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.