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Joe Boozell | NCAA.com | September 13, 2016

Five Big East games to watch in 2016-17

  Even the defending champions will likely have a tough time stealing a win at the Cintas Center.

The Big East men’s basketball schedule was released today, and we’re in store for many incredible matchups in 2016-17.

Villanova and Xavier sit firmly atop the Big East food chain, but after that tandem, it’s mayhem. There might not be much separation between teams three and nine, and that should make for an exhilarating year in the conference.

Here are five Big East games to circle on your calendar.

Saturday, Jan 14: Xavier at Butler

Xavier vs. Butler is one of the more underrated rivalries in college basketball, though the Bulldogs haven’t had much luck taming the Musketeers as of late.

Butler has lost its last four games against Xavier; the Musketeers’ pace-and-space attack has given a leaky Bulldog defense fits. Still, The Dawg Pound always gets riled up for Xavier, and Indianapolis native Trevon Bluiett tends to up his game a few notches at Hinkle Fieldhouse. There are numerous intriguing subplots between these two schools.

Butler could finish just about anywhere in the wide-open Big East this season, but it has a good chance to nip the Musketeers at home.

Wednesday, Jan. 25: St. John’s at Providence

The Friars will likely regress this season without Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, perhaps the most dynamic duo in college basketball from a year ago.

RELATED: ACC schedule breakdown

Meanwhile, in the second year of the Chris Mullin experience, the Red Storm should improve by leaps and bounds. Yankuba Sima is one of the best shot-blockers in the sport, and incoming point guard Marcus LoVett Jr. has a chance to be the best newcomer in the Big East.

These teams seem to be trending in opposite directions, but Ed Cooley’s squad usually exceeds preseason expectations. That’s what makes this matchup so enticing. If we’re really going to see a power shift in the Big East, this game will serve as a useful reference point.

Tuesday, Feb. 7: Georgetown at Villanova

This rivalry goes way back:

These days, Georgetown plays the role of ‘underdog.’ The Hoyas were pegged to make the NCAA tournament last season and instead finished 7-11 in Big East play, but they have enough talent to bounce back in 2016-17. If Isaac Copeland can find consistency and Jessie Govan can fulfill his potential, Georgetown has as good of a chance as anyone to knock off the defending champions at The Pavilion.

But it certainly won’t be easy. Villanova has lost all of one home game in the past two seasons, and it was in overtime to Dunn and the Friars last year. Regardless, Hoyas vs. Wildcats always has a certain sizzle to it.

Saturday, Feb. 11: Villanova at Xavier

Winning at the Cintas Center is a chore for any opposing team, including the defending national champions. The Musketeers have an .875 winning percentage since moving into the venue in 2000, and they upset then-No. 1 Villanova at home by seven last season.

Both teams lose a few key pieces (Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu for Villanova; James Farr and Jalen Reynolds for Xavier), but they’re still likely to open in the top 10 of preseason polls. As mentioned before, it’s Villanova, Xavier and then everyone else in the Big East. The matchup on the wing featuring Josh Hart and Bluiett figures to be particularly entertaining; going into the season, they’re both legitimate Big East Player of the Year candidates.

Saturday, March 4: Creighton at Marquette

This feels like a game that could decide a bubble NCAA tournament berth, doesn’t it? Creighton’s rebuilding efforts since Doug McDermott’s departure seem to be coming to a head in 2016-17, while Steve Wojciechowski has the talent in Milwaukee to challenge for a tournament bid in the third year of his tenure.

March 4 is the last day of Big East regular season play before the conference tournament starts, and in such a tight league, one game can make the difference between a No. 3 or, say, a No. 6 seed in the Big East tournament. It’s obviously too early to say, but it’s not outrageous to think this could be one of those games. Mo Watson vs. Traci Carter is also an excellent point guard matchup; Carter is a breakout candidate for the Golden Eagles this season.

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