Big East Baller Update No. 6: The Surprise Party

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Jan 7, 2023; Villanova, Pennsylvania, USA; Xavier Musketeers forward Zach Freemantle (32) shoots against the Villanova Wildcats in the second half at William B. Finneran Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

It might not be a birthday party or an unexpected job promotion, but sports can bring a lot of surprises.

In the National Football League, the Jacksonville Jaguars won the AFC South, the Detroit Lions had a winning season and the Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs without Russell Wilson. In addition, the Sacramento Kings (20-18, 5th in the western conference at the time of publication) and the New Jersey Devils (53 points, second in the Metropolitan Division) have shocked many people.

Those surprises, some of which may have been expected, also appeared in the Big East conference. After a dominant week of play, four teams are now ranked in the top 25 with half of them in the top 15 (sixth-ranked UConn and 12th-ranked Xavier). Shake off the shock because it is time to find out who left the people impressed.

Writer’s Note: UConn needs to play a Big East basketball game outdoors since the men’s hockey team did this past weekend.

Player of the Week:

Zach Freemantle – Xavier

Freshman of the Week:

Cam Whitmore – Villanova

No. 18 Xavier vs. Villanova (Jan. 7): The offense stops for no one

The Villanova Wildcats got the best of the Xavier Musketeers in a ranked matchup twice last season. The script has since been flipped as the Wildcats are currently the weaker team, but the Musketeers’ best brand of basketball (up to this point) got put to the test inside a hostile Finneran Pavilion.

Xavier could not stop Cam Whitmore and Eric Dixon in the first half, but managed to take the lead heading into the break before a struggle of lead changes and ties ensued in the second. A Jack Nunge three put the Musketeers ahead by five not long after a block from Colby Jones, ending a series of consistent responses by Villanova. Despite scoring 20 points in the final four minutes, the Wildcats could not cut the lead to less than three as Xavier, notably Souley Boum, pulled away at the charity stripe and escaped the Finn 88-80.

This game alone had four 20-point players, half of whom had double-doubles. Freemantle led all scorers with 29 points and 11 rebounds while Boum notched 22 and 10. Whitmore led all Wildcats with 26 while Caleb Daniels had 23 and five threes. Since conference realignment in 2013, the Finn felt like the Big East’s version of Fort Neverlose (road teams winning there was impossible), but I think that honor needs to be handed to another home venue on the eastern seaboard.

St. John’s vs. Providence (Jan. 7): Amped-Up Atmosphere

The newly named Amica Mutual Pavilion, formerly known as the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, had hosted nine Providence Friars games heading into this matchup. Up to that point, Providence had won all of them and would not let an old foe end that streak.

The St. John’s Red Storm took the lead into the break after O’Mar Stanley converted two last-minute layups, but with every play that the Friars made in the second half, the AMP got louder and louder. Whether it was a dunk from Devin Carter or a Noah Locke three, the crowd could not be silenced as Providence took the lead and stretched it to eight. Not even a game-tying dunk from Joel Soriano could quiet the rowdy audience. In the final minute alone, Bryce Hopkins made a free throw before both Dylan Addae-Wusu and Curbelo cut the lead down to one. The Red Storm had to foul with seven seconds left however, and not even Carter getting fouled after he made two free throws meant anything as the Friars survived 83-80.

Every Providence starter scored in double figures led by Locke’s 20 and Carter’s 19 while Soriano led the Johnnies with a 16 and 10 double-double. The Friars are 6-0 in conference play for the first time ever, and Ed Cooley knows how to succeed even with a variety of players coming in from the transfer portal.

Marquette vs. St. John’s (Jan. 3): Soaring through the turbulence

Things are not looking good for the Red Storm, who went 10-1 non-conference action with a home win against the Nebraska Cornhuskers before falling to 1-5 against Big East competition. Four days before that happened, St. John’s had an opportunity to vanquish a Marquette Golden Eagles team aspiring to return to the Top 25.

The Johnnies went up seven at the break looking like the team who dominated non-conference play, but Marquette had a performance meant for Madison Square Garden coming out of the intermission. Behind two Olivier Maxence-Prosper threes and an 11-0 run, the Golden Eagles limited the Red Storm on offense and regained the lead. St. John’s got the deficit under double digits multiple times, but once Maxence-Prosper threw down the hammer and got the foul, it was too late. Oso Ighodaro’s jumper and numerous free throws helped Marquette bolster their chances of being in the polls 96-85.

Maxence-Prosper scored 25 points in the second half, finishing with 29 while three other Golden Eagles reached double figures. Soriano had a double-double of 22 and 13 while Addae-Wusu dropped 21 with three treys. Marquette is a second-half team, as observed by the 61(!) points scored against the Georgetown Hoyas in the last 20 minutes. This may help the Golden Eagles win games against tough opponents, whether on the road or at home, in the final minutes as the regular season progresses.

While all of this has occurred, the Creighton Blue Jays received AP votes for the first time in approximately a month. This makes the conference significantly stronger and increases the competition level that each program will face the rest of the way, thus boosting several tournament resumes. The second half of the conference slate might not be here yet, but with the second half of the academic year starting up (or already beginning), some results will be that much more surprising.

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