No. 2 UConn seeks 1st Big East tourney title since 2011 in MSG clash that could burst NCAA bubble

Tue, Mar 12, 2024
NCAAB News (AP)

No. 2 UConn seeks 1st Big East tourney title since 2011 in MSG clash that could burst NCAA bubble

NEW YORK (AP) - Just about the only accomplishment missing from UConn's tour de force the past two years is a Big East Tournament title.

That could provide added motivation this week at Madison Square Garden for a dominant squad that doesn't seem to need any.

"As good a college basketball team as I've seen in a long time," Providence coach Kim English said Saturday.

After winning the regular-season conference crown by four games, the second-ranked Huskies (28-3, 18-2) are the No. 1 seed in a Big East Tournament that features three top-10 teams and four others perched precariously on the NCAA Tournament bubble: Seton Hall, St. John's, Villanova and Providence.

Needless to say, the selection committee will be watching closely - along with March Madness fans all over the country.

The first-round tripleheader tips off Wednesday afternoon when eighth-seeded Butler faces No. 9 seed Xavier, with the winner advancing to play Connecticut in the first of four quarterfinal games Thursday.

"It's going to be a blast, man," UConn coach Dan Hurley said. "It's a seven-bid league. And three national championship-caliber teams. It's the best conference tournament in the country - nothing's even close."

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It's easy to forget Hurley and his Huskies lost to Marquette in the semifinals last season, especially since they quickly shrugged off that sting and romped to a national championship weeks later.

But the fact is, UConn hasn't won this storied event since 2011, when "Kardiac" Kemba Walker famously carried the team to five scintillating wins in five days. So technically, the Huskies have captured three national titles (2011, 2014, 2023) since their last Big East Tournament crown.

Of course, the school spent seven seasons in the American Athletic Conference from 2014-20. However, the Huskies have been knocked out in the Big East semifinals all three years since rejoining the league. And anyone familiar with UConn's history and boisterous fan base knows Big East supremacy remains a big deal in Connecticut - even with five NCAA titles to tout, all in the past quarter-century.

Fueled by first-team All-Big East guards Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer, these Huskies are seeking the program's eighth Big East Tournament championship, which would match Georgetown for the most of any school.

Connecticut is 4-0 at MSG this season, including double-digit wins over No. 4 North Carolina and St. John's, a potential semifinal opponent.

But regardless of results in Midtown Manhattan this week, UConn has probably sewed up a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs already - and maybe an opening-weekend trip to the Barclays Center site, just a subway ride away in Brooklyn.

"The problem for people when they play against us now is, we've got that championship confidence," Hurley said.

AILING STAR

Point guard Tyler Kolek missed the final three regular-season games for No. 10 Marquette with an oblique injury. Golden Eagles coach Shaka Smart has expressed confidence that Kolek will return at some point this postseason, but his status for the Big East Tournament was uncertain.

Kolek was the 2023 Big East Player of the Year and tournament MVP for defending champion Marquette. He is averaging 15 points and leads the nation with 7.6 assists per game. The third-seeded Golden Eagles (23-8, 14-6) await the Villanova-DePaul winner in the quarterfinals Thursday night.

HUDSON RIVER RIVALRY

The second quarterfinal Thursday afternoon matches fourth-seeded Seton Hall (20-11, 13-7) against No. 5 seed St. John's (19-12, 11-9). Both teams are barely on the right side of the NCAA bubble in several bracket projections, so this one could have significant postseason implications.

In his debut season at streaking St. John's, 71-year-old Hall of Famer Rick Pitino is trying to become the first coach to take six schools to the NCAA Tournament.

"It would be very special if we can get there and I think we could do some damage if we do," point guard Daniss Jenkins said.

St. John's hasn't reached the Big East semifinals since winning the 2000 championship - even though the event takes place on one of its home courts.

HOT SEAT

Sixth-seeded Villanova (17-14, 10-10), a perennial power under Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright, is in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in two seasons with Kyle Neptune at the helm.

A first-round victory against downtrodden DePaul (3-28, 0-20) won't really help. A quarterfinal win over Marquette just might.

"In this league you go against some monster coaches, monster teams," Neptune said. "I think we all understand the situation."

COLLEGE REUNION

English makes his Big East Tournament coaching debut Wednesday night when Devin Carter and seventh-seeded Providence (19-12, 10-10) open against No. 10 seed Georgetown (9-22, 2-18). Hoyas coach Ed Cooley left his hometown Friars following last season to take the rebuilding job at Georgetown.

The winner gets No. 8 Creighton, led by the terrific trio of Trey Alexander, Baylor Scheierman and three-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kalkbrenner. The second-seeded Bluejays (23-8, 14-6) are 0-4 in Big East championship games.

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AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen and AP freelance writer Aaron Bracy contributed to this report.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball

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