'Nova poised to take care of business in Big East Tournament

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By MATT BARBATO
College Contributor Network

The Villanova Wildcats enter the 2015 Big East Tournament in a similar position as last year. Once again, the Wildcats head to New York as the overwhelming favorites to win the tournament crown. Unlike last year, Jay Wright's team will look for a better outcome with a seasoned squad. Villanova was upset in the quarterfinals by the eighth-seeded Seton Hall Pirates, 64-63, in one of the biggest upsets of the season.

The Big East is a better conference from top-to-bottom than last season and there are plenty of teams capable of knocking off Villanova. Last year's champion, Providence, possesses one of the best duos in all of college basketball in guard Kris Dunn and forward LaDontae Henton. Georgetown has a talented team led by preseason conference player of the year, guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, and is one of two teams (along with Seton Hall) to knock off Villanova.

Butler has one of the best starting lineups in the conference and guard Kellen Dunham can steal games when he is shooting well. Nobody wants to see St. John's in the tournament either. The Red Storm are very talented and are finally showing signs of consistency.

Here are my game-by-game predictions for the Big East Tournament.

First Round
No. 8 Seton Hall vs. No. 9 Marquette (7 p.m. ET Wednesday)


Seton Hall has been riding the biggest free fall in the conference. The Pirates were ranked at the end of January, but have gone 3-9 since, including a six-game losing skid.

Marquette needed a victory over DePaul last Saturday to move up to the ninth seed. The Golden Eagles have been playing with only eight scholarship athletes for most of head coach Steve Wojciechowski's first season.

The teams split their regular season series, with each team winning on the road. Sterling Gibbs and Matt Carlino will be the difference makers. Gibbs scored 24 points against Marquette in the first game in Milwaukee, while the Golden Eagles managed to beat the Hall without Carlino in the second game.

Seton Hall had plenty of potential this season, but have crumbled in the midst of conference play. The free fall won't end in New York City. Marquette doesn't have a lot of momentum, but it's more than Seton Hall has. Marquette will advance, 61-57.

No. 7 DePaul vs. No. 10 Creighton (9:30 ET Wednesday)


The seedings may be misleading, as both teams are going in opposite directions. The Blue Demons started conference play a shocking 3-0, but have gone 3-12 since and fell into the seven seed because of a season sweep over Seton Hall.

Creighton dropped its first eight conference games, but have picked up some steam as of late. The Bluejays are 3-5 since February, including a road win over DePaul, and four of those five losses came by single digits.

Austin Chatman is the only Bluejay scoring in double figures and is pretty much the guy for the rebuilding Bluejays. DePaul has more talent in Billy Garrett Jr. and Myke Henry, but with that comes inconsistent shooting. DePaul's Jamee Crockett may be the difference maker.

DePaul has lost seven straight games and is 1-10 since being 5-2 in conference play. Creighton doesn't have much talent, but head coach Greg McDermott will have his team ready to play. He will outcoach DePaul's Oliver Purnell to a 65-57 victory.

Quarterfinals
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 9 Marquette (Noon ET Thursday)


Marquette stuck around with Villanova in an 87-76 loss at home to the Wildcats and it's safe to say Wojciechowski's club will come out with a spirited effort, but the talent just doesn't match up.

Villanova is loaded with scorers all over the floor and will exploit Marquette's 2-3 zone defense. Darrun Hilliard and Josh Hart will drill plenty of threes against the zone and forwards JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu will be too much for Marquette's under-sized lineup. Keep an eye out for Ryan Arcidiacono, who seems to save his best games for the Golden Eagles.

A gutsy effort plus streaky shooting from Carlino could keep Marquette alive in the first half, but Villanova will impose its will and pull away to a 78-63 victory to overcome last year's disappointment.

No. 4 Providence vs. No. 5 St. John's (2:30 ET Thursday)


This could be the best game of the Big East Tournament. The Friars missed an opportunity for the second seed with last Saturday's loss to Butler. St. John's was blown out by 37 points in its final game against Villanova.

This game could feature the top-3 players in the running for conference player of the year. Henton leads the league in scoring (20.1 ppg) and is eighth in rebounding (6.3 rpg). Dunn averages 15.5 points, 7.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game as a sophomore. D'Angelo Harrison is second in scoring (17.8 ppg) for the Red Storm.

St. John's swept the season series with the Friars and gets a valuable home-court advantage at MSG. The Red Storm are 7-3 in their last 10 games and have a wider variety of scoring propensity than the Friars. Providence lives and dies by its talented tandem, while St. John's has four players inside the top-11 in scoring.

St. John's will take down Providence in a 75-72 battle to the end.

No. 2 Georgetown vs. No. 10 Creighton (7 p.m. ET Thursday)


Georgetown swept the Bluejays in the regular season by margins of 15 and 27 points. Smith-Rivera scored 24 points in the second meeting between the teams.

The Hoyas have won five of six entering the tournament, but haven't been overly convincing. Georgetown has plenty to gain and a lot to lose in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding and won't drop their first game to a team they have dominated this season.

Big man Joshua Smith should have a big game for the Hoyas. Creighton doesn't have a suitable answer for the 350-pound center.

Georgetown cruises past Creighton, 72-55.

No. 3 Butler vs. No. 6 Xavier (9:30 ET Thursday)


This game features two dangerous teams that are capable of staging deep runs into the tournament. The teams split the regular season series with each win coming at home. Butler plays the best defense (61 papg) in the conference, while Xavier ranks ninth in scoring defense (68 papg).

The Bulldogs are led by Dunham, who is fourth in the conference with 16.6 points per game. Roosevelt Jones and Andrew Chrabascz are the two other players scoring in double figures.

Chrabascz will face the task of defending Xavier's big man Matt Stainbrook. The center is averaging 12 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, but is a deceptively good passer with 2.5 assists per game. Stainbrook has had two drastically different performances against the Bulldogs. He scored 21 points in a 12-point road loss, but only four points in a home victory.

Freshman Trevon Bluiett is the player to watch for Xavier. Bluiett leads Xavier with 12.2 points per game and is the favorite to be named the conference's rookie of the year.

This game will feature two different styles of basketball and should be a highly entertaining game to conclude the quarterfinals. It could come down to point guards Dee Davis and Alex Barlow. Xavier needs a signature win to secure its NCAA Tournament bid, but will come up short against the gritty Bulldogs. Butler wins, 67-63.

Semifinals

No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 5 St. John's (7 ET Friday)


Villanova outscored the Red Storm 55-22 in the second half of last Saturday's 105-68 win. That will likely remain in both teams' heads when the teams tip off to open the semi-finals. Playing at home will keep St. John's within striking distance. Harrison will get another shot of scoring one last prolific win at the Garden and St. John's will be highly motivated to avenge the blowout.

However, Villanova is simply too talented and depth will become a factor. St. John's likely cannot be the Wildcats by playing only six guys for extensive minutes. Villanova will win a nail-biter, 83-79.

No. 2 Georgetown vs. No. 3 Butler (9:30 ET Friday)


Georgetown swept the Bulldogs in the regular season, but both games were by single digit margins. Both teams need a quality win to bolster its tournament resume.

Someone usually becomes a star in NYC and Dunham could be that guy. He will carry Butler to a win over the Hoyas and lead his team into the finals. Watching Dunham and Smith-Rivera duke it out will be a treat to watch, but Butler's cohesive starting five overcomes a Georgetown team with less chemistry. Bulldogs win, 71-66.

Championship
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 3 Butler (8 ET Saturday)


Butler has been one of few teams to limit Villanova's explosive scoring. The Wildcats average 76.7 points per game, but have scored only 67.5 points per game against the Bulldogs.

Villanova and Butler both play extraordinary defense, which should make for a thrilling final. Hilliard is Villanova's top scorer, but the Wildcats can find ways to win without him. Dunham is the guy for Butler and four of Butler's six conference losses came in games where Dunham scored fewer than 15 points.

Both games in the regular season tailored more toward Butler's defensive style and the third contest should not be any different in a neutral gym. However, what makes Villanova great is its ability to win both a shootout and a defensive struggle.

Beating a team three times is a tough task, but beating a scrappy squad like Butler three times in one year is an even harder challenge. The Bulldogs played Villanova well this season and will break through in the title game. Dunham will earn the tournament's most outstanding player award and the Bulldogs will take home their first Big East Tournament, 70-66.

Matt Barbato is a senior at Marquette University. His favorite sport is football and is an avid New York Jets fan, for better or worse. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMattBarbato
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