College Basketball Nation: Big East
During the past three seasons, Doug McDermott put up “NBA Jam” numbers for Creighton. His college career ended in March with his third consecutive first-team Associated Press All-American honor. It was the first time a player had achieved that feat since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing did it during the 1980s.
The Bluejays never finished below eighth in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, in that three-year run. They were an offensive powerhouse so robust that they ultimately led Creighton to a new league. This group erased any remnant of the “mid-major” tag that the program had worked under.
That also means the big task of rebuilding a team that has been to three consecutive NCAA tournaments.
“It’s going to be a lot different,” Gibbs told ESPN.com. “A lot of points to make up for. Losing four seniors that played a lot of minutes over the last however many years is obviously going to be a big change.”
According to Gibbs, Creighton fans might have to temper their expectations, at least until another star player emerges.
“[Fans] were spoiled in having a guy like Doug lying in their lap and having the career he did,” Gibbs said.
A collection of rising youngsters, however, could help the Bluejays compete for the Big East title.
It all begins with a sharpshooter from Colorado. Ronnie Harrell Jr. is ranked 71st in the 2014 ESPN 100. The four-star small forward’s RecruitingNation scouting report calls him a “willowy wing-type with a prolific shooting stroke.” It also compares the 6-foot-7 recruit to former Creighton star and NBA veteran Kyle Korver. McDermott thought about redshirting his son prior to the 2010-11 season, but he blossomed early and ultimately surged into a starring role in his first season. So Greg McDermott is not afraid to lean on a freshman again.
Harrell could eventually evolve into a go-to player for a program that needs one. Leon Gilmore, another incoming freshman, also could develop into a key contributor. The 6-7 talent rejected offers from Oklahoma State, Baylor and Kansas State to attend Creighton.
Cal transfer Ricky Kreklow, who recently announced that he’ll walk on to the team, is a veteran who should be eligible to help in 2014-15.
They will join a group "that have waited their turn, haven’t had the opportunity yet,” Gibbs said.
Austin Chatman is the only returning starter, but he’s an important element in Creighton’s plans. The point guard averaged 8.1 points and 4.4 assists a game last season while hitting 39 percent of his 3-pointers. Now without one of the game’s most prolific players in the rotation, his facilitating role will be even more important next season. The young players in the program will look to Chatman to make Greg McDermott’s scheme work.
Devin Brooks, a 6-2 guard who averaged 6.5 PPG last season, is back. Among players with a usage rate of 28 percent or more, he was third in the Big East with a 104.3 offensive rating, per Ken Pomeroy.
Greg McDermott guided veterans last season. They understood his schemes and methods. He’ll have to teach more next season with the young players who follow.
But this group -- along with transfers Cole Huff (Nevada) and Maurice Watson Jr. (Boston University), both of whom will have to sit next season -- will anchor Creighton’s rebuilding project.
The Bluejays have a new practice facility. That, coupled with a strong fan base, will help McDermott attract more elite talent to Omaha.
The first year will be tough, though. There are many unknowns with a new rotation that will feature multiple underclassmen. But the program has been here before. McDermott had inherited a Creighton team that had lost some of its best players when he was hired in 2010. He had a son whom he wanted to sit his freshman season and some young talent around him. That Creighton squad won 23 games and reached the NCAA tournament the following three years.
The new Bluejays could exceed expectations, too -- assuming they are reasonable for a program that just lost one of the greatest college basketball players of all time.
“This program and players have all the faith in Coach McDermott,” Gibbs said. “He’s going to figure out the best way for this group of guys to be successful.”
We saw dozens of changes to collegiate basketball's conference structure in the past five years. As they happened, it felt too fast to catalog -- too cluttered among the theories and contingencies and rumors of the periphery. But after deals were finalized and publicly announced, it took years for schools to leave their former leagues -- for this chaotic mess slowly to morph into some recognizable form. The process became tectonic.
Conference realignment was fast and slow at the same time. It was super weird.
Take the old Big East. In September of 2011, Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame announced they would leave the old Big East for the ACC. Between then and now, the "old" Big East has seen 14 schools announce departures for other conferences and 15 new schools join. It saw seven of its founding members leave and take the name, $10 million from league coffers, and rights to Madison Square Garden with it. It rebranded itself as the American. It had a pretty stellar first season. One of its flagship schools (UConn) won the national title in its conference's first year of existence. And it still isn't done realigning: This summer, Louisville leaves for the ACC.
The new Big East skipped this process. In December of 2012, the Catholic schools decided to break off from the now-American. On March 5, 2013, they learned they controlled the Big East marks and records grab-bag. On March 15, ESPN reported that Butler, Xavier and Creighton would join the new conference. On March 20, the new conference, with its new TV deal, was announced. In June, it became official.
Unlike nearly every other entity in college basketball, realignment's creation of the "reconfigured" Big East felt fast because it actually was fast.
Just 13 months after it was announced, the Big East already has one season in the books. How did that go?
There's no official count here, but it's safe to say we've never written as many words about any player as we've written about McDermott. That is by far the least impressive of his statistics. The most impressive: McDermott finished his career fifth all-time in scoring, with 3,150 points. One could go further here -- could rattle off the list of mind-bending statistics McDermott accomplished this season. But we did that so much this season we have very little left to say. It's probably better if you just go to his Basketball-Reference page and see for yourself. It's the same feeling you get when you look at Barry Bonds' numbers, minus a mental image of a gigantic head.
Anyway: After two seasons of genius in the Missouri Valley, McDermott's brilliance got a full and proper airing in the Big East this season. From the numbers to the moments -- including two demolitions of Villanova that rank among the greatest 80 minutes of offensive basketball we've ever seen -- he didn't disappoint.
What we expect next season: Of course, there were other noteworthy stories in the Big East last season. Not least of which was the return of Villanova to the ranks of the elite.
Save for those two free Creighton clinics, Jay Wright's team was among the nation's best defensive groups for most of the season. The Wildcats finished the regular season 29-3, with losses to the Bluejays and Syracuse. Their third-round defeat to UConn was disappointing, though less so in hindsight, but either way the immediate future is very bright. The Wildcats return four starters from last season's team (Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard II, JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu) and promising rising sophomore Josh Hart, who posted a 126.8 offensive rating this season, looks primed to take a bigger role. Oh, and there are two top-100 players (forward Mikal Bridges and guard Phil Booth) arriving, arguably giving Wright even more depth and versatility to play with even without star senior James Bell.
For these reasons, Villanova could not look like a more surefire Big East favorite. There are others. McDermott is gone; Creighton will take an obvious step back. Bryce Cotton, who averaged nearly 40 minutes a game (almost all of them thrilling, too) has graduated from Providence and left a big spiritual hole in Ed Cooley's lineup. Georgetown has a top-10 recruiting class on the way -- and, man, did it need one -- but John Thompson III may still be a year away from title contention. Xavier is intriguing,
It was that last move that caused some to wonder about the fate of the reconfigured Big East. Did Williams decide that a league without football wasn't the place to be? Maybe, maybe not; his move probably had just as much to do with personal and individual reasons as anything else. But the question is nonetheless in the air: Can the new Big East survive? How good will this conference be? Its first season was dominated by one of the game's greatest-ever offensive players. Next season it'll have its work cut out.
Connecticut’s national title as a No. 7 seed provided the conclusive evidence of what we knew early on in the 2013-14 men’s college basketball season. There was no dominant team. Arizona settled down the revolving door of No. 1 teams -- the Wildcats were the third to hold the mantle just six weeks into the polls, and their eight weeks atop the Associated Press poll was the longest of the five teams (Kentucky, Michigan State, Syracuse, Florida) to be ranked No. 1. With the odds of winning the Billion Dollar Bracket already outrageous, parity in college basketball made it downright impossible.
With the book finally written on the season, here are the chapters we’ll remember most:
Freedom of movement: Officials were quick to say this season they weren’t creating new rules, they were enforcing the old ones. College basketball had become too defensive, the critics said. Physical play was ruining the game. The season started with an emphasis on allowing freedom of movement and handchecking was called to the point of being a “touch foul.” Players, coaches and officials alike never came to a consensus of understanding how a block/charge would be called. While scoring on the whole increased slightly, there was no denying that foul calls and free throws had a substantial spike.
Champions Classic: Teams were allowed to begin practice two weeks before the traditional Oct. 15 start date, which in a practical sense meant earlier than ever. It resulted in a November filled with high-quality games beginning with a special night in Chicago. The Champions Classic doubleheader featured Michigan State’s win over Kentucky and Kansas beating Duke and ushered in the season with big-name matchups with budding superstars to get college hoops buzzing even in the midst of the BCS race and the NFL, the overlord of American sports, in the middle of its season.
Senior spotlight: Plenty of seniors weren’t going to let the young guys hog all the spotlight and reminded us of the value of staying four years. No way UConn’s Shabazz Napier was mature enough in his previous three seasons to lead a team to the national title the way he did this season. Creighton’s Doug McDermott returned to school -- as a walk-on no less -- and finished as the fifth leading scorer in Division I history. He was also the first player since Wayman Tisdale (1983-85) and just the sixth ever to have three consecutive seasons scoring 800 points or more. Louisville’s Russ Smith returned and ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency by kenpom.com for a second straight season.
Conference realignment: With the dust finally settled (we think), and teams shuffled into new leagues, we saw the good and the bad from the new configurations. A record crowd of 35,000-plus at the Carrier Dome watched Syracuse’s 91-89 overtime win against Duke become an instant classic in their first meeting as ACC foes. The future of ACC basketball, which adds Louisville next season, is partly why Maryland’s season-long swan song as a former ACC charter member was overshadowed. Creighton excelled in its new locale, finishing second in the new Big East, even though its move from the Missouri Valley hurt Wichita State. (More on that below.) The brand-spanking new American Athletic Conference truly reflected the nation with its huge disparity between the haves at the top of the league and the have-nots at the bottom. In the end, the national championship trophy resides in the rookie league.
Shockers chase perfection: Wichita State became the first team since St. Joseph’s in 2004 to finish the regular season undefeated. Instead of drawing praise, it drew some skepticism from those who pointed to a weakened Missouri Valley schedule. Still the Shockers plugged along reaching 35-0 -- one game better than the 1990-91 UNLV squad that went 34-1 and lost to Duke in the Final Four -- and grabbing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their season ended against eventual national runners-up and 8-seed Kentucky in the round of 32.
Coaches behaving badly: The season provided Internet trolls a seemingly endless supply of memes and GIFs to loop. The list was long, including Iowa’s Fran McCaffery slamming chairs against Michigan State, Nebraska’s Tim Miles ending the Cornhuskers’ most memorable season in decades with an NCAA tournament ejection and Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson’s postgame rant that included that his wife, not his players, knows to, “at least shot-fake one time.” But a few stand out. Who can forget the sight of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim nearly losing his jacket while running on the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor to protest a charge with 10 seconds left in a loss at Duke? Boeheim joked after the game that his first trip to Tobacco Road, which resulted in his first regular-season ejection, would be a memorable one. Then there was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (insert sarcasm font here) who will certainly think twice before throwing a pen toward his bench. Krzyzewski got a technical foul for doing so in the ACC tournament final against Virginia.
Safety issues: There were the things out of man’s control like the postponement of Iowa’s game at Indiana due to a pane of the ceiling crashing into the stands. North Carolina and Duke postponed their first meeting when a snow storm left the Blue Devils’ bus unable to safely travel eight miles to Chapel Hill. It was the Tar Heels’ first postponed game since the Gulf War. Court storming continued to be a topic when a fight broke out at the end of Utah Valley’s win over New Mexico State. The incident started when an agitated K.C. Ross-Miller of NMSU hurled the ball at Holton Hunsaker as time expired. Two Aggies were suspended for their roles in the altercation. Thankfully no one was hurt when an alcohol-fused adrenaline rush sent a UC-Santa Barbara student running onto the court during the first half of a game against Hawaii; the fan got close enough to confront Hawaii coach Gib Arnold before players pushed him away and he was escorted out.
Those were the top highlights from the season. Just missing the cut were: how teams turned around their seasons (including Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee); the impact of transfers (from the spectacular, including Duke’s Rodney Hood; to the cautionary, including Georgetown’s Josh Smith); the Carolina blues (potential All-American P.J. Hairston sat out the first nine games before the school announced it would not seek his reinstatement); and basketball as an emotional outlet (cellar dweller Boston College handed Syracuse its first loss after the passing of longtime BC media relations director Dick Kelley, and Georgia coach Mike Fox winning at Missouri after attending his father’s memorial service).
NEW YORK -- The new Big East has an old-school champ.
Providence, one of the conference’s seven original members, turned back the clock and No. 14 Creighton on Saturday, winning the 2014 Big East tournament championship game 65-58.
The Friars are off the bubble and into the Big Dance, for the first time since 2004.
“First, I want to say how proud I am to stand here as the head basketball coach of Providence College,” said Providence coach Ed Cooley. “I also want to say how tough it was to play an unbelievable team in Creighton and coach [Greg] McDermott’s team. They deserve a lot of applause and credit. Those kids are hard to play against.
“It took a brave effort from us to get over the hump.”
Providence authored a near-masterpiece defensively against one of the best offensive teams in the country. Creighton has the leading scorer and best 3-point shooting team in all of Division I, yet had a season-low 17 points at halftime and trailed by nine.
“Obviously we’re disappointed with our play in the first half,” Greg McDermott said. “I didn’t think our ball movement, our spacing against their zone wasn’t where it needed to be.”
“I don’t think we were really expecting zone,” Doug McDermott said. “I thought we were kind of panicking almost to start the game, and rushing stuff and not making the extra passes.”
Cooley decided to switch things up after Creighton put a 45-spot on Providence in the first half just one week ago in Omaha, in the teams’ regular season finale, en route to an 88-73 victory.
“Everybody thought we were crazy probably trying to play one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country [with a] zone,” Cooley said. “But because of Dougie, you always have to have a man and a half around him -- and you know, he almost pulled it off.”
McDermott did hit his average (26.9 ppg) with 27 points, 18 of them coming in the second half. His 3-pointer with 1:17 remaining cut Providence’s lead, which was once 12, to two, 58-56.
But the Friars whittled down the shot clock on the ensuing possession, as they had all game long to control the tempo. And then Providence forward LaDontae Henton made the biggest shot of the game -- a pull-up jumper with 45 seconds left to make it 60-56. They closed out the win at the foul line.
Henton finished with nine points and 13 rebounds, making the all-tournament team. But senior guard Bryce Cotton was the MVP, scoring a team-high 23 points, 16 of them in the second half.
“It’s just a vindicating feeling to know that the Providence Friars are Big East champions,” Cotton said. “This is something our school and our city hasn’t seen in a long time. For us to finally bring that back home, that’s top of the list.”
Creighton’s spot in the NCAA tournament was already secure. The Bluejays (26-7, 14-4) were projected to be a No. 3 seed entering Saturday’s game.
Providence (23-11, 10-8), on the other hand, was still viewed as a bubble team, despite advancing to the championship game -- and despite the opinion of its head coach.
“If somebody asks me about the bubble, I’m going to yell at you,” Cooley said, eliciting laughter in the press room. “That bubble was popped probably a couple games ago.”
The Friars are in automatically now, but this victory means much more than an NCAA tournament bid. Providence has been part of the Big East since its inception in 1979, yet had only won the conference tournament once, in 1994.
In fact, the 1993-94 Friars -- coached by Rick Barnes and featuring future pros Eric Williams, Michael Smith, Dickey Simpkins and Austin Croshere -- were the only team in school history to even advance to the championship game.
Cooley is well aware of that history, being a Providence, R.I., native himself.
“I remember where I was sitting. I remember where I was standing. I remember being so excited for Providence College,” Cooley said. “And I’ve got to pinch myself as I sit here right now.”
The ’93-94 team was the No. 4 seed in the Big East tournament. This team was the No. 4 seed as well, and was picked to finish just sixth in the preseason -- and that was before losing starting point guard Kris Dunn after just four games due to a shoulder injury, and the season-long suspensions of touted freshmen Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock.
Cooley has done one of the best coaching jobs in the country this year, playing with essentially five starters and one sub, as he did in Saturday night’s championship game. Cotton, Henton, guard Josh Fortune and forward Tyler Harris all played 40 minutes.
“We just believe in each other,” Henton said. “Can’t nobody stop us but us -- that’s the motto we came into the season believing. No matter how many guys we had to play with, we were going to go out there with the toughest group of guys and battle each night.”
They’ll be a tough out in the NCAA tournament, that’s for sure. But if and when the Friars lose in the Big Dance, they’ll still have something special to celebrate, and remember.
“It feels great,” Cotton said, with the Madison Square Garden net around his neck. “Given everything that this team has gone through, all the adversity, obstacles we faced, for us to reach this moment now, we’re just going to cherish this moment.”
“I am so, so thrilled to be called a Big East champion,” Cooley said.
That still means something. And no one can ever take that away.
Founding member Providence will battle new addition Creighton on Saturday, with the conference championship and automatic NCAA tournament bid on the line.
Providence vs. Creighton? Sounds a little funny -- but appropriate, too, given it’s the first championship game of a new era.
The Friars (22-11, 10-8), the No. 4 seed, got here with close wins over St. John’s and Seton Hall. Their path became far less challenging when top-seeded Villanova was upset in the quarterfinals.
Still, Providence has accomplished its primary objective this week -- getting off the NCAA bubble and into the projected field of 68. Now it’ll try to win the Big East tournament for only the second time in school history.
“This was one of our goals coming into the season,” said Providence junior forward LaDontae Henton. “Madison Square Garden -- it’s a big place to play at, a great place to play at, and we just wanted to come in here, and we know we can compete with all the teams in here.”
Providence senior guard Bryce Cotton (21.4 points per game) was the second-leading scorer in the conference in the regular season. But Henton has been the team’s best player in this tournament with a pair of double-doubles -- 16 points and 11 rebounds against the Red Storm, followed by 26 points and 14 rebounds against the Pirates.
“LaDontae was a man-child today, an absolute man-child,” said Providence coach Ed Cooley. “I always think he’s one of the more underappreciated guys on our team.”
Creighton (26-6, 14-4), the No. 2 seed, has had a little easier time of it this week, with a 22-point victory over DePaul followed by an eight-point win over Xavier. Now the Bluejays will try to win their conference tournament for the third year in a row -- only this time it’s in the Big East.
“It’s just an unreal feeling,” said Creighton center Ethan Wragge. “Five years ago, I was playing in the Missouri Valley, and now today -- or tomorrow at least, we’ll be playing for one of the most historic college tournaments of all time.”
Fellow senior Doug McDermott has not disappointed in New York, pouring in 35 points in the quarterfinals and 32 more in the semis -- breaking the record for most points in a player’s first two Big East tournament games, previously held by Georgetown’s Allen Iverson (58).
The Bluejays lead the nation in 3-pointers per game (10.4) and 3-point percentage (42.7), and shot 11-for-25 from beyond the arc Friday night. Wragge drained five long balls and three other players buried a pair as Creighton avenged a 75-69 loss at Xavier two weeks ago.
“We were 10-for-34 from the 3-point line that night,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, Doug’s father. “I think Doug took 12 3s and was 5-for-12, and I think Ethan was 3-for-9. So two of our best shooters had some decent looks at the basket and didn’t make them.”
Creighton,projected to be a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament by ESPN's Joe Lunardi as of Saturday morning, will be the favorite Saturday night. But the two teams split their two regular-season meetings. Providence won 81-68 at home on Jan. 18 and lost 88-73 in Omaha just one week ago, in the teams’ regular-season finale last Saturday.
“So we’re both familiar with each other,” McDermott said. “It’s going to be two good teams playing basketball and having the time of their life.”
One year ago, Louisville vs. Syracuse was the matchup in the Big East tournament final, and it was a classic -- the Cardinals rallied from a 16-point deficit with under 16 minutes to play to win by 17 en route to a national championship.
Now we get Providence vs. Creighton -- a different kind of Big East title game, but with similar stakes.
“We’re thrilled. In less than 24 hours, we’re playing for a Big East championship,” McDermott said. “None of us ever dreamed that would be a possibility.”
NEW YORK -- New Big East, same old Madness.
Less than 24 hours into the 2014 Big East tournament, we’ve already had two stunning upsets and lost the top seed.
On Wednesday night, Georgetown was defeated by DePaul for the first time in 20 years. On Thursday afternoon, No. 3-ranked Villanova fell to Seton Hall 64-63 on a buzzer-beater by sophomore guard Sterling Gibbs.
For Seton Hall, it’s the first win in school history against a team ranked in the top three in the Associated Press poll. The Pirates had been 0-30 against such teams.
Seton Hall had just 15 hours to rest and prepare for Villanova following its 51-50 victory over Butler on Wednesday night.
Perhaps the short turnaround helped. Villanova trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half before scoring the final six to make it 34-26 at intermission. The Wildcats shot 7-for-26 (26.9 percent) and missed seven free throws in the first half.
A 16-0 Villanova run fueled by several open-court steals and scores put the Wildcats back in front with just more than eight minutes remaining. But the Pirates did not fold. The game came down to the final minute, when the lead changed hands four times.
Josh Hart's layup with 41 seconds to play put Villanova up 61-59. Freshman Jaren Sina buried a 3-pointer from the corner 20 seconds later to give Seton Hall a 62-61 lead.
Darrun Hilliard's floater in the lane rolled in with 11 seconds left, pushing the Wildcats back ahead 63-62. And then Gibbs hit the biggest shot of them all -- a step-back jumper from the top of the key as time expired.
“It was supposed to get in my hands, and I was supposed to create a shot for my teammates or create a shot for myself,” Gibbs said. “I just stepped back and hit the jumper.”
Seton Hall finished the regular season in eighth place in the 10-team Big East but has played nine games decided by a single point this season, going 4-5. The Pirates also have two three-point losses, one in overtime and the other in double overtime.
“One of the referees told me the other night, he said he’s never seen a team go through what we’ve gone through and still come back and play hard every night,” said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard. “I just think it’s the character of these guys.”
The new Big East now has its first signature moment, and Seton Hall has a berth in the Big East tourney semifinals for the first time since 2001. The Pirates will play either No. 4 seed Providence or No. 5 seed St. John’s on Friday.
Seton Hall was swept by St. John's in the regular season, but both losses were by -- you guessed it! -- one point. The Pirates split with the Friars, winning by one in double overtime and then losing by five.
“I really thought if we could get past Butler, we could beat anybody,” Willard said. “I was really scared about getting past Butler. It’s a tough matchup for us. They defend really well on us, and I thought if we could get past them, we could get some momentum and just keep going.”
Villanova, whose three previous losses this season came against ranked teams Syracuse and Creighton (twice), is still projected to be a No. 1 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi -- as of now. But that could change as the rest of Championship Week unfolds.
“This was not about 1-seeds, 2-seeds,” Wright said. “This was about we wanted to come to Madison Square Garden and win the Big East tournament. Winning the Big East tournament would mean much more to us than a 1-seed.
“This is a great tournament. We want to be here until Saturday. I think we’re more disappointed about that. The NCAA tournament seedings? My belief is 1, 2, 3 -- it doesn’t matter that much. You’re going to play great teams.”
In the coming weeks, the Associated Press will make Doug McDermott a member of its All-America first team. The senior star, who topped 3,000 points with a 45-point effort in a win over Providence on Saturday, will become the first player to earn that honor in three consecutive seasons since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing did it in the 1980s.
When McDermott announced that he was returning for his senior season, most expected him to put up big numbers and make Creighton a contender for the championship in the new Big East. And that’s exactly what happened.
The rest of the season? Mostly unexpected.
Marquette was the preseason pick to win the conference but Buzz Williams’ crew (79th in the RPI) finished in the middle of the pack and will need a conference tournament championship to earn a bid a year after reaching the Elite Eight.
Villanova might warrant a No. 1 seed after surprising the country with its rise to the top of the conference. And a bunch of teams are on the bubble.
It’s all a great setup to a tournament for a league that’s already had its share of drama.
What’s at stake?
During the Big East’s media day in New York in October, commissioner Val Ackerman announced plans to turn the conference into a power league. But she wasn’t speaking of the future. Ackerman expected early results.
The Big East won’t be judged by the postseason alone, but conference tournaments are significant platforms, especially for leagues seeking more national relevance. Plus, the Big East tournament will be played at Madison Square Garden. That helps. Or hurts. It depends on what happens.
While it’s still too early to fully assess the Big East, sending two or three teams to the NCAA tournament wouldn’t exactly make the immediate splash that Ackerman anticipated and desired.
A Creighton-Villanova title game is probably the most appealing matchup to TV folks. It’s not, however, the most significant game in the field.
The Bluejays and Wildcats are playing for higher seeds, not berths.
But Xavier could remove all doubts about its postseason destination with a win over Marquette in Thursday’s quarterfinals. There wouldn’t be any concerns about Chris Mack’s Musketeers if they topped Creighton for the second time this season in the semifinals Friday.
Xavier isn't the only nervous team in this mix, though.
St. John’s, Providence and Georgetown are on the bubble, too. All three are ranked in the 50s of the RPI.
St. John’s is 1-7 against the RPI’s top 50 teams. Georgetown is 5-6 and Providence is 2-6.
Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup between St. John’s and Providence could be a win-or-go-to-the-NIT game.
The Big East tournament has always been entertaining. The reconfigured Big East doesn’t possess the same potency as the former version. That doesn’t mean, however, that this group won’t put on a show.
“There’s no doubt the eyes of the basketball world and the eyes of others in college sports are definitely on the Big East,” Ackerman said in New York during the league’s media day. “I think everybody in our league uses that as a source of motivation.”
Team with the most to gain
Georgetown owns the No. 9 strength of schedule. Plus, the Hoyas have wins over Kansas State, VCU and Michigan State. That helps.
But an 8-10 record in conference play and a nonconference loss to Northeastern (11-21) does not. Same goes for two losses to Seton Hall (6-12 in the Big East). Markel Starks & Co. have the most to gain and lose in the Big East tournament.
If the Hoyas lose to DePaul in the first round, they’ll probably warrant an invitation … to the NIT. But a win over DePaul would set up a matchup with Creighton in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
This is a tournament of extremes for John Thompson III’s program. So much is on the line.
It’s March. Championship Week begins Friday, and we’re less than two weeks away from the Big Dance.
We’ll probably see a multitude of thrillers, overtime games and clutch performances in the coming weeks. At least, we hope we will.
With the game on the line, these players should have the ball in their hands.
Here’s a list of America’s most clutch performers:
- Sean Kilpatrick: Cincinnati’s defense has been critical in the Bearcats’ rise to the top of the American Athletic Conference. But Kilpatrick has been the offensive catalyst for a team that’s struggled from the field this season. He’s arguably the top shooting guard in America, and his 34-point effort in Thursday’s 97-84 win over Memphis was his 17th performance this season with 20 points or more.
- Shabazz Napier: This list wouldn’t be valid without Napier. The senior guard has been clutch throughout his career at UConn. He’s always confident with the ball in his hands during big games. The legend continued when he hit the game-winning shot over Florida in December. He’s averaging 18.1 PPG, 5.3 APG and 1.9 SPG, along with shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. He’s always ready to show up down the stretch.
- Russ Smith: He’s still “Russdiculous.” Sometimes Smith can lose control and force shots, but he rarely shrinks under the spotlight. The senior star just keeps rolling, even on his worst nights. Against Cincy on Feb. 22, he’d missed seven of nine field goals when he caught the rock in the final seconds. He hit the shot, beat the buzzer and won the game for Louisville. The shot alone was impressive, but Smith’s ability to move on to the next play and help his team is rare.
- Tyler Ennis: Yep, Syracuse is struggling. But prior to this 1-4 stretch, Ennis was probably the most dependable player in America in the final minutes of a game. Through Feb. 12, he was 8-for-9 from the field and 14-for-14 from the charity stripe with a 6-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in the final five minutes of the second half and overtime, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That’s a ridiculous stat line that illustrates Ennis’ reliability in crucial moments for the Orange this season.
- Doug McDermott: Perhaps a list like this has to feature a senior who is on the verge of scoring 3,000 points for his career and earning his third consecutive Associated Press first-team All-America honors (he’ll be the first player since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing in the 1980s to complete that feat). McDermott is also shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line this season and averaging 25.9 PPG.
- Traevon Jackson: Wisconsin’s veteran guard can’t match the accolades that other players on this list boast. But whenever the Badgers are in a tight spot toward the end of a game, Bo Ryan usually turns to Jackson, the son of former Ohio State and NBA standout Jim Jackson. Sure, Jackson has missed a few late, but he’s also nailed clutch shots during his time in Madison. He beat Minnesota and Penn State last season with shots in the closing seconds. And his most recent heartbreaker was a last-second dagger that finished Michigan State last month.
- T.J. Warren: His blood type? Ice. The 6-foot-8 sophomore plays on a Wolfpack squad that won’t crack the NCAA tournament field without an ACC tourney championship. But he has put together some of the season’s most magnificent performances. His 41 points (16-for-22) in a 74-67 victory at Pittsburgh Monday probably opened some eyes, but he has scored 30 or more eight times this season.
- Billy Baron: There is only one player with a higher offensive rating (125.2) than Doug McDermott, per Ken Pomeroy. That’s Baron. But Canisius fans knew that already. Last season, Baron hit a 3-pointer toward the end of regulation to force overtime in a win at Youngstown State in the CIT, capping a comeback from a 45-28 halftime deficit. This season, Baron put together a late barrage during a 40-point night that lifted Canisius to a triple-overtime win versus Siena.
- Jermaine Marshall: Arizona State wouldn’t be in the NCAA tourney conversation without the Penn State transfer. He hit big shots in overtime during ASU’s win over rival Arizona last month. In January, Arizona State beat California in overtime after Marshall’s 3-pointer forced the extra period. He hit clutch free throws in a win over Oregon a few days later, too. The senior doesn’t have much time left and is playing with a sense of urgency, an attitude that has helped the Sun Devils compete for an at-large bid.
- Nik Stauskas: The versatile sophomore has fueled Michigan’s run to the Big Ten title. He’s averaging 17.3 PPG in a season that could end with All-America and Big Ten Player of the Year honors. His teammates can trust him with the game on the line. In January, two clutch performances stood out. Stauskas helped the Wolverines secure a road win over Minnesota Jan. 2 after Glenn Robinson III missed the second half with an ankle injury. Two weeks later, he knocked down a 3-pointer in the final minutes to help the Wolverines hold on to their lead in a win at Wisconsin.
If the NCAA tournament comes anything close to what we witnessed during Tuesday night’s slate of 7 p.m. games, we’ll have a fulfilling end to the college basketball season.
This closing week of the regular season felt like the opening weekend of the tournament with upsets that will potentially upset the tournament bubble. A must-win for Georgetown ended with a 75-63 victory over No. 13 Creighton. A must-win for Baylor ended with a 74-61 triumph over No. 16 Iowa State. Georgia Tech contributed to the downward spiral of No. 7 Syracuse by pulling off a 67-62 upset.
No. 1 Florida and No. 25 Kentucky both needed second-half awakenings before pulling away for their respective wins.
No. 12 Michigan was the only team than made the outcome totally boring. The Wolverines secured the Big Ten title outright by pummeling Illinois 84-53.
Baylor and Georgetown played with the desperation of teams needing to solidify their résumés. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Bears in as an 11-seed before beating Iowa State. Tuesday’s win should just solidify their standing -- especially if they end the regular season with a win at Kansas State to reach .500 in Big 12 play.
Brady Heslip broke a 61-61 tie with his fifth 3-pointer of the second half and the Bears never trailed again.
Georgetown’s win over the Bluejays propels it into Saturday’s regular-season finale with another opportunity to impress the committee at No. 6 Villanova. The hot-shooting Hoyas jumped on Creighton from the beginning en route to shooting 54 percent from the field.
It was the defensive job they did on Creighton’s Doug McDermott that keyed their win. Though McDermott did score 22 points, he needed 23 shots to get there. The Hoyas held him to just six points on 3-of-10 shooting as they built a 42-28 lead at halftime.
McDermott got hot in the second half and led a charge that cut a 16-point deficit down to five with 1:34 left. But the Hoyas made five of six free throws and Creighton couldn’t muster another basket to close the game.
Syracuse’s fall from being a potential No. 1 seed in the tournament appears to be complete unless it can turn things around quickly. That doesn’t seem likely as the Orange lost for the fourth time in five games and suffered their second setback to a team in the lowest third of the ACC.
The Yellow Jackets were a perfect senior night opponent having entered the Carrier Dome as losers of their past four. But they were in control most of the game against a Syracuse offense that again struggled to score.
C.J. Fair delivered 28 points and Tyler Ennis added 18, but no other Syracuse player reached double figures. Guard Trevor Cooney went 3-for-12 from the field -- including just 1-of-7 from 3-point range -- and finished with seven points.
The Orange sorely missed the presence of sophomore forward Jerami Grant, who is nursing a back injury and did not dress out for the game. Grant averages 11.8 points and is their leading rebounder with 6.7 rebounds.
The loss dropped Syracuse one step closer to a full scale panic. Kentucky nearly joined them.
The Wildcats trailed Alabama 28-25 and were flirting with their first three-game losing streak in five years. Tied at 32-32 in the second half, they used a 9-2 spurt to take the lead for good en route to a 55-48 win.
It wasn’t an overwhelming show of strength for the Cats. They shot just 32 percent from the field, including a 1-for-11 outing by James Young, but they showed fortitude they didn’t have in the loss at South Carolina. Julius Randle's 11 rebounds powered a 41-27 advantage for Kentucky, which helped it outscore Bama 18-3 in second chance points.
No. 1 Florida made upset-minded South Carolina believe that it was headed toward paying another SEC fine. The Gamecocks knocked off Kentucky on Saturday leading their crowd to rush the court after the game. That drew a $25,000 fine from the league for violation of policy and another violation would have upped the ante to $50,000.
The Gators led just 28-26 at halftime and by four points at the under-12 media timeout. The Gamecocks’ confidence seemed to be rising with each minute they remained close, but Michael Frazier II put an end to that.
Frazier already had five 3-pointers in the half. He made six more over the game’s final 11 minutes, including his first of those six that ignited a 15-0 run en route to a 72-46 win. Frazier set a new school record with his 11 3-pointers, beating Joe Lawrence’s mark of nine set on Dec. 27, 1986. He also scored a career-high 37 points.
The Illini never really had a chance against Michigan. They held their previous four opponents to less than 50 points. The Wolverines scored 52 in the first half. They bombarded Illinois by shooting 11-of-14 from 3-point range and 67.9 percent overall from the field.
The win secured Michigan’s first outright Big Ten title since 1986. The Wolverines were the only ranked team that seemingly were never seriously challenged on Tuesday. That’s why, although the tournament is still two weeks away, the madness has already started.
The Villanova Wildcats have lost exactly three games this season. One of those games was at Syracuse. The other two losses came to Creighton.
The latter two, as you know, weren’t just losses; they were thrashings. The first, a 96-68 Bluejays win Jan. 20, came in Philadelphia, set all kinds of records and led to countless unconfirmed cases of the rare and mysterious “Bluejay meltface syndrome” -- or “BMS,” as we in the scientific community refer to it.
The second, on Sunday, wasn’t much better: Creighton scored 101 points on 69 possessions. National player of the year lock Doug McDermott submitted virtually the perfect offensive night (39 points, 13-of-17 from the field, 9-of-9 from the line). Jay Wright spent most of his news conference calling McDermott the best all-around player he’d ever seen. It was less a conference clash than a coronation.
On Tuesday night, in their 82-79 win at Providence, the Wildcats stuck to the script.
Just two days after that trip to Omaha, Wright’s team bounced with a road win in double overtime. It was an impressive, physical, hard-fought, high-level bounce-back of a victory -- a lot like the impressive, physical, hard-fought, high-level victory Villanova bounced back with the last time it lost to Creighton.
The only difference was the stakes -- what Villanova’s win means for the team it beat the second time around.
Let’s be blunt: Providence desperately needed this win. With one month left until Selection Sunday, the Friars are the walking amalgam of a team on the bubble, with every win or loss -- especially big marquee chances like Villanova at home -- could measure out the balance of their season. In the weeks to come, you’ll hear a lot of vague things about a lot of teams being “on the bubble.” Truth is, most of them won’t be. Most will be fine. But there is a select group of teams -- maybe 20 or 25 -- mired in the bubble tar pits. For the next month, they will clamber over one another in increasingly desperate ways. And Providence, whom BracketoloJoe Lunardi placed among his last four byes Monday, is down there scrapping it out with them.
The Friars played like it Tuesday night. Bryce Cotton -- maybe the most underrated player in college basketball -- played all 50 minutes. No player in the country plays a higher percentage of his team’s available minutes than Cotton, and no one with his tidy assist-to-turnover ratio comes close. He finished the game with 22 points, nine assists, six rebounds and a host of huge buckets -- a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of the first overtime, another late in the second, a baseline-hesitation reverse layup that momentarily resembled a much smaller Michael Jordan.
Cotton led a group of players beset by injuries all season for every minute of an all-out effort. The Friars took an early first-half lead, squandered it, then closed a five-point deficit in the final 1:44. They were locked in defensively. Coach Ed Cooley was working the sideline, working refs. The crowd was great. Every overtime possession was hard-fought.
The last two possessions decided the game.
With the game tied 79-79 and six seconds left, Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono drove left, earned a foul, and finished the play -- the same shot he missed horribly with zero contact at the end of the first OT. After Arcidiacono made the resulting free throw, Providence was impeccably prepared. In the matter of two seconds, Cotton inbounded the ball to midcourt, got a quick pass back, then whipped it up the sideline to a wide-wide-open LaDontae Henton. Henton had an extra second to mess with; he had a great, rhythm look. The Dunkin Donuts Center crested. And then the shot rimmed short. It was a heartbreaking way to lose.
It was also -- not that you needed to tell anyone in the Dunkin -- a major missed opportunity. The Friars have now dropped five of their past seven, including losses to Marquette, St. John’s, Xavier and Georgetown. Their nonconference schedule is a blemish on a profile which main strength is its Jan. 18 win over Creighton. Adding a win over the Big East’s other marquee opponent would have been massive. Now the Friars have road games at Butler and Seton Hall before finishing versus Marquette and -- and this might be their best last chance -- at Creighton on March 8. It would be a shame to see a player as good and reliable as Cotton miss out on the NCAA tournament in his final season, but that’s the risk Providence faces.
For Villanova? Well, no big deal. The Wildcats had seen the other side of a Creighton demolition before, and on Tuesday night they responded to the second one in a month with another gutty, well-earned road win against a team with everything on the line.
If you’re the Bluejays, it seems, Wright’s team is no sweat. If you’re someone else? Look out.