Marquette, UConn and Providence highlight big weekend on FOX

The road to the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden is nearly complete, with the final day of the regular season headlining the FOX College Hoops Saturday slate. 

At noon ET, No. 20 Providence looks to bounce back at home welcoming in Seton Hall. The outright Big East regular-season champions for the first time in program history, No. 6 Marquette closes out its regular season hosting St. John’s at 2 p.m. ET. Game three on the day comes from Philadelphia as FOX Primetime Hoops brings the renewal of a historic conference rivalry as No. 14 UConn visits Villanova in a showdown of red-hot teams. 

Here’s what to watch for in the matchups on the first Saturday of March.

Seton Hall at No. 20 Providence – Noon ET on FOX – Amica Mutual Pavilion

The Friars have more at stake in this one, entering the game at 13-6 in the conference standings and in a tie with Creighton for third place. While Providence clinches the No. 3 seed in the Big East Tournament with a win, it does bear noting that it would book a date with Villanova, who’s won six of its last seven games! Some kind of reward, huh?

By the same token, Providence is in an 8-9 game in Mike Decourcy’s current bracket forecast, and if the Friars are going to figure out a way out of that unlikable spot in the NCAA Tournament, beating a Seton Hall team in a Quad 3 home game is really a must, then potentially getting a quality result in the conference tournament.

Meanwhile for the Pirates, it’s been a challenging first season at the helm for Shaheen Holloway. Seton Hall is 1-5 in its last six and point guard Kadary Richmond has a back injury. His status is listed as day-to-day.

These two teams met in their conference opener, with the Friars winning at the Prudential Center back in December, 71-67. The key to that game? Kentucky transfer Bryce Hopkins took over the game with 24 points and 10 rebounds, while Ed Croswell went for 21-and-9. Seton Hall has to get a strong performance from senior center Tyrese Samuel in the post to have a chance in this game, while lockdown defender KC Ndefo will look to flip the script on Hopkins. The Friars are looking to respond from a 94-89 home loss to Xavier, just their second defeat suffered at Amica Mutual Pavilion in the last 38 games.

St. John’s at No. 6 Marquette – 2 p.m. ET on FOX – Fiserv Forum

First and foremost, let’s reflect on the Golden Eagles. They are 24-6 on the season and 16-3 in the Big East after getting selected ninth by the coaches in the conference preseason poll and not having a single player on the preseason all-conference teams. Shaka Smart deserves serious national coach of the year consideration with what he’s done with this team. Marquette didn’t improve dramatically in the offseason with some transfer portal splash or five-star freshman. They actually lost Justin Lewis to the pro ranks, a move that instantly was thought to be one that would lead to the Golden Eagles taking a significant step back this year.

[Shaka Smart and Marquette: The perfect fit at the perfect time]

Instead, Marquette has made history. At No. 6 in the AP Top 25, the Golden Eagles have their highest ranking since Al McGuire was patrolling the sidelines in the 1977-78 campaign. With a win on Saturday, the Golden Eagles would join the 2011-12 Syracuse team as the only other squad in Big East history to win 17 Big East games in a season.

What’s the reason for all of this success?

It starts with Tyler Kolek, who is deserving of Big East player of the year. In his last 12 games, the junior is averaging 17.9 points, 7.7 assists and 4.0 rebounds per contest while shooting 52% from the floor. With Kam Jones (15.0 points per game on 47% from field) alongside him in the backcourt, Marquette has one of the best guard duos in the country.

While the Golden Eagles have been the biggest surprise in the Big East, St. John’s has been the biggest disappointment. After starting the season 11-1, the Red Storm have gone 6-12 since and are heading towards a fourth straight season missing the NCAA Tournament with Mike Anderson on the sideline. That leaves some decision-making ahead for St. John’s administration once the season concludes. If there is a bright spot for the Red Storm, it’s the national leader in double-doubles, Joel Soriano, who has totaled 22 on the year.

No. 14 UConn at Villanova – 7:30 p.m. ET – Wells Fargo Center

This is a really interesting matchup for different reasons. The Huskies have won seven of their last eight games. The Wildcats have won six of their last seven. Connecticut is an NCAA Tournament lock and on pace for a top-four seed in the big dance. They are all but officially locked into the 4-5 game in the Big East Tournament. Villanova is on the outside looking in after a 10-13 start to the year, but getting senior Justin Moore back from an Achilles injury has changed everything. The Wildcats are the No. 6 seed in the conference tournament.

[Is Villanova peaking at the right time? ‘The fabric of our program is to fight’]

Dan Hurley’s group was one of the biggest stories of the first two months of the season, starting 14-0 and reaching the No. 2 ranking in America. After a difficult stretch during conference play, UConn has played much better in the last month and a road win to stop Villanova’s hot streak would fully validate everything that’s been happening for this team. The Huskies took the first meeting over the Wildcats back in December, 74-66, with Jordan Hawkins leading the way with 22 points while Alex Karaban poured in 15.

Villanova has to know where Hawkins is at all times, because the sophomore can change a game with his perimeter shooting. He’s scored 20-or-more-points in eight of the last 12 games. Down low, Adama Sanogo is a handful. Over his last three games, the junior is averaging 20.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per contest.

Meanwhile for the Wildcats, Moore’s presence can’t be overstated. He’s averaged 18 points per game over the last five, providing such a calming presence for Villanova that Kyle Neptune has been in such great need of in his first season. As strong as Sanogo is for UConn, Eric Dixon has given the Huskies nightmares throughout his career, going for 18-and-8 earlier this year and leading the Wildcats past UConn in Philadelphia last season with 24-and-12. Dixon has totaled 49 points over the last two games.

An underlying key: Can UConn rattle Villanova defensively? The Wildcats are typically so efficient and effective, as even with a point guard problem this season, they rank in the top-20 for fewest turnovers at 10.3 per game. This should be a real battle, and with it coming one week exactly from the Big East Tournament Final from MSG on FOX, never say never on it being a potential title game preview.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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