Five Questions: Big East Midseason

Posted by Justin Kundrat & Brad Cavallaro on January 15th, 2020

It feels like just yesterday that the season was tipping off and we were examining the biggest questions each Big East team would face this season, trying to fit new players into the puzzle, and evaluating offseason departures. But here we are at the midpoint of the season, and while there has been plenty of clarity around the conference’s contenders, the questions continue to pop up faster than the answers. Below, Big East microsite writers Justin Kundrat and Brad Cavallaro attempt to tackle the biggest ones at this point of the year.

1. Providence is off to a surprising 3-1 start. Is it too little too late or can you see a path for a tournament bid?

Where Does Providence Go From Here? (USA Today Images)

BC: Unfortunately, I think it’s too little too late for Providence. Despite an impressive 3-1 start that includes two road wins, the Friars likely need to get to 12-6 to make up for their awful non-conference start. Their schedule will only get tougher from here — providing more opportunities — but will also expose their inconsistent offense. Tonight’s game versus St. John’s is basically a must-win at this point because it may be their easiest remaining game on the schedule. Providence needs more contributions from AJ Reeves and Luwane Pipkins, who combined to shoot 1-of-11 against Butler last Friday.

JK: The best part about the Big East is that there’s no shortage of opportunities for quality wins. I’ve seen a record of 12-6 quoted on Providence’s message boards as the golden record, and honestly, it probably gets them there. That puts the Friars at 19-12 overall, ranked among in the top three of the conference standings, and presumably includes eight or so wins over NCAA Tournament teams. The home game loss against Butler last Friday was definitely a missed opportunity, but the Friars have definitely turned a corner. Alpha Diallo is finally getting (creating) good looks around the hoop; guard Maliek White has found consistent scoring; and the defense was successful in forcing opponents to take tough shots. A four-game winning streak featured some of the best two-point defense all season. That said, it’s an uphill climb to get to 12-6 — this team can’t afford any missed opportunities.

2. Marquette and Xavier are squaring off tonight and both stand at 1-3 heading into that game. Which team is more likely to right the ship and continue on the Tournament track?

JK: This is tough. Both teams have significant holes (interior offense for Marquette; shooting for Xavier) but Marquette probably has the higher ceiling and is therefore more likely to right the ship. Xavier is awkwardly constructed by lacking a true point guard, and aside from KyKy Tandy, you more or less know what you’re getting with this team. On the other hand, with Markus Howard consistently putting up 25-30 points per game, there’s a floor for Marquette that hopefully encourages more production from Brendan Bailey or Koby McEwen. But most of all, the team desperately needs Theo John to give something — anything — in the post. The 6’9″ big man has been saddled with foul trouble and awkwardly low efficiency around the hoop, contributing to an offense that ranks 338th (!) nationally in field goal conversions at the rim. No matter how much the defense has improved this season, interior offense is going to hold this team back.

BC: Agreed, Marquette is the more likely team to right the ship after starting 1-3 in Big East play. Markus Howard’s incredible scoring will keep them in games and we should expect his team to reach a middle of the pack 9-9 or 10-8 mark in the conference standings. As for Xavier, there should be some concern. The Musketeers’ offense has yet to get going despite the strong play of its two stars, Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs. Jason Carter and Bryce Moore haven’t provided the long range shooting that was expected and Quentin Goodin hasn’t lived up to his sophomore year promise. Goodin is only averaging 7.2 PPG on 34 percent shooting, which is down from the past two seasons.

3. Butler and Seton Hall are the last conference unbeatens and also play tonight — do you see the Pirates as a legitimate threat to Butler at the top of the standings and where does Villanova factor in?

Butler Has Exceeded All Expectations So Far (USA Today Images)

JK: Yes, 100% yes. It’s funny how quickly the narrative can shift from “this is the same team as last year” to “this team might win the conference.” Seton Hall’s defensive improvements over the last month have vaulted it from a group that over-relies on Myles Powell and doesn’t have much else, to a group that can stomach Powell’s off nights because the defense is so good. The team allows 0.869 PPP, which is not only 10th nationally but would be the best in the KenPom era, which dates back to 1997. Quincy McKnight and Shavar Reynolds have been terrific at defending the point of attack, but the real story is 7’2″ Romaro Gill, who has blocked a shot in nearly every game this season. Gill has given Willard 25 minutes of shot-blocking, shot-altering defensive disruption and it’s fun to watch opposing guards second guess their decision to shoot once they enter the paint. As for Villanova, the Wildcats are there, lurking and steady as ever. Their poor shooting has been surprising, but this team has the highest ceiling of any team in the conference, so it’s hard to rule them out. As of now, they are slightly below Butler and Seton Hall, but very capable of stealing the show come March.

BC: Yeah, I think Seton Hall is a legitimate threat to win the league. I would still pick Butler because its defense and team synergy is unrivaled, but the Pirates have an elite defense of their own led by a pair of 7-foot shot blockers. With Myles Powell healthy, they have a star player and their supporting cast (Cale, Rhoden, McKnight) is starting to come around. It says here that Seton Hall finishes a game or two behind Butler and gives them a real run for their money at the end. As for Villanova, I’d slot them in between the Bulldogs and Pirates, giving the Big East a very strong top three. The Wildcats feel like they are starting to gel and have eight guys who can explode for 20 points and a barrage of three-pointers at any moment. To this point in the season, Villanova has not even come close to their ceiling.

4. Is the DePaul dream season dead?

BC: All of DePaul’s non-conference good will has been wasted. The Blue Demons’ 0-4 start is even worse when you consider that their four losses include a pair of likely bottom of the conference teams and a hobbled Seton Hall. DePaul also has a murderer’s row of competition coming up, with games still to come at Butler and Creighton. An unfortunate 0-6 start and an eventual NIT berth looks like it’s on the horizon.

JK: Ugh, and to think I was all aboard this bandwagon. After an impressive non-conference slate, DePaul’s 0-4 start to conference play has been supremely disappointing. In a vacuum, none of the losses have been bad, but it’s an ugly string that has turned it into a funk. Turnovers and poor shooting have plagued the offense, no matter how dynamic the team’s defense is, and poor execution down the stretch simply won’t get it done in the Big East. There are no breaks in the schedule, so Charlie Moore needs to find his footing as soon as possible. A 9-9 finish in conference play probably warrants an NCAA Tournament bid, but that will now require winning a handful of games in tough road environments. I don’t think DePaul’s “dream season” is dead, but it’s certainly trending that way. Let’s give it another few weeks to see if these guys can snap out of their funk.

5. Which players are the biggest surprises and underachievers thus far in the Big East?

JK:

  • Surprises: Sean McDermott, Saddiq Bey, Romaro Gill, Mac McClung (sans Akinjo), Bryce Nze, Rasheem Dunn.
  • Underachievers: Omer Yurtseven (in Big East play), Myles Cale, Bryan Antoine, AJ Reeves, Quentin Goodin.

BC:

  • Surprises: The Bryce brothers (Byrce Nze and Bryce Golden) frontcourt has been much better than expected for Butler, but Charlie Moore and Mac McClung have been the biggest surprises in the conference, unexpectedly leading their teams as the best perimeter player and lead offensive creator.
  • Underachievers: AJ Reeves and Quentin Goodin. Reeves hasn’t found his shooting stroke after being a dangerous long-range threat last year. Goodin has not emerged as a high level point guard and Xavier’s offense has struggled because of it.
Justin Kundrat (171 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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