March is here, and on Wednesday, one of the most entertaining tournaments in all of college hoops kicks off at Madison Square Garden - where the Big East gets underway.
Admittedly, Wednesday's matchups aren't the sexiest with the bottom six teams in the league (Butler-St. John's, Seton Hall-DePaul and Villanova-Georgetown) taking the court. But it does make way for some intriguing Thursday quarterfinal games, that should take us all the way up to an excellent championship on Saturday night at the Garden.
So what do you need to know?
Here is our Big East preview - with odds provided by Betfred Sportsbook
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, New York
Format: Teams Seeded By Record in Conference Play; top five teams get bye into quarterfinals
Watch: All games on Fox or FS1
Current Gambling Odds (Betfred Sportsbook)
Seton Hall +3500
St. John’s +6000
Anytime the Huskies are playing at Madison Square Garden they feel like the de facto favorite, however this UConn team seems to be playing great basketball at just the perfect time. UConn will enter this tournament as the favorite to win, despite being the No. 4 seed.
For UConn it's been a whirlwind season, one where they got as high as No. 2 in the polls in December thanks to a loaded non-conference slate (among the teams they beat were Alabama, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and at Florida), but when Big East play things grinded to a halt. The Huskies dropped six games in an eight-game span, with four of them coming on the road. Some of those tough road losses included games at Providence, Marquette and Xavier, all of which are going to be NCAA Tournament teams. UConn fell all the way to No. 24 in the polls following a disappointing home loss to Xavier on January 25th.
Since that game, the Huskies are 8-1 overall with their only loss coming in a close one on the road at Creighton, and the Huskies are playing the best basketball in the Big East heading into Madison Square Garden. UConn showed just how good they really are, in their dominant 71-59 victory over Villanova on Saturday night. Going into this one, Villanova had been the hottest team in the Big East, but thanks to 24 points from Jordan Hawkins and 16 points from Alex Karaban, the Huskies took control in the second half and never looked back.
While the opening game of the tournament won't be easy against a Providence team desperate for a victory, UConn would avoid Creighton, Xavier and Villanova until a championship game. In addition, they could have a shot at the Big East regular season champions in Marquette in the quarterfinals, which could be the marquee game of the entire event.
The Huskies split with Marquette, but dominated them in Hartford just a few weeks ago in an 87-72 win.
The Bluejays entered this season as one of the trendy teams to keep an eye out on after making it to the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament last season, and returning just about everyone. After starting the season 6-0, adversity hit, when Ryan Kalkbrenner missed four games, right at the end of out of conference play due to an illness.
Creighton went 0-4 in these games, plus 0-2 in the previous pair of games with Kalkbrenner in the lineup prior to the illness, and things were looking bleak. Since that six-game losing streak without Kalkbrenner at the end of the calendar year, Creighton is 14-5 overall and has looked very similar to the team that entered this season with a ton of expectations. Kalkbrenner is the most important and valuable player to this team, leading the Big East in field goal percentage (70 percent from the field) and blocks per game (2.2), the latter of which allowed him to earn a second straight Big East Defensive Player of the Year. The big man’s impact cannot be minimized, as we have yet to see this Creighton team really play a stretch of bad basketball with Kalkbrenner in the lineup. In addition, guys like Trey Alexander and Arthur Kaluma have experience playing in this environment, as they were present alongside Kalkbrenner when Creighton made it all the way to the finals of this event last season, before losing to Villanova.
Head coach Greg McDermott has made it to the championship game of this event four separate times. It won't be easy with a likely matchup with Villanova to start, but a victory there can really get momentum going, against a Xavier team that sometimes has some trouble on the defensive end. Considering Creighton won’t have to see Marquette or UConn until a possible championship game, the Bluejays have a nice path and could be the team we see cutting down the nets.
After being picked ninth in the preseason Big East poll, Shaka Smart’s team defied all odds and won the Big East regular season title, earning a No. 1 seed at MSG.
And the Golden Eagles' success is thanks to one of the best offenses in college hoops. Primarily, Tyler Kolek has been electric this season and has a great case to become the first Marquette Player to win Big East Player of the Year since Jae Crowder in 2012. The 6’3” sophomore is not only leading the Big East in assists per game at 7.9, but that also ranks second in the entire country. Kolek’s ability to create offense has been a pleasure to watch this season and if this Marquette team can get stops on a consistent basis, they are extremely difficult to beat.
Beyond Kolek, Kam Jones has been everything for Marquette this season, especially when he’s needed the most. The sharpshooting sophomore has made 87 total threes this season, which leads the Big East and the dynamic duo of him and Kolek is a very scary opposition in a tournament setting. Meanwhile, another overlooked piece from last year, Oso Ighodaro, has become one of the more versatile big men in all of college basketball. A true anchor down low, Ighodaro impacts the game in so many different ways, shooting an extremely efficient 66 percent from the field, while also averaging 12 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
Smart is a coach that has won in this type of setting before, winning the Big 12 Tournament Title in 2021, the Atlantic 10 Tournament in 2015, and the CAA Tournament in 2012. Marquette entered the Big East Tournament hot, winning their last six games in a row, including a signature road victory over Creighton on February 21st, which really put them in the driver’s seat for a Big East regular season title.
Just one season after being the most disappointing team in the Big East, Xavier is back and ready to do some damage on the biggest stage. This will be Sean Miller’s first conference tournament with Xavier since the 2009 Atlantic 10 Tournament, and the Musketeers will be looking to win their first Big East Tournament title ever.
For Xavier, it's been a tale of two Big East seasons. The Musketeers started conference play with a perfect 7-0 record, even winning nine of their first 10 Big East contests. Their only loss over that stretch was a head-scratcher to DePaul. Since that red hot start, Xavier is 6-4 in their last 10 games and will be hoping to ride an electric offense to a deep run at MSG. It's worth noting that disappointing run down the stretch coincided with the loss of star forward Zach Freemantle.
And unfortunately, we found out late Sunday that Freemantle will be unavailable for the Musketeers for the rest of the season. CBS's Jon Rothstein was the first to report the news.
Despite it, Xavier has been playing without Freemantle for over a month now, and still has the tools to make a run at MSG. UTEP transfer Souley Boum, has been the most impactful transfer in the country, averaging 16.8 points per game which is second in the Big East. He was named to the All-Big East first team on Sunday. In addition, Boum is shooting an extremely efficient 46.4% from the field and 42.2% from three. Having a Guard this good, next to guys like Colby Jones, Adam Kunkel and Jack Nunge make Xavier one of the scariest offenses in the country.
The big question is can Xavier - a team with very limited depth - survive the three games in three days gauntlet that comes at Madison Square Garden.
It isn’t often that a team returning four starters from a Final Four team the prior season enters any tournament as a “sleeper”, but here we are. That is exactly where this Villanova team stands heading into the Big East Tournament, and it will be their first time at MSG without Jay Wright since 2001.
From the beginning the Wildcats have been in a tough spot, dealing with injuries to start the year. Primarily, 2022 Second Team All Big East honoree, Justin Moore suffered a gruesome Achilles injury in Villanova’s Elite Eight Loss to Houston last season and didn’t play his first game this season until January 29th. In addition, five-star freshman and projected lottery pick Cam Whitmore suffered a thumb injury during the preseason and didn’t make his debut until December 21st. These weren’t ideal circumstances, considering Villanova’s gruesome non-conference schedule that featured a trip to Portland for the PK85 and other marquee games against Michigan State and the start of Big East play. Villanova played their first 11 games of the season without these two, finishing 6-5 and things were all of a sudden looking bleak.
However, since Moore returned on January 29th, the Wildcats are playing much better basketball and have the feel of a team that can go on a deep run at Madison Square Garden. In the 11 games since Moore returned, Villanova is 6-5 with victories over likely NCAA Tournament teams in Xavier and Creighton. Both Moore and Whitmore have been able to score the ball effectively, combining for 26.2 points per game this season and really helping this offense hit a gear it wasn't able to earlier in the season. Big man Eric Dixon, has emerged as the latest Villnaova upperclassmen to burst onto the scene, leading the team in scoring with 15.7 points per game and rebounding with 6.4 per game. With Caleb Daniels and Brandon Slater also in the mix, no one has more experience in this environment than Villanova, and considering the improved basketball they’ve played recently, this is the sleeper to watch for.
Going into this season, Villanova was a projected Top 20 team nationally and top four team in the Big East, for a lot of the same reasons they can be dangerous at MSG.
In college basketball, that experience is key.
The Pick: Creighton
The fifth time will be the charm for Greg McDermott, as he will win the Big East Tournament for the first time, after dropping in the championship game each of his prior four chances. All five of Creighton starters have experience playing in this environment, including three of them, in Trey Alexander, Ryan Kalkbrenner and Arthur Kaluma who helped the Jays get to the Big East Tournament final last season.
Having guys like Alexander, Kaulma, with Ryan Nembhard and Baylor Scheierman, who can create their own shot, alongside an elite rim protector in Kalkbrenner is a dangerous mix in any type of tournament setting.
Creighton has had some heartbreaking losses over the past decade in the Big East Tournament, and after a regular season of overcoming adversity, this will be the ultimate sign that this team is ready for some big things in the month of March.
Follow Zac Krull on Twitter - @ZacKrull_
To get full odds on the Big East and all conference tournaments, visit Betfred Sportsbook
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