New Big East Members Proving Doubters WrongPosted by George Hershey on December 31st, 2013
Before the season began, many pundits thought that the carry-over members of the Big East would do the heavy lifting as the new league got its feet wet. CBSSports.com, for example, predicted Creighton to finish third, Xavier sixth, and Butler eighth. ESPN.com picked Creighton to finish atop the league, but had Butler sixth and Xavier eighth. As just one example, one writer said about the Bulldogs: “New head coach Brandon Miller is left with a depleted roster in a new conference… the roster as a whole certainly does not reflect an NCAA Tournament team.” It was an understandable position — after losing its fantastic head coach, two best players to graduation, and top returning player to injury, Butler had major question marks. As for Creighton, the Bluejays brought back one of the best players in the nation in Doug McDermott, but there were doubts about their step up in competition from the Missouri Valley Conference, especially on the defensive end. Xavier too returned a great player in Semaj Christon, but the rest of the team was a major unknown and coming off a disappointing 17-14 season by Musketeers’ standards.
Even though there were doubts and concerns from many of the experts, all three teams are making a case for an NCAA Tournament spot come March. Heading into the start of conference play on New Year’s Even, Creighton has only lost two games, back-to-back defeats to San Diego State and George Washington while at the Wooden Classic in Southern California. They have been very impressive otherwise, with the second-best adjusted offense according to Ken Pomeroy, and an improved, if not elite, defense (ranking 16 spots higher than last season at #64). McDermott, as expected, has been a strong NPOY candidate, and the rest of the team has shot the ball very well, making 44 percent of their threes (the third-best mark in the nation).
Butler has also only lost two games this season and both by only two points (Oklahoma State and LSU). The Bulldogs have an impressive victory over Princeton as well as wins over Vanderbilt and Purdue. Kellen Dunham and Khyle Marshall have played incredibly well after solid seasons last year in supporting roles. Dunham has shot lights out, hitting 44.7 percent of his threes, and Marshall is a great all-around player, using his athleticism and skill to score in a variety of ways. New head coach Brandon Miller is continuing the tradition of the “Butler Way,” which is certainly no surprise from an ex-Bulldog. This team has shown it can play with the big boys again this season, and it will fight for an NCAA Tournament berth throughout the conference season, as Joe Lunardi currently has Butler on the bubble.
Xavier also sits on Lunardi’s bubble as his third team out of the NCAA Tournament. Semaj Christon was the star going into the season for the Musketeers, but Chris Mack has also gotten great production from Matt Stainbrook, Miles Davis, Isaiah Philmore and James Farr. Christon leads the team in scoring and is the team’s’ unquestioned best player, but Xavier has found great balance by shooting the ball well, playing elite defense, and rebounding. The one glaring weakness for this team is their 63.6 percent free throw shooting, an area that needs to improve. A trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis that looked magical with a few minutes left in their opener turned into a nightmare as Christon missed a game-winner against Iowa and they ended up losing all three games. Besides the rough Thanksgiving weekend, however, Xavier has put together some nice wins, including one over bitter rival Cincinnati, vs. Tennessee, and at Alabama.
With all their past success, it seems somewhat foolish to have thought these three schools would struggle to make the transition to the Big East, yet it is true that each team came into the season with some clear question marks. Creighton lost its low post presence from a season ago, Gregory Echenique, leaving two inexperienced bigs to battle down low against some of the best centers in the nation. Playing against athletic defenses was also a concern, as Big East teams will throw everything at McDermott to limit his production. The answer for the Bluejays has been that Greg McDermott moved Ethan Wragge, a big who stretches the floor with his tremendous shooting ability while also holding his own defensively, into the starting lineup. Butler had to answer questions of how they would replace the pieces from last year’s outstanding team. But again, the “Butler Way” has shown its inherent ability to move on and continue to win games, as the team has played consistently hard-nosed, balanced basketball. They’ve shot the ball well, with Dunham leading the way, played their typical tough-as-nails defense, led by Kameron Woods, and been a complete pain for other teams to face. Xavier started the year with a relatively unknown lineup outside of Christon, but his teammates have stepped up, letting Christon pick his spots while also producing enough to open up the floor for him.
These three teams will face a conference season this year tougher than ever, but their success thus far has impressed the league and pundits around the nation. With a grueling two-and-a-half month stretch of Big East play ahead of them, starting today, each team will be fighting for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, a regular and realistic goal for each of these programs.