Russell: Big East trial by fire awaits Xavier

CINCINNATI -- After 6-foot-6 guard Malcolm Bernard transferred from Florida A&M, he said one of the selling points in choosing Xavier University’s basketball program was its place in the Big East Conference.

Bernard’s affinity for coach Chris Mack and his Musketeers teammates sealed the deal, but he said the elite-level conference competition "was a huge part of my decision."

"I looked at the conference and I thought the conference was going to be tough this year," Bernard said Tuesday at Cintas Center. "Obviously seeing Villanova win a national championship last year -- that made sense that this conference has the ability to go back and win another one, whether it’s us, Villanova, anyone."

No. 17 Xavier begins conference competition Wednesday when it hosts Providence at 7 p.m. at Cintas Center. The significance of the outing is not lost on the Musketeers (10-2) or Friars (10-3) as they begin the gauntlet that is Big East play.

Just how robust is the Big East? Four of the league’s 10 teams rank in the NCAA RPI’s Top 10, starting with No. 1 Villanova and continuing with Xavier (4), Creighton (7) and Butler (10). Add in Seton Hall (32) and Providence (47), and that’s six conference teams in the RPI’s Top 50.

The same four teams in the RPI’s Top 10 are in the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Poll. Factor in the Big East’s combined non-conference record (95-28) and 9-5 mark against Top 25 opponents, and it’s a veritable murderer’s row.

Still, Providence coach Ed Cooley said the conference remains undervalued on a national scale.

"I think people don’t understand how tough this league is night in and night out. I’m very, very impressed with what our league’s been able to do, and hopefully we continue to do that," Cooley said in Tuesday’s Big East teleconference.

The league is as good as it has been from top to bottom since it retooled in 2013 and added Xavier, Butler and Creighton. Jay Wright’s Wildcats at Villanova have been the gold standard, a credit to their stronghold on Big East regular-season titles, but Seton Hall proved last season with a conference tournament title that no club can be taken for granted.

Villanova, picked unanimously by league coaches again to claim the regular-season conference crown, is on the hunt for an unprecedented fourth straight Big East title. Xavier plays at Villanova Jan. 10 and hosts the team Feb. 11 but is focused only on Providence for the time being.

That’s the way of things league-wide.

"The teams (in the Big East) are so well-coached and so talented that your complete focus has to be the task at hand," Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said.

The Musketeers had a brief respite for Christmas and returned to practice the night of Dec. 25. Since then, Bernard has noticed a different feel. He said there’s been more leadership on the floor and greater aggressiveness.

"I think we’re' playing harder, we’re playing more physical (and) everybody looks more confident. I think that break helped a lot, Bernard said.

Bernard took advantage of the time to study film and break down areas in which he seeks to improve, like finishing through contact on offense. He has progressed well with the Musketeers despite coming on board in the summer, and Mack said Bernard’s confidence has grown in the first part of the season.

It’s the first go-round in Big East play for Bernard and transfer RaShid Gaston as well as freshmen Quentin Goodin and Tyrique Jones. They’re about to face a Friars club that looks vastly different than last year when Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil roamed the court. Dunn now plays for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves; Bentil is competing in China.

The Friars have surprised some in their ability to be successful out of the gates, minus two of the best players in program history, but the emergence of point guard Kyron Cartwright has helped. Cartwright is second in the Big East with 7.6 assists per game and has proven lethal in transition.

Mack considers Cartwright one of the most improved players in the conference.

"I would put him right there with (Creighton’s) Maurice Watson in terms of his ability to get up and down the floor. He’s as fast as any guard we’ve played. He also has that herky jerky hesitation Nick Van Exel type game. He keeps defenders off-balance," Mack said.

Cooley called Providence a shell of itself in a Dec. 23 loss to Boston College. Against a team of Xavier’s caliber, Cooley said better execution and rebounding are pivotal. There’s not much time to reflect on that game, though, because the Friars travel to No. 13 Butler for another grueling conference showdown four days later.

A short memory is crucial for any Big East team, a notion Mack reinforced with the Musketeers.

"Like I told our team, we can’t get hung up on one-game results. It’s going to be the end of the world for some people when we lose a game and it’s going to be euphoria for some people when we win a game. Our team can’t have that mentality," Mack said.

"The league has proven itself during the non-conference slate that we have some of the best basketball in the country. And we have to understand that and know that we’re going to be challenged every night. And we have to quickly turn the page no matter what the result is."

MYLES DAVIS UPDATE: Mack was asked twice in about an hour the status of indefinitely suspended guard Myles Davis. In the Big East teleconference, Mack was asked if Davis might make an appearance against Providence.

“He won’t be playing tomorrow night,” Mack said.

Then, in the press conference at Xavier, Mack was asked if there was a timetable for Davis’ return.

“Next question,” Mack said.

Pressed further, he said this: “I don’t mean to be dismissive but I’ve answered this over and over and over and over. So you can rewind whatever statements I said the last time. When he’s back, he’ll be back. And that’s it.”

Davis has been serving the suspension since Sept. 1.

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