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College Basketball Conference Reset: The Big East’s best players and biggest story lines

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the Big East.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Josh Hart, Villanova

Josh Hart, who began the season as the Big East preseason Player of the Year, has established himself as arguably the favorite for national player of the year honors. The 6-foot-5 senior wing, one of the best two-way players in the nation, is averaging 20.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He recorded a triple-double (16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) against St. Joseph’s, scored a career-best 37 points against then-No. 23 Notre Dame, and helped neutralize the size of then-No. 15 Purdue en route to 24 points in a notable road win earlier in the season.

ALL BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • Josh Hart, Villanova
  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
  • Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
  • Kelan Martin, Butler
  • Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big East | Pac-12 | SEC | Big 12

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. Big East non-conference was impressive again: It seems to be this time every year, we talk about how well the Big East as a whole performed during the non-conference slate. This year is no different. The Big East will enter conference play with 40 percent of the league ranked in the top-20. Villanova, Creighton, Butler and Creighton have combined for a 45-3 record. The Musketeers own two of those losses — back-to-back L’s to Baylor and Colorado. The worst of those defeats was Butler’s true road loss to Indiana State. In addition to the win-loss records, Villanova, Creighton, Butler and Xavier all captured early-season tournaments.
  2. Villanova has a chance to repeat: No team in college basketball has repeated a national champions since Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators in 2006-07. You could make the case that this Villanova team, despite the graduation of Ryan Archidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, has the best chance to go back-to-back since the Gators. Josh Hart has emerged as a national player of the year candidate, the star in an offense that is ranked the most efficient in the nation this season, according to kenpom. The Wildcats were top-5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency a season ago. They are currently top-15 in both heading into the holiday weekend. The Wildcats also showed the versatility to defeat Purdue’s massive frontline, as well as the defensive prowess to hold Notre Dame to 25 points in a come-from-behind win. Both those marquee wins came away from the Pavilion.
  3. Creighton is appointment viewing: Many were bullish on Creighton entering the season, and so far, the Bluejays are proving them right. This is the most talented team Greg McDermott has had in Omaha, led by the backcourt of Maurice Watson Jr. and Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster. Khyri Thomas has made the jump as a sophomore, while redshirt big man Justin Patton has exceeded expectations. The Bluejays have scored 80 or more points in nine of their 12 games and is the best 3-point shooting team in the land at 45 percent. This team is fun to watch to put it simply.
OMAHA, NE - NOVEMBER 15: Maurice Watson Jr. #10 of the Creighton Bluejays drives to the hoop past Jordan Hill #11 of the Wisconsin Badgers during their game at the CenturyLink Center on November 15, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Maurice Watson Jr. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Will anyone dethrone Villanova?: Since the relaunch of the Big East, Villanova, the nation’s current top-ranked team, has been sitting on the throne. In three seasons, the Wildcats are 48-6, winning regular season titles in each of those years. Creighton, like in 2013-14, will attempt to sit atop the conference standings. The Bluejays’ high-octane offense will make for two must-see matchups with Villanova. Xavier should also be a contender again, especially when Myles Davis returns from indefinite suspension. Butler, with an improved defense, also won’t be overlooked.
  2. Will another team take advantage of the home-and-home conference schedule?: The Big East has benefited from a home-and-home series since its relaunch. It allows for teams needing to boost its tournament resume with another contest with a ranked opponent. In 2015, St. John’s was able to overcome a 1-4 Big East start with three wins against ranked teams in February. Albeit not a great example since Seton Hall won the Big East Conference tournament title, but the Pirates bolstered its tournament profile with a late-season win over No. 5 Xavier. The Big East enters league play with four teams ranked. For teams like Georgetown and Providence, that could be eight games against top-25 teams. That could mean the difference between an at-large bid and a spot in the NIT.
  3. Xavier’s 3-point shooting: The Musketeers have struggled shooting the ball during the non-conference, primarily J.P. Macura and Edmond Sumner. Following back-to-back road losses to Baylor and Colorado, Xavier won three straight, connecting on 47 percent from three in a win over Utah and knocking down 11-of-25 from distance in a rout against Eastern Washington in the non-conference finale. The real hope for the perimeter shooting woes depends upon the return of Myles Davis, the senior guard who has been serving an indefinite suspension since September. Davis, who would also provide another ball handler for Xavier, has shot 38 percent over the past two seasons.

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BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: As mentioned above, I think Myles Davis is Xavier’s X-factor. He’s a fifth-year senior who can provide shooting and ball handling, helping alleviate the load carried by Edmond Sumner and J.P. Macura. Moreover, RaShid Gaston, the transfer who needed to fill the production of both Jalen Reynolds and James Farr, is averaging 9.2 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, with a pair of double-doubles, in December. Kaiser Gates, a 6-foot-8 forward pegged to make the jump as a sophomore, missed the first five games of the season due to injury but finished the non-conference on a high-note: 12 points, off 4-of-7 from three, in a win over Eastern Washington. Expect Xavier to make this a three-team race with Villanova and Creighton.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Providence is better than their projected ninth-place finish. Providence has a win over Rhode Island, a team that was ranked No. 21 in the nation at the time. However, that win doesn’t look quite as good as the Rams are 3-3 in their final six non-conference games. The Friars are 10-2, and their rivalry win over URI serves as their only top-50 win, per kenpom.com. Providence also enter Big East play on the heels of what Ed Cooley called, “probably the worst loss since I’ve been at Providence College.” While you could make the case it was a trap game — a road game at the end of the non-conference slate and the fall semester — Boston College dominated offensively en route to a 79-67 win. The Eagles had previously lost to Nicholls State, Hartford and Fairfield, just two days prior, on the same floor.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Georgetown lost home games to Radford, Monmouth and UNC Asheville last season en route to a 15-18 (7-11 Big East) finish. Fans must have felt a sense of deja vu when Arkansas State dominated the Hoyas in a wire-to-wire 78-72 win on Nov. 17. The Hoyas have bounced back, defeating rival Syracuse — which has struggled as well — during a six-game win streak heading into Big East play. But still, John Thompson III and Co. have an uphill battle to avoid missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season, and for the third time in four years.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 17: Kelan Martin #30 of the Butler Bulldogs dribbles the ball during the 83-78 win over the Indiana Hoosiers during the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 17, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Kelan Martin (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Villanova: There isn’t really much to say here. The Big East is a top heavy conference overall, but there really isn’t any way to pick against the Wildcats winning the league. They’ve won three straight regular season titles. They’ve lost two league games in each of the last three years. They’re the reigning national champs and they have the league’s best player on the roster in Josh Hart. Villanova is as sure of a bet to win the Big East as Kentucky is to win the SEC.
  • 2. Creighton: The Bluejays are a thrilling team. They play fast, they spread the floor, they shoot the leather off the ball and they have as good of a back court as anyone in college basketball. Throw in the fact that Justin Patton is morphing into a first round draft pick before our eyes, and Creighton may be better than the team that featured Doug McDermott.
  • 3. Xavier: It’s tough to truly have a feel of who Xavier is at this point, but the bottom line is this: They are one of the most talented teams in the conference and they can defend as well as anyone in the league. Their issue is perimeter shooting and a stagnating offense.
  • 4. Butler: The Bulldogs are the surprise of the league. I think we all figured they could get back to the NCAA tournament, but Butler looks like a legitimate top 15 team at this point. Who had that back in November?
  • 5. Seton Hall: The Pirates are one of those teams that just seem like a nightmare to play against. They have tough, athletic veterans that play as hard as anyone in the country. Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez are both underrated, and Angel Delgado is one of the best rebounders in college basketball.

NIT teams

  • 6. Providence: The Friars are interesting. They are 10-2 heading into conference play but their only really notable win came against a Rhode Island team that isn’t as good as we thought they would be. Rodney Bullock and Kyron Cartwright look like the new Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn.
  • 7. Marquette: Steve Wojciechowski has already had two players transfer out of the program during the middle of the season. The Golden Eagles have a lot of good pieces, but we’re still waiting to find out if those pieces fit.
  • 8. Georgetown: The Hoyas have, once again, lost a couple of games they probably shouldn’t have lost, but they also own a win at Syracuse, which, at the least, will give them bragging rights in that rivalry for some time.

Autobid or bust

  • 9. DePaul: The Blue Demons seem to battle a constant uphill battle towards relevancy.
  • 10. St. John’s: The Johnnies were the easy pick for last place in the Big East … until they went into the Carrier Dome and pasted Syracuse by 33 points. Now we at least have to think about whether or not they’re the worst team in the league.

Friday’s NCAA Tournament Recap: Irvine, Oregon, Liberty land upsets

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Caleb Homesley, Liberty

Homesley popped off for 30 points on Friday night, going 10-for-16 from the floor and 5-for-11 from three as he led the charge for the Flames in their upset of No. 5-seed Mississippi State. The most important sequence of the game, however, was when Homesly made the biggest impact. He scored 14 of his 30 points in a four-minute second half stretch that saw the Flames go on a 16-4 run and turn a 63-53 deficit into a 69-67 lead.

Not a bad way to get the first NCAA tournament win in the history of the program.

TEAM OF THE DAY: UC Irvine

The Anteaters were the one upset pick that we got right, so to reward them, we have named them the Team of the Day! Irvine got 19 points, six boards, four assists and four steals from Evan Leonard and 19 points from Max Hazzard as they held No. 4-seed Kansas State to 37.9 percent shooting and Barry Brown to one of his worst games of the season.

GAME OF THE DAY: Tennessee 77, Colgate 70

The weirdest game of the day happened in the South Region, as No. 15-seed Colgate lost their best player to pink eye, trailed by as many as 14 points and then made a furious push, banging home three after three after three, to take a 52-50 lead on Tennessee with 12 minutes left. Tennessee would eventually get three massive jumpers from an ice cold Admiral Scholfield to put the game away, but it was the roller coaster of all roller coasters.

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Lovell Cabbil, Liberty

The Flames hit a number of big shots in their upset of No. 5-seed Mississippi State on Friday night, but none was bigger than this shot that Cabbil hit with about a minute left. It put Liberty ahead, and the Flames would never relinquish the lead:

WTF OF THE DAY: Nahziah Carter, Washington

Nahziah Carter, Jay-Z’s nephew and a wing for the Washington Huskies, tried to throw down the best dunk in the history of dunks on Friday night. The shot-blocker here is Neemias Queta, a 6-foot-11 Portuguese monster with a shot of playing in the NBA:

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Iowa Hawkeyes

The Hawkeyes dug themselves a 13 point first half hole against Cincinnati after spending the final month of the season playing like they were tanking. This thing looked like it was going to get ugly, but it went the other way. The Hawkeyes caught fire in the second half and moved on to the second round where they will face off with No. 2-seed Tennessee.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Iowa State Cyclones

The Cyclones finally looked like a top 10 team when they ran through the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City. We thought it would last. Maybe we actually got on the bandwagon, just a little bit, and it all blew up in our face. The Cyclones lost to Ohio State in the first round on Friday night.

“But I wasn’t back on the bandwagon,” he said, sobbing, using his busted bracket as a tissue. “I wasn’t back on the bandwagon.”

THREE MORE THINGS TO KNOW

1. ALL THREE No. 1 SEEDS PLAYED BADLY

The ACC sent three No. 1 seeds to the NCAA tournament, and all three of them decided that they didn’t need to show up for the first half of their games on Friday. Virginia dug themselves a 14 point hole before beating Gardner-Webb by 15 points. Duke was trailing North Dakota State deep into the first half before winning by 23 points. North Carolina completed the trifecta, trailing 38-31 late in the first half before pulling away to win 88-73.

2. THE PAC-12 PICKED UP TWO IMPRESSIVE WINS

Arizona State got their tails kicked by Buffalo on Friday night, but the Pac-12 actually looked pretty good in the first round of the tournament. Washington absolutely smoked Utah State while Oregon, tied at the half with Wisconsin, ended up winning 72-54 and advancing to the second round of the tournament as a No. 12 seed.

3. JUSTIN ROBINSON IS BACK

The big news for Virginia Tech is that their star point guard Justin Robinson came back after missing 12 games, and while he wasn’t great, he did manage to score nine points and finish with a pair of assists, even if he turned the ball over four times. The Hokies won, 66-52.

Dominant first half pushes No. 4 Virginia Tech into second round

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East Region No. 4 Virginia Tech earned the program’s first NCAA tournament victory in 12 years Friday night, as it rode a dominant first half to a 66-52 win over No. 13 Saint Louis.

Buzz Williams’ team limited the Billikens to 18 first half points, taking a 22-point lead into the half as a result. The Hokies weren’t at their best offensively in the second half, but the work done in the first half was more than enough as Saint Louis could get no closer than nine points.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker led the way for Virginia Tech with a game-high 20 points to go along with six rebounds and three steals, with Kerry Blackshear adding 15 points and Ahmed Hill ten. The Hokies shot just 41.7 percent from the field, but a 22-for-27 night from the foul line and a 12-point edge in points from the charity stripe made up for that.

Defensively the Hokies were outstanding in the first half, and would limit the Billikens to 37.3 percent shooting from the field and 4-for-23 from three. Travis Ford’s team, which erased halftime deficits in three of its four wins at last week’s Atlantic 10 tournament, outscored Virginia Tech 34-26 in the second half.

Javon Bess, who sparked the second half rally with some big shots, led three SLU players in double figures with 14 points, with D.J. Foreman adding 12 points and Tramaine Isabell Jr. 11.

Friday’s game also marked the return of Virginia Tech point guard Justin Robinson, who had not played since late January due to a foot injury. The senior finished the game with nine points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals, and while he didn’t shoot the ball particularly well (2-for-7 from the field) Robinson’s presence will only help the Hokies as they look to play deep into the tournament.

Next up for Virginia Tech will be No. 12 Liberty, which upset No. 5 Mississippi State in the first game of the evening session in San Jose.

No. 11 Ohio State advances after landing upset of No. 6 Iowa State

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Chris Holtmann has been to five straight NCAA tournaments since he took over as the interim head coach at Butler during the 2014-15 season.

And after his No. 11-seed Ohio State Buckeyes outlasted No. 6-seed Iowa State, Holtmann can say that his streak remains intact: He has still never lost a game in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Kaleb Wesson scored 21 points and grabbed 11 boards, overpowering a smaller Iowa State team in the paint and carrying the Buckeyes back to the second round of the dance for the second straight season with a 62-59 win over the Cyclones. Wesson missed a front end of a one-and-one with 10 seconds left in the game, but Nick Weiler-Babb missed a wide-open three from about 23 feet that would have tied the game.

And with that, the Buckeyes will advance to take on No. 3-seed Houston for the right to play in the Sweet 16.

But the talking point coming out of this game isn’t going to be Ohio State vs. Houston, it’s going to about the future of the Iowa State head coaching position. Avery Johnson is negotiating a buyout with Alabama. Steve Prohm grew up in Georgia and is an Alabama alum. There is more than a little smoke surrounding his potential move to Tuscaloosa, and if that does happen, it opens the door for what was almost unthinkable a couple of months ago: A return to Ames for former Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg.

And that, in turn, has repercussions that will reverberate throughout the college coaching world. Because Hoiberg was fired by the Chicago Bulls earlier and has been heavily linked with a move to Nebraska to replace Tim Miles, who has not been fired or seen his season come to an end.

This will be fascinating to see get put into motion and where these coaches will land.

But what’s clear is that this process couldn’t start until Iowa State’s season came to an end.

Here we are.

No. 9 UCF beats No. 8 VCU, earns first-ever NCAA tournament win

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East Region No. 9 UCF made history Friday night, picking up the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament victory as it beat No. 8 VCU by a 73-58 final score. The reward for the Knights is a shot at top overall seed Duke Sunday night, with head coach Johnny Dawkins facing his mentor for the second time in his coaching career.

UCF grabbed control of Friday’s matchup with a 19-0 run that began in the first half, with VCU going nearly eight minutes without scoring a point. Mike Rhoades’ team rallied in the second half but could get no closer than nine points before the Knights put the game away.

B.J. Taylor led three double-digit scorers with 15 points, and 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall was the difference-maker in the front court. In addition to scoring 13 points the senior big man also accounted for 18 rebounds and five blocked shots. In addition to the blocks there were shots that Fall altered, and even a couple forced turnovers in which VCU paid the price for making rushed decisions around the basket.

Aubrey Dawkins added 14 points, with Terrell Allen and Frank Bertz scoring nine apiece. With UCF’s win the 9-seeds were 4-0 in first round matchups in this year’s tournament, and three of the wins (UCF, Washington and Oklahoma) were by 15 points or more.

Malik Crowfield led the way for the Atlantic 10 regular season champions with 11 points and De’Riante Jenkins added ten, but VCU shot just 31.1 percent from the field and 6-for-26 from three on the night. UCF used multiple defenses throughout the night, going to a zone when Fall was on the floor and man-to-man when the center was on the bench. The Knights will use a similar formula Sunday in hopes that it will slow down Duke’s talented freshman scorers.

2019 NCAA Tournament: Sunday second round tip times, announcers

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All times Eastern

12:10 p.m.: South No. 10 Iowa vs. No. 2 Tennessee (Columbus; CBS); Brian Anderson/Chris Webber/Allie LaForce

Approx. 2:40 p.m.: Midwest No. 9 Washington vs. No. 1 North Carolina (Columbus; CBS); Anderson/Webber/LaForce

5:15 p.m.: East No. 9 UCF vs. No. 1 Duke (Columbia; CBS); Jim Nantz/Bill Raftery/Grant Hill/Tracy Wolfson

6:10 p.m.: West No. 6 Buffalo vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (Tulsa; TNT); Brad Nessler/Steve Lavin/Jim Jackson/Evan Washburn

7:10 p.m.: East No. 12 Liberty vs. No. 4 Virginia Tech (San Jose; TBS); Spero Dedes/Steve Smith/Len Elmore/Ros Gold-Onwude

Approx.: 7:45 p.m.: South No. 9 Oklahoma vs. No. 1 Virginia (Columbia; truTV); Nantz/Raftery/Hill/Wolfson

Approx. 8:40 p.m.: Midwest No. 11 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Houston (Tulsa; TNT); Nessler/Lavin/Jackson/Washburn

Approx.: 9:40 p.m.: South No. 13 UC Irvine vs. No. 12 Oregon (San Jose; TBS); Dedes/Smith/Elmore/Gold-Onwude