By Michael Bennett

Defending national champ Villanova is back as the top seed in the Big East tournament that tips off tonight at Madison Square Garden.

The Wildcats dropped their finale at Seton Hall, then watched as Georgetown upset Marquette at home, before they could clinch the regular-season title outright.

It was the fifth time in the six seasons of the new Big East that Villanova has earned the top seed. Xavier is the only other team to grab top honors when the Musketeers won the regular season last year.

At 7 pm. tonight Alpha Diallo and No. 8 Providence squares off with No. 9 Butler and Kamar Baldwin. This will be the third time the two teams are facing each other since Feb. 26 with the Friars winning both of the previous meetings. Both Diallo and Baldwin were each named to the All-BIG EAST Second Team.

But it’s a new season now, says Butler head coach LaVall Jordan, as the Bulldogs hope to make the third time the charm.

“It’s postseason play now,” Jordan said. “You have a couple of different seasons when you’re on the journey of a full year. You have non-conference, the regular season and now the postseason. So the focus now is looking at the two Providence matchups, kind of (see) what went right and what went wrong. You can’t change everything that you’re doing in two days so guys are going to have to believe in what the game plan is going to be. Believe in it together and play with some confidence.”

Which is something the Friars will have to do as well. Providence, entering the tournament at 17-14, knows in order to secure an invite to the NCAA Tournament, it will have to run the table at the Garden this week. And that is not a topic Friars’ head coach Ed Cooley sugar-coated for his team this week.

“I think you need to be very transparent with your group,” Cooley said. “I told them in order for us to dance, you probably have to win the tournament. You’ve got to win four games in four days. It’s doable (but) it’s going to be a monumental task. You look at it as this is our only ticket into the tournament. So in order to do that you’ve got to get lucky, you got to be disciplined, you got to be connected. But you’ve got to take it one game at a time and Butler is going to be a really hard game for us.”

Tonight’s second game will see No. 7 St. John’s take on No. 10 DePaul. The improved Blue Demons took the season series from the Red Storm and with the most conference wins (seven) by a DePaul team in coach Dave Leitao’s second stint in Chicago, the Demons will be looking for an extended stay in the Big Apple.

“There’s a lot more excitement and buzz about what we’re trying to do, especially as we got through this particular season with what the competition level was top to bottom in the BIG EAST Conference this year,” Leitao said. “And we’re recognized both locally and nationally, there’s more conversation about where we’re going and what we’re doing and I think it’s only going to get better. This is not an easy league to try to climb the ladder in, (but) as we get better it’s our hope that sooner rather than later that we’ll be competing for championships, which is what everybody aspires to do.”

St. John’s saw Justin Simon take home Defensive Player of the Year honors, will have to try and slow down DePaul marksman Max Strus, an All-BIG EAST Second Team pick who has scored 92 points in his last three games.

“We’re totally focused on DePaul,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said. “They’re a handful for us. They beat us twice, so our sole focus is on starting a brand new season and preparing for DePaul. We’ve had a good season. (Now) we’re looking to come with new energy. (It’s a) brand new season. Everyone starts at 0-0 and that’s a refreshing feeling. We’re bringing renewed energy and getting ready for DePaul.”

Top-seeded Villanova will take on the winner of the Butler/Providence matchup at noon on Thursday to kick off four quarterfinal games. The Wildcats swept the season series from both the Friars and Bulldogs. But this tournament appearance will make the final Garden visit for Villanova mainstays Phil Booth and Eric Paschall. Both Wildcat seniors were named to the All-BIG EAST First Team.

“Phil and Eric are just great leaders,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “It was a really difficult task this year with a lot of new guys. Not just leading them but being patient with them and teaching them and working with our young coaching staff. In the last two years we lost our two top assistants and those two were even more experienced than some of our coaches. They’ve done just an amazing job. I’m so proud of them and we’re going to miss both of them dearly.”

The Villanova game will be followed by No. 4 Xavier taking on No. 5 Creighton. The Musketeers were sitting with a 3-8 record after their loss to DePaul on Feb. 9. But Xavier closed out the regular season winning six of their final seven games to finish 9-9. One major question, though, surrounding the Musketeers is the health of Naji Marshall, the Musketeers’ stud sophomore who was named to the conference’s Second Team this season. An ankle injury sidelined Marshall for Xavier’s regular-season finale against St. John’s and all Xavier head coach Travis Steele could offer was that he was “hopeful” Marshall could go full speed in practice leading up to the tournament.

How much would Xavier miss Marshall?

“Naji has had a tremendous year for us and he has really come on for us, especially in the second half of the BIG EAST season,” Steele said. “I think he’s a big reason why we’ve had the run that we’ve had here lately and he’s been tremendous on both sides of the ball.”

Creighton comes into the game just as hot as Xavier, having won its last four games. The Bluejays’ Martin Krampelj and Ty-Shon Alexander both earned Honorable Mention status this season while freshman Marcus Zegarowski earned a spot on the BIG EAST All-Rookie team. But Creighton head coach Greg McDermott thinks his junior forward might have gotten shortchanged.

“I’m really pleased with the year Ty-Shon and Martin have had,” McDermott said. “I think they’re worthy of being named Honorable Mention All-Conference. (But) I was a little surprised Martin wasn’t on one of the first two teams, averaging almost 17 points and eight rebounds a game in this league and shooting 60 percent from the field and doing the things that he does for us defensively, I think, speaks volumes. Especially when you consider what he’s overcome to get to this spot with three ACL injuries and the subsequent recoveries that go with that.”

Perhaps that will serve as a little added incentive for Krampelj and the Jays against Xavier as the two teams split their regular-season series.

Thursday’s third quarterfinal-round will see No. 2 Marquette face the winner of the St. John’s/DePaul game. The Golden Eagles swept the season series from the Blue Demons but were swept by the Red Storm. Marquette enters the tournament on a four-game losing streak but will try and get untracked behind All-BIG EAST First Teamer Markus Howard, the conference’s leading scorer at 25.0 points per game, along with the Hauser brothers, Sam and Joey, who earned All-BIG EAST Second Team and All-Freshman honors, respectively.

The final game of the day Thursday will pit No. 3 Seton Hall against No. 6 Georgetown. The Pirates really boosted their stock last week with wins over Marquette and Villanova to close out the regular season while Georgetown got rolled by DePaul before posting an impressive road win at Marquette. The two teams split their two regular-season meetings.

The Pirates will look to unleash Myles Powell on the Hoyas as the Hall’s All-BIG EAST First Team pick has scored 65 points in the Pirates’ two games against the Hoyas.

“He’s a great player,” Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing said. “You’ve got to throw a lot of different bodies at him. He’s capable of shooting the ball from deep, NBA-range and deeper. And he can get to the basket and he’s a willing passer. He’s had a fantastic year for them.”

Just as Ewing will have to devise a plan to stop Powell, Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard will have to do the same against not only Hoyas senior center Jessie Govan, an all-conference first team pick, but also the talented freshman trio of James Akinjo, Mac McClung and Josh LeBlanc. That trio all landed on the BIG EAST All-Freshman team, just the second time in BIG EAST history that has happened.

“It’s a really tough matchup,” Willard said. “The three freshmen, LeBlanc, Akinjo and McClung, are playing fantastic. Akinjo has progressed throughout the year, he’s been so steady. Not only on the offensive end but he’s really solid on the defensive end. And when you have a dominating center like Jessie Govan, who has been doing it inside and out, it’s a big challenge for us. We’re obviously excited to be playing Thursday night but we have a big challenge ahead of us.”

The semifinals will be held Friday night at 6:30 and 9 p.m. with the championship game slated to tip Saturday night at 6:30 p.m.

The BIG EAST Tournament. It’s finally here and it’s one that has no clear cut favorite. Which should make each and every game that much more entertaining.

“It is wide open,” Cooley said. “All the teams in the league (with the exception of Georgetown) have experienced three-game losing streaks. So that gives you hope. I think this will be one of the more exciting BIG EAST Tournaments in a while because of the parity and because of the league. Get ready for a great week of basketball.”

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