Last season, the Big East had zero teams get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The lack of success in March led to questions in November regarding the strength of the conference. The Big East relaunch entered its second season with many expecting a shell of its former self. That wasn’t the case as Big East teams rallied off impressive non-conference wins, one after the other.
Less than a week before Selection Sunday — even with a February meltdown from Seton Hall — the Big East is expecting 60 percent of its league to be in the field of 68, including Villanova, a No. 1 seed in the latest College Basketball Talk bracket.
Before the Big East members can go dancing, they’ll have to slug it out in the World’s Most Famous Arena.
READ MORE: NBC Sports’ latest Bracketology
The Wildcats enter as the favorite, riding a 12-game winning streak, but hanging over their heads will be the shortcomings of last spring. Challenging Villanova will be Georgetown, Butler and Providence. However, St. John’s, a team of mismatches, will be playing on its home floor.
With two play-in games to be decided, the madness begins in quarterfinals, live from New York, with everyone eyeing a chance to play Saturday night.
When: March 11-14
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City
Final: March 14, 8 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)
The Wildcats haven’t lost since Jan. 19, a blowout loss to Georgetown. Villanova has rallied off 12 straight heading into Madison Square Garden, including double-digit wins over Georgetown, Providence (twice) and St. John’s. Villanova was the top seed in the Big East Tournament last year, only to get knocked out by Seton Hall in the quarterfinals. Villanova went on to lose in the Round of 32 — to eventual champion UConn — in the NCAA tournament. You think Jay Wright’s team wants to change its postseason perception?
And if they lose?: Georgetown
The Hoyas took care of business on Saturday and got some help to secure the No. 2 seed. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, who missed Saturday’s win over Seton Hall will also be back in the lineup this week. Georgetown is the last team to beat Villanova.
- Providence: The defending tournament champions have the conference’s best 1-2 punch in Kris Dunn and LaDontae Henton.
- Butler: The Bulldogs are healthy with the return of Andrew Chrabascz and have already been battle tested in neutral site games (North Carolina, Oklahoma, Indiana).
Sleeper: St. John’s
After digging itself into a whole to begin conference play, St. John’s was able to finish in the top half of the league standings. The Red Storm play small, which can cause problems for the opposition, but are they healthy?
Deeper Sleeper: Xavier
The Musketeers are likely in, but a few wins in the Big East Tournament wouldn’t hurt either. Xavier split the regular season series with quarterfinal opponent Butler and swept potential semifinal opponent Georgetown.
Big East Player of the Year: Kris Dunn, Providence
Two years had gone by and we had only seen a glimpse of Kris Dunn, the former McDonald’s All-American. Finally healthy, the Providence guard has played his way into All-American consideration, averaging 15.5 points, 7.4 assists — ranks him third nationally — 5.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals — fifth nationally. Turnovers are an issue, but no one in the Big East can take over a game like Dunn can.
Big East Coach of the Year: Chris Holtmann, Butler
Holtmann still had the interim head coaching title until early January. The second-year assistant was thrusted into the head coaching role after Brandon Miller took a leave of absence. He responded with a November upset of No. 5 North Carolina at the Battle 4 Atlantis and ended with a share of second-place in the conference standings.
First-Team All-Big East:
- D’Angelo Harrison, St. John’s: One of the more exciting players in the league was second in scoring at 17.8 points per game. He will have the Johnnies in the tournament for the first time since 2011.
- LaDontae Henton, Providence: The preseason first team snub led the conference in scoring at 20.1 points per game. He was also top-10 in rebounding with at 6.3 a night.
- Darrun Hilliard, Villanova: The senior guided Villanova to a second straight regular season title averaging a team-high 14.2 points per game. He dropped 31 at Butler and averaged 20.0 in two wins over Providence.
- Sir’Dominic Pointer, St. John’s: He’s top-10 in scoring. Top-15 in assists. And top-5 in rebounds, blocks and steals. Oh, and he’s serving as an undersized four. He’s first-team selection, no question asked.
- D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown: The preseason player of the year pick averaged 16.0 points, 4.3 boards and 3.3 assists for the second-place Hoyas.
Second Team All-Big East:
- Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
- Kellen Dunham, Butler
- Roosevelt Jones, Butler
- Sterling Gibbs, Seton Hall
- Daniel Ochefu, Villanova
Defining moment of the season: Butler upset No. 5 North Carolina
Arguably the most important non-conference win for the Big East was unranked Butler over then-No. 5 North Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis. The victory was big for the perception of the new Big East and also the state of the Butler program in the post-Brad Stevens era.
CBT Prediction: Villanova has been too good down the stretch, taking the Wildcats over Butler.