Xavier Musketeers

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College Hoops Contender Series: Here Are Six Final Four Sleepers

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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.

Angel Delgado, Seton Hall (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

SETON HALL

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.
Collin Sexton (David Banks/Getty Images)

ALABAMA

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.

UCLA

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.

J.P. Macura, Trevon Bluiett (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

XAVIER

You want a sneaky sleeper pick for National Player of the Year that no one seems to be talking about?

Trevon Bluiett.

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.

MINNESOTA

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.

Matt Farrell, Bonzie Colson (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

NOTRE DAME

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

Xavier extends Chris Mack’s contract

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On the eve of Chris Mack’s becoming the program’s all-time winningest coach, Xavier has tacked on another year to his contract

Mack and the Musketeers announced a one-year contract extension Tuesday, keeping Mack under contract with the school through 2022-23.

“I am excited about the future of our program and proud to be the head coach of my alma mater,” Mack said in a statement released by the school. “Xavier is a special place. It is especially gratifying to receive the support from the entire Xavier Community and my hometown of Cincinnati.

“We have lofty goals for our basketball program and that ongoing support will be a big key to reaching our goals.”

Xavier is coming off an Elite Eight appearance in the seventh NCAA tournament berth in Mack’s eight seasons at the helm. He enters 2017-18 just 17 wins shy of taking the top spot in Xavier’s record book for most wins. He’s currently 186-91 overall at Xavier.

“There is plenty to celebrate, especially coming off of an Elite Eight season,” Xavier athletic director Greg Christopher said in a statement, “and the future looks even brighter. Chris is clearly the right leader for Xavier and I know that he and his staff are not satisfied. Chris has proven himself as one of the elite coaches in college basketball.”

Without a raise or a change in buyout language or dollars, the extension is pretty standard operating procedure for a coach with the ties to a university and the success that’s been achieved by Mack. He’s going to continue to be floated as a potential candidate to midwestern blue bloods – like he was with Ohio State and Indiana this year – but it keeps negative recruiting about his future to a minimum. Mack has the chops to win anywhere, but if he keeps doing it at this high level at his alma mater, it’s hard to picture anything but the most desirable of jobs prying him away sometime in the future.

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.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

WATCH: Xavier scores a basket off the ground, Macura’s buzzer-beater waved off

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Xavier, the No. 11 seed in the West region, needed a few break to go its way in order to stay with top-seeded Gonzaga in the first half of the Elite Eight matchup from San Jose on Saturday evening.

Just before halftime, the Musketeers got the ball to bounce their way. Literally. Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams and Xavier’s RaShid Gaston battled for a rebound. Williams inadvertently spiked the ball off the basket, off himself and off the backboard for a two-board bucket for Xavier.

The bucket was awarded to Gaston. It was two of Gaston’s five first half points.

Less than 30 seconds later, J.P. Macura tried to top Gaston’s unlikely field goal with a bank shot of his own. Following a bucket from Nigel Williams-Goss, Macura heaved a three-quarters court at the buzzer. However, after reviewing the play, it was waved off.

The Zags led 49-39 entering halftime.

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