James Bell, Zedric Sadler

2014 Big East Tournament Preview: Can Villanova finally beat Creighton?

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It seems weird to write a Big East tournament preview in the realignment era. How can one describe the upcoming four long days at Madison Square Garden without including Syracuse, Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, or Connecticut?

Despite it’s current lean appearance, the Big East, according to Ken Pomeroy’s conference rankings, trails only the Big Ten and the Big 12, and sports two teams – Creighton and Villanova – that are threats to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. After that duo, however, the rest of the conference is riddled with question marks, and lacking a strong showing at the Garden, it isn’t inconceivable that only the conference’s top two dance.

RELATED: Read through NBCSports.com’s latest Bracketology

Providence, Xavier, and St. John’s have all missed opportunities to provide any separation during the past two months. Puzzling defeats follow what seemed to be season-defining wins, and without at least one victory in the coming days for SJU and Xavier (in particular), those two squads will be absent from the tournament field (despite the Friars’ 20-win record, PC likely has to make the title game to get a bid).

As the memories of Allen Iverson, the six overtime semifinal, and Kemba Walker, among others, fade and become highlight packages for fans of Dave Gavitt’s Big East, the league’s new era begins on Wednesday – considering it is still the Big East, there should be a few surprises along the way.

MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews

BRACKET

When: March 12-15

Where: Madison Square Garden

Final: March 15, 8:30 (Fox Sports 1)

Favorite: Creighton

Yes, Creighton has serious question marks – following St. John’s blueprint, teams have concentrated on stopping the Bluejays not named Doug McDermott, and the team’s defense (while improved!) is susceptible to undermining lapses – but Greg McDermott’s squad is still the conference’s team to beat. The path to a win on Saturday starts with McDermott, the senior forward who recently topped 3,000 career points, and when the team is clicking offensively, they are unstoppable.

MORE: Who joined Doug McDermott as an NBCSports.com All-American

The key for McDermott and company, however, is Ethan Wragge, the team’s bearded three-point specialist. Since February 1st, the senior has slightly slipped beyond the arc: his three-point percentage has slid to 40 percent, a decline from the 49 percent Wragge had converted during the first month of Big East play. As demonstrated in recent losses to Xavier and Georgetown, when Wragge isn’t connecting from deep, Creighton’s offense becomes stagnant, and open looks (and makes) for the forward enables better half court spacing and clear lanes for the other Bluejays.

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And if they lose?: Villanova

The team most overlooked in many Big East preseason rankings, Villanova has cracked the discussion for a top seed in the tournament field. Non-conference wins over Kansas and Iowa at the Battle 4 Atlantis padded the team’s resume, but they still haven’t beaten Creighton during Big East play, which is why the Wildcats aren’t the favorite for the tournament title. What is most impressive about this Jay Wright-led team is their offensive efficiency. Both James Bell and Darrun Hilliard make more than 50 percent of their twos and roughly 40 percent of their threes, and JayVaughn Pinkston ranks behind McDermott as the conference’s toughest one-on-one matchup.

How did a team which only lost one true contributor from a year ago manage to post an offensive rating with a conference efficiency margin of plus .16 from 2013? The squad cut down on their twos, beefed up their three point attempts, and display halfcourt ball movement that recalls the classic four-guard Nova teams from the mid-aughts.

Other Contenders:

  • St. John’s: After losing their first five Big East contests, St. John’s finished the season winning ten of their last thirteen games. The backcourt core of D’Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan has propelled the Red Storm during their run, but the crux of the Johnnies success lies with JaKarr Sampson.
  • Xavier: Matt Stainbrook’s potential absence severely undermines the Muskeeters’ tourney title chances. The transfer wasn’t just the team’s most consistent scorer within the paint, but Stainbrook was Xavier’s best defensive rebounder. His potential loss will further Semaj Christon’s responsibilities, but the guard, whose sophomore leap helped him crack the conference’s first team list, should be up to the task.

Sleeper: Providence

The Friars are the tournament’s primary sleeper due to Bryce Cotton. Standing only 6-foot-1, Cotton never leaves the floor – he averages 40.1 minutes per game – is quick enough to get into the lane at will, and possesses a 40-plus vertical that helps him unleash jumpers from all over the court, regardless on how tight teams guard him. The most efficient player on PC’s roster, he could solely carry the team to Saturday night.

Deeper Sleeper: Georgetown

Despite a sub-.500 conference record, Georgetown has a slightly easier road to the title game than the other three teams playing on Wednesday. The Hoyas recently beat down on Creighton and Xavier, two potential matchups, and the backcourt of Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is an unpredictable nightmare to defend. Both guards could offensively take control of a game – versus CU and XU, the duo scored a combined 44 percent of the team’s points – or they could disappear.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Josh Fortune, Providence: While he doesn’t play as many minutes as Cotton, Fortune also rarely leaves the court, and his improved three-point touch has made the guard less of the offensive liability he was as a freshman in 2013.
  • Daniel Ochefu, Villanova: The only Wildcat taller than 6-foot-7 who uses consistent minutes, Ochefu’s defensive contributions have helped Nova hold opponents to roughly one point per possession in Big East play.
  • Deonte Burton, Marquette: Freshmen don’t normally plays for Williams unless they have shown a necessary dedication defensively, but Burton is such a versatile threat that Williams has had to give Burton meaningful minutes.
  • Jalen Reynolds, Xavier: Since it is unclear if Stainbrook will play (or if he does, how many minutes he will contribute), Reynolds’ role will increase. Luckily for coach Chris Mack, Reynolds has shined with extra PT.

CBT Prediction: Villanova over Creighton

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UT-Arlington dominates, upsets No. 12 St. Mary’s

Texas-Arlington's Kevin Hervey, left, reacts to a 73-68 NCAA college basketball game win as Ohio State's Jae'Sean Tate looks on  in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
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UT-Arlington made a statement on Thursday night, completely dominating No. 12 Saint Mary’s in a 65-51 upset win in a true road game in Moraga.

Back in October, I ranked both the Gaels and the Mavericks in the top-5 of my Mid-Major Power Rankings. Saint Mary’s was the obvious top choice, one of the nation’s most efficient offenses that returned Emmett Naar and Jock Landale. UT-Arlington, ranked fifth, served as a dangerous opponent. The Mavs had defeated Ohio State and Memphis in 2015, but their season was derailed once Kevin Hervey, a player with serious pro potential, tore his ACL.

With five starters back, including Hervey, who is just now getting back to 100 percent, UT-Arlington looks every bit the part of a March Cinderella.

The Mavericks jumped out to an early lead and forced the Gaels to play out of character. Saint Mary’s had only committed a season-high 14 turnovers before the midway point of the second half. The Gaels, who entered shooting 40 percent from three as a team, was held to 8-of-27 (30 percent) from beyond the arc.

UT-Arlington did an incredible job of closing out on shooters. And it didn’t matter the matchup, at times we saw Hervey, a 6-foot-9 junior, come out and run a guard off the 3-point line. While those statistics mentioned above show up in the box score, the amount of deflections don’t. The Mavericks used its length and athleticism to get their hands everywhere on the defensive end of the floor, making it difficult to find good looks.

In the first half, UT-Arlington controlled the glass. Saint Mary’s found more success in that department after halftime, as Kevin Clark’s offensive putback capped an 11-2 run, which cut the deficit to 52-41. However, the Mavs were able to counter each time the Gaels threatened, never letting the lead get to single digits.

Aside from the struggles the typically-efficient Saint Mary’s offense had, the Gaels struggled to keep UT-Arlington guards Erick Neal and Kaelon Wilson out of the lane, whether it be on a high ball screen or a handoff. Saint Mary’s never seemed to have a help-side defender there to protect the rim. Neal had 13 points and eight assists (five turnovers), while Wilson had 10 points off the bench. Hervey had a game-high 15 points and seven rebounds.

UT-Arlington is winners of eight straight after losing three straight. One of those wins includes a double-digit win over Texas in Austin. The Mavericks are the clear-cut favorite to win the Sun Belt. Come Selection Sunday, I’d say plenty of at-large teams would not like to be paired up with Scott Cross’ team.

Iowa cruises past No. 25 Iowa State

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 20:  Head coach Fran McCaffery of the Iowa Hawkeyes reacts in the first half against the Villanova Wildcats during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center on March 20, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Iowa picked up a major win on Thursday night, defeating in-state rival No. 25 Iowa State, 78-64, in a contest the Hawkeyes thoroughly dominated.

Let’s put it this way: the Hawkeyes have played four top-100 teams, according to kenpom. In those games, all losses by the way, their defense has surrendered 91 points to Seton Hall, 74 points to a Virginia team that plays at the slowest tempo in the country, 100 points to Memphis and 92 points to Notre Dame.

On Saturday, on the same floor Iowa demolished the Cyclones, its defense allowed 98 points in a loss to Nebraska Omaha.

This is exactly the sort of win Fran McCaffery and Co. needed to right the ship as we inch closer and closer to conference play.

When the Cyclones went to their bench in the first half, Nick Baer sparked a 10-0 run which helped set the tone for the remainder of the half. Iowa State went without a field goal for more than six minutes during that span.

Iowa kept Iowa State from getting out and running, holding the Cyclones to zero fast break points through the first 20 minutes and limiting them to only 36 percent from the floor as a team. Iowa, on the other hand, shot 47 percent, including 59 percent in the first half, which led to a 15-point halftime lead.

Peter Jok torched Iowa State to the tune of 23 points (4-of-7 from distance).

Monte Morris was held in check with 10 points, while Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas shot a combined 4-of-13 from three (they each hit a three with less than three minutes to play and the outcome all but decided).

Iowa State’s offense is becoming a bigger concern. Just like against Gonzaga, the Cyclones dug a first-half hole they could shoot out their way of. And like last week’s overtime loss to Cincinnati, they struggled from beyond the arc.

Iowa landed a marquee win it needed, while its rival headed home with questions to answer after losing three of four.

 

Alabama wing sidelined due to weight loss

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Avery Johnson of the Alabama Crimson Tide during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at HP Field House on November 29, 2015 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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Alabama junior wing Nick King will not be with the team for Sunday evening’s matchup against No. 24 Oregon in Eugene.

According to Rainer Sabin of the AL.com, Alabama head coach Avery Johnson said King undergoing a series of tests after losing more than 10 pounds in less than a week and a half.

Johnson told reporters that he is “very concerned” and estimates that as of now King will be sidelined for “a week or two.”

King, who played his first two seasons at Memphis, has appeared in all seven games for the Crimson Tide, averaging 3.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game.

Damonte Dodd out with MCL sprain

COLLEGE PARK, MD - FEBRUARY 13: Melo Trimble #2 and Damonte Dodd #35 of the Maryland Terrapins react to a call as Alex Illikainen #25 of the Wisconsin Badgers looks on in the second half at Xfinity Center on February 13, 2016 in College Park, Maryland. Wisconsin won 70-57.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Maryland could be without the services of starting center Damonte Dodd for the remainder of the non-conference slate, the team announced on Wednesday.

Dodd suffered a MCL sprain in his left knee during practice earlier this week. The injury caused him to miss Wednesday’s 76-56 win over Howard. He will not be available for matchups with St. Peter’s and Jacksonville State. The Terrapins then close out the non-conference slate at Charlotte on Dec. 20 before opening up Big Ten play a week later.

Dodd has started in six of seven games he’s appeared in this season. He’s averaging 5.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. Michael Cekovsky started in place of Dodd on Wednesday night. Ivan Bender, who returned to the lineup against Howard after missing the previous contest, should also see an increase in minutes with Dodd sidelined.

Federico Mussini goes coast-to-coast, beats buzzer with and-1

CINCINNATI, OH - FEBRUARY 03:  Chris Mullin the head coach of the St. John's Red Storm gives instructions to Federico Mussini #4 during the game against the  Xavier Musketeersat Cintas Center on February 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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St. John’s capped the first half with a 6-0 run.

Sophomore guard Federico Mussini went coast-to-coast to beat the buzzer, and draw the foul, as the Johnnies went into the break up 42-33 on city rival Fordham.

The 6-foot-4 guard had gone cold during a five-game stretch, but since Thanksgiving he’s scored in double figures in four consecutive games, including on Thursday night.