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:

Player of the Week: James Blackmon Jr., Indiana

BLOOMINGTON, IN - JANUARY 21:  James Blackmon Jr. #1 of the Indiana Hoosiers attempts a shot over Alvin Ellis III #3 of the Michigan State Spartans in the first half at Assembly Hall on January 21, 2017 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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This could have been the week where Indiana’s season collapsed.

On Wednesday night, O.G. Anunoby, who is arguably the most irreplaceable player on the Hoosier roster, injured his knee badly enough that he will need surgery and miss the rest of the season. The injury happened in the first half of a game against Penn State. Tom Crean said after the game that the team was crying in the locker room at half time.

The Hoosiers then proceeded to blow a big lead to the Nittany Lions, allowing Penn State to draw even in the final minute of regulation. That’s when Blackmon stepped up. The Hoosier star buried a three at the buzzer to give Indiana the win; a loss in that game could have been the kind of thing that sent Indiana’s season spiraling. The shot wasn’t a morale booster as much as it was a morale saver.

On Saturday, Indiana put together one of their best games of the season despite the fact that they were without Anunoby and Juwan Morgan, who was dealing with a foot injury that has now kept him out of back-to-back games. Blackmon, again, was the star, matching a career-high with 33 points.

Suddenly, Indiana has won four of their last five games and are sitting at 4-3 in the Big Ten standings, just two games out of first place.

In the long term, I don’t know if Indiana is going to be able to play at the level Hoosier fans expect without Anunoby. But in the short term, Saturday was an impressive win in a trying week, and it was Blackmon who stepped up to lead with the Hoosiers needed it the most.

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Markkanen, as he has all season long, starred for the Wildcats this weekend, helping No. 14 Arizona keep pace with Oregon at the top of the Pac-12 standings. The Wildcats swept the road leg against the LA schools, as Markkanen went for 23 points in a win over USC and followed that up with 18 points and seven boards in the big win over UCLA.
  • Jonathan Isaac, Florida State: The Seminoles had a massive week, and Isaac was the best player on the floor in both of their wins. Against Notre Dame, Isaac had 15 of his 23 points in the second half, adding 10 boards and a pair of game-saving blocks in the final second, and he followed that up with 16 points and 10 boards as Florida State knocked off Louisville.
  • Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: Happ was pretty good in Wisconsin’s win over Michigan, but he was sensational as the Badgers went into Minneapolis and beat Minnesota in overtime, finishing with 28 points, 12 boards, six assists and five blocks. No one had put up a stat line like that since at least 2010.
  • Marcus Keene, Central Michigan: Keene became the first player since South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters in 2013 to go for 50 points in a game, scoring 39 of the 50 in the second half of a win over Miami (OH).
  • Shake Milton, SMU: SMU is quietly rolling along at 17-4, a two-point loss at Cincinnati away from being undefeated in the AAC. The Mustangs picked up a pair of wins this week as Milton averaged 25 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 boards.

No. 22 Xavier pulls away to 86-75 win over Georgetown

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 20:  Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers reacts after a play in the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 20, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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CINCINNATI — Edmond Sumner overcame a painful left shoulder and led a second-half surge that swept No. 22 Xavier to an 86-75 victory over Georgetown on Sunday, ending the Musketeers’ longest losing streak in three years.

Xavier (14-5, 4-3) had dropped three straight — all against ranked Big East teams. The Musketeers allowed a 12-point lead to slip away in the second half on Sunday before their injured point guard frustrated the Hoyas (10-10, 1-6) again. Sumner had a career-high 28 points in an 81-76 win at Georgetown on Dec. 31.

Sumner wore a support on his injured left shoulder and sat on the bench grimacing late in the first half. He had a jumper, a three-point play and a pair of free throws during a 12-3 run that put Xavier in control 70-61. He finished with 14 points.

Trevon Bluiett led Xavier with 24 points. J.P. Macura added 20.

Rodney Pryor scored 23 for Georgetown, which lost for the sixth time in seven games.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Xavier dropped from 15th to 22nd last week after road losses to Villanova and Butler. A home loss to Creighton on Monday put Xavier in danger of dropping out of the Top 25.

BIG PICTURE

GEORGETOWN: Junior guard L.J. Peak scored 21 points and had six rebounds in the loss to Xavier on Dec. 31, keeping the Hoyas in the game with clutch shots down the stretch. The Musketeers clamped down in the rematch — he was only 3 of 12 for 12 points.

XAVIER: Free throws again were an issue early. Missed free throws were a major factor in the Musketeers’ 72-67 loss to Creighton on Monday, when they went only 16 of 29 from the line. They drove to the basket and drew fouls on Sunday but were only 12 of 19 from the line in the first half, which ended with Xavier up 34-33. The Musketeers finished 36 of 49 from the line overall.

UP NEXT

The Hoyas host No. 7 Creighton on Wednesday. They split their series last season, with each winning at home.

The Musketeers play at crosstown rival Cincinnati, which is ranked No. 20. Xavier has won three in a row and seven of the last nine in the annual game.

VIDEO: Watch Marcus Keene score all 50 of his points

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Marcus Keene, the nation’s leading scorer at 29.8 points, went for 50 yesterday, the first time in four years a college player has done that.

WATCH LIVE: Atlantic 10 basketball Sunday on NBCSN

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: A detailed view of a Spalding basketball during a quarterfinal game between the Davidson Wildcats and La Salle Explorers in the 2015 Men's Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament at the Barclays Center on March 13, 2015 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
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The Atlantic 10 invades NBCSN and the NBC Sports app on Sunday.

It begins at 2:00 p.m. with La Salle at VCU. Both of these teams are fighting for first place in the Atlantic 10 standings as the Explorers sit at 5-1 in league play and the Rams are at 4-2.

CLICK HERE to watch the Atlantic 10 on NBCSN

No. 6 Baylor uses late spurt for 62-53 victory at TCU

Baylor forward Johnathan Motley (5) reacts to a play against Texas in first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 74-64. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP)
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP
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FORT WORTH, Texas — Sixth-ranked Baylor and TCU kept trading the lead in the second half, with a 9 1/2-minute gap when neither team could muster consecutive scores.

Then the Bears finally closed out their 10th straight Big 12 victory over TCU since their instate rival joined the league four years ago.

Ishmail Wainright swished a go-ahead 3-pointer with 4:16 left, and there was then a TCU miss and more than a minute before Johnathan Motley’s layup for the Bears. Manu Lecomte added a layup to cap the 7-0 spurt that finally put Baylor (18-1, 6-1 Big 12) ahead to stay.

“This was typical of the Big 12. Hard-fought game, both teams playing extremely hard. The day after the game, it’s amazing how drained everybody is,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “I hope fans enjoy it, because we’re worn out.”

There were five ties and 13 lead changes after halftime.

The partisan sellout crowd of 7,276 might not have enjoyed it as much, but the Horned Frogs (14-5, 3-4) have shown great progress in their first season under coach Jamie Dixon, the former TCU point guard.

While the Frogs have already won two more games than all of last season, Dixon feels like they have let their last two game slip away late.

“Obviously got some disappointed guys in that locker room, me included,” Dixon said. “Really thought we were here to win this game. … My feeling we were ready to win them, and we were prepared, and we did things right, did things necessary.”

Lecomte scored 17 points while Motley had 15 points and eight rebounds, along with a punctuating dunk in the final minute. That came soon after Lecomte’s alley-oop pass for a dunk by Jo Lual-Acuil, who finished with 11 points.

Vlad Brodziansky had 19 points and 10 rebounds for TCU, while Kenrich Williams had 16 points and 12 rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: This is the first time the Bears have ever been 18-1 overall or 6-1 in the Big 12. They have won their last three games since losing in their first game after reaching No. 1 for the first time in school history.

TCU: Brodziansky and Williams didn’t get much help from the rest of their teammates. TCU shot 29 percent from the field (17 of 58) — Brodziansky and Williams were a combined 12-of-26 shooting; the rest of the team was 5-of-32. “We outrebounded them (38-37), we had lower turnovers (8-10), things we want to do,” Dixon said. “But simply put, the shooting percentages always stand out.”

COMING FROM BEHIND

Baylor is 6-1 this season when trailing at halftime, and has outscored its opponents by more than 10 points in those second halves. “Blessed to have great leadership from the upperclassmen. They don’t panic, they don’t rattle, they stay together,” Drew said. “And they believe in each other.”

TCU led only 24 seconds in the first half, but grabbed a 28-26 halftime lead on Williams’ 3-pointer with 7 seconds left. Baylor opened the second half with four straight layups.

CATCHING AIR

When asked about Wainright’s go-ahead 3, Motley called it a “big shot. I air-balled one, Al (Freeman) too. The fans made sure they let us know. It didn’t matter, we just stayed aggressive, and my teammates trusted me to shoot again.”

UP NEXT

Baylor is home against Texas Tech on Wednesday before consecutive road games, including the SEC-Big 12 Challenge next Saturday at Ole Miss.

TCU plays its next two Big 12 games on the road, starting Monday at Oklahoma State. The Frogs then host Auburn before going to Kansas State.