NEW YORK CITY — Sixteen days ago and 638 miles west of Madison Square Garden, two teams ranked in the top five of the AP poll played a hectic basketball game as the Cincinnati rain was turning to snow outside. Inside the deafening Cintas Center, the environment was lit for the most important regular season game in the short history of the new Big East: No. 5 Xavier 90, No. 1 Villanova 83. It was a statement game not just for Xavier but for the entire Big East, an announcement that this newly reconstituted conference had officially arrived.
On Saturday night at the Garden, a day before Selection Sunday, we were supposed to get the rubber match in the title game of the conference tournament. Up for grabs would be Big East bragging rights as well as a top seed in the NCAAs.
But then Friday night happened.
Villanova upheld its part of the bargain. The Wildcats beat Providence, 76-68, in the night’s undercard.
Xavier did not uphold its part.
Instead, an upstart Seton Hall — a talented and surging team with perhaps the best sophomore class in college basketball — won the game.
They punked us. They were the much better team tonight.
Xavier coach Chris Mack
And the Big East lost.
Let me explain: What the Big East needs more than anything right now is a Final Four appearance. In its first two seasons, the Big East has exactly one Sweet 16 bid (Xavier in 2015). No team has made it further.
This is a painfully small sample size. To draw any big conclusions about the new Big East from just two NCAA tournaments is silly. But the fact remains that March is all that matters in college basketball, and if the Big East wants to be considered one of the heavy-hitters in the sport, the conference must perform well in March.
And the best way for the Big East to position itself to do so? Have the two best teams in the Big East play each other for the conference tournament title. Get the highest possible NCAA tournament seedings for the league’s top teams. Set the table as best you can for the conference to break through to the Final Four. And the two most Final Four-capable teams in the Big East are, without a doubt, Villanova and Xavier.
This is not to say I wasn’t impressed by Seton Hall on Friday night. Quite the contrary. I was floored by coach Kevin Willard’s squad. I was incredibly happy for Willard, one of the good guys in this sport, finally seeing some tangible successes after five struggling seasons in one of the more difficult high-major jobs in college hoops. He brought in an absurdly talented recruiting class a year ago, and that blew up in his face as reports of locker room tension between the freshmen and the upperclassmen destroyed a promising season.
Friday was the biggest statement this now-sophomore class has made all year. Isaiah Whitehead, the pride of that recruiting class, looked like a future NBA player, scoring 20 points and dishing out eight assists. ("He’s the best player in the league," Xavier head coach Chris Mack said.) Big man Angel Delgado handled Xavier’s more-than-capable bigs. Khadeen Carrington showed his newfound shooting touch, going off for 23 points, nearly besting his career-high 27 from the night before. Friday night was the reason this group of sophomores came to Seton Hall in the first place.
A year ago the talk around Willard involved the words "hot seat." You couldn’t help but be thrilled for Willard now that the talk involves what their NCAA tournament seeding will be. I asked him outside the Seton Hall locker room whether the drama of last season made this success — Seton Hall’s first appearance in the Big East title game since 1993 — that much sweeter.
"The last five years, trying to get to this point — it’s not just one year," Willard said. "It’s been those last five, really grinding it out, trying to get to this point. And getting close, seeing what you are close to doing. I think it’s more or less seeing what we’ve tried to work for the last five years, and seeing a group of kids out there playing really well and having lots of fun — that’s it, more than anything."
It was pretty special to see this team upset fifth-ranked Xavier. But let’s not kid ourselves: Seton Hall making a Final Four would be a big-time long shot. So would Providence; yes, the Friars have the best one-two combination in college hoops in Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, but they also have a suspect bench and miserable 3-point shooting. The two Big East teams most capable of breaking through are Xavier and Villanova, and it would have been only appropriate to see them in the Big East tournament title game.
Seton Hall spoiled that on Friday night. "They punked us" — that’s how Xavier’s Mack put it. "They were the much better team tonight."
It’s true. On Friday night, Seton Hall was the better team. And now we won’t be treated with Villanova-Xavier Part III. That’s a loss for Xavier, but it might be a bigger loss for the Big East.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.