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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Monday / December 10.
  • Xavier headlines revamped Big East

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    In its third year since renovation, the Big East has been the beast of the college basketball world throughout non-conference play.

    While last year saw members of the conference make some strong statements, this season, the league is getting respect from the AP voters, with four teams ranked in the top-16 of both the AP Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll.

    And while your first guess may be that Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats are once again leading the pack and are the clear favorite in the league, well, you would be wrong.

    Ironically enough, it’s the Wildcats that are the last of the ranked teams in the conference, coming in at No. 16 in both Top 25 polls.

    The biggest surprise?

    Xavier is off to a 12-0 start and has garnered its highest ranking in program history at No. 6 in both polls, with 6-foot-6 point guard Edmond Sumner leading the way. Jay Bilas has already pronounced Xavier a team that can cut down the nets in Houston in April.

    Butler is ranked No. 9 as the senior duo of Roosevelt Jones and Kellen Dunham are powering the nation’s second-most scoring offense (89.9 ppg) and National Player of the Year candidate Kris Dunn has charged Providence to No. 12 in the AP Top 25. As a whole, the foursome of the Musketeers, Bulldogs, Friars, and Wildcats have gone 45-4 in non-conference play.

    While much of the college basketball world is surprised at the league’s 94-29 out-of-conference record, the Big East’s coaches are not.

    “Our conference is as good as it was five, seven, even 15 years ago,” said Georgetown head coach John Thompson III. “The rest of the world is realizing, ‘oh wow, they didn’t go anywhere.”

    One thing that did not happen last year was success in March. Only one of the Big East’s six teams, Xavier, reached the Sweet 16. For the league to put itself on the same pedestal as the ACC, Big 12, and Big 10 are on heading into every season, performing at a high level in the NCAA Tournament would boost the Big East into that preseason conversation year in and year out.

    League play tips off Wednesday, but on Thursday, the top four in the conference take center stage for a New Year’s Eve doubleheader.

    At noon, Villanova welcomes in Xavier in a rematch of last season’s Big East Championship Game, which saw the Wildcats cruise to a 69-52 win. For seventh-year Xavier head coach Chris Mack, he still sees the reigning champions as the leaders of the conference.

    “The league still runs through Villanova,” said Mack. “Thursday is a huge game, but we realize it’s a long road to March.”

    What’s been the key to Xavier’s historic start?

    “Who we are in practice has been who we have been in games,” said Mack. “We are a tremendous practice team and we have gotten great leadership to set the tone in practices.”

    In his 15th season at Villanova, Wright is satisfied with his 10-2 Wildcats, but sees room to improve.

    “A big part of who we are defensively is how we rebound the ball,” said Wright. “We have to do a better job of rebounding. It’s something that I want to see from us going forward. I also think that we are better than our stats show offensively. That will come along.”

    Wright showed respect for Xavier as well.

    “I really think they’re as good as anybody in the country, which is great for the Big East,” said Wright. “It’s not good for us, though,” as he chuckled, saying that Thursday brings a huge test for the Wildcats.

    Following that game at noon, Butler hosts Providence in only the second ever top-15 match-up at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

    This match-up quite arguably features the best duo in the conference in Dunham and Jones taking on the best player in the country in Dunn. That game tips off at 2:30 and is a sellout in Indianapolis.

    Here are Power Rankings entering league play.

    1. Xavier (12-0) – Life without point guard Dee Davis, who graduated after last season, has become much easier with 6-foot-5 point guard Edmond Sumner, who has won two straight Big East Freshman of the Week awards and is the CBS Sports National Player of the Week (11.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.3 apg).
    2. Villanova (10-2) – What gets lost about the Wildcats is that their two losses have come to national title contenders in Oklahoma and Virginia. Jay Wright’s team will be just fine. A crucial key is how 6-foot-11 big man Daniel Ochefu (9.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg) continues to play a role for the Wildcats.
    3. Butler (11-1) – The Bulldogs are the best team in America that nobody’s talking about. The player to watch for the Bulldogs? Junior Andrew Chrabascz. “When he brings toughness, he puts our team at a different level,” said second-year head coach Chris Holtmann.
    4. Providence (12-1) – The fact that the Friars won by 34 at UMass and moved out of the top ten shows everything that is wrong and flawed with the AP Top 25 poll. The Friars will go as deep as Dunn takes them, and that could be very, very far. Yes, we’re talking Kemba Walker here. This player and this team have that kind of potential.
    5. Marquette (10-2) – The Golden Eagles have one of the best freshman in the country in Henry Ellenson, who NBA scouts say could be a lottery pick this summer. A fast-paced team that has won nine straight, the Golden Eagles lead the league with 8.6 steals per game.
    6. Seton Hall (10-2) – The Pirates have started 10-2 for the second straight year, and Isaiah Whitehead and his sophomore comrades are a year older. Reigning Big East Rookie of the Year Angel Delgado is one of the best big men in the nation. He’s tallied five straight double-doubles. Next up for him? Ellenson and Luke Fischer. The Hall visits Marquette Wednesday night.
    7. Georgetown (7-5) – Home losses to Radford, UNC Asheville, and Monmouth? Not the ideal start for the Hoyas, but the duo of D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Isaac Copeland gives them hope to make something happen during conference play.
    8. Creighton (9-4) – Two transfers have proven to be huge for the Bluejays thus far in Maurice Watson and Cole Huff. It’s Watson who is orchestrating the offense, averaging 6.4 dishes per game. CU is second in the conference and seventh in the country with 87.4 points per contest.
    9. DePaul (6-6) – A 21-point win over then No. 21 George Washington gives the Blue Demons a feather in their cap heading into conference play. At 6-6, though, year one of Dave Leitao Part II is one for DePaul to start to try to build a foundation.
    10. St. John’s (7-6) – The Red Storm are young and having a tough year, as expected. “We take each day as a fresh start,” said first-year head coach Chris Mullin. A win over Syracuse at Madison Square Garden showed that the Johnnies cannot be taken lightly, but home losses to Incarnate Word and NJIT put the inconsistencies of the Red Storm on display.
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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.