Will the Big East Have Six NCAA Teams? A Mid-Season Review

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 31st, 2014

With the arrival of conference play comes a critical juncture for teams looking to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Those that have overperformed against their preseason expectations — teams like St. John’s and Seton Hall — will seek to establish an early footprint in the increasingly competitive Big East, whereas the likes of Marquette, Xavier and Creighton look to re-emerge after a handful of non-conference woes. Today we will examine the top Big East overperformers and underperformers to this point, followed by an early look at the NCAA Tournament bubble as it relates to each team. But before discussing team performance, my preseason Big East rankings were as follows:

Villanova Has Lived Up to Its Expectations This Season (USA Today Images)

Villanova Has Lived Up to Its Expectations This Season (USA Today Images)

  1. Villanova
  2. Georgetown
  3. Xavier
  4. St. John’s
  5. Providence
  6. Seton Hall
  7. Butler
  8. Marquette
  9. Creighton
  10. DePaul

Biggest Overperformers

  • St. John’s (11-1) has made a serious case as the second best team in the Big East. Sporting a defense that ranks fourth nationally in defensive efficiency and third in block percentage, the Red Storm have received a great deal of attention following wins at Syracuse and versus Minnesota. Sure, they were fourth in my preseason rankings, but the envisioned gap between the Johnnies and Xavier/Georgetown was large and has proven so far to be completely off base. Ranked #15 in the latest AP Poll, Steve Lavin has built a team featuring an incredibly talented group of quick, athletic guards with senior D’Angelo Harrison (19.0 PPG) shouldering the offensive load while do-it-all forward Sir’Dominic Pointer and shot-blocker Chris Obekpa wreak defensive havoc. At this point, St. John’s has looked superior to every other Big East team outside of Villanova, and although its inconsistent outside shooting (266th nationally) and offensive execution in the half-court leave much to be desired, the Red Storm have been the single biggest conference surprise this season.

  • Butler (10-3) has also exceeded expectations so far although recent uninspiring losses to Tennessee and Indiana have knocked the Bulldogs down a few pegs. That #7 preseason ranking was largely a testament to skepticism over this team’s alternative offensive options apart from Kellen Dunham (16.6 PPG), and while a consistent secondary threat hasn’t yet emerged, the collective contributions of Alex Barlow, Roosevelt Jones, Kameron Woods and freshman Kelan Martin have aided the Bulldogs. Their defensive tenacity has sparked the offense, enabling them to get into transition and attack the rim or set up shooters along the perimeter. It remains to be seen whether Butler, which started in a similar fashion last season, will have the offensive firepower to compete with the rest of the conference, but the Bulldogs’ start has nevertheless been promising.

Biggest Underperformers

  • Xavier (9-3) was ranked third overall in the preseason rankings but has done little so far to justify that ranking, dropping games to Long Beach State and UTEP while recently failing to close out a game at Auburn. As a result, the team’s best two wins are over Stephen F. Austin and Alabama. Despite having one of the most balanced, highest scoring offenses in the Big East, the Xavier has struggled to contain dribble penetration and generate key stops down the stretch. The fact that their three losses were by a combined total of eight points says something about their ability to close out games. With Matt Stainbrook (13.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG) anchoring the post and freshman Trevon Bluiett leading the team in minutes and points (13.3 PPG), the pieces are there but the Big East is littered with teams that make their mark on the defensive end. In other words, Xavier won’t be able to rely solely on its offense should it want to re-establish itself among the conference contenders.
  • Yes, it is possible to underperform after being picked to finish last, as Oliver Purnell’s squad was still expected to improve in the offseason. DePaul (6-7) impressed early with a win over Stanford and a 6-1 start before stumbling and coughing up six straight since. The starting lineup, led by Illinois transfer Myke Henry (14.5 PPG), demonstrated defensive energy and a desire to get out and run the floor. But at some point in early December, the wheels came off: the Blue Demons’ scoring average dropped from 79.7 points to 69.0 points per game despite overall possessions per game actually increasing. How does a team suddenly score 10 points per game fewer while playing an increased tempo? That early season spark is gone and needless to say, DePaul will remain at the bottom of this league for the foreseeable future.

Early Tournament Outlook

With conference play here and January right around the corner, it’s time for fans to start wondering if their teams will make the NCAA Tournament. At this point, Villanova, St. John’s and Georgetown are all safely into the field of 68, with a number of others like Butler, Seton Hall, Providence and Xavier squarely on the bubble. Marquette and Creighton have the opportunity to make a push as well, given their strong non-conference records.

Villanova (lock)
St. John’s (in)
Georgetown (in)
Providence (bubble)
Butler (bubble)
Seton Hall (bubble)
Xavier (bubble)
Marquette (outside looking in)
Creighton (outside looking in)
DePaul (forget about it)

Justin Kundrat (175 Posts)

Villanova grad, patiently waiting another 10 years for season tickets. Follow Justin on twitter @JustinKundrat or email him at justin.kundrat@gmail.com

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