1. What team has surprised the most to this point?
Chris Novak: Creighton, no doubt. No disrespect to the Jays but while I thought they would be improved from last year, I did not expect them to be contending for third place in the conference. Maurice Watson Jr. has made all of us here look silly and has performed marvelously. Greg McDermott has done a terrific job coaching this team up and the future's pretty bright for them as well. 2016 should be even better but so far, 2015's biggest surprise is the Bluejays.
Robert O'Neill: Creighton. It was destined to be another rebuild for the Jays this season as they looked primed to repeat last season's 9th place BIG EAST finish (they were even picked there by the coaches at BE Media Day). However, we didn't take into account two things: 1. Greg McDermott is one heck of a coach. And 2. Maurice Watson has exceeded expectations. While the Jays might end up missing the Tournament because of a weak nonconference slate, they're primed to be even better next year with another season of Watson, plus the addition of Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster, among other returnees.
Mike Murtaugh: For me, it's got to be Creighton. I was tempted to put Seton Hall in here, but between Isaiah Whitehead and Angel Delgado returning with a year of experience under their belts and the locker room drama fading into the past with Sterling Gibbs' departure, I'm much more pleasantly surprised with what the Bluejays are doing. Sure, they're already at ten losses on the season with games against Xavier and Providence still left on the schedule, but they deserve a ton of credit for what they've done since the start of conference play. With wins against Xavier, Seton Hall and Butler, they've already blown past expectations for this season just by being in the conversation for a postseason appearance. I mean, guys, we didn't even have Mo Watson in our point guard rankings before the season, and he's probably second only to Kris Dunn if we voted again today.
Pierce Roberson: A year ago there was talk of how long Kevin Willard would last in South Orange. There was division in his locker room, Jaren Sina dipped, as did Sterling Gibbs. Though it all, Seton Hall has weathered the storm and appears tournament bound with a strong finish. Whitehead and Delgado have been tremendous, and Desi Rodriguez is blossoming into one of the best big men in the league. Most of all, they've seemed to avoid the usual late-season meltdown that cripples the Pirates.
Alex Sindelar: I'd say Seton Hall, mainly because of what transpired at the end of last year. The play of Whitehead, Delgado, and Desi Rodriguez has been phenomenal in the second half of conference play. I fully expected some sort of meltdown to happen, as it did in the year prior, but instead we were treated to some excellent and post-season potential that wasn't there before. Also, their win against Wichita State is going to be key come selection time. Creighton has been surprising, sure, but given that they made a heap of games close last year was a testament to the squad they already had assembled, and with the additions of Huff and Watson I expected pretty great things from them.
Nick Rossetti: I think Xavier has exceeded expectations, and then some. Yes, Xavier was a likely tournament team in preseason brackets but only received nine votes in the preseason AP Poll. To put that in perspective, Georgetown received 23 votes, and the voters thought 38 teams were going to be better than the Musketeers. In hindsight, it's hard to blame the voters following the graduation of two key seniors in Matt Stainbrook and Dee Davis, and although they did return a few veterans, there were also a few question marks. Would Edmund Sumner be able to handle the point as a freshman? Could Jalen Reynolds and James Farr replicate some of Stainbrook's production? And was Trevon Blueitt ready to take the next step after a solid freshman year? To say the Musketeers have answered all those questions with a resounding yes is an understatement. Xavier and Villanova are both 23-3, the best record in the country, and the Musketeers' talent, size and depth gives them a legitimate chance at making a deep tourney run.
Matt Moore-Alameda: Creighton and Seton Hall have both exceeded expectations this year, but the most surprising team at this point has to be Xavier. Yes they were coming off a Sweet 16 appearance, and projected to be a Tournament team this year, but no one expected them to be this dominant. What's been most impressive about the Musketeers is how many guys have been major contributors this year. James Farr, Myles Davis, Jalen Reynolds, Trevon Bluiett, and J.P. Macura all took tremendous steps forward from last season. Add in the impressive play of Edmund Sumner as a true freshman, and you get a team with a legitimate Final 4 chance that very few saw coming.
2. What team has disappointed the most to this point?
Chris Novak: Georgetown. Returning a crop of players who made it to the Round of 32 last year that were thought to only get better, the Hoyas have taken a step back. Memories of the disappointing 2013-14 campaign have been unearthed and a similar road has been traveled this year. Georgetown's skated on thin ice all season and it hasn't turned up at all. While I don't think JT3 will be let go this year, 2016 is going to be very, very interesting.
Robert O'Neill: I think it has to be Georgetown. After they lost to Radford, we wrote it off as an anomaly, but it looks more and more like that was the real Hoyas. Sure they beat Wisconsin and Syracuse, but the bad losses have more than outweighed the good wins, and that's what has them at 14-13. They're one of the most talented teams in the nation on paper, and the fact that they're barely .500 right now is a major disappointment.
Mike Murtaugh: There are a couple of options here. Marquette has a tendency to blow teams off the floor and then disappear in their next game, and it's disappointing to see the Golden Eagles not performing better with one of the best freshman in the country in tow. Butler has dropped a few notches since conference play started, and is wildly inconsistent defensively. However, I'm going with Georgetown. Picked to finish second in the conference in the preseason polls, the fact that they're sitting pretty squarely behind six other Big East opponents in the tournament conversation is a huge discouragement. They've had one of the toughest schedules in the country this season, but when you've lost to two different opponents outside of the Top 150 in RPI, it can be tough to bounce back.
Pierce Roberson: I would say Georgetown, but the up and down season of Providence vexes me. Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil are an electric one-two punch, but they have struggled these last few weeks. They're still a tournament team in my eyes, but it remains to be seen how far they can go.
Alex Sindelar: As of late, probably Providence. I expected them to fight for the top slot with Villanova with Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil scorching the nets as they did early on in conference play, but they've fizzled ever since. They've got a lot of key components that made them successful that just haven't been clicking lately and this week off will surely help heal the holes that have formed in their offense. If Cooley can get these guys going earlier in games as we approach post-season play, there isn't a team that can hang with them. Til' then, they've done nothing but disappoint.
Nick Rossetti: Georgetown and Providence have both underachieved in different ways. Georgetown was a borderline preseason top 25 team with senior leadership, size and talented youth, but at 14-13 will almost definitely miss the tourney, barring a BIG EAST Tournament championship. Providence was ranked eighth in the country at one point, but during this rough stretch their lack of depth and shooting has been apparent. The Friars are back on the bubble, and what once looked like a team that could make a deep tournament run now has a lot of question marks.
Matt Moore-Alameda: The most disappointing team of the year is easily Georgetown. Simply put, the Hoyas have not played with any urgency this year. They've played to the level of their competition, losing multiple games they shouldn't, yet have won or came very close to beating teams that their record suggests they have no business playing with. The most frustrating part of their play has been their lack of consistency within a game. The Hoyas have gotten off to a few horrible starts in Big East play, only to have a furious last minute comeback attempt that usually falls just short of earning a victory. These scattered spurts of good play have just embodied the Georgetown season as a whole, one most Hoyas fans would like to forget.
3. Pick one for the NCAA Tournament: Seton Hall, Butler, Creighton, Georgetown or Marquette
Chris Novak: Butler. Of the three teams, the Bulldogs and Seton Hall definitely have better resumes than the other three. The Bulldogs beat the Pirates h2h earlier this season on the road and have a home matchup waiting to possibly sweep them in the season series. I don't think the Bulldogs' chances of making the NCAA Tournament are hurt if they lose this weekend to Villanova but a win would put them over big time. The Pirates are certainly intriguing, but I'm picking the ‘Dawgs.
Robert O'Neill: I'm going to cheat and pick two. Either one of Seton Hall or Butler. The Pirates don't have a world-beating nonconference schedule, but have racked up wins in BIG EAST play. The Pirates currently sit at 8-5 in conference play, and the eight wins ties Kevin Willard's best in his time in South Orange. Butler, on the other hand, has a fantastic nonconference resume (the wins at Cincy and on a neutral court against Purdue look fantastic, as does the victory over Temple), but struggled through the early part of BIG EAST play. The Bulldogs have since turned it around and gotten to 7-7 in conference play, so I think if they can go .500 and then win a Big East Tournament game, they should be dancing.
Mike Murtaugh: I think we can pretty safely say that both Georgetown and Marquette are going to have the win the Big East tournament if they want to make the postseason, so it's got to be either Seton Hall, Butler or Creighton. The Bluejays have the weakest resume of the bunch, so it honestly may come down to a head-to-head matchup between the Pirates and the Bulldogs on March 2 to answer this one. Both teams have tough schedules to close things out, and their bodies of work are admittedly pretty even. If Butler beats Villanova on Saturday that changes things a bit, but honestly, they're so close that it's a really tough call.
Pierce Roberson: It's unfair to pick between Creighton and Seton Hall, so I'll choose both. I think Butler is a tournament team as well but a slow start to conference play could break their necks. Kevin Willard has done a great job turning this program around from where it was last year, and Greg McDermott is doing his finest coaching job to date. All three will find ways to make the Big Dance.
Alex Sindelar: I'm going to go with a homer pick here and choose Creighton for my own selfish purposes. The Bluejays have picked up in tremendous strides on the defensive end, a detriment they dealt with the first ¾ of the season, and can seemingly hang with a majority of teams. It's unfortunate that the losses to ASU & Loyola will hurt ‘em come selection time, but these guys have what it takes to get to the Sweet 16. Mo Watson alone can carry them there.
Nick Rossetti: I think Butler finds its way into the dance. A strong nonconference performance and wins in four of its past five games has Butler fans believing in this team again, following a tough start to conference play. A trip to Villanova on Saturday is a huge potential resume booster that won't really hurt their RPI in a loss. This is followed by winnable games at a struggling Georgetown, a crucial home matchup with Seton Hall and a visit from Marquette. Butler is currently Joe Lunardi's last team dancing, but I bet they move up a few spots by the end of year.
Matt Moore-Alameda: Three of these will likely be deserving of making the dance, but the team with the most impressive resume has to be Butler. They have quality non-conference wins against Temple, Cincinnati, and Purdue, which earned them a top 10 AP ranking heading into Big East play. While the conference season has not been ideal for the Bulldogs, they really don't have any bad losses. Road defeats against Creighton and Marquette stand out on paper, but losing to a fellow bubble in their building should not be considered a knock against Butler. While winning at Villanova on Saturday would all but secure Butler a spot in the dance, finishing 2-2 and winning a game in the Big East tournament should be enough to earn an invitation as well.
4. Who's the breakout player in the conference?
Chris Novak: So many choices, so little time. Ask me this in January and I say Ben Bentil. Now? I'm not so sure it isn't Kelan Martin. Once a sixth man, Martin has been inserted in the starting lineup and all he's done lately with his minutes increase is score in bunches. In his last 10 games, the sophomore forward is averaging 33.3 minutes per game. Through that time, the Louisville, Kentucky native is averaging 20.6 points. Further, since dropping just eight points vs. DePaul on January 27, Martin has amassed 139 points over six contests, including 35 in an 87-76 victory over Georgetown. His efficiency has taken huge leaps as well across the board. As Mike will go on to say, he's arguably been Butler's most valuable player down the stretch and should continue to be that as the season comes to an end.
Robert O'Neill: There are a ton of good options, but I have to go with Ben Bentil. We all thought Providence would be Kris Dunn and Friends this season, but come to find out, it's Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn and Friends. Bentil currently leads the conference in scoring at 20.3 PPG after totaling a paltry 6.4 last season. His play has even seen him crack some 2017 mock drafts, which was unexpected going into the season.
Mike Murtaugh: I'm taking Butler's Kelan Martin. You could make cases for Ben Bentil or Mo Watson, but I'm not sure that Butler is even still hanging around at this point without Martin, who has shifted from a bench role to the team's most prolific offensive option over the course of just a few months. With Roosevelt Jones and Kellen Dunham graduating after this season, my best guess was that Martin would step into the spotlight next year, but the timeline has accelerated as Martin surpasses Dunham as the team's leading scorer. Hell, the guy is averaging 16 points and six rebounds per game, and increased his three-point shooting percentage by 16 percent compared to his freshman year.
Pierce Roberson: I gotta go with "Sexual Chocolate" Maurice Watson Jr. He's stepped in and lifted Creighton from a fringe tournament team to a threat to win the Big East tourney in March. He's been under the radar as far as top point guards in the country, but with postseason play creeping near, it won't be long before the nation gets to know him.
Alex Sindelar: It's hard not to go with Maurice Watson Jr., here. It was relatively unknown how much this guy could contribute at the beginning of the year, and has damn near single handedly carried the Bluejays to where they're at now. It shows how much his leadership he brings to the court when teams start to gameplan solely for him (see: Seton Hall 1/30). He's been getting better and better as the year wears on, and it's hard to say whether that's because he's become accustomed to the style of play or if McDermott has let him run the game he knows. I'm guessing it's the latter.
Nick Rossetti: There are a few choices that make sense here (Maurice Watson Jr., James Farr, Kelan Martin, etc.), but the answer has to be Ben Bentil. The sophomore forward inherited huge responsibilities manning the middle for the Friars and has responded by raising his scoring average by nearly 14 points per game, guarding opposing centers and giving Providence a chance to win every night. Without him, the Friars would not be in position to make the tournament.
Matt Moore-Alameda: Without question the breakout player has to be Ben Bentil. Coming into the year no one was talking about the Providence big man.Last year Bentil established himself as a strong rebounder, who could score when given open looks down low. This year Bentil has shown that he can create his own shot from any part of the floor, which has been an invaluable asset for a Providence offense that looks stagnant at times. For as well as Kris Dunn has played this year, the Friars would not be where they are right now without Bentil.
5. Your prediction for BIG EAST Player of the Year
Chris Novak: Like Rob, I think Dunn will get it but Bentil would be my pick. Simple as that.
Robert O'Neill: I think it has to be Ben Bentil solely because I think he means more to the Friars than Kris Dunn does this season. If you go back and look at Providence's losses, more often than not, they came on the heels of a Bentil ankle injury, which he's had a couple of. Meanwhile, the games where Kris Dunn didn't play in the nonconference slate due to a stomach virus, the Friars were able to prevail thanks to Bentil. I think, ultimately, Dunn will end up winning the award, but if I had a vote it would go to Bentil.
Mike Murtaugh: It's funny, because I'm at the same point I was last year, deciding between two Providence players with markedly different skillsets: one rangy big man who leads the Big East in scoring, and one all-around point guard who may be one of the most dominantly athletic players in the country. Last year, that first spot was held down by LaDontae Henton, and Ben Bentil has filled that role seamlessly. However, just as I did last season, I'm giving the edge to Kris Dunn, who may not mean as much to his team in the scoring column, but impacts the game in so many other ways that sometimes get overlooked (he leads the conference in both assists and steals for the second year in a row). You could even argue that his playmaking and court vision have been huge contributors to both Henton and now Bentil's success. And considering that Dunn trails only Bentil in points per game in the Big East, I'm taking Dunn.
Pierce Roberson: Kris Dunn is the most important player for Providence, but Ben Bentil has been its best. Bentil lifted the Friars when Dunn sat in non-conference play with a stomach virus, and was sorely missed as Providence struggled without him. It will come down to the fire between the two, but Bentil would have my vote.
Alex Sindelar: I'm going to go with a darkhorse here and pick Isaiah Whitehead. If he can continue to produce as he has been of late he may just be in the running for BE player of the year. He may be a longshot, but he has been so important to the Pirate's success down the stretch with his abilities on both offense and defense. As long as he can continue this hot streak and beat Butler, Xavier, and Providence to close out the season I don't see why he wouldn't be in the running.
Nick Rossetti: This is tough, because two Friars are statistically the front runners, and without Bentil and Dunn the Friars would be awful, plain and simple. And while I think Dunn will win the award, the dark horse and my pick for POY is Villanova's Josh Hart. Last year we saw Ryan Arcidiacono share the award with Dunn, which most people didn't think made much sense. But it shows that the voters value leadership and team success, and Arch gets the highest marks in those categories. For that reason, don't be surprised if Josh Hart wins the award this year. He's shooting over 50 percent from the field and averages nearly 15 points per game on the nation's number one team. He is also sixth in the conference in rebounding and can guard positions one through four.
Matt Moore-Alameda: Looking at the stats, it hard not to give the award to Ben Bentil. The Providence big man leads the league in scoring by a wide margin, and is 5th in rebounds per game. There's an argument to be made that these numbers may be in inflated since the Friars really have no other option but to feed Bentil and Dunn every game, but given how efficient and consistent Bentil's play has been in that role, it's hard not to give him the award.