Based on the conference’s parity and last-minute drama from the final weekend of the regular season, this year’s Big East Tournament should be an interesting one. The Big 10 has moved out of Madison Square Garden, so the World’s Most Famous Arena solely (and rightfully) belongs to the Big East for conference tournament college hoops. The Villanova Wildcats enter as the No. 1-seed, while the Marquette Golden Eagles come in at No. 2. While those two have been head-and-shoulders above the rest of the Big East, it’s been shown--especially down the stretch--that you shouldn’t sleep on the rest of the teams, especially when the teams seeded No. 3-10 are so interchangeable.
One more look at the bracket, and then an in-depth look at the upcoming Big East Tournament:
The Favorite: Villanova. Putting aside the fact that ‘Nova won its fifth Big East regular season crown in six years and that it’s the No. 1 seed for the tournament, Villanova has a pretty good track record at Madison Square Garden and in the Big East Tournament. The Wildcats have made it to the championship game in each of the last four years, winning the title in three of them. The spot for favorite goes to ‘Nova, as opposed to Marquette, because not only do the Golden Eagles have a more alarming late-season losing streak, but the ‘Cats also have the favorable draw to the finals. Villanova is a combined 7-1 against the teams it may meet on its way to the finals. As for Marquette? The Golden Eagles are 4-4 against the surrounding opposition they might face in their journey. Although this is a young Villanova team compared to recent years, the Wildcats have experienced leaders in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, two All-Big East First Team players. Booth is a top-five scorer in the conference, averaging a team-high 18.6 points. Paschall is right behind him with 16.5 points per game and a team-high 6.1 boards per game. The Wildcats’ third captain, sophomore Collin Gillespie, has taken strides in improving as a second-year player. He’s had some great performances, most notably a career-high 30 point game against rival Georgetown. He fell into a bit of a slump since that day, but if his most recent 22-point efficient showing against Seton Hall is indicative of him getting over the wall--it may be a dangerous combination moving forward, if he’s trending back upwards.
The Challenger: Marquette. The Golden Eagles had two opportunities to secure the Big East regular season title. Unfortunately for them, they failed to do so and had to watch the crown slip out of their hands. Marquette enters the Big East Tournament with a shocking four-game losing streak--a stretch that has been marked by turnovers, subpar execution in late-game situations, and just simply getting out-dueled by opponents in terms of shooting. While it comes in cold, Marquette also arrives at the Garden with a huge appetite for a victory to turn things around. The Golden Eagles are searching for that first win in March, and they’re simply too talented to continue the losing streak. Big East Player of the Year contender and the conference’s leading scorer, Markus Howard, has been a catalyst for the Golden Eagles’ success this season. He can score from anywhere on the floor and can take over games. So far, he’s averaging a conference-best 25.0 points per game--which is also good for sixth, nationally. He’s got a great supporting cast that stars the Hauser brothers--two versatile 6-foot-8 guard-forwards. Sam Hauser is averaging 14.8 points and a team-high 7.1 boards. He’s previously shown the ability to step up when Howard is cold. His younger brother, Joey Hauser, has proven to be an impact freshman. He is averaging just 9.8 points, but he’s shooting at a conference-best 44.3 percent from long range. Don’t forget about Sacar Anim, who can quietly score in double figures when opposing teams forget about him in trying to deal with Howard and the Hausers. This team is deep (can go as far as a 10-man rotation), has offensive firepower, and has improved on the defensive end since last season. Can the Golden Eagles shake off their slump?
The Contender: Seton Hall. What a week it was for the Seton Hall Pirates. After a tough three-game losing streak that made the final two games against Villanova and Marquette a “must-win for NCAA Tournament hopes”--the Pirates managed to complete the herculean task of knocking them both down in the same week. Maybe it’s the start of something, like in 2016. While most of the focus will be on Myles Powell, who is the second-highest scorer in the conference with 22.6 points per game, some attention should go to Seton Hall’s work defensively. According to KenPom, the Pirates are a top-50 squad in terms of defensive efficiency. They generate turnovers on 20.1 percent of their opponents’ possessions and that proved to be crucial in helping them upset ‘Nova and Marquette. Seton Hall also holds its opponents to shooting just 42.9 percent on the floor--the second-best clip, defensively, in the conference. Although they’re not a great rebounding team, Sandro Mamukelashvili has stepped up his effort on the glass as of late, creating second-chance opportunities while cleaning up the boards. Offensively, Powell leads the charge, and there’s no doubt about that. He can heat up in an instant and he’s shown to be a clutch player, as well as one that can orchestrate comebacks. Seton Hall needs to find consistent secondary scoring, but it can be Mamukelashvili, Myles Cale, Quincy McKnight, and even Michael Nzei on any given night.
The Dark Horses: Creighton and St. John’s. The Creighton Bluejays are probably the hottest team entering the Big East Tournament. They’re riding a big five-game winning streak and during this time, they’ve quickly ascended from last place in mid-February, to being a team that’s gained confidence and has quietly put together an impressive stretch of games. Creighton was one of the teams hit hardest by departures--with scoring machine Marcus Foster graduating and two-way stud Khyri Thomas leaving for the draft. There were a couple of losing stretches throughout conference play, but it looks like the Bluejays are coming in hot at the right time. As a team, the Bluejays are right behind Georgetown for the second-highest scoring team in the conference (79.3 points per game), but they are leading the Big East by shooting 48.5 percent overall and 39.6 percent from long range. This is a formidable offense that features five different players averaging at least 9.0 points, with sophomore Ty-Shon Alexander leading the way. They have snipers to complement Alexander in Mitch Ballock--who recently broke a school record and tied a Big East one with 11 three-pointers in a game--and conference All-Freshman Marcus Zegarowski. What makes Creighton dangerous is that it has found ways to win even when the threes aren’t dropping, doing so in two of the games during this five-game winning streak.
As for St. John’s, you never know what you’re going to get. The Red Storm has swept Marquette, which has to make the Golden Eagles nervous, but it has yet to defeat DePaul. The highs are really high, when this team is clicking, but then the lows can make a high school basketball team appear more organized. The Red Storm is technically at home, and it has talented players and athletes on the team that will look to set a blazing up-tempo pace. Shamorie Ponds is the type of player that can take over games and will his team to victory on both ends of the court. Justin Simon was recently named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year. St. John’s has five players averaging in double figures. If the Red Storm can stay organized and show a renewed effort on the glass and defensively, it can possibly make a run at the final.
(Honorable mention to Georgetown, who have the top-scoring offense in the Big East and has pulled off some impressive victories throughout the season. With Jessie Govan leading the way, and a solid young core of a freshman contributors, Patrick Ewing has made this team a lot less one-dimensional.)
The X-Factor: Luck? This sounds a little crazy, but this year’s Big East--for the most part--has been like a game of rock, paper, scissors. One team may dominate another, but might be completely unable to stop a third team from bullying them around. For example, in the opening round game that features St. John’s and DePaul. The Johnnies got swept by the Blue Demons and haven’t looked all that great against them, but they’ve been able to sweep Marquette, who in turn has taken down DePaul in both meetings. These cyclical exchanges are also seen through various Big East team combinations, with that trio just being one example. It feels like every team, when evaluating potential next round opponents, it can be going up against a favorable draw, or a team that’s been its kryptonite. Depending on the outcomes of these tournament games, it can heavily skew the odds moving forward for certain teams.
Master Strategist: Jay Wright, Villanova. Games have yet to be played, but on paper--Villanova’s got a favorable path to the championship game. Given the panic caused by various losing stretches the Wildcats had faced throughout the year--and concern that came with losing four players to the NBA--for a “down year”, Villanova’s done pretty well for itself. The Wildcats have been full of surprises--good and bad--but another Big East regular season crown after the greatest start to conference play in program history, makes some wonder how far Wright can guide his team in the postseason. With a potential of three games being played on three-straight nights--and worries in regards to minute distribution--can Wright lead his team to the championship game for the fifth-straight year? Can the Wildcats pull off the first-ever Big East Tournament title three-peat?
Upset Alert(s): Creighton over Villanova, St. John’s over Marquette, Georgetown over Seton Hall. Usually, I pick one, but there are just three that stick out to me the most. I’ll get into each of them as quick as possible.
First, if the 'Jays get past Xavier-- Creighton over Villanova. The Bluejays are riding in hot with that winning streak. Yes, they got swept by the ‘Cats throughout the regular season. The first--’Nova was able to weather Creighton’s offensive barrage, before getting some stops and pulling away in the second half at Omaha. Creighton managed to shoot 40.0 percent from deep and knock down an impressive 14 threes in the loss. Unfortunately for the ‘Jays, it just couldn’t stop ‘Nova on defense. However, when the series came back to the Finn, the Bluejays toughened up defensively and gave Villanova a scare--before losing in overtime. It should be noted that although Creighton didn’t achieve the same three-point success in the rematch (just 5-of-17 on the floor), the Bluejays were able to rumble with ‘Nova on the road and force overtime without their leading scorer, Alexander, and freshman sniper Zegarowski. With the way the ‘Jays are rolling, don’t sleep on them.
Second, St. John’s over Marquette--this one is a little more obvious. The Red Storm was the only team to successfully sweep the Golden Eagles in conference play throughout the regular season. Justin Simon locks down on Howard in a way that most defenders don’t seem to. Aside from that, Marquette’s four-game losing streak is alarming, but it’s even more concerning that it’s struggling with taking care of the ball. In both losses to the Johnnies, Marquette actually did a pretty decent job of not turning the ball over. However, as of late, the Golden Eagles have made many careless errors and dumb mistakes. That plays into the hands of the Red Storm, who love running in transition and capitalizing on turnovers. Marquette has turned the ball over an average of 15.8 times per game. St. John’s averages almost 18 points per game off opponents’ turnovers. The Johnnies are adept at generating them, doing so at an impressive rate of 21.2 percent of opponents’ possessions. More turnovers, means more problems for Marquette.
Lastly, this one’s more of an upset in terms of No. 6 over No. 3--and the fact that Georgetown could potentially give Marquette a run for its money as well. The Hoyas and Pirates have split the regular season series. Seton Hall won easily at home, while Georgetown evened the score in an intense double-overtime battle in D.C. Either team that wins this game can very much make it to the championship final, and this quarterfinal would be such an interesting tiebreaker.
Names to Know
You already know Villanova’s players...
Butler- Kamar Baldwin, Paul Jorgensen, Jordan Tucker
Creighton- Ty-Shon Alexander, Martin Krampelj, Mitch Ballock, Marcus Zegarowski
DePaul- Max Strus, Eli Cain, Paul Reed, Femi Olujobi
Georgetown- Jessie Govan, Mac McClung, James Akinjo, Josh LeBlanc
Marquette- Markus Howard, Sam Hauser, Joey Hauser
Providence- Alpha Diallo, A.J. Reeves, Nate Watson
St. John’s- Shamorie Ponds, Mustapha Heron, L.J. Figueroa, Justin Simon, Marvin Clark II
Seton Hall- Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Quincy McKnight
Xavier- Naji Marshall, Quentin Goodin, Zach Hankins
Going to preface this by saying with an unpredictable regular season, it’s safe to say we’re due for some chaos and a few more twists in the Big East Tournament. With that said, I feel like it’s easier to just go with a set path of predictions--knowing that it’s fairly hard to get it all right and having an easier time committing to picks. This is my best attempt, guess, and prediction on how things will go.
We’ve yet to see a No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the championship game and with Villanova and Marquette separating themselves from the pack during the regular season, could this possibly be the year? Can ‘Nova make it three-straight conference tournament championships for the first time in Big East history (as well as four in the last five years)?
The Road to the Finals:
Villanova’s back as the No. 1-seed, after being the second-seed last season. The Wildcats will play in the Thursday matinee slot against the winner of Butler-Providence. The Friars swept the Bulldogs in the regular season series, and both games weren’t played not too long ago. Providence won the first meeting at Butler on Feb. 26, before winning again at home in the regular season finale on Mar. 9. The Friars should take care of business once again, especially if A.J. Reeves is able to get going again. The freshman guard had a strong start to the season before sustaining a foot injury. He came back, but hadn’t been the same, until he dropped 25 points and shot 6-of-8 from long range against the Bulldogs in the season finale. If this is a sign that he’s back in form, Providence shouldn’t have a problem. From there, the Friars will take on the ‘Cats once again. Providence seems to have a knack for always giving ‘Nova a dogfight in the Big East Tournament--no matter how small or big of an underdog it is. The Friars excel defensively, but have been shaky offensively. Maybe a resurgence by Reeves helps fix that, but as good Providence may be on defense--it has yet to slow down the Wildcat senior tandem of Booth and Paschall. This may be one of those games where they start off slowly before turning it on, so I’m feeling a solid game from Collin Gillespie or Saddiq Bey until those ‘Cats are able to get going and pull away. Villanova should advance to the semifinals, where it will take on the winner of Xavier-Creighton. It’ll be a clash of contrasting play styles, as the Bluejays like to run-and-gun and take off from the three-point line. Meanwhile, the Musketeers will slow it down and look to their bruising frontcourt to get the job done. Both teams split the regular season series, but the Bluejays are looking real good right now and will bury the Musketeers from long range.
So that means Villanova and Creighton will meet in the semifinal. For Creighton, this is the opportunity it’s been waiting for since losing a close overtime battle at the Finn. The Bluejays were able to bear down defensively, but couldn’t make the plays in overtime to take the lead and upset the ‘Cats. On the bright side for them, they were able to hang with ‘Nova at the Pavilion, without the services of their leading scorer, Alexander, and another marksman in freshman sharpshooter Zegarowski. Creighton’s played the ‘Cats tough in two games, until ‘Nova gets a decisive run at the end to pull away. The Bluejays are coming in confident, but the youth will have to wait their turn for at least another year. Villanova’s veteran savvy and perimeter defense will be tested, but I think it’ll hang on in a potential nail-biter, advancing to its fifth-straight championship game.
As for the other side of the bracket? Some say St. John’s is in the NCAA Tournament as of right now, but a third loss to DePaul would not be a good look for the Johnnies. The Red Storm is so unpredictable. When they’re hot, they’re on fire. When they’re cold, they’re building brick houses on the court to try and stay warm. I think St. John’s will be able to get a win over DePaul, for good measure, to set up a rematch against the Golden Eagles in the quarterfinals. Marquette should be nervous--a frustrating four-game losing streak, a missed opportunity at least a share of the conference regular season title, and now, a game against the one team that managed to sweep them in Big East play. The Johnnies placed the clamps on the Golden Eagles in both regular season matchups, locking down and not allowing Marquette to take flight from beyond the arc. I would be shocked if Markus Howard--the conference’s top scorer--and the rest of Marquette’s shooters were shut down for a third time. The Golden Eagles have been hit with their first bout of real adversity, and unfortunately for them it was late in the season, but they should get back on track and avoid the upset to reach the semifinals. In the last quarterfinal matchup--Georgetown vs. Seton Hall--expect a lot of fireworks. The Hoyas will find strength in numbers, with a variety of different players chipping into the high-powered offense, while the Pirates will lean on Myles Powell to serve as a catalyst for the rest of the squad. Seton Hall is coming in with great confidence, pulling off an excellent final week to wrap up the regular season. If Powell and the Pirates can get more consistent secondary scoring outside of their leading man, we saw what Seton Hall’s capable of. I predict Seton Hall to ride that momentum past Georgetown and Marquette--as it pulls off another stunner to reach the championship game for a rematch with ‘Nova.
The Championship Game:
It’s going to be a war! Villanova vs. Seton Hall, at the Garden--for the Big East tournament championship once again. Last time, in the regular season finale, it took a surprise lights out performance from a player averaging three points per game, Myles Cale going 6-of-8 from deep, and Myles Powell hitting three-pointers from 2016 Kris Jenkins range for the Pirates to snatch one from the ‘Cats. Villanova was able to get going offensively, after a slow first half, but couldn’t overtake the Pirates.
Seton Hall has pulled off some big wins this season, one earlier at the Garden against the Kentucky Wildcats. Just like the Pirates did in 2016, they’ll ride a hot performance from their star player--get a couple more contributions here and there from others--and win a slugfest over Villanova. Although there were insane performances last time out, this will probably be one of those heated defensive battles, where both teams are scraping for baskets to get by. It won’t be pretty--and unfortunately--it won’t end in Villanova’s favor. Seton Hall is going to ride the wave it created from rising up to the challenge after having its back against the wall entering the final week of the regular season. (Cue the minutes distribution and rotation debate for the 1,000,000th time this season--just don’t hit that panic button.)
Big East Tournament Final Four/Semi Finals
Villanova, Creighton, Marquette, Seton Hall
Villanova over Creighton
Seton Hall over Marquette
Championship Game: Seton Hall over Villanova
Phil Booth, Villanova
Eric Paschall, Villanova
Ty-Shon Alexander, Creighton
Markus Howard, Marquette
Myles Cale, Seton Hall
Tournament MVP: Myles Powell, Seton Hall