The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Who’ll win this year? A breakdown of teams

- By David Borges

Ed Cooley tried to puff up the UConn men’s basketball team on Monday, insisting the Huskies should be the No. 1 team in the country right now.

Dan Hurley wouldn’t take the bait. But, with the Big East Tournament kicking off what promises to be a wild week on Wednesday, Hurley was quick to acknowledg­e that the league just might be No. 1 in all the land.

“I’ve always thought that the Big East has played as well as any conference in the country this year,” Hurley said after practice on Monday. “I’ve always felt like the top five (teams) have been as good as any top five. With the way Villanova’s been playing, and then Seton Hall goes on the road and (beats Providence) and St. John’s will be playing in the Garden ... it really feels like the top eight in this league are all going in with a lot of momentum.”

So who’ll win this year’s tournament? At least one sports betting site lists UConn as +200 favorites to win (followed closely by Creighton at +300 and regular-season champ Marquette at +340). But the field really is wide-open, as Hurley suggested.

Here’s a breakdown of what each team brings to the table this week, and what they need to do to improve their seeding (or merely qualify for) next week’s Big Dance.

1. Marquette (17-3 Big East, 25-6 overall)

Picked to finish ninth in the Big East and winding up winning its first outright Big East regular-season title by two games, the Golden Eagles boast the almost certain league Coach of the Year in Shaka Smart as well as likely Player of the Year Tyler Kolek. They’ve won six straight and are ranked No. 6 in the country. Currently straddling the 3 and 4 seed-line, a run to a tourney title could possibly get them to 2-seed territory.

Biggest strength: Offense. Kolek is the engine that makes it all go, second in the nation in assists.

Biggest issue: Defense. Marquette nearly squandered a 10point lead with 20 seconds left against St. John’s on Saturday.

First game: Thursday at noon, vs. St. John’s/Butler winner.

2. Xavier (15-5, 23-8)

One of the most dynamic offenses

in the country for much of the season, Musketeers have been hurt by the season-ending foot injury to Zach Freemantle, arguably the team’s best allaround player.

Biggest strength: Musketeers can still fill it up, thanks largely to All-Big East firstteame­r Souley Boum.

Biggest issue: Freemantle’s absence. Xavier’s gone 6-3 since he went down, but the competitio­n will get no more intense than this week.

First game: Thursday, 7 p.m. vs. Seton Hall/DePaul winner.

3. Creighton (14-6, 20-11)

Preseason favorite Bluejays overcame a six-game losing streak(!) earlier this season to finish third in the league. They’ll play the Villanova-Georgetown winner on Thursday night.

Biggest strength: Starting five. Arguably the best in the league and one of the best in the country, Creighton’s starters average between 11.9 and 15.1 points per game.

Biggest issue: Depth. Jays really only go six, maybe sevendeep.

First game: Thursday, 9:30 p.m. vs. Villanova/Georgetown winner.

4. UConn (13-7, 24-7)

Huskies won the ultra-competitiv­e PK Invitation­al, winning

three games in four days. They’re tournament-tested.

“Obviously, we’re playing great — again — like we have most of the year,” said Hurley. “We’ve proven to play well in the only tournament we’ve played in. We certainly have confidence going into New York, but we also know that to advance in this tournament, you’re going to have to play great.”

Biggest strength: Depth, defense, connectivi­ty. The Huskies go 9-10 deep, have really clamped down defensivel­y over the past few weeks and are super-connected as a unit.

Biggest issue: Turnovers. UConn averaged 12.8 per game in league play, more than any team except St. John’s and Seton Hall.

First game: Thursday, 2:30 p.m. vs. Providence.

5. Providence (13-7, 21-10)

After dropping just one home game over the prior two years, Friars dropped their final two games of the season, both at home — including a 24-point regular season-ending beatdown by Seton Hall. A near-lock for the NCAA tournament just a week or so ago, the Friars could be precarious­ly close to the bubble if they don’t beat UConn on Thursday.

Biggest strength: Rebounding, and getting to the line. Friars

shot 444 free throws in Big East play. No other team topped 400.

Biggest issue: Defense. At least lately. PC allowed 82 or more points in three of its last four games.

First game: Thursday, 2:30 p.m. vs. UConn.

6. Villanova (10-10, 16-15)

Left for dead after a grisly 2-5 start in both non-conference and conference play, the Wildcats got injured star Justin Moore back and have won six of their last eight games. Despite that, ‘Nova almost certainly needs to win the tournament and earn the automatic qualifier to reach the NCAA tournament. It’s not out of the question.

Biggest strength: Foul shooting. This is not damning with faint praise. ‘Cats are first in the nation from the charity stripe at 82.3 percent.

Biggest issue: Point guard. Villanova really doesn’t have one.

First game: Wednesday, 8 p.m. vs. Georgetown.

7. Seton Hall (10-10, 17-14)

The Pirates just won at Providence, beat UConn in January. They’re tough, but they’ll need to win this tournament to get to the Big Dance.

Biggest strength: Defense. Built in Shaheen Holloway’s image, Pirates allowed just 67.6 ppg in league play, second in the Big East.

Biggest issue: Kadary Richmond’s back. Arguably Pirates’ top player has missed last two games with injury.

First game: Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. vs. DePaul

8. St. John’s (7-13, 17-14)

Can Red Storm utilize homecourt advantage and make a miracle run to a tourney title? Not if fans are booing coach Mike Anderson, who many want gone.

Biggest strength: Homecourt advantage.

Biggest issue: Homecourt advantage (see above).

First game: Wednesday, 3 p.m. vs. Butler.

9. Butler (6-14, 14-17)

Thad Matta’s return home hasn’t been a particular­ly good one. Bulldogs need a miracle this week, and Gordon Hayward ain’t walking through that door.

Biggest strength: Matta, maybe? Not much to like here.

Biggest issue: Firepower. Bulldogs really have none.

First game: Wednesday, 3 p.m. vs. St. John’s.

10. DePaul (3-17, 9-22)

You could make the argument that Georgetown has a better chance of winning a game this week than Blue Demons, though they did beat Xavier at home recently.

Biggest strength: Rim protection. Blue Demons lead Big East in blocked shots, led by Nick Ongenda, who’s averaged nearly five per game since returning from injury.

Biggest issue: Just about everything else.

First game: Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. vs. Seton Hall.

11. Georgetown (2-18, 7-24)

Hoyas made a surprise run to the 2021 Big East tourney title. This year? Not. Happening. Only question is whether Patrick Ewing calls it quits after it’s over.

Biggest strength: Hoyas have some talented players, led by Windsor’s Primo Spears (15.3 ppg).

Biggest issue: Let’s just say he’s one of the greatest ever to play basketball.

First game: Wednesday, 8 p.m. vs. Villanova.

david.borges@hearstmedi­ @DaveBorges

 ?? Jessica Hill/Associated Press ?? UConn's Jordan Hawkins (24) shoots as Marquette's Olivier-Maxence Prosper (12) defends in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Feb. 7 in Hartford.
Jessica Hill/Associated Press UConn's Jordan Hawkins (24) shoots as Marquette's Olivier-Maxence Prosper (12) defends in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Feb. 7 in Hartford.

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