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UConn, Seton Hall and Xavier still have work to do

A once cloudy picture became clearer in the last week or so.

The field of Big East contenders for NCAA tournament bids has been narrowed to five teams — Villanova, Creighton, UConn, Seton Hall and Xavier.

Of course, that's barring a deep run from another team outside that group in the upcoming Big East tournament.

Villanova and Creighton are already locks to participate in March Madness.

UConn, Seton Hall and Xavier still have work to do to solidify spots in the field.

Let's take a look at where each of the five Big East teams stand prior to Wednesday's action:

• Villanova (15-3, 10-2): The eighth-ranked Wildcats are in line for a top four seed. They're 10th in the latest NCAA NET Rankings and 11th in the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings.

They can wrap up the Big East regular season title by beating second place Creighton on March 3. They also play at Butler Sunday and visit Providence March 6.

• Creighton (16-5, 12-4, prior to playing DePaul Wednesday): The 13th-ranked Bluejays have a great chance to improve their resume with remaining games at Xavier Saturday and at Villanova March 3. They also host Butler on March 6.

They're 24th in the NCAA NET Rankings and 15th in the Pomeroy Ratings.

• UConn (11-6, 8-5): The Huskies have been two different teams this season. They're 7-2 with star guard James Bouknight in the lineup and 4-4 without Bouknight who missed a long stretch with an elbow injury.

That's something the NCAA tournament selection committee will consider.

"When Bouknight is in rhythm and has had some games to play and obviously the team jells, we're obviously a team that has shown it can win a lot of games," coach Dan Hurley said. "We're excited about the Big East tournament, having the band back together again. We're a really good team when we're fully loaded and healthy.

"So relative to the selection committee, these are really, really smart people that understand he missed several games. And while he was out, it's not like our season completely tanked. We went .500 in one of the best leagues in the country when he was out."

Some bracketologists had UConn on the bubble before winning at Georgetown on Tuesday. The Huskies have five road wins to their credit and a key victory over USC (14th NCAA NET Rankings, 13th in Pomeroy Ratings) on their resume.

UConn's game at Seton Hall, the only quality opponent remaining on its regular season schedule, on Wednesday will be huge for both teams. The Huskies also host Marquette Saturday and entertain Georgetown on March 5.

• Seton Hall (13-9, 10-6, prior to playing Butler Wednesday): An unbalanced schedule has impacted the Pirates. If all the remaining Big East games go off as planned, they'll be one of four teams to play Villanova and Creighton twice. Marquette, St. John's and Providence will be the others.

Seton Hall finishes by hosting UConn Wednesday and visiting St. John's March 6. The Pirates are 51st in the NCAA NET Rankings and 37th in the Pomeroy Ratings.

• Xavier (12-4, 5-4, prior to playing at Providence Wednesday): The Musketeers have played the fewest Big East games due to COVID-19 related pauses. They're in bubble territory, residing in 52nd in the NCAA NET Rankings and 59th in the Pomeroy Ratings.

The Musketeers can improve their position by beating Creighton Saturday. They also visit Georgetown Tuesday and travel to Marquette March 6.

Most bracketologists are predicting five Big East teams will be in the NCAA tournament field.

Sounds right.

In the last six seasons, not including 2020 when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the NCAA tournament, the Big East has averaged 5.3 bids.

For example, four Big East teams earned bids in 2018-19, six in 2017-18 and seven in 2016-17.

College basketball expert Andy Katz's recent Bracket Prediction had five Big East teams in the field — Villanova (No. 2 seed), Creighton (No. 5), Xavier (No. 8), UConn (No. 11) and Seton Hall (No. 12) in the First Four.

When asked last week about how many Big East teams would qualify for the NCAA tournament, Villanova coach Jay Wright said it's hard to tell.

"To answer that question honestly, it's hard. I think if all of these teams in the Big East were practicing since June, I think this would be one of our best years, I really do. I think some teams have really been impacted.

"Again, other conferences are the same. I'm just being honest about the Big East. But I still think we've got five or six teams in the hunt here and I think we definitely, in the end, could be worthy of five or six."

At the time of Wright's comments, St. John's was moving toward bubble territory. But the Red Storm (14-10, 8-9) saw their NCAA tournament chances greatly diminished with an 81-58 loss at Villanova on Tuesday. They're 79th in the NCAA NET Rankings and 73rd in the Pomeroy Ratings. They finish by hosting Providence Wednesday and Seton Hall on March 6.

Player to watch

Georgetown sophomore Qudus Wahab, a strong 6-foot-11, 237 pound center, is one of the league's rising frontcourt stars.

Wahab racked up his league-leading sixth double-double in Tuesday's loss to UConn, finishing with a career-best 18 points and 10 rebounds.

He's greatly improved from last season, raising his scoring average from 5.5 points to 12.1 and his rebound average from 4.3 to 8.2. He's third in the Big East in rebounding and third in blocks at 1.9 per game

Earlier this season against St. John's, Wahab nearly registered a triple-double, finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine blocks. Alonzo Mourning was the last Hoya to block nine shots in a game, accomplishing the feat against Delaware State on Dec. 9, 1991.

Quote of the week

Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing after watching his team lose the rebounding battle, 46-30, in Tuesday's 70-57 loss to UConn.

"We let them kick our butts on the glass. They out-rebounded us by 16 rebounds."

The Hoyas entered the game leading the Big East in rebounding margin. The Huskies were second.

News and notes

Villanova senior Collin Gillespie is a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award for the nation's top point guard, joining Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham, Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs, Baylor's Jared Butler and Ayo Dosunmu of Illinois on the list. ... The 2021 McDonald's All-American game rosters were announced. Georgetown was the only Big East team to have an incoming recruit on the list in 6-3 guard Aminu Mohammed who attends the Greenwood Laboratory School in Missouri. ... Marquette played a rare late season non-conference game on Wednesday, visiting North Carolina. The Golden Eagles posted their only win in the series in the 1977 national championship game. ... Ironman: Georgetown's Jahvon Blair leads the league in minutes played at 37.2 per game. ... Big East home teams owned a 43-36 record prior to Wednesday's games. ... Individual leaders overall: St. John's Julian Champagnie, scoring, 20.0; Xavier's Zach Freemantle, rebounding, 8.8; Xavier's Paul Scruggs, assists, 6-4; St. John's Posh Alexander, steals, 2.6; UConn's Isaiah Whaley, blocks, 2.9. ... Upcoming game to watch: Creighton visits Xavier in Cincinnati on Saturday.

g.keefe@theday.com

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