The road through the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship goes through the Big East. Well, at least it has in two of the last three years.
If history is to repeat itself and one of basketball’s most consistent and dominant conferences is to win it all yet again, the 10 tournament teams will first have to get through the always tough Big East Championship (March 8-11), which takes place at the famed Madison Square Garden in New York.
Last year, the defending national champion Villanova Wildcats seemed poised for an early-round tournament exit yet again after they failed to win their conference tournament, despite finishing as the regular season champs. That tournament-winning honor went to Seton Hall, who pulled off the upset in dramatic fashion, scoring the game-winning bucket with less than a few seconds to spare.
Bovada Sportsbook’s current Big East winner odds favor Villanova, the #2 ranked team in the country, to win their first Big East title since 2015 and it’s not even particularly close. The Wildcats are -160 favorites over Butler (+300) and Creighton (+750), with the remaining seven teams all longshots at +900 or bigger. That includes last year’s champion, Seton Hall, who are all the way out at +1600.
Wednesday, March 8 | First round
No. 8 St. John’s vs. No. 9 Georgetown — 7 p.m., FS1
No. 7 Xavier vs. No. 10 DePaul — 9:30 p.m., FS1
Thursday, March 9 | Quarterfinals
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 8 St. John’s/No. 9 Georgetown — Noon, FS1
No. 4 Marquette vs. No. 5 Seton Hall — 2:30 p.m., FS1
No. 2 Butler vs. No. 7 Xavier/No. 10 DePaul — 7 p.m., FS1
No. 3 Providence vs. No. 6 Creighton — 9:30 p.m., FS1
Friday, March 10 | Semifinals
Winners of quarterfinals 1 and 2 — 6:30 p.m., FS1
Winners of quarterfinals 3 and 4 — 9 p.m., FS1
Saturday, March 11 | Final
Semifinal winners — 5:30 p.m., FOX
Getting to the Championship
Villanova has proved to be the class of the conference this year and if ever there was an opportunity for the Wildcats to pull off the double of winning both the regular season title and the Big East championship, 2017 would be that time.
Villanova don’t play their first game until Thursday, thanks to the bye. Assuming they advance past either Georgetown (2-0; average margin of victory: 12.5 points) or St. John’s (2-0; average margin of victory: 13 points), then they will meet either Seton Hall, who they have defeated twice this year with an average margin of victory of 26 points or Marquette, which would be the trickier game of the two.
The Golden Eagles are the only team other than Butler to have a win over Villanova this year, beating them by a basket when the teams met in late January. Before that, in their first meeting, Marquette played the Wildcats strong despite a losing effort. Up until the championship final, this could be the toughest game of the tournament for Villanova to get through.
But, this preview’s money is still on the Wildcats to get it done and return to the Big East Championship where, if all holds to form, they will meet Butler, the tournament’s second seed.
The Bulldogs have a tougher draw to the finals as they will enter the quarterfinals against either DePaul or Xavier, neither of which should pose too much of a challenge for the team which is projected to receive a top-three seed on Selection Sunday in a few weeks. It’s the next matchup however which could cause the Bulldogs some trouble.
Butler will either meet Creighton or Providence in the semifinals and as it would turn out, Butler actually has just one win combined against those two teams. The better matchup right now would be Creighton as the Blue Jays have faltered down the stretch winning just two of their last six. However either of these teams could pull the upset. In fact, if there is likely to be an upset in the Big East tournament this year it would come in the form of Butler not reaching the championship.
Villanova vs Butler – Can the Bulldogs make it Three in a Row?
My prediction is that the Big East tournament pretty much holds to chalk with Butler and Villanova advancing out of their respective halves of the draw. As for the pick in the championship, this is where things could get interesting.
Villanova lost three games this year, all within conference and two against the same opponent, Butler.
A member of the Big East since the 2014 season, Butler was kryptonite to the defending national champs this year, taking both meetings, winning by eight points each time. The 18th ranked team in the country, the Bulldogs really were a challenge for the Wildcats, being able to shut down national player of the year candidate Josh Hart (pictured) in both games.
Hart shot just 3-of-11 from the floor in the first contest back in January, which was his second to worst showing this season. Hart fared better the second time around, but still just shot 7-of-18 for .389, his fourth worst performance. Fellow senior Kris Jenkins didn’t fare any better, combining to shoot just 5-of-19 between the two losses.
Butler’s best asset is Kelan Martin, who despite coming off the bench always provides a mismatch for opponents and was a big part of the story as to why Butler managed to defeat Villanova in both meetings this year. Martin played an average of just over 30 minutes but scored a total of 34 points in the two games. Additionally, he pulled down 14 rebounds.
The Bulldogs certainly seem to have the Wildcats’ number, but when a team is as good a Villanova is, it is very hard to beat that team three times in one season. Expect Butler to find that out come the championship as Villanova exacts revenge for the two regular season losses and wins the Big East title en route to another deep run in the NCAA tournament.