This from the Butler coach Monday night, sounding like a man on the beach watching a storm roll in.

``We know what’s coming,’’ Chris Holtmann said.

What’s coming are three ranked opponents in 11 days. Welcome to life in the surging Big East. No league looked more impressive in non-conference play, nor has a race with more possibilities, nor begins its conference season with more noise.

 
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It would seem that the new Big East created three years ago as a basketball novelty on a football-frenzied landscape is all grown up. ``I’d like to say this is what we all predicted,’’ Villanova coach Jay Wright said. ``It’s what we all hoped.’’

Xavier coach Chris Mack seconded the motion. ``To this point, I don’t know of any conference in America that’s playing better than the Big East.’’

How should we laud the Big East, as conference play looms? Let us count the ways.

-- First, the major rankings. The league accounts for one-fourth of the top 16. No. 6 Xavier, No. 9/10 Butler, No. 12/13 Providence and No. 16 Villanova.  

Four teams with a combined record of 45-4. The first three can all make claims about having the most surprisingly powerful start -- in the nation.

``To have four teams ranked in the top 16 of the country at this period of time I think speaks volumes for the strength of our league,’’ Creighton coach Greg McDermott said.

-- Next, the NCAA’s RPI. There Xavier is, No. 1. Villanova is No. 5. ``We like where we’re at,’’ Mack sad. ``But the season is a lifetime.’’

-- Hard and cold results. Xavier over Dayton by 29 points, Cincinnati by 10, and Michigan by 16 in Ann Arbor. Butler over Purdue and Cincinnati, neither game at home. Providence over Arizona. Marquette over Wisconsin in Madison. Seton Hall over Wichita State.

Even the stragglers have had their moments. St. John’s might be 7-6 but beat Syracuse by 12. DePaul might be 6-6 but whipped ranked George Washington by 21. Creighton might be 9-4 but is seventh in the nation in scoring. ``There are no easy outs,’’ McDermott said.

Georgetown lost at home to Radford, Monmouth and UNC Asheville, but beat Syracuse and Wisconsin, and lost by only four to Maryland and two to Duke. A whole battery psychologists would be needed to figure out Georgetown.

Big East brethren won four early-season tournaments and finished second in two others. Put all that together, and it’s a 94-29 non-conference record. Might be the hint of a raucous race. ``You carry those trophies into conference play,’’ Mack said. ``Conference play is going to be a monster.’’

Might also be the harbinger of a memorable March, for a Big East that has not had a Final Four team in six years. Nothing could polish its image faster than changing that. ``We all know the postseason is when a league gets tagged as a good league,’’ Holtmann said. ``But you can’t discount what our league has done in the non-conference.’’

Some of the glowing statistics, from the offense of Butler breaking 90 in five games, to the defense of Villanova holding eight opponents under 60. At last count, Butler was second in the nation in scoring at 89.9 points a game. Xavier fourth in the nation in rebound margin. Providence’s one-man stat sheet, Kris Dunn, was second in the nation in steals per game and seventh in assists, with 11 of those in the first half one night. His season averages are 16.8-6.1-7.3 in points-rebounds-assists, and against NJIT came within one assist and three steals of a quadruple-double.

Marquette freshman Henry Ellenson has seven consecutive double-doubles, and his team has won nine in a row. Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono has 53 assists, and only 13 turnovers, or one every 27 minutes of play. Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado went five consecutive early games without scoring in double figures, but now has five double-doubles in a row. Xavier’s Myles Davis and Butler’s Kellen Dunham are fourth and sixth in the nation in free throw percentage, both above 93 percent.

-- The record books. Xavier has never been ranked this highly, or 12-0. Providence broke into the top 10 for the first time since 1978.

-- The balance. Xavier has five players averaging double figures, Butler has five players in the rotation shooting better than 50 percent. Dunn is favorite for conference player of the year, a contender for national player of the year, and is not even the leading scorer on the Providence team. ``I hope everybody in America concentrates on Kris,’’ Providence coach Ed Cooley said, understanding that leaves room for emerging star Ben Bentil to average 18.8 points and eight rebounds a game.

-- And finally, the schedule. Forget about any warmup act. It’s showtime.

 The four ranked teams all bump into one another Thursday; Providence at Butler and Xavier at two-time defending champion Villanova.

``The best team in the conference until proven otherwise,’’ Mack said of Villanova.

``They’re as good as anybody in the country. It’s great for our league, not great for us for our next game,’’ Wright said of Xavier.

Butler then goes to Xavier Saturday. Eight days later (after a trip to DePaul), the Bulldogs play Villanova.

Marquette sees Villanova, Providence and Xavier within 11 days in early January. If the Golden Eagles beat Seton Hall Wednesday, they will take a 10-game winning streak to Georgetown Saturday, wondering if they get Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hoya.

``I think it would be easy to sit here and say yes, we’re a young team. Yes, they don’t understand that regardless of what name’s on the front of the chest, we’re playing good players and good teams, and it’s solely the function of immaturity,’’ Georgetown coach John Thompson III said of his team’s roller-coaster of a non-conference ride. ``That’s probably part of it, but I don’t want to accept that.

``So now we sit here with some good wins and bad losses, and what’s most important is, did this team learn from it and grow from it and can we stop making the same mistakes that put us in this position?’’

So the league that seems open to so many is going to get some quick answers, none more than Butler in the first 11 days. ``We’re going to have to be able to manage the ups and downs you go through in a challenging league,’’ Holtmann said. He also is trying to deal with one of the Big East’s more vexing mysteries.

Who stole Kellen Dunham’s jump shot?

The all-Big East first teamer is colder than Canada, going 7-for-46 his last four games. That includes the sub-zero 0-for-12 against Purdue.

``He’s one of the best shooters in the country,’’ Holtmann said. ``I don’t think people in the Big East are not going to guard him because he’s in a little bit of a slump.’’

Butler needs his shot back, quickly. Every team needs to fix whatever is broken. Conference play starts Wednesday, and they’re not kidding around. The Big East is back to being Big.

``I think we just stick to our mantra, that we’re the most unique conference in the country and one of the only all-basketball conferences and let it play out,’’ Wright said. ``Whatever we say doesn’t matter. We’ve got to go win games and we’re doing that. Now we’ve got to go battle each other.’’

Mike Lopresti is a member of the US Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, Ball State journalism Hall of Fame and Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He has covered college basketball for 43 years, including 38 Final Fours. He is so old he covered Bob Knight when he had dark hair and basketball shorts were actually short.
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