Fears that the new Big East Conference might devolve into a second-rate basketball league fighting to remain relevant seemed real after the inaugural season when it received four NCAA bids, including one of the last four in. Better non-conference scheduling to raise the conference RPI was the focal point of offseason talks between coaches and administrators. Call the game plan an unqualified success. Heading into the final week before Selection Sunday, the Big East RPI is second only to the Big 12, and the league is expecting at least five and possibly six NCAA bids.

FAVORITES

Villanova (29-2) -- The No. 4-ranked Wildcats easily won the regular-season title for the second straight season. They disappointed last year, losing the Big East Tournament opener to Seton Hall and getting bumped out in their second NCAA game by eventual national champion Connecticut. Now they are that rare quality team with strong senior leadership from JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard and a top point guard in junior Ryan Arcidiacono. 'Nova won games by an average of 15.5 points and led the league in three-point shooting percentage (38.3).

Georgetown (20-9) -- The No. 23 Hoyas inexplicably were swept by both Providence and Xavier or they would be ranked far higher, especially after beating Villanova by 20 points in January. As usual, the question is whether John Thompson III's club will be as tough at tournament time as in the regular season. Guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera leads the Hoyas in scoring with a 16.0 average, but freshmen L.J. Peak and Isaac Copeland have added scoring punch, and they have the Big East's best field-goal defense (39.9 percent).

DARK HORSE

Butler (22-9) -- Chris Holtmann has done a marvelous job replacing Brandon Miller (medical leave of absence), eventually being named head coach. The Bulldogs tied for seventh in the league in the preseason poll but now are No. 22 in the AP poll. They lead the Big East in defense (61.0) and rebounding margin (+6.6). Swept in conference play by Georgetown, they beat the Hoyas at Paradise Jam in November in the Bahamas and might face them a fourth time in the semis.

OTHER CONTENDERS

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Providence (21-10) -- The Friars played their way into the NCAA last year by winning the Big East Tournament, and a repeat is possible with a talented roster, including Tyler Harris (10.4 points) of Dix Hills.

St. John's (21-10) -- The Red Storm reversed a 1-4 start to finish 10-8 in league play only to get stuck with Providence for the second straight year in the No. 4-5 game. Seniors are on NCAA mission.

Xavier (19-12) -- The Musketeers are the top-shooting team in the conference (47.8 percent) and second in scoring (74.7) behind Villanova despite reliance on freshman Trevon Bluiett (12.2 points).

STORY LINES

St. John's anticipates NCAA bid -- SJU fell off the bubble last year when it lost Big East QF to Providence but should be solidly in 2015 NCAA field.

Villanova seeks No. 1 seed -- It would be a feather in Big East's cap if Villanova maintains current status as likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA.

The 'X' factor -- Xavier's NCAA status seems iffy, but many bracketologists have Musketeers as sixth Big East team in field of 68.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Sir'Dominic Pointer, St. John's, F -- Most improved player in league was top 10 in points (13.7), rebounds (7.6), FG pct. (52.6), steals (2.0) and blocks (2.5).

LaDontae Henton, Providence, F -- Friars' heart and soul averaged 20.1 points and 6.3 rebounds. Tireless battler Part of potent 1-2 with PG Kris Dunn.

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Kellen Dunham, Butler, G -- Outstanding shooter was fourth in league in scoring (16.6) and third in three-point (42.4) and free-throw (86.5) percentage.

JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova, F -- Product of Brooklyn's Bishop Loughlin is power presence on the inside (9.9 points, 5.6 rebounds) and mature leader.

Josh Smith, Georgetown, C -- At 6-10, 350, Smith is load in paint, shooting 63.6 percent, but averaging only 11.1 points, 6.1 rebounds in 21.2 minutes.