Big East tournament preview: Who will cut down nets Saturday night?

March 07, 2017 - 7:20 am
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[caption id="attachment_5398" align="alignright" width="400"] Villanova appears to be the favorites to win the Big East Tournament. (Brad Mills/USA Today Sports)[/caption] So often at this time of year, you'll hear the phrase "it's wide open" when it comes to the Madness that is March. As in this game, this tournament, this championship – being wide open, meaning anyone can win. But in the Big East, after the season the league has had this year, is this really the case? And let's go back a year, and consider the trail that Villanova's Wildcats have blazed. A national championship, followed by an unprecedented fourth straight Big East regular season championship won over these past few months. So, exactly how wide open is this tournament in New York this week? Now, we'll throw you a little cliché – this is why they play the games. It's the 35th anniversary of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, and through the years, the Hall-of-Fame coaches and all-star players that have participated have always had one common thread. Uncertainty. Take last year, for example. Villanova won the Big East regular season, but lost to Seton Hall in the Tournament title game. The Wildcats went on to win the national crown, too. But in the Big East, where family bragging rights are on the line and the lights shine as brightly as any in the country, it's hard to stay dominant over your kinfolk. Sometimes, it's just easier playing (and beating) someone you don't know as intimately. And in a year where the Big East has been one of the top two or three-rated RPI conferences in the country, there will be pressure to play well – and beat up on – teams from other leagues when the NCAA Tournament rolls around next week. Should the Big East receive seven bids to the Big Dance (70 percent of the league population), which is possible, the spotlight will shine on everyone as brightly as it ever has. As for this week, it's a simple Family Feud. When the shots start falling, and the screaming grows louder, and the pressure builds higher…there won't be much of anything wide open. Except maybe for the lines to the concession stands or the restrooms. March Madness has a way of rearranging priorities. Tournament Favorite: Villanova Until the defending champs go down, they deserve to stay in the favorite's role. And how can they not, when they feature the Big East Player of the Year (Josh Hart), two of the three Defensive Players of the Year (Hart and Mikal Bridges, joined by Creighton's Khyri Thomas), and the player who hit the most-clutch shot in NCAA Tournament history? How soon we forget. Kris Jenkins' 30-footer at the buzzer to beat North Carolina last April in Houston may be THE iconic shot in college basketball history. And he's still slinging 'em up for these 'Cats, who finished 15-3 in Big East regular season play and held a three-game cushion over second-place Butler. Tournament Sleeper: Marquette Beware the Golden Eagles. One of the best-shooting teams in the nation from two OR three-point range, the Eagles are a team that when they get hot, they tend to stay hot. And right now, they're hot. Guard Andrew Rowsey was named the league's Sixth Man of the Year, and freshman sensation Markus Howard – who just turned 18 years old – plays like he's 28. Marquette is the 4-seed, and gets the defending tournament champs in Seton Hall (seeded 5th) Thursday afternoon at 2:30 pm. The winner faces Villanova in the Friday semi-finals. Both have better than a punchers' chance to upset the Wildcats at MSG. Bracket Buster: Providence From the other side of the Big East bracket, why not Providence? The 3rd-seeded Friars are riding the top winning streak (6 in a row) going in, hold their highest seeding in tournament history, and face a team (6th seeded Creighton) Thursday night they just defeated in Omaha two weeks ago. Yes, PC has momentum. Junior guard Kyron Cartwright was named the league's Most Improved Player (joining former Friars' Ben Bentil, Kadeem Batts and Herbert Hill in winning the award), led the Big East in assists (6.8 per game, 3rd nationally), and was named to the all-Big East 2nd team along with junior forward Rodney Bullock. Should the Friars beat Creighton (9:15 p.m. pre-game Thursday, 9:30 tip-off on 103.7 WEEI-FM and friars.com), it's likely they'll meet second-seeded Butler in Friday night's semi-finals. Providence split two with Butler during the regular season, each team winning on its' home floor. The tournament tips off Wednesday night with 8th seeded St. John's playing #9 Georgetown, followed by #7 Xavier against 10th seed DePaul. Thursday's day-long quarterfinal action begins at 12 Noon with top-seed Villanova against the St. John's-Georgetown winner and #4 Marquette facing #5 Seton Hall at 2:30. Second-seed Butler gets the Xavier-DePaul winner at 7:00 p.m., while the Friars and BlueJays will wrap up the night at the World's Most Famous Arena. The last time the tournament's top two seeds met in the championship final? 2004. Tournament Tidbits: 7 invites to the Dance? It could happen. The Big East set the record for most NCAA bids to a single conference when 11 teams were selected in 2011. It's possible the ACC could match that record this year, but in both cases, the two leagues were (and the ACC still is) over-stuffed. The Big East this year, however, could land an extraordinary 70 percent of its' teams into the tournament with seven bids (out of 10 teams). From a pure percentage point of view, that's never happened before. Xavier has a Wednesday night date with DePaul they need to win to make a case for seven invitations, after a late-season six-game losing streak. Seton Hall should be in the Dance, but beating Marquette in the quarterfinals would clinch a spot for the Pirates. Marquette, Providence, Creighton, Butler and Villanova should also see their names on the big board come Selection Sunday. What's the scuttlebutt? The Big East says it's in great shape with 10 teams. But talk persists about eventual expansion to 11 or 12 schools, with UConn making loud noises lately about getting back into the conference. But apparently, it's just noise. Commissioner Val Ackerman, who will undoubtedly address this issue several times this week, has been steadfast with her story. "Ten (teams) is not too few," Ackerman recently told the Indianapolis Business Journal. "The Big 12 has 10. The Ivy League has eight. Other conferences have 10," Ackerman added. "Ten has turned out good for us to have an even balance. The coaches favor the schedule with 10 teams. The home-and-home conference schedule has accelerated rivalries. For now, 10 is good. "What the future holds, I couldn't say." Daily Big East Tournament coverage from New York will be here on WEEI.com, while all Providence post-season play will broadcast on 103.7 WEEI-FM.

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