As the Big East Tournament gets underway Wednesday, here are some things you’ll want to know.
Villanova’s dominance in the new Big East is often overlooked and underappreciated, but think about this: The Wildcats have won every regular-season title since the league reformed in 2013-14. They have gone 125-16 overall and 63-9 in conference in those four years, winning the national championship last season.
Yes, they have won the Big East Tournament just once (2015) in that span, and a potential semifinal matchup with conference tournament nemesis Seton Hall looms. The Pirates eliminated Villanova in 2014 and 2016. But you would be sorely mistaken if you think those factors make Villanova anything less than the favorite to cut down MSG’s nets on Saturday.
What Jay Wright’s group has done is remarkable. Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu — two starters from the NCAA title winner — graduated last spring. The NCAA ruled five-star freshman Omari Spellman ineligible in the preseason, and Phil Booth, a key rotation piece who scored 20 points in last year’s national championship game, has missed all but three games. That forced Wright to play a seven-man rotation.
Yet here we are.
The Wildcats (28-3, 15-3) won the league by three games. They rank second in the Kenpom and Sagarin advanced analytics ratings and will vie with Kansas for the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
The top contender
No. 2 Butler (23-7, 12-6): The Bulldogs swept Villanova and beat Arizona and Cincinnati for four of their 12 Kenpom Top 50 wins. They also lost to St. John’s on the road and Georgetown at home, with the real head-scratcher coming at Indiana State (11-20). It sure seems like the Bulldogs are capable of beating anybody, but don’t be shocked if they get bounced early.
The dark horse
No. 4 Marquette (19-11, 10-8): Marquette will not beat you with defense, but if it gets hot, you better be hot, too. The Golden Eagles have shot 43 percent from deep, which ranks first in the country. They get up and down the court fast, and Kenpom rates their offense as the eighth-most efficient in the nation.
For a while, the Big East appeared to have two bona fide Final Four contenders in Villanova and Creighton. That changed on Martin Luther King Day, when Creighton star point guard Maurice Watson Jr. tore an ACL. The Blue Jays have stumbled without him, losing seven of 12. It’s hard to see them reaching the Sweet 16 now.
Xavier, another projected top-four team in the league, lost star guard Edmond Sumner shortly after Watson went down. Without Sumner, the Musketeers have gone 4-6 and fallen squarely onto the bubble.
Those injuries have muddled the league’s hierarchy. Beyond Villanova and Butler, there is no clear-cut third-best team. Providence, Marquette and Seton Hall seem to fit the bill better than Creighton, Xavier and even St. John’s, who gets a boost as the tournament host. But the gap is small.
So, how many bids?
At this point, it would be shocking if Seton Hall, Providence or Marquette do not make the NCAA Tournament. Same for Creighton, whose 18-1 start with Watson Jr. cannot be totally overshadowed by its finish. Add those four to locks Villanova and Butler, and you can be fairly confident the Big East gets at least six bids.
Xavier is the only team in hot water. As the No. 7 seed, the Musketeers (19-12, 9-9) have an opportunity for another bad loss, to DePaul. That would be their seventh loss in eight games and send their RPI down into the high 30s or low 40s. They are 0-6 against the RPI’s top 25 and 3-8 against the top 50. With the late-season struggles fresh in mind, the Selection Committee could very easily exclude Xavier. A win over DePaul would probably be enough. A win over Butler would end omission talk.