For months, I have proclaimed the Big East to be one of the best conferences in college basketball. That was hard to prove in 2021 as half of the league’s four March Madness participants lost in the first round while the other half were eliminated in the Sweet 16.
This season, the Big East was represented in the semifinals of both the men’s and women’s March Madness and the men’s and women’s Nation Invitational Tournament (NIT). One of those representatives won their tournament. Let’s look back on how the teams on the men’s side did.
Writer’s Note: Congratulations to Kansas on winning the national title. Now it’s time for baseball.
Kansas 81, Villanova 65 (April 2): In the driver’s seat
The last two times Villanova was in the Final Four, it won the national title. Squaring off with a team they beat in the Final Four of 2018, the Wildcats wanted to get one step closer to their fourth national title.
The only problem was that it was Kansas’ game from the start. The Jayhawks started the game on a 10-0 run and never looked back. Ochai Agbaji dominated the entire game by draining each of his first six shots from beyond the arc and didn’t miss a field goal until the second half.
Kansas led by 16, but Villanova made it a six-point game with 6:10 remaining. Kansas wasn’t going to blow it again, finding their footing as Christian Braun made just enough jumpers to send the Jayhawks to their first title game since 2012.
Agbaji finished with 21 points shooting 6-7 from downtown while David McCormack scored 25 points on 10-12 shooting. For the final time in his collegiate career, Collin Gillespie led the Wildcats with 17 points while Brandon Slater had 16. Villanova’s remarkably dominant season concluded while Kansas rallied down 16 to win the national title two nights later.
While that was happening in the bayou, the Xavier Musketeers were doing something special on the east coast.
Xavier 72, Cleveland State 68 (March 15): It’s still Rock and Roll to me
Cleveland State was the top seed in the Horizon League, but lost in the semifinals against tournament champion Wright State. The Vikings turned that anger into power early before Xavier took the lead on an Adam Kunkel 3-pointer. Both teams were upset with how their conference tournament experiences ended and took it out on each other throughout most of the second half. The Vikings made it close, but Paul Scruggs helped the Musketeers take out the Viking ship. Things could have gone smoothly from there, but they did not.
Xavier 72, Florida 56 (March 20): Interim-mission
Within three days, Xavier fired head coach Travis Steele and hired Sean Miller for a second stint. Meanwhile, associate head coach Jonas Hayes was named interim head coach for the remainder of the postseason. Their second-round contest featured another interim coach in Al Pinkins, Mike White’s temporary replacement after he left for Georgia.
Back to the game, Florida trailed by 10 in the first half before going into the break tied after a layup late in the frame. Xavier’s defense could have buckled, but they held the Gators to 23 points in the second half instead as Todd Golden took over the coaching duties in Gainesville.
Xavier 75, Vanderbilt 73 (March 22): The Nashville and Ohio Railroad
Xavier entered with a chip on their shoulder. Scruggs tore his ACL late in the Florida game and now the Musketeers had a hole to fill in the backcourt. The Commodores and the Musketeers answered each of their parries with buckets in the first half, but Vanderbilt led by two because of Scotty Pippen Jr.
Vanderbilt went up 10 in the second half, but the Musketeers took the lead with two minutes to play. There was a lot of defense and missed shots in the final minute, but a Colby Jones free throw and Pippen Jr. going 1-2 from the line concluded the Commodores impressive hot stretch and their season.
Xavier 84, St. Bonaventure 77 (March 29): Jonas Hayes bombshell news
ESPN insider Adrian Wojnarowski went to St. Bonaventure and had the potential to break the news that his school was advancing to the NIT finals. Xavier had other plans as the Musketeers used a 12-0 run and a 14-0 in the first half to put this game out of reach. The Bonnies did cut the lead down to five with 5:40 to play, but Xavier used free throws to become the second Big East team to beat the Bonnies this season.
Per sources: Xavier advanced to their second ever NIT championship game with the victory.
Xavier 73, Texas A&M 72 (March 31): Jack Sponge for the title
On March 9, the Musketeers lost in overtime to Simas Lukosius and the Butler Bulldogs in the first round. 22 days later, Xavier found itself in a fistfight against a team that had a strong, but rejected, March Madness resume. The Musketeers recovered from an eight-point halftime deficit, but Quenton Jackson gave the Aggies the advantage with 27 seconds remaining. With five seconds left and down by one, Jack Nunge took the inbounds pass, did a spin move and sunk a floater for the lead. Tyrece Radford missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer as Xavier took home the NIT title, the Big East’s first championship hardware since 2018.
What a wild season it was for the conference. Each team proved its dominance by beating the Big 10 and Big 12 in tipoff challenges over five times and had five teams ranked in the AP Poll in one week (six total). Especially with the new coaching hires by Xavier, Butler and Seton Hall, I’m interested to see what the future holds for this competitive league.
Thank you to everyone who has been reading these weekly updates all season long. Until next season basketball fans, this has been a Big East Baller Update. Stay balling.