The Big East has nothing to prove.
Let's start there, because by now, questions about the league's viability -- whether it could survive the great college sports realignment of 2010s as a post-schism, basketball-only affair -- feel pretty silly. Of course it is viable; of course it can survive. If three years of quality basketball and a 50 percent NCAA tournament appearance average didn't seal the deal, Ryan Arcidiacono's dumpoff to a trailing Kris Jenkins signed those terms on the line which is dotted.
By now, there is nothing surprising about the words "Big East" and "good" being used in close proximity. Even so, around the league, there remains a barely concealed need to repeatedly prove this status is deserved. League officials will privately fret about media coverage and mindshare. Fans will reply to any overview of the league -- even glowing praise -- with scores of mildly passive-aggressive tweets. It's as if each new AP poll or big hoops weekend is one more referendum on an existential question that no longer needs asking. It's kind of weird.
Relative to the rest of the sport, the big hoops weekend at hand is a disproportionately big one for the Big East. Three of the league's extremely impressive top four teams (No. 1 Villanova, No. 13 Xavier, No. 16 Butler) are all facing quality high-major competition, while a probably-underrated NCAA tournament-level upstart (Marquette) has an opportunity for a major win by way of a heated in-state rivalry.
Oh, and that's "big" in normal terms, by the way -- not existential ones. The stakes simply aren't that high, nor should they be. And anyway, if you needed more arbitrary proof of the Big East's ongoing vitality (and you didn't, we promise!), you could also note this: With maybe two exceptions (maybe No. 5 Duke at UNLV and/or Michigan at No. 2 UCLA), if you find yourself watching interesting basketball this weekend, you'll be watching the Big East.
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 23 Notre Dame, Saturday, noon ET
Villanova's Josh Hart is awesome. Last season's quietest All-American-level player (maybe the least heralded star of any national title team ever) is even better so far this season. He's averaging more points (17.6) than a season ago (15.5) despite taking fewer shots, in large part because because he's shooting 44 percent from 3 and (gulp) 63 percent from 2. Hart has suddenly become a much more capable distributor, though his turnover rate has remained low, and at 6-foot-6, he's still the team's second-best defensive rebounder -- the crucial reason coach Jay Wright's devastating undersized scoring lineups are practicable on both ends of the floor.
For what it's worth, Notre Dame knows this blueprint well. Bonzie Colson, the Irish's 6-foot-5 power forward/sometimes center, is arguably the season's leading spokesman for the benefits of new-age positional versatility. The Irish don't guard like Villanova, and that may be the difference here, but the fact of the matter is that they match up with the reigning champs -- stylistically, philosophically and dimensionally -- as well or better than any team in the country. At minimum, this neutral-floor game in Newark, New Jersey, should be a joy to watch.
No. 22 Cincinnati at No. 16 Butler, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET
UConn's sundry crimes against the sport of basketball and/or humanity (even in wins!) aren't the only reason Cincinnati has emerged as the clear front-runner in the American. The Bearcats deserve plenty of credit, too. Last week's overtime victory in Ames, Iowa, was the stuff NCAA tournament runs are made of -- great defense and great offensive rebounding travel well. Good news, too, because Butler wing Kelan Martin is one of the nation's high-volume breakout stars. He is using nearly a third of the Bulldogs' available possessions, hoisting more than a third of its available shots, shooting it well enough (54 percent from 2, 33 percent from 3) and getting to the line all the time. Martin is just the tip of a deceptively balanced, efficient offensive spear for one of the surprise teams of the nonconference slate.
What did we grok from the Musketeers' 76-61 loss at Baylor last weekend? That Baylor coach Scott Drew's team is really, legitimately good. Good enough, in fact, to survive a typically well-coached, hard-nosed Xavier team for about 35 hard-fought minutes -- just in time to break things open late. The Musketeers played well, hung in and lost to a really good team in a true road game in December. Nothing to worry about there. Indeed, this matchup might tell us a good deal more about the Utes than their hosts. Utah's 6-1 record comprises a home loss to Butler and wins over Coppin State, UC Riverside, Montana State, Utah Valley, Northwest Nazarene, Concordia (Oregon), the latter two of which aren't Division I teams.
While the Big East's top four have been good thus far -- and the above three teams, plus Creighton, deserve any and all praise shoveled their way -- there may be more to the league. Seton Hall and Providence have looked plenty spry in the early going. Georgetown, like love, is a mysterious fig; who knows where the Hoyas will be in a month? But of the league's middle, perhaps no team contains as much quiet potential as Marquette. The Golden Eagles got blitzed by Michigan at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 17, and followed up with a close loss to Pitt the next night, which has made it easy to overlook an offense that is A) shooting the ball extremely well from just about everywhere and B) rarely turning it over. Coming off 89 points in 71 possessions in a win at Georgia last week, Marquette has a chance -- at home, even if a few Badger fans invade -- to introduce this scoring prowess to a far wider audience.