Big East Conference Reset: Is this the best Villanova team we’ve seen?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

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.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

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

MIDSEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jalen Brunson, Villanova

Picking between Brunson and his Villanova teammate, Mikal Bridges, is not an easy thing to do. Bridges jettisoned himself into the conversation when he went for 28 points in a win over Gonzaga in the Champions Classic, but it’s been Brunson that has been Villanova’s best, and most important, player throughout the season. Brunson’s efficiency is inhuman – he’s shooting 65.8 percent from two and 53.1 percent from three on more than four threes per game – but what is more relevant is that he’s the engine that makes this Villanova team go.

I also think he’s the most irreplaceable player on the Villanova roster. If Bridges goes down with an injury or is in foul trouble in a given game, Jay Wright still have guys like Donte Divicenzo and Phil Booth at his disposal. There isn’t a like-for-like replacement from Brunson, mainly because there aren’t many point guards that can do what he does.

THE ALL-BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova
  • MARCUS FOSTER, Creighton: It is tougher than you might think picking between Foster and Khyri Thomas, but I lean Foster because of the volume and efficiency he is scoring with playing on a team that doesn’t have great point guard play.
  • MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova: The most versatile defender in the Big East is also averaging 17.3 points and shooting 46 percent from three for the No. 1 team in the country.
  • TREVON BLUIETT, Xavier: I think you can make the argument that Bluiett is the best all-around scorer in the Big East, and with Xavier looking like a top ten team this season, he’s in the first-team all-american discussion.
  • ANGEL DELGADO, Seton Hall: Picking Delgado over his teammate Desi Rodriguez might be wrong, but I value Delgado’s yeoman’s work on the glass. Combine that with the attention he commands defensively being a major reason Rodriguez gets the chances he gets, and Delgado is my pick.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Villanova, Xavier, Seton Hall, Creighton, St. John’s, Marquette
  • NIT: Butler, Providence, Georgetown
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: DePaul
Jalen Brunson (Elsa/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. THIS IS THE BEST VILLANOVA TEAM OF THEIR DYNASTY: For the first time in this five-year run of utter dominance, I can honestly look at the Villanova roster and refer to them as the best team in college basketball. Think about it. The year they won the title, many – including myself – thought that Michigan State was the best team in the sport. Last year, my money would have been on Kansas or Gonzaga. In 2015, Kentucky went 38-0. In 2014, Villanova wasn’t even really in the conversation.

But this year?

This year they are the nation’s best team.

Their versatility is almost unfair. In Eric Paschall and Mikal Bridges, Villanova has two players that can, quite literally, guard any position on the court. This allows them to play big – with Omari Spellman at the five – or small – with Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Donte Divincenzo on the floor at the same time. They have shooters at every position, including Spellman, and a point guard that can score in the post. They’re old, they have pros and they know exactly what their coach expects out of them.

It may be hard to believe, but Villanova is at a point where they can lose an all-american first round pick, the man that hit the national title-winning three and their starting center and get better.

Sheesh.

Trevon Bluiett (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

2. THE TOP OF THE BIG EAST IS AS GOOD AS EXPECTED: We expected there to be four top 25 teams in the Big East and there are four top 25 teams in the Big East. Villanova we know about. Xavier, at this point in the season, looks like they belong in the conversation as a Final Four contender and a top ten team; the combination of Chris Mack and Trevon Bluiett has won a lot of games and will when a few more before the season is over. Seton Hall has had their hiccups but they are right on track to end up being a top four or five seed in the NCAA tournament come March. The fourth top 25 team is something of a surprise, as Creighton has played their way into the polls on the shoulders of a pair of talented wings, Khyri Thomas and Marcus Foster.

All four of those teams have the horses to get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. At least two can make a run to the Final Four. It’s as good as advertised at the top of the Big East, but …

3. … IS THE MIDDLE OF THE LEAGUE WHAT WE THOUGHT?: It’s a legitimate question because the answer depends on what you thought the Big East would be this season. If you saw them pushing for seven bids to the Big Dance this year, then the conference, outside of the top four, has been a little underwhelming, right?

The biggest disappointment has been Providence, who found themselves in the mix for the top 25 early on this season but has started out the year 9-4, but they are far from alone. Marquette has not seemed to figure out the defensive issues that plagued them a season ago while Butler has looked like a team that is trying to replace one of the best young coaches in the game. The x-factor looks to be St. John’s, who has shown flashes of being a threat this season as they battle through a troublingly inefficient offense, but more on that in a bit.

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. WILL CREIGHTON’S POINT GUARD CONUNDRUM BECOME A PROBLEM? WHAT ABOUT XAVIER?: As it stands, the biggest question mark for each one of these teams is their point guard play.

As good as Quentin Goodin has been for Xavier this season, he leads the team in turnovers and has shot 1-for-15 from beyond the arc this year. I’m not a rocket scientist, but that does not seem like a good percentage. Creighton has never really replaced Mo Watson has he tore his ACL last season. They’ve played Davion Mintz and Kaleb Joseph at the point. They’ve played Mitch Ballock and Ty-Shon Alexander there.

Point-guard-by-committee is not generally a recipe for March success.

2. WHEN DOES MARCUS LOVETT RETURN?: This matters for St. John’s. As we mentioned, the Johnnies have not been the most efficient team offensively this season, but that could be helped with the return of Lovett, who was their second-leading scorer a year ago. He’s missed the last six games with a knee injury.

He was also the program’s best playmaker a season ago and is shooting it at better than 40 percent from beyond the arc this season. I’m not willing to say Lovett is the difference between St. John’s getting to the tournament and heading to the NIT – they can get there without him – but his absence certainly lowers their ceiling.

3. IS THERE TROUBLE BREWING IN NEWARK?: Let’s ignore the fact that Khadeen Carrington hasn’t been right all season long and that Myles Powell and Desi Rodriguez have been the most effective offensive weapons for Seton Hall this season. I don’t think that’s where the trouble lies. I think this team likes each other enough that they don’t really care where the points are coming from.

What’s concerning is that a team with aspirations of winning the Big East tournament and making a run in March is having the kind of personnel defections they are having. Freshman point guard Jordan Walker reportedly quit the team over playing time issues and then returned a day or two later. Then just a few days before Christmas, senior big man Ish Sanogo, a vital defensive piece for the Pirates, was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules.

It’s something to keep an eye on.

GREENVILLE, SC – MARCH 17: Angel Delgado ( Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. VILLANOVA WINS ANOTHER NATIONAL TITLE: For the record, my “pick” to win the national is still Michigan State. I rode with the Spartans in September and I’m still riding with them today.

But for my money, Villanova is the best team in college basketball. I think they’re borderline matchup-proof. I think they have the best point guard in the sport. I think they are a nightmare to play against defensively. And I think they’re probably the favorite to win it all.

2. XAVIER JOINS THEM IN THE FINAL FOUR: I don’t know how many coaches there are that I would rather have in a win-or-go-home setting than Chris Mack.

I also don’t know how many players there are I would want in a tournament more than I want Trevon Bluiett.

I’m concerned about their point guard play, and the Musketeers have not been quite as good on the defensive end of the floor as I would have expected them to be entering the season, but the fact of the matter is that if you’re giving me Chris Mack and you’re giving me Trevon Bluiett, I like my chances.

3. THE BIG EAST ENDS UP WITH AT LEAST SIX TOURNAMENT TEAMS: There are two reasons that I can see this working out.

For starters, some of the other Power 5 leagues have just not been all that impressive to date. How many bids can we realistically expect out of the Pac-12? Or the Big Ten? Or the American? What about the WCC and the Mountain West? Can they get more than three teams into the dance combined? Even the SEC is coming back down to earth some what.

Someone is going to have to earn those at-large bids, and I fully expect the Big East teams to be in the mix.

And part of the reason why is I think that the middle of the league will land some upsets during conference play. St. John’s will get right when Lovett returns, and there’s a very real chance that Providence returns to form once they get fully healthy. Throw in Marquette and Butler, and my guess is at least two of those teams win enough to go dancing.

Flagler, No. 6 Baylor rally late, top No. 14 Gonzaga 64-63

Baylor vs. Gonzaga
USA Today
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In a rematch of the 2021 national championship game, Adam Flagler hit a pair of 3s as No. 6 Baylor scored the final eight points to rally past No. 14 Gonzaga 64-63 Friday night.

Gonzaga’s Rasir Bolton missed a wild, driving layup try at the buzzer.

Two seasons ago, Baylor beat the then-undefeated Zags 86-70 to win its first title. This time, the Bears didn’t take the lead for good until Jalen Bridges made two free throws with 16 seconds left.

“Adam is a great leader, but no one knew he wasn’t feeling well today,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “To be honest, some players wouldn’t have played. He played through the pain and left it all out on the court. As a coach, I appreciate that.”

The Bears (6-2) trailed 63-56 before Flagler hit a 3-pointer with 1:33 left. Flagler’s 3 with just over a minute to play cut Baylor’s deficit to 63-62.

After a Gonzaga shot clock violation, Flagler’s 3-point attempt for the lead was off the mark, but Bridges was fouled by Drew Timme on the rebound attempt. Bridges hit two foul shots to put Baylor ahead.

The Zags (5-3) had a final chance when Bolton caught an inbounds pass near his own foul line with 4.6 seconds remaining. He drove the lane, but his off-balance shot went high off the glass and missed as the buzzer sounded.

“We took two balls down hill and tried to make plays at the rim. At that point in the game, those are tough,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “It’s very disappointing. They made plays, man.”

Freshman Keyonte George had 18 points and seven rebounds for Baylor. Flagler had 11 points and Langston Love added 10.

“I trust my work. I was able to knock them down,” George said. “My teammates believe in me each and every day. They give me that confidence in a big game to make big shots like that.”

Malchi Smith scored 16 points for Gonzaga. Anton Watson added a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Timme had nine points.

Baylor led by as many as 12 in the first half before Gonzaga closed to five at the break.

Watson’s basket put Gonzaga ahead 41-40. From there, the teams swapped leads over the next 13 minutes as the second half featured two ties and 14 lead changes.

A thunderous dunk from Smith gave Gonzaga its seven-point lead with under two minutes to go.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The win was a big rebound for Baylor after its 26-point loss to Marquette earlier in the week. The loss was the Bears’ most lopsided since they fell to Kansas 82-56 in 2007

Gonzaga: After opening the season ranked No. 2 in the AP preseason poll, the Zags have now lost two of three.

STAR WATCH

Timme began the night leading the Bulldogs in scoring at 20 points per game. He was hampered by foul trouble against Baylor and got his first field goal with six minutes remaining. He fouled out with 16 seconds to play.

REMATCH PLAYERS

Four players on the floor Friday night had significant minutes in the championship game two years ago including Flagler, Timme and Watson, along with Baylor’s Flo Thamba.

UP NEXT

Baylor: The Bears return home to host Tarleton on Tuesday before playing Washington State on Sunday in Dallas for the Pac 12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs return to Spokane for three straight beginning Monday when they face Kent State for the first time in school history.

Carr scores 19, No. 2 Texas beats No. 7 Creighton 72-67

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AUSTIN, Texas – Texas had pressured Creighton’s shooters into a miserable night, only to watch a late flurry of 3-pointers start swishing.

An 11-point Longhorns lead was down to three.

That hardly rattled Marcus Carr and the second-ranked Longhorns, who stepped up with big late shots of their own and steady free-throw shooting to secure another impressive early-season victory, 72-67 over the seventh-ranked Bluejays on Thursday night.

Carr scored 19 points and made two free throws with 10 seconds left as Texas held off Creighton’s furious late-game rally.

Creighton struggled through a wretched 3-point shooting night, but pulled within 62-59 thanks in part to five points in a row by Baylor Scheierman. Carr’s baseline jumper and an easy layup by Tyrese Hunter when Creighton lost him on an inbound pass with 46 seconds left stretched the Longhorns’ lead again.

That didn’t quite close the door on Creighton, which got two more 3-pointers from Scheierman, who had missed his first nine attempts. That forced Texas to finish it from the free-throw line behind Carr and Brock Cunningham. Cunningham’s two free throws with 4 seconds left were his only points of the game.

“There’s going to be a bunch of times one of us has to go down there and knock down a bunch of free throws,” Carr said. “We talk about it all the time.”

The matchup was part of the Big 12-Big East Battle and Texas earned its second win over a top-10 opponent in its new arena. The Longhorns (6-0) beat then-No. 2 Gonzaga on Nov. 16 and have their highest ranking since they were No. 1 during the 2009-2010 season.

“I don’t think we’ve proven anything,” Texas coach Chris Beard said. “We’re just a team that’s trying to get better.”

Hunter scored 15 points for Texas.

Ryan Kalkbrenner had 20 points and 13 rebounds for Creighton (6-2), and Ryan Nembhard scored 17 points. The Bluejays were 4 of 27 on 3-pointers.

Scheierman, a 44% shooter from beyond the arc this season, made three 3s in a row late. His off-balance shot from the right corner over a defender pulled the Bluejays within 68-65 with 11.4 seconds left.

Scheierman finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“The reality is you are gonna have nights,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “It just happens. We don’t ever want him to stop shooting.”

BIG PICTURE

Creighton: Kalkbrenner was all but unstoppable on a 9-of-10 shooting night for the Bluejays, who kept launching from long range instead of looking for their 7-foot-1 center.

Texas: The Longhorns couldn’t force their usual numbers of turnovers and fast-break points, but were exceptionally clean with the ball on offense. Texas had just three turnovers that Creighton turned into three points.

FORMER TEAMMATES

Texas senior forward Christian Bishop played three seasons at Creighton before transferring prior to last season. He finished with six points and four rebounds in 16 minutes.

“We understood what this game was, not just for our team but for Christian,” Carr said.

TIRED TEAM

McDermott suggested his team maybe just wore out. The Bluejays went 2-1 in the Maui Invitational last week and then played their first game of the season on an opponent’s home court.

“Three games in three days against ranked teams (in Hawaii) and then to come in here,” McDermott said. “That’s a lot to ask of my team.”

UP NEXT

Creighton hosts in-state rival Nebraska on Sunday.

Texas plays No. 16 Illinois in New York City on Dec. 6 in the Jimmy V Classic.

No. 20 Maryland upsets No. 7 Notre Dame at the buzzer, 74-72

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Diamond Miller scored 31 points, including the game-winner at the buzzer, to lead No. 20 Maryland to a 74-72 victory over seventh-ranked Notre Dame on Thursday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Irish guard Sonia Cintron’s layup had tied the game with 15 seconds left off before Maryland held for the last shot. Miller hit a contested mid-range jumper just before time expired to give the Terrapins a victory over a top-10 opponent. It was the 15th lead change of the game.

Miller also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds to go along with five assists. Shyanne Sellers added 17 points.

Maryland (7-2) picked up its first win over Notre Dame (6-1) since 2007.

Cintron’s double-double led the Irish with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Notre Dame’s leading scorer Olivia Miles got off to a slow start on Thursday due to foul trouble. She scored 12 of her 14 points in the final 15 minutes of the game to go along with seven assists and two steals.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: The Terrapins picked up their second top-20 win of the season ahead of the upcoming Big Ten opener.

Notre Dame: The Irish have had issues with foul trouble this season, a problem that persisted on Thursday. Miles played just 25 minutes, including the majority of the fourth quarter, due to picking up her fourth foul late in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Maryland: Returns to College Park for the program’s Big Ten opener Sunday against Nebraska.

Notre Dame: Stays home to host No. 3 UConn Sunday.

Virginia’s depth helping its rapid climb in the AP Top 25

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The starting five is the same, but that is where comparisons between the Virginia team that has climbed to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and last year’s NIT quarterfinalists ends.

Yes, one more year together and a trip to Italy has made the first five significantly better, but part of the credit for that surely goes to another group: the reinforcements. They’ve helped the Cavaliers (6-0) already knock off No. 6 Baylor, No. 16 Illinois and Michigan.

Virginia has scored 70 points or more in its first six game for the first time since the 2003-04 season, and coach Tony Bennett said it was the offense – and not UVA’s signature relentless defense – that saved them in a 70-68 victory this week at Michigan in the ACC/Bg Ten Challenge.

“Our offense kind of kept us in it in the first half,” Bennett said, before the team put it all together, erasing an 11-point halftime deficit to disappoint a raucous Wolverines crowd.

Reece Beekman was the offensive catalyst, scoring 15 of his 18 points before halftime, but four others joined him in double figures, including Jayden Gardner. His foul-line jumper with 39.9 seconds left provided the last of his 11 points, and the winning margin.

Gardner, who led Virginia in scoring last season (15.3 ppg), is averaging 11.5 this year.

“We’ve got a lot of capable scorers and we’re just gonna keep playing together. And we’re playing very unselfish basketball right now,” Gardner said after scoring 24 against Maryland Eastern Shore. He went into the game with 31 points through four games.

“He’s not the most jumping type of guy, but he’s got so much power,” Hawks coach Jason Crafton said of Gardner, an East Carolina transfer with 2,068 career points. “That low center of gravity and the flexibility that he has to be able to get under people and hold his position is elite. When he wants the ball at a certain spot, he can get it there.”

The leader remains guard Kihei Clark, who already has a place in Virginia history, having retrieved a loose ball and fed Mamadi Diakite for a jumper that sent the Cavs’ Elite Eight game against Purdue into overtime on the way to winning the 2019 national championship.

Newcomers Ben Vander Plas, a transfer from Ohio, and freshman Isaac McKneely have given Bennett more options, and more scoring power than a year ago.

As a junior, Vander Plas had 17 points for No. 13 seed Ohio when the Bobcats upset Virginia 62-58 in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

He scored seven straight in the second half against the Wolverines, twice scoring inside and then swishing a 3-pointer while trying to slow down bruising big man Hunter Dickinson.

“Ben, yeah. Just his poise and composure in the post, took advantage of some mismatches and he really gave us a great lift,” Bennett said. Vander Plas is the son of a teammate of Bennett’s at Green Bay, and his first name is a tribute to Bennett’s father, Dick.

McKneely scored 15 and made 4 of 6 3-point tries in an 89-42 victory against Monmouth

“He was standing in front of our bench. I’m like, `Listen, we’re not helping off him,”‘ Monmouth coach King Rice said he told his team, pointing at McKneely, a two-time player of the year in West Virginia. “And he kind of looked at me and I said, `Yeah, you, because you make all of them,’ and he started laughing.”

Ryan Dunn also made quite the impression on Rice in his first collegiate appearance, scoring 13 points with six rebounds and three blocks in almost 27 minutes.

“I was in the building when De’Andre Hunter came off the bench and had a breakout game,” Rice said of Hunter, now with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. “Dunn reminds me a lot of Hunter, and you can tell he’s young. But when he grows into that body with that skill set, he’ll be giving people problems for a long, long time.”

The Cavaliers open Atlantic Coast Conference play against Florida State, then host top-ranked Houston, which beat them 67-47 last season, a week later.

“A good schedule for sure and it tests you, it kind of shows you, win or lose, you see where you’ve got some holes,” Bennett said.

So far, the Cavaliers have been able to fill them all.

No. 4 Arizona turning heads early in the season

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd knew there was talent on his roster. He wasn’t exactly sure how good the team would be.

The former longtime Gonzaga assistant had a similar view of last year’s team and that one turned out to be pretty good, running all the way to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

This year’s team could end up being even better.

Buoyed by transfers and improved returning players, Arizona has rolled through the early part of its schedule, climbing to No. 4 in this week’s AP Top 25 after winning the Maui Invitational.

“I learned that we’re good,” Lloyd said. “We’re tough. We’re gritty. I think there’s going to be some great things for us to really double down on and some things to show our guys where we went the wrong way.”

Lloyd had a superb first season in the desert, earning coach of the year honors last season with a team that lost three players to the NBA.

The Wildcats (6-0) had to replace three NBA players again this season. Again, they made a seamless transition.

Improvement on the part of the returning players has been a big part of it.

Oumar Ballo, considered a project as a freshman at Gonzaga, has transformed into one of the nation’s best big men. The 7-foot, 260-pound center from Mali has vastly improved his footwork and developed patience in the post, setting himself up for good shots instead of trying to bull his way to the basket.

Ballo is averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 76.7% from the field, fourth-best nationally. He was named Maui Invitational MVP after finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds against No. 7 Creighton in the title game.

Not bad for a player who averaged 2.5 points and 6.3 minutes per game two years ago at Gonzaga.

“When he struggled, I still believed in him,” Lloyd said. “I didn’t need for him to be instantly successful for me to reaffirm my belief in him. When he struggled, we continued to love him and work with him and then he continued to hang in there and I think it is a great story.”

Fellow big man Azuolas Tubelis has made a few strides of his own, adding strength and toughness to his athletic, fluid game. The 6-10 forward leads Arizona with 19.3 points per game while grabbing 8.0 rebounds.

Fiery point guard Kerr Kriisa has rounded into a reliable floor leader, averaging 15.3 points and 7.5 assists while shooting 51% from the 3-point arc.

“I don’t pay attention to the antics because they don’t mean anything to me,” Lloyd said. “I know maybe that draws attention to him from other people but when it comes to just pure basketball, I mean he is doing a good job and I think he is really showing something.”

So is Courtney Ramey.

The Texas transfer has given the Wildcats a huge boost in his first season in Tucson, providing hounding defense, leadership and another scoring option. He’s averaging 16 points per game and has hit 10 of 16 from 3-point range so far this season.

Campbell transfer Cedric Henderson Jr. has provided an athletic lift off the bench and 7-foot Estonian Henri Veesaar has given Arizona solid minutes.

The mix of new and old has helped Arizona lead the nation with 97.5 points a game and rank second with 21.8 assists per game. The Wildcats climbed 10 spots in this week’s poll after wins over Cincinnati, No. 24 San Diego State and Creighton.

Arizona opens Pac-12 play Thursday at Utah.

“It was good to get the recognition, but we’re not satisfied,” Ramey said. “Our ultimate goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the season and be the final two teams playing, so I think the regular season matters but it’s not the ultimate goal for us.”

The Wildcats are certainly off to a good start.