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.
- NCAA: Villanova, Xavier, Seton Hall, Creighton, St. John’s, Marquette
- NIT: Butler, Providence, Georgetown
- OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: DePaul
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.
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.
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.