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Big East Offseason Reset: Will Villanova’s supremacy be challenged again?

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The grad transfer market is still in full swing, but for the most part, we know what the meaningful parts for the majority of the teams around the country will be.

That means that it is time to start talking about what is coming instead of what was.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at key personnel changes, the impact of the coaching carousel and the most important storylines heading into the 2019-20 season for each of college basketball’s top seven conferences.

Today, we are talking Big East.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

HOW REAL IS THE COMPETITION AT THE TOP?: Villanova has won all but one regular season championship since the Big East went to 10 teams and the Wildcats will be favored again this year, but there does appear to be some serious challengers to their crown. The Wildcats have established themselves as one of the country’s premier programs with national titles in 2016 and 2018, and they’ve shown themselves more than capable of reloading when key players from hugely successful teams move on. Last year wasn’t a NCAA championship season, but it was still a winner and Jay Wright has to replace Phil Booth and Eric Paschall. He seems well positioned to do that with a number of returners and a top-tier recruiting class.

Still, Wright and the Wildcats aren’t going to waltz to a Big East title. Seton Hall looks to be extremely formidable with a strong group of returners, headlined by Myles Powell, with talent and experience. Xavier should be improved in Year 2 under Travis Steele while Creighton is an intriguing team. Villanova is the favorite, but its lead on the rest of the pack isn’t extensive.

Joey and Sam Hauser (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

HOW WILL MARQUETTE ABSORB THE LOSS OF THE HAUSER BROTHERS?: We had the Golden Eagles ranked fourth in our preseason rankings after Markus Howard returned to school, but when the shocking decision came from Sam and Joey Hauser to transfer out of Milwaukee, Steve Wojciechowski’s program slid all the way out of our top-25. In one fell swoop, Marquette went from legitimate title contender to perhaps a bubble team. It was, simply, a crushing blow.

The good news for the Golden Eagles is that Markus Howard eschewed the opportunity to go pro in order to return for his senior season, and he’ll be all over preseason All-American lists as one of the country’s best scorers. His presence alone makes Marquette both entertaining and interesting heading into next season, but will there be enough around him avoid a missed NCAA tournament for the fourth time in six years under Wojo?

WHAT WILL THE EVENTUAL ADDITION OF UCONN MEAN?: In a league where there’s been plenty of jockeying for position behind Villanova, the addition of Connecticut to the league – whenever it comes – is going to throw a lot of that into flux. The Huskies have taken a major hit since that 2014 title – their first year in the AAC – and a return to a more natural fit of a conference which emphasizes basketball under the leadership of Dan Hurley might be the catalyst needed to return the program to the heights it enjoyed over the previous two decades when national championships were the goal.

If that’s the case, the pecking order of the league is going to be an even tougher competition than it already is. If UConn is a winner in this move – and it’s hard to see how the Huskies aren’t – it wouldn’t be surprising to see there be a loser in the Big East. Does UConn coming back stifle Georgetown’s rebuild? Do things get tougher for Seton Hall or Providence? Honestly, Villanova might be the only program who isn’t, to some degree, threatened by the Huskies’ move back. Of course, UConn’s return to glory isn’t guaranteed by their return to the Big East, but how things all unwind will be fascinating to watch.

DOES PATRICK EWING’S GEORGETOWN RENAISSANCE CONTINUE?: The Hoyas got over the .500 hump in Patrick Ewing’s second season back at his alma mater in D.C., and they were sneakily one of the more entertaining teams (Non-Contender Category). James Akinjo and Mac McClung are a ton of fun as a freshman backcourt with energy and highlight-reel plays to spare. Still, the Hoyas took a step in the right direction with senior center Jessie Govan in the middle, and his departure will be a bigger burden on that young backcourt. There are reinforcements coming, however, with 7-footer Omer Yurtseven eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer from NC State. There are some intriguing pieces here, and the Hoyas’ trajectory will be something to keep an eye on in Year 3 on the Ewing Era.

WHICH WAS DOES DEPAUL GO?: The first three years of Dave Leitao’s second stint with the Blue Demons were pretty devoid of success, with the program going 29-65 overall and 9-45 in the Big East, but there was progress last year as DePaul posted a 19-17 record with a mark of 7-11 in the conference. The question is, with a senior-heavy roster, was that the turning point or the pinnacle? If the Blue Demons can’t sustain that moderate level of success, Leitao may be leaving Chicago for the second time but without the promotion on this go-round.

IS XAVIER POISED FOR A JUMP?: A six-game losing streak last winter put the Musketeers at 3-8 in the Big East, leaving first-year coach Travis Steele in a tough spot as he tried to continue the success of now-Louisville coach Chris Mack. Xavier and Steele righted the ship, winning six of seven to finish the regular season and then advancing to the second round of the NIT where they lost in overtime in Austin to Texas. Ryan Welage and Zach Hankins are now gone, but but the core of Quentin Goodin, Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs  and Tyrique Jones welcoming a top-25 recruiting class, Xavier looks to be on solid footing.

Naji Marshall (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

WHO’S GONE

  • SAM and JOEY HAUSER, Marquette: It was one of the most surprising moves of the offseason, with the Wisconsin natives bolting to Virginia and Michigan State, respectively, and leaving the Golden Eagles behind. The Golden Eagles looked like title contenders with the brothers, but without them, the ceiling lowered considerably in Milwaukee.
  • ERIC PASCHALL, PHIL BOOTH and JAHVON QUINERLY, Villanova: The Wildcats lost a pair of mainstays in Paschall and Booth to graduation while the unremarkable Villanova career of Quinerly ended after one season with a transfer to Alabama.
  • MICHAEL NZEI, Seton Hall: The Pirates have a loaded squad this season, though it doesn’t include the forward who was a four-year stalwart.
  • RYAN WELAGE and ZACH HANKINS, Xavier: The Musketeers return quite a bit in 2019-20, but these two seniors will leave a void that will need to be filled.
  • SAM FROLING, MARTIN KRAMPELJ and KALEB JOSEPH, Creighton: A trio that didn’t provide a lot of punch in 2018-19 for the Blue Jays.
  • JESSIE GOVAN, Georgetown: Patrick Ewing has a promising young roster, but it was Govan that provided the most production last season that will have to be replaced with his eligibility exhausted.
  • SHAMORIE PONDS and CHRIS MULLIN, St. John’s: Ponds was one of the more electric players in the conference last year, and his absence will be felt considerably. The bigger departure, though, was Mullin’s abrupt resignation after St. John’s saying he would return for a fifth season at his alma mater after four years in which mediocrity was the highwater mark. Mike Anderson takes over in NYC to try to succeed where Mullin failed.
  • MAX STRUS, DePaul: The Blue Demons had their best season in Dave Leitao’s return to Chicago, but building on it will require keeping momentum without their best player, who was lost to graduation.
  • JOEY BRUNK, Butler: Brunk shot 62 percent from the floor as a sophomore, but the 6-foot-11 center decided to leave the Bulldogs program this offseason, making an intrastate move to Indiana and  the Big Ten.

WHO’S BACK

  • COLLIN GILLISPIE, SADDIQ BEY and JERMAINE SAMUELS, Villanova: A talented and experienced group, but one that will have to excel in expanded roles for the Wildcats.
  • MYLES POWELL, QUINCY MCKNIGHT, MYLES CALE, SANDRO MAMUKELASHVII and IKEY OBIAGU, Seton Hall: Kevin Willard’s program’s hopes of unseating Villanova will rest squarely on the shoulders of his returners.
  • QUENTIN GOODIN, PAUL SCRUGGS, NAJI MARSHALL and TYRIQUE JONES, Xavier: The Musketeers have a strong 2019 recruiting class that will help this season, but the strength of the team is here.
  • DAVION MINTZ, TY-SHON ALEXANDER, MITCHELL BALLOCK and JACOB EPPERSON, Creighton: Greg McDermott’s group might not have a ton of star power, but it is a talented and experienced group that should make some noise.
  • KAMAR BALDWIN, Buter: The Bulldog doesn’t get the same recognition as Howard or Powell, but he’s a dynamic scorer who will be one of the league’s best offensive players.
  • ALPHA DIALLO, Providence: The 6-foot-7 guard averaged 16 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last year, and he’ll be a conference player of the year contender this season.

WHO’S COMING

  • JEREMIAH ROBINSON-EARL, JUSTIN MOORE, ERIC DIXON and BRYAN ANTOINE, Villanova: Jay Wright welcomes a top-five recruiting class to Philly, and the Wildcat machine looks to keep on moving despite another year of significant losses.
  • ROMEO WEEMS, DePaul: A 6-foot-7 top-65 recreuit, Weems picked DePaul over a number of heavy-hitters, giving some hope to a Chicago revival.
  • LUWANE PIPKINS and GREG GANTT, Providence: Pipkins led UMass in scoring last season before grad-transferring while Gantt is a four-star recruit.
  • JAYCE JOHNSON and SYMIR TORRENCE, Marquette: Johnson, a 7-footer, put up 7 points and 7 rebounds while shooting nearly 60 percent from the field for Utah last year. Torrence, a four-star recruit, picked the Golden Eagles over the likes of Butler and Cincinnati.
  • JASON CARTER, Xavier: The Ohio transfer has two years of eligibility after averaging 16.5 points and 6.7 rebounds for the Bobcats.
  • OMER YURTSEVEN and TERRELL ALLEN, Georgetown: Yurtseven is one of the country’s most high-profile transfers while Allen is a grad-transfer from UCF who averaged 6.7 points last year.
  • DERRIK SMITS, Butler: The son of former NBA star Rik, Smits comes to Butler from Valpo after picking the Bulldogs over NC State and Arizona State.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-BIG EAST TEAM

MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette (Preseason Player of the Year)
MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall
KAMAR BALDWIN, Butler
ALPHA DIALLO, Providence
NAJI MARSHALL, Xavier

Markus Howard and Myles Powell (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. Villanova: It would be silly to bet against Jay Wright’s program at this point, but the Wildcats have more than a name and pedigree this season. They’re loaded with talent and experience with a great recruiting class. They’re not in the top-tier of national title contenders this preseason, but they’re not far behind, either.

2. Seton Hall: The distance between Villanova and the Pirates is relatively narrow, with Seton Hall returning a ton of talent from last year’s NCAA tournament 10-seed. Myles Powell is a difference-maker on both ends, and it’s far from a one-man squad. This group will have to improve, but it’s got the profile of a team that’s capable of making a significant leap.

3. Xavier: The Musketeers aren’t all that different than Seton Hall, with talented returners from a good team needing who fit the bill of a team on the rise. It’s easier said than done, and they’ll have to deal with increased expectations, but this team has the chops to be the best in the conference if things break their way.

4. Creighton: This is a team that will be knocking on the door of preseason top-25s on the strength of a solid-though-not-remarkable returning core. Ty-Shon Alexander is a serious breakout candidate, if such a distinction fits for a player who averaged nearly 16 points per game last season.

5. Providence: Alpha Diallo is one of the conference’s best and most productive players, but the Friars have to improve offensively if they’re going to get back to the NCAA tournament after a five-year streak was snapped last season.

6. Marquette: The Golden Eagles may have been the favorites to win the conference had the Hauser brothers not elected to transfer, but their departures throws this season into question for Marquette. The cupboard is obviously not bare even beyond Markus Howard, who might just power the program to near the top of the league on his own, but it’s certainly a harder team to peg.

7. Georgetown: The Hoyas were really fun to watch last season, but the trick for them is going to be making the transition from entertaining young squad to a still-green-but-successful team. The easiest path to that would be improved shooting as the youthful Hoyas struggled to connect from distance consistently.

8. Butler: The Bulldogs are probably the best candidate to outperform these rankings, on the strength of Kamar Baldwin’s talent alone, but they just haven’t proven enough beyond Baldwin to slide them further up the list.

9. DePaul: The Blue Demons got over .500 last season, but it came on a diet of non-conference cupcakes and then four wins in the CBI. Without Max Strus, here’s betting DePaul takes a step back this season.

10. St. John’s: Mike Anderson has his work cut out for him after Chris Mullin was only able to get a First Four appearance in four years with the Red Storm. St. John’s has only been in the NCAA tournament proper twice since 2005.

Four Xavier players declare for NBA draft process

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Four Xavier players will declare for the 2019 NBA Draft and explore the process, according to an official release from the school.

Quentin Goodin, Tyrique Jones, Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs will all go through the draft process after all four players had solid seasons for the Musketeers. Goodin (11.0 pts, 4.8 ast) and Jones (11.3 pts, 7.7 reb) are both juniors as the point guard and big man, respectively, are both solid defenders and double-figure scorers.

Marshall (14.7 pts, 7.2 reb) and Scruggs (12.3 pts, 4.9 reb) are both sophomore guards who are the team’s two leading scorers.

While Xavier struggled early in the season under first-year head coach Travis Steele, a late-season surge put them close to the bubble picture of the NCAA tournament as expectations will be high if these four guys all return.

Bubble Banter: Xavier, Alabama, Utah State with critical games

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The latest NBC Sports bracket projection can be found here.

WINNERS

MINNESOTA (NET: 56, SOS: 55): The Golden Gophers landed a massive, massive win on Tuesday night, as they picked off Purdue (11) in Minneapolis. It’s the third Q1 win for Richard Pitino’s and their second elite win in league play — they also beat Wisconsin (17) on the road. The Gophers are just 2-8 this season on the road, but they are sitting here on March 6th with a 19-11 record, 10 wins against Q1 and Q2 opponents and just one loss outside the top 100 — at Boston College (111), which is still a Q2 game. Minnesota entered the day sitting right around the play-in game on most projections, and this should be enough to get them on the right side of the bubble. They’re in a really good spot.

OKLAHOMA (NET: 41, SOS: 23): As hard as it may be to believe, Oklahoma entered the day sitting as a No. 9 seed in our latest bracket projection at NBC Sports despite the fact that they were 18-11 overall and 6-10 in the Big 12. That’s what happens when you have a pair Q1 wins, an 8-11 mark against Q1 and Q2, no bad losses and exactly zero games played against Q4 competition. Now add to that Tuesday night’s win — by 13 points over Kansas (16) at home. The Sooners play at Kansas State (27) on Saturday, and at this point, I think they are just about a lock to dance.

VCU (NET: 36, SOS: 42): The Rams did what they needed to do on Tuesday, absolutely drilling George Mason in Fairfax and heading back to Richmond needing nothing more than a win over Saint Joseph’s to just about lock up their bid. The Rams are 6-4 in Q1 and Q2 games, highlighted by a win at Texas (33), but they also have a pair of Q3 losses. I don’t know if they can withstand two more ugly losses, which is what just about every loss to an Atlantic 10 opponent is this season, but I do think they can get a bid with one.

LOSERS

ALABAMA (NET: 53, SOS: 21): The Crimson Tide whiffed on a major chance to land their third Q1 win of the season when they blew a double-digit lead at home against Auburn (20). They are now sitting at 17-13 overall with two Q1 wins and a 9-12 mark against Q1 and Q2. The loss to Georgia State (135) at home is bad, but the win over Kentucky (5) is good. They’re probably sitting in one of the play-in games at the moment, so there is definitely work left to do.

UTAH STATE (NET: 30, SOS: 100): The Aggies dodged a massive bullet on Tuesday night, going into Fort Collins with a share of the MWC title on the line and getting taken to overtime by Colorado State (185). But they got the win, and at this point, with Saturday’s win over Nevada (23) in the books and their regular season over, I think they’re dancing as long as they can avoid taking a bad loss in the MWC tournament.

XAVIER (NET: 70, SOS: 46): Xavier played its way back into the bubble picture thanks to a surprising five-game Big East winning streak. Momentum ran out for the Musketeers during a Tuesday road loss at Butler (59). Squandering a valuable Q1 opportunity against the Bulldogs, Xavier finds itself at 3-9 against Q1 teams and a solid 6-2 with Q2 opponents. Saturday’s home game against St. John’s (61) is now a must-win scenario for the Musketeers if they want to maintain any sort of bubble credibility — but that will likely only be a Q2 opportunity.

OLE MISS (NET: 37, SOS: 85): The Rebels missed on a chance to beat Kentucky (5) at home on Tuesday, but they still are in a good spot. They are 19-11 overall, but 10 of their 11 losses are against Q1 opponents, they swept Auburn (20) and they have a total of seven Q1 and Q2 wins. I would not recommend losing at Missouri (86) and in the first round of the SEC tournament, but I do think that all it would take is one more win to get the job done.

Bracketology: Race is on for No. 1 Seeds

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We’re just under two weeks away from this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Show, and the race is on for the coveted spots along the No. 1 seed line.

Gonzaga seems like a lock to lead the West Region.  At this point, a loss in the West Coast Conference tournament will do little to change the Zags’ overall profile.  What it would do, however, is send ripples along the bubble, because as we stand now, the WCC appears to be a one-bid league.

Tennessee earns the final No. 1 seed today.  Kentucky and North Carolina are equally strong contenders.  And let’s not sleep on Michigan if the Wolverines win their rematch against Michigan State and surge to a Big 10 tournament title.  We also have another matchup between Duke and UNC as we await news about the availability of Zion Williamson.

NBC Sports Top 25 | Bubble Watch

On a housekeeping note … with conference tournaments beginning this week, we’ve eliminated the CAPS referring to automatic bids; those will be reserved now as teams officially punch their tickets (exceptions made for teams traditionally known by their acronym – such as VCU).

UPDATED: March 4, 2019

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION Temple vs. Seton Hall
WEST REGION Minnesota vs. Arizona State
EAST REGION Iona vs. Norfolk State
WEST REGION Prairie View vs. St. Francis (PA)

EAST Washington, DC   WEST – Anaheim        
Columbia Salt Lake City
1) Virginia 1) Gonzaga
16) Iona / Norfolk St 16) Prairie View / St. Francis
8) Auburn 8) Syracuse
9) St. John’s 9) VCU
San Jose Hartford
5) Mississippi State 5) Kansas State
12) Temple / Seton Hall 12) Minnesota / Arizona St
4) Kansas 4) Florida State
13) UC-Irvine 13) Vermont
Jacksonville Tulsa
6) Villanova 6) Nevada
11) Texas 11) Florida
3) LSU 3) Texas Tech
14) Yale 14) Texas State
Des Moines Des Moines
7) Buffalo 7) Louisville
10) Utah State 10) TCU
2) Michigan State 2) Michigan
15) Loyola-Chicago 15) Montana
MIDWEST – Kansas City SOUTH – Louisville
Columbus Columbia
1) Tennessee 1) Duke
16) Campbell 16) Sam Houston St
8) Washington 8) Baylor
9) Oklahoma 9) Ole Miss
San Jose Hartford
5) Virginia Tech 5) Maryland
12) Lipscomb 12) Belmont
4) Wisconsin 4) Marquette
13) New Mexico St 13) Old Dominion
Salt Lake City Tulsa
6) Iowa State 6) Cincinnati
11) Alabama 11) NC State
3) Houston 3) Purdue
14) South Dakota St 14) Hofstra
Jacksonville Columbus
7) Wofford 7) Iowa
10) Ohio State 10) UCF
2) North Carolina 2) Kentucky
15) Colgate 15) Wright State

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
Florida Minnesota Georgetown Providence
Texas Arizona State Clemson Memphis
NC State Temple Furman UNC-Greensboro
Alabama Seton Hall Xavier Creighton

TOP SEED LINE: Virginia is the No. 1 overall seed, followed by Gonzaga, Duke, and Tennessee

Breakdown by Conference …

ACC (8): VIRGINIA, Duke, North Carolina, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Syracuse, NC State

Big 10 (8): PURDUE, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Maryland, Iowa, Ohio State, Minnesota

BIG 12 (8): TEXAS TECH, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma, TCU, Texas

SEC (8): TENNESSEE, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida, Alabama

Big East (4): MARQUETTE, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall

American (4): HOUSTON, Cincinnati, UCF, Temple

Pac 12 (2): WASHINGTON, Arizona State

Mountain West (2): NEVADA, Utah State

Southern (1): WOFFORD

Atlantic 10 (1): VCU

Mid American (1): BUFFALO

West Coast (1): GONZAGA

ONE BID LEAGUES: Loyola-Chicago (MVC), Iona (MAAC), Old Dominion (C-USA), Texas State (SBELT), Yale (IVY), Montana (BSKY), Wright State (HORIZON), Sam Houston State (SLND), UC-Irvine (BWEST), Lipscomb (ASUN), Belmont (OVC), Hofstra (CAA), Campbell (BSO), Norfolk State (MEAC), South Dakota State (SUM), New Mexico State (WAC), Vermont (AEAST), Colgate (PAT), St. Francis (PA) (NEC), Prairie View (SWAC)

Bracketing principles: read them for yourself at http://www.ncaa.com.

Xavier sends No. 17 Villanova to third straight loss, 66-54

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CINCINNATI — Xavier players ran to the student section to slap hands after their biggest win of the season. A couple of weeks ago, nobody could have anticipated them knocking off No. 17 Villanova by double digits.

Those low expectations made it all the sweeter.

Naji Marshall scored 17 points and Xavier used a big surge in the second half to rally past Villanova 66-54 Sunday , leaving the Wildcats with three straight losses in Big East play for the first time since the conference was reconfigured.

It was only Xavier’s second win against the Wildcats in the Big East.

“I’ve never beaten `Nova in my career,” junior point guard Quentin Goodin said. “Having all the doubters against us, I feel we proved a point today.”

The Musketeers (15-13, 7-8) won their fourth straight — matching their season high — and ended their run of lopsided losses against the Wildcats. Villanova (20-8, 11-4) had won five in a row against the Musketeers, including an 85-75 victory on Jan. 18.

That loss started a six-game Xavier losing streak that dropped the defending regular season champions to last in the Big East. Now they’re on their way back up.

“We’re a heck of a lot better than we were then — a lot,” coach Travis Steele said. “Dramatically.”

It showed in the big moments.

Marshall had seven points during a 17-0 run that gave Xavier its first lead midway through the second half. Marshall has been the catalyst during Xavier’s winning streak, averaging 20.5 points.

“We all need to be on one bus, all together on this,” Marshall said. “It’s not about individual play.”

Villanova struggled to hit shots during back-to-back road losses at St. John’s and Georgetown, and the poor shooting carried over. The Wildcats missed 11 consecutive shots during Xavier’s decisive run and were only 4 of 18 from beyond the arc in the second half, when they went more than 9 minutes without scoring.

“It seemed like a long time,” coach Jay Wright said. “I think we’re just not executing the way we want to, not getting any easy baskets off our defense, so it makes every shot monumental.”

Phil Booth had 12 points in the first half, when the Wildcats led by as many as nine points. Their 30-27 halftime lead ended a streak of three straight halves allowing at least 40 points. Booth made only one of his eight shots in the second half and finished with 14 points.

Marshall hit a floater and a 3-pointer as Xavier got its first lead, 49-44, midway through the second half and started its decisive run.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Wildcats will plummet after their 85-73 loss at Georgetown on Wednesday — the most points they’d allowed this season — and the 12-point loss at Xavier. They’ve been ranked for six straight weeks.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: The loss to Xavier is telling. The Wildcats have won 11 of 13 since both have been in the Big East — the conference was reconfigured for the 2013-14 season. Their only other loss to Xavier during that span was 90-83 at the Cintas Center on Feb. 24, 2016, when Villanova was ranked No. 1.

Xavier: The winning streak has pulled the Musketeers out of the Big East basement and moved the defending regular season champions up to a tie for fourth place.

OLD TIMES

Both teams wore throwback jerseys reminiscent of their 1980s uniforms.

NO POINTS FOR `NOVA

Villanova’s 54 points were its fewest since a 73-46 loss to Michigan the third game of the season. In the last 2 1/2 games, the Wildcats have shot 34 percent from the field and 24.7 percent from beyond the arc.

PASCHALL BETTER

Eric Paschall led the Wildcats with 17 points. In his two previous games, he was only 6 of 22 from the field.

NOTHING FREE

Villanova shot only four free throws and made them all. Xavier was 10 of 18 from the line.

Monday Overreactions: P.J. Washington, Phil Booth and a rant about officiating

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: P.J. Washington, Kentucky

I’ve been on the “Kentucky is back!!!” bandwagon for more than a month at this point, ever since they took down North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.

Over the course of the last nine days, the rest of the college basketball world has caught up. Last Saturday, Kentucky landed what we thought was their most impressive win to date, going into Auburn and picking off the Tigers, but that was before they put a 21 point win on Mississippi State in Rupp Arena and followed that up by taking out Kansas on Saturday.

Those wins put Kentucky firmly in the race to get a No. 1 seed — the Wildcats still have two games left against No. 1 Tennessee — and the man that they have to thank for those wins is P.J. Washington.

Washington has had something of an up-and-down season, but he was at his very best against the Bulldogs, finishing with 21 points, six boards and four blocks while knocking down three threes before following that up with a dominant 20 points, 13 boards and two blocks against the Jayhawks. His performance against Kansas was made doubly-impressive because he was the player that forced Kansas out of their small-ball lineup. Washington spent a lot of time guarding Marcus Garrett, who had averaged 17 points in his previous three games and managed a 1-for-9 shooting night with three turnovers against the Wildcats.

John Calipari has said it himself: When Washington plays like he’s Kentucky’s best player, that’s when the Wildcats can hit their ceiling.

We saw that in full this week.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Purdue Boilermakers

Talk about a statement win.

Purdue, who entered last week unranked despite being a top ten team on KenPom, went out and absolutely worked over No. 6 Michigan State on Sunday. The final score was 73-63, but at one point in the second half, Purdue was up 55-32. Making that win all the more impressive was the fact that Purdue got a 4-for-18 shooting performance out of Carsen Edwards, the guy we thought this team was going to live and die with this year.

Purdue also won at Ohio State last week, extending their winning streak to five games and pushing their record in Big Ten play to 7-2.

Just what should we make of that performance and this Purdue team? I went in depth on that very subject in this week’s Top 25.

MONDAY OVERREACTIONS

1. THE CARNAGE ON THE BUBBLE THIS WEEK IS MORE EVIDENCE MID-MAJORS NEED SERIOUS AT-LARGE CONSIDERATION

This weekend was something of a disaster for teams that are sitting on or near the bubble right now. The full breakdown of everything that happened can be found here, but let’s take a look at just a few examples of what I’m talking about:

  • Indiana lost their sixth straight game, falling to 12-8 overall and 3-6 in the Big Ten with two games against Michigan State, home dates with Purdue and Wisconsin and four total games against Iowa, Ohio State and Minnesota left.
  • Nebraska not only lost their third straight game and fifth game in their last seven, Isaac Copeland’s season came to an end when he tore his ACL.
  • Saint Louis lost at home when Jordan Goodwin missed two free throws down one point with 0.4 seconds left.
  • Arizona State lost at USC while Arizona was swept by USC and UCLA.
  • Texas lost at Georgia.
  • Fresno State got worked over by Colorado State in a game they really couldn’t afford to lose.
  • San Francisco dropped a roadie against San Diego.
  • Seton Hall was absolutely mollywhopped by Villanova in Philly, extending their losing streak to four games.
  • UCF got beaten at Memphis by 20 points. That loss is the first Q1 games that UCF has played.
  • Temple lost at home against Cincinnati, leaving them with just two potential Q1 wins the rest of the season.

I’ve gone on this rant before and I’ll probably go on this rant again before the season comes to a close, but with just how ugly some of these high-major conferences have become, can we please let this be the year where we give the best mid-majors their due?

(Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Pac-12 does not deserve more than two bids to the NCAA tournament, and they should only get two bids if someone other than Washington wins the automatic bid to the big dance. No one else in that league is close to good enough to get an at-large invite. The same can be said for the Mountain West and the WCC, who are arguably better leagues this season than the Pac-12 is. The American probably should be a two-bid league at this point as well. Houston has proven themselves to be one of the best teams in the country, and I have a feeling that Cincinnati will end up having a resume that is good enough to get a bid come Selection Sunday, but are we really buying into Temple and UCF here? The Knights have literally played a single Q1 game at this point in the year. Temple has only won one. The top two in the Big East are very, very good, but as of January 27th, eight of the ten teams in the conference are below .500 in league play. The Atlantic 10 does not have an at-large worthy team this year.

So let’s give the best mid-majors in the country a real shot at this.

Take Wofford, for example. They are currently 31st in NET with a win at South Carolina, who is 5-1 in SEC play. They play in the better-than-you-realize SoCon, a conference that currently has four teams in the top 85 of the NET. The Pac-12 also has just one top 50 team and only four in the top 70. They only have one Q1 win (at UNC Greensboro) but all four of their losses are Q1 losses. Would you rather see the Terriers and sharpshooter Fletcher Magee get slotted in a play-in game, or someone like Florida, whose sole accomplishment this season is being good enough to game the metrics by playing a whole bunch of good teams close?

Then there’s Murray State. They lost their only two Q1 games — at Auburn and at Alabama by a combined 11 points — and then got dropped in their only Q2 game because their superstar point guard Ja Morant twisted his ankle in the first minute against Belmont. We know how difficult it is to win on the road in college basketball. Kentucky, who we all think is a national title contender once again, lost at Alabama in a game they trailed by double-digits late in the second half and only won at Auburn by two. You don’t think a healthy Murray State could take down either of those schools — or two-thirds of the SEC, for that matter — playing in front of 8,600 fans at the CFSB Center?

Hell, let’s not forget about Belmont, who won at UCLA earlier this year and just this past week won at Murray State and at Austin Peay. The Bruins also swept Lipscomb, who sit at 41st in NET with wins at TCU and at SMU. Then there’s a team like Penn, who swept the Big 5 schools — including Villanova — to go along with wins at George Mason, Miami, at New Mexico and at Toledo. If they’re not so banged over the holiday period, we would be talking about the Quakers as one of the best mid-major in college hoops. Hofstra is on a 16 game winning streak with their only losses coming at Maryland, at VCU and at Marshall.

This is my play to the NCAA tournament selection committee: The NET rankings tell you everything you need to know about these teams. They are all ranked in the top 75. Most are ranked in the top 50. They are good enough. Don’t punish them because the big boys won’t play them on the road and because they happen to inhabit a conference on the outskirts of college basketball relevance.

2. WE NEED TO HAVE A REAL CONVERSATION ABOUT COLLEGE HOOPS OFFICIATING

It’s not great, and there were a couple more instances this weekend of poor officiating influencing the outcome of a game. Take Marquette-Xavier, for example. With just under four minutes left, Xavier head coach Travis Steele was upset that he did not get a foul call on a Naji Marshall jumper, and in a two-point game he was hit with a technical foul. That gave two points to the Golden Eagles on free throws, and in the aftermath of that whistle — which the rest of the officiating crew knew was bogus — the next three calls were very borderline and all went in favor of the Musketeers. One of the three fouled out Marquette’s starting center.

On the other side of the country, in a game where New Mexico led with 30 seconds left, a phantom over-and-back was called that gave the ball back to Utah State, who promptly hit a three with 1.6 seconds left to win.

I could probably do this all day.

The truth is this: There were 150 Division I games played on Saturday. That means that there were 450 different referees working a difficult job. It’s hard enough for the best in the business to get calls right, let alone the 425th-best referee. That’s just something that coaches are going to have to accept. There’s human error in that business, and there are going to be more human errors with more humans working.

But part of the issue is that some coaches don’t treat referees like humans.

I’ve never really understood why it is acceptable for coaches to act the way they do on the sidelines. They scream, they yell, they curse, they show up and they try to embarrass the adults that are calling these games, and then they have the audacity to acted shocked when the grown-ups they have spent the better part of two hours disrespecting gets a bang-bang play wrong.

It’s even worse when coaches play the victim card for getting a technical foul on the 27th F-bomb that they hurled at an official.

If you don’t act like a jackass and you won’t get treated like a jackass.

(David Purdy/Getty Images)

3. LINDELL WIGGINTON WAKING UP IS A DIFFERENCE-MAKER

The Iowa State star has spent the better part of this season stuck somewhere between a shooting funk and the training room as a foot injury kept him out of the lineup for a month and, to date, and moved him out of Iowa State’s starting lineup.

The truth is that he’s probably the most talented scorer that the Cyclones have, but when you’re shooting under 35 percent from the floor, you aren’t going to play all that much for a top 20 team. On Saturday, however, he popped out of his shooting slump, scoring 18 points while shooting 7-for-10 from the field and 3-for-4 from three in a win at Ole Miss. If the Cyclones can get Wigginton back to being the guy that averaging better than 16 points as a freshman, they become a much more dangerous basketball team.

4. PHIL BOOTH WILL PLAY IN THE NBA

He probably won’t be a first round pick and he may not even get drafted this year, but I’m convinced that Booth is going to be the next Villanova star to find a long and profitable career as an NBA role player. He’s always been an efficient player but this year, he’s taken it to another level. He’s averaging 18.7 points, 3.9 assists and 3.8 boards while shooting 42.1 percent from three on more than seven attempts per game. He can play the point. He can defend bigger guards. He understands what it takes to play a role. He’s a proven winner. He just turned 23, so he’ll be ready to contribute the second he signs a pro contract.

In an era where versatility, playmaking and shooting is prioritized, Booth is a guy that you have to be a fan of.

5. THE WORST THING INDIANA DID THIS YEAR WAS BLOW OUT MARQUETTE EARLY IN THE YEAR

I wrote this on Friday night, after Indiana lost their sixth straight game, but I think it bears repeating. Here is my full take on what is going on with these Hoosiers:

Beating Marquette the way that he did (96-73) was the worst thing that could have happened to Archie Miller this season because, when combined when Romeo-mania coming into the program, it set expectations much higher than they should have been. The truth is that this is a team that starts two freshmen and two sophomores alongside Juwan Morgan. One of those freshmen is Indiana’s starting point guard, and he wasn’t a top 100 prospect. They are shooting 25 percent from three in Big Ten play and are 13-for-75 from three the last four games.

The truth is that this team is and always was going to be closer to what they’ve been the last month than what they were against Marquette.

And frankly, it’s not quite disaster territory just yet. Those six losses were: at Michigan, at Maryland, Nebraska, at Purdue, at Northwestern, Michigan.

That’s brutal for anyone, let alone a young team that has totally and completely lost any semblance of confidence they had in November.

Yes, Indiana lacks leadership. Yes, Romeo has looked like a freshman far too often. No, Archie Miller has not done a good job with this team. But can we stop pretending like this is the 2008 team going into the tank? Indiana wasn’t ranked in the preseason top 25 for a reason, and you’re seeing it now.