Big East takes a highly anticipated spotlight at Madison Square Garden


Editor’s note: Herald sports reporter Steve Hewitt is a voter in the Associated Press college basketball Top 25 poll. Every week through the end of the season, he’ll write a column providing some analysis and thoughts from his poll.

This week at Madison Square Garden should feel like a true return to normalcy for the Big East.

With all due respect to the Top 25 – which is a great honor to vote in – seedings and bracketology will rightfully take the forefront for conference tournament week. And few compare to what the Big East will offer. Three Top 20 teams, seven projected NCAA Tournament teams (according to ESPN’s Bracketology on Monday) and arguably the best atmosphere in any conference tourney.

For the first time since 2019, a full Big East tournament with a full capacity MSG will take the spotlight in the heart of New York City. “The World’s Most Famous Arena” will certainly be buzzing, especially with the league’s top seeds within a drive.

Providence is the top seed, but probably not the favorite after being swept by No. 2 seed Villanova last week, when the Friars’ resilient effort without Al Durham came up just short. But if everything goes the way it should, Friday night’s semifinals at MSG will be mouth-watering, with the potential for PC-Marquette and Villanova-UConn playing for spots in Saturday night’s championship.

Don’t sleep on Marquette. Shaka Smart’s group swept Villanova and beat Providence by 32 at home earlier this season. And UConn can never be counted out at MSG. The Huskies have won seven Big East tourneys, the second-most of any school despite leaving for the American Athletic Conference for seven years. This will be their first Big East tourney at a full MSG since rejoining the conference, and their well-traveled fans will make that known.

Some other thoughts around this week’s Top 25:

— I was among the voters who ranked Duke the lowest last week, putting the Blue Devils at No. 12 while they rose to No. 4. So I couldn’t help but feel a little bit validated when North Carolina went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and spoiled Coach K’s final home game on Saturday. Duke dropped to No. 13 on my ballot this week.

The Tar Heels returned to the AP poll at No. 25 with that win but I’m not so convinced they deserved inclusion. They still have just two Quad 1 wins this season, and their loss to Pitt is tough to overlook.

— Memphis is the team I put at No. 25 this week. Penny Hardaway’s group – which had high expectations going in the season before a brutal start – have performed an impressive turnaround. They’ve won 10 of their last 11, including a sweep of Houston. Don’t overlook them this month.

— Just when I was ready to name Wisconsin as a Final Four threat, the Badgers lost to unranked Nebraska. The performance put yet another spotlight on their reliance on National Player of the Year candidate Johnny Davis, who missed most of the second half with an injury. They need more than just him if they’re going to make a run to New Orleans.

Link to Associated Press Top 25 for March 7, 2022

Steve Hewitt’s Top 25 ballot, March 7, 2022

1. Gonzaga
2. Baylor
3. Kentucky
4. Arizona
5. Auburn
6. Kansas
7. Villanova
8. Providence
9. Tennessee
10. Wisconsin
11. Purdue
12. Texas Tech
13. Duke
14. Arkansas
15. Illinois
16. UCLA
17. Saint Mary’s
18. UConn
19. Houston
20. Murray State
21. Southern Cal
22. Texas
23. Iowa
24. Colorado State
25. Memphis

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