Postseason play is finally here, and the stage is set for the 2018 Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. (Step aside, Big 10.) For the first time since conference realignment, Villanova isn’t entering as the No. 1-seed atop the Big East. Xavier holds the regular season title, but there are a number of teams looking to serve as a buzzkill.
Here is an in-depth look at the upcoming Big East Tournament:
The Favorite: Villanova. When you have won two of the last three Big East Tournament championships and have had three-straight title game appearances, you come in as the favorite. Outside of the newcomers, there isn’t a single Wildcat on the roster that knows what it’s like to fall short of playing in the finals. Even though the Villanova Wildcats played second fiddle in the regular season for the first time since conference realignment, their experience and talent gives them the edge over the other nine teams. The Wildcats have two All-Big East First Team honorees--and Wooden Award finalists--with Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. Brunson leads the ‘Cats with a team-high 19.0 points per game and 4.8 assists per game. As for Bridges, he’s right behind Brunson, averaging 17.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals. Both Brunson and Bridges have impressive 50-80-40 splits. However, the Wildcats have always been about more than just one or two guys. Jay Wright’s team is loaded with six different guys that average more than 10 points per game, a feat no other Big East team has this season--or any other Villanova squad from the Wright era, for that matter.
The Challenger: Xavier. Sure, the Xavier Musketeers won their first Big East regular season title and possess the No. 1 seed in this tournament, but they’ve got to take the backseat for now. Villanova was just a single game behind them in the conference standings and as good as the Musketeers were, they couldn’t come close to downing the ‘Cats. However, it’s possible that the Musketeers have the last laugh--if they’re able to hold up the trophy on Saturday night. Xavier is headlined by its highest-scoring duo in program history: Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura. Together, they have amassed 3,614 points. Bluiett has been the leading man since he first arrived and has only grown each year. He has a penchant for taking over games and delivering in clutch situations. He carried the Musketeers to the Elite Eight last season, and he’s looking to end his career at Xavier with a bang. The same goes for his Macura, who does a bit of everything. He plays with a chip on his shoulder that Xavier fans love and his opponents can’t stand. As good as Bluiett and Macura are, they have a great supporting cast around them. They have a nicely balanced nine-man rotation, with eight of those guys averaging at least seven points per game. Altogether, this team has the ingredients for a Big East Tournament title contention, and a possible deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
The Contenders: Seton Hall and Creighton. The Seton Hall Pirates are known for their ‘Core Four’ of Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Myles Powell, and Angel Delgado. While Powell is only a sophomore, he’s elevated his game to match that of his veteran senior teammates. The seniors certainly deserve their fanfare, but Powell’s improvement from his freshman season has made this team that much better. Powell has evolved beyond being just a spot up three-point shooter, to one that can contribute and score in a variety of ways. He’s averaging 15.6 points per game, second to Rodriguez--who leads Seton Hall with 18.1 points per game. Carrington is the only one of the four to have not received any Big East accolades of any kind, but he is no slouch. While his scoring has been a bit inconsistent, he still provides a tough defensive effort and is the playmaker that gets the team going. The conference already knows what Delgado is capable of doing and the double-double machine is coming into the Big East Tournament with a chip on his shoulder after being left off of the All-Big East First Team. If Rodriguez is healthy and this team is able to play at full strength, it’s a scary squad to go up against. Even if he isn’t, this team has a couple of guys who don’t get as much love as this ‘Core Four’--Ismael Sanogo is a tough defender and freshman Myles Cale has been decent in Rodriguez’s absence.
As for last season’s Big East Tournament runner up, the Creighton Bluejays, they have enjoyed their third-straight 20-win season, despite having to deal with another tough injury. This time, it was sophomore Martin Krampelj who got bitten by the injury bug. He was having a promising season, too, but it has now opened the door for four-star big man Jacob Epperson, who has only improved with each and every outing since his redshirt was burned. Regardless, this team revolves around its backcourt of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas. Foster, an All-Big East First Team selection, is a dynamic scorer that can make some big baskets. Last season, he had the go-ahead three-pointer that sent the Bluejays to the Big East Tournament championship game. Helping him out is Thomas, the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. As good as Thomas is defensively, he has grown tremendously on the other end of the court--taking a Mikal Bridges-like jump.
The Dark Horse: Butler. The Butler Bulldogs had a rough week to close out the regular season. Firmly caught in a four-way tie for third place entering last week, the Bulldogs lost back-to-back games to be the odd one out and in sixth place. They’ll get another shot at the Pirates to start--a team they lost to in the regular season finale. It’s been a decent first season for LaVall Jordan, and he’s lucky to have a solid one-two punch in Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin. Martin is currently the second-highest scorer in the Big East, averaging 21.2 points per game, and he’s also top ten in rebounding, collecting 6.4 boards per game. He impacts the game in a variety of ways for the Bulldogs, not only as a leading scorer and rebounder, but also with his leadership and experience in being one of their best since his sophomore season. As for Baldwin, he’s a pest on both ends of the court and has built off of his solid freshman campaign. The key for Butler is getting a third player to step up and produce alongside its leading tandem. When the Bulldogs can get Paul Jorgensen--or someone else to heat up--they become a much more formidable team. A chunk of their losses came when they couldn’t get a third player to contribute 10 or more points. Is this the year that Butler can get its first Big East Tournament win?
X-Factor: Star Power. It seems like nearly every single team in the Big East has that player--or two--that can carry them to victory, take over games, and deliver in big moments. So while the Big East only got to list 13 names between its first team, second team, and honorable mentions--there are a lot of different impact players that go beyond those named in Sunday’s announcements. Anyone in the conference’s top-six teams can possibly contend, but even the teams in the bottom four that are playing in the opening round of the tournament have game-changing players that have had big time performances this season. On the Big East’s biggest stage, can these talented players elevate their game even higher? Do they have what it takes to be the deciding factor in close games?
Master Strategist: Chris Mack (Xavier). He did a great job with his Musketeers throughout the regular season. Their 15-3 record in Big East play was enough to secure them their first-ever outright Big East regular season title, taking it from Villanova for the first time since the conference realigned. While there wouldn’t be a fifth-straight Big East regular season title for the Wildcats, it seems like Mack was able to answer every other question except for, “How do you beat Villanova?” Xavier has used Villanova as its measuring stick, but it couldn’t topple the ‘Cats in either regular season meeting. Can Mack guide his team to the Big East Tournament championship game and have his team prepared for a possible showdown with the Wildcats?
Upset Alert: St. John’s over Xavier. In all honesty, the Red Storm is not a team that I would not want to face in the quarterfinal round of the tournament. I think ‘Nova can breathe a bit easier to know that the Johnnies aren’t one of their opening round winning options. Madison Square Garden is technically a home game for the Red Storm. While Xavier was able to sweep St. John’s in both regular season meetings, neither victory was impressive. The Red Storm kept it competitive and this was before it went on the crazy February turnaround. If Shamorie Ponds is healthy, and the Johnnies can get past Georgetown in the opening round, Xavier should be wary of a team that is bent on revenge and has nothing to lose.
Names to Know
You already know Villanova’s players...
Butler- Kelan Martin, Kamar Baldwin, Paul Jorgensen
Creighton- Marcus Foster, Khyri Thomas, Jacob Epperson
DePaul- Eli Cain, Max Strus, Marin Maric
Georgetown- Jessie Govan, Marcus Derrickson, Jamorko Pickett
Marquette- Markus Howard, Andrew Rowsey, Sam Hauser
Providence- Kyron Cartwright, Rodney Bullock, Jalen Lindsey
St. John’s- Shamorie Ponds, Justin Simon, Bashir Ahmed, Marvin Clark II
Seton Hall- Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington, Myles Powell, Desi Rodriguez
Xavier- Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Kerem Kanter
There has yet to be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. With Xavier and Villanova on a crash course to meet in the finals, it would make for a compelling game. Is this the year where we finally get to see the top two teams in the conference duke it out in the championship game?
The Road to the Finals:
For the first time since conference realignment, Villanova enters the Big East Tournament as the 2-seed. The Wildcats won’t be playing in the Thursday matinee slot, but rather on prime time. The Wildcats will take on the winner of Marquette-DePaul, and while Steve Wojciechowski is a slightly unimpressive 5-3 against DePaul as the Golden Eagles’ head coach, his squad should take care of business. This is a Marquette team that had the unfortunate circumstance of finishing just outside of the top six due to tiebreaker procedures and will have to play its way into the quarterfinals, where it’ll face off against ‘Nova. The Golden Eagles can be a tricky team if both Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey go off, but it’s unlikely that the Wildcats allow both of them to heat up. Villanova should advance to the semifinals, where it’ll take on the winner of Seton Hall-Butler. The Pirates and the Bulldogs just played each other to finish the regular season, and Seton Hall completed the regular season sweep. If Rodriguez is back--which I am fully expecting--the Pirates should down a Bulldog squad that isn’t the best outside of Hinkle Fieldhouse.
So, that means the Pirates and the Wildcats will meet once again. It won’t be easy, the Pirates never make it easy. A lot will depend on Omari Spellman once again, and how he plays against Delgado. If he’s able to lock him down again that would be great, but it’ll be even bigger if he is able to get into a groove from the perimeter. Spellman needs to have the hot hand from deep, forcing Delgado to come out and respect his shot from long range. It’ll open up the lane for the Wildcats to do attack the basket or set up drive-and-kicks. Even with a healthy Rodriguez, Villanova will advance past Seton Hall on another nail-biter, reaching its fourth-straight championship game.
As for the other side of the bracket? Georgetown-St. John’s will be a great introduction to the Big East tournament, a battle between rivals. Last season’s game was a one-point thriller and had a sidelines brawl to spice things up. A lot of St. John’s tournament chances will depend on Shamorie Ponds. While Justin Simon has stepped up in his absence--playing a big part in the double-overtime victory over Butler, for example--he is not Ponds. Ponds is not only the top scorer in the Big East, but the heart and soul of this team. He has the talent and the skills on both ends of the court to carry this team. If he is healthy, not only do I see the Johnnies advancing past Georgetown, but also upsetting the Musketeers. (Hot take!) Both Georgetown and Xavier are lucky to have faced the Red Storm before it got hot in February. Now with more confidence and the best basketball of the season since Marcus LoVett’s injury, the Red Storm are a threat to make some noise. The Red Storm was right there in each of the games against Georgetown and Xavier, except it collapsed late-game--especially against Xavier. St. John’s finds redemption and catches the Musketeers sleepwalking in a Thursday matinee to advance to the semis. Finally, one of the unluckiest teams around will get a stroke of fortune to beat one of the luckiest teams in the country—retribution for the Musketeers winning 11 games by seven or fewer points (a majority of those being lackluster opponents.)
Creighton-Providence is an interesting matchup because they split the season series, and they are two teams that aren’t the greatest on the road or outside of the comfort of their home arenas. I’m giving the slight edge to the Bluejays, since the Friars haven’t looked that great coming down the stretch. Although they did upset ‘Nova, a one-sided loss to DePaul and a 3-5 February record (with the other two wins coming against Georgetown) just doesn’t seem impressive. From there, I think the Bluejays will quell the Red Storm, as Thomas will do another solid defensive job against Ponds--who has scored a combined 19 points off 8-for-25 shooting against the Bluejays--setting things up for a Creighton-Villanova rematch.
The Championship Game:
There won’t be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown here. Creighton and Villanova split the regular season series, after the Wildcats won in lopsided fashion at home, but then collapsed in overtime to lose amidst a rough stretch on the road. It wasn’t a great game defensively for Villanova, who allowed Thomas and Foster to combine for 52 points--while allowing three others to eclipse double figures.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, this game won’t be played at CenturyLink. Going into the season, I believe I predicted that ‘Nova would lose in the Big East Tournament finals in a pre-season, game-by-game staff predictions roundtable. I’m taking that all back. It’s unlikely that they allow Thomas and Foster to go off on them once again, as an improved defensive effort will quiet them down. As long as they don’t get into a rhythm, Villanova should be in great shape to cut the nets and raise up the Big East Tournament trophy for the third time in four years.
Big East Final/Four/Semi Finals
St. John’s, Creighton, Villanova, Seton Hall
Creighton over St. John’s
Villanova over Seton Hall
Championship Game: Villanova over Creighton
Khyri Thomas, Creighton
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s
Mikal Bridges, Villanova
Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
Tournament MVP: Jalen Brunson, Villanova