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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

Jay Wright wins No. 500 as No. 2 Villanova wins convincingly at No. 24 Xavier

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Villanova used a balanced effort as the No. 2 Wildcats beat No. 24 Xavier, 73-57, for a Big East road win on Saturday afternoon.

The win is head coach Jay Wright’s 500th as he saw the Big East leaders play a complete game.

Point guard Jalen Brunson had a solid game with 17 points, seven assists and only two turnovers as Villanova shot 51 percent (27-for-52) from the field and only committed six turnovers. Donte DiVincenzo also continued his strong recent stretch of play by finishing with 17 points.

Kris Jenkins (12 points), Josh Hart (11 points) and Mikal Bridges (10 points) also finished with double-figures for Villanova.

When Villanova’s offense is playing like this they are going to be one of the toughest teams in the country to stop. Brunson and DiVincenzo being the leaders in this one is particularly noteworthy since those are two of the players Villanova will rely on in March compared to last season. We know that Josh Hart is a player of the year candidate and Jenkins and Bridges are also steady but adding more perimeter firepower from those guys makes Villanova really tough to defend.

With DiVincenzo scoring like this there are not many weak links in the Villanova lineup.

Xavier (18-7, 8-4) looked lifeless by the end of this one as Trevon Bluiett (0 points) had an ankle injury and the team’s offense struggled. Rashid Gaston had a solid game with 23 points and 10 rebounds while J.P. Macura added 17 points and seven rebounds.

The Musketeers outrebounded Villanova 42-27 but the only shot 35 percent from the field and 28 percent from three-point range.

This loss snaps a four-game winning streak for Xavier as they begin a three-game road trip in which they need to get healthier and figure out the offensive issues.

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.

Xavier lands four-star Class of 2017 guard Paul Scruggs

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Xavier continues to recruit well at the national level as the Musketeers pulled off a huge commitment by landing four-star Class of 2017 guard Paul Scruggs on Friday.

The 6-foot-3 Scruggs is considered the No. 31 overall prospect by Rivals in the national Class of 2017 as he’s a tough and physical guard who is capable of playing both perimeter spots. Scruggs will have to improve as a perimeter shooter, but he’s tough to contain off the bounce and he has a chance to be an all-Big East defender thanks to his toughness and willingness to defend.

Scuggs was one of Xavier’s main targets in the Class of 2017 as he joins four-star wing Naji Marshall and a trio of three-star prospects, guard Elias Harden, forward Jared Ridder and center Kentrevious Jones.

Xavier’s class is an impressive five-man group and it will likely find itself in the top-20 nationally after the fall signing period.

Xavier lands grad transfer forward Bernard

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While many of the key contributors to a team that was Villanova’s greatest threat in the Big East return, Xavier has some holes to fill in the rebounding department. With James Farr and Jalen Reynolds both moving on, the Musketeers will have to account for the loss of their top two rebounders as the 2016-17 season approaches. Trevon Blueitt, who averaged 6.1 rebounds per game last season, is back, but others including Norfolk State transfer RaShid Gaston and Sean O’Mara will have to step forward for Chris Mack’s team.

Another option is 6-foot-5 forward Malcolm Bernard. Bernard, who played last season at Florida A&M after spending his first two seasons at Charleston Southern, announced Monday that he will join the Xavier program as a graduate student. He’ll be eligible to compete immediately as a result, with one season of eligibility remaining.

As a redshirt junior at Florida A&M Bernard averaged 14.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, doing the majority of his damage inside of the arc despite playing at a listed weight of just 195 pounds. Bernard also averaged 4.3 assists and 2.3 steals per game for the Rattlers in 2015-16. Adding a capable rebounder on the wing will help the Musketeers as they look to not only chase down the reigning national champions but also go further in the NCAA tournament than they did last season.

Xavier will return four starters from a team that won 28 games, and went 14-4 in Big East play, before losing to Wisconsin at the buzzer in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Michigan lands former Kentucky guard Matthews

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Having already received a commitment from four-star Class of 2017 shooting guard Jordan Poole, Michigan has added another perimeter prospect who could potentially help them on the court in 2017. NBC Sports confirmed Monday night that former Kentucky guard Charles Matthews has decided to transfer to Michigan. News of Matthews’ decision was first reported by ESPN.com.

Matthews, a Chicago native who played sparingly in his lone season at Kentucky, will have three seasons of eligibility after he sits out the 2016-17 campaign.

Matthews can spend the upcoming season enhancing his skill set while learning John Beilein’s offensive system, and he’ll do so practicing against upperclassmen such as rising senior Zak Irvin and rising junior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman. Matthews, who adds length and athleticism on the wing for Michigan, played just over ten minutes per game as a freshman last season.

With Kentucky bringing in another loaded recruiting class that included guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, as well as the return of Isaiah Briscoe, Matthews was facing another tough fight for minutes had he remained in Lexington for another season.

Before picking Michigan Matthews was also considering Xavier as a possible destination, and he visited both campuses this month.