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Big East Basketball: Breaking Down the Conference Title Race

Joe TanseyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2014

Big East Basketball: Breaking Down the Conference Title Race

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    The first season of the new-look Big East is beginning to deliver us some juicy storylines heading into crunch time of conference play. 

    Most of the 10 teams in the league have played five games, and based off of those games, we have an idea of where each team will finish in the conference. 

    Some things may change between now and the first week of March, but it is likely that the teams atop the standings now will be the same ones near or at the top at the end of the regular season.

    Here is a look at the contenders for the regular-season title as well as some key games and players to watch as we break down the Big East title picture. 

The Contenders

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    Nate Shron/Getty Images

    Contenders: Villanova, Creighton, Xavier 

    It is easy to group the top two teams in the standings at the moment, Creighton (15-2, 5-0) and Villanova (15-1, 4-0), as the main title contenders, but it is worth putting Xavier into the discussion as well. 

    Creighton was expected to be in this position with National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott leading the way, and so far the Bluejays have lived up to their preseason expectations. 

    Villanova was not included in the preseason title conversation, but now they are one of the favorites to win it all thanks to a strong showing in nonconference play. 

    The Wildcats have a distinct home-court advantage, and they also contain a knack for showing up in big games, something that was proved last season against the likes of Louisville and Syracuse. 

    The third team to keep an eye on is Xavier (14-4, 4-1), who look to have recovered well from their disappointing final season in the Atlantic 10. 

    Chris Mack's Musketeers have a dynamic playmaker in Semaj Christon, who, along with his strong supporting cast, will keep Xavier in the title discussion through the duration of the season. 

    It is worth noting that the Musketeers' lone loss in Big East play is to Creighton. 

The Dark Horses

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Dark Horses: Georgetown, Marquette

    The two dark horses for the conference title are two traditional basketball programs that did not get off to the best of starts this season.

    Georgetown (11-5, 3-2) sits in fourth place in the conference standings currently, and they have a few pieces that could turn them into a quality NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament team.

    The play of D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Markel Starks will go a long way in determining just how far the Hoyas go for the remainder of the season.

    Everyone is still waiting for Marquette (10-7, 2-2) to get their act together and take their place among the conference's elite. 

    That has yet to happen for Buzz Williams and the Golden Eagles, but they are traditional late bloomers in the national discussion, although they usually have things together by now. 

     

The Major Disappointments

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    Nate Shron/Getty Images

    Major Disappointments: St. John's, Butler

    No one, I mean literally no one, expected to see St. John's (9-8, 0-5) and Butler (10-7, 0-5) sharing the cellar of the Big East five games into the conference campaign.

    The Red Storm received a decent amount of love in the preseason as a potential dark horse for the regular-season title, but they have fallen flat and are going nowhere fast with just nine overall wins. 

    We all knew this season would be a bit tough on Butler with Roosevelt Jones out for the season, but no one thought it would be this bad in Brandon Miller's first season as head coach. 

    The good news, if you can call it that, for Miller is that he is missing a few pieces and he has plenty of time to build the program once again.

    As for Steve Lavin at St. John's, this season has to be chalked up as a massive disappointment, and although he will not see the ax if this continues for the rest of the season, his coaching seat will get hotter heading into next season. 

Key Players to Watch

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    Jessica Hill/Associated Press

    Doug McDermott, F, Creighton: As expected, McDermott is putting up ridiculous numbers with 25.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.

    The senior son of the Bluejays coach is also an 89.6 percent free-throw shooter and a 43 percent marksman from three-point range. 

     

    JayVaughn Pinkston, F, Villanova: Pinkston has picked up where left off last season as Villanova's leading scorer. 

    The junior from Brooklyn averages 16.1 points per game and is a 51.2 percent shooter from the field. 

     

    Davante Gardner, F, Marquette: If the Golden Eagles are to make a march up the standings, Gardner will have to be one of the key players that catapults such a run. 

    Gardner has shown that he is capable of putting up big numbers in conference play as he has already scored 28 versus DePaul and 19 against Xavier. 

    However, Gardner has also put up totals four and six in his other two Big East games. 

     

    Matt Stainbrook, C, Xavier: The initial draw to the Xavier team is Christon, but once you watch the Musketeers play, you realize that Stainbrook brings an important second dimension to the team. 

    At 11.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, Stainbrook is putting up some very respectable numbers in his junior season.

     

    Bryce Cotton, G, Providence: It has been a difficult year personnel-wise for the Friars, but they still have Cotton on the floor each night to put up big numbers. 

    The senior guard has scored over 20 points in each of his four conference games. 

Key Games to Watch

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    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Creighton at Villanova (Jan. 20): This game at the The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia will go a long way in determining which team is the early favorite to win it all in the Big East. 

     

    Villanova at Georgetown (Jan. 27): One of the few rivalries from the old Big East reignites at the Verizon Center at the end of January. Based on their history, the Wildcats and Hoyas will deliver us a gritty basketball game that will come down to the final minutes, regardless of each team's record. 

     

    Xavier at Marquette (Feb. 15): If Marquette can work things out before February begins, this matchup on the day after Valentine's Day could produce a thriller. Xavier should stay near the top of the standings all season long and for the Golden Eagles to keep climbing, they must knock off the Mustekeers at home. 

     

    Villanova at Creighton (Feb. 16): Just four weeks after their first meeting, Creighton and Villanova will square off in Omaha. Like the first game, this should be a heavyweight fight that could go either way. 

     

    Creighton at Xavier (March 1): This late regular-season clash in Cincinnati could play a big role in determining whether or not the Musketeers will have to sweat it out on Selection Sunday or not. Earning a key win over Creighton in early March would be a massive boost heading into the postseason for Chris Mack and company, who did not record a marquee win in nonconference play. 

Prediction

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    Eric Francis/Getty Images
    PositionTeam
    1Creighton
    2Villanova
    3Xavier
    4Marquette
    5Georgetown
    6Providence
    7Seton Hall
    8Butler
    9DePaul
    10St. John's 

    Creighton just has too much experience and star power for Villanova to overcome. The two teams should split their season series, but the Wildcats are young and more susceptible to an upset than the Bluejays.

    I fully expect Marquette to make a push for the top three, but it may be too little, too late with Xavier finishing just ahead of them.

    At the bottom, if St. John's can get their act together, they could finish in the middle of the pack, but I just don't see that happening based on their results so far this season.

     

    Joe Tansey covers the Big East and Villanova for Bleacher Report, follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

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