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Howard scores 23 as No. 12 Marquette holds off DePaul 79-69

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MILWAUKEE — Markus Howard found ways to score when Marquette needed it most.

Howard had 13 of his 23 points — including 11 free throws — in the final six minutes and Sam Hauser added 19 as the 12th-ranked Golden Eagles held off DePaul 79-69 on Wednesday night to remain unbeaten at home.

“He’s kept me up since Saturday’s game every night just trying to figure out how best to keep him off balance,” DePaul coach Dave Leitao said of Howard. “I thought we did to a stretch, but again, his intellect came into play and he drew fouls, which as a 90 percent free throw shooter, he went 15 for 15, which is as admirable a talent as there is to speak of.”

DePaul, which trailed by 14 in the first half, pulled to 56-52 on Max Strus’ layup with 7:31 remaining.

Howard then scored five consecutive points to trigger an 11-point run. Marquette extended the lead to 67-56 on two free throws by Hauser with 3:47 left. The Golden Eagles (17-3, 6-1 Big East) scored 17 of their final 23 points from the free throw line to improve to 14-0 at the new Fiserv Forum.

Howard, who entered first in the Big East and fifth in the nation in scoring at 24.4 points per game, was 4 of 10 from the field — including 1 for 3 in the second half. He went 0 for 2 from 3-point range but made all 15 free throw attempts. The star guard had nine assists and eight turnovers.

“We do need to be more balanced offensively and I thought we were tonight,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “I really thought it started with Markus’ passing to start the game. He really, I thought, made a concerted effort in the beginning of the game to share the ball. When he does that, it becomes contagious.”

Theo John scored a career-high 16 points to go with 10 rebounds and six blocks for Marquette. Joey Hauser had 14 points.

“They’re anything but a one-man group,” Leitao said. “They’re veteran, they’ve been around. Joey’s the only freshman that joined the lineup, but he’s very talented, so that’s why he fits in well. They’re seasoned, they know who they are. They’ve gotten tremendously improved on the defensive end, and then they have a will.”

Paul Reed had 18 points and Femi Olujobi added 15 for the Blue Demons (11-7, 3-4).

DePaul scored the first eight points of the second half, pulling to 40-35 on Reed’s driving layup. John converted a three-point play at 16:20 for Marquette’s first points after halftime.

Marquette finished the first half with a 20-6 run for a 40-27 lead at the break. The Blue Demons went more than 5 1/2 minutes without a field goal until Lyrik Schreiner’s 3-pointer with 30 seconds left made it 38-27.

DePaul hit seven of its first 13 shots but went 4 for 17 the rest of the half.

The Golden Eagles were sluggish early, making just six of their first 21 shots. The score was tied at 18 with 6:32 left in the half as Marquette had seven turnovers to just six field goals.

“I thought we got contributions across the board from a number of guys, which we knew we needed, because DePaul is playing very well,” Wojciechowski said. “They’re a much-improved basketball team and program. Our guys and our staff were very concerned about this game because of how well they’re playing.”

BIG PICTURE

DePaul: After a three-game skid, the Blue Demons had won three of four coming in, including a victory at St. John’s and two wins over Seton Hall. DePaul needs to win just four more games for its first winning regular season since 2006-07.

Marquette: Needs to continue showing improvement on the road. After dropping their first two road games, along with an NIT Season Tip-Off loss to Kansas, the Golden Eagles have posted a pair of narrow road victories, 106-104 in overtime at Creighton and 74-71 at Georgetown. Marquette’s next two games are on the road at Xavier and Butler.

A RARE ZERO

In games when Howard has played at least 10 minutes, this was just the sixth time in his career he did not make a 3-pointer. He entered with 72 in 164 attempts, both team highs.

UP NEXT

DePaul is at Providence on Sunday.

Marquette is at Xavier on Saturday.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

No. 18 Villanova pulls away at Butler for 7th straight win

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INDIANAPOLIS — Eric Paschall and Phil Booth have No. 18 Villanova rounding into form.

They are knocking down 3-pointers, getting teammates more involved and, of course, continuing to excel on defense. If the defending national champs keep playing this well, they just might make another deep NCAA Tournament run.

Paschall scored 23 points, Booth added 17 and the Wildcats made 12 3s on Tuesday in an 80-72 victory at Butler.

“He’s done that in a number of games this year, tough games,” coach Jay Wright said when asked about Paschall’s strong start. “It sets the tone. You see that the first couple shots of the game and it makes a statement.”

The kind of statement that will make everyone forget about a November loss to Furman and a December loss to Penn.

Now, the Wildcats (15-4, 6-0 Big East) have won seven straight and show no signs of slowing down. They even snapped a two-game losing streak at Hinkle Fieldhouse, and Villanova only needed three quick scoring flurries to put it away thanks to Paschall and Booth.

While Paschall was 8 of 16 from the field and 5 of 10 on 3s with five rebounds, Booth went 8 of 9 from the free-throw line, grabbed four rebounds and had five assists. Collin Gillespie finished with 11 points and Dhamir Crosby-Roundtree finished with 10 points and eight rebounds.

It was no surprise to the Bulldogs (12-8, 3-4), who were led by Aaron Thompson with 15 points and Sean McDermott with 14.

“You know when you see them coming, what type of game it’s going to be,” Bulldogs coach LaVall Jordan said. “I didn’t think we played our best.”

Butler’s shooters did make it interesting early in a matchup of the conference’s top two scoring defenses.

Villanova finally asserted itself when Booth accounted for half of the points in a 12-2 run that gave the Wildcats a 33-25 lead late in the first half.

Butler answered with a 12-5 burst before halftime then opened the second half on a 7-2 run to take a 44-43 lead on Nate Fowler’s 3-foot jumper with 17:32 to go.

It didn’t last long. Villanova responded with four consecutive 3s — Saddiq Bey made the first with Gillespie knocking down the next three — to give Villanova a 55-44 lead.

The Bulldogs made one more charge, getting as close as 61-56, before Paschall’s fifth 3 capped a 7-0 spurt that gave Villanova an insurmountable 68-56 cushion at the 6:23 mark.

“It (the balance) is very good for everybody,” Paschall said. “We have a very talented team and it showed tonight. Everybody played well.”

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: The Wildcats rolling. With the 3s falling and a suffocating defense, they managed to get a road victory against the one conference team that has given them the most trouble over the last two seasons.

Butler: After losing four of five, the Bulldogs have showed some fight. They won back-to-back games heading into Tuesday and although they lost their second home game of the season, Butler still challenged Villanova despite having an off-night.

STAT PACK

Villanova: After making 15 of 34 from beyond the arc Friday at Xavier, the Wildcats went 12 of 26 at Butler. … Villanova made 12 of 18 from the free-throw line while Butler was 3 of 5. … The Wildcats have won the rebounding battle in four straight conference games.

Butler: Kamar Baldwin and Jordan Tucker, the transfer from Duke, each scored 11 points. … McDermott also had seven rebounds, while Thompson finished with four assists. … Butler’s shooting percentage dropped from 53.6 percent in the first half to 43.8 percent in the second half.

THEY SAID IT

Villanova: “We played well against a very good team and we finally got a little balance offensively and that’s helping us grow,” Wright said. “We still have a lot of work to do but we’re getting better.”

Butler: “Today was Day 12 in a row for us so I thought that (fatigue) showed a little bit for us in the second half,” Jordan said.

UP NEXT

Villanova: Looks to extend its winning streak when Seton Hall comes to town Saturday.

Butler: Can earn a season sweep Friday at Creighton.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Texas Tech wins; Iowa State, Mississippi State upset; Villanova takes Big East reigns

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Tuesday’s night of college basketball had some really good conference games as ACC, Big 12 and SEC contests all came down to the wire. We saw some upsets go down in the Big 12 and the SEC, while the Big East saw a familiar team win a critical home game against a recent upstart. 

1. Jarrett Culver lifts No. 8 Texas Tech past No. 23 Oklahoma in Big 12 play

Now that Kansas has lost Udoka Azubuike for the season and fallen at Iowa State, they look susceptible to potentially losing control of the Big 12. Texas Tech has taken advantage with a 3-0 start in league play after another close win over the Sooners, 66-59.

Player of the Year candidate Jarrett Culver took over the game down the stretch for the Red Raiders as he scored eight consecutive points during one stretch to finish with 23 points and 13 rebounds on an efficient 8-for-13 shooting and 7-for-7 performance from the line.

With the league’s best player in Culver, along with a defense that looks stifling, Texas Tech could have enough to be the leaders in the Big 12 race at this current moment. Although counting out Kansas would be really stupid, the Jayhawks still have to regroup from losing a huge piece for them while Texas Tech looks like they know how to win close games with a closer in Culver.

The Big 12 schedule won’t get much easier for the Red Raiders, as they travel to Texas before hosting Iowa State after that.

2. No. 12 North Carolina earns a road win at No. 15 North Carolina State

Perhaps the biggest game of the night was the ranked clash between ACC rivals North Carolina and North Carolina State. The Tar Heels earned a road win with a 90-82 final over the Wolfpack.

Jumping out to an early 12-0 lead, North Carolina never trailed in this contest as they put together an impressive start-to-finish effort. Luke Maye led the Tar Heels with 21 points while Coby White added 19 points as North Carolina won this with Cameron Johnson out and battling leg cramps for the final 12 minutes.

N.C. State deserves credit for battling back and tying this game twice in the second half, but they could never get over the hump to take a lead. Braxton Beverly led the Pack with 21 points as this loss snapped a seven-game winning streak.

2. Baylor takes down No. 20 Iowa State to add to the Big 12’s crazy night

While Texas Tech is unbeaten in the Big 12, Iowa State looked like a major threat coming off of a weekend in which they knocked off Kansas in convincing fashion. Baylor had other ideas when they led most of the game in a 73-70 win over Iowa State.

Makai Mason had 25 points to pace the Bears, who earned one of their most important wins of the season as a likely bubble team. Coming off of a close loss at TCU, this is the type of solid win that Baylor needed to stay in the NCAA tournament mix. They get another huge opportunity when they host Kansas on Jan. 12.

Iowa State only led by two points and just didn’t look like a Big 12 contender during a flat performance. While the Cyclones didn’t play poorly, their young players didn’t step up as they have at previous times this season as Marial Shayok paced them with 19 points.

The Cyclones are still going to be a dangerous Big 12 team, but Texas Tech is the top dog at the moment after Tuesday night’s results. The young Cyclones still have the talent to potentially win the league, but it is road games like this against fringe tournament teams like Baylor that they need to win to stay in that race.

4. Villanova maintains unbeaten Big East mark with win over No. 24 St. John’s

One of Tuesday’s most important games featured two top teams in the Big East. While some have written off Villanova after some early losses to Furman and Penn, the Wildcats remained unblemished in the league with a big 76-71 win over No. 24 St. John’s.

Eric Paschall finished with 25 points while Phil Booth had 23 points and six three-pointers — including the go-ahead look in the second half. The Wildcats are the sole undefeated team in the Big East as they’re off to a solid start in league play. Winning over St. John’s — a team many believe to be a major contender — is proof that Villanova should be taken seriously once again in the Big East race.

The Red Storm were paced by Shamorie Ponds’ 23 points, but Mustapha Heron struggled to a 3-for-11 night from the field to finish with eight points.

There is still a long way to go in the Big East race, and these two teams will play again on Feb. 17, as St. John’s will try to bounce back after a 2-2 start in league play.

5. South Carolina drops No. 14 Mississippi State for upset win

The SEC gave us one of the night’s notable upsets as the Gamecocks took down the Bulldogs with an 87-82 overtime win.

People weren’t sure what to make of Mississippi State’s season as they entered this game with a bloated record thanks to a pretty easy schedule. The Bulldogs deserve credit for some solid wins (Cincinnati, Clemson) and no terrible losses.

But a loss to a South Carolina team ranked in the 115s on KenPom likely isn’t going to be a realistic SEC contender against the likes of Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee.

To South Carolina’s credit, they’re now 2-0 in league play as they hit the offensive glass and defend hard. Maik Kotsar played the best game of his Gamecock career with 25 points and nine rebounds as led five double-figure scorers for South Carolina.

Mississippi State will likely still find itself in fine position to make the NCAA tournament, but this is the type of loss that makes you question their ceiling for this season.

Booth rallies champion Wildcats past No. 24 St. John’s

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VILLANOVA, Pa. — Phil Booth hit a go-ahead 3-pointer late in the game and scored 23 points to help Villanova rally to beat No. 24 St. John’s 76-71 on Tuesday night.

Eric Paschall scored 25 points for the defending national champion Wildcats (12-4, 3-0 Big East), who shook off four losses in nonconference play and are rounding into form as the team to beat in the conference.

The upstart Red Storm seemed poised to snag that title with their best start since 1985-86 and a possible upset win (they were six-point underdogs) in their grasp. St. John’s led by 13 in the first half and by 11 early in the second before a 3-point-happy offense went cold and rushed shot selection gave the Wildcats time needed to storm back and win.

Booth, a two-time national champion guard, has saved his best for the second half this season and delivered again in the clutch. He hit the bucket that pulled the Wildcats within one and connected on a 3 with 2:33 to go for a 68-67 lead they would not relinquish.

Shamorie Ponds had 23 points for St. John’s (14-2, 2-2), the last on two free throws with 59 seconds left that got the Red Storm within 72-69. The Wildcats, who dropped two home games early to fall out of the Top 25, sealed their fourth straight victory at the free-throw line.

Booth hit six of Villanova’s 12 3-pointers.

The Wildcats trailed by 11 when they erupted on a 12-0 run to take their first lead of the game. The Wildcats got contributions from young — freshman Saddiq Bey hit a 3 and a layup that started the spurt — and old — Booth buried a 3 and scored on a driving layup for a 51-50 lead.

Perhaps the Red Storm of coach Chris Mullin’s first three seasons would have wilted on the road much earlier after squandering a double-digit lead. Led by Ponds, this year’s team has the confidence and talent to shake off the slumps and attack. Ponds converted a four-point play to push the lead to eight and LJ Figueroa sank a 3 that kept SJU’s lead at four.

It wouldn’t last.

The Red Storm came in rolling after a soft nonconference schedule that sparked them to their best start since the 1980s. St. Johns’ used wins over then-No. 16 Marquette and Georgetown to hit the AP Top 25 this week for the first time in more than four years.

Mullin’s fourth season has been his best and has the program thinking big: SJU athletic director Mike Cragg said this week he wants all Big East home games played at Madison Square Garden.

The Red Storm felt at home at the refurbished Pavilion and got the better of the Wildcats early in a 3-point shootout. Ponds hit one to help St. John’s race out to a 20-7 lead. Ponds hit another 3 that stunted a Villanova run and St. John’s made nine in the half for a 39-34 lead. With each team firing 3s (a combined 38 attempts in the half), there only five total free throws before the break.

BIG PICTURE

St. John’s had some small success last season, including a win over then-No. 1 Nova in Philadelphia. It was the Red Storm’s second win over a top-five team in a week and first over a top-ranked team in 33 years. The Red Storm have to avoid any big upsets to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.

Villanova had several members of its 1985 national championship team sit behind the bench. Mullin played for St. John’s in ’85 when it reached the Final Four and lost to its Big East rival. The Wildcats are still a national power and are meshing together after some early bumps.

UP NEXT

St. John’s hosts DePaul on Saturday.

Villanova plays Sunday at Creighton.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Ponds scores 26 as St. John’s routs No. 16 Marquette 89-69

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NEW YORK — Shamorie Ponds scored 20 of his 26 points in the first half, dominating a highly anticipated matchup between two of the nation’s top guards, and St. John’s rebounded impressively from its first loss of the season by routing No. 16 Marquette 89-69 on Tuesday night at Carnesecca Arena.

Marvin Clark II had 22 points and Mustapha Heron added all 16 of his after halftime for the Red Storm (13-1, 1-1 Big East), who snapped Marquette’s eight-game winning streak.

With leading scorer Markus Howard held to eight points on 2-for-15 shooting, the Golden Eagles (11-3, 0-1) got blown out in their conference opener. Howard entered averaging 25.1 points per game, best in the Big East and ranked fifth in the country.

Joey Hauser had 15 points to lead Marquette, which went 6 for 21 from 3-point range (28.6 percent).

The anticipated matchup between Howard and Ponds was no contest from the start. Ponds came out sizzling and scored eight points in the first 2:37, matching his total on 2-for-13 shooting in the loss at Seton Hall.

The 6-foot-1 junior from Brooklyn, the Big East preseason player of the year, then scored the final nine points of the first half for the Red Storm, including a long 3-pointer that gave them a 39-31 lead the break.

It was reminiscent of last February, when Ponds set an arena record with 44 points in an 86-78 win over Marquette.

Meanwhile, the 5-foot-11 Howard went 1 for 10 in the first half and never got going. He picked up four fouls and played only 26 minutes.

BIG PICTURE

Marquette: Picked second in the Big East preseason poll, the Golden Eagles have quality non-conference wins over Louisville, Kansas State, Wisconsin and Buffalo that moved them up the national rankings. But away from home, they’ve lost to Indiana, Kansas and now St. John’s.

St. John’s: Picked fourth in the Big East preseason poll, the Red Storm are targeting their first NCAA Tournament appearance in four seasons under coach Chris Mullin. They opened 12-0 against non-conference opponents for the school’s best start since winning its first 14 games in 1982-83, Mullin’s sophomore year. That run ended Saturday night with an excruciating loss at Seton Hall in the conference opener. Last season, St. John’s started 10-2 out of conference only to lose its first 11 Big East games — followed by consecutive wins over No. 4 Duke and on the road against No. 1 Villanova, the eventual national champion. So dating to last season, St. John’s has won its last three regular-season games against ranked opponents.

STILL SMARTING

St. John’s led by 10 with 6:20 left at Seton Hall and had several chances to close it out, but got stagnant on offense and lost 76-74 on a 3-pointer by Shavar Reynolds with less than a second remaining. A steal by the Red Storm that could have sealed it in the waning seconds was negated when an official blew his whistle, believing the clock had not started on an inbounds play. Two days later, the Big East released a statement saying the official made an error in judgment that was not correctable. Late in the game, St. John’s students who chanted “Over-rated!” at Marquette during the second half showered their own team with cheers of “Undefeated! Undefeated!”

UP NEXT

Marquette: Will host Xavier on Sunday in the Golden Eagles’ first Big East home game this season.

St. John’s: At old rival Georgetown on Saturday, when Mullin squares off against Hoyas coach Patrick Ewing once again in a story line that dates back to their Big East and NBA playing days. St. John’s has lost 13 in a row at Georgetown since a victory on Jan. 18, 2003.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25

Big East Reset: Has Marquette taken control of the conference?

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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 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.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

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

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.

(Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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.

(AP Photo/Darren Hauck)

THREE PREDICTIONS

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.