Thursday’s Big East Tournament quarterfinal quadruple-header was an exciting one at Madison Square Garden, and the anticipation only ramps up even higher for Friday’s semifinal.
Since realignment, the quarterfinal had been the stage of the tournament where there were plenty of blowouts and lopsided results. This year was different. It was the closest it had been, further reinforcing the strength and competitiveness of this season’s Big East teams.
There weren’t any gimmies or easy games, with two of the games decided by single digits. The average margin of victory for the four quarterfinal games was 6.5 points. The highest margin came from Creighton’s 11-point win over Marquette.
Only one Big East Tournament quarterfinal comes close: 2014, the first year of realignment. The average margin of victory in the quarterfinals was 7.8 points that year, but that also included a Creighton 84-62 blowout win over DePaul.
No other year after that came close, with all Big East Tournament quarterfinals recording an average margin of 13.5 points or more.
Here’s a quick look at the two semifinal matchups.
No. 1 Providence (25-4) vs. No. 4 Creighton (21-10)
When: 6:30 p.m. ET
Key players for Providence: #0 Nate Watson (6-10, 260) Sr., C; #1 Al Durham (6-4, 180) Sr., G; #4 Jared Bynum (5-10, 180) Jr., G; #11 A.J. Reeves (6-6, 205) Sr., G; #14 Noah Horchler (6-8, 220) Sr., F; #15 Justin Minaya (6-7, 210) Sr., F
Key players for Creighton: #5 Alex O’Connell (6-6, 185) Sr., G; #11 Ryan Kalkbrenner (7-1, 256) So., C; #23 Trey Alexander (6-4, 185) Fr., G; #44 Ryan Hawkins (6-7, 222) Sr., F
2021-22 season series: Providence won the only meeting
- Providence defeated Creighton at home, 72-51, on Feb. 26
- Their Jan. 11 game was canceled for COVID-related reasons and was never rescheduled
Al Durham chose a pretty good time to hit his first three-pointer since January, coming through with a clutch open corner trey to help lift the Friars into the semifinals and escape with a win against upset-minded Butler.
It’s tough to get a true gauge of this matchup. One of the scheduled games was canceled and never made up. The other, although recent, might not paint a full story. It was a perfect storm of chaos for Creighton. The Bluejays were on the road, learning how to play without Big East Freshman of the Year and starting point guard Ryan Nembhard, and A.J. Reeves shot a blistering 7-of-10 from long range and singlehandedly outshot the Bluejays at the perimeter. The result: a 21-point Friar win.
This meeting should be a lot closer. Trey Alexander looks more comfortable in the makeshift point guard role. While Providence will look to bring a much better effort for Friday night, Butler left some hints on how to frustrate the Friars. Providence struggled breaking the zone and relied on Nate Watson to bully the Bulldogs down low. It worked against Butler, but with Big East Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kalkbrenner, will Watson find the same success? No other Friar was able to get it going, and although Jared Bynum finished with 16 points in that quarterfinals win, most of his points came from getting to the free throw line.
These aren’t your run-and-gun Bluejays of years past. This is arguably Greg McDermott’s best defensive team since coming to the Big East and the stats and metrics put them around the top in the conference and the country. They’re better prepared and getting used to playing without Nembhard, and if they muck it up, they’ll have a shot to upset the Friars.
KenPom predicts: Providence wins, 67-65, and is a 58% favorite to win.
Vegas says: Providence is a 3.5-point favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook
My prediction: Creighton over Providence
No. 2 Villanova (24-7) vs. No. 3 UConn (23-8)
When: 9 p.m. ET
Key players for Villanova: #2 Collin Gillespie (6-3, 195) Sr., G; #3 Brandon Slater (6-7, 220) Sr., F; #5 Justin Moore (6-4, 210) Jr., G; #14 Caleb Daniels (6-4, 210) Sr., G; #23 Jermaine Samuels (6-7, 230) Sr,. F; #43 Eric Dixon (6-8, 255) So., F
Key players for UConn: #2 R.J. Cole (6-1, 185) Sr., G; #4 Tyrese Martin (6-6, 215) Sr., G; #5 Isaiah Whaley (6-9, 225) Sr., F; #21 Adama Sanogo (6-9, 240) So., F; #44 Andre Jackson (6-6, 205) So., G
2021-22 season series: 1-1 series split
- Villanova defeated UConn at home, 85-74, on Feb. 5
- UConn defeated Villanova at home, 71-69, on Feb. 22
In the first meeting, UConn fans were displeased with the frequent whistle that saw the Huskies’ talented frontcourt quickly into early foul trouble, allowing Eric Dixon and the ‘Cats to build up a big early lead, before finishing things off in the second half. Then, in the rematch, Villanova missed some crucial free throws, had a couple of turnovers, R.J. Cole came through in the clutch, then Wildcat fans had some displeasure with the final charge call that resulted in UConn hanging on for the win. To top it all off, UConn fans stormed the court.
Neutral site, big stage, big game, who will win the crucial series tiebreaker and move on to Saturday’s championship finale? Madison Square Garden will be buzzing for this Friday nightcap, and it wouldn’t be surprising if whoever won this game went on to win the Big East crown.
This semifinal showdown won’t be a pretty one. Neither team looked great offensively on Thursday, but both have the attitude and the means to grind it out or step up defensively when needed. It’s a cliche that’s been thrown around plenty of times before, but this might actually feel like a classic Big East battle. News of Jermaine Samuels dealing with back problems and Eric Dixon getting sick hours before the St. John’s game came at a horrible time, but hopefully there’s some rest to make their health better. They’ll both be needed to put up with UConn’s physical frontcourt. Adama Sanogo struggled against Seton Hall, but the Pirates have stalwart Ike Obiagu. Don’t expect him to keep things quiet for a second-straight night.
KenPom predicts: Villanova wins, 68-65, and is a 61% favorite.
Vegas says: Villanova is a 2.5-point favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook
My prediction: Villanova over UConn