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.


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.


  • 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.


  • NCAA: Villanova, Xavier, Seton Hall, Creighton, St. John’s, Marquette
  • NIT: Butler, Providence, Georgetown
Jalen Brunson (Elsa/Getty Images)


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.


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.


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)


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.

FAU holds off Nowell and K-State to reach 1st Final Four

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NEW YORK — Alijah Martin, Vlad Goldin and ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic became the first and lowest-seeded team to reach this year’s Final Four as the Owls withstood another huge game by Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell to beat the Wildcats 79-76 on Saturday night.

FAU (35-3), making just its second appearance in the NCAA Tournament, won the East Region at Madison Square Garden and will head to Houston to play the winner of Sunday’s South Region final between Creighton and San Diego State.

In one of the most unpredictable NCAA Tournaments ever – all four No. 1 seeds were out by the Elite Eight – the Owls from Conference USA typified the madness.

“I expect the prognosticators to pick us fifth in the Final Four,” fifth-year FAU coach Dusty May said.

The winningest team in Division I this season had never won an NCAA Tournament game before ripping off four straight, all by single digits, to become the first No. 9 seed to reach the Final Four since Wichita State in 2013 and the third to get that far since seeding began in 1979.

Nowell, the 5-foot-8 native New Yorker, was incredible again at Madison Square Garden, with 30 points, 12 assists and five steals, coming off a Sweet 16 game in which he set the NCAA Tournament record with 19 assists. He didn’t get enough help this time.

Nae’Qwan Tomlin was the only other player in double figures for Kansas State (26-10) with 14 points. Keyontae Johnson, the Wildcats’ leading scorer, fouled out with nine points.

Martin scored 17 points, including a huge 3 down the stretch, the 7-foot-1 Goldin had 14 points and 13 rebounds, and Michael Forrest made four clutch free throws in the final 20 seconds for the Owls, who held steady as the Wildcats made a late push.

Cam Carter made a 3 from the wing with 22.8 seconds left to cut FAU’s lead to 75-74 and Kansas State fouled and sent Forrest to the line with 17.9 seconds left. The senior made both to make it a three-point game.

Nowell found Tomlin inside for a layup with 8.6 seconds left to cut the lead to one again, and again K-State sent Forrest to the line. With 6.9 remaining, he made them both.

With no timeouts left, Nowell rushed down the court, gave up the ball to Ismael Massoud outside the 3-point line, and never got it back. FAU’s Johnell Davis swiped it away and time ran out.

“It was trying to get Ish a shot,” Nowell said. “Coach wanted to Ish to set the screen, and I waved it off because I felt like on the right side of the court, that’s where Ish hits most of his shots. And they closed out hard to him, and he didn’t get his shot off.”

Nowell was named the most outstanding player of the region, but FAU turned out to be the best team. As the Owls built their lead in the final minutes, Kansas State fans who had packed the building became anxiously quiet and the “F-A-U!” chants started to rise.

The Owls rushed the floor to celebrate a historic moment for the school. FAU didn’t even have a basketball program until the late 1980s and has only been in Division I for the last 30 years.

“I’m living the dream right now,” Forrest said.

FAU held up to Tennessee’s bully ball in the Sweet 16 and dropped a 40-point second half on the best defense in the nation to eliminate the Southeastern Conference team.

Against one of the Big 12’s best, FAU dominated the boards, 44-22, and became the first team from C-USA to reach the Final Four since Memphis in 2008.

The Owls aren’t hanging around much longer. They’re moving to the American Athletic Conference next season. But first: a trip to Texas.

Miami coach Jim Larrañaga asks for transparency on NIL deals

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Miami coach Jim Larrañaga wants to know how much money athletes at other schools are making through name, image and likeness deals.

It’s only fair, he said, since no school has had the values of its athletes’ deals publicized more than Miami.

“I think everybody should be transparent,” he said at a news conference Saturday ahead of his team’s NCAA Tournament Midwest Region final aganst Texas. “Why is it hidden behind the curtain? Why? You can go on a website and check out anybody’s salary in the NBA.

“There are a lot of schools that do the same thing we do. We just don’t know about it because it’s not public knowledge. Why not? Why are we afraid of sharing that information?”

Larrañaga said full disclosure is important for competitive reasons and also so the NCAA or Congress can have more information at their disposal when, and if, they bring clarity and uniformity to NIL rules.

Nijel Pack’s two-year, $800,000 contract with Miami booster John Ruiz is the most publicized NIL deal since the NCAA began allowing college athletes to make money off their popularity. ACC player of the year Isaiah Wong’s $100,000 deal with Ruiz also became public knowledge.

Though the terms of twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder’s deals have not been publicized, the two reportedly have made millions of dollars during their time playing women’s basketball at Fresno State and now Miami.

Larrañaga said television networks, shoe companies, universities, athletic directors and coaches make lots of money off college sports and that the athletes deserve a cut.

“I hope they get as many great deals as they can because I think eventually they have to learn how to handle money,” he said. “So at their young age, if they learn it, maybe they’ll find out. I don’t know how many of these guys are spending every cent they get, but I know a lot of NBA guys did that and ended up bankrupt. I think that’s a learning experience. That’s why you’re in college anyway.”

There have been concerns raised that publicizing the amount of money athletes make could cause jealousy and splinter locker rooms.

Larrañaga said NIL hasn’t changed the dynamic, as far as he’s concerned.

“These guys have to get along on the court and off the court,” he said. “If you can’t handle that as a coach, you probably couldn’t handle it when a guy was complaining about playing time or ‘I didn’t get enough shots.’”

Wong disputed a report last year that, upon learning of Pack’s deal, he threatened through his agent to transfer if his NIL deal wasn’t beefed up.

Larrañaga said he’s seen no problems between the two.

“They hit it off day one,” he said. “Why? Because they love playing basketball.”

Jordan Miller vouched for his coach, especially when it comes to Pack’s deal.

“At the end of the day, he’s our teammate, and everybody’s happy for him,” Miller said.

Larrañaga said he couldn’t speculate on whether athletes would be paid as employees of universities some day.

For now, the most important thing is to set firm guidelines for NIL and to make sure athletes are educated about how to manage their money.

“Guys like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and LeBron (James), they make life-changing money, life-altering money,” Larrañaga said. “These young kids, they might not get that chance beyond this. So they need an education about it.”

Texas blows out Xavier 83-71 for spot in NCAA Elite Eight

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Tyrese Hunter scored 19 points, Marcus Carr and Christian Bishop added 18 apiece, and second-seeded Texas rolled to an 83-71 victory over No. 3 seed Xavier on Friday night to reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years.

Playing most of the way without ailing star Dylan Disu, the Longhorns – the highest seed left after No. 1s Alabama and Houston lost earlier in the night – built a 42-25 lead by halftime. They quickly pushed it past 20 before cruising the rest of the way into a matchup with fifth-seeded Miami on Sunday night for a spot in the Final Four in Houston.

Sir’Jabari Rice had 16 points and Timmy Allen added 11 for the Longhorns (29-8), who kept Souley Boum and the rest of Xavier’s perimeter threats in check while making life miserable for Jack Nunge down low.

Adam Kunkel hit five 3-pointers and led the Musketeers (27-10) with 21 points. Nunge scored 15 but needed 19 shots to get there, while Colby Jones also had 15 points. Boum didn’t hit a field goal until early in the second half and finished with 12 points.

The job the Longhorns did in shutting down Xavier was merely the latest example of some masterful work by interim coach Rodney Terry. The longtime assistant took over in December, when Chris Beard was suspended and later fired over a since-dropped domestic violence charge, and Terry has not only kept the season from falling apart but sent his team soaring.

Things won’t get any easier against Miami, which romped to an 89-75 win over the Cougars.

And especially without Disu, who led the Longhorns to a Big 12 tourney title and earned MVP honors on the same floor just over two weeks ago, and who’d been dominant through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Disu tried to play through a left foot injury that the Longhorns had successfully kept secret Friday night, but he lasted only a couple of minutes before limping off the floor and straight to the locker room. When he returned to the bench, he was wearing a big walking boot, a black hoodie and a grim expression.

Relegated to a 6-foot-9 cheerleader, Disu at least had plenty to celebrate.

Carr got the Longhorns off to a fast start, spinning through the lane like a Tilt-A-Whirl for tough buckets at the rim, and even knocking down a spinning, desperation 3 as the shot clock expired. And when Musketeers coach Sean Miller traded out a man-to-man defense for a zone, the Longhorns began to pound the ball to Bishop in the paint.

With dozens of family and friends on hand, the Creighton transfer from the Kansas City suburb of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, went to work. Bishop threw down one dunk on Carr’s alley-oop lob, then slammed down another a few minutes later.

By the time Allen banked in a half-court heave, the Longhorns had established a 42-25 halftime advantage – and had to be redirected from the Xavier tunnel, where they were busy celebrating, toward their own locker room.

Xavier tried to creep back a couple of times, but the Longhorns never allowed their lead to sniff single digits. And that gave Terry, who returned to Texas after head coaching jobs at Fresno State and UTEP, a chance to breathe deeply and enjoy the moment.

The 54-year-old from the small Texas town of Angleton was on Rick Barnes’ staff the last time the Longhorns reached the Elite Eight, back in 2008. He was on the 2003 staff that guided them all the way to the Final Four, too.

Now, he’s one step away from taking Texas on another improbable trip to college basketball’s biggest stage.

Creighton ends Princeton’s March Madness run with 86-75 win

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Creighton used its size, 3-point shooting and a swarming second-half defense to end the March Madness run of Princeton, beating the 15th-seeded Tigers 86-75 on Friday night in the Sweet 16.

The sixth-seeded Bluejays (24-12) advanced to their first regional final since they were part of an eight-team NCAA Tournament in 1941. Creighton will play No. 5 seed San Diego State in Sunday’s South Region final, with each team seeking its first Final Four.

Ryan Kalkbenner, the two-time Big East defensive player of the year, scored 22 points to lead the Bluejays to their sixth win in seven games. Baylor Scheierman made five 3s and finished with 21 points.

“Kalk, he impacts us at the rim on both ends of the floor and defensively provides so much for us,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “I thought he really got going late in the first half and carried it over to the second half. Baylor just plays at every level. He can make the mid-range. He shoots the 3. He sees the floor incredibly well, and believe it or not, he’s become a pretty good defender.”

The Tigers (23-9) were led by Ryan Langborg with 26 points and Ivy League player of the year Tosan Evbuomwan with 24 points, six rebounds and nine assists.

Princeton shook up brackets everywhere by beating No. 2 seed Arizona in the first round, then blew out seventh-seeded Missouri last weekend in Sacramento, California.

Playing in its first Sweet 16 since 1967, Princeton was hoping to become the first Ivy League champion to make the Elite Eight since Penn’s Final Four run in 1979, the first Tigers squad to reach the Final Four since Bill Bradley led them there in 1965, and the second straight No. 15 seed to play in a regional final. Saint Peter’s last year became the first 15 seed to achieve that feat.

Princeton’s offense bore no resemblance to the back-cutting, deliberate style that defined the late Pete Carril’s coaching tenure. Instead, the Tigers went toe to toe against Creighton’s fast-paced offense until they stalled out at the start of the second half.

Creighton used a 9-2 run to take 56-45 lead, a four-minute stretch during which Princeton coach Mitch Henderson called two timeouts and Evbuomwan drew his third foul.

The Bluejays just wouldn’t stop. When Princeton cut the deficit to 61-52, Creighton answered with seven more points and the Tigers couldn’t get closer than seven points after that.

“Princeton’s really good at establishing their pace, so you’ve just got to take them out of it,” Kalkbrenner said. “Their whole goal is to take us out of our pace.”

After beating North Carolina State and third-seeded Baylor in Denver last weekend, drawing confidence from not needing oxygen masks like their opponents, Creighton eliminated the suddenly popular Ivy Leaguers. Now, the Bluejays are one win away from the national semifinals.

“It’s been amazing, it’s been a dream come true. This is why I came to Creighton in the first place, to make a run with this group of guys,” Scheierman said. “It’s just been an incredible experience. I’m looking forward to continuing that on Sunday.”

Miami beats No. 1 seed Houston; all four top NCAA seeds out

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nijel Pack and Miami hit shots from near and far against the stingiest defense in the country to beat Houston 89-75 on Friday night in the Sweet 16, leaving the NCAA Tournament without a single No. 1 seed among its final eight teams for the first time since seeding began in 1979.

Miami (28-7), only the fifth team this season to score at least 70 points against Houston (33-4), will play second-seeded Texas or No. 3 seed Xavier in the Midwest Region final for the chance to go to the Final Four.

About 30 minutes before Houston’s loss, top overall seed Alabama fell to San Diego State in Louisville, Kentucky. Fellow No. 1 seeds Purdue and Kansas lost during the tournament’s first weekend.

The fifth-seeded Hurricanes reached a regional final for the second straight year just a few hours after Miami’s ninth-seeded women’s team hung on to beat Villanova and advance to the Elite Eight for the first time. Miami and UConn are the only schools with teams remaining in both tournaments.

This is the first time in three years Houston didn’t make it to the Elite Eight.

The Cougars simply couldn’t stop a multifaceted Miami offense led by Pack’s 3-point shooting. He had season highs of seven 3-pointers on 10 attempts and 26 points.

Isaiah Wong’s mid-range game helped get the ‘Canes out to a fast start, and he finished with 20 points. Jordan Miller hurt the Cougars with his penetration and had 13 points, and Norchad Omier was his usual rugged self under the basket while recording his 16th double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds.

It resulted in a heartbreaking end for a Cougars team that was in the Sweet 16 for a fourth straight time, had won 15 of its last 16 games and had the season-long goal of playing in next week’s Final Four in its home city.

Miami coach Jim Larrañaga, much to his players’ delight, busted out dance moves in the locker room befitting a 73-year-old man harkening to the disco era. Then Wooga Poplar and Joseph Bensley joined him up front for an impromptu line dance.

Larrañaga will seek his first Final Four with Miami and second overall – he took George Mason there as an 11 seed in 2006.

Miami used a 16-5 run spanning the halves to go up by double digits, with Omier’s three-point play and Jordan Miller’s short bank-in with the left hand making it 47-36 and forcing Houston coach Kelvin Sampson to call timeout less than two minutes into the second half.

Houston battled back to make it a two-point game, but then Pack made three 3s and Miller and Wooga Poplar hit one each to fuel a 16-2 run that put the Canes ahead 70-53. The lead grew to as much as 17 points, and Houston never got closer than 11 the rest of the way.

There was no denying it was Miami’s night after Houston made a mini run with under five minutes to play. With the shot clock running down, Omier was forced to put up a jumper just inside the free-throw line. It bounced off the front of the rim, then the backboard, then the front of the rim again before dropping through. A minute later, Houston’s Jarace Walker missed from point-blank range.

Walker led the Cougars with 16 points. Jamal Shead added 15 and All-American Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark had 14 apiece for the Cougars, who shot just 37% overall and 29% from distance.

Houston – which came into the game as a 7.5-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook – found itself behind at half for the second straight game after the Hurricanes played their sharpest half of the tournament.

Miami turned the ball over just once the first 20 minutes, converted Miami’s six turnovers into 15 points and shot 6 of 14 from distance against the second-best 3-point defense in the country.

Pack made four of them, and all were timely. His first three gave Miami leads and his fourth broke a 31-all tie.