The Big East Tournament starts Wednesday afternoon at Madison Square Garden and after two years of no fans allowed into the building, it should be a raucous atmosphere at the world's most famous arena. There are plenty of storylines and no clear favorite to win this season's tournament and as we saw last year from Georgetown, a team can go on a run from Wednesday and win the whole damn thing. Here's the schedule of games followed by my projection on how the bracket will shape up and who will cut down the nets on Saturday. Remember Big East fans, it's a marathon not a sprint on Quarterfinal Thursday so if you're attending both sessions, take a water break between sessions (you won't take a water break, I know).
Wednesday, March 9
Game 1: No. 9 Butler vs. No. 8 Xavier, 4:30 p.m.
Xavier has been struggling and could find themselves in the NIT if they don't win on Wednesday night. The Musketeers have lost 5 out of their last 6 games and finally got a win over Georgetown at home last weekend to stop the bleeding.
This has been a forgettable season for Lavall Jordan's Butler Bulldogs who haven't won since mid-February and just haven't put it together this season. To the Bulldogs' credit, they have played the top teams in the conference tough at points but couldn't get over the hump this season.
Xavier 73 Butler 61
Game 2: No. 10 DePaul vs. No. 7 St. John’s, 7:00 p.m.
No one wants to face this DePaul team right now. With the return of Javon Freeman-Liberty to the lineup after an injury, the Blue Demons won 3 of 4 going into the tournament and played UConn very tough in a loss in Storrs. Usually a Wednesday night DePaul game is an afterthought but maybe not this year.
St. John's on the other hand needs some help to salvage a very disappointing season. With the return of Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander, there was an "NCAA or bust" feeling towards the Red Storm this year and it decidedly went bust as Mike Anderson's team was very inconsistent even with top-tier play from Champaganie and Alexander. They're capable of an upset considering this is their friendly confines at the Garden but DePaul is a tough matchup to start. Judging by their two previous games, lots of points in this one.
DePaul 90 St. John's 85
Game 3: No. 11 Georgetown vs. No. 6 Seton Hall, 9:30 p.m
The once-powerful Hoyas who ruled the Big East in its heyday are in the worst conference season with going winless (0-19) for the first time in their storied program's history. Patrick Ewing's tenure as coach brought the Hoyas back to prominence with an improbable Big East Tournament Championship last year but the basketball gods are fickle and have turned the tables on Ewing who may be coaching his final game for his alma mater on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden where he had so much success as a player with the Knicks.
The Pirates after a January swoon have caught fire in late February after winning their last five conference games. Seton Hall has had a roller-coaster of a season with early wins against Texas, Michigan, and Rutgers but after a Covid pause in January struggled to get back in rhythm and lost point guard Bryce Aiken to a concussion in a heartbreaking loss to Marquette. If any team is going to make a Wednesday to Saturday run it's going to be the Pirates. They have what is required to make such a run with their experience and depth. All-Big East forward Jared Rhoden and super senior Myles Cale have the experience in the Big East Tournament and their depth at forward with Tyrese Samuel, Alexis Yetna and Tray Jackson is a tough combination. Add on Ike Obiagu's shot-blocking at center and Syracuse transfer Kadary Richmond's improvement at point guard and Seton Hall could make a lot of higher-ranked teams sweat going into the weekend.
Seton Hall 74 Georgetown 59
Game 4: No. 8 Xavier vs. No. 1 Providence, 12:00 p.m.
Welcome to Quarterfinal Thursday, the best day of the college basketball year. For our starting game, the Sporting News Coach of the Year Ed Cooley and his Providence Friars make their debut against Xavier (projected). Playing at the Garden always brings out the best in Cooley's teams and with none of his players making the All-Big East first team, they'll be playing with a chip on their shoulder. Xavier just won't be able to cope with Nate Watson, Al Durham, and company and the Friars should roll to the semifinals (though Xavier did play them tough during the regular season).
Providence 85 Xavier 76
Game 5: No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 4 Creighton, 2:30 p.m
Truly nothing says "Big East" than two teams hailing from Wisconsin and Nebraska. Creighton swept the regular-season games between them but I love the way Shaka Smart prepares his teams for postseason tournaments. I predict a big game from Marquette's Justin Lewis as the Golden Eagles advance to Friday as the Blue Jays will experience "havoc" with losing their top point guard Ryan Nembhard to a season-ending injury last month.
Marquette 81 Creighton 71
Game 6: No. 10 DePaul vs. No. 2 Villanova, 7:00 p.m.
Thursday night, let's get nuts. A typically late-arriving crowd will be treated to the Villanova Wildcats playing a plucky DePaul (projected) team. What we were talking about with Seton Hall (depth and experience) can be applied to Villanova as well. Probable Big East Player of the Year Colin Gillespie will put Villanova on his back but the X factor for them this year is forward Eric Dixon who gives the Wildcats an edge with his rebounding ability and is not afraid to mix it up in the post. Villanova rolls into the semifinals.
Villanova 68 DePaul 53
Game 7: No. 6 Seton Hall (projected) vs. No. 3 UConn, 9:30 p.m
This game will put several beer vendors at Madison Square Garden kids into summer camp. For those who haven't seen a UConn fan showing at the Garden, you might as well be sitting in Gampel Pavillion as the Huskies fans bring the loud and beer money to midtown, and having them as the final game on Thursday will just add to the madness. Seton Hall and UConn played an overtime classic with the Pirates prevailing in January but UConn salvaged a split at Gampel when they controlled the game from buzzer to buzzer in February. There will be a fair share of Pirates fans in the crowd too and these two teams are pretty evenly matched. This is a coin flip game and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised by a controversial ending. I think UConn is just a bit better here.
UConn 72 Seton Hall 71
Providence vs Marquette
Villanova vs. UConn
I like Marquette to pull the upset over Providence on Friday as the Golden Eagles advance to the championship behind Justin Lewis. In the second game, Villanova's tournament experience gives them the edge over UConn. I just like a Shaka Smart vs. Jay Wright Tournament final.
Marquette vs. Villanova
We've all seen this movie before but a player like Gillespie playing on the world's biggest stage at Madison Square Garden before a nationally televised audience on Fox, it just seems inevitable that the Wildcats will raise the trophy as the confetti drops on Saturday night. Villanova wins the Big East Tournament and Colin Gillespie gets the Tournament MVP.