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 recaps 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?
What is still 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: Markus Howard, Marquette
The junior guard has been outstanding so far for the Golden Eagles. Since December started, Howard has caught fire in multiple games, as he’s put up two 45-point outings against top-25 teams.
Averaging a conference-leading 25.0 points per game, Howard also chips in 4.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds per contest on 40 percent shooting from three-point range. Devastating when he gets on scoring runs, Howard is one of the only players in college basketball who is a nightly threat to drop 50. He’s talented enough to single-handedly win a game with his scoring but savvy enough to win a game using guard skills to get others involved if his shot isn’t falling.
Howard is one of the very best players in college hoops this season and it’ll be exciting to see what he’s capable of in the Big East.
THE ALL BIG EAST FIRST TEAM
- Markus Howard, Marquette:
- Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s: Maintaining his across-the-board presence with improved efficiency, the 6-foot-1 Ponds is making a strong case for All-American status. He’s putting up 19.6 points, 6.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game.
- Myles Powell, Seton Hall: Another big-time scoring guard, Powell is averaging 23.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. Also capable of 40-point nights thanks to his perimeter shooting prowess, the junior has elevated his play against good competition this season.
- Alpha Diallo, Providence: Developing into a strong and dependable junior wing, Diallo is tops in the Big East in rebounding (8.5 rpg) while sixth in scoring (17.4 ppg) for the Friars. Also putting up 3.4 assists and 1.7 steals per game, Diallo is getting it done in a variety of ways.
- Max Strus, DePaul: The senior has been a dependable presence for the Blue Demons, putting up 19.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. The streaky Strus is capable of putting DePaul on his back if he gets hot.
- NCAA: Marquette, St. John’s, Villanova, Butler, Seton Hall, Creighton
- NIT: Xavier, Georgetown, Providence
- OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: DePaul
THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED
1. Villanova is beatable after being dominant in the past
Over the last several years, the Wildcats have, more-or-less, ascended into blueblood status. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you win two out of three national titles and send multiple players to the NBA.
But with a lot of roster turnover from those teams, Villanova has looked beatable to this point in the season. Surprising non-conference losses to teams from one-bid leagues like Furman and Penn already went down. Villanova also sustained a blowout home loss to Michigan in a rematch of last March’s NCAA title game.
The Wildcats haven’t seen much from the freshman class. They look overwhelmed. Other role players haven’t ascended into dependable players. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are still vets who can make plays. Collin Gillespie has solid numbers. But Villanova has a lot of question marks entering Big East play and they’re far from a runaway favorite.
2. The Big East doesn’t have many (if any) title contenders
The Big East has seen multiple teams in the picture for solid NCAA tournament seeding over the last several years. Just last season, Xavier was a No. 1 seed and Villanova was the dominant champion as a No. 2.
Thanks to a sluggish non-conference portion of the schedule, the Big East isn’t in any such position to earn great seeds for this year’s tournament. Villanova, Butler and Marquette are the only Big East teams in the KenPom top 30. All of them have put up some questionable performances to this point. Others like Creighton, St. John’s, Providence and Seton Hall all likely have work to do just to safely get in the field.
If a team dominates conference play and only losses a handful of games, we might see a Big East team crack a top-four seed for the NCAA tournament. But as it stands right now, the Big East has a lot of work to do if it wants to get a team back to the Final Four.
3. But the Big East won’t have any easy outs
Even if the Big East doesn’t have many top-flight teams, they don’t have any awful teams either. The league doesn’t have a bloated membership number to begin with so that helps. But every Big East team currently is in the top 113 on KenPom as even bottom teams like DePaul and Georgetown have looked dangerous. Xavier also lurks as a team with some talent that hasn’t figured things out.
The Blue Demons have been easy to beat in recent years, but their senior core of Max Strus, Eli Cain and Femi Olujobi is solid. Georgetown has the league’s best big in Jessie Govan while James Akinjo and Mac McClung have been better than many believed. Xavier played tough despite a 1-2 record at Maui while they’ve also faced Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Missouri. The Musketeers haven’t knocked off a credible opponent under new coach Travis Steele, they have the ability to pick off anyone in the league at home.
Things are going to be brutal in the Big East this season as a lot of these teams are pretty evenly matched.
THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
1. Is St. John’s a credible threat?
The Red Storm are one of college basketball’s only undefeated teams remaining. They’ve also played the No. 344 non-conference strength of schedule to this point — according to KenPom.
So how seriously should we be taking 12-0 St. John’s? To this point, the Red Storm’s best wins are neutral wins over Cal, Georgia Tech and VCU with a road win at Rutgers added in the mix. It’s very possible St. John’s hasn’t played a legitimate NCAA tournament team to this point in the season.
We’ll learn very quickly how good St. John’s is once Big East play begins. Many of the Big East’s coaches and older players will know what to expect from the Red Storm with the true home-and-home conference schedule. Shamorie Ponds, Mustapha Heron and company are still going to be tough to stop. But is this St. John’s team a group that ascends into a top-five seed? Or will they finally come back to Earth and end up closer to the bubble?
2. Do any teams separate themselves from a large pack in the middle?
Entering conference play, the Big East has seven teams within the 18 to 61 range on KenPom’s rankings. A lot of teams are lumped together in the middle. Villanova, Butler and Marquette have the only top-30 rankings among the conference. But a lot of the league is right in the mix in the next 30 or so spots.
The key for some of these next-tier teams like Creighton, St. John’s, Providence and Seton Hall will be earning wins over one another while avoiding bad losses to non-tournament teams. If these teams keep beating each other and piling up good wins, it will be hard to keep them out of the tournament with the Pac-12 having such a down year.
It’ll be interesting to see if St. John’s is real or if Creighton, Providence or Seton Hall can elevate their play the next few months.
3. Can Marquette break through for a Big East title run?
Since Villanova doesn’t seem like a juggernaut, and the Big East doesn’t have a clear frontrunner, there’s a case to be made that Marquette is the real team to watch. The Golden Eagles have the league’s most potent weapon in guard Markus Howard and Sam and Joey Hauser are both talented double-figure scorers and 40 percent three-point shooters.
Marquette has only lost on the road at Indiana and led Kansas at the half before succumbing to the Jayhawks the second frame. Over the last month, the Golden Eagles have picked off ranked teams like Kansas State, Wisconsin and Buffalo. They’ve shown consistency on both ends. Brutal defensively a season ago, Marquette stands at a respectable No. 50 on KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings as they have made great strides to become a more complete team.
With only one Big East title since joining the league in 2005, Marquette could be talented enough to bring home a conference title if their defense sustains.
1. Villanova turns things around and competes for a Big East title
It feels odd that Villanova finds themselves outside of the top 25 as conference season is beginning. But the Wildcats also have a lot of good things going for them as they’ll remain a major contender for the Big East title.
With title-winning players like Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to lead, the Wildcats will figure things out as long as other role players consistently step up. With a great win over Florida State and a close loss to Kansas, Villanova can knock off good teams and hang with great teams on certain nights. They’ll still be favored against most in the Big East.
We can’t expect the freshman class to develop into consistent pieces given their slow starts, but others like Joe Cremo and Dhamir Crosby-Roundtree are great role players who help in very specific ways. Even with some troubling early losses, Villanova should be fine.
2. Marquette claims the Big East title with Markus Howard claiming Player of the Year honors
Let’s be real here, the Big East is seriously lacking star power and great teams this season. So picking the top talent in the conference, on an intriguing team, seems like a solid pick to win the Big East title.
It’s also not as easy as it seems. Marquette has only made one NCAA tournament appearance in four seasons under Steve Wojciechowski as they never finished about fourth in the Big East during that same span. The history just hasn’t been there in recent seasons.
But Howard has serious All-American potential and the Hausers act as great scoring compliments. The Golden Eagles also have a deep and experienced roster filled with upperclassmen who have contributed in multiple ways. Marquette has all of the pieces to make a run for the conference title. It starts with Howard sustaining his tremendous early-season play.
3. The Big East gets six teams in the Field of 68
Although the Big East is noticeably down this season in terms of top-flight teams competing for high seeds, it’s still a league that should have some solid depth once we see conference play unfold. With the league having no true bottom-feeders, the competitive Big East should be able to do enough to get six teams back into the Field of 68.
The only dilemma comes as long as teams don’t beat each other up too bad. Plenty of Big East teams are already in strong NCAA tournament range with opportunities for plenty of big wins. The conference’s scheduling format will only help. But it could also go bad if some of the middle-of-the-pack teams can’t earn a signature win and they lose to teams like Georgetown and DePaul.
Villanova, Butler and Marquette are already looking good while St. John’s is unbeaten. Creighton and Seton Hall have also earned some early quality wins but they join Providence as teams that could find themselves near the bubble come Selection Sunday.