Big East Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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For the first time since it reconstituted as a new league, the Big East has a champion other than Villanova. Xavier ended the Wildcats’ four-year run atop the conference despite getting swept by Jay Wright’s program in their two meetings this season, finishing one-up on ‘Nova with a 15-3 league record.

Now as those to teams head into the conference tournament, the question becomes can both of them secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament? As things stand now, it looks as though both are incredibly well positioned to do just that, but they made need a third matchup in the title game to wrap up a pair of top seeds for the league.

While there is plenty of intrigue at the top of the league, there’s plenty at stake elsewhere as well. Creighton, Butler and Seton Hall all can help their own causes as all three have the profile of an 8/9 seed. Providence may not feel great about its spot unless it can win its opening-round tilt against the Jayhawks. Then there’s Marquette, which appears to be lingering right around the cutline heading into the season’s final week.

There is a lot at stake at Madison Square Garden this week, and St. John’s, Georgetown and DePaul have all proven capable as potential spoilers, setting the action up to be among the most compelling tournaments across the country.

THE FAVORITE

Yes, the Musketeers were the regular-season champs, but you’ve got to peg Villanova as the team to beat here. Three of the Wildcats’ four losses came away from home and the fourth is simply inexplicable as they fell to St. John’s at the Wells Fargo Center. Probably best to chalk that last one up to statistical variance.

‘Nova has a potential player of the year in Jalen Brunson, a player who thrives under pressure and in the clutch. Brunson is simply one of the best players in the country playing arguably the most important position for postseason success. Put him and Jay Wright together and it just feels downright silly to bet against Villanova. Let’s not also forget that the Wildcats topped Chris Mack’s team four-straight times dating back to last year.

We haven’t even mentioned Mikal Bridges or the strong supporting cast around he and Brunson, so despite Xavier’s strength and the potential landmines that other conference contenders potentially pose, VIllanova is the easy pick here.

THE CONTENDERS

Xavier is the clear second choice here behind the Wildcats. Mack’s group may have lost twice to Villanova, but their only other stumble along the very treacherous Big East path was a loss at Providence. They haven’t been susceptible to the slip-ups that ultimately cost Villanova another regular-season title. Veteran and talented guard play is always at a premium in win-or-go-home scenarios, and X has that in spades with Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura, both of whom are dudes you’d want in your corner with the season on the line. The offense is legit, but can the defense get enough stops over three-straight games?

Beyond the two headliners, Creighton and Seton Hall are potentially serious threats for a crown. If the Bluejays get hot, they can shoot their way to a title on the strength of Marcus Foster, Khyri Thomas and a cast of role players all capable of filling it up. For the Pirates, they’ll go as far as Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado will take them, which could be pretty darn far.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

While Providence would probably feel better with a win, it’s Marquette without a doubt here. The Golden Eagles are either in the First Four or the outside looking in, depending on which bracketologist you ask. A win against DePaul might night move the needle a whole lot, but a loss certainly will and not in the direction Steve Wojciechowski wants it to. If they can get past the Blue Demons and score an upset against Villanova, that should more than do it.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

Certainly Marquette is, but Ed Cooley’s team isn’t going to want to leave the Big Apple without a win. Providence could probably survive a loss to Creighton in the quarterfinals, but then you’re probably looking at either the First Four or forcing the committee to make a decision about you, neither of which are places a team wants to be. Unless Providence moves on to Friday or Saturday, it’s probably going to be a tense Sunday.

THE SLEEPER

Butler tied for sixth in the Big East standings, but their KenPom ranking of 24 is the third-best in the league. They’re not really elite anywhere, but they’re balanced and strong across the board. It may be LaVall Jordan’s first year at the helm in Indianapolis, but the Bulldogs have a winning pedigree and shouldn’t be discounted simply because of their 9-9 league record.

Butler has already knocked Villanova off once this season, so the Wildcats aren’t going to be an insurmountable obstacle in Friday’s semifinals. And, honestly, it won’t take much more than Kelan Martin, who is averaging 21.2 points per game, to raise his level of play for three days for Butler to find itself cutting down nets at the Garden. MSG seems to bring the best out of the best, and Martin very well could be the one to answer that call.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Martin and Brunson, as previously mentioned, are great candidates here, but let’s focus instead for a moment on Mikal Bridges. The 6-foot-6 junior is averaging 17.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 51.1 percent from the floor and 42 percent from distance. When that’s the second-best player on your team, you’re doing all right.

Bridges has been on a tear lately, too, scoring at least 20 points in four of his last five games. The Wildcats won all four games when he hit that mark and lost the one in which he didn’t. If Bridges keeps filling it up, look for Villanova to keep winning.

X-FACTORS

– Villanova has lost to both St. John’s and Providence this season, begging the question of just how vulnerable might they be in the early rounds of this tournament? They conceivably could see both those teams in the tournament’s opening two days. Were those games flukes and ‘Nova will bulldoze its way to Saturday, or were those sneaky matchup issues waiting to jump up and get them once more?

– Xavier’s defense is fine. Really, it is. But it’s not exactly good, either. The Musketeers don’t force turnovers or a ton of misses, though they do clean the glass. If an opponent can free up shooters consistently, they could shoot Xavier out of the Garden.

– Marcus Foster generates a lot of buzz for his offense for Creighton, but Khyri Thomas may be the better offensive player. He’s certainly the more efficient. While having a much lower usage rate that his teammate, Thomas shoots 43.1 percent from 3-point range and 63.6 percent from inside the arc. With defenses focused on Foster, Thomas is more than capable of winning games for Creighton.

NBC SPORTS BIG EAST HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jalen Brunson, VIllanova

COACH OF THE YEAR: Chris Mack, Xavier

FIRST TEAM ALL-BIG EAST

  • Jalen Brunson, Villanova
  • Mikal Bridges, Villanova
  • Kelan Martin, Butler
  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
  • Marcus Foster, Creighton

SECOND TEAM ALL-BIG EAST

  • Khyri Thomas, Creighton
  • Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s
  • Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
  • Desi Rodriguez, Seton Hall
  • Markus Howard, Marquette

Houston reaches No. 1 in AP poll for first time since 1983

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Make some room, Phi Slama Jama. Another Houston team has reached the top of men’s college basketball.

Nearly four decades after Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon took the Cougars to No. 1, the latest bunch led by Marcus Sasser and star freshman Jarace Walker took over the top spot in the AP Top 25. They received 45 of 63 first-place votes from the national media panel, easily outdistancing second-place Texas and third-place Virginia.

“It’s not like we went online and applied for it and waited for a response back. We’ve been working for this,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team is coming off a Final Four and Elite Eight trip the past two seasons. “But remember, it’s a rental. You don’t own it. You’re just renting it because someday somebody else is going to be No. 1.”

North Carolina had been No. 1 all season, but the Tar Heels lost to Iowa State and in a four-overtime thriller to Alabama at the Phil Knight Invitational to cede the top spot to Houston, which beat Kent State in its only game last week.

The last time the Cougars ascended to No. 1 was the final poll of the 1982-83 season, when “The Glide” and “The Dream” along with coach Guy Lewis were the favorites to win it all. They rolled through the NCAA Tournament before falling to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in an iconic championship game in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“I’ve never been ranked No. 1,” said Sampson, now in his 34th season as a college basketball coach. “We were ranked all 12 years at Oklahoma. I’m sure we were ranked at Indiana. Then we’ve been ranked five or six straight years. We’re used to having a high level of success.”

Texas received eight first-place votes and Virginia received two. Arizona climbed from 14th to fourth after emerging from a stacked field to win the Maui Invitational. Purdue jumped from 24th all the way to fifth and scooped up eight first-place votes after beating West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke at the Phil Knight Legacy tourney.

“Our guys are competitive. They’re fun to coach. They get along. They’re out there playing with purpose and that’s what you have to have,” said Boilermakers coach Matt Painter, whose team was briefly No. 1 about this time last season.

“Early in the season, very few teams play with the purpose collectively,” he said. “I thought our guys played with a purpose.”

Baylor was sixth, Creighton seventh and U Conn climbed from 20th to eighth after beating Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State to win the Phil Knight Invitational. Kansas fell from third to ninth after losing to Tennessee in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, while Indiana rounded out the top 10.

There was a tie for 11th between SEC rivals Alabama and Arkansas with the Volunteers, another conference foe, right behind them. Gonzaga dropped from sixth to 14th, its first time outside the top 10 since Feb. 5, 2018, and Auburn was 15th.

Illinois was next followed by Duke and North Carolina in a tough week for Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils fell from eighth after their 75-56 loss to the Boilermakers.

Kentucky and Michigan State joined UCLA, Maryland, Iowa State, San Diego State and Ohio State in rounding out the poll.

RISING AND FALLING

Purdue made a rare 19-spot jump as the poll underwent a massive shakeup. UConn climbed 12 spots, Arizona moved up 10, Tennessee climbed nine and Alabama seven. On the flip side, the Tar Heels tumbled 17 spots, Duke dropped nine, Gonzaga fell eight and San Diego State fell seven.

IN AND OUT

Despite all the movement, Iowa State was the only newcomer this week, checking in at No. 23 after beating Villanova and North Carolina before falling to UConn. The Cyclones replaced Iowa, which dropped out after a one-week stay following its loss to TCU in the title game of the Emerald Coast Classic.

CONFERENCE WATCH

There are six difference conferences represented in the first seven teams in the poll. The Big Ten leads the way with six in the Top 25 while the SEC has five and the Big 12 has four, though three of them are in the top 10.

South Carolina tops women’s AP Top 25; Stanford, UConn next

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South Carolina remained the unanimous No. 1 choice in The Associated Press women’s poll, as the Gamecocks keep close watch on the foot injury of reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.

The Gamecocks received all 29 first-place votes in the poll, a day after Boston left a game with her injury. Coach Dawn Staley said Boston was “questionable” going forward but added that the “team doctor wasn’t too, too concerned.”

South Carolina’s next game is at home against No. 15 UCLA.

Stanford remained No. 2 after cruising through a tournament in Hawaii. It’s the 618th appearance for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, tying the late Pat Summitt for most all-time. Summitt’s teams only missed being in the poll 14 times during her Hall of Fame career at Tennessee.

UConn, Ohio State and Indiana rounded out the top five.

The Huskies are one of four Big East teams to be ranked this week as Marquette entered the poll at No. 24. It’s the first time the Big East has four ranked teams since the conference realigned in 2014. The league is 56-14 so far this season, including going 8-2 against ranked teams.

“We’ve been trying to earn a little more respect,” Marquette coach Megan Duffy said of the Big East. “Tried to schedule tougher non-conference (games). ‘Nova’s playing people. Us going to the Bahamas was great. Creighton’s doing what they’ve been doing since last season. Getting some of those quality wins is everything.”

North Carolina moved up two spots to No. 6 after rallying to beat then-No. 5 Iowa State in the Phil Knight tournament. The Cyclones fell to eighth.

The Tar Heels visit the Hoosiers on Tuesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Indiana returns home after winning two games in Las Vegas at a subpar venue that lacked basic necessities.

Notre Dame remained No. 7 while Virginia Tech and Iowa finished off the top 10. At No. 9, Virginia Tech has matched its best ranking ever and is in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.

Tennessee fell out of the poll this week marking the 56th time in the 827-week history of the poll that the Lady Vols weren’t ranked. Kansas State also fell out with Gonzaga moving in at No. 23.

FALLING CARDINALS

Louisville dropped to 18th in the poll this week after falling to South Dakota State in the fifth place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. It’s the Cardinals lowest ranking since Jan. 11, 2016.

Louisville entered the top 10 in the preseason poll in 2017 and hadn’t been out since, a span of 98 consecutive weeks. It was the longest active streak.

“It’s a compliment to the consistency that we built here,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of being ranked in the top 10 for so long. “Obviously are goal would have been to stay in the top 10, but it’s a new team and growing.”

Edey scores 21 as No. 24 Purdue beats No. 8 Duke 75-56

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Zach Edey and No. 24 Purdue shook off a slow start. When No. 8 Duke tried to rally in the second half, the Boilermakers finished strong.

Edey had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Purdue beat Duke 75-56 on Sunday in the championship game of the Phil Knight Legacy men’s tournament.

Fletcher Loyer scored 18 points for Purdue (6-0), and reserve Caleb Furst finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“I feel like we weren’t getting the looks we wanted early. As we settled into the game, we kept our poise and kept getting the shots that we wanted,” Edey said. “They were making some tough twos at the beginning of the game, shots we’re OK with all season.”

The 7-foot-4 Edey was 7 for 13 from the field and 7 for 8 at the line. He was named tournament MVP.

“They have the most unique player in the country,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said of Edey. “He’s a hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.”

Duke (6-2) shot 36.2% (21 for 58) from the field. Tyres Proctor scored 16 points for the Blue Devils. Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach each had 14.

Ethan Morton had a steal and a dunk to help Purdue open a 58-41 lead with 15:37 left in the second half.

Duke countered with an 8-0 run, capped by two foul shots by Dariq Whitehead. But Furst made a layup and a jumper to help hold off the Blue Devils.

A hook by Edey and a 3-pointer by Loyer made it 68-56 with 5:03 remaining.

Duke got off to a 14-7 start before Purdue worked its way back into the game.

“I don’t feel like we came out bad today, but they matched our energy,” Edey said.

A 3-pointer by Brandon Newman pushed the Purdue lead to 46-28. A late run by Duke cut the Boilermakers’ lead to 46-35 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: It looked as if Roach had an issue with his left foot at one point, but he went back into the game. Scheyer said Roach had hurt his toe.

Purdue: Although neither team had great offensive games, Purdue was the better team from range. Purdue made seven 3-pointers to just two for Duke.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Ohio State on Wednesday.

Purdue: Visits Florida State on Wednesday.

No. 18 Alabama beats No. 1 North Carolina 103-101 in 4 OTs

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Mark Sears had 24 points, five rebounds and five assists, and No. 18 Alabama sent top-ranked North Carolina to a second straight loss with a 103-101 victory in a quadruple-overtime thriller on Sunday in the third-place game of the Phil Knight Invitational tournament.

Jahvon Quinerly added 21 points off the bench for the Crimson Tide (6-1), who knocked off the top-ranked team for the first time since upsetting Stanford in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

“I was losing track of how many overtimes we were in there at the end,” Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said. “A lot of credit to our guys. I thought they showed a lot of character when we could have folded.”

Charles Bediako had 14 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, while Brandon Miller also scored 14 points.

Caleb Love led the Tar Heels (5-2) with 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. Armando Bacot contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds, and R.J. Davis had 19 points and nine rebounds in the second four-overtime game in North Carolina history. The other was a victory over Tulane in 1976.

“At the end of the day, Alabama made one more play than we did,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “I walked in the locker room and a number of the guys had their head down and I told them to pick their head up. I’m just as disappointed (as the players) in terms of the final outcome, but I couldn’t be any more proud about the way they competed.”

Bediako gave the Crimson Tide the lead for good on a layup with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime.

The Tar Heels, who lost to Iowa State in the semifinals, led by as much as eight in the second half before Alabama came back to tie it. The Crimson Tide retook the lead on a pair of free throws from Gurley with 2 minutes remaining, and later tied with another free throw from Sears with 51 seconds remaining in regulation.

Alabama starting forward Noah Clowney took a hard fall on a dunk attempt four minutes into the first half and had to be helped off the court. He did not return.

The Crimson Tide were 16 for 38 (42.1%) from 3-point range, with Sears making seven.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: The Tar Heels figure to take a deep drop in the Top 25 poll.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide bounced back nicely following their loss to No. 20 UConn in the semifinals, beating a top-ranked team in the regular season for the first time since a 66-64 victory over eventual national champion Arkansas on Jan. 8, 1994.

UP NEXT:

North Carolina: The Tar Heels travel to Bloomington to face No. 11 Indiana on Wednesday.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide return home to face South Dakota State on Saturday.

Clingan lifts UConn past Iowa State for Phil Knight title

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Donovan Clingan had 15 points and 10 rebounds to power No. 20 UConn to a 71-53 win over Iowa State in the championship game of the Phil Knight Invitational on Sunday night.

Tristen Newton scored 13 points for the Huskies (8-0), who went 20 for 25 at the free-throw line. Alex Karaban and Andre Jackson, Jr. each had 10 points.

Osun Osunniyi led Iowa State (5-1) with 14 points. Tamin Lipsey had 12 points and Jaren Holmes finished with 11.

“They were the more aggressive team,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We wanted a physical game. We didn’t want a physical game with them getting the rebounds and then also us putting them on the foul line. Lesson that we’ve got to learn is we need to embrace being the aggressor at both ends of the floor at all times.”

The Huskies had more offensive rebounds (20) than the Cyclones had total rebounds (19), and capitalized on that disparity with 20 second-chance points.

“Those guys are tough,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “T.J.`s an excellent coach. They grind people up. To outrebound them, it just speaks to how tough we were.”

Clingan, who was named tournament MVP, scored eight points to help UConn to a 38-28 lead at the break.

Iowa State closed to 53-48 on Holmes’ 3-pointer midway through the second half. But Karaban made a 3 and a dunk, and Newton’s jumper made it 60-48 with 7:13 remaining.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies couldn’t have asked for a better showing in Portland, winning all three of their games.

Iowa State: The Cyclones picked up nice wins over Villanova and top-ranked North Carolina in the earlier rounds but ended with their first loss of the season.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies return home to face Oklahoma State on Thursday.

Iowa State: The Cyclones return home to face North Dakota on Tuesday.