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Mike Lopresti | | January 17, 2017

Big East basketball's resurgence (by the hour)

  Villanova took down Seton Hall during the Big East basketball MLK Day marathon.

It’s 11 o’clock Monday morning, and Blue III, the Butler Bulldog, is taking a pre-game walk around the concourse of Hinkle Fieldhouse. He doesn’t look so excited, but then, that’s a bulldog for you. Because this is a big day in the Big East.

Times are good for the league, four years into its rebooted existence. Defending national champion Villanova is back to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. Four teams are in the top 20 of the latest coaches’ rankings – compared to, say, the Big Ten, with one. Three members – Villanova, Creighton, Butler – are in the top nine on the latest RPI list. The league has gaggle of resume-shining wins: Butler over Indiana and Arizona, Villanova over Purdue and Notre Dame, Creighton over Wisconsin, Seton Hall over then-unbeaten South Carolina. Even Georgetown, struggling to regain national relevance, took down Oregon.

Four years ago, it was a bit of a gamble, thinking a non-football league could gain enough traction to thrive. But look at it now.

“There is a competitiveness within the league about fulfilling the mission of our presidents, who really did think it could work,” commissioner Val Ackerman said over the phone. “That vision seems to have been realistic and successful.”

Monday is a day to display it. All 10 teams, five games, one after another on FS1 in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day marathon.

“A Big East binge,” Ackerman called it. “An important day for the conference.”

And all the players wore MLK patches.

So, one day in the life of the Big East...

9 a.m. It’s not just Villanova. Consider Creighton, Butler and Xavier – the three outsiders invited when Big East II was born four years ago.

“The contribution of the three Midwestern schools that have been added has been extraordinary, not surprising given their commitment to basketball,” Ackerman said. “It has been great for them and great for the conference.”

Add old guard Marquette, Seton Hall and Providence, and the top seven teams carry a 98-26 record into Monday.

“I think if you talk to our coaches, they’ll say you can’t look past any game,” Ackerman said. “Even if it’s a home game.”

Must be fun for her watch.

“Mostly I sit on the couch, and let my husband do the remote control.”

But she’s hitting the road Monday.

“I’ll be at the nightcap,” Ackerman said, meaning Providence at Georgetown.


12:09 p.m. Marquette freshman Markus Howard has 12 points before the first T.V. timeout. Howard’s 93.9 free throw percentage would be among the nation’s leaders, except he doesn’t have enough attempts to qualify. One who does, at No. 4 nationally, is a junior from Central Arkansas at 93.1 percent. It is his brother, Jordan. The two Howard siblings have taken 120 free throws combined this season and missed only eight.

12:43 p.m. Butler, 10-0 on the season at home, trails 41-25 at halftime. Even the bulldog looks worried.

12:53 p.m. Big East players reciting passages from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech are played on the video board, as they will be in all Big East arenas Monday.

2:02 p.m. Butler storms back from 18 points behind in the final 19 minutes for an 88-80 victory. But then, a team is normally going to win when it scores 63 points, shoots 70 percent and has no turnovers the second half.

Sixty-three points in one half? Not your father’s Big East. Back in Georgetown’s defensive heyday in the 1983-84 season, the Hoyas held 23 opponents to 63 or under for the entire game.

2:25 p.m. Marquette is leaving town with an 83.7-scoring average. The last time it topped 80 for the season was 1971. But coach Steve Wojciechowski is clearly disturbed.

“When they met adversity, they turned it up defensively,” he said of Butler. “When we met adversity, we were hoping we’d make a shot, and hope is not a strategy . . . The way they answered adversity is the way you win. The way we tried to answer adversity is the way you lose.”

2:40 p.m. Butler is 16-3 and 5-1 against ranked opponents and has already beaten Villanova, Xavier and Providence – the Bulldogs’ Bermuda Triangle. They went 2-18 against that trio the first three Big East seasons, so the trend is clearly upward. But Holtmann mentions a disquieting habit: trailing at halftime in five consecutive games. The Bulldogs won four of them but won’t be able to get away with that forever, especially on the road. Holtmann blames defense.  

“We’ve got a long ways to go in that area,” he said. “And a win doesn’t take that away.”


2:52 p.m. A torrid first half between two ranked teams suddenly turns dark for Creighton. That was guard Maurice Watson Jr., the nation’s assist leader and the straw that stirs the Bluejays, being carried off the court with a knee injury by two teammates. The injury was later revealed to be a season-ender and a devasting blow for Creighton.

4:32 p.m.  Xavier has missed 13 free throws and now somehow can’t hit any threes from point-blank range, down 68-67 with 21 seconds left. It ends 72-67.

“Tough day,” coach Chris Mack said later.

Tough week, in fact. Xavier had to play the three bears of the Big East in seven days – Villanova, Butler, Creighton – and lost to all three.

As for Creighton, the 18-1 Bluejays now own the best start in school history to go with their highest ranking ever (No. 7). And they do it with only nine minutes from Watson.

"That was a culture win for us," coach Greg McDermott said.


4:40 p.m. Lou Carneseccsa is in the house -- which carries his name. The patriarch of St. John's basketball is 92.

6:36 p.m. The Red Storm passes last season's win total -- Chris Mullin's first at his alma mater -- with a 78-68 win over DePaul to go 9-11. St. John's has been a little mercurial, upsetting Butler and destroying Syracuse, but dropping the last four in a row by 13, 15, 28 and 13 points. Mullin is certainly eager to progress. He was 45-18 in the Big East as a St. John's player. He's now 4-21 as the coach.

"I've been very clear with these guys since day one -- don't disrespect what it takes to become a winner," he said. "They've been good about it. They understand, and I think we're starting to make strides."


6:45 p.m. Angered by a loss to Providence Saturday, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said he was “embarrassed” and “flabbergasted” by the defensive effort, and that his players, “can take Amtrak home for all I care.”

Maybe it would inspire the Pirates Monday. Or maybe not. Villanova is ahead 24-7 after 12 minutes. Freshly returned to the No. 1 spot earlier in the day, the Wildcats apparently intend put on a show.

6:56 p.m. Villanova alum and basketball Hall of Fame coach George Raveling calls into the FS1 broadcast with his great story concerning this holiday. In 1963, he was on the security detail for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and when King was finished, Raveling asked for the printed version. King gave it to him. Raveling kept the speech in a special book for 25 years, but now has it in a vault, a priceless piece of American history.

“It’s had an everlasting effect on my life,” he said on the air. “I just think I’m the caretaker of the speech. I hit the lottery by being there at the right time and asking the right question.”

8:16 p.m. Still 10 minutes left, and yes, Villanova is ahead 65-31 against the team that upset the Wildcats for the Big East tournament title last spring. It’s going to be a long Amtrak ride back to Seton Hall.

8:42 p.m. It’s over, 76-46. Villanova, 18-1, looks right at home as No. 1.

“It’s just a number,” Kris Jenkins shrugged.

The Wildcats win their 47th in a row in its Pavilion with trademark defensive resolve and offensive efficiency. The Wildcats are averaging 78.6 points a game despite being ranked well into the 300s nationally in field goal attempts. They don’t need many.

Josh Hart’s day includes 11 points, four rebounds and four steals, after which Willard said: “If Josh Hart isn’t the player of the year, there’s something wrong with people. They should put a statue of him of what college basketball is.”

Only two teams have beaten Villanova its past 32 games: Butler 12 days ago and Seton Hall last March.


9 p.m. Georgetown and Providence tip off in the Verizon Center, barely four hours after the Washington Wizards had beaten Portland in the NBA. The Wizards have won 12 home games in a row. The NHL Capitals have won six in a row in the Verizon Center.

10:57 p.m. The good karma doesn’t help Georgetown. Providence rolls 74-56, as the Hoyas drop to 1-5 in the Big East with Xavier, Creighton and Butler their next three opponents. This could get very ugly for Georgetown, whose revival (and St. John’s) is high on the Big East wish list.

The long day is over. It included so much of what the Big East is now – Villanova’s cohesive power, Butler’s pluck. Creighton’s depth. Plus a wave of young talent: 26 points from Marquette’s Howard, 18 points and game-changing defense from Butler’s Kamar Baldwin, a huge tip from Creighton’s Justin Patton, Xavier’s Edmond Sumner’s all-world dunk, Jalen Brunson’s 13 points and six assists for Villanova, Malik Ellison’s career 23-point day for St. John’s. All freshmen or sophomores. St. John's backcourt of Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett, averaging 33.5 points a game.  The pair is second among the nation's freshman duos only behind Kentucky's vaunted Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox. 

“Our league is recruiting at an extremely high level,” Butler’s Holtmann mentions. “It’s going to be good for a long time.”

Something else Marquette’s Wojciechowski said earlier in the day: How the Big East is deep enough now to demand constant focus on the future and amnesia about the past.

“This is a league where if you take what just happened, whether it’s good or bad, into the next thing you have to do, you set yourself up for a world of hurt. Our league’s as good as any league in the country.”

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