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Big East Tournament Preview: Will the conference tourney be a Paige Bueckers showcase?

The No. 1 UConn Huskies are back in the Big East Tournament! Will the title be theirs for the 19th time?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 27 Women’s UConn at Butler
Paige Bueckers will look to cap off her fabulous debut season in the Big East by leading the UConn Huskies to the tournament title.
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a seven-season stint in the American Athletic Conference, the UConn Huskies came back to the Big East. And they have picked up right where they left off!

The Huskies, currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, completed their conference slate an undefeated 18-0, giving them their 20th Big East regular season championship. Is there even a chance that the Huskies do not add their 19th Big East conference tournament championship to the trophy case in Storrs?

We will begin to find out Friday when the Big East tournament tips off. First-round games will be available on the BIG EAST Digital Network on FloSports. The quarterfinals will be shown on FS1 and FS2. The semifinals and final will be broadcast on FS1.

The top four teams

The No. 1-seed UConn Huskies not only enter the tournament the overwhelming favorites but also with the most dangerous player — Paige Bueckers. While the freshman phenom arrived as good as advertised, dropping a solid 17 points in her collegiate debut, she has improved as the season has progressed, more frequently flashing her prodigious hoops precocity. She has been named a Nancy Lieberman Award finalist and Naismith Trophy semifinalist. If Bueckers does not show out on the tournament stage, it will be a surprise. Of course, the Huskies have a stable of talented players beyond Bueckers, including fellow freshman Aliyah Edwards, who earned Big East Freshman of the Week honors with a double-double of 24 points and 14 rebounds in UConn’s Feb. 27 victory over Butler.

The No. 2-seed Marquette Golden Eagles finished their Big East regular season 14-4, with two of their losses coming at the hands of the Huskies. Encouragingly, Marquette put up a better fight against UConn in their second matchup, the final regular season game for both teams. After falling to the Huskies 87-58 on Feb. 5, the Golden Eagles held the margin to 10 points this past Monday, 63-53. Even more encouragingly, the 63 points scored by the Huskies was tied for their season-low. As such, Marquette can enter a potential championship matchup with UConn with a significant measure of self-belief. That the Golden Eagles were the only Big East team to start the same five players throughout the conference schedule — sophomore forward Camryn Taylor, senior forward Lauren Van Kleunen, sophomore guard Jordan King, senior guard Selena Lott and junior forward Chloe Marotta — should further endow them with confidence.

Winners of five straight games, the No. 3-seed and 12-5 Seton Hall Pirates will arrive in Uncasville with momentum. However, these victories came against the bottom-five teams in the Big East standings. Additionally, they dropped their only game against the Creighton Bluejays, the team they are likely to meet in the quarterfinals. In the Feb. 13 contest, the Pirates led 43-29 midway through the third quarter before allowing the Bluejays to come back and escape with the one-point win, 77-76. Possibly, the disappointing defeat will add extra motivation for Seton Hall in this potential matchup. If the Pirates advance, expect it to be because of Desiree Elmore, who will be playing her home state. The senior guard is the reigning Big East Player of the Week, tallying a double-double of 21 points and 16 rebounds in last Saturday’s win over Villanova and scoring a career-high 30 points in Monday’s victory over St. John’s.

The 2020 Big East regular season and tournament champions, the DePaul Blue Demons dropped to fourth in the standings this season, finishing 11-5 in conference action. As the No. 4 seed, the Blue Demons will have to best the Huskies in the semifinals if they are to repeat as conference tournament champions. Unfortunately, UConn routed DePaul in both their Dec. 29 and Jan. 31 matchups. Of more concern, the Blue Demons stumbled down the stretch, losing three of their last four games. In losses to Creighton (Feb. 20), Marquette (Feb. 24) and Butler (Mar. 1), defense was the problem for DePaul, as they allowed all three opponents to put more than 80 points on the scoreboard. However, the Blue Demons do have players who also can score in bunches. Averaging 17 points per game for the season, junior guard Lexie Held scored 21.3 points per game the final week of the regular season. Junior guard Sonya Morris has scored 20-plus points 11 times in conference play, the second-most in the Big East. For the season, she has averaged 18.4 points per game.

First round matchups

The tourney tips at 11 a.m. ET on Friday with the 8th-seeded St. John’s Red Storm and the 9th-seeded Xavier Musketeers. Xavier managed to play only 10 conference games, finishing 2-8. St. John’s was 4-12 in conference play. The two scheduled games between the squads were cancelled, which adds a bit of intrigue to the tournament’s opening game. Xavier arrives after a 58-48 win over Georgetown on Feb. 28. St. John’s lost its final two regular season games, including a Feb. 24 overtime loss to Georgetown, 62-58. The winner of this game will face UConn in the quarterfinals. The Musketeers were twice obliterated by the Huskies (106-59, 83-32), with the Red Storm suffering a similar fate on two occasions (94-62, 77-32).

Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. ET the No. 7-seed Providence Friars meet the No. 10-seed Butler Bulldogs. Providence finished the Big East regular season at 4-10, while Butler was 3-15. The teams met twice during the season, with the Friars taking both games. On Dec. 5, senior guard Kyra Spiwak scored a career-high 28 points to lead Providence past Butler, 73-52. On Jan. 7, the Friars pounded the Bulldogs in paint on their way to a 62-50 win. The team that advances will take on Marquette in the quarterfinals. Neither team managed to beat the Golden Eagles during the regular season, with the Friars falling 89-40 and 73-52 and the Bulldogs losing 95-57 and 77-48.

The first-round action concludes at 5 p.m. ET with a contest between the No. 6-seed Creighton Bluejays, who were 6-7 in the Big East, and the No. 11-seed Georgetown Hoyas, who were 2-14 in the conference. The Bluejays won both of the regular-season games between the two teams. After triumphing 65-57 on Jan. 30, Creighton had to engineer a comeback in final 93 seconds on Feb. 15, going on a 7-0 run to steal the 42-41 victory. As noted above, Creighton defeated Seton Hall in their only regular season matchup, which should give them an extra dose of confidence if they advance to the quarterfinals.

Big East Tournament Schedule

All games at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT

First Round — Friday, March 5

Game 1: No. 8 St. John’s vs. No. 9 Xavier, 11 a.m. ET (BEDN)

Game 2: No. 7 Providence vs. No. 10 Butler, 2 p.m. ET (BEDN)

Game 3: No. 6 Creighton vs. No. 11 Georgetown, 5 p.m. ET (BEDN)

Quarterfinals — Saturday, March 6

Game 5: No. 1 UConn vs. Game 1 winner, 12 p.m. ET (FS1)

Game 6: No. 4 DePaul vs. No. 5 Villanova, 3 p.m. ET (FS2)

Game 7: No. 2 Marquette vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m. ET (FS2)

Game 8: No. 3 Seton Hall vs. Game 3 winner, 9 p.m. ET (FS2)

Semifinals — Sunday, March 7

Game 9: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 3 p.m. ET (FS1)

Game 10: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 6 p.m. ET (FS1)

Finals — Monday, March 8

Game 11: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 8 p.m. ET (FS1)