The NCAA tournament tends to obscure everything that came before it in a given college basketball season. Which teams won those Thanksgiving-week nonconference tournaments? Which players were making compelling cases for national awards in December and January? The image of Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Isaiah Hicks and other North Carolina Tar Heels cutting down the nets in Glendale moments after a six-point win over Gonzaga in the title game won’t fade away soon, but in the meantime, it’s worth looking back at what else happened during the 2016-17 campaign. This is the third installment of a conference-by-conference review series. We’ve already reviewed the ACC, Big 12 and AAC. Here’s the Big East.
Most important thing we learned: The Big East overcame injuries and NBA departures to send seven teams dancing
The Big East had a lot of hype going into the season. A lot of that was due to it having reigning champion Villanova, which returned a core led by Josh Hart, but teams like Creighton, Xavier and Butler all seemed up to the task of challenging the Wildcats. Other teams like Seton Hall and Marquette had potential, but seemed ready for a step back after losing their best player to the NBA. Both the Bluejays and Musketeers suffered a season-altering injury to a key player—Maurice Watson Jr. and Edmond Sumner, respectively—but did enough in the end to get to the NCAA tournament. Five other teams in the league joined them, marking the most the conference has sent dancing since the Big East condensed into just 10 teams back in 2013. Xavier even turned around a rough end to the regular season after losing Sumner to make a run to the Elite Eight, knocking off Florida State and Arizona in the process.
Best game: Marquette 74, Villanova 72 (Jan. 24, 2017)
The Golden Eagles’ late January win over top-ranked Villanova was the signature win of Steve Wojciechowski’s tenure so far as Marquette’s head coach, and the school’s first win over the nation’s No. 1 team since 2003. It was an inconsistent season for the Eagles, but the two-point win over the Wildcats was massive for both the program and its eventual NCAA tournament berth. The top three-point shooting team in the country, Marquette shot 9 of 19 from behind the arc in the victory and erased a 13-point deficit with less than six minutes remaining. Its 50-point second half against the Wildcats’ staunch defense was a perfect illustration of the potent offense the Golden Eagles rode for much of the season.
Best player: Josh Hart, Villanova
While Hart’s senior year didn’t end the way he hoped—with a repeat national title—he capped his terrific career at Villanova with an All-American season in which he never once scored less than double figures. Hart showed off his full tool box in his senior year, averaging 18.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 51.0% from the floor and 40.4% from three. His season included a 37-point effort against Notre Dame, a triple double against Saint Joe’s and a masterful final four minutes against DePaul, when he scored 10 points in 2:57 to will the Wildcats to victory and avoid what would’ve been an inexcusable loss. At times Villanova may have even needed to rely on Hart a little too much, but he almost always rose to the occasion.
Best coach: Xavier’s Chris Mack
Before the Musketeers, who were left for dead in February, went on a stunning deep NCAA tournament run, Butler’s Chris Holtmann likely would’ve taken this honor. But the job Mack did in guiding Xavier to its first Elite Eight since 2008—without Sumner—was remarkable. The Musketeers were 15–6 when Sumner, who was averaging 15.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists, went down with a torn ACL, and it led to a brutal February that contained six straight losses (albeit all against good competition). Sitting at 19–12 and 9–9 in Big East play when the regular season ended, Xavier no longer looked like it was even heading to the NCAA tournament; that is, until it upset Butler in the conference tournament quarterfinals. That win was just the push it needed to earn an NCAA bid, and so the Musketeers squeaked in, earning a No. 11 seed.
That Xavier won its opening-round game over Maryland wasn’t overly surprising, but what it did after that was. After toiling through February as it adjusted to life without Sumner, Mack finally got his team to click, and at just the right time. The Musketeers throttled No. 3 seed Florida State in the Round of 32, then took down No. 2 seed Arizona before finally succumbing to eventual national-runner up Gonzaga.
Best newcomer:Marcus Foster, Creighton
Back in October, SI.com’s College Basketball Projection System pegged a big season for Foster, who came to Creighton after two years at Kansas State, but even that projection (of 14.2 ppg) wound up on the low side. Foster was expected to team with senior guard Maurice Watson Jr. to make one of the most fearsome and dynamic backcourts in the country—and they did. That is, until Watson’s college career ended in mid-January at the hands of a torn ACL. Losing Watson, who was leading the country with 8.5 assists per game at the time, was a devastating blow for a Creighton team ranked No. 7 in the country at the time, its lone loss to top-ranked Villanova.
It was up to Foster and freshman big man Justin Patton to carry the Bluejays to a return to the NCAA tournament, and while the injury to Watson irrevocably altered the team’s ceiling, Creighton did indeed earn its first trip to the Big Dance since 2014. A lot of credit goes to Foster, who poured in 30 points in the first game without Watson and finished the year averaging 18.2 points (on 46.1% shooting), 2.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
Biggest surprise: Providence
The Friars looked set for a rebuilding year after losing two-time Big East Player of the Year Kris Dunn and conference leading scorer Ben Bentil, who both departed for the NBA. Their three-year NCAA tournament streak felt very much in jeopardy, and the league’s head coaches picked them to finish ninth (out of 10 teams) in the preseason poll. Going in, it seemed any success Providence had in 2016–17 would require a strong year from junior forward Rodney Bullock, now out of the shadow of Dunn and Bentil. Bullock delivered, averaging 15.7 points and 6.4 rebounds on 43.6% shooting, but it was the emergence of the Friars’ supporting cast around him that enabled them to turn an expected down year into a fourth straight NCAA tourney trip after closing the regular season with six straight wins.
Emmitt Holt, who was dismissed by Indiana for an alcohol citation back in 2015 and played at a junior college before landing at Providence, proved to be an effective option as the Friars’ second-leading scorer. Meanwhile, juniors Kyron Cartwright and Jalen Lindsey both stepped up with career years. Cartwright had the unenviable task of taking over for Dunn as the starting point guard, but he held his own, averaging 6.7 assists and logging the nation’s fourth-best assist rate.
Biggest disappointment: Georgetown
For the second year in a row, the Hoyas can claim the infamous “biggest disappointment” label in the Big East. After a less-than-stellar 15–18 year in 2015–16 that included losses to Radford and UNC Asheville, Georgetown hoped its 2016–17 campaign would go better. Leading scorer D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera was gone, but many of its other key pieces (including L.J. Peak) returned, and the Hoyas landed talented graduate transfer Rodney Pryor from Robert Morris. Pryor had a big year, scoring 18 points and adding five rebounds per game, while shooting 41.2% from three, but Georgetown lost four of six to start the year, setting the table for another year of unmet expectations.
Then, after just nine games, former five-star recruit Isaac Copeland announced he was transferring, ending a Hoyas career that had started with great promise and never quite lived up to it. Georgetown went on to go 5–13 in Big East play, including losing eight of nine at the end to mark the second straight year that things went from bad to worse in the final month.
One burning off-season question: Can Villanova make another run at a national title?
Winners of the last four regular-season Big East titles, the Wildcats are in a familiar position heading into 2017–18. Their key departure(s) are notable—a season ago it was Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, this time it’s Hart— but they still bring back a strong core that leaves them in great position. The loss of Hart will absolutely be felt, but Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges have both announced they will return to school. In addition, prized big man Omari Spellman will finally be able to suit up, a year after being ruled ineligible for the 2016–17 season, and four-star recruits Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels join the roster. Villanova has the ingredients necessary to remain in the nation’s elite, but things don’t always play out the way they do on paper. With Hart gone, Brunson must make the jump to successfully taking over as No. 1 option, and players like Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo must continue to progress. The Wildcats should still be the cream of the crop in the Big East, and if everything comes together, Jay Wright’s squad could make another run at a national title.