Big East Baller Update No. 6: We’re in the warzone now

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Head coaches Dan Hurley and Ed Cooley have mentioned it, but every game in the Big East is going to be a war. Now that Big East play has begun, the only thing stopping this league from displaying its dominance is COVID-19. Not the selection committee, COVID-19.

COVID-19 may have already plagued two games from ever happening due to the Big East’s cancellation policy, but there were still some exciting contests that went down from the east coast to the central plains. Especially with COVID making a comeback, the Big East should prepare for nothing but rough seas ahead with the rewards of March Madness waiting on the other side.

Writer’s Note: COVID, can you, like, not?

Player of the Week: Dwon Odom – Xavier

Freshman of the Week: Ryan Nembhard – Creighton

St. John’s vs. Pittsburgh (Dec. 18): Holy close game, Batman!

From 1982 until 2013, these two schools were Big East foes. Both teams had their ups and downs, but their history was thrown out the window with this new chapter. There were no Champagnie brothers involved as Justin went pro and Julian got COVID-19. Regardless, their first matchup since 2013 did not disappoint.

Like classic foes, both teams wrestled to gain a foothold for the lead. The Johnnies were up by as much as ten at one point in the contest, but Pitt used their defense and attack of their own to make sure they would not be blown out again. It was only a four-point affair at the half and the defense came to play to start the second.

St. John’s led by six on two occasions, once in the first two minutes and again with 14 minutes left. The Johnnies had everything going for them until the final two minutes, when the Panthers took the lead after six consecutive free throws by Jamarius Burton. Dylan Addae-Wusu tied the game with two free throws of his own, but like Tom Brady and the final two minutes, there was too much time left on the clock. Burton came up clutch with a bucket milliseconds away from the buzzer and Mathis’ three-point shot whimpered as Pitt won 59-57.

It was an impressive standalone game in the Gotham Classic. Addae-Wusu led the way for the Johnnies with 12 points while Posh Alexander picked up 11 of his own on seven rebounds. Burton finished with 20 for the Panthers including the game-winner while Mouhamadou Gueye had 15 points. I’ve said it with other rivalries that have occurred this season, but these teams should not have waited eight years to play each other again. It may not help St. John’s tournament resume, but it was still a fun game to learn from.

Arizona State vs. Creighton (Dec. 14): Hurley, Round One

No, Creighton did not play Dan Hurley over the last week. They played his brother Bobby and the Arizona State Sun Devils in the hopes of securing their fourth straight win against a Hurley brother. Like each matchup Creighton has played against a Hurley-coached team thus far, this one came down to the wire.

The Creighton lineup had changed, but that didn’t stop the Blue Jays from jumping out to an early lead. Both teams went back and forth, but Creighton was able to gain momentum heading into the half by going on an 8-2 run in the final four minutes while crashing the glass and limiting Arizona State to buckets by Jay Heath and Luther Muhammad.

Despite being down for most of the match, Arizona State was not out as Marreon Jackson scored seven unanswered points by himself to give the Sun Devils the lead, all while shutting out Creighton for over three minutes. Once Creighton tied the contest at 50, the defenses took control as neither team made a field goal over another three-minute span. With a minute left, both teams were tied at 56, then Heath made a layup for the lead and Hawkins went 1-2 from the free throw line in the first 30 seconds to give Arizona State a one-point lead. After numerous fouls and one missed free throw, Ryan Nembhard had a chance to win it at the buzzer, but his shot just missed, and Arizona State escaped Omaha with a 58-57 victory.

Although this was the first loss since 2020 for Creighton against a Hurley-coached team, Creighton continued to show their potential. Ryan Kalkbrenner had 16 points and nine rebounds while Alex O’Connell had 11 points of his own. Arizona State’s DJ Horne had 12 points while Heath and Jackson had 10 each. These two teams must meet again next season because their rematch might not only be legendary, but it may also result in Creighton coming out on top.

Marquette vs. No. 22 Xavier (Dec. 18): X going to give it to you

The last time these two teams met, Xavier cut their deficit down to one before Marquette pulled away in the final minute. Before that, the legend of Adam Clutchel was born. Now, these two teams meet once again with new reinforcements. On one side, you have the addition of Jack Nunge from Iowa, on the other, you have Darryl Morsell from Maryland among other notable transfers. Amid everything going on, this was a showdown one did not want to miss.

You could tell this was going to be a high scoring matchup right from the start as Marquette went on a 9-0 run in the middle of the first half to gain a big lead over ranked competition. Enter Dwon Odom, who scored eight of Xavier’s 10 points in a two-minute span. Despite the high-octane offense, the defense played a critical part in keeping this game close. Just two field goals were made in the final four minutes of the half, both by Marquette, and it was free throws that helped Xavier gain a two-point lead at the break.

Xavier would extend that lead on a brilliant 10-4 run behind the buckets of Zach Freemantle, Nate Johnson and Colby Jones. Marquette kept fighting. Kunkel scored three straight points to keep Xavier ahead, Marquette kept fighting by not allowing a field goal in three and a half minutes of play. Xavier led by as much as seven in the second half, but Marquette cut the lead down to one. That was their best chance to take the lead back and cause an upset, but they were limited to just two points (a Greg Elliott bucket, he scored the team’s final seven points) in the final three minutes as the Musketeers pulled away for an 80-71 victory.

Like all the Big East openers this weekend, this one did not disappoint. Both teams showed that they should be ranked and continued to prove why the Big East is going to be tough this year. Odom controlled the show with 19 points off the bench while Johnson had 17, Nunge had a double-double of 13 points and 12 rebounds, and Jones had 11. Elliott led the Golden Eagles with 18 off the bench while Morsell had 14 and Justin Lewis had 15. Both teams have strong players from the transfer portal and people who have taken the next step, which has all the makings of an overtime affair when they meet in Milwaukee.

Honorable mention: No. 9 Villanova vs. Creighton (Dec. 17): A rivalry in five sentences

23-5. That run in the final eight minutes was not only enough for Creighton to pick up a massive upset against the Wildcats, but it also helped prove two major things about the league. This conference is very, very good and Villanova might or might not be the best team in the conference this season. It was a close game until that instance as both teams were battling for control of the entire game, but Villanova couldn’t win when they shot 4-23 from downtown. 79-59, the second matchup should be a lot closer.

As the Big East heads into the holiday break, one only has to hope the COVID-19 situation can get better so each team can be at full strength during the entirety of conference play. There will be several instances where five or more teams are ranked in the polls, and there will be more than two instances of a ranked battle going down each week. Brace yourselves, the Big East is back.

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