For the 35th consecutive year, New York’s Madison Square Garden will host one of the premier college basketball events of the season, the Big East Conference Tournament (March 7-10).
With six to seven of the Big East teams likely headed for a NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament aka March Madness berth and the propensity for upsets, this could also be one of the most compelling conference tournaments on this year’s slate.
The First Round: St. Johns, Georgetown, DePaul, Marquette
The Big East tournament will kick off on tonight (Wednesday, March 7) with two first round matchups, pitting No. 9 St. John’s against No. 8 Georgetown (7 PM on FS1) and No. 10 DePaul against No. 7 Marquette (9:30 PM on FS1). The remaining six teams will have byes into the quarterfinals.
None of the four teams mentioned above is really expected to make much noise in the tournament. Marquette and St. John’s are listed the highest of the four with odds to win, at +2800 compared to -115 for favorite Villanova, inspired by their star player Jalen Brunson. Georgetown comes in with the second to worst odds (+7500) with only DePaul having longer odds to win according to the American offshore sportsbooks. Their odds sit at a whopping +15000.
With its 18-12/9-9 Big East record, Marquette is not a bad long shot to throw some money towards either. The Golden Eagles have reached the NCAA tournament Sweet Sixteen three times since 2010 and have gone to one Elite Eight in that span as well. And while this year’s Marquette team isn’t nearly as strong as the ones of the early 2010s, the Golden Eagles played respectably in one of the best conferences in college basketball this year. Marquette swept their season series with Creighton and Seton Hall, two teams that are tournament-bound. They also, despite losing all four to the powerhouses of Villanova and Xavier, played both teams well, as only one of those games was decided by more than 10 points and two of them came down to four points or less. Marquette is a bubble team to make March Madness and a good showing here could make all the difference.
St. Johns (15-16/4-14) has won the Big East tournament three times, most recently in 2000. Over the past two decades however, St. John’s, one of the longest standing teams in college basketball and with the ninth most overall wins, really struggled to recapture their early glory. Not counting a tournament appearance in 2002 that was vacated due to a rules violation, the Red Storm have been to just three NCAA tournaments from 2000-2017, the most recent of which was in 2015. On the season, the Red Storm won just four Big East games on the year, but one of them was against the country’s then top-ranked team in Villanova. This win came just four days after St. Johns defeated No.4 in the country, Duke. Likely to miss March Madness however, the team’s season has been defined more by close losses, especially in conference, as 10 of St. Johns games in the Big East, saw them lose by less than eight points.
Expect St. Johns and Marquette to advance to the quarterfinals, where they will face Xavier and Villanova respectfully. Both St. Johns and Marquette could pull off stunning upsets, but it’s likely, at least in the first two rounds, the Big East holds to chalk.
The Spoilers: Seton Hall, Creighton, Providence, Butler
All remaining eight teams will be in action for the quarterfinals (March 8) where our middle-of-the-road teams will face each other for the right most likely to play either Villanova or Xavier in the semifinals. These games are No. 5 Providence vs No. 4 Creighton (2:30 PM on FS1) and No. 6 Butler vs No. 3 Seton Hall (9:30 PM on FS1).
Led by the efforts of tournament MVP, Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall (21-10/10-8) pulled off back-to-back upsets to win the Big East tournament in 2016 as the third seed, which is their same seeding this year. In fact, that tournament field wasn’t unlike this one. Marquette was seeded seventh, Georgetown eighth, and Villanova and Xavier, both teams who Seton Hall beat, were one and two, swapping spots from how they are seeded this year. Seton Hall struggled with both Xavier and Villanova in the regular season, winning just one game in 2016 and going 0-4 this year. Seton Hall did play Villanova well in their final meeting, losing by just one point in overtime.
Creighton (21-10/10-8) won their last Big East tournament back in 2013 but managed to make appearances in March Madness twice in the last four seasons. Their resume is likely good enough to secure them a top 10 seed this time around but a strong performance in the conference championship certainly wouldn’t hurt their cause. The Blue Jays struggled against Xavier but did manage to pull out an overtime victory over Villanova late in the season. Creighton has had the number of Jay Wright’s Wildcats over the past couple victories so this is certainly an opponent Villanova would rather not see in the finals. Creighton went 1-1 on the season against Providence, who they get in the quarterfinals.
Butler (19-12/9-9) is another one of those teams that has a win over Villanova this year, but dropped a pair to Seton Hall, their quarterfinal opponent. The two teams just met this past Saturday in the season finale however, and with such a quick turnaround, Butler might be able to stop the third time for being a charm for Seton Hall. The Bulldogs were twice national runner-ups in 2010 and 2011, but have yet to really make a splash since joining the Big East in 2013. They could be poised to have a solid run in this tournament however and our prediction is that they do, and move on to face Villanova in what would be an exciting semifinal. Look for Creighton to overcome Providence to set up their semifinal against Xavier.
The Favorites: Xavier, Villanova
In a semifinal of Villanova vs Butler and Creighton vs Xavier, there could be some upset potential especially with the Wildcats. This is the first season since 2014 that Villanova (27-4/14-4) is not the outright regular season champion. Of those four titles however, the Wildcats have only won the conference tournament twice and have shown in the past a susceptibility to upsets, much like Seton Hall’s in the finals in 2016 or Seton Hall’s again in the quarterfinals two years prior.
That all being said, Villanova was the top-ranked team for much of this season and only recently hit a skid which saw them uncharacteristically drop some key Big East games, opening the door for Xavier (27-4/15-3), despite losing both regular season matchups to the Wildcats, to have a slightly better conference record.
They say it’s hard for one team to beat another three times in one season and that’s exactly what Xavier will be banking on as the Wildcats defeated them in their prior two meetings this season. Villanova finished the regular season as the second-ranked team in the country and Xavier right behind them, was the third. Both teams could ostensibly secure No. 1 seeds for March Madness and meeting in the Big East final would probably help ensure that.
Keep an eye on the Butler/Villanova game for a splash if history is any indication. Our pick however is that Villanova squeaks by, setting up the showdown with Xavier, where it will be the Musketeers, who last won the Big East tournament in 2006, celebrating with the trophy.