Quarter-Pole Check-In on the Big East

Posted by Brad Cavallaro & Justin Kundrat on December 18th, 2019

We’re only about five weeks into the regular season and yet it feels like an eternity judging by how much has happened thus far. Between the risers and fallers, early season disappointments and pleasant surprises, the Big East has had no shortage of compelling storylines. Below, Big East writers Justin Kundrat and Brad Cavallaro regroup and recap several of the key questions the conference is facing going into the holidays.

With only a close loss at Baylor, Butler has emerged as a Big East contender (or even front-runner) by analytics and their body of work. Do you see the Bulldogs as a legitimate contender or just a team off to a hot start?

Is Butler the Big East Team to Beat? (USA Today Images)

JK: With Seton Hall floundering and Villanova skirting by against inferior opponents, there’s no question in my mind that Butler is the top dog in the conference right now. The Bulldogs won’t overwhelm you with size or athleticism or shooting or lottery picks, but this team is as cohesive as any in the country. They remind me a bit of some of the Virginia teams in recent years, in that every game is played on Butler’s terms. The Bulldogs currently rank 338th nationally in tempo and opponents are getting just 16.7 percent of their shot attempts in transition, good for 12th nationally. Combine that with a defense that is elite in both defensive rebounding and discouraging perimeter shots and you have a recipe for success — there are no easy buckets with this team. On the other end, there are occasional concerns about the offense over-relying on Kamar Baldwin, but others have stepped up in recent games (here’s looking at you, Sean McDermott). And when opponents are scoring just 54.5 PPG, you don’t need multiple 20+ point scorers on the roster. Anyway, count me in as a buyer of Butler stock.

BC: I think at this point Butler is absolutely a contender. Between Seton Hall’s injuries and Xavier’s recent disappointing play, Butler and Villanova look like the clear front-runners in the Big East. While the Bulldogs do not have top-half conference talent, their excellent chemistry and buy-in from their role players has created a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” scenario. While team synergy looks like the main reason for Butler’s early success, they are also receiving some great individual performances. Baldwin has taken the step from great player to star and the defense has been excellent with players like Aaron Thompson and Bryce Nze setting the tone. I think the most likely scenario is that Butler settles into the #15-#20 range nationally, but if they can get more from Jordan Tucker and Khalif Battle, the ceiling is even higher.

Seton Hall has disappointed, surrendering late game leads versus both Michigan State and Oregon? Can they back up their lofty preseason ranking and who emerges in Mamu’s absence?

JK: Oh man, oh man. Combine some heartbreaking losses with a recent skid including a 20-point loss at Rutgers and you get a lot of agitated fans. On top of Mamu’s injury, do-it-all guard Myles Powell is reportedly dealing with a concussion and will be questionable against Maryland on Thursday. The Terps represent Seton Hall’s last opportunity for a quality non-conference win, though, and things are trending in the wrong direction. When healthy, Seton Hall is a good, but not great, team. They’re essentially the same group we got last year, which means it is doubtfuly the Pirates live up to those lofty preseason rankings because they were inflated to begin with. My hope was that one of Jared Rhoden and Myles Cale would make a leap but that still hasn’t happened. With Mamu being injured and the team’s pair of 7’2″ behemoths failing to provide consistent scoring inside, there simply isn’t enough talent on this roster to counterbalance Powell’s perimeter scoring. Things can course correct, but it will have to be on the shoulders of Powell to do so.

Seton Hall is in Trouble (USA Today Images)

BC: Forget Mamu’s absence — the Pirates now have to replace Myles Powell for their most important game of the season. Unfortunately, those painful losses to Oregon and Michigan State along with road defeats to Rutgers and Iowa State have increased the importance of Thursday’s match-up. The Pirates need a signature win and will ask Quincy McKnight and Myles Cale to replace the production of Powell and Mamukelashvili. Supporting cast issues have plagued Seton Hall all season, however, and now that the team consists entirely of the underachieving group, preseason expectations are unlikely to be met. Hopefully Powell can come back soon and either Jared Rhoden or Tyrese Samuel can fill in for the power forward void. If that happens, Seton Hall should return to the NCAA Tournament, but a Top 25 ranking is likely still out of reach.

As disappointing as Seton Hall has been, Providence is a front-runner for most disappointing team in the entire country. What are the contributing factors to their disastrous start and can they turn their season around?

BC: Providence is off to a disastrous start. The Friars already have four bad losses on their resume and have done almost irreparable harm to their NCAA Tournament chances. Their two main issues from last season — point guard play and outside shooting — have not improved at all. Furthermore, Alpha Diallo’s game completely falls apart when required to be the go-to guy. Offensively, no Friar player scares opposing defenders as they still lack a dynamic offensive threat. David Duke is the only player who has improved from last year, but he needs more of his teammates to play to their potential. Can Providence turn it around? They can win their usual 8-10 Big East games if Luwane Pipkins, Maliek White and AJ Reeves can return to their form. However, if turning it around means a trip to the 2020 NCAA Tournament, the Friars are out of luck. It would take a performance that is unprecedented in the Ed Cooley era to dig out of this gigantic hole.

JK: It’s funny, I watched this team in the beginning of the season and thought it looked great — boasting a bunch of long, two-way wings that were interchangeable and could post a distributed scoring total. I have no idea what changed in the last month, but it seems like everything. There’s no identity. The defense forces turnovers but not much else, and the shooting has been abysmal. At its current pace, a 1.029 PPP clip would be the worst in Cooley’s tenure at Providence. I think it falls on the head coach, though, who seemingly has designed a system that doesn’t work for its personnel (heavily reliant on half-court sets with a dynamic point guard), whereas this team should be pushing the tempo and scoring in transition. Outside of David Duke, nobody in this lineup looks comfortable scoring. Alpha Diallo is busy taking bad shots; Luwane Pipkins looks like a UMass guard rather than a Big East guard; and AJ Reeves has gone AWOL (his eFG% has fallen from 53.5% to 42.1%). If I could put one thing on this roster, it would be a shooter. But either way, with a backcourt and a frontcourt that has demonstrated some past scoring prowess, there are building blocks. It’s on Cooley to put them together.

Georgetown added two quality road wins and a home win over Syracuse in the post-Akinjo/LeBlanc era. Are the Hoyas better without their two standout sophomores and can they make the NCAA Tournament with a thinned roster?

JK: Color me shocked on this turnaround. I loved watching James Akinjo and thought he was a talented player when he had the ball. And I think many would agree that he was a key cog in the wheel, judging by the reactions at the time of the announcement. So it’s funny to see hindsight bias play out with comments like ‘Akinjo was a ballhog who brought everyone down.’ Anyway, the team does look radically different and I’m not sure if it’s a locker room thing or a floor personnel thing, but talk about a run. Mac McClung has averaged 26 PPG in Akinjo’s absence on some of the most efficient shooting of his career, while senior Terrell Allen has stepped into the fold and provided the pass-first point guard this team desperately needed. He’s sporting a 21:4 assist-to-turnover ratio over the last three games! I’m still slightly reserved about the defensive end of the floor, but seeing four different guys put up 14+ against Syracuse is hopefully a sign of things to come. A Tournament bid might still be an uphill battle, but the door is wide open…

The Hoyas Have Weathered the Storm (USA Today Images)

BC: It’s hard to dispute that Georgetown has been better despite losing two of its best players. James Akinjo is undeniably talented and Josh LeBlanc has incredible upside, but this Georgetown team has thrived without them. The ball is moving, shots are falling, role allocation is in order as Mac McClung and Omer Yurtseven have taken over for the ball-dominant Akinjo. The Hoyas could still use one more combo forward, but the smaller lineup has really suited them. Georgetown will come back to Earth, specifically Jahvon Blair and Jagan Mosely, who have shot 11-of-22 and 6-of-9, respectively, from three since the Akinjo/LeBlanc transfers, but this is still an NCAA Tournament team. Wins away from home over Texas, Oklahoma State and SMU is more than enough to get Georgetown into the Dance with even a modest Big East record.

Even though the Blue Demons suffered a loss in a trap game against Buffalo, they have a Tournament-caliber resume up to this point. Do you see them putting an end to their 15-year drought?

BC: DePaul has to be kicking themselves for losing to Buffalo. Buffalo is not a bad team (probably top 150), but it was an incredible missed opportunity to remain undefeated and in the national spotlight. If DePaul can hold off Cleveland State and Northwestern in its final two non-league games, the Blue Demons will be in terrific shape heading into the new year. Wins over Texas Tech, Iowa and Minnesota should age well, meaning as few as eight Big East wins could be enough. Charlie Moore has been terrific, as has NBA prospect Paul Reed, but Jalen Coleman-Lands is the unsung hero by providing some much needed outside shooting. Mark me down for a spot on the DePaul bandwagon.

JK: The DePaul bandwagon came to a grinding half following that loss to Buffalo, and yet I’m not really sure why. Most every team has a blemish on its resume and DePaul just came unprepared against Buffalo’s run and gun style. That said, the Blue Demons are 10-1 with high caliber wins over Texas Tech, Iowa and Minnesota (the last two coming on the road!) and this roster is littered with talent. Charlie Moore can be a bit too trigger happy sometimes but commands enough attention for other guys to step forward. They have a strong shooter in Jalen Coleman-Lands and a pair of long, likely NBA prospects in Romeo Weems and Paul Reed. Reed might end up in the first round as a 6’9″ stretchy forward that can shoot, rebound, block shots and intercept passes. His block and steal rates lead the team and a 15 point, 18 rebound, 5-block, 4-steal line against Buffalo tells a story on its own. I think this team can end that drought.

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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