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

Best Big EastTournament Memory:

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: A huge Saturday of hoops

Maryland players, including Jaylen Brantley (1) and Varun Ram (21), cheer after Jake Layman (10) scored against Nebraska during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. Nebraska's Shavon Shields (31) and Benny Parker react. Maryland won 70-65. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 18 Purdue at No. 4 Maryland, 4:00 p.m.

From Rob Dauster’s Weekend Preview.

We’re going to be getting an interesting contrast of styles in College Park on Saturday afternoon, as the Boilermakers — with arguably the biggest front line in college basketball and one of the best defenses in the sport — take on a Maryland team that likes to spread the floor and relies on the ability of their two talented guards to make plays. The issue for Purdue all season long has been their back court play. Will Johnny Hill and P.J. Thompson make enough plays? Can they get the ball to A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan in a position where those big bodies can be effective?

Hammons is going to be the key here. Diamond Stone has had an up-and-down season. There are nights he looks like a top five pick and games where he seems to be completely overmatched. Hammons is a first-team all-Big Ten performer and a guy with an outside shot of making an all-american team that is playing his best basketball of the season right now. So while Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon — along with Robert Carter — get the headlines, the matchup with Stone and Hammons may be the most important of the game and the one that brings out the NBA scouts en masse.

THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: No. 3 Villanova at No. 11 Providence, 2:30 p.m.

This game was far more intriguing before Providence forward and Big East leading scorer Ben Bentil injured his ankle in Wednesday’s loss to DePaul. Why was it intriguing? Because Villanova is all alone in first place in the Big East, and if the Friars have any prayer of catching the Wildcats, this is a must-win game. It’s also a rematch of a game from earlier this season, when Providence overcame the two feet of snow Snowzilla dumped on Philly to beat Villanova in overtime. Then throw in the fact that the Friars are looking to right their ship after losing to DePaul (!!!) this week, and there were all kinds of intriguing story lines heading in.

And then Bentil had to go and sprain his ankle.

AND DON’T FORGET THIS ONE: No. 15 Baylor at No. 14 West Virginia, 8:00 p.m.

The Big 12 race is not for the faint of heart this season, but both the Bears and the Mountaineers currently find themselves in the thick of the race. After knocking off Iowa State in Ames this week, West Virginia has climbed into a tie for first place with Oklahoma while Baylor is sitting a game out in a tie for third. Jonathan Holton is not expected back for this one, which should give Baylor an advantage on the interior. The key here: How will Lester Medford deal with the WVU pressure?

WHO’S GETTING UPSET?: No. 2 North Carolina at Notre Dame, 7:00 p.m.

From Rob Dauster’s Weekend Preview:

Does anyone know what’s wrong with Marcus Paige? Over the course of his last six games, the former all-american is shooting just 21.3 percent from the floor and 14.3 percent from beyond the arc. That’s atrocious, particularly when you consider just how good Paige has been at times during his career. The other problem for the Tar Heels? Joel Berry II isn’t playing his best basketball right now, either, and Justin Jackson was in the midst of a slump of his own until Monday’s loss at Louisville. Notre Dame isn’t quite as good as we thought they would be this season, but the Fighting Irish are still a tournament team with one of the best point guards in the country in Demetrius Jackson. The key for them is getting stops, but if they do, they’re potent offensively.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. Pitt has a big, big game this weekend as they host No. 9 Virginia at 12:00 p.m. We’re still in a position where we don’t really know all that much about the Panthers. Just how good is this team? The only ranked team they’ve played is Louisville (they scored 41 points and lost by 18) and the only quality wins on their profile came against Notre Dame and Syracuse. The could use a home win against a top ten team that has been inconsistent on the road this season.

2. No. 10 Michigan State seemed to find their stride last week, as Denzel Valentine returned to his Player of the Year caliber form while Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello have been playing some of their best basketball of the season. The Spartans will pay a visit to rival Michigan at 2:00 p.m., and while the Wolverines have picked off Maryland in Ann Arbor without Caris LeVert, they’re coming off of a blowout loss in the same building to Indiana.

3. Florida visits No. 20 Kentucky at 4:00 p.m. and I can’t help but feel like we’re going to learn quite a bit about both teams in this game. Kentucky followed up their terrific performance at Kansas by … blowing a 21 point lead at Tennessee and losing. The Gators? They’re streaking right now, having landed a blowout win over West Virginia last weekend. Going into Rupp and winning is a different beast, however.

4. No. 23 Arizona is in a bit of an interesting position right now, as they don’t have much in the way of quality wins on their NCAA tournament profile right now. They’re also two games off the pace in the Pac-12 regular season standings and are still playing without Allonzo Trier. Washington, on the other hand, has been one of the nation’s most entertaining teams. The two will square off on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

5. There are two games that will be featured on NBCSN on Saturday: Davidson at Duquesne (12:30 p.m.), Delaware at William & Mary (2:30 p.m.).

CLICK HERE to watch these games on NBC Sports Live Extra Saturday afternoon.

OTHER TOP 25 GAMES

  • No. 1 Oklahoma at Kansas State, 6:00 p.m.
  • Marquette at No. 6 Xavier, 12:00 p.m.
  • No. 7 Kansas at TCU, 12:00 p.m.
  • No. 25 South Carolina at No. 8 Texas A&M, 4:00 p.m.
  • No. 13 Iowa State at Oklahoma State, 2:00 p.m.
  • Boston College at No. 19 Louisville, 12:00 p.m.
  • No. 21 Wichita State at Illinois State, 10:00 p.m.
  • No. 22 Indiana at Penn State, 8:00 p.m.
  • No. 24 Dayton at George Mason, 6:00 p.m.

OTHER NOTABLE GAMES

  • Florida State at Wake Forest, 12:00 p.m.
  • Temple at UCF, 12:00 p.m.
  • George Washington at VCU, 12:00 p.m.
  • Cincinnati at Memphis, 12:00 p.m.
  • Texas Tech at Texas, 2:00 p.m.
  • Rutgers at Nebraska, 2:00 p.m.
  • N.C. State at Duke, 2:00 p.m.
  • DePaul at Creighton, 2:00 p.m.
  • Missouri at Alabama, 3:00 p.m.
  • New Mexico at San Diego State, 4:00 p.m.
  • Clemson at Virginia Tech, 4:00 p.m.
  • Stanford at Cal, 4:00 p.m.
  • Butler at St. John’s, 4:30 p.m.
  • Auburn at Georgia, 5:30 p.m.
  • Mississippi State at LSU, 6:00 p.m.
  • Tennessee at Arkansas, 8:00 p.m.
  • Vanderbilt at Ole Miss, 8:00 p.m.
  • Georgetown at Seton Hall, 9:00 p.m.

No. 13 Iowa State suspends Jameel McKay indefinitely

Iowa State forward Georges Niang, forward Jameel McKay, forward Abdel Nader and guard Deonte Burton celebrate after center Stuart Nezlek scored late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Coppin State, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 104-84 (AP Photo/Justin Hayworth)
AP Photo/Justin Hayworth
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Already lacking depth, No. 13 Iowa State will be short a key contributor Saturday when they take on Oklahoma State in Stillwater.

Friday night it was announced that senior forward Jameel McKay has been suspended indefinitely by head coach Steve Prohm and did not make the trip with the team. McKay, who’s been dealing with knee issues recently, is averaging 12.4 points and a team-high 9.0 rebounds per game on the season.

Over the last six games he’s averaging 7.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per contest, shooting 60.6 percent from the field.

McKay has been asked to man the middle for a team lacking in both size and depth, with Georges Niang shifting over to the five when McKay needs a break for either rest or foul trouble reasons. Without McKay even more responsibility falls upon the shoulders of Niang, Abdel Nader and Deonte Burton in the front court.

The Cyclones are looking to end a two-game losing streak, and even with Oklahoma State’s struggles accomplishing that gets tougher with McKay out of the lineup.

News of McKay’s suspension was first reported by the Ames Tribune.