College basketball: Five Big East games to watch in 2017-18 season
The Big East released its men's basketball regular season schedule on Tuesday, as the basketball season inches closer. The conference is in a healthy state as 70 percent of its teams made the NCAA tournament last spring, and two of the three schools that didn't are coached by former Big East legends who have returned to their alma maters.
Villanova's national championship in 2016 silenced any doubters who may have questioned the new-look Big East's status as one of college basketball's premier conferences, and Xavier's Elite Eight run in March as a No. 11 seed proved that the conference has multiple programs who can win deep into the postseason.
Without furter ado, here are five Big East games to watch this season.
Butler at Georgetown – Wed., Dec. 27
Not only is this game the Big East regular-season opener but it marks Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing's first conference game in his return to his alma mater, where he dominated the Big East as a player in the 1980s. The Hoyas are coming off of a 2016-17 campaign in which they went 14-18 – their lowest win total since 2004 – and Georgetown doesn't return a wealth of experienced players on its roster, but all eyes are on Ewing as Hoya faithful hope he can restore the program to its glory days. He will look to build around center Jessie Govan (10.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and forward Marcus Derrickson (8.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg).
Like Georgetown, Butler will by led by a new head coach this fall. LaVall Jordan, a former player and assistant coach for the Bulldogs, took the Butler job after a one-year stint as the head coach at Milwaukee. He replaces Chris Holtmann, who led Butler to a 25-9 record and a Sweet 16 appearance last season in the program's best season since the Brad Stevens era. Butler returns two of its top three scorers from last year – senior forward Kelan Martin (16.0 ppg) and sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin (10.1 ppg).
Villanova at Butler – Sat., Dec. 30
Villanova went 32-4 last year as the Wildcats pursued a second straight national championship. Half of their losses were against Butler. The Bulldogs won both games by eight points, including an early January victory in Indianapolis that ended the Wildcats' 20-game winning streak that began before their national title run in 2016. In the last four years, only two schools have swept Villanova in their regular-season series against the Wildcats. The Doug McDermott-led Creighton Bluejays did in 2014, then the '17 Bulldogs.
This matchup brings Villanova back to Butler's legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse in a meeting between the first- and second-place teams in the Big East last season. Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins have exhausted their eligibility so Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson, wing Mikal Bridges and breakout candidate Donte DiVencenzo will assume larger roles this winter.
Marquette at Providence – Wed., Jan. 3
Four teams tied for third place in the Big East last season with 10-8 records in conference play – Creighton, Seton Hall, Providence and Marquette. Marquette's trip to Providence a few days after the start of the new year should shed some light on two of the teams that are likely to finish in the middle of the conference standings. Seven of the Big East's 10 teams made the NCAA tournament last season, but can the conference sustain that level of depth?
Sophomore guard Markus Howard (13.2 ppg, 2.3 apg, 2.2 rpg) will be the offensive focal point for Marquette, which loses three of its top five scorers from last season, after he shot a remarkable 54.7 percent from 3-point range last season. Providence will be led by a pair of seniors who were named to the All-Big East Second Team last spring – forward Rodney Bullock (15.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and guard Kyron Cartwright (11.4 ppg, 6.7 apg). The Friars swept last season's regular-season series by a combined five points.
Xavier at Creighton – Sat., Feb. 10
If past performance is any indication of future success, the Big East is Villanova's conference to lose. The Wildcats have won the last four regular season titles and the 2016 national championship. Xavier and Creighton have established themselves among the conference's next tier of teams, and they've had competitive games against each other on an annual basis. Both schools won on the other's home floor last season – each by five points or less – followed by a meeting in the conference tournament semifinals, where Creighton guard Marcus Foster hit a game-winning 3-pointer to send the Bluejays to the Big East championship game.
A Dream of Spring... pic.twitter.com/1J2lOu0kRR— Xavier Basketball (@XavierMBB) September 9, 2017
Foster, a unanimous All-Big East First Team selection after averaging 18.2 points last season after transferring from Kansas State, and Xavier guard/forward Trevon Bluiett, another first-team honoree who averaged 18.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, both returned to school for their senior seasons. Xavier will try to build on its Elite Eight appearance, while Creighton will try to re-capture the mojo it had during its 18-1 start to the season last winter.
Villanova at Seton Hall – Wed., Feb. 28
Since the Big East was restructured prior to the 2013-14 season, Villanova has gone 71-11 in conference regular-season and tournament play. Seton Hall is the only conference foe that has defeated 'Nova three times during that stretch. This season's Pirates squad has the composition to knock off the Wildcats yet again. They return six of their seven leading scorers, including unanimous All-Big East First Team selection Angel Delgado (15.2 ppg, 13.1 rpg) and second team selection Khadeen Carrington (171. ppg). Seton Hall has four seniors and three juniors, who will provide invaluable experience following a two-year stretch in which the Pirates won 46 games and a Big East Tournament title.
This late-season matchup could prove to be pivotal in deciding the Big East regular-season title, and potentially, NCAA tournament seeding.