Big East Tournament Preview

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 7th, 2018

Villanova was finally dethroned from its string of four consecutive Big East regular season titles. With a 15-3 conference record, Xavier now stands in its place. But per KenPom and Las Vegas, the Wildcats remain a prohibitive favorite to capture the tournament crown this week. Let’s break down what to expect during this week’s action at Madison Square Garden.

Who will win: Villanova. Yes, the Wildcats have had their fair share of stumbles that included several head-scratching perimeter shooting performances: 8-of-33 in a loss to St. John’s; 3-of-20 in a loss to Providence; 8-of-36 against Seton Hall. Per though, that recent trend looks like an anomaly.

The above chart details Villanova’s per-game three-point shooting over the course of the season. The gray dotted line is a five-game moving average, which drops off significantly over the last 10 games and is now reverting to the team’s historical mean. Perhaps Big East opponents became more conscious of chasing the Wildcats off the perimeter during that stretch, or maybe players simply became too content in standing around and letting it fly. Whatever the case, it appears to be correcting itself. Jay Wright‘s group derives a healthy 38.8 percent of its points from the perimeter (29th nationally) and very much depends on those looks to space the floor. On the defensive end, Villanova continues to mix its full court press and zone, and the return of Phil Booth from injury has helped close down the driving lanes. The Wildcats will be the outright favorite in each game this week and, should the potential #1 seeds eventually meet, their exceptional ball movement has picked Xavier apart time and time again.

If not them, then: Xavier. Even in its four losses this season, Xavier’s offense was never the problem. At a robust 1.21 points per possession, the Musketeers rank seventh nationally in offensive efficiency and have steadily added new weapons over the course of the season. Freshmen Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs have been increasingly aggressive in attacking the basket, and point guard Quentin Goodin, a previously ineffective scorer, has tallied double figures in eight of his last 10 games. These outbursts have taken some of the defensive focus away from stars Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura and essentially turned every player in the Musketeers’ lineup into a legitimate scoring threat. Chris Mack‘s source of frustration has instead been on the defensive end — the worst such showing of his nine-year coaching career. Not only are teams attempting three-pointers at a much higher rate than usual against Xavier this season, but they are also getting into transition more often (22.7% vs. 18.8% last season). Mack is clearly missing Edmond Sumner and Malcolm Bernard from last year’s team, but overall, Xavier remains the biggest challenger to Villanova and it would be interesting to see how Xavier schemes defensively to run Villanova off the perimeter if there is a third round this weekend.

Dark horse: Seton Hall. With so many teams stumbling down the stretch (Creighton, Providence, Butler), it’s tough to make a compelling case that one of the Big East’s middle teams will take down Xavier or Villanova. But the Pirates have strung together a handful of promising defensive performances, thanks in part to increased minutes for both Myles Cale, a strong wing playing in place of the injured Desi Rodriguez, and Sandro Mamukelashvili, a stretch forward who can defend out to the perimeter. Note the dotted gray line again in the graph below, showing notable improvement in the Pirates’ field goal defense over the last third of the season.

With a healthy Rodriguez and continued aggressiveness from point guard Khadeen Carrington, the Pirates could be poised to take out Butler (which they defeated twice this season) before giving Villanova a major test in the Big East Tournament semifinals.

Dark throws: Marquette and St. John’s. These are gambles on teams in the lower reaches of the bracket that have shown enough firepower to take out the contenders. Marquette’s 41.6 percent outside shooting (third nationally) has propelled the Eagles back into the bubble conversation and is correspondingly streaky enough to challenge anybody should Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard get hot enough. St. John’s needs do-it-all playmaker Shamorie Ponds back in action desperately, but the Red Storm have gotten outsize contributions from their other role players. With wins over Duke and Villanova already under their belt in addition to the home crowd at MSG, it isn’t inconceivable to think that Chris Mullin‘s team could make a run.

Justin Kundrat (175 Posts)

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

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