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Mike Lopresti | | November 18, 2018

College basketball: After tough week, the Big East has a lot to prove as holiday tournaments near

Who can challenge Villanova in the Big East?
Ah, Maui. Ah, Disney World. Ah, Times Square, and the Cayman Islands, too. Those will be the ports of call for several Big East teams this holiday week, and maybe things will be better at the vacation spots.  This is a league in transition, and we just saw how much. To review the carnage of the past week:
Villanova . . .
Getty Images Villanova's Jay WrightVillanova's Jay Wright: "Early in the season, it might not look that pretty.”
The 73-46 loss to Michigan was the worst defeat in the 32-year history of the Finneran Pavilion. Talk about bad timing. Bill Finneran, who put up a lot of money to renovate the place, was in the house being honored.
“If you’re lucky,” he said to the crowd, “you’re seeing the worst game you’re going to see.”
Well, at least until three days later, when the Wildcats lost at home again to Furman. Villanova, two national championships in the past three seasons. Furman, last seen in the NCAA tournament in 1980. Villanova had gone more than five years without back-to-back losses. But that was yesterday.
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Traveled to Indiana, hoping to show continued improvement on defense. Ouch. The Golden Eagles were promptly shellacked 96-73, allowing 63.6 percent Hoosier shooting. That meant the only two Big East teams in the Associated Press top-25 lost on the same night by 27 and 23 points.
“People have been saying how good a team we have,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “We’re not a very good team right now. That’s the reality of it, and that was just exposed tonight.”
Xavier . . .
Had won 41 consecutive non-conference games at home. But Wisconsin put a torch to that streak, 77-68, shredding the Musketeers defense with 62 percent shooting the second half. “I think we have to grow up as a team,” Xavier’s Naji Marshall said afterward.
Creighton . . .
Had won 24 non-conference home games in a row, was 60-0 all-time at home on or before Nov. 26, and had never lost at home on a Thursday in the 16-year history of its arena.
Forget all that, after a 69-60 loss to Ohio State in Omaha.
Seton Hall . . .
Gave up 36 points the last 13 ½ minutes and was blown away at Nebraska 80-57. The Pirates were 2-for-16 in 3-pointers and had only three assists the entire game. This was part of Black Wednesday, when the Big East played three Gavitt Tipoff games against the Big Ten, and went 0-3 by a combined 73 points. The league was 3-5 overall in Gavitt games. Thank goodness for Georgetown, St. John’s and DePaul. By the way, they finished eighth, ninth and 10th in the conference last season.
“It’s a great litmus test. Obviously, it’s one we failed miserably,” Wojciechowski said. He meant his team. Could have meant a chunk of the entire league.
Some of this was not unexpected. The Big East is missing nine of its 11 first or second-team all-conference players from last season. Its marquee powers – Villanova and Xavier – endured particularly heavy personnel losses.  “When you have turnover, early part of the season, getting into role definition is key,” said Butler coach LaVall Jordan, whose Bulldogs were one of only three Big East teams to make it through the season’s first 11 days without a loss. “I have no doubts about what the league’s going to be, though.”
So what now? That’s the question as the Thanksgiving tournaments near.
Can Villanova regain its footing at the Advocare Invitational, possibly playing the likes of Memphis, Florida State or LSU? Against Michigan and Furman, the Wildcats indeed looked like a team that had lost its top four scorers to the NBA.
“I didn’t think it would be like this, but I thought we could be down,” Jay Wright said of his defending national champions. They were wiped out 35-1 by Michigan in points off turnovers, and gave up 44 points in the paint. The starting lineup committed 14 turnovers to go with only eight field goals – or two fewer baskets than Donte DiVincenzo scored by himself the last time they played Michigan, in the national championship game. They couldn’t make the big plays or the big shots when needed against Furman, clanging their way to an upset defeat. How un-Villanovian.
But things have changed, or at least faces have. Lots of people travel to Disney World to buy Mickey Mouse ears. Wright will be there to start developing his rotation. “That’s something you have to go through,” he said of the pains of reloading.
He knew something like this might be coming. Wright over the summer: “Early in the season, it might not look that pretty.”
Can the storyline on Marquette be fixed? Been the same for years — laudable on offense, leaky on defense. The Golden Eagles won 21 games last season but were last in the Big East in points allowed and field goal percentage defense. They started this season better, but Indiana was a setback. The quest continues at the NIT in New York, and that won’t be easy. Not with Kansas to play, and then either Louisville or Tennessee.

“Obviously it’s the biggest area for our program to grow and improve in. Until we shut the narrative down, we’re going to keep talking about it,” Wojciechowski said. “That’s the way the sports world works. I’ve lived in this world my whole life essentially, where people are going to talk about things that maybe aren’t going as well. The only way you change that is by playing better defense. That’s our focus and that’s our hope.”
He thinks his team is bigger, longer, deeper, more committed to defense. Time will tell. He knows what it’s supposed to look like. Wojciechowski was national defensive player of the year for Duke in 1998.
“As somebody who was known for defense, when my team – and certainly I’m responsible for it – wasn’t playing good defense, that is an area of frustration,” he said. “Hopefully, we can change that and it’s something that will be old news.”
He has even been known to jump in on a drill or two. But not for long. “I don’t move too well anymore.”
Can Xavier and new coach Travis Steele bounce back in the Maui Invitational? The surroundings are dreamy — the Musketeers hotel is on Ka’anapali Beach and its website promises five pools, waterslides, tropical gardens and a cave with a hidden jacuzzi — but the basketball will be heavy lifting. Xavier opens against Auburn, and Duke and Gonzaga are among the field too.
“We’ve got to get a lot, a lot, a lot better,” Steele said, especially on defensive communication, which is usually a Xavier plus. “It’s early. I think every team is going to look significantly different in March than they do in November. November basketball is always really ugly.”
Steele faces the dilemma many coaches face this week, when there are tournaments hither and yon in exotic locales; how to keep it a basketball business trip, and still let the players enjoy the surroundings. “College athletics, it’s about the experience,” he said. “Some of our guys may never go back out to Maui ever again.”
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As for the coach trying to make his team better, he’ll be in the room watching lots of film. He might as well be in Ohio.
Creighton is off to the Caymans, Butler to the Bahamas. Georgetown went to Jamaica — coach Patrick Ewing's native land — and was beaten by Loyola Marymount. It's been a tough week in the Big East. Really, really tough when Villanova can lose twice in under 70 hours. A blip or a bad sign? The league will know more after Thanksgiving.

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