There's nothing better than Thursday night at the Big East Tournament. The 2023 version of the event lived up to the billing. An overtime finish, the top two tournament seeds on upset watch, and two other high level matchups chock-full of solid competition.
Friday will see all of the top four seeds. My colleague Matt St. Jean brought up on a recent episode of the Road to the Garden Podcast that this hasn't happened in the Big East since 2004. Let's take a look at Thursday's results before we head into a preview of Friday's semifinals at Madison Square Garden:
72-70 (OT), #1 Marquette over #8 St. John's
The Marquette Golden Eagles once again survived a scare from Joel Soriano and the St. John's Red Storm. The Red Storm held a double-digit lead heading into the half; but Marquette countered in the second half and eventually won in overtime.
Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek was the belle of the ball once again for the Golden Eagles. Kolek finished with 19 pts, 9 reb, and 6 ast including some big time plays (both offensively and defensively) toward the end of the game.
In the overtime period, St. John's had its opportunities, but couldn't capitalize offensively. Joel Soriano (12 pts, 12 reb) went down prior to the final possession of overtime. One that he likely would've at the very least drawn a lot of attention.
For Mike Anderson's bunch this was a chaotic year. After an 11-1 start, SJU struggled to pick up wins in conference play. But, winning a game at MSG and being close to knocking off the #1 seed in Marquette may be enough to keep Anderson at SJU for one more year.
73-66, #4 UConn over #5 Providence
The favorite of this tournament, from a betting perspective, was the Connecticut Huskies. Nobody has played better basketball in the country than the Huskies in the past few weeks, per Bart Torvik. Many of the thorns that haunted UConn in January seems to have been totally fixed. Dan Hurley's Huskies are 9-1 in their last ten games, with its only loss being a road loss at Creighton.
Providence College has now lost four of five games. In this one, the Friars started slow out of the gate. It ended halftime with a 16-point deficit, which is hard to overcome against a team as talented and physical as UConn. However, the Friars showed some fight and at least made the game interesting the final six or seven minutes.
Providence forced UConn into 18 turnovers, and got to the line significantly more than the Huskies - yet still saw themselves on the rotten end of a game that wasn't particularly close. Jordan Hawkins' 19 points led the way for UConn, who will be highly anticipating a rematch against Marquette in the semifinals.
For the Friars, while they should undoubtedly be hearing their name called on Selection Sunday, the seed line remains a mystery. The 'Last 10' datapoint that is used by the committee certainly will not favor the Friars. However, If I was a 7 seed, I certainly wouldn't want Providence on the 10 line in my quadrant.
89-84, #2 Xavier over #10 DePaul
The Blue Demons were the second lower seed with a real chance to knock off the favorite in the quarterfinals. A balanced attack from DePaul left the Musketeers down 49-40 at the break. After beating Xavier once this year already, Tony Stubblefield pulled out all the stops in this one.
Unfortunately for DePaul, Xavier woke up in the second half, especially on the defensive side of the basketball. Essentially sticking to a six-man rotation with Zach Freemantle (15.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg) out for the season with an injury, Sean Miller relied on the starting lineup for nearly all the production. The starting five scored 82 of Xavier's 89 points.
In the rearview mirror now, DePaul's season will be one viewed as being marred by injuries. When fully healthy and finally having some playing time together under their belt, the Demons played some of their best basketball of the year down the stretch. Umoja Gibson ended his six-year college career with a 22-point performance in this one.
Xavier will now take on Creighton. The two teams split the series in the regular season.
87-64, #3 Creighton over #6 Villanova
The Creighton Bluejays arguably got the worst draw of the four top teams in the Big East, having to play a fully healthy Villanova team that was trending in the right direction. However, the Bluejays handled business with relative ease this time around.
Trey Alexander extended the Bluejays lead in the first half by hitting multiple three pointers in rapid succession. The Bluejays unselfish play led to 22 assists on 28 made field goals. Creighton just seemed to have an extra giddy-up in their step in this contest - flying around on both ends of the floor.
Creighton shot 12/25 (48%) from beyond the arc, and nearly all of their attempts came with little defensive pressure. In defense of Villanova, back-to-back days of games with multiple guys still just battling back from injuries would be quite taxing. Justin Moore and Jordan Longino went for just 14 points on 5-13 from the field in 51 minutes.
For Kyle Neptune, this first year is kind of a lost year. Similarly with DePaul, it is impossible to gauge how this team would've done had it avoided the injury bug a bit more. We'll see where Villanova goes from here, but that program is headed in the right direction.
#1 Marquette vs. #4 UConn
6:30 ET, FS1
The matchup everyone's been itching to see. The regular season champion, Marquette, takes on a red-hot UConn team with aspirations that go far beyond the Big East Tournament.
These two teams split the regular season series, with each home team winning. Both teams are coming into this one with big win streaks, with Marquette winning their last seven, and UConn winning their last six games.
The matchup to watch here is the one in the paint. Oso Ighodaro (11.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg) will face a much bigger front line in the Huskies. Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan make up one of the better 1-2 interior punches in the entire college basketball landscape. In UConn's win over MU, Sanogo put up 18 points and 7 rebounds, while Ighodaro tallied a paltry three points and one rebound. If a similar stat discrepancy happens in the interior, this one is over before it stared.
Tyler Kolek is the straw that stirs the drink for the Golden Eagles. That's not saying anything new. However, much of MU's offensive success will be due to how well Kolek handles the pressure and length of UConn's backcourt.
Marquette's 2P% is atop the nation (59.2%). If the Golden Eagles handled their work on the glass and take care of the basketball, they should be able to fend off the Huskies. But that is no small task against Dan Hurley's group.
Prediction: 81-73, UConn
#2 Xavier vs. #3 Creighton
These two group split the season series as well this year. Sean Miller's team got routed in Omaha in late January, but held onto a close win over the Jays at Cintas a few weeks prior.
Creighton checks in at #12 on KenPom, while Xavier is at #16, respectively. The main issue for the Bluejays this season has been the lack of bench depth and production. However, with this current version of Xavier, is it too crazy to say they may have the bench edge? Without Zach Freemantle, Sean Miller's options have become quite limited.
Four of Xavier's five starters on Thursday played 35+ minutes. While Creighton had the luxury of resting their starters a bit more, with only two starters eclipsing the 35 minutes played mark. I give the edge to the Jays in that their legs should be a bit more well-rested.
All eyes will be on the matchup of Souley Boum and Ryan Nembhard, however, I again turn my eyes down low. The Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Ryan Kalkbrenner, is much more effective defensively when playing around the rim. However, Jack Nunge's (14.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg) ability to space the floor and play on the perimeter will take Kalkbrenner away from the basket. This had been the key ingredient for Marquette when the Golden Eagles knocked off the Bluejays at home.
On the other side of the floor, the Musketeers are tasked with slowing down Trey Alexander. Alexander is 13-21 from beyond the arc in his last three games. As Alexander goes, so does the Bluejays.
Prediction: 79-74, Creighton