The teams have changed but the venue has stayed the same as the Big East tournament opens Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. Will Georgetown or one of the other longtime members earn the automatic NCAA berth, or will a newbie like Creighton or Xavier win in its first year in the league?
The Favorite — No. 1 Villanova: Purists will be rooting for one of the Big East’s old guard to take the first tournament title of the conference’s new edition, and the Wildcats are clearly the most likely team to do that. Coach Jay Wright has his usual deep stable of talented guards, like sophomore Ryan Arcidiacono (10 ppg, 3.5 apg) and junior Darrun Hilliard II (14.4 ppg, 2.8 apg), but look for big-bodied, Brooklyn-raised JayVaughn Pinkston (14.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg) to steal the spotlight in his homecoming.
The Sleeper — No. 6 Marquette: The preseason pick to win the Big East, the Golden Eagles fell out of NCAA tournament consideration with three straight losses to end the regular season. Like Maryland in the ACC, Marquette suffered several agonizing defeats, including back-to-back one-point, double-overtime losses to Providence and St. John’s last week. Big East sixth man of the year Davante Gardner, above left, has averaged 18.4 points per game in the past five games.
Upset special — No. 7 Georgetown over No. 2 Creighton: Is it still an upset when it happened eight days ago? The Hoyas “held” Creighton star and likely Big East player of the year Doug McDermott to 22 points in a 75-63 win on March 4 at Verizon Center — the second time this year they’ve kept him below his season average. Maybe McDermott’s due for a breakout game against Georgetown, but then again, maybe John Thompson III and Co. have his number.
Best possible matchup — No. 4 Providence vs. No. 5 St. John’s (quarterfinals): It’s tough to find two more similar teams floating on the NCAA tournament bubble. They have the same record (20-11, 10-8 Big East), similar RPIs (both in the mid-50s) and a signature win at home over Creighton. Both rely on first-team All-Big East guards (the Friars’ Bryce Cotton and the Red Storm’s D’Angelo Harrison). And they’ve split two matchups this year. The rubber match (Thursday, 2:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1) may decide which team goes dancing.
Player to watch — Semaj Christon, Xavier: Since a 5-1 start to life in the Big East, Xavier has endured its share of ups and downs, but don’t blame Christon, a unanimous first-team All-Big East selection. The sophomore guard played every minute of the team’s last four games, averaging 20.5 points per game in that span, which included big wins at St. John’s and at home over Creighton — as well as a crushing loss to lowly Seton Hall. And yes, Semaj is “James” spelled backward.
Big East final prediction: Villanova 78, Xavier 71