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No 14 Minnesota makes early statement at Providence

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While No. 2 Michigan State is viewed as the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, and rightfully so, the Spartans will not lack for competition in the title race. One team capable of challenging the Spartans is No. 14 Minnesota, and Monday night in his return to his alma mater Richard Pitino’s team put together a solid second half showing in its 86-74 win at Providence.

The biggest difference for Minnesota in the second half was their improved offensive execution, as forward Jordan Murphy had a big night with 23 points and 14 rebounds to lead the way. After getting off to a quick start, racing out to a 12-2 lead, Minnesota got a bit stagnant offensively. They took challenged shots, and as a result the Golden Gophers trailed at the half by three and had just one assist on 13 made baskets.

With improved execution and a more concerted effort to truly attack the Providence defense, Minnesota shot nearly 61 percent from the field and made four of its seven three-point attempts in the final 20 minutes. And thanks in large part to the tandem of Murphy and Reggie Lynch, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds, Minnesota was able to take advantage of its experience advantage in the front court.

It wasn’t all about the big men either, as Amir Coffey got going in the second half and finished with 15 points, Nate Mason tallied 17 and Dupree McBrayer and Isaiah Washington added nine and eight points, respectively.

Minnesota has the talent needed to be a player both within the Big Ten and nationally, especially as lead guards Mason and Washington get more comfortable sharing the playmaking responsibilities when Pitino calls upon that lineup. But the key to Minnesota making good on that promise will be to stay aggressive offensively while not settling for forced shots. That was an issue in the first half as Providence, a good team in its own right, made its run to pull ahead.

Kyron Cartwright dished out seven assists without a turnover in the the first stanza as Providence relied on a balanced offensive effort, and players such as sophomore Alpha Diallo, freshman Nate Watson and junior Isaiah Jackson took advantage. Yet despite doing their best to hang around Providence’s youth inside, especially with senior Emmitt Holt still out after undergoing abdominal surgery, was exposed by the more experienced Minnesota front line.

After playing a bit lax offensively Minnesota refocused in the second half, and the end result was a quality win that will only increase in value as the season wears on.

Under The Radar Stars You Need To Know

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Beginning in September and running up until November 10th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

The label “under the radar” can be a tricky one to affix on a player, especially with there being more access to games and statistics thanks in large part to the internet.

What makes an “under the radar” player?

Not being discussed on the national television shows every night that he’s on the court?

Or having one’s contributions overlooked because they may not produce eye-popping numbers in the usual statistical categories?

We’re going to take a shot at this here, naming some players who in our view are floating under the radar heading into the 2017-18 season.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke
Jaylen Adams (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

PG Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure

One could argue that Adams’ backcourt sidekick Matt Mobley deserves to be on this list as well. But the pick here is Adams, as he’s coming off of a junior season in which he averaged 20.6 points, 6.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game, Adams is entrusted in producing offense not only for himself but for his teammates as well, and more often than not he gets the job done for Mark Schmidt’s Bonnies. Adams is a key reason why the Bonnies are expected to contend in the Atlantic 10 and could earn their first NCAA tournament bid since 2012.

PF Peyton Aldridge, Davidson

Much to the chagrin of some, Aldridge was not on our list of the top 100 players in college basketball. And with Jack Gibbs out of eligibility, Aldridge has the potential to be one of the most productive offensive players in America this season. As a junior Aldridge averaged 20.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, producing an offensive rating of 118.5 as well. By March, leaving Aldridge off of the top 100 list could prove to be a major mistake.

PG Kyron Cartwright, Providence

Cartwright receives ample respect within the Big East, which is to be expected considering the fact that he was named the league’s Most Improved Player last season. As a junior Cartwright averaged 11.4 points, 6.7 assists (tops in the Big East) and 3.5 rebounds per game. Look for this to be the season in which Cartwright becomes a household name nationally, as he leads a program aiming not only for its fifth consecutive NCAA tournament berth but a Big East title as well.

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Kyron Cartwright (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

PF Mike Daum, South Dakota State

Daum’s name is one that should be heard more often in 2017-18, given how productive he was as a sophomore last season. The 6-foot-9 power forward averaged 25.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season, shooting 51.4 percent from the field, 41.8 percent from three and 86.9 percent from the foul line. A 6-foot-9 forward who attempted just over five of his shots (15.2 FGA per game) per night from three was nearly a 50/40/90 shooter. That’s incredible, and Daum’s name is one that more college basketball fans need to know.

SF/PF Vince Edwards, Purdue

With his size, standing at 6-foot-8, and skill set Edwards allows Purdue head coach Matt Painter to go a variety of ways with his matchups. Given the perimeter options on this team, including Carsen Edwards, Dakota Mathias, P.J. Thompson and freshman Nojel Eastern, Purdue can employ Edwards as a four to force mismatches at that position. Last season Edwards averaged 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, shooting 48.6 percent from the field, 42.3 percent from three and 82.0 percent from the foul line. Efficient offensively and solid on the other end of the floor, Edwards could merit All-America discussion come March.

PG Rob Gray Jr., Houston

The American Athletic Conference is loaded with guards this season, and among the best in the conference is Rob Gray Jr. The 6-foot-1 redshirt senior averaged 20.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game for the Cougars last season, earning first team all-conference honors as a result. Gray is certainly given the respect he deserves within the American, but has he received enough respect nationally? Look for that to change this season as he looks to lead the Cougars to their first NCAA tournament bid since 2010.

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Tyler Hall, Montana State Athletics
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SG Tyler Hall, Montana State

Speaking of players who threatened the 50/40/90 mark last season, Tyler Hall did so while averaging 23.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game last season. Shooting 47.6 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from three and 83.7 percent from the foul line, Hall produced an effective field goal percentage of 59.5 in 2016-17. The 6-foot-4 guard was a focal point of the Montana State offensive attack in each of his first two years with the program, and that’s unlikely to change in 2017-18.

SG Mustapha Heron, Auburn

With the statuses of Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley undetermined at this point due to the ongoing FBI investigation (and fears of what the NCAA could do down the line), Auburn will begin its season shorthanded. But in Heron the Tigers have a talented shooting guard in Heron who can put points on the board in a flash. As a freshman Heron averaged 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from three. If there’s one area where Heron could stand to improve from last season it’s the turnover department, as he averaged 2.4 per night while dishing out just 1.3 assists per game.

PG Aaron Holiday, UCLA

After starting 32 games as a freshman Holiday moved into a reserve role last season to make room for Lonzo Ball, and he handled the adjustment well. Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists per game as a sophomore, with both numbers being improvements on his freshman year numbers (10.3, 4.0). With Ball, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton all having moved on, more will be asked of Holiday alongside the likes of freshmen Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes. And given his abilities on both ends of the floor, Holiday may very well emerge as one of the top guards in the country in the eyes of those who aren’t already rating him that high.

SG Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State

Two years after arriving in Starkville as part of a recruiting class headlined by Malik Newman (who is now at Kansas), it’s Weatherspoon who is entrusted with the task of leading the way for Ben Howland’s program. As a sophomore Weatherspoon averaged 16.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game for the Bulldogs, shooting nearly 47 percent from the field and 37.3 percent from three with an effective field goal percentage of 53.3 percent. The talent on the roster has improved, which could in turn help one of the top perimeter talents in the SEC become more of a household name nationally.

Others worth considering: Joshua Braun (Grand Canyon), Bryant Crawford (Wake Forest), Terence Davis (Ole Miss), Drew Eubanks (Oregon State), Tra Holder (Arizona State), Shake Milton (SMU), Khyri Thomas (Creighton).

Big East Conference Preview: Villanova looks to hold off challengers

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big East Conference.

Since the Big East’s reconfiguration in 2013, Villanova has served as the standard bearer with four straight regular season titles, two Big East tournament titles and a national title in 2016.

Jay Wright’s team has enough talent and experience to extend the streak to five, but the 2017-18 campaign sets up as one in which there are multiple teams poised to challenge the Wildcats.

Seton Hall, Xavier and maybe even Providence have the goods to push the Wildcats this season.

With the middle of the pack getting stronger and two head coaching changes, one of which being a Big East legend returning to his alma mater, this should be a fun year in the Big East.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Villanova looks to replace three starters and remain atop the conference: With the end of the 2016-17 season came the end of three collegiate careers, with Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds all out of eligibility. All three provided key intangibles for Villanova, with Hart and Jenkins also being two of the team’s top three scorers from a season ago. The question: how will the Wildcats account for those losses, with regards to both production and leadership?

There will be some adjustments to make, but simply put the pieces are there for Villanova to remain atop the Big East. Jalen Brunson, one of the nation’s best point guards, is back for his junior season as are wing Mikal Bridges and forward Eric Paschall. Sophomore guard Donte DiVencenzo, who earned a spot on the Big East’s All-Freshman team and was also the Big 5 Newcomer of the Year, is back for his sophomore season, and Phil Booth is healthy after sitting out most of last season with a knee injury.

Add in freshmen Omari Spellman and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree inside, and Jermaine Samuels Jr. on the wing, and Villanova will not lack for talent. And in Spellman, who sat out last season, they have a big who can get them points on the block on a consistent basis. For that reason this team will be different from last year’s group, which may make the Wildcats even tougher to defend.

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Khadeen Carrington (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

2. Seton Hall, Xavier and Providence are all worthy challengers: Due to its track record and combination of returnees and newcomers, Villanova has earned the right to be preseason favorites. But this season may provide the best group of challengers to the throne since the reconfiguration of the Big East.

Xavier brings back an experienced group led by an All-America candidate in senior forward Trevon Bluiett, and the experience gained by Quentin Goodin as a result of Edmond Sumner’s injury could pay off for the sophomore in 2017-18. Add in a talented freshman class led by wing Paul Scruggs, and grad transfer Kerem Kanter, and it would not be a surprise if Chris Mack’s Musketeers won the Big East.

A similar argument could be made for Seton Hall, as Kevin Willard has a squad led by four tough, talented seniors. Angel Delgado is the nation’s best rebounder, a big man who was near automatic when it came to racking up double-doubles last season. Wing Desi Rodriguez can get hot offensively on a moment’s notice, and forward Ismael Sanogo deserves more respect nationally for his abilities as a defender. The key for the Pirates: how Khadeen Carrington, a talented guard who can make plays off the bounce as well as hit perimeter shots, adjusts to the shift to the point. If he handles it well, Seton Hall can be a major factor.

As for Providence, Ed Cooley has a senior point guard in Kyron Cartwright to trust with the offense. Cartwright averaged nearly seven assists per game last season, and that number could be even higher given the improvements made by the other options on the roster. Rodney Bullock has the potential to be an all-conference player if he becomes more efficient offensively, and forward Alpha Diallo appears poised to take a significant step forward. Makai Ashton-Langford is one of the key pieces in a good recruiting class, but the key may be the health of senior big man Emmitt Holt.

Holt’s been dealing with an abdominal issue during the preseason, and if he’s limited even more will be asked of freshmen Nate Watson and Dajour Dickens.

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Khyri Thomas (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

3. The conference’s “midsection” should be improved: Given the fact that seven teams reached the NCAA tournament last season, this may feel like a weird thing to read. But with the combination of newcomers and returnees at many of the Big East schools that populated the middle portion of the standings last season, those matchups are going to be even tougher this season.

Creighton welcomes back guards Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, and they’ll add a transfer at the point in former Syracuse guard Kaleb Joseph. The key for Joseph will be to regain the confidence that he seemingly lost during his two seasons at Syracuse, but the combination of sitting out a year and being in a system that gives guys the freedom to make plays should help.

Marquette, which won 19 games and reached the NCAA tournament last season, has a very good perimeter tandem in Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard, with the latter being one of the best shooters in the country as a freshman. The question mark for the Golden Eagles is how productive their big men will be, with SMU transfer Harry Froling set to join the likes of junior Matt Heldt and freshman Theo John in December.

Butler will be led by senior forward Kelan Martin, sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin and a new head coach in LaVall Jordan (more on the Bulldogs below), and St. John’s may be the ultimate “wild card.” Guards Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett Jr. return, and the additions of transfers Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon will help immensely. If the pieces mesh, Chris Mullin has a roster that could turn heads in the Big East.

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Kamar Baldwin (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. LaVall Jordan looks to build upon the “Butler Way”: While the Brad Stevens era was critical with regards to the growth of the Butler basketball program, which reached the national title game two consecutive years and moved from the Horizon League to the Big East, the “Butler Way” began well before that point. Among those who played a role in the success is LaVall Jordan, who played on three NCAA tournament teams between 1998 and 2001 for Barry Collier and Thad Matta.

After brief stay at Milwaukee that was preceded by a six-year stint on John Beilein’s staff at Michigan, Jordan has returned to his alma mater to fill the vacancy left by Chris Holtmann’s move to Ohio State. Jordan won’t be operating with an empty cupboard either, as Kelan Martin (16.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Kamar Baldwin (10.1, 3.7) return from a team that won 25 games a season ago. Butler did lose three starters from that team, most notably forward Andrew Chrabascz, but do not expect this program to simply fall off of a cliff.

5. Patrick Ewing, arguably the most important player in Big East history, makes his return to Georgetown: To say that Ewing was “arguably” the most important player in league history may be an understatement; as the crown jewel of a 1981 class that included the likes of Chris Mullin (St. John’s) and Villanova’s “Expansion Crew,” Ewing helped usher in an era of dominance for the Big East in the 1980’s. The Georgetown teams he led were both feared and respected, and with his return to The Hilltop as head coach the goal is the bring back those glory years.

Ewing, in his first head coaching job after spending well over a decade as an assistant in the NBA, has some talent to work with inside as Marcus Derrickson (8.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Jesse Govan (10.1, 5.0) both return. But there are a lot of holes to fill on this roster, especially on the perimeter with the losses of Rodney Pryor and L.J. Peak. Look for freshman wing JaMarko Pickett to get plenty of opportunities in his debut season, one that could be difficult for the Hoyas once they begin conference play.

Angel Delgado (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Angel Delgado, Seton Hall

Only one player in college basketball (Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan) had more double-doubles than Delgado last season. The senior big man averaged 15.2 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last season, shooting 54.3 percent from the field. On a team expected to contend in the Big East, Delgado will once again be a focal point for the Pirates. And if he can improve on the turnover count (3.0 tpg last season) Delgado will be even tougher to slow down.

THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • Jalen Brunson, Villanova: One of the best point guards in college basketball, Brunson will have more leadership responsibilities on his plate in 2017-18.
  • Marcus Foster, Creighton: Foster’s first season in a Creighton uniform was a productive one, as he averaged 18.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.
  • Trevon Blueitt, Xavier: Bluiett should be heard from with regards to both Big East Player of the Year and All-America honors. Last season he averaged 18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.
  • Rodney Bullock, Providence: Butler’s Kelan Martin would be a solid choice here as well, but if he can be a more efficient player offensively Bullock will have a good shot at a first team spot as well.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Kelan Martin, Butler
  • Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
  • Omari Spellman and Mikal Bridges, Villanova
  • Marcus LoVett Jr. and Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s
  • Khyri Thomas, Creighton

BREAKOUT STAR: Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova

DiVincenzo is the biggest reason that I’m not that worried about Villanova trying to replace Josh Hart this season. I don’t know that he turns into the player Hart was this year, but he’s already proven that he had the ability to be an explosive scorer – he reached double-figures 14 times and scored at least 19 points four times coming off the bench – and he has the kind of toughness and defensive intelligence that he fit in with Villanova seamlessly on that end of the floor as well.

The only real concern about having DiVincenzo on this list is how good Villanova will be. They’re quite deep on the perimeter and return Phil Booth from injury. He could end up being a much-improved player with a markedly better season and end up with numbers that don’t look all that dissimilar from this season’s.

Donte DiVincenzo (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Chris Mullin, St. John’s

With John Thompson III being replaced at Georgetown during the spring, there really isn’t a coach in the Big East that’s truly on the proverbial hot seat. The pick here is Mullin, whose teams have improved in the win column in each of the last two seasons. So why Mullin? Because with the talent on this season’s roster, expecting the Red Storm to at the very least challenge for an NCAA tournament berth would be reasonable.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Four teams have credible hopes of reaching the Final Four.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

the impact that Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II can have for St. John’s. The Red Storm can be an NCAA tournament team this year.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • November 13, Minnesota at Providence
  • November 22-24, Villanova at Paradise Jam
  • November 28, Baylor at Xavier
  • December 3, Seton Hall at Louisville
  • December 5, Gonzaga vs. Villanova (in New York City)

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigEastTourney

POWER RANKINGS

1. Villanova: The Wildcats are once again favored to win the Big East, thanks to the combination of newcomers and returnees. The return of Phil Booth, and the additions of Omari Spellman and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, will certainly help matters for Jay Wright’s team.
2. Seton Hall: With four senior starters, the Pirates are one of the most experienced teams in college basketball. And if new point guard Khadeen Carrington can balance scoring with getting other guys the ball in good spots, look out.
3. Xavier: Trevon Bluiett will once again lead the way, with J.P. Macura being another senior capable of making an impact on a game. If the talented recruiting class, led by Paul Scruggs, is ready and Quentin Goodin takes another step forward the Musketeers can win the league.
4. Providence: In Kyron Cartwright the Friars have a special point guard. He’s surrounded with talented offensive option, including Rodney Bullock, and the arrival of Makai Ashton-Langford should give Cartwright the occasional respite. The Friars will certainly be head from this season as they look to make a 5th straight NCAA tournament appearance.
5. Creighton: In Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas the Bluejays have one of the top perimeter tandems in the country, much less the Big East. If Kaleb Joseph is ready to run the show at the point, Creighton is capable of contending.
6. Marquette: With Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard among the returnees, it’s known that Steve Wojciechowski’s team can put points on the board. But can they be more effective defensively? If so, the Golden Eagles should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
7. St. John’s: The Red Storm are the “wild card” in this race. With the additions of Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II, St. John’s has the talent needed to make waves in the Big East race. But will this be a cohesive unit when the games truly matter?
8. Butler: LaVall Jordan has some talent to work with in his first season leading his alma mater, including guard Kamar Baldwin and forward Kelan Martin. What may make things more difficult for Butler are the loss of three starters and the improvements made by other teams in the league.
9. DePaul: Will the Blue Demons escape the Big East cellar for the second time in the last three seasons? Yes, thanks to the return of Eli Cain and the additions of Austin Grandstaff and Max Strus.
10. Georgetown: Patrick Ewing’s return as head coach will be a difficult one, given the strength of the Big East and his team’s lack of perimeter shooters. That being said, having Jesse Govan and Marcus Derrickson back in the front court should help matters.

Providence lands four-star 2018 guard David Duke

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Providence continues to recruit at a very high level as the Friars pulled in top-40 prospect David Duke on Friday.

The 6-foot-4 Duke is regarded as the No. 37 overall prospect in the Rivals Class of 2018 national rankings as he gives head coach Ed Cooley another talented perimeter playmaker. With an ability to play on or off the ball, Duke has a lot of upside as he gives Providence perhaps the best future backcourt in the Big East.

Cooley has also landed four-star guard A.J. Reeves in the Class of 2018 while point guard Makai Ashton-Langford was added in the Class of 2017. With those three former top-100 prospects in the fold, Providence now has a very bright future as they should be counted on to be among the Big East’s best programs every season. Cooley has also done a great job of capitalizing on the recruiting momentum he gained by developing Kris Dunn and putting him in the NBA.

Duke and Reeves are joined by three-star forwards Kris Monroe and Jimmy Nichols to form the latest Providence recruiting class.

Providence snags commitment from four-star Class of 2017 guard Makai Ashton-Langford

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Providence landed its point guard of the future on Monday night as the Friars picked up a commitment from four-star Class of 2017 floor general Makai Ashton-Langford.

The former UConn pledge opted to back out of his commitment during the spring as he opened things back up and stayed in the Northeast by going with Providence.

Regarded as the No. 38 overall player in the Rivals.com Class of 2017 national recruiting rankings, Ashton-Langford is a winner at guard who has good size at 6-foot-2.

Ashton-Langford joins four-star big man Nate Watson and center Dajour Dickens in the Class of 2017 recruiting haul for the Friars. Head coach Ed Cooley is hoping that Ashton-Langford can develop some of the same traits that made Kris Dunn so successful at Providence.

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