(SportsNetwork.com) - A revamped and noticeably smaller Big East Conference begins tournament play on Wednesday night at the World's Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden.
This may be the 35th annual tournament for the league, but by no means does it compare to the event held just last season when a total of 16 teams played wall-to-wall basketball for several days in New York City before crowning Louisville the eventual champion with a 78-61 victory against Syracuse. Not only are the Cardinals, last year's NCAA Tournament champions, not around to defend their title, having moved on to the newly-minted American Athletic Conference, but the Orange have also defected as well, hooking up with the ACC.
Some of the usual suspects have remained for 2013-14, including Villanova, Georgetown, Providence, St. John's and Seton Hall, while fresh energy has been infused by Butler, Creighton and Xavier. Straddling both of those groups are Marquette and DePaul, a couple of programs that joined a few years back to help form the massive Big East that towered over all of the other power conferences before splintering following the 2012-13 campaign.
Finishing atop the Big East standings the Villanova Wildcats, now ranked third in the nation, claimed their first outright regular season title since 1981-82 with a record of 16-2, losing only to now-14th ranked Creighton both times. Because of their overwhelming success the 'Cats, along with the other top six teams in the conference, have earned a bye through to the quarterfinals on Thursday where they will take on the winner of the Butler/Seton Hall contest.
The very first game of the tournament on Wednesday night, the ninth-seeded Bulldogs (14-16, 4-14) are realizing that at least for the moment, they are no longer the big fish in a small pond. One of the best mid-majors when it competed in the Horizon League, Butler felt the sting of the Big East during a seven-game swoon in February. The team did respond with a couple of late victories to stop the bleeding though, with the latest of those coming against the Pirates (15-16, 6-12) last Saturday on the road by a score of 71-54.
Named to the All-Big East Second Team, Kellen Dunham carried most of the load for the Bulldogs as he delivered on 16.8 ppg during the regular season, connecting on 78 3-pointers to pace the program in that department. The only other double-digit scorer for Butler was Khyle Marshall who was responsible for another 14.7 ppg, but while he managed to connect on 52.7 percent of his field goal tries, his 46.3 percent accuracy at the free-throw line was simply awful, as was the fact that he logged just 16 assists in close to 900 minutes of action.
Meanwhile, Seton Hall had quite a bit of success early on during the non- conference portion of the schedule, but once the new calendar year rolled around the team failed to win back-to-back games at any juncture. In fact, the Pirates posted only two victories over the final nine games, dropping them down to the eighth seed in a tournament that it has not won since 1993. On a unit that generated 72.7 ppg and sported four double-digit scorers, Fuquan Edwin led the way with his 14.7 ppg and earned a spot on the All-Big East Second Team for his efforts, although not solely for his offensive exploits. More realistically, the guard was recognized for his defensive prowess as he led the league in steals (74) and became the school's all-time leader in that category earlier in the campaign. On Monday, Edwin was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
In addition to Edwin, the Pirates also leaned on Sterling Gibbs (13.7 ppg), Brian Oliver (10.8 ppg) and Eugene Teague (10.8 ppg) for an offensive spark.
The other first-round matchup has the 10th-seeded DePaul Blue Demons clashing with seven-time champion Georgetown. Of the teams that now comprise the Big East the Hoyas, the seventh seed, have had the most success over the years in this event with a record of 50-27, but the program has not won it all since 2007.
Georgetown (17-13, 8-10) was supposed to be a team to be reckoned with, but that was before Greg Whittington was dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons at the end of November, and academics doomed Joshua Smith the first week of the new year. The Hoyas managed to bolster their overall record with nine victories against sub par, non-conference competition such as Lipscomb, High Point, Colgate and Elon, but then there were also back-to-back wins in there against Kansas State and VCU as well back in November.
Even though the once-proud Hoyas fell to the bottom half of the standings, that didn't stop Markel Starks from earning a spot on the All-Big East First Team. A starter in all 30 games, Starks not only led the program in scoring with 17.1 ppg, he also kept the offense moving with his 122 assists. Earning a spot on the league's second team, sophomore guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera turned in a quality effort as well as he pitched in with 16.8 ppg and 4.8 rpg even as he converted a team-best 57 3-pointers.
The transition for the Blue Demons (11-20, 3-15) to the Big East has been far from easy, particularly when it comes to the postseason as the team has just a single win in seven tries in this event over the years. The conference schedule was simply brutal for DePaul yet again in 2013-14, as the squad won a total of just three games, one of those coming in double-overtime versus Butler. The trend has been traveling quickly downhill for the program since following up the Butler victory with a 77-75 triumph versus St. John's at home, winning just once more since the middle of January.
DePaul does have somewhat of an excuse for a lack of success this season, seeing as how about half the roster is filled in with underclassmen. Head coach Oliver Purnell had his hands full trying to motivate the group, particularly since not a single player made it onto one of the three all- conference teams. Tommy Hamilton IV and Billy Garrett both managed to make the cut for the Big East All-Rookie Team at least, the latter checking in with 12.4 ppg. With Cleveland Melvin (16.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg) leaving the program early last month, that left Brandon Young as the leading active scorer for the squad with his 16.2 ppg, accounting for a team-best 109 assists along the way as well.
Unfortunately, it might not matter which team makes it out of the first round on Wednesday because the victor is rewarded with a meeting against second- seeded Creighton (24-6, 14-4) and the talented Doug McDermott. In an age when the most blue chip players stick around in the college ranks for a year, possibly two, McDermott stuck it out for a full four years with head coach/father Greg McDermott as the program made the transition from the Missouri Valley Conference.
The younger McDermott, who leads the nation in scoring with 26.5 ppg, recently became the newest member of the 3,000-point club. The sharpshooter ranks seventh on the all-time NCAA scoring list with 3,011 points and is one of only three players in history to have at least 3,000 points and 1,000 rebounds and don't be surprised if he is the last to reach such lofty heights given how quickly stars are ready to try their hand at the professional level. McDermott, who is shooting an impressive 52.2 percent from the field and 44.7 percent behind the 3-point line, is also responsible for a team-best 7.2 rpg.
Already having been named a unanimous All-Big East First Team member, there's a good chance that McDermott will also be named the league's Player of the Year, but we'll have to wait until Wednesday to get that announcement. Additionally, the Iowa native should also be finding his name on several All- America lists yet again once those are also announced.
Adding some scoring punch to the Creighton offense is Ethan Wragge with his 10.7 ppg, which doesn't sound like much, but considering he paced the program with 96 3-pointers and erupted for 27 points in a win over Villanova, he clearly knows when to take his game to another level.
Also waiting around for the quarterfinals before lacing them up are fourth- seeded Providence and fifth-seeded St. John's, the latter being the dark horse pick for many. With all the changes that have taken place in the conference in recent times, the Red Storm (20-11, 10-8) trail only Georgetown for the most tournament titles among current members with three, although the last of those trophies was captured way back in 2000.
St. John's got off to a rough start to the conference schedule on New Year's Eve, losing to Xavier by double figures on the road, and from there the team ended up on a five-game slide. The last game in that losing streak was a double-overtime setback to Providence at home, so you can be sure that isn't far from the minds of the Red Storm. As the only player to have started all 31 games for the program, D'Angelo Harrison more than proved his value as he led the squad with 17.6 ppg, although he did shoot just 38.7 percent from the floor. Joining Harrison, an All-Big East First Team selection, in double figures was JaKarr Sampson with 12.8 ppg, the latter also pulling down 6.1 rpg.
The Red Storm held opponents to 66.6 ppg with the help of Chris Obekpa, who somehow made his part-time starting status and 21 minutes per game turn into a conference-leading 91 blocked shots.
Providence (20-11, 10-8) dominated at home this season, winning all but three of 16 dates in Rhode Island, which means the squad was not that comfortable performing on the road. The Friars will need First-Team All-Big East standout Bryce Cotton to carry them if they are to make it through action on Thursday. Cotton, the only player in the league to appear on the first team for the second year in a row, accounted for 21.7 ppg and also had the opportunities to deliver a staggering 182 assists, which means he had a hand in a huge portion of the unit's 73.1 ppg. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Cotton averaged 40.1 minutes per game.
LaDontae Henton (13.6 ppg), Kadeem Batts (12.6 ppg), Tyler Harris (11.6 ppg) and Josh Fortune (8.0 ppg), along with Cotton, pulled off an unusual feat as they remained the starting five for every single game of the season for Providence. Because of that continuity, the short list of reserves for the Friars combined to score a total of just 164 points, a very small fraction of the squad's 2,265 on the campaign.
Another pair of programs that have pushed their way to Day 2 action are sixth- seeded Marquette and third-seeded Xavier, the former having produced a record of 8-8 in this event over the years but never making it to the final round, and the latter hoping to make a strong showing in their first go-around in the event.
The Musketeers (20-11, 10-8) just got the news that Matt Stainbrook (10.6 ppg), their leading man on the glass with 7.8 rpg, might not be ready to suit up for Thursday's meeting due to a strained left MCL, which means even more pressure will be placed on Semaj Christon who has become a breakout star in just his sophomore season. Christon, one of three players to be a unanimous selection for All-Big East First Team, not only paced the program in scoring with his 17.0 ppg, connecting on more shots at the free-throw line (149- of-222) than even his closest teammate attempted, but he was also second on the unit with 127 assists.
Standing out as the most productive 3-point shooter for the Musketeers, a team which finished near the bottom of the league with just 5.3 triples made per contest, was Justin Martin who sank 45 attempts out on the perimeter en route to posting 11.5 ppg. A dual threat, Martin also worked his way into the paint to come up with 5.2 rpg as well, boosting the program to a rebounding advantage of 4.8 per game which led the league.
As for the Golden Eagles (17-14, 9-9), they no longer resemble the once spunky group that always seemed to rise to the occasion when the competition was tougher on any given day. It would be understandable to see Marquette make a quick exit given the fact that the team lost a pair of double-overtime outings versus Providence and St. John's to close out the regular season. The squad played three overtime games in the last five outings and six total since the second week of January.
Davante Gardner will try to push the team to the next round of the tournament after putting up 15.1 ppg and clearing 5.7 rpg, even though he came off the bench in the majority of the 31 games for the Golden Eagles. The only player to have started every outing, Jamil Wilson, stepped up with 11.9 ppg and was tops on the unit with 5.9 rpg, but his physical play often limited his minutes and he ended up fouling out of five contests.
Somewhere the college basketball gods are smiling down on the Villanova Wildcats (28-3, 16-2) right now. The team is ranked third in the country after losing a mere three regular-season outings, two of those against Creighton and the other at Syracuse back in December when the Orange were the cream of the crop nationally. Head coach Jay Wright doesn't have any household names on his roster, no one who will appear on a highlight reel anytime soon, but maybe that's what a championship team needs these days, a group of blue-collar performers who are not concerned with their own stats and star power.
More than anything, it seems as though it is the defense that has been carrying the Wildcats this season, ranking second in the conference in points allowed (66.7 ppg) and first in field goal percentage defense (.406). It also doesn't hurt that Villanova finished second among all Big East teams in scoring margin at plus 12.4 ppg. The squad boasts four double-digit scorers, three of whom are putting up between 14.3 ppg (JayVaughn Pinkston) and 14.9 ppg (James Bell). In between you'll find Darrun Hilliard with his 14.4 ppg, stemming from 41.4 percent accuracy out on the perimeter.
In the case of Bell, Villanova's representative among the Big East First-Team selections, he not only connected on a team-high 81 3-pointers, he was also tied for second on the unit with 6.0 rpg, capable a stretching a defense like so few players these days. Point guard Ryan Arcidiacono (10.0 ppg) may not always take the most high-percentage shots, but there's no doubt that he has great influence on the team's success, stemming from his 109 assists and just 42 turnovers.
While almost anything is possible during tournament play, more often than not the cream rises to the top. With that, expect the Red Storm to need another year to mature, the Musketeers more time to acclimate themselves to their new surroundings, and the Wildcats to find out what it is like to be beaten by the same team three times in a single season.