College Basketball Nation: Big East

Look back, look ahead: Big East

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
Conference realignment played tricks with time.

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?

[+] Enlarge Doug McDermott
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCreighton's Doug McDermott was the best player in the new Big East this year, but who will be the face of the league next year?
What we saw this season: Doug McDermott. That ring any bells?

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, but Semaj Christon needs more help. (Update: Christon declared for the NBA draft, so nevermind that.) St. John's is intriguing, but also probably super frustrating. And Marquette lost Buzz Williams to Virginia Tech. It hired Duke associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski to replace him.

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.

2013-14 hoops season in review

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10

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.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
AP Photo/Nati HarnikScoring machine Doug McDermott was one of the many seniors to make an impact on this season.
Freshmen focus: The Champions Classic just solidified what was already being said about the 2013 recruiting class. These were not ordinary freshmen. Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins was projected as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft long before ever stepping foot on campus. Those expectations might have skewed his performance this season because it was always in the context of being a top pick instead of simply being a freshman. Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon were all expected to be exceptional before the season started. But others like Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis and Kansas center Joel Embiid elbowed their way into the elite conversation with their play.

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 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.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesJim Boeheim's jacket-removing, court-sprinting rant against Duke earned his first regular-season ejection.
Marcus Smart’s split-second snap: Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart earned praise in the preseason for putting off the NBA for a year and returning to school to work on his game. He couldn’t envision how frustrating the year would be. A season that began crumbling came to a boiling point at Texas Tech. With the Cowboys nearing a fourth straight loss, Smart shoved a fan when his momentum from a play carried him to the footstep of the stands. Smart said the fan called him a racial slur. The fan, Jeff Orr, said he called him a “piece of crap.” Regardless, Smart received a three-game suspension.

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.

[+] EnlargeBryce Cotton
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesBryce Cotton and Providence celebrated the Friars' first Big East championship since 1994.
The Friars employed a smothering 2-3 zone that forced Doug McDermott and company into contested looks from beyond the arc, and the result was a 1-for-12 performance from deep in the first 20 minutes.

“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.

Old meets new for Big East title

March, 15, 2014
Mar 15
NEW YORK -- It’ll be old school vs. new school, literally, for the 2014 Big East tournament title.

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.

[+] EnlargeSterling Gibbs
AP Photo/Seth WenigSeton Hall guard Sterling Gibbs proved the new Big East still has the same old flair for the dramatic with his game-winning shot against Villanova.
“It was a great college basketball game,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright. “They played better. They made the plays at the end.”

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.”

Tournament preview: Big East

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11

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.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsWhile Doug McDermott and Creighton are a slam dunk for a high seed in the NCAA tournament, Georgetown resides on the bubble.
“We’re going to make this basketball conference a force,” she said.

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.

Top 10 Clutch Performers

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Tournament-worthy Tuesday

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5

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.

[+] EnlargeBrady Heslip
Jim Cowsert/USA TODAY SportsBrady Heslip scored 18, including five 3-pointers, to help Baylor upset No. 16 Iowa State.
Eight of Baylor’s 10 losses had come to ranked teams, but the Bears changed that narrative by executing down the stretch. They held the Cyclones scoreless the last four minutes of the game.

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.

Video: Villanova 73, Marquette 56

March, 2, 2014
Mar 2
video Darrun Hilliard scored a career-high 26 points to help No. 8 Villanova cruise past Marquette 73-56.

Big East

Villanova bounces back yet again

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19

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.

[+] EnlargeRyan Arcidiacono
David Butler II/USA TODAY SportsRyan Arcidiacono's and-1 at the end of the second overtime gave Villanova a crucial bounceback win and kept Providence on the bubble.
The similarities between Tuesday’s win and the Jan. 25 overtime win at Marquette are almost eerie: two opponents clawing like crazy to keep their seasons afloat, two keyed-in road crowds, two extra-regulation wins.

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.

Weekend Picks: Florida over Kentucky?

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
About last weekend.

Well, Wichita State stayed undefeated after securing a win over Northern Iowa, but most predicted that.

Larry Brown is in the national coach of the year conversation nearly 30 years after winning the national title with Kansas. That SMU win over Cincinnati was a major step for Brown’s program.

I was surprised by Iowa’s stand against Michigan. Memphis came from behind and then stayed strong late against a Gonzaga team that stopped playing defense in the last five minutes. Traevon Jackson hit a game winner for Wisconsin against Michigan State.

Just the typical mid-February chaos.

This weekend, however, is a bit more difficult to assess.

But I’ll do my best.

Last week: 4-1

Overall: 35-15


VCU at No. 12 Saint Louis, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Remember VCU? Well, the Rams got lost on the national scene for a few reasons. They didn’t get off to the dazzling start many had anticipated with the talent that Shaka Smart brought back, including leading scorer Treveon Graham. The Rams still wreak havoc on defense (no team in America forces more turnovers per possession than VCU, according to Ken Pomeroy). But this is one of America’s most mysterious offensive groups. Smart’s squad has shot 41.3 percent from the field in conference play (11th in the league). The Rams have the Atlantic 10’s top scoring offense (77.3 PPG), but they’re 101st in adjusted offensive efficiency (according to Pomeroy). Saint Louis is much easier to figure out. Jim Crews’ squad has been flawless since a Dec. 1 home loss to 26-0 Wichita State. The Billikens are third in adjusted defensive efficiency. Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett are a potent pair on both ends of the floor, but they haven’t faced an offense like this.

Prediction: VCU 60, SLU 56

No. 3 Florida at No. 14 Kentucky, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: For weeks, Florida has looked like a bored team just itching to play an opponent that can truly give it a fight for 40 minutes. The Gators have won 16 in a row and are 7-2 against the BPI’s top 50. Since a December stretch that included a loss to Connecticut and wins over Memphis and Kansas, however, they’ve played only two teams in the BPI’s top 50 (Missouri and Tennessee) and zero in the top 25. Florida is playing as well as anyone in the country right now, but Billy Donovan’s program hasn’t been tested in a month. Literally. That’s not its fault. The SEC is bad. The Gators can’t control that, but this is a sharp turn from what it has dealt with in league play. Fighting on the road against a Kentucky team that has that next-level ability when it’s focused -- and I assume John Calipari’s team will be focused for a huge matchup -- will not be an easy affair. Plus, the Wildcats have the edge in offensive rebounding rate (43.2 percent to 37.5 percent) and free throw rate (54.8 percent to 45.5 percent), per ESPN Stats & Info. Turnover rate, however, will be more important. The last time Florida (24th in defensive turnover rate) played a young, athletic team with ballhandling challenges (Kentucky is 113th nationally in offensive turnover rate), Kansas left Gainesville. Fla., with a loss. Expect the same result in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday.

Prediction: Florida 87, Kentucky 84

No. 20 Memphis at No. 24 UConn, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: In the first meeting, DeAndre Daniels was a monster. He finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in UConn’s 83-73 win in Memphis. Shaq Goodwin scored 10 points (4-for-9) in that game. The rematch will once again focus on the two big men inside. Both programs field comparable backcourts. Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Lasan Kromah can play with any backcourt in the country, but Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon Jr. can, too. Any of the aforementioned guards could go big and carry his respective squad to the win, but Daniels and Goodwin could be the difference-makers. Will be the difference-makers. If Goodwin doesn’t match Daniels and contain him with stingy defense, then the veteran big man will have another huge night for UConn. But Goodwin learned from that game. He’s been fearless in recent weeks, the sign of a young player who recognizes his significance to Josh Pastner’s plans.

Prediction: Memphis 75, UConn 70


No. 6 Villanova at No. 18 Creighton, 5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1:
On Thursday night, the wonderful minds at ESPN Stats & Info distributed an email titled "A Complete Breakdown of Doug McDermott's Scoring (Through Feb. 13)" shortly after the national player of the year frontrunner -- and it’s not close right now -- scored 26 points (11-for-19) and hit a late 3-pointer in Creighton’s 68-63 win at Butler. That memo included stats like this one: "Doug McDermott has 2,824 career points, 15th all time in Division I history. He is averaging a career-high 25.3 points per game this season." By the end of this season, McDermott should be one of the 10 greatest scorers in Division I history. Think about that. But he wasn’t the guy who torched Villanova in the first game. Ethan Wragge was 9-for-14 from the 3-point line in a 96-68 win over Villanova last month. He’s a 49 percent shooter from beyond the arc, but he’s made eight of 22 since that breathtaking display, so maybe Creighton’s 21 conference record-setting 3s against Villanova last month were an anomaly. The problem is that Creighton (39 percent from the 3-point line) gets hot often and Villanova just hasn’t done a great job of defending against the Bluejays’ best weapon (Big East teams shooting 38 percent from the 3-point line against Villanova). Another loss for Jay Wright’s crew in Omaha, Neb.

Prediction: Creighton 77, Villanova 72

No. 21 Wisconsin at No. 15 Michigan, 1 p.m. ET, CBS: This is an interesting game for so many reasons. It’s a battle between a Michigan team that’s tied with Michigan State atop the Big Ten and a Wisconsin team that has to build momentum for a strong finish to keep Bo Ryan’s streak of top-four finishes in the league alive. In recent weeks, both teams have shown some of their flaws. Michigan is an offensive turbo-engine (No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy) that’s 18-2 when it registers a 105.0 offensive rating, according to ESPN Stats & Info. But, Big Ten player of the year candidate Nik Stauskas struggled during a recent 1-2 stretch for Michigan. Wisconsin has always been a stubborn defensive team, and the Badgers have gone from the 90s to the 40s in recent weeks in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. But they were No. 1 last season. Both teams are regaining their stride entering this game. Wisconsin, however, will stumble on the road.

Prediction: Michigan 64, Wisconsin 60


Bubbles can burst well before Selection Sunday.

And it’s that part of the schedule when it’s time for teams to make their closing arguments. Some will be haunted by wins they couldn’t claim or by taking losses they couldn’t afford. Others will be thankful for their NCAA tournament bids because of wins during their final regular-season push.

Minnesota’s 64-57 loss at Wisconsin certainly wasn’t a make-or-break game for the Gophers. Their body of work thus far should have them in the tournament. But they can’t afford to rest solely on what they’ve done to this point.

Since beating then-No. 9 Wisconsin at home on Jan. 22, the Gophers have lost four of their past five. With six games left, including consecutive games at Ohio State, Iowa at home and at Michigan, there’s still work to be done.

For starters, the Gophers could use a little more consistency. They had eight first-half turnovers, which helped the Badgers erase an early seven-point deficit and instead made Minnesota play catchup the rest of the game.

[+] EnlargeBrust
AP Photo/Andy ManisBen Brust had 20 points to lead Wisconsin.
They nearly did it thanks to late 3s that helped cut a 15-point deficit down to five. But the Badgers, led by 20 points from guard Ben Brust and 15 from reserve forward Nigel Hayes, held on by making late free throws.

Colorado will get credit for how well it played earlier in the season including its marquee win over Kansas. But the Buffaloes’ record since senior guard Spencer Dinwiddie suffered a season-ending knee injury against Washington will also be considered.

They missed a chance to bolster their post-Dinwiddie resume by losing at UCLA 92-74. It seems the rash of injuries has caught up to Colorado. In addition to Dinwiddie, guard Tre'Shaun Fletcher is still out with a knee injury and forward Wesley Gordon missed a second game with a sprained ankle.

The Buffaloes had shown signs of improvement with Askia Booker, Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson each picking up the slack scoring. But they couldn’t keep up with UCLA, which made eight of its first 12 3-point attempts en route to a 56-point outburst in the second half.

The loss to the Bruins snapped a three-game win streak, which all came at home. The Buffs close with four of their last six games on the road, including at Stanford and at California. But their home finale -- and last regular-season chance to make a splash -- is against No. 2 Arizona.

Missouri and Arkansas entered Thursday in similar positions. The Tigers squeezed by with an 86-85 win over the Razorbacks thanks to 25 points from Jabari Brown, including the game-winning jump hook.

The irony was Brown was trying to give the ball to Jordan Clarkson, who had a game-high 27 points, in the backcourt. Clarkson was heavily guarded by Mardracus Wade so Brown advanced the ball while Clarkson stayed behind. It was essentially a game of four-on-four when Brown took Rashad Madden one-on-one and scored in the paint.

Madden led five Arkansas scorers in double figures with a team-high 17 points but had a rough final 30 seconds. He had a turnover with a chance to put the Razorbacks up three with 23.9 seconds left. He had the final attempt, a running bank shot, that was too strong as time expired with both teams scrambling for a loose ball and Madden injured from a collision.

Arkansas is just 1-5 on the road this season, but will get LSU at home before the rematch at Kentucky to try and strengthen its case for a bid. Missouri, listed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi as one of the first four out of the tournament, simply survives to Saturday when it will be tested all over again against Tennessee.

St. John’s could have been the biggest winner of the night simply by avoiding a bad loss. The Red Storm are trying to make a late charge into the NCAA tournament. They’ve won seven of their past eight games with the only loss a 63-60 heartbreaker to Creighton.

Their 68-67 win at Seton Hall came down to a 40.7 percent free throw shooter giving them the lead with 2.1 seconds left.

Center Chris Obekpa not only delivered the game-winning point in the clutch, he then swatted the ensuing inbounds pass that ran the clock down to 0.1 seconds, ensuring the Pirates would not have enough time to get a shot off.

St. John’s first win at Seton Hall since Feb. 15, 1998 came with great timing. It allowed the Red Storm to pull to .500 in the Big East and, more important, keeps their tournament hopes alive.

NEWARK, N.J. -- If St. John’s wins in The Rock and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The answer is yes. It wasn’t particularly impressive, but the buzz about the Red Storm will only increase after their 68-67 win at Seton Hall on Thursday -- even if just a couple hundred fans were in the building to witness it due to a nasty nor’easter.

St. John’s (16-9) has climbed from 0-5 in the Big East to 6-6 in the span of just three weeks, and now practically anything seems possible.

St. John's logo“This team is a special bunch,” guard D’Angelo Harrison said, “and we’re finding ways to win.”

They found a way Thursday despite a brutal first half in which the team eclipsed its turnover average (10.2) with 11 in just 20 minutes. Seton Hall had a 9-3 advantage on the offensive glass, a 14-5 edge in second-chance points, and led 38-33 at the break -- despite being without two starters, swingman Brian Oliver and power forward Gene Teague, who were suspended by coach Kevin Willard for attitude problems.

St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said it was the worst his team had looked since their first half at Georgetown on Jan. 4, when the Red Storm trailed 42-16 at intermission.

“It was a group of zombies that I didn’t recognize,” Lavin said, “because for over a month now we’ve been in a really good way and on a good path of progress and playing together as a team.”

St. John’s played better in the second half, but the game was still tied at 67 in the final minute. Seton Hall guard Fuquan Edwin, who scored a game-high 25 points, missed a decent look from the top of the key with 27 seconds remaining.

“I’ll live and die with Fu taking shots,” Willard said. “He’s a heck of a player, he’s giving all his effort. He’s been shooting 42 percent from the 3. It was good defense by them.”

The winning point came at the foul line -- from Chris Obekpa, of all people. A fitting end to a strange night.

Big East logoSt. John’s ran the clock down, with the chance to take the last shot in regulation. Harrison, the team's leading scorer, was the primary option, naturally. But Obekpa was open in the lane after setting a screen for Harrison, and freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan hit Obekpa with a pinpoint pass. A 40.7 percent free throw shooter, Obekpa made one of two from the foul line, and then St. John’s intercepted a long baseball pass to seal the victory.

“He’s as exceptional a passer as any player I’ve coached, for this stage of a career,” Lavin said, of Jordan. “The judgments, the precision is first-rate.”

It was fitting that Jordan and Obekpa teamed up for the game-winning play, because the improved performance of those two players has been the key to the Red Storm’s resurgence. Each scored 10 points in the game, two of four St. John’s players in double figures. Harrison led the way with 12, and Sir’Dominic Pointer also scored 10 off the bench.

It was yet another balanced effort, from a team clicking on all cylinders right now -- Thursday’s first half notwithstanding.

St. John’s notched its first road win versus Seton Hall in 16 years, and is now firmly in the NCAA tournament at-large bid conversation, despite a hellish start to conference play.

“I’d put this group up there with as special as any that I’ve worked with,” Lavin said, “because of their resiliency, their pluck, their spirit, their fight-back, their gumption.”

Next up is a rematch with Georgetown on Sunday -- a chance for redemption, against a team that handed St. John’s its worst loss of the season six weeks ago.

“[Getting to] .500 is still not good enough for us,” Harrison said. “We gotta get past this game and get ready for Georgetown [on] Sunday. That’s a big game.”

They’re all big now, thanks to this remarkable three-week run -- capped off by a gutty victory in a nearly empty Prudential Center.

Villanova back to the way it was

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There was a time, and it wasn’t all that long ago, when the Villanova Wildcats were one of the best defensive teams in the country.

Through Jan. 18, two opponents scored more than a point per trip in any game against the Wildcats. The first was Delaware in a tight win on Nov. 22, just before Villanova handled Kansas and Iowa on back-to-back nights in the Bahamas. The second was Syracuse, which still hasn’t lost a game. Jay Wright’s team ranked among the top three or four defenses in the country; it pressured offenses to the 3-point line and defended the perimeter with nearly equal enthusiasm; it was consummate. When the Jan. 19 Associated Press poll was unveiled, Villanova was deservedly ranked No. 4 in the country.

And then Creighton happened.

The Bluejays’ 96-68 master class -- the best win in Creighton history and possibly the best offensive performance of the past decade -- didn’t merely produce a bunch of eye-popping, retweetable statistics. It exploded Villanova’s defense. Without breaking a sweat, Ethan Wragge and Doug McDermott and everyone else in a royal blue uniform did everything the Wildcats are designed to stop, over and over again, on Villanova’s home floor.

By the middle of the second half, when it became clear Creighton wouldn’t stop, it was worth wondering whether Wright’s team had just suffered the kind comprehensive emotional battering Michael Jordan made famous. The kind old NBA veterans still whisper about, the kind that ruins a season.

Seven days later, Villanova is doing just fine, thanks.

[+] EnlargeVillanova
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsThings seem back to normal for Darrun Hilliard and Villanova after beating Georgetown Monday, the second straight road victory for the Wildcats.
Monday night’s 65-60 win at Georgetown was a welcome return to form for the Wildcats -- a return to weak-side rotations and drawn charges, to interior challenges and forced turnovers, to the kind of adaptable, pressuring defense that earned them that No. 4 ranking in the first place.

“That was old-school Big East basketball,” Wright said. “That was fun.”

The Wildcats won despite shooting just 40 percent from the field, and 31.8 percent from 3-point range, in large part because they forced the action on the offensive end enough to shoot 28 free throws. It was offense-as-erosion, and nearly as slow.

Meanwhile, Georgetown couldn’t crack Villanova’s defense, turning the ball over 18 times and getting just nine free throws for their trouble. And that puzzled John Thompson III.

"We're getting the ball into the paint, we're getting penetration, we're getting drives, we're getting the ball down low, but fouls aren't being called," Thompson said. "I'm not saying we're being fouled and they're not called. I don't know, but you look at that stat right away and you see we shot nine foul shots they shoot 28, so we've got to figure out how to get fouled.

“Every game seems to be called differently. One could say that opposite ends of court are called differently."

The officials may have had a rough night at the office, and Georgetown’s offense has hardly set the world alight -- Bluejays 2.0 it is not. But credit the Wildcats, too. Villanova’s ability to combine maximum turnovers and minimal fouls made every Hoyas mini-run -- and it felt like there were dozens -- ultimately futile. After an 8-0 run to start the game, Thompson’s team led just once.

One decisive late play summed up the general tenor: Down 61-58 with 34 seconds remaining, Georgetown guard Markel Starks -- who had 20 points and six assists and was the Hoyas’ only effective offensive player -- drove baseline. As he elevated to swing a pass to an open teammate in the opposite corner, he crashed into a rotating Wildcats defender who had already anticipated the charge.

It was a sort of inverse scenario from just two days prior. On Saturday, Tony Chennault's would-be game-winner at Marquette was waved off at the last second. But Wright’s team managed to pull out a 94-85 OT win anyway -- a game they won by pouring wave after wave of points on the board. Neither game was an aesthetic wonder, Wright admitted, but even he was impressed to come away from the week 2-0.

“[Our guys] really have great character and mental toughness,” Wright said. “They really do. There’s a lot of challenges, you know? You win a couple games, you get things going good, and then you get smacked in the face, you get knocked down. How you respond is important.

“Since that game we’ve been on the road two games back to back against two very good teams. We haven’t been pretty in either one of them, but we’ve found a way.”

That game. Whether intentional or not, Wright avoided mentioning Creighton by name. Under different circumstances, the omission could be read as denial. After two gutty bounce-back road victories, it reads more like acceptance. The Wildcats have moved on, and they seem to be doing just fine.

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  • Michigan’s stunning 6-0 Big Ten start sets up arguably the biggest game of the Big Ten season to date in East Lansing on Saturday … just in time for Michigan State’s frontcourt to find itself recused with injuries. Forward Adreian Payne will miss his fifth straight game with a foot injury, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported Friday.
  • That would be bad enough on its own, of course, but it is especially so given forward Branden Dawson will miss the next month with a broken hand he suffered when he slammed his hand on a table during a film session on Thursday. (Becoming so angry with yourself while watching yourself on film that you take it out on yourself by breaking your own hand … that’s a daunting Freudian tangle.) Dawsen was devastated when he announced the news on Thursday, and Tom Izzo had words for any Michigan State fan who “rips” his player. “I hate the social media," Izzo told reporters on Thursday. "And I hate it more because I got managers running up to me saying our own fans and people are ripping. If anyone rips BJ, anybody rips BJ, it'll be me. If any other fan rips BJ on something that we've all done, every guy in this room, every fan, I'm going to be more disappointed. If Michigan fans rip him, God bless 'em. If one Michigan State fan rips him one,give 'em my number." The Spartans will be fine long term, and they’ve won through their injuries for weeks now. But can they hold off a sizzling Wolverines team without their two starting forwards?
  • Creighton's Ethan Wragge’s one-sided offensive brilliance is fascinating in its own right: Wragge has made half of his 148 3-point attempts this season, and he’s taken just six 2-point field goals. Six! Who does that?! But’s Luke Winn found something even more remarkable about Wragge: The further away from the basket he is, the more accurate his shooting becomes. For the record: This is not how basketball is supposed to work. Insane.
  • It’s a good thing these Marquette uniforms are for a good cause, because ow, my eyes!
  • The ACC is slow -- slower than the Big Ten, and threatening to unseat the midwest league as the nation’s slowest power conference for the first time in at least a decade -- and it’s not just Syracuse’s fault.