Later today, the No. 4 seeded UConn Huskies and the No. 1 seeded Marquette Golden Eagles face off in the semi-finals of the Big East tournament, with one of them advancing to the Big East finals, with a chance to secure themselves a definite spot in the NCAA tournament. But even if neither of these two teams win the Big East, they will both have a spot in March Madness once again. But this will still be an intense matchup, between two schools that split their regular season series, and are the two highest ranked teams out of the Big East. So who will win? Who will come out on top? Will it be UConn going to their first Big East final since 2011–after leaving the Big East from 2013-2020–with a chance to be crowned their 8th ever Big East tournament championship, or will it be Marquette with a chance to win their 2nd ever Big East championship on the one year anniversary of their elimination from the tournament last season?
First we need to look at how these teams got here. Marquette, 26-6, wasn’t a highly looked at team for the national title to begin the season, but after a close loss to currently ranked No. 5 Purdue, and then a blowout victory over at the time No. 6 Baylor, the Golden Eagles proved they can make some noise this season going into Big East play. And they did. The Golden Eagles lost just three games throughout their entire Big East play, those being to Providence, Xavier and UConn, who have all basically punched their ticket into the dance. Because of that they were able to receive the No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament, and took advantage of this by beating St. Johns by two points for the second straight game. However, yesterday wasn’t exactly the prettiest game for Shaka Smart’s squad, trailing by as much as 14 to a very mediocre St. Johns team. Luckily for Marquette, they outscored the Red Storm 52-36 from that point on, and because of a great scoring outing from Tyler Kolek, the Golden Eagles are still alive for their first Big East tournament championship in this century.
UConn, 25-7, went into the season unranked, but blowout wins against Oregon, Alabama, Iowa State and Florida, along with starting the season an astounding 14-0 made them climb all the way to No. 2 in the rankings. But then was what I like to call “the losing streak”. Because they went from maybe the best team in all of college basketball to not, as they lost to Xavier and Providence (both on the road), before winning one game against Creighton and losing three more to Marquette, St. Johns (by 14 points at home, considered their worst loss of the season), and Seton Hall. They started off Big East play 1-4 on the road, and even though games away from home are so tough in this conference, a team with national championship aspirations does not start conference play like that on the road. But since then, they’ve gotten back to almost what they were doing before conference play, winning nine of their last 10 and ten of their last 12. Yesterday’s outing for the Huskies though went nearly the exact opposite as Marquette’s, as Connecticut stormed to a 26 point lead with 12:31 left in the second half. But the Friars made an unprecedented comeback, as UConn went three minutes and 36 seconds straight with no points scored, and a 29-8 run by Providence made it a five point game with 2:45 left. Even though both of these teams won, they both weren’t overly impressive wins to the say the least!
As you can see, both of these teams are highly capable of getting the job done, even if they have had their fair share of mistakes. These two teams seem so tight. Marquette took their first meeting when UConn was in the middle of their losing streak, at home, in a game where Jordan Hawkins and Adama Sanogo, the second and third leading scorers in the Big East, combined for 18 points. Because of this, UConn needed to rely on freshman center Donovan Clingan who put up 20 points (the second most in a game in his freshman year), but it still wasn’t enough. And Marquette was able to escape with Kolek being limited to just six points. They instead relied on Oso Ighodaro, Oliver-Maxence Prosper and Kam Jones, who all combined for 51 of the Golden Eagles 82 points. However, Marquette really “snuck” away with a win because of UConn’s 27% 3pt shooting and blown 11 point lead that was held late in the first half. Marquette didn’t win, UConn lost, and it ended up putting this game in the win column for the Golden Eagles.
The other matchup came more recently in Connecticut, and UConn smoked them, winning 87-72, and they were leading by as much as 25 points in the middle of the second half. And that big three I was telling you about last game for the Golden Eagles combined for 11 points. Instead in this matchup, it was Sanogo and Hawkins that carried the load offensively for Connecticut, combining for 38 points along with 25 combined points between freshman Alex Karaban and senior Tristen Newton; Newton added on 12 assists and ten rebounds for his 2nd triple double of the season, the first UConn player to ever accomplish this in one season in the programs history. And in this matchup, UConn shot much more efficient, shooting 52% from downtown. Marquette also shot in-efficiently, shooting 23% from downtown, a near 30% decrease from Connecticut. So they split the season series. But as you can tell, Marquette is more consistent, but UConn has more potential, a higher ceiling, but also a lower floor.
So with all of this information stated, who do I think is going to win this semifinal matchup? It’s a tough call. In fact, ESPN stated eight teams that they think can compete for a national title over the next few weeks, and both of these teams appeared on the list. But I’m going to have to go with UConn. Despite lacking seeding in Big East play, and in the AP Poll, KenPom rankings has UConn four and nine spots over Marquette, and the Huskies are 4.5 point favorites in this game for a reason. The Huskies, in my opinion, have more top-tier talent, in fact more than anyone in the Big East. They have the second leading scorer in the Big East in Sanogo and a guy like Jordan Hawkins who’s 3rd in scoring in this conference and is a possible lottery pick in this year’s upcoming NBA draft. No other team in this conference has that kind of talent, and that includes Marquette. It will be a great game, but with the best scoring defense in the Big East, the Huskies will be back in the Big East championship game for the first time since 2011, after a 79-73 win!
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