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Bracketology: All Hail the Wolverines

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With Duke’s home loss to Syracuse, and with the status of Blue Devils’ point guard Tre Jones uncertain following a shoulder injury, Michigan climbs the final rung on the latest Seed List ladder.

The Wolverines hold the No. 1 overall position in today’s bracket, followed closely by Virginia and Tennessee.

The real debate involved the fourth No. 1 seed position.

One could make a compelling case for Duke, Kansas, or Michigan State.

The Blue Devils were without two of their primary players for much of the loss to Syracuse.

In the end, however, the Jayhawks’ eight Group 1 wins, plus victories over both Tennessee and Michigan State, proved to be the difference.

UPDATED: January 17, 2019

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION VCU vs. Pittsburgh
WEST REGION Texas vs. Arizona State
SOUTH REGION Norfolk State vs. Prairie View
EAST REGION Sam Houston vs. UMKC

SOUTH Louisville   EAST – Washington, DC          
Columbus Columbia
1) MICHIGAN 1) VIRGINIA
16) PR VIEW / NORFOLK ST  16) SAM HOUSTON / UMKC
8) NC State 8) Kansas State
9) Mississippi State 9) Minnesota
Salt Lake City Des Moines
5) Florida State 5) VILLANOVA
12) LIPSCOMB 12) VCU / Pittsburgh
4) Marquette 4) Maryland
13) GEORGIA STATE 13) YALE
Des Moines Jacksonville
6) Nebraska 6) Indiana
11) SAINT LOUIS 11) Arizona
3) HOUSTON 3) Kentucky
14) LOYOLA-CHICAGO 14) VERMONT
Jacksonville Tulsa
7) LSU 7) Auburn
10) TCU 10) Syracuse
2) Duke 2) Texas Tech
15) RIDER 15) UTSA
WEST – Anaheim MIDWEST – Kansas City
Tulsa Columbia
1) KANSAS 1) TENNESSEE
16) WEBER STATE 16) WAGNER
8) Purdue 8) Ohio State
9) St. John’s 9) Seton Hall
Hartford San Jose
5) Iowa 5) Louisville
12) Texas / Arizona State 12) MURRAY STATE
4) North Carolina 4) Oklahoma
13) HOFSTRA 13) UC-IRVINE
San Jose Hartford
6) Iowa State 6) BUFFALO
11) WOFFORD 11) Temple
3) NEVADA 3) Virginia Tech
14) NORTHERN KENTUCKY 14) SOUTH DAKOTA ST
Salt Lake City Columbus
7) Wisconsin 7) Ole Miss
10) Cincinnati 10) WASHINGTON
2) GONZAGA 2) Michigan State
15) RIDER 15) LEHIGH

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
TCU Texas Butler Clemson
Cincinnati Arizona State UCF San Francisco
Temple VCU Florida Fresno State
Arizona Pittsburgh Alabama Dayton

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

Breakdown by Conference …

Big 10 (10): MICHIGAN, Michigan State, Maryland, Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana, Wisconsin, Purdue, Ohio State, Minnesota

ACC (9): VIRGINIA, Duke, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Florida State, Louisville, NC State, Syracuse, Pittsburgh

SEC (6): TENNESSEE, Kentucky, LSU, Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State

BIG 12 (6): KANSAS, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Iowa State, TCU, Texas

Big East (4): VILLANOVA, Marquette, Seton Hall, St. John’s

American (3): HOUSTON, Cincinnati, Temple

Pac 12 (3): WASHINGTON, Arizona, Arizona State

Mountain West (1): NEVADA

Atlantic 10 (2): SAINT LOUIS, VCU

West Coast (1): GONZAGA

ONE BID LEAGUES: Loyola-Chicago (MVC), Rider (MAAC), UTSA (C-USA), Georgia State (SBELT), Yale (IVY), Weber State (BSKY), Northern Kentucky (HORIZON), Sam Houston (SLND), Wofford (STHN), UC-Irvine (BWEST), Buffalo (MAC), Lipscomb (ASUN), Murray State (OVC), Hofstra (CAA), Radford (BSO), Norfolk State (MEAC), South Dakota State (SUM), UMKC (WAC), Vermont (AEAST), Lehigh (PAT), Wagner (NEC), Prairie View (SWAC)

Go and download the new NBC Sports Scores app

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The easiest way for you to read, watch and engage with any and all of the content that NBC Sports has to offer is now here.

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Bracketology: Virginia climbs to top line

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Yes, Virginia, another No. 1 seed is yours for the taking.  Thanks to the unbeaten Cavaliers’ dominant win over Florida State and Kansas’ loss at Iowa State, UVA climbs to the top line in this week’s bracket update.  With its No. 1 NET rating (as of early this morning), Virginia also edges out Tennessee for No. 3 on the seed list, effectively bumping the Volunteers to the West Region.

A quick housekeeping note … now that conference play is underway, current league leaders receive the automatic bid for the bracket.  Tie breakers in the loss column are settled by NET rating at the time of publication.  As an example, Fresno State receives the Mountain West’s auto bid today after Nevada’s loss at New Mexico.

We still have a variety of hit-or-miss resumes on the board.  Conference play will help separate teams over the next month.  Enjoy your college hoops!

BRACKET UPDATE: January 10, 2019

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION Arizona vs. Temple
MIDWEST REGION Purdue vs. Alabama
EAST REGION NC A&T vs. Sacred Heart
SOUTH REGION Purdue-FW vs. Sam Houston

EAST Washington, DC                 SOUTH – Louisville
Columbia, SC Columbus
1) DUKE 1) MICHIGAN
16) NC A&T / SACRED HEART  16) P-FT. WAYNE / SAM HOUSTON
8) Mississippi State 8) LSU
9) TCU 9) Arizona State
Hartford San Jose
5) BUFFALO 5) VILLANOVA
12) WOFFORD 12) MURRAY STATE
4) Indiana 4) Kentucky
13) YALE 13) GEORGIA STATE
San Jose Jacksonville
6) Maryland 6) Ohio State
11) Arizona / Temple 11) VCU
3) Nevada 3) North Carolina
14) UC-IRVINE 14) RADFORD
Tulsa Salt Lake City
7) Seton Hall 7) Iowa State
10) Syracuse 10) Ole Miss
2) TEXAS TECH 2) GONZAGA
15) LEHIGH 15) GREEN BAY
WEST – Anaheim MIDWEST – Kansas City
Jacksonville Columbia, SC
1) TENNESSEE 1) Virginia
16) NORTHERN COLORADO 16) RIDER
8) Minnesota 8) Nebraska
9) Louisville 9) Cincinnati
Salt Lake City Des Moines
5) Wisconsin 5) Marquette
12) FRESNO STATE 12) LIPSCOMB
4) Florida State 4) Houston
13) HOFSTRA 13) NORTH TEXAS
Hartford Des Moines
6) Iowa 6) NC State
11) Texas 11) Purdue / Alabama
3) Virginia Tech 3) Oklahoma
14) VERMONT 14) GRAND CANYON
Tulsa Columbus
7) St. John’s 7) Auburn
10) WASHINGTON 10) UCF
2) Kansas 2) Michigan State
15) TEXAS SOUTHERN 15) VALPARAISO

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
Cincinnati Purdue Kansas State Florida
Ole Miss Temple Butler Clemson
Syracuse Arizona Creighton San Francisco
Texas Alabama Saint Louis Missouri

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

Breakdown by Conference …

Big 10 (10): MICHIGAN, Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Maryland, Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska, Minnesota, Purdue

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

SEC (7): TENNESSEE, Kentucky, Auburn, Mississippi State, LSU, Alabama, Ole Miss

BIG 12 (6): TEXAS TECH, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa State, TCU, Texas

Big East (4): VILLANOVA, Marquette, Seton Hall, St. John’s

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

Pac 12 (3): WASHINGTON, Arizona State, Arizona

Mountain West (2): FRESNO STATE, Nevada

Atlantic 10 (1): VCU

West Coast (1): GONZAGA

ONE BID LEAGUES: Valparaiso (MVC), Rider (MAAC), North Texas (C-USA), Georgia State (SBELT), Yale (IVY), Northern Colorado (BSKY), Green Bay (HORIZON), Sam Houston (SLND), WOFFORD (STHN), UC-Irvine (BWEST), Buffalo (MAC), Lipscomb (ASUN), Murray State (OVC), Hofstra (CAA), Radford (BSO), NC A&T (MEAC), Purdue-Fort Wayne (SUM), Grand Canyon (WAC), Vermont (AEAST), Lehigh (PAT), Sacred Heart (NEC), Texas Southern (SWAC)

Bracketology: Duke leads opening field of 68

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With a new year upon us, the countdown to Selection Sunday is officially underway.

Through two months of play, Duke reigns over the NCAA’s new NET rankings (No. 1 through games on January 1) and also reigns over our opening in-season bracket.

The Blue Devils are joined on the top line by Kansas (Midwest), Michigan (South), and Tennessee (West).

Virginia, Gonzaga, Nevada, and Michigan State are next in line.

With conference play just beginning, we’re at an awkward stage.

Some teams have tested themselves against tough schedules.

Others have largely filled up their resumes with holiday cupcakes.

We’ll learn lot more about both groups in the next two months.

UPDATED: January 3, 2019

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION VCU vs. UCF
SOUTH REGION Purdue vs. Temple
EAST REGION Morgan State vs. Niagara
MIDWEST REGION Abilene Christian vs. St. Francis (NY)

EAST Washington, DC              MIDWEST – Kansas City
Columbia, SC Tulsa
1) DUKE 1) KANSAS
16) MORGAN ST / NIAGARA  16) AB-CHRISTIAN / ST. FRANCIS 
8) Villanova 8) Iowa
9) Maryland 9) LSU
San Jose Des Moines
5) Mississippi State 5) North Carolina
12) OLD DOMINION 12) UNC-GREENSBORO
4) HOUSTON 4) Wisconsin
13) LIPSCOMB 13) TEXAS STATE
Tulsa Hartford
6) NC State 6) BUFFALO
11) VCU / UCF 11) Kansas State
3) Texas Tech 3) Ohio State
14) SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 14) PENN
Columbus Salt Lake City
7) SETON HALL 7) Louisville
10) Clemson 10) Florida
2) Michigan State 2) GONZAGA
15) NORTHERN KENTUCKY 15) SOUTH DAKOTA ST
WEST – Anaheim SOUTH – Louisville
Columbia, SC Columbus
1) TENNESSEE 1) MICHIGAN
16) TEXAS SOUTHERN 16) LEHIGH
8) Minnesota 8) St. John’s
9) Iowa State 9) TCU
Salt Lake City Des Moines
5) Marquette 5) Virginia Tech
12) CHARLESTON 12) Purdue / Temple
4) Oklahoma 4) Kentucky
13) NEW MEXICO ST 13) BELMONT
Jacksonville Jacksonville
6) Auburn 6) Cincinnati
11) Texas 11) SAINT LOUIS
3) Indiana 3) Florida State
14) UC-IRVINE 14) VERMONT
Hartford San Jose
7) ARIZONA STATE 7) Nebraska
10) Creighton 10) Washington
2) Virginia 2) NEVADA
15) RADFORD 15) MONTANA

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
Clemson VCU Vanderbilt Butler
Washington UCF Syracuse Ole Miss
Texas Purdue Arizona Notre Dame
Kansas State Temple Missouri Alabama

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

Breakdown by Conference …

Big 10 (10): Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Maryland, Purdue

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

SEC (6): Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Auburn, LSU, Florida

BIG 12 (6): Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa State, TCU, Texas, Kansas State

Big East (5): Seton Hall, Marquette, St. John’s, Villanova, Creighton

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

Pac 12 (2): Arizona State, Washington

Atlantic 10 (2): Saint Louis, VCU

Mountain West (1): Nevada

West Coast (1): Gonzaga

ONE BID LEAGUES: Southern Illinois (MVC), Niagara (MAAC), Old Dominion (C-USA), Texas State (SBELT), Penn (IVY), Montana (BSKY), Northern Kentucky (HORIZON), Abilene Christian (SLND), UNC-Greensboro (STHN), UC-Irvine (BWEST), Buffalo (MAC), Lipscomb (ASUN), Belmont (OVC), Charleston (CAA), Radford (BSO), Morgan State (MEAC), South Dakota State (SUM), New Mexico State (WAC), Vermont (AEAST), Lehigh (PAT), St. Francis-NY (NEC), Texas Southern (SWAC)

College Basketball Best Bets: Where do you want to invest your money this weekend?

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Let’s take a look at this weekend’s college basketball games from a betting perspective. 

At the time this was published, the Vegas lines for the games have not yet been released, so we will be using KenPom’s projections, which are generally pretty close to what Vegas produces. 



No. 16 KENTUCKY at LOUISVILLE, Sat. 2:00 p.m.

  • LINE: Kentucky (-1)
  • TOTAL: 147
  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kentucky 74, Louisville 73

This is quite clearly the biggest game of the weekend in the college basketball world, and for good reason: Kentucky and Louisville is as fierce as any rivalry in American sports, and both teams are trending up this season and playing for a chance at landing a critical non-conference win on their resume.

Kentucky is coming off of their first dominant performance of the season, as they knocked off North Carolina last Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic in a game here the Tar Heels never really looked to be threatening for the final 30 minutes. Louisville, on the other hand, was able to pick off Michigan State at home already this season and has also beaten Seton Hall on the road while losing one-possession games against Marquette on a neutral floor and Indiana in Bloomington.

It’s important to recognize here that this Louisville team is different than Louisville teams that we became accustomed to under Rick Pitino. This group is not the pressing type. They are not out there gambling for steals. They are not playing that hybrid man-zone defense that Rick Pitino teaches. Mack runs the Pack-Line defense, the same style of defense that is employed by Sean Miller, Archie Miller and, most notably, Tony Bennett at Virginia. The theory is simple: don’t gamble for steals, force opponents into contested jumpers and pounds the defensive glass.

This actually matches up fairly well with this Kentucky team. The Wildcats are one of the nation’s best offensive rebounding teams and, at times, their best offense has been a missed shot. It’s going to be hard to get a ton of second chance points against this Louisville team, and while Kentucky has shot the ball better from beyond the arc this year, they’re making 36.6 percent of their threes but taking just 30.5 percent of their field goal attempts fro beyond the arc; only 20 teams shoot fewer threes.

Where Kentucky is going to have their greatest advantage is in the backcourt, where Ashton Hagans has proven himself to be a game-changer defensively. It will be interesting to see how Mack schemes playmaking duties away from whoever Hagans is guarding. The reason that matters is that Kentucky has really struggled running opponents off of the three-point line this season. Louisville has shooters, but I’m worried about how those shooters are going to get themselves free if Hagans takes the Cardinals out of their stuff.

I think it’s also important to note here that both Kentucky and Louisville are among the very best in the country at drawing fouls, getting to the foul line and converting once there. No team in the country gets a higher percentage of their offense from the foul line than Louisville, and Kentucky is seventh. Conversly, Kentucky is one of the best in the country at avoiding fouling — their defensive free throw rate is top 25 nationally — while Louisville is middle of the road.

Ashton Hagans (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)

PICKS: The line on KenPom is (-1), and I would expect it to be a bit more skewed towards Kentucky when the lines are released late on Friday night or early Saturday morning. I think Kentucky ends up winning this game even though it is on the road. On paper, the Wildcats are clearly the better team, and as I discussed on the podcast above, Kentucky appears to have turned a corner. I also think that it is worth noting that Louisville was able to close out the win over Michigan State in November because Cassius Winston made a terrible decision that led to him fouling out with four minutes left, leaving a freshman to play the point because MSU’s back-up point guard was injured. I’d take Kentucky up to about (-4.5), depending on the odds I can get.

I do think that this will be a game that is played at a slower pace, but I would probably stay away from the under. Kentucky tends to run only when their opponents want to run, and Louisville is not going to want to run with UK. That said, the amount of fouls both of these teams draw combined with the fact that I’d expect referees to be fast and loose with the whistle in what will assuredly be a testy rivalry game makes me think we’ll be in the bonus early and spending plenty of time at the charity stripe. If you have to bet the total, I’d take the over, but I’m probably staying away.

ST. JOHN’S at SETON HALL, Sat. 8:30 p.m.

  • LINE: Seton Hall (-3)
  • TOTAL: 155
  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Seton Hall 79, St. John’s 76

My analysis for this game is pretty simple, honestly: I think Seton Hall is good and I don’t think St. John’s is as good as their record. The Pirates have beaten Miami, Kentucky and Maryland on the road. The Johnnies have just one win against a top 100 KenPom opponent — No. 74 VCU — and that came in an overtime game where officials swallowed their whistles on a foul call at the overtime buzzer.

PICKS: I’ll be all over the Pirates at (-3).

BUTLER at FLORIDA, Sat. 4:00 p.m.

  • LINE: Florida (-4)
  • TOTAL: 128
  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Florida 66, Butler 62

I’m probably going to be staying away from this game because I don’t really have a great feel for either of these teams. The guys I thought were the two best players on the Gators — Kevaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson — haven’t really done anything noteworthy this season even as this group has struggled to score. And while Butler has looked good in flashes, they’re 9-3 on the season and their only good win was … a 61-54 victory over Florida on a neutral court.

I did think this was important to mention here because both of these teams could really, really use the win on their tournament resume. They have lost seven games between them, but both are still top 30 teams on KenPom.

PICKS: If I’m betting anything here, it’s the under. I’ll let someone else try to figure out what these two teams are.

(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

BELMONT at PURDUE, Sat. 4:30 p.m.

  • LINE: Purdue (-11)
  • TOTAL: 161
  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Purdue 86, Belmont 75

Belmont is fresh off of a win at UCLA and sitting pretty with a 9-1 record that also includes a sweep of Lipscomb and home win over Western Kentucky. Winning at Purdue would certainly get them into the bubble conversation if they roll through an OVC schedule that only sees them face Murray State once.

I do not expect the line to be (-11). Purdue is 7-5 on the season, with all five losses coming to teams ranked in the top 55 on KenPom away from home. Their best home win on the season (Maryland) was by two points. If you can slow down Carsen Edwards, you can beat Purdue.

PICKS: I don’t think Belmont beats Purdue — although I could be talked into taking the Belmont money line if the odds are good enough. I do, however, think Belmont covers 11. If you can get that line, jump on it.

No. 6 NEVADA at UTAH, Sat. 2:00 p.m.

  • LINE: Nevada (-10)
  • TOTAL: 146
  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Nevada 78, Utah 68

I think this is a dangerous spot for Nevada. They’re coming off of a holiday layoff and heading to play in one of the tougher gyms in the country to win in: The Huntsmann Center, at roughly a mile above sea level. The Wolf Pack have played with fire all season long, digging themselves massive holes they find a way to dig out of. This is a game that the Utes desperately need if they want any prater of getting into the NCAA tournament, and I think they show up.

PICKS: I think Nevada gets out of Salt Lake City with a win, but if you’re giving me 10 points I’m taking them. I would not be shocked to see that line creep higher as well.

No. 15 WISCONSIN at WESTERN KENTUCKY, Sat. 5:30 p.m.

  • LINE: Wisconsin (-8)
  • TOTAL: 134
  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Wisconsin 71, Western Kentucky 63

I do not think that Western Kentucky has a shot of hanging with Wisconsin, not with the way Ethan Happ can dissect a defense and not when Rick Stansbury has to try and outcoach someone. I do, however, think it’s worth mentioning the game here simply because seeing Happ square off with Charles Bassey will be entertaining. My gut says that it is very clear by 7:30 p.m. on Saturday that Bassey is a freshman and Happ is a three-time All-American.

PICKS: Wisconsin (-8)

DAVIDSON at No. 14 NORTH CAROLINA, Sat. 12:00 p.m.

  • LINE: North Carolina (-15)
  • TOTAL: 159
  • KENPOM PROJECTION: North Carolina 87, Davidson 72

This game loses quite a bit of its appeal if Kellan Grady can’t play. He practiced on Friday, but he has missed the last three games.

LIBERTY at UCLA, Sat. 6:00 p.m.

Liberty lost by nine at Vanderbilt, by 10 at Georgetown and by nine to Austin Peay on a neutral court. #FadeCLA is still in effect.

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.