NEW YORK (AP) — Parity came to the Big East Conference this season, and that is expected to make defending national champion Villanova's bid to win a third straight league tournament a lot more difficult.
The tournament starts with a doubleheader Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, with Butler facing Providence in the first game and St. John's playing DePaul in the nightcap.
No. 25 Villanova, which won the league's outright regular-season title for the fifth time in six years, gets into action on Thursday in the quarterfinals, facing the winner of the Butler-Providence game in the first matchup on the afternoon twin billing.
No. 23 Marquette, which has lost four in row, will play the winner of the St. John's-DePaul game in the evening twin billing.
Providence coach Ed Cooley, whose team lost to Villanova in the Big East Tournament championship game last year, has told the Friars (17-14), they have to win four games in four days to go to the NCAA Tournament.
"I think this will be one of the more exciting Big East Tournaments in a while, because of the parity, because of the balance," Cooley said.
Villanova (13-5) and Marquette (12-6) were the only teams to post winning records in the league play this season. Seton Hall, Xavier, Creighton and Georgetown all finished at 9-9. None of the 10 teams won fewer than seven games in conference play.
Every team in the league finished with an overall winning record.
While that may make for exciting basketball, it also may create problems for the league when the NCAA Tournament berths are announced Sunday.
Villanova (22-9) and Marquette (23-8) are going to get bids. Seton Hall (18-12) has a good shot with victories over 'Nova, Marquette, No. 4 Kentucky and No. 21 Maryland.
Georgetown (19-12) and St. John's (20-11) have to be considered along with Creighton, which finished with a five-game winning streak to improve to 18-13.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott hopes the selection committee notices the strength of the schedule, which included a 103-92 loss to No. 1 Gonzaga and an 87-82 win over Clemson (19-12).
"We played a very challenging schedule and because of that we don't have as many wins as a few of the other teams on the bubble," said McDermott, whose team will face Xavier on Thursday afternoon. "But we chose to challenge ourselves, so we'll see if that will be rewarded."
The other game on Thursday has Seton Hall facing Georgetown in the night's last game. The teams split their two regular-season meetings.
This year, every team in the conference except Georgetown went through a stretch where it had at least three straight losses in league play.
"A lot of times it's just a matter of the schedule," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "This can happen in our league because there are no easy nights. Every team has a winning record, and I think it's the only conference in the country with that."
Cooley doesn't believe the parity will hurt the league on Selection Sunday.
"It's a hell of a league," he said. "We are beating up on each other but when you look at the resumes of a Creighton, of a Seton Hall, the great wins in their nonconference schedules and who they competed against, St. John's has some great wins though they have struggled late. The committee is going to look at the whole body of work."
A strong finish in New York may even determine who gets to go dancing, which should make for some entertaining basketball in a well-balanced league.
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