If the college basketball universe has a geographical center, if there is a cradle for the game that Dr. James Naismith invented 125 years ago, it is here, in the home of Oscar Robertson. Cincinnati is a place that’s surrounded by college basketball superfans of all stripes, with Big Blue Nation to the south and with millions of Hoosiers to the west and with Buckeyes all around. It is a place that has one of the most heated rivalries in all of college basketball, with the city’s two big-time teams separated by only three miles.
And so perhaps it is appropriate that it was here, on a rainy February night 37 years after Dave Gavitt founded the regal old Big East Conference, when the nation finally woke up to the new Big East Conference.
It was a game that ought to be a totem of respect for the revamped Big East: No. 5 Xavier 90, No. 1 Villanova 83. A high-level basketball game featuring two teams that any sensible college basketball fan would call Final Four-capable in this wide-open season. The two top-five teams both have real shots at being one-seeds in the NCAA Tournament — which would be the first time a conference has had multiple one-seeds since 2009.
“If you’re a college basketball fan, you tuned in tonight,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack said. “You saw some high-level basketball. You saw some teams competing their tails off. You saw some players that are going to play at the next level at some point for both sides.”
You also saw the largest crowd ever — 10,727 — in the Cintas Center, one of the most underrated home-court environments in college basketball. You saw a team in Xavier that ought not just be considered Final Four-capable for this season but for next season as well, since Mack will only lose two seniors, James Farr and Remy Abell, from his stacked and balanced rotation. You saw a matchup that we should see again in the Big East title game at Madison Square Garden — it would only be fair for college hoops fans, right? — and, who knows, maybe much later in March, as well.
“You dream about this,” said Xavier’s freshman point guard Edmond Sumner, who had a career-high nine assists and 19 points. “So when the opportunity comes, it just comes naturally.”
(Quick Villanova side note here: Jay Wright’s team is a very good basketball team, one of about a dozen very good basketball teams in a season devoid of any great ones. Barring some unforeseen collapse, the Wildcats will be either a 1-seed or a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and they will deserve it. Dumb people are going to scream something here. Like, “Picking Villanova will kill your bracket!” Or, “Jay Wright can’t win in March!” This is forgetting two things: That Jay Wright made a Final Four back in 2009, and that past performance does not guarantee future results. The fact that one-seed Villanova didn’t make the second weekend last season has nothing to do with this season. Plus, this is a very different Villanova team — stronger on defense, less reliant on 3-pointers.)
Back to Xavier: Wow. The Musketeers got after it on defense more than nearly any team I’ve seen all season. Villanova only had 10 turnovers, but every time a Villanova shooter squared up, a Xavier defender was right there in his mug. Xavier is a big, deep, athletic team that can really clean up the glass, but this team hangs its hat on defense — the best-rated team in defensive efficiency in Mack’s seven years here.
“Defense is a pride thing,” said Xavier guard Myles Davis, one of an astounding six Xavier players who scored in double figures. “We knew we’re capable of competing against anyone in the country. And we knew we had to prove ourselves against Villanova, especially if we want to go far in March, or if we want people to pay attention to us.”
Villanova has been a bit of a sticking point here. In Xavier’s time in the Big East, the Musketeers have played Wright’s teams six times. Until Wednesday, they lost every single time, and by an average of 17.2 points. As much as the No. 1 vs. No. 5 matchup was a respect thing for the entire conference, it meant just as much for Xavier, which only a few years ago was still referred to (by some, and erroneously) as a mid-major school.
Villanova opened up hot, with Jalen Brunson getting in the lane and with Kris Jenkins hitting 3s and working Xavier around the basket. But after an early seven-point Villanova run, Mack called a timeout, and after that, Xavier’s defense tightened up. J.P. Macura came off Xavier’s bench with his hair on fire, lighting up Villanova for 19 efficient points, nearly outscoring Villanova’s entire bench by himself. Xavier flashed multiple defensive schemes and showed one of the most diverse offensive attacks in college basketball: Macura’s 3s and driving layups in traffic, Jalen Reynolds’ dunks, Sumner’s floaters, Davis’ 3-point shooting, Farr’s yeoman’s work in the post. By the time two of Villanova’s starters, Jenkins and center Daniel Ochefu, were sitting on four fouls early in the second half, Xavier had the No. 1 team in the country on the ropes. All in all, it wasn’t exactly the pummeling it may have seemed at times. As Wright said afterward, it was as if Xavier just played a little bit better in every aspect of the game.
“March is coming up,” Davis said. “We still got time to get better. The ceiling is through the roof.”
If that happens — if the team we saw on Wednesday keeps getting better — Xavier is certainly not a team you want to face in the NCAAs.
So if you want to stick with that old trope that the new Big East isn’t what the old Big East was, fine — live in the past. No conference will ever be what the old Big East was. But you should mark Feb. 24, 2016 not necessarily as the birth of something new but as a rite of passage for something that’s still pretty damn young and still finding its way. Xavier beat Villanova, but really it was the Big East as a whole that passed the test on Wednesday night.
“I never wanna lose but I’m glad where if we’re gonna lose, we lose to a good Big East team,” Wright said. “I’m glad No. 1 and No. 5 was Xavier and Villanova, not somebody else from some other league.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.