The 2018-19 Big East regular season was anything but predictable, a grueling 10-week stretch where the 10 teams were as evenly matched as in any conference season going back to the birth of the league in 1979.
The difference in league play between first-place Villanova and the last-place trio of Butler, Providence and DePaul was only six games, the smallest gap ever. The last-place teams all had seven wins, the most of any team that low in the standings. Every team finished with an overall winning record, the only conference in the nation to achieve that.
Of course, all the teams beating up on one another might have hurt the Big East in the number of teams making it to the NCAA Tournament. But who knows how that might be impacted by performances in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Top seed Villanova, seeking a record third straight tournament championship, won’t have it easy from the jump. The Wildcats (22-9, 13-5) play their first game at noon Thursday, a quarterfinal matchup with Providence, which defeated Butler, 80-57, Wednesday night.
‘Nova coach Jay Wright said the fact that every Big East team has a winning overall record “shows you just how good everybody is.
“We might not have the elite teams like we’ve had in the past but we’ve got a lot of really good teams,” he said. “We have a lot of teams that are young that are playing better basketball at the end of the season, like Xavier. Seton Hall, another young team, is playing really good basketball.”
The Pirates moved up to third place and all but clinched an NCAA Tournament at-large bid with back-to-back wins over Marquette and Villanova in their last two games. Creighton finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak. Xavier won six of its last seven.
Then you have St. John’s, which fell from third place to seventh after last Saturday’s loss to Xavier. It means the Red Storm, who currently are on the right side of the NCAA bubble, will have to win four straight games to take the championship. But they are strong at the Garden, their home court.
Villanova would appear to have received the better half of the draw since they went 2-0 against Butler, Providence and Creighton, and split 1-1 with Xavier. But the Cats finished 3-5 after an 11-game winning streak, so anything is possible.
“This conference is no cakewalk,” Villanova senior Eric Paschall said. “Every team is good. Every team is going to give you their best. So I definitely feel whoever we’re going to play, it’s going to be a battle, and we have to continue to get better.”
A key for Wright will be getting his freshmen ready for the intensity of the Garden during the tournament, something they saw in last month’s loss to St. John’s.
“Each step here for our younger guys is important,” he said. “But I always say there’s nothing like the Big East Tournament. You can’t prepare for it. The NCAA Tournament is a totally different animal. You can argue the Big East Tournament is more intense, but the NCAA Tournament has a lot more distractions, positive distractions. So it’s two different experiences we’re going to have to get through.”
After leading his team to its fifth Big East regular-season title in six years, Wright was named Wednesday as Big East coach of the year in balloting by his peers for the sixth time.