Breaking down Big East Tournament and picking a winner


Top-seeded Marquette has won 11 of its last 12 games and isn’t even the betting favorite in this week’s Big East Tournament.

That would be fourth-seeded Connecticut, which is entering the tournament having won five straight games.

Villanova, the dangerous sixth seed, has played its best basketball of late now that Justin Moore is healthy.

Third-seeded Creighton, the preseason favorite, may be the best team. No. 2 Xavier, fueled by the dynamic backcourt of Souley Boum and Colby Jones, somehow feels like a dark horse despite winning four of its last five games.

No. 5 Providence, skidding of late, is viewed as a major underdog, but that’s where coach Ed Cooley thrives.

It really seems like anybody’s tournament to win, at least from the top half of the conference.

The big five all have Sweet 16 potential, which makes the next four days so fascinating.

It all gets going Wednesday when eighth-seeded St. John’s meets No. 9 Butler at 3 p.m.

Here’s a team-by-team breakdown:

No. 1 Marquette (25-6, 17-3)

Coach: Shaka Smart
Star: Soph. G Tyler Kolek (12.7 ppg, 7.9 apg).

My pick for Big East Player of the Year, Kolek is one of the country’s best point guards, the motor for the fourth-ranked offense in the nation by efficiency.

His vastly improved 3-point shot — Kolek hit 39.6 percent from downtown after shooting at a 28.1 percent clip a year ago — has made the shifty sophomore so difficult to defend.

Tyler Kolek

X factor: Soph. F Oso Ighodaro (11.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg).

In four of Marquette’s six losses, Ighodaro has struggled.

Marquette is thin up front, and is dependent on the 6-foot-9, rim-protecting sophomore to make an impact inside.

Strength: Taking care of the ball. Despite playing fast, Marquette is rarely out of control, notching a plus-5.5 turnover margin.

Weakness: The paint. Marquette lacks a true big man, part of the reason it is next-to-last in the league in defensive rebounding percentage at 68.7.

Can win title if: It can avoid Connecticut. It’s not a good matchup for Marquette, which was blown out by the Huskies on Feb. 7, and needed a second-half rally at home to beat them in the first meeting.

BetMGM Odds: 3/1

No. 2 Xavier (23-8, 15-5)

Coach: Sean Miller
Star: Soph. G Souley Boum (16.8 ppg, 4.5 apg).

The former UTEP guard was a tremendous find by Miller, one of the best transfers in the country.

The league’s third-best 3-point shooter at 42.2 percent, he is also an adept playmaker who boasts a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.

X factor: Sr. F Jerome Hunter (7.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg).

Zach Freemantle’s season-ending foot injury turned Hunter from a reserve to a starter.

Xavier has gone 6-3 since it lost Freemantle, and Hunter has played a critical role in the Musketeers being able to survive without their third-leading scorer and top rebounder.

Jerome Hunter
Jerome Hunter

Strength: Offense. Xavier is the Big East leader in assists (19.9), 3-point percentage (39.8) and scoring (82.1).

Weakness: Defense. Miller has repeatedly said the Musketeers will only go as far as their defense, ranked 83rd in efficiency, will carry them.

Can win title if: Boum and Jones perform up to their potential as the best backcourt in the league and sharpshooting forward Jack Nunge avoids foul trouble to anchor Xavier’s sometimes suspect defense.

BetMGM Odds: 5/1

No. 3 Creighton (20-11, 14-6)

Coach: Greg McDermott
Star: Jr. C Ryan Kalkbrenner (15.1 ppg, 2.2 bpg).

The Bluejays nearly fell apart when the 7-foot-1 Kalkbrenner was ill, losing six straight games from late November into mid-December.

 Ryan Kalkbrenner
Ryan Kalkbrenner

The league’s Defensive Player of the Year is that pivotal at both ends of the floor.

X factor: Soph. G Ryan Nembhard (12.0 ppg, 4.9 apg).

Somehow, the play-making point guard wasn’t included in any Big East honors. He’ll play with a massive chip on his shoulder this week.

Strength: Balance. Creighton isn’t overly reliant on one player to score.

Its entire starting lineup averages in double figures, between Kalkbrenner’s 15.1 and Arthur Kaluma’s 11.9.

Weakness: Bench. 85.1 percent of Creighton’s offense comes from its starters.

Can win title if: Fatigue isn’t an issue. Three games in as many days will be a challenge for a team that relies so heavily on its starting lineup.

BetMGM Odds: 3/1

No. 4 Connecticut (24-7, 13-7)

Coach: Dan Hurley
Star: Soph. G Jordan Hawkins (16.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg).

One of the most improved players in the country, the high-scoring guard has elevated himself into a potential NBA first-round pick.

He’s a big-time shotmaker with some Ben Gordon in his game, nearly tripling his offensive output from a year ago.

Jordan Hawkins
Jordan Hawkins

X factor: Jr. G Andre Jackson Jr. (6.8 ppg, 4.3 apg).

Jackson has started to find his offense, scoring in double figures in four of the last five games, and it’s not a coincidence the Huskies have turned it on during that span.

He’s a high-level defender, gifted athlete and playmaker who can guard almost every position on the floor.

Strength: Defense. UConn allows a Big East-low 64.8 points and also leads the league in blocked shots at five per game.

Scoring against the Huskies is a chore.

Weakness: Consistency. For such a strong team, this is a group that lost six of eight early in the conference season, dropping games to lower-tier opponents St. John’s and Seton Hall.

Can win title if: The early- and late-season Huskies show up rather than the January version.

Connecticut has the most talent in the league, and has shown it of late, winning eight of its last nine games.

BetMGM Odds: 11/5

No. 5 Providence (21-10, 13-7)

Coach: Ed Cooley
Star: Soph. F Bryce Hopkins (16.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg).

A disappointment in one season at Kentucky, the 6-foot-7 wing found his game at Providence, developing into one of the premier players in the Big East.

He’s physical and skilled, a strong 3-point shooter who can score at all three levels and is an underrated playmaker averaging 2.3 assists per game.

Hopkins is a matchup nightmare — too strong for wings and too quick for forwards.

Bryce Hopkins
Bryce Hopkins

X factor: Sr. G Jared Bynum (10.1 ppg, 4.4 apg).

It was a down year for the senior across the board.

His 3-point shooting percentage and scoring average dropped after a sensational junior year.

When he’s on, Providence is a different team. It won’t make a run this week unless Bynum can rediscover his form.

Strength: Rebounding. Providence is second in the Big East in rebounding margin at plus-6.9.

Weakness: The road. Providence is just 6-8 away from the Amica Mutual Pavilion.

The Friars have lost five of seven on the road, and played poorly in their one game at the Garden, an ugly loss to St. John’s.

Can win title if: This last month was an aberration, and Cooley is able to get this team to flip a switch. The Friars have lost five of their last nine games, and haven’t looked right even longer than that.

BetMGM Odds: 16/1

No. 6 Villanova (16-15, 10-10)

Coach: Kyle Neptune
Star: Sr. G Justin Moore (13.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg)

After missing most of the season’s first three months after tearing his right Achilles tendon last March, Moore has started to resemble the player he was pre-injury.

He has keyed wins over Seton Hall, Creighton and Xavier, giving Villanova fans a reason to dream it can make major noise this week at the Garden.

Justin Moore
Justin Moore

X factor: Fr. F Cam Whitmore (12.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg).

It’s not a coincidence that in Villanova’s best performances, the projected NBA lottery pick has been at his best.

It would be interesting to see where the uber-skilled 6-foot-6 freshman would be now in his development had he not missed the first month of the season with a right thumb injury.

Strength: Free-throw shooting. Villanova is the No. 1 team in the country at the charity stripe at 82.3 percent

Weakness: Offensive rebounding. The Wildcats depend on offensive execution, because second-chance opportunities are so infrequent for them.

They are 10th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage at 22.6.

Can win title if: Villanova’s strong stretch to close the season was a sign this team is hitting its stride.

Finally healthy, the Wildcats have won six of their last eight games, and were playing as well as anyone in the league before a regular-season-closing loss to Connectciut.

BetMGM Odds: 9/1

No. 7 Seton Hall (17-14, 10-10)

Coach: Shaheen Holloway
Star: Sr. G Al-Amir Dawes (12.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg).

Kadary Richmond’s likely absence due to a back injury adds even more responsibility onto Dawes, an elite-shooting guard from Newark.

Seton Hall needs him to produce offensively, and lately he has, scoring in double figures in nine of his last 10 games and shooting 39.3 percent from 3-point range in that span.

Shaheen Holloway
Shaheen Holloway

X factor: Jr. G Dre Davis (10.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg).

Seton Hall is 7-4, with wins over Providence, Rutgers and Memphis, when the versatile 6-foot-6 Louisville transfer scores in double figures.

Strength: Defending the 3. Seton Hall, long and deep on the wing, is 27th nationally in 3-point defense, holding its opponents to 30.6 percent.

Weakness: Frontcourt depth. Seton Hall has only one true big in senior Tyrese Samuel. When he gets into foul trouble, it forces Holloway to go small.

Can win title if: Last March was an indication of what kind of tournament coach Holloway is.

Nobody gave Saint Peter’s a shot to win one game in the NCAA Tournament, let alone three.

He’ll make sure the Pirates believe they can cut down the nets, as long as their odds may be.

BetMGM Odds: 33/1

No. 8 St. John’s (17-14, 7-13)

Coach: Mike Anderson
Star: Sr. C Joel Soriano (15.2 ppg, 11.8 rpg)

The biggest bright spot of a dismal season, the high-character big man has carried St. John’s for most of the year.

Soriano, the league’s Most Improved Player, is tied with Purdue center Zach Edey for the most double-doubles in the country with 23.

Joel Soriano
Joel Soriano

X factor: Jr. G Posh Alexander (10.3 ppg, 4.4 apg)

An All-Big East preseason first-team selection, Alexander struggled throughout a disappointing season, shooting a career-worst 40.4 percent from the field.

The Brooklyn native has performed better of late, averaging 12 points and five assists in his last nine games while shooting 47 percent from the field.

Strength: Familiar surroundings. The Garden is St. John’s home away from home.

It played there four times during the regular season, although that hasn’t helped the Johnnies in this tournament.

It last reached the semifinals in 2000.

Weakness: 3-point shooting. It was a preseason concern that was justified.

St. John’s attempts only 17.4 3s a game, ranked 324th nationally, and shoots it at a woeful 33.2 percent clip.

Can win title if: There is Garden magic. Something abnormal would need to happen for this underachieving team to win four games in as many days.

Fanduel Odds: 75/1

No. 9 Butler (14-17, 6-14)

Coach: Thad Matta
Star: Soph. G Jayden Taylor (13.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg)

Butler’s top offensive weapon, Taylor is at his best going to the basket, and has quality size for a guard at 6-foot-4.

Jayden Taylor
Jayden Taylor

X factor: Soph. G Simas Lukosius (11.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg)

He’s a strong 3-pointer shooter who plays both ends of the floor, distributing and rebounding well.

Strength: Perimeter depth. Butler can come at you in waves.

Weakness: Shotmaking. Butler is last in the Big East in scoring (65.3), eighth in field-goal percentage (43.8) and ninth in 3-point shooting percentage (33.0).

Can win title if: Mike Conley Jr. and Greg Oden, Matta’s former stars at Ohio State, have any eligibility left.

BetMGM Odds: 350/1

No. 10 DePaul (9-22, 3-17)

Coach: Tony Stubblefield
Star: Sr. G Umoja Gibson (15.8 ppg, 4.6 apg).

A fantastic shooter and quality playmaker, the Oklahoma transfer’s brilliant season was wasted by DePaul.

Big East coaches whiffed by not including him on any of the all-league teams.

Umoja Gibson
Umoja Gibson

X factor: Sr. C Nick Ongenda (11.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg).

The talented center missed the season’s first 25 games with a wrist injury, and has provided DePaul with the inside presence it was severely lacking.

His return, though, hasn’t led to any victories.

Strength: 3-point shooting. DePaul isn’t a very good shooting team overall, but it is oddly second in the league from beyond the arc at 36.1 percent.

Weakness: Rebounding margin. DePaul is minus-6.3 on the glass, tied for 343rd in the country.

Can win title if: Nothing makes sense. This team has lost 12 straight games, casting doubt on Stubblefield’s future at the school.

BetMGM Odds: 500/1

No. 11 Georgetown (7-24, 2-18)

Coach: Patrick Ewing
Star: Soph. G Primo Spears (15.9 ppg, 5.2 apg)

A terrific talent that struggles with shooting efficiency and taking care of the ball. It’s easy to see him becoming one of the best guards in the league if the next Georgetown coach can keep him.

Patrick Ewing
Patrick Ewing

X factor: Sr. C Qudus Wahab (9.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg)

The plodding big man helped the Hoyas to their miracle Big East Tournament title run two years ago, and hasn’t been the same player since.

Leaving for Maryland last season didn’t work out, and neither has his decision to return to Georgetown.

Strength: Nothing to lose.

Georgetown can play fast and loose, knowing major change is coming no matter what happens this week at the Garden.

Weakness: 3-point defense. The opposition shoots a lights-out 38.8 percent from distance against Georgetown.

Only five schools in the country defend the 3-point line worse.

Can win title if: Ewing has a time machine and throws on a jersey. The end of his time at Georgetown should arrive shortly after the Hoyas are eliminated Wednesday night.

BetMGM Odds: 500/1

Braziller’s Prediction

Big East Champion: No. 4 Connecticut
Most Outstanding Player: Connecticut sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins

I love the draw for Dan Hurley’s Huskies — struggling Providence followed likely by Marquette, which Connecticut recently manhandled.

This team has gotten over its January problems and is surging at the right time of the year.

The 6-foot-5 Hawkins is underrated nationally, but he won’t be when this tournament is complete and he shoots down Creighton in a classic title game.

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