We are officially in the third trimester of the college basketball season as conference play starts to heat up. Most teams have already played 20 games, which means there’s a solid read on some of the contenders and pretenders for the 2023-24 season.
That’s especially true for the Big East, which boasts three ranked teams. While UConn is rolling, the rest of the conference continues its pursuit of taking down the top-ranked Huskies.
Here’s a weekly recap of a few storylines, game results, and a power ranking of the Big East conference.
The Elite of the Elite
At this point in the season, it’s safe to say that UConn is clearly the best team in the Big East. The Huskies currently sit atop the league (and atop the AP Poll, for that matter) with an 8-1 conference mark, and just blew the doors off an Xavier team that is No. 42 in KenPom. The win marked UConn’s biggest conference victory in seven years, and its largest Big East win since 2008. UConn is the heaviest favorite to win its conference at -950, with North Carolina the next closest at -600 (odds courtesy of Vegas Insider). Clearly there’s been no sign of a championship hangover in Storrs.
While UConn is in its own class at the moment, Marquette has moved back up to that No. 2 spot after four straight wins. The Golden Eagles had a close call at St. John’s, barely eking out a one-point victory, but showed tremendous poise on the road. Creighton slides in right behind Marquette. The Bluejays’ offense has looked a little shaky at times, which makes them less trustworthy than Marquette, but they still have a tremendous starting five that is enough to keep them in contention. I still believe that these two teams are the only true threats to UConn for the Big East regular season title.
4. Seton Hall
5. St. John’s
Seton Hall has been the surprise of the conference thus far. Second year head coach Shaheen Holloway has done a tremendous job turning Kadary Richmond from mostly unrealized potential into a legitimate Big East Player of the Year candidate. KenPom is still low on the Pirates (No. 68) but they keep winning big games so their spot at No. 5 in the power rankings is well-deserved. St. John’s has been scrappy enough to round out the second-tier of Big East squads. They don’t have enough talent or defensive discipline - which is strange considering this is a Rick Pitino-led team - to seriously challenge for a title, but the Red Storm are just good enough to stay with this group.
Good, not Great
The Wildcats are the biggest anomaly of the bunch. Wins over North Carolina, Memphis, Texas Tech, at Creighton, and a one-point loss to UConn makes it seem like this is actually a good team. Losses at Penn, St. Joseph’s, Drexel, and at Butler imply otherwise. It seems as though coaching may be an issue because Villanova has a top-three roster in the conference in terms of talent level, but are falling drastically short of its ceiling. Doubts about Kyle Neptune’s long term viability in this conference are starting to creep in.
Providence’s hopes of potentially claiming a second conference title in the past few years evaporated once Bryce Hopkins went down. Devin Carter is still an elite two-way player and this team is talented enough to not drop down with the rejects, but its ceiling is capped. As for Butler, Thad Matta’s days may be limited if he can’t make something happen between now and the end of next season. The Bulldogs are a feisty group and have some decent wins on their resume, but also have too many holes to make it any higher than about sixth or seventh. Xavier just lost by 43. It’s a lost season for them.
It’s going to take a little while for Ed Cooley to revive the Hoyas. Patrick Ewing really did a number on that program. Cooley does already have more wins than last year so it can be considered a success so far. DePaul is lucky it is still able to compete in this conference. Their average margin of defeat outside of their three-point loss to Georgetown is 28. The coaching search for the Blue Demons continues.
Around the League
Ed Cooley’s Return to Providence
It’s never happened before in the history of the Big East. Ed Cooley left Providence after 12 years at the helm to help reinvigorate a storied Georgetown program that was at an all-time low point after some disastrous seasons under Patrick Ewing. He immediately became Friars fans’ worst enemy after departing, which set the stage for an epic return, or as epic as it can be for two middling conference teams.
Regardless of their records, the atmosphere at the Amica Mutual Pavilion was something else on Saturday. Hate is part of what fuels college sports fandom, and that was on display in full force on this day.
Today’s atmosphere summed up in 33 seconds: pic.twitter.com/aNsTCXdoS0— John Fanta (@John_Fanta) January 28, 2024
The Friars won the game, but Georgetown kept it extremely close, even taking a three-point lead with under three minutes remaining. A quick seven points from Providence’s best player Devin Carter (29 points) flipped the game on its head and the Friars were able to salt it away at the line. The Big East’s leading scorer Jayden Epps (26 points) tried to shoot the Hoyas the victory, but ultimately could only get three of his 13 long-range attempts to fall.
In his post-game presser, Ed Cooley was very respectful of his old team but also wasn’t shy about expressing his thoughts on the lasting impact he left on Providence.
“I’ll always be proud to be the former coach of Providence College. The energy that was around the city, around the game I was proud of that. If anything, I should ask Providence College for a bonus check based on the energy that was in there. And that’s no lie.”
When Cooley was announced in the pregame introductions, thousands of boos rained down, but he still praised the fans.
“They are passionate fans. They should be that way.”
The Hoyas have struggled in Cooley’s first season, sitting at 10th in the Big East and an 8-12 record overall. It will likely take another year to really get this program back to a competitive level, but early signs aren’t necessarily the greatest in Washington, D.C. at the moment. Putting the job in perspective of just how bad this program has been - thirteen combined wins in the past two seasons - it’s still an improvement.
Cooley recognizes where his team is currently at, and also has hope for the future.
“We’re growing, we’re learning how to compete. But right now, we’re just not there. It’s just a matter of time. We’re going to prove everybody wrong.”
If new Providence head coach Kim English is able to keep his team competitive and Cooley can continue to improve, we should have another fun rivalry brewing between two schools that didn’t have much reason to hate one another besides the normal conference rival narrative.
Is Marquette Back?
After the Golden Eagles' 14-point dismantling of then-No. 1 Kansas in the Maui Invitational, many were quick to crown them as the best team in college basketball, and for good reason. They embarrassed the best starting five in the country while their own Naismith award contender only scored six points. Marquette was only 6-for-25 from 3-point range - usually an area at which it excels - and the Golden Eagles still blitzed the Jayhawks. If they can play this type of defense consistently with their offensive firepower, who’s going to stop them?
The excitement was short-lived, as the Golden Eagles lost to then-No. 2 Purdue the next day, albeit in a close one, to Wisconsin 10 days later and Providence a couple of weeks after that. Their most recent gaffe was dropping one to Butler at home after holding a seven-point halftime lead.
Injury luck has not been kind. Top reserve guards Sean Jones (torn ACL) and Chase Ross (shoulder) have been out. Jones is one of the team’s best on-ball defenders. His game is similar to Hassan Diarra’s, great defense and not the best offensive player but is a blur in the open court and elevates everyone else around him.
Sean Jones and Marquette came ready to play pic.twitter.com/48P2M1atxH— SLAM University (@slam_university) November 30, 2022
Ross has missed five straight games but should be back soon. Even with these injuries, Marquette has managed to rip off four straight conference wins, highlighted by their most recent 18-point victory over a Seton Hall team that has exceeded expectations.
The Golden Eagles haven’t completely reclaimed their early-season pedigree, but Marquette is starting to surge at the right time. Beating Villanova, St. John’s, DePaul, and Seton Hall doesn’t mean it’s a top-five team in the country, but this team does appear to have gotten back on track after a couple of major question marks arose. Multiple players have been stepping up every game during this run. Kolek and Kam Jones both went for over 20 against Villanova. All five starters scored in double figures vs. St John’s. Ighodaro and Joplin combined for 40 at DePaul and Seton Hall. Shaka is reminding everyone that his team is still capable of winning a second straight Big East title. They must not be overlooked.