Halfway through the first half, each of these teams was on pace to challenge 120 points. It was a bomb-for-bomb shootout. Marquette came out raining threes (made seven of their first nine from behind the arc), and if you were Villanova and you'd been watching them all year, you had reason to think "Uh-oh -- this is going to be rough."
Instead, Nova matched them from the perimeter and beat them up inside. It's tough to imagine an offense anywhere in the country that's working better right now than the Wildcats' offense, and now here they are a game behind Marquette for that crucial No. 4 spot in the conference standings.
Nova's remaining schedule isn't a pushover (at West Virginia/Rutgers/at Syracuse/at DePaul/Georgetown/at Notre Dame/Providence), but given the way they're playing they'll have a chance to win all seven of those games and should reasonably expect to go no worse than 4-3.
Marquette's remaining schedule is a cheese grater, (St. John's/Seton Hall/at Georgetown/UConn/at Louisville/at Pitt/Syracuse), and the Eagles (now losers of two in a row) will have to work hard to go 4-3.
The team that claims that No. 4 spot won't have to play until Thursday, the third day of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. The team that finishes fifth will have to play on Wednesday, the second day. Big difference there. To win the conference title, the Wednesday teams will have to win four games in four days -- something that's only been done twice.
Right now, you have to like Dante Cunningham, Scotty Reynolds and the Villanova Wildcats as the team that will join Pitt, UConn and Louisville in double-bye heaven.
-Providence gets a win it had to have at South Florida. Do the Friars, currently in sixth place and 2.5 games behind Marquette, have any chance at all of sneaking into that top four? Probably not. Even if Marquette goes 3-4 the rest of the way, Providence would have to go 6-0 to pass them -- and they'll have to pass them in order to finish ahead of them, because they lost to them. And with trips to Louisville and Villanova and a home game against Pitt still on the schedule, it's hard to see how the Friars have enough gas to get into that group. But with two more games left against Rutgers, they look like a pretty good bet to finish in the top eight and watch the Tuesday games from the Garden sidelines.
-Seton Hall whipped DePaul, which ties them with West Virginia for ninth place, just one game behind the seventh-place tie between Syracuse and Cincinnati. The Hall is heating up, and making a play for one of those top-eight spots and a first-round bye. Can they do it? Going to to be tough. The Hall has seven games left: UConn/at Marquette/at St. John's/South Florida/Pitt/at Louisville/at Cincinnati. First glance, that looks like 2-5, which would be a 7-11 record -- likely not good enough for a first-division finish. But hey, the Pirates have won five in a row since their 0-6 conference start. They play that frenzied style that makes teams hate to play against them. IF they could swing a big, big upset -- say knocking off either Marquette, UConn or Pitt and then winning at Cincinnati to wrap it up, that would get them to 9-9 and give them not only a shot at the Tuesday bye but...dare we say it...a spot on the fringes of the NCAA tournament bubble?
-A note on DePaul, which is now 0-12 in the conference. You can probably bet your car, your house and what's left of your 401(k) on them being 0-15, since their next three games are at Louisville/at Pitt/Villanova. Their next shot at a conference win is a home game against St. John's on Feb. 28, then they finish at West Virginia/at Georgetown. It looks like their best chances to avoid the 0-18 finish will be that St. John's game and then the regular-season finale against the free-falling (sniff) Hoyas. However, not even an 0-18 finish will keep the Blue Demons away from the Garden. All 16 teams in the conference go to the conference tournament this year, and that means DePaul will hit the second week in March with a chance -- albeit a nearly invisible one -- to make it to the Dance.
-As of now, the Tuesday matchups at the Garden would be:
(9) West Virginia vs. (16) DePaul
(10) Seton Hall vs. (15) Rutgers (Jersey!!!!)
(11) Georgetown vs. (14) South Florida
(12) Notre Dame) vs. (13) St. John's
with Villanova, Providence, Syracuse and Cincinnati waiting to play the Tuesday winners on Wednesday. Interesting -- Providence, sitting there as a relatively weak No. 6 seed, would get the winner of that 11/14 game between Georgetown and South Florida. And while yes, I know the Friars just whipped South Florida last night and the Hoyas haven't beaten anybody but Rutgers in a month, that game would be no sure thing -- the 11/14 winner would have to think it had a decent shot to make the quarterfinals.
Of course, the chances of the standings being the same on March 10 as they are now are nil, so there's no point in breaking this down any further.
-Tonight, Syracuse travels to UConn for the Duke-North Carolina undercard game. Would be a huge win for Syracuse -- maybe even lock in their NCAA tournament spot. But Connecticut is the best team in the country right now, and they've been an 11-0 buzzsaw since losing their conference opener to the (sniff) once-mighty Hoyas.
-Also tonight, Cincinnati hosts St. John's. Bearcats need to win these easy ones if they want to give themselves a chance to sneak into the Dance with an upset of Pitt or Louisville.