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Big East Tournament preview: Villanova and Xavier the favorites

Xavier's Jalen Reynolds, left, reacts after scoring

Xavier's Jalen Reynolds, left, reacts after scoring alongside Trevon Bluiett, right, and Villanova's Darryl Reynolds during the second half on Feb. 24, 2016. Credit: AP / John Minchillo

While rebuilding itself over the past three seasons according to the original basketball-only model, the Big East has proved it can thrive again. Heading into the conference tournament that begins Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, the Big East is fourth in conference RPI rating after being second last season.

But it faces a new challenge for preeminence in New York over the next two seasons when the ACC Tournament is at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in 2017 and 2018 and the Big Ten plays the Garden in 2018 a week before the Big East.

“I think it’s very cute that other conferences want to come in and be tourists,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said. “But they’re visitors . . . They come in, they pay their tolls, and then, they leave. We’ll always be here.”

The Big East is contracted with the Garden through the 2025-26 season, but if St. John’s coach Chris Mullin can lead a Red Storm revival before then, it would strengthen the league’s future status.

FAVORITES: Villanova (27-4)

Coach Jay Wright’s Wildcats won their third straight regular-season title and climbed to No. 3 and No. 2 in the polls while barely being tested after non-conference losses to Virginia and Oklahoma. Seniors Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono provided leadership and juniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins emerged as leading scorers. But ’Nova hasn’t advanced to the Sweet 16 since reaching the 2009 NCAA Final Four and must prove its toughness in March.

Xavier (26-4)

Who in the country did a better coaching job this season than Chris Mack, whose Musketeers fell short of the Top 25 in both major preseason polls but enter the Big East Tournament ranked No. 5 in both? They are a perimeter-oriented team that can light it up from three-point range, but big men James Farr and Jalen Reynolds played a big role in making them the best rebounding team in the league.

DARK HORSE: Providence (22-9)

The Friars might have the best 1-2 punch in the country with point guard Kris Dunn and power forward Ben Bentil, who totaled 37.5 points per game. While most project them solidly in the NCAA Tournament field, the Friars lost six of eight before winning their final three regular-season games and should feel a sense of urgency to prove themselves in the conference tournament as they did in winning the 2014 title.

OTHER CONTENDERS

Seton Hall (22-8): Sixth-year coach Kevin Willard finally put the 12-6 Pirates in the upper echelon of the Big East by pairing guard Isaiah Whitehead with the defensive presence of forwards Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez.

Butler (21-9): The Bulldogs recovered from their 3-6 start to post a 10-8 Big East record. They are the league’s highest-scoring (81.3) and best three-point shooting team (.383) thanks to bombers Kellen Dunham and Kelan Martin.

Marquette (19-12): The Golden Eagles finished 8-10 to fall into a first-round game against St. John’s (8-23), but freshman forward Henry Ellenson and junior center Luke Fischer are a tough matchup for any opponent.

STORY LINES

Villanova and Xavier battle for No. 1: With only four losses apiece, the top two Big East teams likely are fighting for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed.

Seton Hall’s resurgence: As the major metro area power featuring Brooklyn’s Isaiah Whitehead, can the Pirates put fans in the Garden and make it feel like home court?

St. John’s misery ends: “Wait ’til next year” is the theme for Chris Mullin, who is working on a top-notch recruiting class to make the Red Storm matter again.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Josh Hart, Villanova, guard: This versatile guard ranks eighth in league scoring (15.3), sixth in rebounding (7.2), 10th in field- goal percentage (.509) and gets 1.2 steals.

Ben Bentil, Providence, forward: The leading Big East scorer (21.2) also ranks fifth in rebounds (7.8) and has become just as important to the Friars as point guard Kris Dunn.

Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall, guard: Sophomore Whitehead wisely stayed in school, emerged as a leader to rank second in scoring (17.9), third in assists (4.9) and fifth in blocks (1.5).

Henry Ellenson, Marquette, forward: At 6-10, 245 pounds, the league’s top freshman defines the power forward position and ranks third in scoring (16.8) and first in rebounding (9.8)

Trevon Bluiett, Xavier, guard: If the Musketeers have a star, it’s this 6-6 wing man, who is ninth in scoring (15.2), 13th in rebounding (6.4), and tied for sixth in three-point percentage (.387).

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