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Big East Conference Reset: It’s still Villanova’s league, but for how long?

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close. The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2017-18 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the Big East over the next six months.

OFFSEASON STORYLINES 

1. Patrick Ewing returns to Georgetown: The Hall of Fame center who took the Hoyas to three Final Fours — winning the 1984 national championship — returns to his alma mater for his head coaching debut after 14 years as an NBA assistant coach. He replaces John Thompson III, who was relieved of his duties following a second straight losing season, the third time in four years Georgetown failed to reach the NCAA Tournament. Ewing’s hire shows that John Thompson Jr. still has a lot of pull in the university but Ewing has been praised for his work ethic and player development during his decade-plus as an NBA assistant. But he has an uphill battle on the Hilltop.

2. NBA Draft didn’t hurt the league: Angel Delgado, who reportedly was set to stay in the draft, decided to return to Seton Hall for his senior season. That made the Pirates a realistic threat to knock Villanova off the throne it sat upon since the relaunch of the Big East Conference. Trevon Bluiett, who averaged 20.4 points per game during the conference and NCAA Tournament, also returned. With Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson as another option, both Delgado and Bluiett should find themselves on every single preseason All-American team. Not every team was as lucky as Seton Hall and Xavier, Justin Patton, a redshirt freshman who flew under the radar for much of the season, decided to remain in the draft. He’s projected to be a first round pick.

3. Recruiting classes: At the moment, Xavier commit Paul Scruggs is the highest ranked recruit joining the Big East, according to Rivals. In fact, the Musketeers have two of the top three prospects joining the league, both of whom are listed in the top-50. Butler, according to the Indy Star, has the school’s best recruiting class coming in, headlined by Kyle Young, Christian David, Jerald Butler and Aaron Thompson. Four seasons ago, both programs were in the Atlantic-10.

Trevon Bluiett (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS

  • Omari Spellman, Villanova: Expected to replace Daniel Ochefu in Villanova’s quest for a repeat, the heralded freshman big man was forced to academically redshirt due to his freshman year of high school when he transferred from a public high school and reclassified at a prep school several months later. Spellman is a better offensive player than his would-be predecessor, even capable of scoring from the perimeter. Rivals had the 6-foot-9 Spellman listed as a top-20 recruit in the Class of 2016.
  • Makai Ashton-Langford, Providence: One of the most coveted point guards in the Class of 2017 had originally committed to UConn. He decommitted in March. Ed Cooley, who was in early on the likes of Donovan Mitchell and Wenyen Gabriel before seeing them commit to bluebloods, got a second chance and landed the New England native several weeks later. Whether it be with Mass Rivals on the grassroots circuit or Brewster Academy (N.H.) in the prep school scene, by the time Ashton-Langford debuts for the Friars he’ll have played a year and a half without losing a game.
  • Harry Froling, Marquette: With Luke Fischer exhausting his eligibility, the Golden Eagles, who weren’t deep on the frontline to begin with, needed some help. Marquette was able to land Froling, the SMU transfer following a visit in mid-January. Due to NCAA transfer rules, he’ll be eligible for the second semester. In 10 games, the 6-foot-10 Froling averaged 4.3 points and 3.2 boards per game. Matt Heldt and newcomers Theo John and Ike Eke will hold down the fort while Froling continues to sit out until late December.

SURPRISING DEPARTURES

  • L.J. Peak, Georgetown: Currently, Peak is projected as the last pick in the 2017 NBA Draft according to DraftExpress.com. That didn’t stop the Georgetown junior from forgoing his final season of eligible. The 6-foot-5 power guard averaged 16.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game for the Hoyas. His departure means Georgetown has lost its top two scorers from a season ago, as Rodney Pryor, a graduate transfer, exhausted his eligibility.
  • Duane Wilson, Marquette: It’s clear that the program is focused on building around rising sophomore guard Markus Howard. Moreover, Wilson had seen his role diminished for the majority of the 2016-17 season but worked his way into the starting lineup as the Golden Eagles made their run at the program’s first NCAA Tournament under head coach Steve Wojciechowski. Wilson, the Milwaukee native, who redshirted his first season due to injury, elected to use his final season of eligibility at Texas A&M.
Patrick Ewing (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

COACHING CHANGES

  • Patrick Ewing, Georgetown: As mentioned above, Ewing replaces John Thompson III after 13 seasons with the program, leading the Hoyas to the Final Four in 2007. By all accounts, this appears to have Big John’s fingerprints all over it. However, Ewing at least had coaching experience, 14 as an NBA assistant, before he got his first coaching job. That wasn’t the case two years ago when Chris Mullin took over at his alma mater. Arguably Ewing’s biggest task will be filling out a coaching staff that can hit the recruiting trail, especially the greater Washington D.C. area.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

Trevon Bluiett, Xavier (Player of the Year)
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Kelan Martin, Butler

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

  1. Villanova: All-American Josh Hart is gone but Jalen Brunson, a floor general who will end up on many preseason All-American lists, is back, as is Mikal Bridges, Eric Paschall and Donte DiVincenzo, a two-guard many peg as a breakout star next season. Jay Wright brings in a pretty good recruiting class but the biggest new addition is redshirt freshman Omari Spellman. The Big East Conference belongs to Villanova until someone proves it can knock it off.
  2. Seton Hall: Angel Delgado’s decision to return to for his senior season makes the Pirates the biggest threat to Villanova’s conference dominance. Delgado, the nation’s leading rebounder, rejoins Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, and Ismael Sanogo. Madison Jones is gone but Myles Powell is a strong replacement after averaging double figures his freshman season. The Pirates are the most experienced team in the Big East. They are tough as nails and are likely the best defensive team in the league.
  3. Xavier: The Musketeers lost six of seven to close out the regular season but found themselves in the Elite Eight thanks in large part to the play of Trevon Bluiett. The 6-foot-5 wing returns, which puts Xavier in another good position for 2017-18. Edmond Sumner remained in the NBA Draft but that tournament run was made after his season ended following an ACL tear. J.P. Macura is back while Quentin Goodin and Tyrique Jones both made strides in their freshmen seasons. Chris Mack is also bringing in arguably his best recruiting class, headlined by Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall.
  4. Providence: The most surprising team in the Big East last season was the Friars. Despite losing Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, Providence went to its fourth straight NCAA Tournament under Ed Cooley. The Friars bring back everybody of value (sorry, Casey Woodring) for this season. I’ll catch heat for leaving Rodney Bullock off all-conference predictions but I’ll end by saying Kyron Cartwright, who averaged 6.7 assists per game, may have a better chance of earning that postseason honor.
  5. Butler: Despite losing Andrew Chrabascz, Avery Woodson, Tyler Lewis, and Kethan Savage, it’s hard to bet against Chris Holtmann. The Bulldogs retain Kelan Martin, one of the league’s top scorers, in addition to rising star Kamar Baldwin. Butler’s Class of 2017 is considered the best in program history.
  6. Creighton: The Bluejays are in a much different place if Justin Patton returns to Omaha for a sophomore season. That isn’t to say Creighton isn’t in line for a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Greg McDermott is hoping to strike gold again as Kaleb Joseph, the Syracuse point guard, spent several months practicing against Maurice Watson Jr. He’ll pair up in the backcourt with Marcus Foster, a fifth-year senior who will make sure the Bluejays have one of the conference’s most potent offenses.
  7. Marquette: Depth took a hit with the graduation of Luke Fischer, Katin Reinhardt and Jujuan Johnson, in addition to the departure of Duane Wilson. But Marquette has Markus Howard, who is expected to have a big sophomore season, while the frontline gains a boost at midseason with Harry Froling debutting after sitting out the spring and fall semester following his transfer from SMU.
  8. St. John’s: Shamorie Ponds, Marcus LoVett and Bashir Ahmed, the team’s three top scorers, return while Tariq Owens and Kassoum Yakwe are back to man the frontline. The Johnnies add transfer Justin Simon to the perimeter and Marvin Clark to the frontcourt. Sidney Wilson, like Ponds, is another coveted New York City recruit, will be joining the program. Chris Mullin had a lot of work to do when he took the job at his alma mater but has landed talented, especially local ones.
  9. DePaul: One of the biggest offseason additions, which resulted in immediate results, was when DePaul hired Shane Heriman, head coach of prep powerhouse La Lumiere. Northern Illinois graduate transfer Marin Maric, a potential starter for next year’s team, and 2019 point guard Tgyer Campbell both committed to DePaul this spring. Both played at La Lumiere under Heriman. Billy Garrett Jr. is gone but leading scorer Eli Cain is back in Lincoln Park.
  10. Georgetown: The Hoyas have lost their two leading scorers and the top incoming recruit since season’s end, one that resulted in the school parting ways with John Thompson III. The cupboard isn’t bare for Patrick Ewing’s first season. Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson return while Trey Dickerson joins the program as a graduate transfer. Nonetheless, Georgetown was 14-18 last season, in a league where seven teams made the tournament. This is a realistic placement, as odd as it seems, to slot the Hoyas.

Butler adds 2017 point guard recruit

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Butler added some much-needed point guard depth to its roster Tuesday.

The Bulldogs secured the commitment of Aaron Thompson, a 6-foot-3, 175-pound floor general from Virginia.

“Me and my family thought it was a good situation for me basketball wise and academic wise,” Thompson told Scout. “If I get my degree from there, it can open doors for me. I feel like they make it to the tournament every year and with the recruiting class coming it could be special class.”

Butler graduated a pair of point guards – Tyler Lewis and Kethan Savage – off last season’s Sweet 16 team, so adding a solid prospect like Thompson, who previously had signed with Pitt, gives the Bulldogs youth and talent at a position where they were in need.

“I think everybody knows he’s a true winner,” Keith Stevens, Thompson’s grassroots coach at Team Takeover, told the Washington Post. “He has true leadership qualities. He can pass the basketball. He can defend the basketball.”

The Bulldogs’ point guard position will be interesting to watch unfold with George Washington transfer Paul Jorgensen eligible after sitting out last season and incoming freshman Jerald Butler and Big East all-freshman performer Kamar Baldwin potentially all seeing minutes there as well.

No. 1 North Carolina handles No. 4 Butler en route to Elite Eight

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North Carolina, the top seed in the South region, jumped out to a 20-point second half led. While the No. 4 seed Butler Bulldogs would not go down quietly, the Tar Heels would keep the lead no less than 10 for the remainder of the evening, advancing to the Elite Eight with a 92-80 win on Friday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.

It was the bounce-back win the Tar Heels needed — following a near collapse against Arkansas in the second round — to assert themselves as serious contenders once again.

Joel Berry II, who had been hampered by an ankle injury suffered in the first round win against Texas Southern, had a game-high 26 points, off 8-of-13 shooting. That’s coming a weekend after 3-of-21 shooting in first and second half wins. Justin Jackson followed with 24 points. Luke Maye had 14 of his 16 points in the first half, an offensive explosion that included a trio of 3-pointers.

“Well, at this stage of the year, if you don’t have good offensive games or good defensive games, you go home,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams told reporters after the game. “But we do need to be clicking a little bit on all cylinders. We’ve got one, two — we only had three guys in double figures today, one of them is 26 and the other 24, so that’s pretty good. But yes, we do need both of them making shots and doing some things for us.”

Williams is right. The Tar Heels do need to be clicking on a little bit on all cylinders. And on Friday night, they did a little more of that than they did in a second-round scare from the Razorbacks.

North Carolina’s offense didn’t have a lapse it did in the second half against Arkansas. When Butler cut the deficit to 10 with more than five minutes remaining, North Carolina countered with a 7-2 run. Part of the offensive efficiency should be attributed to the status of Berry’s ankle, which besides a few moments in the second half, didn’t plague him as much as it did in the previous contest. It also helped that Jackson avoided a 5-for-14 shooting performance and the Tar Heels cut down the turnovers from 17 to 10. They also held a good shooting team — one that needed to knock down shots from the outside if it wanted a chance to extend its season — to under 30 percent from beyond the arc.

The Tar Heels controlled the glass, and dominated the inside, outrebounding the Bulldogs 38-26 and scoring 42 points in the paint. That’s a good sign, as they should be expected to hold the advantage on the inside against either team they face in the Elite Eight.

Regardless of who prevails in the rematch between No. 3 seed UCLA and No. 2 seed Kentucky, the top-seeded Tar Heels are in for an all-out war on Sunday in the Elite Eight. But Friday night was the bounce-back performance that showed the Tar Heels are capable of putting it all together to book another trip to the Final Four.

Butler has no problem with Winthrop

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As a former Cinderella itself, Butler didn’t treat a potential one too kindly Thursday.

The Bulldogs, of course, are underdogs no more.

Fourth-seeded Butler dominated No. 13 Winthrop from nearly start to finish to win 76-64 in a first-round matchup at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

The Bulldogs showed no ill effects from the two-game losing skid they entered the tournament on after dropping games to Seton Hall and Xavier. They struggled some on both ends of the floor in those two games.

That was no issue against the Eagles.

Butler shot 49 percent from the floor and made 8 of 19 from beyond the arc while holding Winthrop to 40 percent shooting overall.

Every shot Avery Woodson put up was from the 3-point line, and he made 6 of 10 to finish with 18 points. Andrew Chrabascz had 12 and Keelan Martin added 10.

Winthrop’s dynamo point guard Keon Johnson scored 17 points, five below his season average, but was clearly bothered by the length and athleticism he rarely saw from Big South opponents. He was 7 of 19 from the field. Xavier Cooks tried to help pick up the offensive slack, scoring 23 points, but he too was inefficient, going 10 of 22 from the field as the Eagles just couldn’t find consistent footing against their Big East foe.

Up next for the Bulldogs is a Round 2 matchup with the winner of Minnesota-Middle Tennessee State on Saturday.

Big East Conference Tournament Preview, Bracket and Conference Postseason Awards

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Big East Player of the Year: Josh Hart, Villanova

Josh Hart confirmed what was almost unanimously believed in November: he was the best player in the Big East. The senior wing averaged a conference-leading 18.7 points — shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three — to go along with his 6.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game for first-place Villanova. One of the best two-way players in the nation also had some of his best single-game performances outside of the conference slate.

Big East Coach of the Year: Ed Cooley, Providence

Two days before Christmas, Providence closed out the non-conference slate with a loss at Boston College. The Friars followed by dropping the first two conference games. All three losses were by a dozen or more points. Yet, this team — without Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil — is in possession of another 20-win season, and tied the highest finish Providence has had since the conference’s relaunch. This is a competitive race, especially when you consider what Chris Holtmann and Steve Wojciechowski has done. And that doesn’t include Jay Wright’s continued dominance. But Cooley took a young roster with all the makings of a rebuild and turned it, in all likelihood, a fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

First-Team All-Big East

  • Josh Hart, Villanova
  • Andrew Chrabascz, Butler: The statistics don’t jump off the page, but the senior forward impacts the game in so many different ways for a Butler team that was projected to finish sixth, but ended as the No. 2 seed.
  • Jalen Brunson, Villanova: Taking the full-time ball handling duties this season, the sophomore averaged 14.8 points per game, shooting 54 percent from the field. He also registered a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
  • Angel Delgado, Seton Hall: The nation’s leading rebounder (13.1 RPG) has recorded 24 double-doubles this season. He’s also improved his offense, posting 15.7 points per game.
  • Marcus Foster, Creighton: The transfer guard is second in the conference in scoring at 18.5 points per game. He’s taken on a bigger role since Watson’s season-ending injury.

Second Team All-Big East:

  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
  • Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
  • Kyron Cartwright, Providence
  • Kelan Martin, Butler
  • Justin Patton, Creighton

RELATED: Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | NBC Sports All-Americans

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Villanova brought the Big East the national championship in 2016, ending critcism of the program’s shortcomings in March and providing the league with an added level of legitiamcy it yearned for since its relaunch in 2013.

So, what will the Big East do for an encore? The conference might send 70 percent of its members to the NCAA Tournament.

Like the previous three seasons, the league was dominated by Villanova, which won its fourth consecutive regular season championship. Butler finished second, and spent much of the year in the top-20. Creighton looked every part of a Final Four contender until Maurice Watson Jr. tore his ACL in mid-January. Xavier, which began the season ranked, has struggled since Edmond Sumner suffered the same season-ending injury. Marquette, Providence and Seton Hall have all made late pushes for at-large bids, resulting in a wild finish to the regular season. Four days in New York should be eventual, to say the least.

The Bracket

When: March 8-11

Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City

Final: Saturday, March 11 5:30 p.m.

Favorite: Villanova

This should come as a surprise to no one. This reigning national champions enter the World’s Most Famous Arena as the top seed for the fourth straight season. Villanova has at its disposal the conference’s player of the year, another unanimous first-team selection, a national coach of the year candidate and the athleticism and versatility not many teams can brag about. Depth is a concern, with Phil Booth out for the season and Darryl Reynolds, the only true big man in the rotation, recently returning from injury. It’s also worth noting that two of three Big East losses came against the same opponent.

And if they lose?: Butler

The Bulldogs have twice defeated the Wildcats. They did so in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Jan. 4, handing Villanova its first loss of the season. Butler went for the sweep by knocking off the Cats on Feb. 22, the only time they lost at the Pavilion this season. In both contests, Butler made the key plays down the stretch for hard-fought victories. Butler has an improved defense from last season to compliment with its always-efficient offense. With a big like Andrew Chrabascz, the Bulldogs are more equipped to match up with Villanova. Also, Kelan Martin, since his move to a reserve role, has caught fire in the last five games of the regular season.

Kelan Martin (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Other Contenders:

  • Providence: The Friars have won six straight, with wins over Butler, Xavier, Creighton and Marquette. Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock may not be Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, but they are anchoring a hot team that could give Providence its second postseason championship in four years.
  • Marquette: The Golden Eagles are the only Big East team team other than the Bulldogs to defeat Villanova. They have a nice balance with a deep roster. Five players average double-digits in points, and Andrew Rowsey, the Big East Sixth Man of the Year, and Katin Reinhardt have been huge in the second unit.

Sleeper: Seton Hall

The Pirates played strong basketball down the stretch last season to win the Big East Tournament championship. Isaiah Whitehead is playing in a different borough now, but Seton Hall is rolling, winners of seven of nine. The defense isn’t as strong as it was during last year’s run, but Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez are capable of a repeat performance.

The Bubble Dwellers:

  • Xavier: The Musketeers lost six of seven to close out the season. They have two wins in the past five weeks: both against DePaul. A loss to the Blue Demons on Wednesday night could burst Xavier’s bubble.
  • Marquette: The Golden Eagles should be safe at this point. Sure, they earned a come-from-behind win against Villanova, but that won’t stop critics from poking holes in their resume on Sunday, especially when four wins against Xavier and Creighton came after injuries to Edmond Sumner and Mo Watson.
  • Providence: A six-game winning streak and a third-place finish should mean the Friars are safe, but most bracket projections have them as one of the last at-large four bids.

Defining moment of the season: Marquette, down 17 points, comes back to stun No. 1 Villanova, starting a run for the NCAA Tournament.

CBT Prediction: Villanova

Kamar Baldwin, No. 12 Butler survives No. 15 Xavier at home

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Kamar Baldwin scored a career-high 21 points as No. 12 Butler survived No. 15 Xavier, 83-78, in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon.

The Bulldogs were down 31-22 late in the first half, but they took the lead with a 12-0 run to open the second half, pushing the lead to as much as ten points before Xavier rallied.

The game ended in a mild bit of controversy, as Myles Davis appeared to be fouled shooting a three with 3.9 seconds left in the game. Xavier was down 79-76 at the time and Butler was fouling intentionally to keep the Musketeers from attempting a shot that would allow them to tie the game. It looked like the right call on a replay, as Davis was fouled before he shot the ball.

Edmond Sumner led four Musketeers in double-figures with 22 points.

Here are four things we can takeaway from this game:

1. Butler’s tournament profile is awesome: The Bulldogs own wins over four currently-ranked teams already this season. They beat No. 16 Arizona on a neutral court that wasn’t neutral (it was in Las Vegas). They beat No. 3 Villanova, No. 15 Xavier and No. 22 Cincinnati at home. They also have a neutral court win over Indiana and a win at Utah, which wasn’t all that impressive at the time but that will look better and better now that Utah has their full team available.

There are some bad losses – at St. John’s, at Indiana State – and they will certainly help to weigh down Butler’s profile. But if they can manage to protect their home court and sneak a road win against one of Xavier or Villanova, the Bulldogs could very easily end up getting a top three seed on Selection Sunday.

2. Xavier’s isn’t: The Musketeers probably don’t have a win over a tournament team right now, unless you think that Utah or Clemson, who hasn’t done much of anything, either, are tournament teams. That’s not to say that the Musketeers aren’t good – they are, and they will still be in my top 25 on Monday morning – but this is a team that is gong to have to start worrying about where they are going to be seeded on Selection Sunday if they don’t start beating the top teams in the conference.

The good news? Xavier still gets Creighton, Butler and Villanova at home as well as road games against Creighton and Cincinnati. They’ll have enough chances.

3. Kamar Baldwin isn’t just going to be a problem, he is one right now: Is there a quicker player in all of college basketball than Butler’s freshman point guard Kamar Baldwin?

I’m deadly serious when I ask that question, because off the top of my head, I can’t think of one. Baldwin had a career-high 21 points and nine boards on Saturday, making big play and big shot after big play and big shot. He’s the team’s best on-ball defender and a guy that fits seamlessly alongside either Tyler Lewis or Kethan Savage in Butler’s back court. How Butler pulled this dude out of Georgia baffles me, particularly when there are so many SEC program that could desperately use a super-athletic, talented lead guard that can defend and has the, ahem, intestinal fortitude to, as a freshman, take and make clutch shots.

4. Butler’s actual problem is Kelan Martin: Martin has not been good in Big East play this season. He’s averaging just 12.2 points in conference play – he was averaging 18.1 points in non-conference play – and the reason is that he’s apparently forgotten how to shoot. He’s hitting just 32.4 percent from the floor and 23.3 percent (7-for-30) from beyond the arc in six league games.

And Butler is still 4-2 in league play with a win over Villanova.

Not bad.