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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

No. 2 Villanova clinches Big East title with win over No. 23 Creighton

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Villanova continued its dominance of the modern Big East on Saturday as the No. 2 Wildcats made a late charge to secure a 79-63 home win over No. 23 Creighton.

By clinching at least a share of the Big East regular season crown, Jay Wright’s program has now won four consecutive regular-season conference titles as they try to make another push towards the postseason.

Eric Paschall led a balanced Villanova scoring effort with 19 points while Josh Hart (15 points), Kris Jenkins (14 points) and Mikal Bridges (11 points) also finished in double-figures. The late push at the end was a good sign that Villanova might have shaken off a recent sluggish stretch that included a home loss last game to Butler and an uninspired first half against Creighton.

There were also times during Villanova’s win on Saturday where they didn’t look fully engaged and Creighton was right with them. Maybe it was partly because of the emotion of Senior Day, but while the Wildcats are still a heavy favorite to land a top seed and make it back to the Final Four, there are also some concerns about depth and health at this point in the season.

The Wildcats have been able to withstand the rib injury and five-game absence of veteran big man Darryl Reynolds, but it does seem like this team might be getting a bit tired entering the stretch run. Villanova was only 4-for-19 from three-point range on their home floor on Saturday while Hart is just 1-for-9 from the free-throw line in his last two games.

That could mean a cold stretch but it could also mean some tired legs. Thankfully for Villanova, they only have one regular-season game next week on the road at a Georgetown team that has lost back-to-back games to DePaul and St. John’s. Coupled with the early bye in the Big East tournament and the Wildcats should get some time to rest and recover over the next few weeks.

It’ll be interesting to see if Villanova comes out with any kind of intensity against Georgetown — with nothing really to play for — or if they try to put away a reeling Hoyas team early.

Xavier scores important road win at No. 22 Creighton

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Xavier earned an important road win over No. 22 Creighton on Saturday as the Musketeers were able to stay in the Big East race with an 82-80 win.

Relying on a balanced scoring effort, Xavier (17-6, 7-3) had 16 points each from Tyrique Jones and Trevon Bluiett and 15 points each from Quentin Goodin and J.P. Macura. Jones was a perfect 8-for-8 from the field while Bluiett knocked down two key three-pointers down the stretch to keep the Musketeers in control.

This win is Xavier’s first win against an RPI top-25 team, so it looks very good for the tournament profile. By also winning this one without Edmond Sumner, Xavier proved that they would still be a contender in the Big East as they’re riding a three-game winning streak.

Creighton (20-4, 7-4) dropped this one even though they had a nine-point lead at halftime. The Bluejays were led by Marcus Foster with 18 points while Khyri Thomas (15 points) and Cole Huff (11 points) both finished in double-figures.

It was notable that big man Justin Patton only finished with seven points as he was only 2-for-5 from the field and 3-for-4 from the free-throw line. Patton also had five blocks on the defensive end. The Xavier defense certainly deserves credit for limiting Patton’s attempts and touches but Creighton also has to have a more proactive approach to getting Patton the ball.

The seven points broke a streak in which Patton scored double figures in 13 straight games as he’s shooting 71 percent from the field on the season. Creighton needs to be doing everything they can to work inside-out and let their shooters get looks after he’s drawing double teams.

From here, the Big East race gets a little intriguing thanks to Xavier’s soft remaining schedule. With two games against DePaul and Marquette and only home games with Villanova and Butler, the Musketeers can make a major play to stay with Villanova.

Crieghton’s schedule also isn’t too bad from here as they have road games at DePaul, Villanova, Marquette and Seton Hall and home games with St. John’s, Providence and Georgetown. That’s a stretch where Creighton could conceivably go 5-2 and still be in good position entering the Big East tournament.

Five Takeaways from No. 8 Creighton’s win over No. 12 Butler

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Creighton had a strong overall performance on Wednesday night as the No. 8 Bluejays ran past No. 12 Butler for a 75-64 home Big East win.

Here are five takeaways from Creighton’s impressive win.

1. Creighton’s defense is getting better — Creighton’s top-10 offense has been praised repeatedly this season but its defense also appears to be improving.

The Bluejay defense has never been bad this season — they ranked a respectable 69th in KenPom defensive efficiency entering Wednesday — but this team appears to be more focused on that end of the floor from the start of the season.

Butler was held to 41 percent shooting on Wednesday night as they were 32 percent from three-point range and only shot seven free throws. Creighton defended without fouling and made perimeter looks very tough. The Bluejays also clearly had the right gameplan for Bulldogs star Kelan Martin as they held him scoreless in the first half and made things frustrating for him all night.

Creighton doesn’t need to be a defensive juggernaut to win its games, but they do need to show that they can get late stops in a tight game like they couldn’t during the Villanova loss. This game obviously didn’t give the Bluejays a test in that department but their defense was so good early that they didn’t need to get stops to win.

2. Butler needs Kelan Martin to show up in Big East play — Junior forward Kelan Martin is Butler’s leading scorer and best player. The 6-foot-7 forward is averaging north of 17 points per game this season. But he’s had a slow start in Big East play.

Wednesday saw more of the same. Martin missed his first eight shots and was held scoreless in the first half as the Bulldogs fell behind big and never recovered. To start the second half, Martin found himself on the bench as he finally started to make some shots once he re-entered the game.

So far in five Big East games, Martin is only shooting 30 percent (20-for-66) from the field. At 6-for-27 from three-point range during that same span, Martin has also struggled to find his perimeter shooting stroke during conference play. Clearly, Martin needs to make some adjustments because the Big East seems to be more familiar with his game and is having an easier time of slowing him down.

Much like Wisconsin senior forward Nigel Hayes, Martin could stand to tone down the number of perimeter looks he is taking at the moment. Martin has always hovered around 37 percent from three, and that’s a respectable number, but he’s now attempting over six attempts a game from three even though he’s been off the last five games.

3. With Justin Patton rolling, Creighton’s offense becomes a juggernaut — Watching Creighton has been fun for a number of reasons this season but the continued development of freshman center Justin Patton continues to be thrilling to witness. The 7-footer has really stepped up his overall game lately as he’s been more productive while getting the lion’s share of the minutes at center.

When Creighton’s guards like Mo Watson and Marcus Foster can get to the rim, Patton becomes a valuable dump-off option. With the amount of shooting that Creighton has on the roster it also gives Patton plenty of room to operate on the interior. If Cole Huff is knocking down shots, it makes the Bluejays such a matchup nightmare on the offensive end because they have so many unique weapons and ways to score.

Patton only finished with 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting but that all came in the first half as Butler’s bigs had no answer for him. Since Creighton’s guards could get in the paint whenever they wanted, Patton’s post touches weren’t as necessary in this one, but Patton’s confidence is growing immensely as the season goes on.

4. Butler can have struggles containing dribble penetration against good guards — One of Butler’s major issues during Wednesday night’s loss was the ability to slow down guards like Watson, Foster and Khyri Thomas from doing what they wanted off the bounce.

In the first half, the Bluejays built their commanding lead by attacking the rack and sharing the scoring balance and the second half saw a strong takeover performance from Watson. The senior was simply unguardable for Creighton in the second frame as he was able to touch the paint whenever he wanted on his way to 21 points and seven assists.

Butler has some strong defensive players and strong defensive principles, but senior Tyler Lewis isn’t a good on-the-ball defender and his size makes him susceptible to being beat. It’s going to be interesting to see how Butler adjusts its perimeter defense after this game to prepare for elite guards. The good news is that Butler isn’t going to have to face many top-10 offenses with killer backcourts, but it was still concerning to see how much they were getting beat.

5. Nobody else is going to beat Creighton at home — Sorry, Big East. No disrespect, Xavier. But I’d be stunned if Creighton lost another home game this season.

Creighton’s dismantling of Butler was an impressive effort on both ends of the floor as the Bluejays made a good, disciplined team look average for most of the game. With Villanova already having won at Creighton this season, I don’t see another Big East team going into CenturyLink Center and picking up a win.

The Bluejays have always been a tough out at home over the years as it is, but with how talented this team is and how they’re playing right now, it would take a huge effort to earn a win there.

Four takeaways from No. 1 Villanova beating No. 10 Creighton

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No. 1 Villanova continued its unbeaten season and stretched its win streak to 20 games as they outlasted N0. 10 Creighton for a 80-70 Big East road win.

Here are four takeaways from the Wildcats’ win on Saturday.

1. Nothing is going to fluster Villanova: Early in the game, the Wildcats found themselves down 19-9 and 24-14. Three-pointers weren’t falling and the underrated Creighton fanbase was loud and engaged. It didn’t bother Villanova one bit.

The Wildcats heated up from the perimeter and sophomore Jalen Brunson played one of the best games of his college career, going for a career-high 27 points and coming up with a big steal late in the game.

Villanova already has two closers in Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Hart can get shots late in games and get points when Villanova needs them while Jenkins is a great second option who isn’t afraid to take any shot. If you add in Brunson playing this well? You can see why Villanova is still unbeaten and sitting at No. 1 at this point in the season.

2. Villanova finishing the regular season unbeaten is picking up steam: Villanova might have just won the toughest possible test they’ll receive by winning at Creighton on Saturday.

Villanova will still get a solid test at Butler during their next game but the Bulldogs just lost to St. John’s on the road and had to deal with a scary flight situation on the way home. We don’t know if Butler is mentally prepared to hang with the defending national champions.

That means Villanova only has tough road games at Seton Hall and Xavier if they beat Butler next game and the schedule looks more-and-more favorable for them to finish unbeaten. Obviously, the Wildcats have to avoid slip-ups against lesser opponents and still beat the Big East’s beat teams at home. There’s an intriguing non-conference clash with Virginia that also looms for the Wildcats.

But we need to start looking at Villanova potentially going unbeaten as a serious threat since this team has some good road wins at Purdue and Creighton in which a lot of other teams would have folded.

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3. Creighton remains a solid Big East threat: We shouldn’t forget about the Bluejays just because they lost this one at home. Creighton is still going to be a premier team in the Big East with a great chance at a top-4 seed in the NCAA tournament as their potent offense puts them in any game.

The backcourt of Mo Watson Jr., Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas is a quality trio while center Justin Patton has improved so much over the course of the season. Senior forward Cole Huff remains an intriguing forward who can stretch the floor or go in the mid-post and score on turnaround jumpers.

Creighton still has to figure out how to get stops in close games like this one but they at least traded punches with the champion for 10 out of 12 rounds of a prize fight. They ultimately fell short in this one but Creighton hasn’t reached its ceiling yet — which is fun to think about.

4. Creighton goes as Mo Watson goes: One of the interesting things about Creighton’s loss to Villanova was seeing how this team looked with and without Mo Watson Jr.

Watson played most of the game but he did battle foul trouble in both halves before eventually fouling out during Creighton’s rally with a few minutes left. With Watson playing at his best, he’s one of the finest floor leaders in the country as he sets up others for shots while also handling pressure and limiting turnovers.

But you have to wonder if Watson is afraid to look for his shot sometimes. Against Villanova, Watson played his typical pass-first style but he passed up multiple open looks that he could have taken instead of making dangerous passes to guarded teammates.

Villanova is a different caliber of team defensively so Watson needs to look for his own offense more than usual when facing a team like them. But for the Bluejays to also be in this game despite an average game from Watson also shows how good they can be if he’s playing at his best.

Creighton big man Zach Hanson out indefinitely after ankle surgery

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Creighton will be without senior big man Zach Hanson for a few months as head coach Greg McDermott announced he’ll be out indefinitely after left ankle surgery.

The 6-foot-9 Hanson was previously out this summer after having knee surgery and now he’s dealing with a torn tendon and torn ligaments in his left ankle — which will also require surgery.

During his junior season, Hanson was a solid rotation player for the Bluejays as he averaged 6.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per contest. This season, Hanson appeared in all five Creighton games and averaged 8.0 points and 3.2 rebounds per in just over 13 minutes per contest.

The Bluejays have certainly been fine with Hanson playing limited minutes during their 5-0 start but they could use him as the season grinds on. Beyond freshman center Justin Patton and junior big man Toby Hegner, Creighton doesn’t have a lot of experienced depth on the inside and Hanson’s loss could hurt them in Big East play.

Creighton is still going to be a guard-driven team that should be fine without a role player but the frontcourt depth of the Bluejays is going to be something worth monitoring.