nova and play DePaul, they’ll have Chicagoans on upset alert, because they managed to take down the Blue Demons in Wintrust a few weeks ago. The Hoyas have some nice wins this season and some real head-scratchers. Don’t completely count them out.
Names to Know
Butler-- Tori Schickel, Whitney Jennings, Kristen Spolyar
Creighton-- Sydney Lamberty, Audrey Faber, Jaylyn Agnew
DePaul-- Mart’e Grays, Kelly Campbell, Ashton Millender, Amarah Coleman
Georgetown-- Dionna White, Cynthia Petke, Mikayla Venson
Marquette-- Allazia Blockton, Amani Wilborn, Erika Davenport, Natisha Hiedeman
Providence-- Jovana Nogic, Maddie Jolin, Clara Che
St. John’s-- Qadashah Hoppie, Maya Singleton, Tiana England
Seton Hall-- JaQuan Jackson, Taylor Brown, Shadeen Samuels
Villanova-- Alex Louin, Adrianna Hahn, Kelly Jekot, Mary Gedaka
Xavier-- Imani Partlow, Anniina Aijanen, Jada Byrd
The Big East Tournament offers a chance to make one last statement before Selection Monday takes place on Mar. 12. DePaul gets to host the tourney once again, after it was hosted in Milwaukee last season. Leading up to the semifinals--or the championship game, really--I predict it going all-chalk. Butler should take care of Providence in what should be a fun showdown between the Friars’ Jovana Nogic and the Bulldogs’ Whitney Jennings. The difference will be Butler’s All-Big East First Teamer, Tori Schickel, inside. As for the other outbracket game, Seton Hall should dispatch a very young and inexperienced Xavier squad.
Moving into the quarterfinals, Marquette wins to make it back to the semis and so should DePaul. For the close No. 4 Creighton/No. 5 St. John’s and No. 3 Villanova/No. 6 Georgetown matchups--that will require a bit more unpacking. St. John’s doesn’t have much of an interior presence outside of Maya Singleton, the Red Storm’s double-double machine. It does have an electrifying freshman in Qadashah Hoppie, but Creighton seems to be a little more well-rounded. Faber should be able to match up with Singleton inside, but if she gets her perimeter shots to drop--she’ll be forced to come out from inside to respect it. Apart from that, the Bluejays just have a couple more consistent weapons that should catapult them to victory. That Faber-Agnew-Lamberty trio spearheads the next best offense in the conference--right after DePaul and Marquette.
Then, for Villanova, its defense has to be dialed in on White for all 40 minutes. It can’t slow down at the end like it did last time, allowing the Hoyas back into the game. The Wildcats did a solid job of shutting down Georgetown from long range. They also did an excellent job of keeping the Hoyas’ other key players besides White, quiet. Villanova figures out the Hoyas on both ends of the court to get one last insurance win to punch their ticket to the Big Dance.
In the semifinals--still going chalk. Marquette and DePaul are just too talented. The Golden Eagles are a load offensively. While the Bluejays were able to negate that in their most recent meeting on Feb. 4, I just don’t think everyone outside of Blockton and Davenport will disappear again--and allow the Bluejays to get all three members of their trio in a rhythm. As for DePaul-’Nova, the Blue Demons should take care of business at home like they did last time.
Seriously, who let them host, because the Blue Demons should feel right at home for the championship game. They should also avenge last season’s loss and win their third Big East Tournament title.
Big East Final Four/Semi Finals:
Marquette, Creighton, DePaul, Villanova
Marquette over Creighton
DePaul over Villanova
Championship Game: DePaul over Marquette
Audrey Faber, Creighton
Allazia Blockton, Marquette
Erika Davenport, Marquette
Mart’e Grays, DePaul
Mary Gedaka, Villanova
Tournament MVP: Kelly Campbell, DePaul