The Six Most Surprising Players in the Big East So Far

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on December 12th, 2018

The Big East appears headed toward a down season after many conference teams lost valuable upperclassmen to graduation and the NBA Draft. Players like St. John’s Shamorie Ponds, Seton Hall’s Myles Powell and Providence’s Alpha Diallo have, as a result, taken their games to the next level to become this season’s stars. But their jumps were anticipated as they all have shown flashes of future greatness throughout their collegiate careers.

Ty-Shon Alexander is the Most Surprising Big East Player So Far (USA Today Images)

What about the players who have broken out this season? This article will instead analyze six players whose strong performances to date were not expected this season. The list is ordered from least surprising to most surprising.

6. Michael Nzei, PF, SR, Seton Hall – 10.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 73% FG

Nzei has been a valuable piece for Seton Hall throughout his career, averaging at least 13 minutes per game since his freshman season. He has mostly served as the first big man off the bench (behind Ish Sanogo or Angel Delgado), but he has emerged from the role of energetic rebounder to a legitimate offensive threat this season. This increased aggressiveness can be seen through a significant scoring increase (3.9 to 10.6 PPG) that is predicated on his quickness and ability to blow past opposing big men. Nzei’s hot start can also be attributed to Taurean Thompson’s disappointing play, as the former Syracuse power forward has clearly fallen behind Nzei on the depth chart.

5. LJ Figueroa, Wing, SO, St. John’s – 15.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 44% 3FG

Figueroa looked like he was set to become one of the best sixth men in college basketball, but Chris Mullin’s decision to go small thrust the sophomore wing into the starting lineup. Once Sedee Keita was sidelined with an injury, Figueroa has faced virtually no competition and has taken full advantage of his opportunity. The former JuCo transfer has seamlessly transitioned to the Big East by averaging 15.3 PPG and 7.7 RPG through the Red Storm’s 9-0 start. Figueroa is a good athlete who provides excellent floor spacing as a small-ball four, and he projects as a key component of St. John’s breakout season.

4. AJ Reeves, Wing, FR, Providence – 14.2 PPG, 45% 3FG, 50% FG

Reeves was a top 50 recruit so expectations for his performance were already high, but few observers could have expected such a strong start for the Providence freshman. His knockdown three-point shooting ability has been as good as advertised (45% 3FG), but he has also shown an ability to attack the basket and score on straight-line drives. Reeves has been extremely effective in transition too, where he can finish above the rim or use his soft touch to play through contact. Like most freshmen, however, Reeves’ defense is inconsistent (at best), but once he develops better fundamentals on that end of the floor, the sky is the limit for the young wing. Reeves is currently out of the lineup with a foot injury so hopefully he can maintain his early stellar play when he returns next month.

3. Damien Jefferson,Wing, SO, Creighton – 11.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 61% 3FG

The power forward position was Creighton’s biggest preseason concern after its previous starter, Ronnie Harrell, surprisingly transferred. Would the Bluejays decide to go small with Connor Cashaw or Mitch Ballock at the position; or would they go big and slide Martin Krampejl there? It turned out that New Mexico transfer Damien Jefferson not only had the perfect skill set for the position, but also the talent back it up. The sophomore only averaged 5.3 PPG as a freshman with the Lobos two seasons ago, but he has more than doubled his scoring output to date at his new school. Jefferson is a big athletic forward who can really defend and is off to a scorching hot start from three-point range (61% 3FG) this season.

2. Paul Jorgensen, SG, SR, Butler – 17.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 43% 3FG

Jorgensen was in and out of the Butler starting lineup last year but has become an offensive focal point for the Bulldogs this season. There were plenty of shots available after Kelan Martin graduated and the senior has taken complete advantage of that opportunity. Primarily playing the small forward slot next to Kamar Baldwin and Aaron Thompson, Jorgensen relies on his long-range jumper and ability to put the ball on the floor to create opportunities — allowing for a big improvement for someone who averaged only 10.2 PPG last season. Baldwin is likely to lead Butler in scoring by the end of the season, but the surprising Jorgensen should be a close second.

1. Ty-Shon Alexander, G, SO, Creighton- 18.3 PPG, 3.1 APG, 44% 3FG

Alexander has been the most surprising player in the Big East to date. He played a substantial role at the point guard slot for the Bluejays as a freshman, ,splitting the role with Davion Mintz. Now that Khyri Thomas is in the NBA and Marcus Foster has graduated, however, Alexander has flourished at his natural position off the ball. The sophomore still frequently operates with the ball in his hands, but he does so now as the primary scorer rather than someone balancing scoring and distributing. He is a shifty and explosive combo guard who can finish at the rim in addition to hitting perimeter jumpers, making him an extremely dynamic offensive force. His jump from 5.5 PPG a season ago to 18.3 PPG this year has been eye-opening.

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Xavier Looks Ahead After Squandering Golden Opportunity Last Week

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on November 27th, 2018

Despite losing its three leading scorers from last season, Xavier was expected to remain relevant in the Big East race. Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura and Kerem Kanter all averaged double-figure points for the Musketeers last season, but returnees like Naji Marshall and Quentin Goodin were anticipated to fill the void. No one thought Xavier was set to replicate last season’s #1 seed level of success, but a sixth straight NCAA Tournament bid seemed completely attainable. With a 1-2 trip to the Maui Invitational now in the rear view, however, the Musketeers have squandered a golden opportunity to build their non-conference resume.

Xavier’s 1-2 Trip to Maui Puts a Significant Strain on Its NCAA At-Large Resume (USA Today Images)

For most of last week’s first round game against Auburn, it looked like Xavier had hit the jackpot. Ultimately, however, the Tigers prevailed in overtime with dynamic guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combining for 51 points in an overtime victory. Xavier was fortunate enough to have another opportunity for a quality win in the consolation round, though, as San Diego State should remain in the season-long discussion for a bid out of the Mountain West. The Musketeers built a substantial lead in the early portion of the first half of that game, but the Aztecs stormed back late and earned a five-point win. That loss meant Xavier was relegated to the seventh place game where they stopped the bleeding by defeating a struggling Illinois team. Given that the Fighting Illini will likely finish in the bottom three of the Big Ten this season, the win didn’t have much long-term at-large value. Xavier shot the ball extremely well in that game, but they were sloppy with the ball far too often.

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Let’s Not Panic About the Big East Just Yet

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on November 16th, 2018

After splitting the Gavitt Games in the first three years of its existence, the Big Ten has dominated in year four. The pair of teams projected at the top of the Big East this season — Villanova and Marquette — provided little resistance against Michigan and Indiana earlier this week. Meanwhile, Xavier and Creighton dropped home games to Wisconsin and Ohio State while Seton Hall proved to be no match for Nebraska. As it turns out, Georgetown and DePaul are the only Big East teams to win thus far, knocking off Illinois and Penn State (but both were without one of their top two players).

Steve Wojchiechowski is in the midst of a rebuild at Marquette. (Mark Hoffman/The Journal Sentinel)

On paper, these match-ups looked fairly even, but the Big Ten has proved to be the superior conference at this early point. Normally, these conference challenges need to be taken with a grain of salt as they are only one benchmark to compare conference strength. However, after the Big Ten’s beat-down of the Big East this week, not many reasonable people would think the Big East is the superior league. If St. John’s falls to Rutgers on Friday evening, it will cap off an embarrassing week for the conference.

Even though this has been a horrible start, it is still not time to panic. Even if the Big Ten is the better league, that does not mean the Big East won’t improve. Earning 28 NCAA Tournament berths in the last five years gives it the benefit of the doubt. Villanova has won two National Championships in the last three seasons; Xavier has an Elite Eight appearance under its belt: Providence has made five straight NCAA Tournaments; and Butler has consistently advanced in the postseason. These are great basketball programs that have proven resilient time and time again.

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Ranking the Top 50 Big East Players, Part III: #16-#1

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on November 7th, 2018

Here are the top 16 players in the Big East to conclude the series. Part I can be found here and Part II can be found here.

Markus Howard is one of the More Interesting Players in College Basketball (USA Today Images)

  • 16. Eli Cain, DePaul, SR, Wing. Cain experienced decreased scoring and efficiency as a junior, a decline that coincided with his move from the wing to the point guard position. But last year’s lead guard experiment should ultimately benefit the senior as he was able to diversify his skill set. As Cain returns to his natural position this season as a secondary ball-handler, expect a bounce-back campaign. He averaged 11.7 PPG and 4.7 APG last year.
  • 15. Emmitt Holt, Providence, SR, PF. Holt missed all of last season with an injury/illness, but he should make a substantial impact in his return to the Providence lineup this year. The 6’7’’ senior played almost exclusively at center two seasons ago, but he will now see more time at power forward, correspondingly reducing his quickness advantage over opposing big men. Holt can score with his back to the basket, attack from the high post, and hit three-point jumpers, which makes him a very dangerous offensive player.
  • 14. Naji Marshall, Xavier, SO, Wing. Marshall broke into the starting lineup midway through last season and showed great potential as a freshman. The 6’7’’ wing can play both the three and the four positions and should be in position to break out in replacement of Trevon Blueitt. He averaged 7.7 PPG and 4.4 RPG a season ago, but he could easily approach 15.0 PPG in his new role. The versatile and athletic Marshall is certainly a player to watch over the next few seasons.
  • 13. Quentin Goodin, Xavier, JR, Guard. Goodin was forced into major minutes as a freshman at Xavier when Edmund Sumner suffered an injury. There was a steep learning curve for him at that point, but he ultimately benefited from being thrown into the fire because he has developed into one of the best players in the conference. He is a big physical guard who can attack the basket, defend at a high level, and facilitate for his teammates. Goodin shot 40 percent from three-point range in Big East play last season, and if he can replicate that accuracy, he will be rightly considered a top-tier point guard in college basketball.
  • 12. Max Strus, DePaul, SR, Wing. Strus made the jump from D-II look effortless last year with a seamless transition to high-major basketball. The 6’6’’ wing is a knockdown shooter who should become one of the top scorers in the Big East this season. He averaged 16.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, and hit 81 three-pointers as a junior.
  • 11. Justin Simon, St. John’s, JR, Guard. Simon is a stat sheet stuffer who impacts the game in a variety of ways. The versatile 6’5’’ guard averaged 12.2 PPG, 7.1 RPG and 5.1 APG last season. Between his size and defensive ability, Simon is an ideal fit next to Shamorie Ponds in the St. John’s backcourt. If he can replicate his 42 percent three-point shooting from a season ago, he will become an NBA Draft pick.
  • 10. Sam Hauser, Marquette, JR, Wing. Hauser is one of the best three-point shooters in college basketball and is a prototypical stretch four. It will be interesting to see if he is asked to be more of a creator now that Andrew Rowsey has graduated, and if that impacts his efficiency. The savvy junior averaged 14.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG, and shot an incredible 49 percent from three-point range last year.

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Ranking the Top 50 Big East Players, Part II: #34-#17

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on November 5th, 2018

This article will continue ranking the top 50 Big East players with today’s reveal of #33 through #17. Part I, which ranks players #50 to #34 and published last week, can be found here.

Martin Krampelj Returns to Lead Creighton (USA Today Images)

  • 33. Tyrique Jones, Xavier, JR, Center. Jones is a physical bruising center who has been shuffled in and out of the Musketeers’ starting lineup over the past two years. He is limited offensively, but his defense and rebounding are extremely valuable. The junior averaged 7.0 PPG and 4.5 RPG as a sophomore, but should only see a slight uptick in minutes as he will likely split playing time with Zach Hankins.
  • 32. Joe Chartouny, Marquette, SR, PG. Chartouny is a perfect fit alongside Markus Howard in the Marquette backcourt as he is an excellent defender and distributor. Howard is an undersized scorer so having the 6’3’’ Chartouny around is enormously beneficial for Marquette on both ends of the floor. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, Chartouny will be a crucial piece for the Golden Eagles.
  • 31. Myles Cale, Seton Hall, SO, Wing. Cale is one of the most likely breakout players in the Big East this season because he should see a major increase in playing time as a result of the departure of Desi Rodriguez. The 6’6’’ wing averaged 4.3 PPG as a freshman last year, but he increased his scoring to 7.0 PPG over his last seven games.
  • 30. Jahvon Blair, Georgetown, SO, Guard. Blair was thrust into a major role as a freshman and his efficiency understandably suffered. The 6’3’’ sophomore averaged a solid 9.0 PPG, but he only shot 32 percent from the field. It will be interesting to see if Blair is more comfortable in year two as a Hoya and whether he can emerge as one of the top shooters in the Big East.
  • 29. Paul Jorgenson, Butler, SR, Guard. Jorgenson was in the starting lineup for a majority of last season before getting replaced by Sean McDermott for the final eight games. He will likely return to a starting role this year to  provide some scoring punch in an effort to replace some of Kelan Martin’s lost production. The 6’2’’ guard will be at a size disadvantage in defending opposing wings, but Butler actually performed better last season when the Bulldogs utilized a three-guard lineup. Jorgenson averaged 10.2 PPG and shot 35 percent from three-point range as a junior.
  • 28. Ryan Welage, Xavier, SR, PF. Welage is another graduate transfer who fills an important role for his new team. With Trevon Blueitt and Kaiser Gates out of the program, the Musketeers desperately needed a stretch four in their lineup. That is where Welage comes in, as he averaged 18.1 PPG and shot 43 percent from three-point range at San Jose State last year. The 6’9’’ PF will likely start and provide immediate experience and spacing for Xavier.

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Ranking the Top 50 Big East players, Part I: #50-#34

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on October 30th, 2018

The Big East is once again loaded but there has been a clear changing of the guard since many of the league’s best players were seniors. Stars such as Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Kyron Cartwright, Rodney Bullock, Marcus Foster, Trevon Blueitt, JP Macura, Kelan Martin, and Andrew Rowsey have exhausted their eligibility. Of course, Villanova’s quartet of NBA early entrants — Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman, Donte Divencenzo — and a couple more, like Khyri Thomas and Marcus Derrickson, are now on NBA rosters. The Big East lost a significant amount of talent, but, as always, there are a number of players who are ready to step into bigger roles and become the faces of their respective programs.

JuCo Transfer Zach Hankins at Xavier is One of the More Interesting Big East Prospects This Season (USA Today Images)

This three-part article will rank the top 50 players in the Big East this season, starting with #50 to #34 today. The player’s ability and projected production were factors in determining the ranking. There were six players who just missed the cut and are too good to omit entirely: Sedee Keita (St. John’s), Jalen Coleman-Lands (DePaul), AJ Reeves (Providence), Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (Villanova), Femi Olujobi (DePaul), and Henry Baddley (Butler). Here are the top 50 players in the Big East this season.

  • 50. Cole Swider, Villanova, FR, Wing. Villanova’s roster is loaded with freshman and sophomore wings, but Swider could have the best chance to emerge from that group. The 6’9’’ combo forward is an excellent three-point shooter which should allow him to earn a spot in the Wildcats’ rotation.
  • 49. Joey Hauser, Marquette, FR, PF. Hauser is the younger brother of Marquette’s starting power forward, Sam Hauser. Much like his brother, Joey should be able to provide immediate scoring and outside shooting off the bench. It will be interesting to see if Marquette uses him as a small-ball five for certain stretches in an offensive-centric lineup.
  • 48. Mikey Dixon, St. John’s, SO, Guard. Dixon is a Quinnipiac transfer who is entering his first eligible year at St. John’s after averaging 16.5 PPG and shooting 37 percent from three-point range as a freshman. Dixon will likely be part of a much improved Red Storm bench where he will play both backcourt positions.
  • 47. Davion Mintz, Creighton, JR, Guard. Mintz has been Creighton’s starting point guard since Maurice Watson suffered a season-ending ACL injury two seasons ago. He has typically deferred to the offensive skill sets of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas on his own team, but he will now need to play a more active role in the offense (6.1 PPG/3.1 APG last season). At 6’3″, Mintz has great size for a lead guard, is a good athlete, and a steady floor general.
  • 46. Nate Fowler, Butler, SR, Center. Fowler has steadily increased his production throughout his career and should finally get the opportunity to start as a senior. The 6’10’’ center is a skilled offensive player who can stretch the defense, but he is a below average athlete for the Big East. Fowler averaged 5.9 PPG and 3.1 RPG as a junior.
  • 45. Brendan Bailey, Marquette, FR, Wing. Bailey is a former top 100 recruit who spent his last two years on a Mormon mission. The 6’8’’ wing is a talented scorer who will play a major role immediately for the Golden Eagles. It would not be surprising to see the freshman crack the starting lineup and give Marquette a third reliable perimeter scorer next to Sam Hauser and Markus Howard.
  • 44. David Duke, Providence, FR, Guard. Duke is a long and athletic guard who looks like he will be an opening day starter for Providence. He will have big shoes to fill as Kyron Cartwright was such a vital piece of the Friars’ program, but his ability to defend and finish at the rim will also be invaluable. The 6’5’’ freshman is not a good perimeter shooter, however, which could limit him offensively.

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Big East Burning Questions: Seton Hall & St. John’s

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on October 29th, 2018

Over the coming weeks, the Big East microsite will be previewing all the teams, players and key storylines to watch as we approach season tip-off. Be sure to follow @RTCBigEast and its contributors Justin Kundrat and Brad Cavallaro to get your fix. In the spotlight today will be (alphabetically) Seton Hall and St. John’s

Seton Hall: Can Seton Hall’s pair of transfers fill the gigantic void left by its departed senior class?

Raise Your Hands if Seton Hall Will Miss These Guys (USA Today Images)

Seton Hall has enjoyed a recent period of success in large part because of its stellar 2014 recruiting class. The group of Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Ish Sanogo (and Isaiah Whitehead for two years) have transformed the team’s national perception in leading the Pirates to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Unfortunately for head coach Kevin Willard, these key players have exhausted their eligibility, leaving holdover Myles Powell as the team’s only returning starter. The junior guard appears poised to take a significant step forward this season, ready to become Seton Hall’s locker room leader and one of the best players in the Big East. In support of Powell, sophomore wing Myles Cale is an obvious candidate to put together a breakout season after his strong finish a season ago — 7.0 PPG in his last seven games — but Seton Hall’s season will ultimately come down to the performance of their two incoming transfers, Taurean Thompson and Quincy McKnight.

Thompson started as a freshman at Syracuse and put up solid offensive numbers there (9.2 PPG on 55% FG shooting), but he often drew the ire of fans with his defensive indifference and tendency to settle for contested mid-range jumpers. Scoring seems a strong suit, but will his defense, rebounding and overall floor game satisfy Willard? McKnight did it all for a terrible Sacred Heart team in averaging 18.9 PPG two seasons ago, but his assist-to-turnover ratio was putrid (0.65 ATO). He will need to upgrade his decision-making with the ball to stay on the floor against Big East competition, but hopefully last year spent practicing with a very talented team has allowed him to shore up that weakness.

Analyst rankings of Seton Hall this preseason seem to correlate with views on Thompson and McKnight. Those who think that both will become outstanding Big East players have Seton Hall returning to the Big Dance; those who have lukewarm feelings on the pair place the Pirates in the NIT; and those who are down on the duo have Willard’s club missing the postseason entirely. I have some optimism that Thompson and McKnight will become capable starters for this squad, but not necessarily good enough to push Seton Hall back into the NCAA Tournament. Expect a mid-level season for the Pirates.

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Big East Burning Questions: DePaul & Georgetown

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on October 22nd, 2018

The NBA season tipped off last week, which makes it the perfect time to roll out some new Big East content to drown out the monotony of early-season professional basketball. Over the coming weeks, the Big East microsite will be previewing all the teams, players and key storylines to watch as we approach tip-off. Be sure to follow @RTCBigEast and its contributors Justin Kundrat and Brad Cavallaro to get your fix. In the spotlight today will be (alphabetically) DePaul and Georgetown.

DePaul: Have the Blue Demons improved their overall talent level enough to climb the standings?

Dave Leitao Has Done a Nice Job at DePaul So Far (USA Today Images)

DePaul has undoubtedly improved during Dave Leitao‘s second tenure at the school. In 2016-17, the Blue Demons finished 183rd in KenPom and they ascended all the way to 99th a season ago. Although it was a remarkable improvement — most notably on the defensive end of the floor — it was not enough to change position in the Big East standings (last in both seasons). The Blue Demons have talented players like Max Strus (16.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG) and Eli Cain (11.7 PPG, 4.7 APG) returning, but will the additions a pair of quality transfers in sharp-shooting guard Jalen Coleman-Lands and skilled big man Femi Olujobi be enough to compensate for the losses of former starters Tre’Darius McCallum and Marin Macic?

Improvements from sophomores Paul Reed and Jaylen Butz in the frontcourt should also be expected, but for DePaul to be in position to jump to ninth or higher in the league standings, the team will need to shore up the point guard position. Cain suitably filled the role last year despite it not being his natural position, but if redshirt sophomore Devin Gage or freshman Flynn Cameron shows promise, Leitao’s group might be poised to finally rise out of the Big East cellar. Don’t count on it, however. This group of point guard candidates does not inspire much confidence and the Big East is simply too tough on a nightly basis for a key leadership position to be so shaky. Still, Leitao should be commended for making the Blue Demons competitive and all indications are that his team could again rank among the top 100 nationally despite finishing in last place in the league standings.

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