The 2018 Big East conference tournament tips off on Wednesday, and it should provide a very exciting and fun few days of college hoops at Madison Square Garden in New York.
This isn’t your oldest brother’s Big East anymore, of course. We know that traditional conference blue bloods such as Syracuse and Connecticut are no longer in the league. We also know that some of the conference’s physical and rugged style of play may be lost.
But the 2017-18 season saw a lot of up-tempo, high-scoring affairs night in and night out across the league, so this four-day affair should provide plenty of back-and-forth matchups.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into what should be a memorable event at MSG.
For the first time since the league’s transformation, Villanova did not claim the regular-season crown. Despite getting swept by Jay Wright’s program in their two meetings this season, Xavier ended the Wildcats’ four-year run by finishing a game ahead with a 15-3 league record. Now conference officials await whether both of them can secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A third matchup between the squads in the league title game would almost guarantee such a scenario. If that occurs, could the Musketeers finally crack through against the ‘Cats?
Meanwhile, NCAA tourney teams Creighton, Butler and Seton Hall will look to improve their seeding, while Providence may need an opening-round win over the Bluejays to feel comfortable about its Big Dance aspirations. And is a win over DePaul enough for Marquette, which is squarely on The Bubble? Or does it need to knock off ‘Nova in the next round?
While St. John’s, Georgetown and DePaul are not going to the Big Dance unless one of them runs the table and claims the league’s automatic bid, each squad has shown that it is capable of springing an upset. So this certainly should be one of the country’s best postseason tourneys ahead of the Big Dance.
Wednesday, March 7
No. 8 Georgetown vs. No. 9 St. John’s, 7 p.m. ET, FS1
No. 7 Marquette vs. No. 10 DePaul, 9:30 p.m. ET, FS1
Thursday, March 8
No. 1 Xavier vs. No. 8/9 winner, Noon ET, FS1
No. 4 Creighton vs. No. 5 Providence, 2:30 p.m. ET, FS1
No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 7/10 winner, 7 p.m. ET, FS1
No. 3 Seton Hall vs. No. 6 Butler, 9:30 p.m. ET, FS1
Friday, March 9
Semifinal 1, 6:30 p.m. ET, FS1
Semifinal 2, 9 p.m. ET, FS1
Friday, March 9
Big East title game, 6:30 p.m. ET, FOX
The Team to Beat
While the Musketeers were the regular-season champs, ‘Nova is still the team to beat. The Wildcats have arguably the national player of the year in Jalen Brunson, who excels under pressure. He plays the most important position on the court, and Wright knows that he can lean on him when times get tough. Brunson, Mikal Bridges and the Wildcats also have a four-game winning streak over Chris Mack’s squad dating back to last year.
So while Xavier is the No. 1 seed after having won the regular-season title, it still has a ‘Nova problem after losing twice to the Wildcats by double digits this season. And the ‘Cats have the depth to not only win the Big East crown but the national one once again as well. While Brunson gets most of the spotlight, the 6-foot-6 junior Bridges is averaging 17.6 points per game while shooting 51.1 percent from the floor and 42 percent from downtown. And he’s been very hot to close out the regular season.
Despite losing twice to Villanova, Xavier’s only other league stumble was a setback at Providence. That consistency throughout the season is why the Musketeers are on a path to claim a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Veteran guards Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura average a combined 31.8 points per game and can carry this team a long way by scoring in bunches, but getting key stops on the defensive end will be the only way to beat ‘Nova in a potential title game. The Musketeers don’t force a ton of turnovers, but they rebound pretty well.
Mack led the Musketeers to the Elite Eight a year ago, and he is used to taking this team to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. But can this program break through and reach the Final Four this time around?
Meanwhile, Creighton and Seton Hall are dangerous. The precision shooting of the Bluejays can help spur a run, especially if Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas — who is shooting 43.1 percent from long range — fill up the stat sheet. For the Pirates, they will need Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado to carry the load. Both teams can get hot, be spoilers and end up playing for the league’s postseason title.
There are a lot of brackets floating around various websites around this time of year, but NCAA bracketologists can all agree that Marquette needs to help itself. The Golden Eagles would be lucky to get into the First Four right now, so a win against DePaul is mandatory. Steve Wojciechowski’s squad would punch a ticket to the Dance with an upset win over Villanova, but it will have to sweat things out into early Sunday evening if not.
Ed Cooley’s Providence squad, meanwhile, wants a victory in the Big Apple as well. The Friars draw Creighton in the quarterfinals, and a loss would put them in a similar situation as Marquette: First Four or on the outside looking in.
What About Butler?
The Bulldogs weren’t near the top of the Big East standings, but they have a KenPom ranking of 24 and remain a balanced unit. LaVall Jordan’s first year as head coach in Indianapolis may have gone a bit under the radar because the Bulldogs went 9-9 in league play, but the squad already has a win over Villanova, which is a potential Bulldogs opponent on Friday. Butler won’t be intimidated by the ‘Cats, who have lost to both St. John’s and Providence this season, but Kelan Martin and Co. have to get by Seton Hall first.
Brunson, Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth and Co. are salty about not extending their regular-season dominance, so they will get revenge in the league’s postseason tournament with a win over Creighton, which will knock off Xavier in the semis.
The Wildcats will claim their third Big East tournament title in the last four years behind the unselfish play of their guards and the emerging play of freshman Omari Spellman, who has reached double digits in points in nine of his last 10 regular-season games.