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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.

Villanova reels in four-star Class of 2018 forward Cole Swider

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Villanova pulled in an intriguing stretch forward in the Class of 2018 on Friday as four-star prospect Cole Swider committed to the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-8 Swider is currently regarded as the No. 89 overall prospect in the Rivals.com national Class of 2018 rankings as he is coming off of a very solid spring playing with BABC in the Nike EYBL. Playing in 16 games, Swider was one of the league’s better scorers as he put up 19.4 points per game while shooting 49 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range. Swider also put up 6.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals per contest.

Swider is the second Villanova commitment in the Class of 2018 as they also have a pledge from four-star guard Brandon Slater. The Wildcats are certainly off to a strong start recruiting this class as they look for a potential point guard to help eventually replace Jalen Brunson.

Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges returning to Villanova

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Villanova will gain two key pieces back for next season as point guard Jalen Brunson will return for his junior season.

The 6-foot-2 Brunson averaged 14.7 points and 4.1 assists per game as a sophomore last season as he was one of the better floor leaders in the country. Brunson should find himself on a lot of preseason lists next season as he has a chance to return and be an All-American

“Jalen is an outstanding student who loves being at Villanova and wants to complete his degree by the end of his junior year,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said in the release. “This was a simple decision made by Jalen’s family. Jalen wants to graduate, be a leader on this year’s team, and compete for a championship.”

With both Brunson, forward Mikal Bridges and guard Donte DiVincenzo coming back next season, Villanova should be in great position to be a big national championship contender as they still have plenty of talent in the fold. The Wildcats should also get guard Phil Booth back from injury while big man Omari Spellman should also be cleared after sitting out last season.

 

Quinnipiac set to hire Villanova assistant Baker Dunleavy as new head coach

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Quinnipiac will introduce Villanova assistant coach Baker Dunleavy as the team’s new head coach on Tuesday, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Dunleavy has helped the Wildcats to a national championship and multiple Big East championships as the team’s associate head coach. A former walk-on for Villanova who transitioned into a director of operations and later an assistant coach, Dunleavy is the son of Tulane head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. Baker’s brother, Mike Dunleavy Jr., is still playing in the NBA as well.

The 34-year-old Dunleavy has experience with a championship program at Villanova so it will be interesting to see what he can do running his own program for the first time. Quinnipiac hired Dunleavy to replace Tom Moore, who was fired after 10 years with the program.

The Bobcats went to an NIT and made a few other postseason appearances under Moore but the program has never been to the NCAA tournament since making the transition to Division I in the late ’90s.

2017 NCAA Tournament: Duke has a legitimate gripe after getting left off of the No. 1 seed line

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Once again, we have a Duke vs. North Carolina argument on our hands.

The No. 1 seed in the South Region was awarded to North Carolina despite the fact that the Blue Devils have a better résumé when it comes to their hated rivals.

Winning the ACC by two full games, as North Carolina did, is certainly impressive, but the Blue Devils can counter with more top-25 wins than any team in the country (eight) and more top 50 wins than anyone (13) while Duke also owned a 2-1 advantage in the head-to-head matchup with the Tar Heels. Eight of Duke’s 13 top 50 wins and six of their eight top 25 wins came away from Cameron Indoor Stadium.

That said, a No. 1 seed has also never had eight losses before, and the Blue Devils suffered the worst loss of any potential No. 1 seed when they fell at home to N.C. State.

None of Duke’s accomplishments ultimately mattered when it came time to deciding the No. 1 seeds. It was explained by Mark Hollis of the selection committee after the bracket reveal that the Blue Devils were a No. 4 seed as of Wednesday. The committee uses a process they call a “seed scrub” as the week moves on, which essentially means they compare teams to the team above them and see which profile they like better.

As Duke started piling up impressive wins in New York this week, they kept ascending up the seeding chart until they reached Arizona. Since the committee decided that the Wildcats had a stronger case than Duke, that is where the Blue Devils stopped in the seeding debate.

Duke, a team who could have easily been a No. 1 seed, was never even compared to the other No. 1 seeds. Based on Duke having five more top-25 wins than Arizona this season, the committee dropped the ball on that one.

The only other No. 2 seed who won their conference tournament was Kentucky in the SEC.

The Wildcats have been playing better ball lately. They have an impressive 18-4 mark against the top-100 teams, but they only have two top-25 wins on the season. Kentucky may have the talent of a No. 1 seed but they aren’t as proven against elite teams as the No. 1 teams the committee decided on.

(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

This season’s No. 1 overall seed had the unique advantage of being able to pick where they played the opening weekend, the top spot took on even more meaning this season. After a strong season that included a Big East championship in both the regular season and conference tournament, Villanova is the No. 1 overall seed as the Wildcats are the best defending champion college basketball has seen since Florida went back-to-back in 2006 and 2007.

In a Championship Week where No. 1 seeds like Kansas and North Carolina dropped games early in conference tournaments — and Gonzaga only won the two-bid WCC — Villanova getting the No. 1 overall seed comes as no surprise given their overall body of work and conference-tournament title. With a 17-3 record against the top 100, the Wildcats have the most impressive record among the No. 1 seeds when it comes to facing quality competition as they’ll be a major factor in the East Region.

The selection of Gonzaga as the No. 1 seed in the West comes with minimal surprise after the Bulldogs took care of business in the WCC Tournament. With six top-25 wins and a head-to-head win over West Region No. 2 seed Arizona, Gonzaga had a stronger case than any of the Pac-12’s premier trio of teams this season to be a No. 1 seed.

Skeptics will always remain when it comes to Gonzaga being a top seed, but they have double the top-25 wins of Arizona, Villanova and UCLA while also having more top-25 wins than Oregon and North Carolina. If the Zags had gone unbeaten they might have been the No. 1 overall seed.

Midwest Region No. 1 seed Kansas might have dipped out of the Big 12 Tournament early with a shocking loss to TCU but it ultimately didn’t hurt the Jayhawks too much. Many considered Kansas to be the No. 1 team in the country before that loss to the Horned Frogs as the Jayhawks potentially cost themselves the No. 1 overall seed by losing in Kansas City.

With a 16-4 top-100 record and six top-25 wins, Kansas was as impressive as any team in the country when it came to quality wins as the Jayhawks won the Big 12 regular season once again.

But back to the point, the way Duke’s seeding was ultimately handled signifies that the committee really valued what teams did in the regular season with regards to conference championships. All four No. 1 seeds won their leagues by multiple games and that seemed to be something the committee respected a great deal.

Since Big Ten regular-season champion Purdue also received the league’s best seed as a No. 4 — despite an early quarterfinal loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament — that theory would seem to hold some weight. The Boilers getting a top-four seed after the Big Ten was shut out of February’s seeding reveal is proof that winning a regular-season title matters.

Arizona being seeded higher than Duke means the same thing. Since the Wildcats won the Pac-12 regular-season title (and also conference tournament title) the committee clearly liked that Arizona had handled business in their own conference.

With seven losses during ACC play, that ultimately left Duke out of the No. 1 seed discussion based on the committee’s values.

The Duke and North Carolina debate is what is going to ultimately drive the No. 1 seed discussion over these next few weeks since the committee had three relatively easy selections.

You can make a strong case for either of the Tobacco Road rivals to earn a No. 1 seed this season, but the committee at least had a pattern that they followed when it came time to pick the No. 1 seeds. Selection Sunday taught us that conference regular-season championships still hold a lot of weight despite the excitement of winning a conference tournament.

Villanova dominates St. John’s in record-setting win

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NEW YORK (AP) Villanova may not have played the perfect game but the Wildcats weren’t far off.

Want some proof?

The second-ranked and top-seeded Wildcats shot 63.2 percent (36 for 57) and committed just five turnovers in a record-setting 108-67 victory Thursday over St. John’s in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals.

Villanova shot better than 50 percent from 3-point range (15 for 29), made 21 of 25 free throws and only committed seven personal fouls, none in the first half.

It was the most points and largest margin of victory in the tournament for Villanova and it was the worst loss the Red Storm ever endured.

“That was a pretty good effort for us defensively. It really was,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “And again that is maturity. It’s experience. … I think our guys had a great grasp of the scouting report and I think they played very intelligently.”

Donte DiVincenzo had 25 points and Kris Jenkins added 24 for the Wildcats, who had six players score in double figures.

DiVincenzo, a redshirt freshman who finished 7 of 8 from the field, including 5 of 6 on 3s, surpassed his previous career high of 20 points, also set against St. John’s.

“Going into the game I was confident as in every game,” DiVincenzo said. “But the only thing I can say about the 25 is it’s all because of the seniors and Jalen (Brunson) and E (Eric Paschal). Everybody was making the right play and I found myself open and today I was knocking down shots.”

The Wildcats (29-3) will face the winner of the Marquette-Seton Hall game in the semifinals on Friday at Madison Square Garden.

The Wildcats took command from the start and led 52-26 at halftime.

Villanova shot 51.5 percent (17 of 33) in the first half, including 9 of 20 from 3-point range. The Wildcats committed just three turnovers, held St. John’s scoreless for a 6-minute stretch and outrebounded the Red Storm 21-13. Jenkins hit a long 3 at the halftime buzzer after a Villanova timeout with 3.3 seconds to play.

Bashir Ahmed and Marcus LoVett both scored 12 points for the eighth-seeded Red Storm (14-19), who beat Georgetown 74-73 in the opening round to snap a six-year losing streak in the Big East Tournament. St. John’s had twice lost by 29 points in the tournament.

“Villanova is one of the best teams in the country. So give all credit to them. And we welcome that,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said. “That was a good position to be in, to be able to play in today’s game. So no regrets.”

Mullin was asked about Villanova not having a foul in the first half.

“It’s pretty good defense,” he said with a smirk.

BIG PICTURE

St. John’s: The Red Storm again followed the pattern of struggling early from 3-point range. They were 2 of 8 from beyond the arc in the first half. … Darien Williams was called for a Flagrant 1 foul against Darryl Reynolds in the first half.

Villanova: Mikal Bridges started for the Wildcats but played just one minute because of a stomach virus. … Villanova swept the season series with St. John’s by an average of 18 points. … Villanova’s previous high for points was 96 in a double-overtime win over Pittsburgh in 1998 and the previous margin of victory was 35 against Marquette in 2015. … Villanova improved its shooting in the second half to 79.2 percent (19 of 24), including 6 of 9 from 3-point range.

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The 41-point margin of victory tied the Big East Tournament record set by Syracuse in a 96-55 win over Boston College in 1999.

UP NEXT

Villanova will face the Seton Hall-Marquette winner in Friday’s semifinals.

For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-Top25