The Big East conference has been competitive all season long, but these first two rounds of March Madness put the writing on the wall. Playing on a Friday and a Sunday, all five conference representatives in the NCAA Tournament bolstered an argument initially developed 10 years ago. No matter what happens, the Big East is one of the nation’s best basketball conferences.
As the ink continues to dry, which teams survived the first weekend gauntlet?
Writer’s Note: Rick Pitino is back in the Big East. Will he bring a third conference program to the Final Four?
Writer’s Note II: It feels weird not writing about the Villanova Wildcats at this point of the season.
Xavier 72, Kennesaw State 67 (March 17): Hooting and Hollering
Playing in their first NCAA Tournament, the Kennesaw State Owls made the Xavier Musketeers look like the No. 14 seed with a 13-point advantage halfway through the second half. 10 minutes away from getting embarrassed in the first weekend in another March Madness appearance, Xavier’s offense woke up and went on a 15-0 run. Up one, Jack Nunge blocked Kennesaw State’s desperation shot with two seconds left and Souley Boum wrapped the game up at the free throw line as the Musketeers avoided the upset.
Marquette 78, Vermont 61 (March 17): Kam Jam Jones
The Marquette Golden Eagles have exceeded expectations all year, resulting in their highest seed in NCAA Tournament history and their best season in Big East play, but the Vermont Catamounts tested them in the game’s first 24 minutes. Silenced in the first half, Kam Jones slammed Vermont’s upset bid shut, scoring 18 of Marquette’s points in a row. Stevie Mitchell and Oso Ighodaro also joined in on offense, each crossing double digits as the Golden Eagles won their first March Madness battle in a decade.
UConn 87, Iona 63 (March 17): Third Try, Second Half, First Round
Head Coach Dan Hurley has won a March Madness game with the UConn men’s basketball team. It did not look as though that would be the case after the first half, but the Huskies limited the Iona Gaels to as many points in the second as their margin of victory.
Creighton 72, North Carolina State 63 (March 17): Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
Unlike the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood,” no disguise could hide Ryan Kalkbrenner’s contributions, as he scored a season-high 31 points with seven rebounds and three blocks. NC State held a seven-point advantage early in the second half after staying close with Creighton throughout the first, but fortunes changed when the offense made their shots. Two Baylor Scheierman jumpers and free throws from multiple players in the final three minutes put the Wolfpack to sleep as the Blue Jays glided into the second round.
Kentucky 61, Providence 53 (March 17): The Bryce Hopkins Bowl
The Providence Friars aimed to salvage their season in the Big Dance; Bryce Hopkins, meanwhile, wanted revenge against the Kentucky Wildcats after leaving their program. Neither of those goals were fulfilled as the Wildcats overcame a slow second-half start to avoid losing in the first round for a second consecutive year while limiting Hopkins to seven points and eight boards. Providence looked like a top-tier team in mid-February, but everything fell apart as they ended the year, losing five out of their last six games.
Xavier 84, Pittsburgh 73 (March 19): The New Age over the Old Guard
Sean Miller provided the assist on Jerome Lane’s overpowering dunk in 1988, and his Xavier squad sent their hot-headed attack to the basket often against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the first half. The Musketeers led by 20 with seven minutes remaining, but Pitt’s offense, led by both Jamarius Burton and Guillermo Diaz Graham, swiftly trimmed that deficit to single digits. Even though they did not make a bucket in the final seven minutes, Xavier clamped down defensively and ended the Panthers’ return to March Madness.
Michigan State 69, Marquette 60 (March 19): Joey Hauser revenge game
Joey Hauser spent his freshman season at Marquette playing alongside his older brother, Sam, and the program’s all-time leading scorer, Markus Howard. Playing for the Michigan State Spartans in the Big Dance, Hauser had 14 points and 10 rebounds against his former school without leading the offense. That honor belonged to Tyson Walker, who finished with 23 points, forced Tyler Kolek into serious foul trouble and converted two daggers in the last 80 seconds as the Golden Eagles’ special season came to a screeching halt.
UConn 70, Saint Mary’s 55 (March 19): The victors go to Las Vegas
Hurley is going to the Sweet 16 for the first time in his coaching career, and Connecticut is going back for the first time since 2014. The Huskies’ offense thrived in the second half for a second straight contest against the Saint Mary’s Gaels. Life is good.
Creighton 85, Baylor 76 (March 19): Another Ryan-led masterclass
Almost nine years ago to the day, the Baylor Bears ended Doug McDermott’s collegiate career in the second round. With Baylor holding the No. 3 seed this time around, Ryan Nembhard answered LJ Cryer’s 30 points with his own 30-piece. A 15-5 run put Creighton ahead in the first half, and they kept their vengeance-filled foot on the gas from there. The Blue Jays quelled any comeback attempts with several jumpers during the last 20 minutes as the Bears went home in the second round for the second straight year.
The regular season and Big East Tournament champion might not be moving on, but the next three teams in the regular season conference standings still remain, marking the first time three Big East teams advanced to the Sweet 16 since conference realignment. Although there is not much to write about regarding the National Invitational Tournament, the matchups in the second weekend provide several entertaining storylines.