• Villanova didn't win the Big East regular season, but it showed it's still the conference's true No. 1 with its tourney title. And while the Wildcats have what it takes to win it all, the league's other top team appears noticeably more vulnerable.
By Chris Johnson
March 11, 2018

NEW YORK — The new Big East was not supposed to have a new champion this year. Villanova was rightly viewed as the overwhelming favorite last fall after posting a 32–4 record with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and winning its fourth consecutive regular-season title and second conference tournament title in four years in 2017. The Wildcats seemed at least as safe a bet as just about every other high-major team to hang a league banner before the start of postseason play, and for a good while, it looked like they would follow through without breaking a sweat. Villanova opened the season 13–0, won nine of its first 10 games against Big East competition, and it was ranked first in the AP Top 25 Poll as late as Feb. 5. A home loss to lowly St. John’s came two days later, followed by a pair of road defeats to Providence and Creighton later that month. Neither a double-digit victory at Xavier on Feb. 17, nor a pair of wins over Seton Hall and Georgetown to close the regular season, were enough to undo the damage. For the first time since the Big East’s reboot in 2013–14 into its modern, Catholic 7 plus Butler, Creighton and Xavier form, the conference’s regular season crown did not go to the Wildcats. It went to the Musketeers, which, as a result, showed up at Madison Square Garden this week as the league’s No. 1 seed, while Villanova came here as the No. 2 seed.

It left with another Big East tournament crown. One day after Xavier was knocked out of the semifinals by Providence, the Wildcats downed the Friars, 76–66, in overtime of the final on Saturday to all but lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. Junior point guard Jalen Brunson knocked down a pair of clutch free throws with 30 seconds remaining in regulation, used a shot fake to free himself from Providence senior guard Kyron Cartwright and drill a key, end-of-possession jumper with 1:18 left in OT and finished with a game-high 31 points to add another bullet to his National Player of the Year CV.

“He’s terrific,” Friars head coach Ed Cooley said of Brunson after his team’s loss. As Villanova players huddled on the MSG hardwood, beaming while drowning in red-white-and-blue confetti and sporting white championship baseball caps, the identity of the Big East’s true No. 1 was not in question. The Wildcats fought off a game Providence squad that gummed up Villanova’s flame-throwing offense for stretches, rallied back from a 12-point hole early in the second half and rode Cartwright’s shot-making to force an extra session against a better-seeded team for the third consecutive game in as many days. That it ultimately wasn’t enough for the Friars to pull the upset won’t matter much to whomever is tasked with preparing to face them in the opening round of the tourney. “What a tough team, man,” Wildcats head coach Jay Wright said of Providence after the title game.

Here are three thoughts on the Big East from NYC, leading with a case for why you should consider picking Villanova to win it all.

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Think long and hard about the Wildcats as your national title choice

The one big blotch on the résumé Villanova has built during its reign of the new Big East is a lack of consistent success in the NCAAs. As a No. 2 seed in 2014, it was upended in the second round by the UConn team fronted by Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright that went on to cut down the nets. In 2015, this time as a No. 1 seed, the Wildcats again failed to make it past the second round when they were picked off by No. 8 seed North Carolina State in a game less notable for its outcome than a much-memed video of a Villanova senior sobbing while playing a woodwind instrument. The Wildcats won it all the next year, but another second-round slip-up at the hands of another No. 8 seed, Wisconsin, followed in 2017. Those earlier-than-expected tumbles will haunt anyone who slots Villanova into the Final Four or beyond this year. They shouldn’t. The Wildcats belong on the short list of championship contenders because they have been one of the best teams in the country for most of this season.

Villanova is fueled by its best offense of the analytics era, a period Sports Illustrated has previously defined as beginning in 2001–02 that happens to coincide with the start of head coach Jay Wright’s tenure. In the first 13 seasons after Wright took over the program, Villanova did not finish a season ranked in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. In three subsequent seasons prior to this one, it ranked fourth, third and third, respectively. The Wildcats currently own the No. 1 offense for this season, one sustained by more accurate shooting from both sides of the three-point arc than any other team in the nation. Villanova has made 59.7 % of its two-point attempts, good for second in Division I, and it checks in first in effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for the added value of three-point shots. The Wildcats have five players (Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman and Phil Booth) who’ve drained at least 38% of 120 or more tries from deep, and during Big East play only two players in the conference posted a higher 3PFG% than junior Eric Paschall’s 45.7.

“That’s the thing that makes them a very, very difficult challenge is—they’ve got a shooter at every position, but they also can post at every position,” Butler head coach LaVall Jordan said after his team gave up 19 unanswered points to open an 87–68 loss to Villanova in the semifinals and 1.28 points per possession overall, compared to the 1.06 it yielded over the course of Big East play. The Wildcats aren’t as stout on the other end of the court: they rank 23rd in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency, and teams have made 49.3% of their two-point shot attempts against them, which ranks 152nd. Yet no Big East squad gave up fewer PPP during the conference season than Villanova, and anyway, teams have ripped off long runs after opening the NCAAs with shakier defenses. It was only three years ago, mind you, that half of the Final Four was composed of outfits sitting below the top 35 on D on Selection Sunday, including eventual national champion Duke (37th). The Wildcats won’t be confused for Virginia, but that may not matter if they can make shots at the rate they have for most of this season.

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Bracket Watch: Latest Projections for the Entire Field of 68

Another good season for the Big East

The old Big East holds a special place in the hearts of a certain subset of the college basketball-watching populace. People who grew up following the league fondly remember it as an iconic grouping of brand-name, East Coast-based programs led by legendary coaches, filled with great players and united by a well-entrenched reputation for a physical brand of hoops that toughened teams for the crucible of the NCAAs. That version of the conference isn’t coming back, although Wright had this to say in the aftermath of the championship game on Saturday. “It was old-school Big East, man—and old-school Big East in 2018.” That said, it’s become increasingly clear that the new one is really good in its own right. In all likelihood, the Big East will send at least half of its 10 teams to the NCAAs for the fourth consecutive year, and it could send as many as seven depending on what the selection committee thinks of Marquette, which really could have used a win over Villanova in the quarterfinals. Oh well. Yes, only two of the Big East’s squads set to go dancing, the Wildcats and Xavier, are projected to earn top-six seeds, but both of them may find themselves on the No. 1 line—Villanova has a stronger argument—and one of them, as detailed above, is a legitimate threat to win the national championship (For more on why the other one might not be, scroll down). The only other conference for whom two No. 1 seeds is realistically in play is the ACC, with Virginia considered the frontrunner to grab the No. 1 overall seed.

It’s not just the Big East’s power duo that makes it one of the top leagues in the country in 2017–18. There’s depth to this Big East, as five teams (the Wildcats, Musketeers, Butler, Creighton and Seton Hall) reside in the top 30 of Pomeroy’s rankings, tied with the Big Ten and SEC for the most among high majors. Plus, another Big East squad that falls well outside of that range, St. John’s, took down two AP top-five teams, the Blue Devils and Villanova, over a five-day stretch early last month, and yet another, Providence, asserted itself as a major tourney upset threat by reaching the conference title game on Saturday. Overall, this is the fourth consecutive year that the Big East ranks as one of the top-three leagues in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency margin, and the second consecutive year it ranks in the top three of Sports Reference’s Simple Rating System, which incorporates average point differential and strength of schedule. “Every team, top to bottom, is really good, really physical,” Cartwright said after scoring 15 points and handing out six assists in a 75–72 overtime win over Xavier in the semifinals. “Literally, you can be beaten by anybody on any night. That’s just how the league has been.” He added, “There’s a lot of great players, a lot of great coaches in this league.” Old Big East nostalgia isn’t going away anytime soon, especially for those who 1) watched the 30 for 30 documentary ESPN released about it four years ago, 2) can’t be bothered to tune into Fox Sports 1 a night or more a week during the season and 3) are put off by the new incarnation’s geographic spread (How would you feel about Gonzaga joining up?) Be that as it may, the modern Big East has gained a foothold near the top of the national conference pecking order, and Villanova, Xavier or another of the league’s tourney teams could help solidify it in the coming weeks.

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Why Xavier could be vulnerable

There’s a good chance Xavier will be a popular pick to get sent home before the second weekend of the NCAAs. Whomever they draw in the first round, the Musketeers’ former status as a mid-major and lack of both prime National Player of the Year candidates and elite NBA prospects should attract bracket-fillers looking for a high seed or two to tab for an early exit. The folly of counting Xavier out for those reasons should be plain. The Musketeers are one of the best offensive outfits in the country (seventh in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency). They pick up easy points by getting to the free throw line (35th in free throw rate) and converting a high percentage of their attempts once there (sixth in FT%). And in senior Trevon Bluiett, they roll out a prolific wing bucket-getter who, on most nights, won’t meet a defender he can’t vanquish in a one-on-one matchup. “Bluiett, I think he’s one of the best scorers in all of college basketball,” Cooley said after Providence edged the Musketeers by three points in overtime on Friday to move on to the finals, even though Bluiett had just wrapped up one of his worst offensive outings of the season (2-of-14 shooting). “He can beat you in a lot of different ways.” All of which could propel Xavier to the Sweet 16 or beyond for the third time in four years.

If it falls shorts, it will probably be because its defense didn’t hold up. One of the Musketeers’ most glaring problems on that end of the court is that they haven’t guarded well inside the three-point line. Xavier has allowed opponents to connect on half of their two-point attempts, which ranks 180th in the country. During conference play, Big East teams made twos against the Musketeers at a conference-high 54.6% clip, and in the semis, a Providence squad ranked 103rd in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency managed to erase a 17-point deficit in the second half despite missing all seven of its three-point attempts after the break. “I thought they just willed some baskets in, just with their toughness,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack said afterward of the Friars.

The Musketeers excel at ending possessions by pulling down their opponents’ missed shots (13th in defensive rebound percentage), and they do a good job avoiding putting teams on the stripe for freebies (11th in opponent free throw rate), but they currently check in 59th in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency, worse than all but three Big East teams. The last squad to get to the Final Four after beginning the tourney with a defensive efficiency rank worse than 50th was Michigan in 2013 (66th). Those Wolverines finished with the top Pomeroy adjusted offensive efficiency ranking in the country and boasted a starting lineup comprising five future draft picks. True, Xavier has enough scoring firepower to overcome its defensive frailties. Bluiett reliably gets to the free-throw line and sinks long-range jump shots (42.3 3PFG%), graduate transfer center Kerem Kanter has scored 30 points on 11-of-16 shooting over the last two games, and anyone doubting whether the Musketeers have a viable second option need look no further than their trip to Seton Hall on Jan. 20, when senior guard J.P. Macura put up 27 points on 8-of-14 shooting to push Xavier to its first win in the Pirates’ home gym since it left the Atlantic 10 for the Big East. Still, it’s bound to run into an offensively capable outfit that it’ll need to consistently get stops against in order to advance. If the Musketeers can’t do that, they won’t make it very far.

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