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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | December 23, 2019

How the Big East has put college basketball on alert

Collin Gillespie describes the critical steal and score that sparked Villanova's upset of No. 1 Kansas

How was your weekend? Chances are, it wasn’t as much fun as the Big East’s.

A perfect score for Friday, Saturday and Sunday – 10 teams, 10 games, 10 victories. From Villanova taking down No. 1 Kansas, to St. John’s going west to upend Arizona, to Butler whipping Purdue and beyond. By Sunday night, the Big East was 97-25 against non-conference opponents this season and had hammered the Big 12 in their competition 8-2, with every team carrying a wind gust of momentum going into league play next week.

Two things to mention:

This is the conference that produced only one NCAA tournament victory last March. Villanova barely got past Saint Mary’s in the first round, then was blown away by Purdue by 26 points in the second. This spring might be very different. The .795 winning percentage against the outside world this season is the sixth best in league history. In all five years above it, a Big East team played in the national championship game, and won it three times. Nine conference teams made the Final Four in those five years.

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Also, it’s the supposed second division of the Big East that has been making a lot of the noise. The four teams picked to finish at the bottom of the conference are a combined 44-6. Matter of fact, to check what’s going on out there, let’s look at the teams in reverse order of how they were voted in the preseason coaches’ poll.

DePaul, picked to finish 10th and last . . .

The 12-1 Blue Demons are off to their best start in 33 years, and their 83-78 win over Northwestern Saturday makes them 3-0 against the Big Ten. There’s also an overtime victory against Texas Tech on the resume. DePaul has finally come up with enough firepower to make a move. Four players have double-doubles this season, and Paul Reed’s 10 lead the nation.

St. John’s, picked to finish ninth . . .

Arizona had been averaging 85 points a game, but the 11-2 Red Storm threw a bucket of ice water on that fire, beating the Wildcats 70-67 win, holding them to 39.6 percent shooting. This is the same defense that produced 15 steals against Albany and forced West Virginia into 22 turnovers. The St. John’s winning streak has reached seven, even with second leading scorer Mustapha Heron injured. You could say new coach Mike Anderson has hit the ground sprinting like Usain Bolt. “It’s all about believing,” he said. “I think the confidence is growing.”

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Butler, picked to finish eighth . . .

Butler had 16 assists on 21 field goals and went 11-for-11 from the free throw line in the final 2:19 to finish off Purdue 70-61. The Boilermakers were only the fourth team to break 60 against the 11-1 Bulldogs, who are fourth in the nation in scoring defense and fifth in fewest turnovers per game. The Butler Way is in session. The Bulldogs have beaten Missouri, Stanford, Mississippi and Purdue all away from home, and the only defeat was a 53-52 near-miss at Baylor. The non-conference home court winning streak is now a nation’s longest 57 games.

Creighton, picked to finish seventh . . .

The 10-2 Bluejays’ winning streak went to six games with a 67-60 victory over Arizona State, featuring the usual outside fusillade. Creighton has three guards who have each made at least 30 3-pointers this season. This is the bunch that went up 37-7 on Nebraska, beat Texas Tech in overtime and played Michigan tough in Ann Arbor.

Georgetown, picked to finish sixth . . .

Barely three weeks ago, the Hoyas were 4-3 and four players had just left the program, including two of the top scorers. Club Disarray? Far from it. The chemistry improved, not to mention the offense. Call it addition by subtraction. Georgetown has suddenly turned into a monster, rolling along 5-0 since then by an average margin of 17.6 points — putting up 88 points a game. When Omer Yurtseven isn’t going for 32 points and 17 rebounds, like he did in Saturday’s 99-71 rout of Samford, guard Mac McClung is scoring 33 at Oklahoma State and 26 against Syracuse.

“One of the things I love now is that the ball is moving,” coach Patrick Ewing said. “It’s not sticking. When they have their shots, guys are taking their shots, and they’re finding other guys.”

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Providence, tied for fourth . . .  

Sign in, mystery team of the league. The 7-6 Friars went through an inexplicable three-game losing streak to Penn, Long Beach State and Charleston. Thy endured a 32-point shellacking by Florida — but four days later put a 70-48 throttling on 9-1 Texas, holding the Longhorns to 31.7 percent shooting, including 3-for-21 from the 3-point line.

“They had a desperation and an edge to them,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said.

Providence coach Ed Cooley thought so, too. “This was a win we definitely needed. The early part of the season, we haven’t been the team we wanted to be.”

Marquette, tied for fourth . . .

The 9-2 Golden Eagles started the Big East weekend bash with an 82-68 win over North Dakota State, in what was a big Friday night for the Howard family. Markus Howard’s 32 points ran his brotherly career total with Jordan — formerly of Central Arkansas — to 4,738. That sent the Howards past Stephen and Seth Curry for the highest-scoring brother duo in NCAA history. Markus’ 25.9 scoring average this season is second in the nation.

Xavier, picked to finish third . . .

The 11-2 Musketeers rolled through Fort Worth Sunday and led TCU by 22 before cruising in 67-59. That’s a pretty impressive show of muscle on the Horned Frogs’ home floor. Know the most impressive number of all for Xavier, though? The Musketeers have graduated 109 seniors in a row.

Villanova, picked to finish second . . .

The Wildcats shot under 35 percent, had two free throws all day and still came up with the newest No. 1 head to put on the wall, beating Kansas 56-55. Well, it helped they were playing in Philadelphia. This should also serve as a warning shot across the bow of the rest of the league, that Jay Wright’s reloading at Villanova is coming right along. The defense had issues early, but the Jayhawks came in with one of the nation’s highest octane attacks and labored to get to 55 points. Villanova is now 9-2 and in the top 32 nationally in 3-pointers, free throw percentage, most assists and fewest turnovers. We’ve seen it all before.

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Seton Hall, picked to win the Big East . . .

The injury bug has taken a big chomp out of the 8-4 Pirates, with both All-American Myles Powell and third-leading scorer Sandro Mamukelashvili out, the latter for six to eight weeks. Which is one reason why, after losing by a combined five points against Oregon and Michigan State, they were mashed on the road by Iowa State and Rutgers. What to do if the big scorers are missing? Don’t let the other team score, either. Seton Hall put on a defensive tour de stuffing against No. 7 Maryland, holding the Terrapins to 26.9 shooting in a 52-48 win. Maryland had 14 field goals. Seton Hall had 15 blocked shots. So there. The 75-55 win over Prairie View A&M Sunday that capped off the Big East’s perfect weekend needed no steely defensive effort, but now the Pirates wait for Powell to get back from a concussion.

The Big East coaches had an idea something like this might be coming when they described their expectations for the league race before the season.

“I think it’ll be a dogfight,” Creighton’s Greg McDermott said.

“A bloodbath,” Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski mentioned.

“A beast,” Villanova’s Wright offered.

Looked like that over the weekend, anyway.

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