SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (AP) — After playing solid defense in a win over Virginia Commonwealth last Saturday, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard knew that his 15th-ranked Pirates had to keep up the pressure against old-time New Jersey rival Saint Peter’s.
“I thought if we could get them a little out of a rhythm, we’d be in good shape,” Willard said after his team held the Peacocks to just one field goal among their first 12 shots in an easy 84-61 win at the old Walsh Gym on the campus of Seton Hall.
“We played a little zone to make it difficult for them to shoot,” Willard said. “I loved the way we came out and played defensively.”
The Pirates’ stifling defense enabled them to take an 8-0 lead and cruise from that point on. Seton Hall managed to push Saint Peter’s farther and farther away from the basket with every possession.
“It was the same intensity that we had against VCU,” Willard said.
“Saint Peter’s likes to be able to run their own stuff and we didn’t let them do it,” said senior forward Angel Delgado, who scored a game-high 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, the 57th time in his career that Delgado has registered double figures in both categories. “We pressed. We played zone. They couldn’t run anything.”
“I think we set the tone defensively,” said senior Desi Rodriguez, who continued his fine play with 17 points. “We were able to close out, defend their shots and we were able to make some runs.”
Khadeen Carrington added 11 points and five assists, as Seton Hall (9-1) raced out to an early lead and never looked back, winning for the 20th time in the last 21 meetings against the Peacocks (4-5).
Davauhnte Turner scored 13 points and Nick Griffin had nine to pace Saint Peter’s.
After Elijah Gonzales drained a 3-pointer to pull the Peacocks within 35-23, the Pirates scored the last seven points of the first half, capped by a layup by Delgado with 42 seconds remaining, giving Seton Hall a commanding 42-23 halftime lead. Rodriguez paced the Pirates with 11 first-half points.
Seton Hall scored the first four points after the break to take a 46-23 lead.
Freshman Myles Cale nailed a long 3-pointer, then threw down a monstrous windmill dunk off a steal to push the lead to 61-38, causing Saint Peter’s to call another timeout with 10:29 left.
Seton Hall held a commanding 43-27 advantage on the boards.
Saint Peter’s coach John Dunne came away impressed with the Pirates.
“We had Terry Dehere (Seton Hall’s all-time leading scorer) in for a practice and I said to him that this was the best Seton Hall team since he was there,” Dunne said. “I don’t get overly impressed by watching other teams, but I’m impressed with these guys. They have all the pieces. They play unselfishly and share the ball. They’re legit. It wasn’t like we lost to a bad team. We just got stopped by them from the start.”
It was the 88th meeting between the New Jersey rivals, dating to 1931-32. Seton Hall leads the all-time series 64-24 and has won 20 of the last 21 meetings. Saint Peter’s lone win in recent years came in 2013, winning 83-80 in overtime. The programs met every year since the 1949-50 season before taking a one-year hiatus last year.
The Pirates are the only Division I team to have three players who have scored 1,000 or more points during their career and all three (Rodriguez, Delgado and Carrington) all reached double figures Tuesday night.
Dunne was an assistant coach at Seton Hall from 2001 through 2006 under then-head coach Louis Orr.
It was the 57th time in Delgado’s Seton Hall career that he collected double figures in points and rebounds, the top figure in the nation. Delgado led the nation in rebounding last season, grabbing 13.1 per game. Delgado is the only active Division I player with more than 1,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds.
The Pirates’ No. 15 ranking in the latest AP Poll is the highest for the program since Jan. 9, 2001.
THE BIG PICTURE
Seton Hall: Tuesday night marked Seton Hall’s 26th consecutive win against non-conference teams at home. The Pirates improved to 422-142 inside Walsh Gym on the Seton Hall campus. Seton Hall plays its home games at the Prudential Center in Newark.
Saint Peter’s : The young Peacocks return only one key player, graduate student Nick Griffin, from the team that won 23 games and captured the CollegeInsider.com Tournament championship last year. Fellow graduate student Nnamdi Enechionya was also a member of that team that tied the school record for wins in a season.
UP NEXT: The Pirates travel down the New Jersey Turnpike to take on state rival Rutgers in Piscataway on Saturday in the Garden State Hardwood Classic.
The Peacocks stay on the road and head to LIU Brooklyn on Sunday at the Barclays Center.
College Hoops Contender Series: Here Are Six Final Four Sleepers
Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.
First up: Final Four Sleepers
It takes a certain amount of talent to be able to win a national title in college basketball, even if that talent doesn’t always show up every night.
Winning four games in two weeks to get to the season’s final weekend can be done by a team with a handful of future pros and 10 losses on the season. We see it all the time.
Here are seven teams that have the tools to make a run to the Final Four even if they don’t have a great chance of winning their conference and look likely to enter the NCAA tournament outside the top four seeds.
If you’re not the kind of program that is going to be landing five-star, soon-to-be lottery pick freshmen by the car-load each and every fall, the best way to win basketball games is to get old and stay old. No one quite embodies that ethos this season like Seton Hall does.
Head coach Kevin Willard entered the 2015-16 season on the hot seat after his loaded 2014 recruiting class sparked a 13-3 start to the 2014-15 season before the team fell off a cliff, losing 12 of their last 15 games and missing out on the postseason entirely. Following that season, the Pirates jettisoned some of their baggage and returned a core of sophomores that would eventually lead the program to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances despite losing Isaiah Whitehead to the 2016 NBA Draft.
And now, four members of that 2014 recruiting class — guards Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, big men Angel Delgado and Ishmael Sanogo — are now seniors leading what may be the best Seton Hall team since the P.J. Carlesimo days. Delgado’s name is the one you need to know. The 6-foot-9 Dominican power forward is one of the toughest and most physical bigs in the country. It’s not a mistake that he averaged 15.2 points and 13.1 boards last season, numbers that jumped to 16.4 points and 14.5 boards in Big East play.
He’s Seton Hall’s All-American. He was also the team’s third-leading scorer last year, behind Carrington and Rodriguez, who are both tough, physical New York City guards; Carrington is more of a combo while Rodriguez is a wing. Sanogo Michael Nzei are tough, athletic, defensive-minded front court players, and you’re starting to see the trend here, right?
Playing Seton Hall is not going to be fun this season, and while they may not be the most talented team in the country this year, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that plays harder.
There are going to be two things that determine Seton Hall’s ceiling:
Does Seton Hall have a point guard? Freshman Jordan Walker is the only true point that will be eligible this season, and the Pirates ran into some problems that came with a lack of playmakers last season. Asking a freshman to handle those responsibilities will be tough, but it helps that Carrington can handle the ball and that everyone else on the floor will be a veteran.
What does Myles Powell turn into? He had some promising moments as a freshman, including 26-point outbursts at Iowa and at Xavier. If he become a more consistent shooter, that opens up a lot more space for Delgado inside.
Last year, Alabama finished the season as one of the top ten defensive teams in college basketball, according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.
Not only do the Crimson Tide return essentially everyone from that team, they also add one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to the mix. More importantly, that recruiting class features players that are able to get buckets in a hurry, and if you any Alabama basketball a year ago, you know that was a major issue; they were 153rd in adjusted offensive efficiency and, in February, played a four-overtime game against South Carolina where they managed all of 90 points in 60 minutes of basketball.
The name that you’re going to want to be familiar with is Collin Sexton, a top ten prospect in the class and the pound-for-pound best freshman scorer in the country. Assuming he’s eligible – which is no guarantee given the fact that he appears to be linked to the college basketball bribery scandal that erupted last week – it’s going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to the college level — in high school, the 6-foot-2 guard’s game was centered around getting into the lane, throwing his body into people and getting to the foul line — but he should immediately help relieve some of those scoring issues, as will five-star off-guard John Petty. Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram are both back in the mix as well, while former four-star big man Daniel Giddens will be eligible after transferring in from Ohio State.
I’m still very-much taking a wait-and-see approach with the Tide this year, but the combination of last year’s defense combined with the influx of scoring talent Avery Johnson will see in his back court this year gets the Tide a ceiling that is as high as anyone’s in the SEC this side of Kentucky and Florida.
It’s going to be easy for people to write off this UCLA team.
Lonzo Ball is gone, as is T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. Instead, the Bruins will enroll Liangelo Ball, the worst of the three Ball brothers and the one that may end up igniting LaVar’s ire if he does not play the kind of minutes and get the kind of shots he envisions.
Frankly, I’m not even going to bother trying to convince you otherwise. There are major, major question marks surrounding this team.
But let’s pretend, for a second, that LaVar Ball did not exist.
The Bruins may have the best point guard in the Pac-12 in Aaron Holiday, who is one of the nation’s most underrated players. They have Thomas Welsh, a senior big man that can space the floor, and G.G. Goloman, another veteran front court presence. Prince Ali is coming off of an injury but he was a five-star prospect coming out of high school. Then there is the recruiting class: Jaylen Hands might be the reason that Holiday isn’t the best point guard on UCLA this year, and wing Kris Wilkes may actually have the biggest impact as a freshman. Throw in four-star recruits Chris Smith, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, and there is talent, depth and experience up and down this lineup.
They’ve got a shot to make some noise.
You want a sneaky sleeper pick for National Player of the Year that no one seems to be talking about?
The 6-foot-6 wing was an absolute killer when he wasn’t dealing with an ankle injury last season, and through the first three rounds of last year’s NCAA tournament, he was the best player in the event. He’ll be back, potentially as a Preseason First-Team All-American, to anchor a roster that is probably more talented and athletic than you realize.
Senior wing J.P. Macura is back, as is sophomore Quentin Goodin, a former four-star recruit that has some promising moments as in an up-and-down freshman season filling in for the injured Edmond Sumner. Throw in a trio of four-star perimeter recruits, an experienced and versatile frontline and The Return of the (Chris) Mack, who was a target during Indiana’s coaching search, and there is a lot to like about this team.
But it’s Bluiett that is the centerpiece. As much as anyone in college basketball, he can put this group on his back and carry them to four straight wins in March, and with this supporting cast and coaching staff, that make Xavier a dangerous team.
The Golden Gophers were one of college basketball’s biggest surprises a season ago. Richard Pitino entered the season on the hot seat before winning 12 of their first 13 games only to lose five straight midway through Big Ten play. They would regroup, however, winning eight straight down the stretch, finishing the year with 24 wins and, somehow, turning into the obvious first round NCAA tournament upset as a No. 5 seed.
It was a roller coaster, but given the youth that was on that roster and the fact that Akeem Springs is the only contributor that won’t be returning to school, it was a nice starting point for what could turn into an extended run of Big Ten success.
Nate Mason is back for his senior year while junior Dupree McBrayer and freshman Isaiah Washington give Pitino plenty of back court options. Amir Coffey, a former five-star recruit, had a terrific freshman campaign as a versatile wing while the front court options are plentiful — Reggie Lynch and Bakary Konate return, and Davante Fitzgerald’s return to health should help mitigate the loss of Eric Curry.
All told, that means a Pitino-coached team has a talented, experienced perimeter attack with a bevy of big bodies on the front line. If Coffey can grow into an all-Big Ten talent, Minnesota will have the horses to give Michigan State a run for their money atop the league.
To me, the Fighting Irish have reached the point in their program development that they are to the ACC what Wisconsin was to the Big Ten under Bo Ryan. Instead of trying to figure out who is going to play what role, just assume that the pieces Mike Brey has matriculating through his program will find a way to figure it out.
There is no better example of this than last year, when the Irish lost Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste from a team that went 24-12 and somehow managed to win more games with a better ACC record despite using 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson as their small-ball center for much of the year.
And never has there been a player more perfectly-suited to a role than Colson is to playing in Mike Brey’s system. He’s borderline unstoppable one-on-one, and when the Irish plant knockdown shooters everywhere around him, they become a nightmare to defend.
Matt Farrell, who was one of the most pleasant surprises in college basketball last season, will return as well, but the key for this group is going to be three-fold:
Will Temple Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, two wings that entered Notre Dame with expectations and a high rankings by recruiting services, take advantage of the minutes made available by the graduation of Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem?
Will D.J. Harvey, a talented forward that was once a top ten player in the Class of 2017, have an immediate impact as the big wing that the Irish currently lack?
Does Martinas Geben become a player that can anchor a front line when needed?
If all three of those things happen, Notre Dame will once again be a top 20 team that can beat anyone on any given night.
Virginia, Seton Hall, Rhode Island, Vandy in NIT Tip-Off
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.
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.
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.
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, 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Big East Conference Tournament Preview, Bracket and Conference Postseason Awards
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.
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.
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.
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.
Butler put together a fairly dominating performance on Saturday, beating No. 9 Indiana 83-78 in a game they lead by 14 at halftime. Kelan Martin led the way with 28 points for the Bulldogs, who suddenly look like a team that we need to talk about at the top of the Big East this season.
They’re one of just two teams this season to beat the Hoosiers, who own wins over top ten teams North Carolina and Kansas. They’re one of just two teams to beat Arizona this season. They’ve beaten Cincinnati. They’ve beaten Vanderbilt and Northwestern. They won at Utah. Their lone loss on the season came on the road to an in-state rival that will likely finish in the top four of one of the best mid-major leagues in the country.
They have a star in Martin. They have a pair of talented point guards, Tyler Lewis and Kamar Baldwin, who compliment each other so well. Andrew Chrabacsz and Tyler Wideman makeup an underrated front court. Chris Holtmann has proven to be one of the best young coaches in the game.
Look, I don’t think anyone believes Butler is going to win the Big East barring some kind of season-altering injury to Villanova.
But is there really any reason to believe that the Bulldogs can’t finish second in the Big East?
Purdue: The Boilermakers came back from 17 points down in the first half to knock off Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic on Saturday. Caleb Swanigan was the star, but credit has to be given to Vince Edwards as well. He played his best basketball of the season, finishing with 20 points and 10 boards.
Arizona: Give Sean Miller and Arizona credit. This team, with Ray Smith done for the year, Parker Jackson-Cartwright injured and Allonzo Trier out, just keeps winning. On Saturday, they handed Texas A&M a loss in Houston in the Lone Star Shootout, and while Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins all have continued to improve this season, it was Dusan Ristic who was the star on Saturday.
Seton Hall: The Pirates landed a key win in their push to get a bid to the NCAA tournament by handing South Carolina their first loss of the season. The Pirates may be without Isaiah Whitehead this season, but they still have a roster full of scrappy, athletic veterans that are not going to back down from anyone. I don’t know if anyone plays as hard as Angel Delgado.
Oklahoma State: The Cowboys picked up their biggest win of the season on Saturday, as they went into Wichita and knocked off the Shockers in a dominating performance. Brad Underwood has had this group playing better this season, but this was really the first time that the Pokes have landed a resulted that backs that up.
Northwestern: Is this going to be the year that the Wildcats finally make it to the NCAA tournament? They still have a ton of work left to do, but the job got a little bit easier on Saturday as Northwestern knocked off Dayton in the United Center in Chicago. Chris Collins has that team sitting at 9-2 on the season, with the losses coming by a total of six points against Butler and Notre Dame. They’ve beaten Texas, DePaul and Wake Forest already this year, but Dayton has a chance to be a top 25 win come Selection Sunday.