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Mike Lopresti | | January 1, 2014

Lopresti: Big East rings in new year in big way


They wore special shirts at Xavier, sang songs at Creighton, mourned an overtime loss at Butler, endured a heartbreaking thriller at Providence and watched the team picked to finish last flirt with a road upset at Georgetown.

While everyone else was ringing out the old Tuesday, the Big East was ringing in the new. Five consecutive games, a noon-to-midnight marathon designed to serve as a coming-out party. “Kind of everything we’ve got, all at once,” new commissioner Val Ackerman would call it during the day.

And so it was. As 2014 marched across the globe, the new Big East marched across the stage, a modern concoction aiming to prove that a basketball conference can thrive in the age of football mega-leagues.

The first day in the life of a fresh idea:

Xavier 70, St. John's 60
Noon ET -- Happy New Year in Bangkok!

Meanwhile, the blue and white shirts are on all the seats at Xavier. Across their front: “Celebrate a Big New Year!” The assembled put them on, with eager plans to celebrate against St. John’s.

Then the Musketeers go without a point the first eight minutes. Now that they have joined the Big East, would they ever score in the Big East?

They finally do, and end up winning 70-60, with stats that suggest they have muscle enough for their new surroundings. They outscore the Red Storm 40-18 in the paint, outrebound them and hold them to 30.9 percent shooting the second half. They also display the sober maturity of a successful team not about to be giddy over one victory, no matter how groundbreaking.

“I don’t want to sound like a party pooper, but it’s just like any other win,” Justin Martin says afterward, after scoring 15 points. “We don’t look at the name across the jersey, we just worry about winning the game.”

The house is full. Xavier -- a program that has graduated its past 91 seniors -- should be a good Big East addition in a lot of ways.

The league has only Villanova in this week’s rankings, but St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin has been around long enough to understand what is to come. “I would expect anywhere from four to six teams to make the NCAA tournament, and nine to play in the postseason,” he says in a hallway afterward. “People who know basketball are going to see this league is as good as any.”

St. John’s leaves this day a loser, but should be a factor with its talent and a proven coach. It also has two sure members of the All-American Name Team: Sir’Dominic Pointer and God’sgift Achiuwa.

The public address announcer has one last message to the Xavier crowd as it leaves, and it is an apt summation of how this is a new day for the Big East: “The next game is Saturday against Big East rival Butler.”

Seton Hall 81, Providence 80 (2OT)
2:30 p.m. ET -- Happy New Year, Islamabad!

Meanwhile, Seton Hall and Providence face one another as members of the Big East old guard. While Xavier and St. John’s just played for only the second time ever, this is the 93rd meeting between the Pirates and Friars.

A memorable one it is, too. It takes 16 lead changes, 11 ties and two overtimes for Seton Hall to win 81-80. Providence does not lose from lack of effort. Leading scorer Bryce Cotton goes all 50 minutes.

Providence has come in carting around some unusual numbers. The Friars are last in the league in field-goal shooting, but lead the nation in free-throw shooting. They have also just lost in overtime to Massachusetts, making them 1-7 in their past eight overtime games.

Nothing changes this day. They are less than 43 percent from the floor but nearly 78 percent from the line. And lose in overtime again.

“There’s a lot of different things going through my head right now,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley tells reporters afterward. “We’re finding ways to lose games. I’ve got to do a better job. I’ve got to continue to keep our kids positive.”

Georgetown 61, DePaul 54
5 p.m. ET -- Happy New Year, Helsinki!

Meanwhile, the new Big East commissioner is in the house to see DePaul visit Georgetown.

“It’s an important day for us, the culmination of a lot of change. We feel like we’re kind of starting with a bang,” Ackerman says over the phone from the Verizon Center. “I wanted to be somewhere in person. It probably would have been more efficient to stay at home on my couch. My husband is texting me like crazy with updates.”

With games in such outposts as Korea and Puerto Rico, Georgetown has flown more than 17,000 miles for the non-conference schedule, but the Hoyas are sufficiently grounded enough Tuesday to finally put away the Blue Demons 61-54. Georgetown is led by Markel Starks who, according to his team bio, wants to be a congressman. Scoring 21 points in the Big East opener is one way to get votes.

DePaul is hoping a new league brings new karma, after going 7-83 in the Big East regular season the past five years. The Blue Demons get an early lead, but are overpowered in the second half. “I told the guys throughout the course of the game,” DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell says, “this is the way it’s going to be on the road in the Big East.”

Villanova 76, Butler 73 (OT)
7:30 p.m. ET -- Happy New Year in Casablanca!

Meanwhile, Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse might be 85 years old but this is Villanova’s first visit. It will be that way for Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall and St. John’s, as well.

The Big East is only 3-12 so far against Top 25 opponents, and Villanova owns two of the three wins, including beating Kansas. So the Wildcats have gotten the most buzz in the league, but that doesn’t mean anything will come easily. This game doesn’t, as Villanova escapes 76-73 in overtime, getting by with 42-20 dominance in the paint.

It is an intense grind for both sides, with signs of hard work everywhere. The game’s leading rebounder with nine is Butler’s Alex Barlow. He’s 5-11.

“Same old Big East,” television commentator Bill Raftery says to Villanova head coach Jay Wright in the postgame interview.

“That’s exactly what it was,” Wright says later. “Look at the games [Tuesday]. That’s the way it’s going to be, and I love it. You’re not going to see better basketball than that.

“You can tell when you walk in here, they appreciate basketball. That’s what’s going to be great about this league. I don’t think everybody in the country yet is going to understand what it is, because we haven’t done this before. But you watch the games [Tuesday]. Basketball is the sport.”

Two of Butler’s three defeats have been in overtime and the other by two points, and Bulldogs head coach Brandon Miller talks of a “sting in your stomach, a sting in your gut.”

But this is a big night for Butler, going 45 minutes with a Big East power in a physical test of will. There will be more.  “I don’t think our guys backed down in any way,” Miller says. “Anytime you’re playing against tough guys, you’re going to have some physicality in a game. Whether the whole Big East is going to be like that, it’s tough to tell. [Tuesday night], it definitely was.”

Miller also makes sure to mention how the feats of others at Butler helped lead to this New Year’s Eve. “There were a lot of special things done by a number of different people for us to be sitting where we’re sitting, and playing this game.”

Creighton 67, Marquette 49
10 p.m. ET -- Happy New Year, Buenos Aires!

The loudest is saved for last. CenturyLinkCenter in Omaha is in a roar with 18,525, the third-largest crowd in Creighton history. Marquette falls behind quickly and stays there in a 67-49 loss. But that’s not so unusual. Creighton has not trailed one second its past five home games, and only 5:53 of 320 home minutes all season.

Marquette head coach Buzz Williams learns what a lot of other Big East coaches will find out: “I think it’ll be incredibly hard for teams to win here.”

Rather than gun down a team with its customary 3-point barrage -- All-American Doug McDermott has a routine (for him) 19 points -- Creighton relies on passing and defense. Nineteen of its 25 field goals come with assists. Marquette, meanwhile, has to struggle to score 49. So perhaps a Big East preconception about Creighton has been busted the first night.

“I think we proved that we can be a decent defensive team,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott would say later. “The other teams that are long and athletic, they don’t have a corner on defense.”

Toward the end, the Bluejays faithful break into a rousing rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”  It has been a perfect night for the home team.

But Marquette has some problems to solve. Picked to win the Big East, the Golden Eagles are 8-6.

1 a.m. ET -- Happy New Year, Omaha!

“It’s something our guys will never forget, something I’ll never forget,” Greg McDermott says in his news conference. “I told them in the locker room, 'Nobody can ever take this away from you.’

“Everybody that was here is going to remember it. It’s going to be something our guys are going to be able to tell their kids and grandkids forever.”

So 2014 has come to all the Big East. The future is under way.


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