Big East Weekly Takeaways: Vol. I

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 13th, 2018

Week one is already in the books and there’s more than enough to talk about around the Big East. This is the first introduction of a weekly takeaways post that discusses and analyzes all of the conference’s happenings.

Eric Paschall at the Five Presents All Kinds of Problems for Opponents (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova may not have the same degree of firepower as it has had over the last few seasons, but the Wildcats’ superb offensive dynamic has remained unchanged. First, the Wildcats are currently posting 1.17 points per possession (fourth nationally), with six players averaging more than 9.0 PPG. Second, with do-it-all forward Eric Paschall at the five position, head coach Jay Wright can again roll out a lineup of shooters at every position. Third, there are a plethora of interchangeable Wildcat wings to help with the needs of any rotation, whether those are attacking in transition, rebounding or spacing the floor. Lastly, with four rock solid guards on the roster, Wright has no shortage of ball-handlers available to keep his offense humming. There is still a good degree of rawness on Villanova’s bench, but it’s fun to watch the team now if only to have a frame of reference for its progress come March. The one under-reported surprise thus far has been 6’8″ freshman Saddiq Bey, who poured in 16 points in his debut by scoring in a variety of ways. Bey has been an ideal additional scoring threat on the wing while filling the “Mikal Bridges” role on the defensive end of the floor.
  • This season might turn out to be a down year for the conference, but it is already projecting as one of the best in recent years for talented big men. Villanova’s Eric Paschall has been uncontainable both on the perimeter and around the basket, averaging 18.5 PPG and 7.5 RPG through two games. Georgetown’s Jessie Govan has continued his sharp upward trajectory since Patrick Ewing took over the head coaching role at his alma mater. The 6’10” senior is getting to the line more and posting career high statistics in blocks and field goal percentage. Tyrique Jones at Xavier has had a somewhat unexpected junior breakout season thus far, currently posting averages of 18.0 PPG and 13.0 RPG that includes a 20-rebound (!) effort against Evansville over the weekend. Jones looks springier around the basket while maintaining his patented “draw contact at all costs” style of play. Butler’s Joey Brunk debuted this season with a career-high 17 points and six rebounds on 7-of-7 shooting. Even Marquette, which seemingly hasn’t had a threatening low post option in years (Davante Gardner in 2014?) has witnessed growth in sophomore bowling ball Theo John (9.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG). These clashes in the low post will be exciting come conference play.

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Some Final Big East Predictions

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 6th, 2018

We made it, everyone — the season is finally upon us. Who cares about blustery cold weather, 5:00 PM sunsets and the dread of holiday travel? The return of college basketball cures everything, right? Heading into a packed evening of hoops that includes no fewer than eight Big East games, here are some final conference preview thoughts and predictions.

Will Another Big East Team be in Position to Celebrate Like Villanova Next April? (USA Today Images)

  • Conference winner: Villanova. Yawn. Even suffering the loss of four key contributors, it’s hard to hand the Big East crown to any other team at this point. The Wildcats may have taken a step back in the offseason, but so did most every other club in the conference and the gap is still too wide for another team to catch up. Senior Eric Paschall is primed for a breakout season and may become must-see TV if he can brush up on his outside shooting. The onslaught of new arrivals should also be fun to watch as Jay Wright tests his rotations before tightening things up come conference play.
  • Biggest out-performer: Xavier. Being picked by Big East coaches to finish sixth in the conference standings isn’t necessarily a slight given the Musketeers’ extensive offseason roster and coaching turnover. That said, it’s hard to foresee a team that has two breakout sophomores and an excess of experienced transfers finish among the bottom half of the league. Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs were overshadowed by Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura last season, but expect new head coach Travis Steele to unshackle the duo and put them in the open floor where they can best succeed.
  • Biggest under-performer: St. John’s. As a New York resident, I would like to see a St. John’s basketball resurgence more than anyone, but it’s difficult to bet against a string of disappointing seasons regardless of how much talent fills its roster. Guard Shamorie Ponds is electric with the ball in his hands, and the transfer additions of Mustapha Heron and Sedee Keita will add some much-needed depth, but all told, there is too much concern about size and rebounding to pronounce the Red Storm as legitimate Big East contenders. Chris Mullin‘s group finished among the bottom 60 teams nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding last season and will have only one true big man on the roster this season (Keita). Small-ball has proven to work for plenty of teams, but the St. John’s guards are going to need to chip in on the glass.

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Big East Burning Questions: Villanova & Xavier

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 1st, 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 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) Villanova and Xavier.

Villanova: Is there enough firepower left to defend its throne?

Eric Paschall is Ready to Lead Villanova (USA Today Images)

The loss of four key contributors from last season’s National Champions is a mountain to overcome, even for a head coach as proficient as Jay Wright. Yes, the Wildcats bring in another heralded recruiting class and a nice transfer in Albany’s Joe Cremo, but it’s not exactly a reassuring thought that only a handful of Villanova’s rotation players are back. The program’s success in recent years has been predicated on numerous scoring options to attack the rim and space the floor, as evidenced by the fact that a robust six different players averaged double-figure scoring last season. This year’s roster features a number of capable shooters and multi-positional defenders, but offensive coordination and defensive cohesiveness don’t just happen overnight. So the question becomes a matter of how quickly Wright’s plethora of sparingly used returnees and newcomers can contribute alongside alpha dog veterans Eric Paschall and Phil Booth. Freshman Jahvon Quinerly will be the next man up in the program’s revolving door of elite point guards and the chatter around campus is that he’ll be ready to take the reins from day one. Besides, it seems silly to count this program out of the running for another title, particularly on the heels of Booth recently dropping 41 points on North Carolina in a secret scrimmage.

Xavier: Is Travis Steele ready for the Travis Steele era?

Travis Steele Takes the Helm at Xavier (USA Today Images)

So long, Chris Mack. Louisville offered the longtime Xavier head coach a handful of pretty pennies ($4 million per year for seven years), which he is presumably using to throw parties at his new $3.1 million mansion. That allowed Xavier the opportunity to promote assistant coach Travis Steele in much the same way Mack had gotten the job after Sean Miller’s departure to Arizona nearly a decade ago. Steele certainly has some big shoes to fill in following Mack’s 215-97 record that included eight NCAA Tournament appearances and four trips to the second weekend. Moreover, the Musketeers lost three scorers who accounted for more than 50 percent of their scoring output a season ago. On the bright side, Steele secured three experienced graduate transfers and can work with a promising set of sophomores in Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall, which is a better hand than most new head coaches are dealt. Both wings showed promise in spurts last season and will now have to do it with consistency this season. The 2018-19 season may shape up as something of a rare transition year for the program, but if Steele can come close to replicating Mack’s typical performance, Xavier will find itself making travel arrangements yet again on Selection Sunday.

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Big East Burning Questions: Marquette & Providence

Posted by Justin Kundrat on October 25th, 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 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) Marquette and Providence.

Marquette: Is there enough perimeter talent here to finally shore up the defense?

Wojo Begins His Fifth Year at Marquette With the Same Question (USA Today Images)

At this point — in year five of Steve Wojciechowski‘s tenure at the school — an exhausted narrative is to rehash Marquette’s struggles on the defensive end of the floor. But given how it continues to stymie the program’s progress as a contender in the Big East and beyond, it bears repeating. Marquette’s offense has ranked among the top 12 nationally in each of the last two seasons and figures to finish in that range again with preseason all-Big East selection Markus Howard back in Milwaukee for his junior season. But no matter how many 30-point games Howard amassed a year ago (six), a leaky defense that ranked a miserable 182nd nationally in efficiency gave it all right back. Now, things look better on paper: point guard Andrew Rowsey is being replaced by Fordham transfer Joseph Chartouny, whose steal rates are so good I had to look twice (second nationally at 5.6 percent in 2018; first in 2017; 32nd in 2016); Ed Morrow, a lanky 6’7″ transfer with a seven-foot wingspan; and the expected maturation of promising wings Greg Elliott and Jamal Cain. This group should have enough athleticism and talent to contain dribble penetration, but can Wojciechowski provide enough defensive coaching to get them there?

Providence: Is there a capable point guard on the Friars’ roster?

Providence Must Figure Out Its Point Guard Position (USA Today Images)

It’s no secret that head coach Ed Cooley loves his point guards, and as Three-Man-Weave recently pointed out, the Friars have not had a point guard finish outside the top 20 nationally in assist rate since he took over the program in 2011. The position is absolutely integral to his offense, shouldering the load as both a passing and scoring threat. So with the graduation of Kyron Cartwright from last season’s NCAA Tournament squad, who is the next man up? Junior Maliek White serviced the backup role last season but posted paltry assist numbers (11.7% Asst Rate), while rising sophomore and heralded recruit Makai Ashton-Langford was used sparingly in conference play and struggled to adjust. Another alternative for the position is incoming freshman David Duke, a highly-touted guard plucked from Providence’s backyard. The early signs point to Ashton-Langford assuming the role, but in any case, there is simply no track record of established play at this position. If Cooley can lock something down, he’ll once again have a dangerous squad.

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Big East Burning Questions: Butler & Creighton

Posted by Justin Kundrat on October 18th, 2018

The NBA season tipped off earlier this 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) Butler and Creighton.

Butler: Can Kamar Baldwin take on the role of alpha dog?

Can Kamar Baldwin Shoulder Butler’s Offensive Load? (USA Today Images)

A number of publications and season previews have penciled in the 6’1″ junior as the Big East Player of the Year given his expected role on the contending Bulldogs and demonstrated play-making abilities on both sides of the ball. What’s being overlooked in that analysis, though, is the inefficient and inconsistent method in which he played offensively last season. The Butler offense was actually 0.05 PPP better without Baldwin on the floor, and his 104.1 KenPom Offensive Rating was the second worst among the Bulldogs’ rotation players. He fared well as a distributor and two-level scorer, but often struggled with his shooting (33.1% from deep) and witnessed his efficiency succumb to higher volume and more defensive attention. With Kelan Martin’s 21.2 PPG now off the roster, the spotlight will inevitably turn to Baldwin to buoy the offense alongside a flurry of outside shooters – Paul Jorgensen (10.2 PPG), Sean McDermott (43.1% 3FG) and Duke transfer Jordan Tucker. If he can put up enough points while maintaining his notorious defensive tenacity, LaVall Jordan‘s group should have no problem finishing in the top three of this league, but there’s an if.

Creighton: How quickly will its sophomores grow up?

Greg McDermott Has a Lot to Replace This Season (USA Today Images)

Creighton joins Seton Hall, Xavier, Villanova and just about every other Big East team in losing the majority of its scoring output from last season. In addition to Marcus Foster (19.8 PPG) and Toby Hegner (8.4 PPG), what really stings is the early departure of junior Khyri Thomas to the NBA. All told, Greg McDermott lost north of 60 percent of last season’s scoring and is now attempting to replace it with a mix of freshmen, sophomores, redshirts and transfers. Will his team end up in the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive year? Doubtful, but it should be fun to watch this eclectic group of players slowly form a cohesive unit over the season. Leading the way are a trio of sophomores — Mitch Ballock (7.3 PPG), Ty-Shon Alexander (5.5 PPG) and Jacob Epperson (6.3 PPG) — each of whom showed well in spurts last season. Ballock is the biggest breakout candidate of the bunch (and my pick for most improved): After spending most of last season under the radar, he posted a team-leading 16 points and eight rebounds in the Bluejays’ NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas State. It will take time for each of these players to adjust to a heightened role, but when that happens and versatile forward Martin Krampelj returns from injury, the March version of this team will look nothing like November’s.

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Big East Wrap-Up: Lasting Impressions and Early Rankings

Posted by Justin Kundrat on April 11th, 2018

All hail Donte DiVincenzo‘s flurry of baskets that left Michigan fans saying “who is this guy?”

Villanova Celebrates Its Second National Championship in the Last Three Years Last Week (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova has ascended into blue-blood territory. It’s a tired storyline at this point but it’s also probably the biggest one coming out of the NCAA Tournament. Winners of two championships in three years with largely a different set of players means that Jay Wright has officially assembled a dynasty. Villanova has the roster makeup that makes the rest of college basketball envious: dynamic guards that can score at multiple levels; floor-spacing big men who can shoot the three; and sufficient experience together to play cohesive team defense. The best part is that even with some expected early departures pending (Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson?), Villanova’s standing near the top of the national rankings isn’t likely to change, and that’s what makes this program a dynasty.
  • Goodbye, Chris Mack. Another year, another lost Big East coach to a bigger program budget and salary. Last year, it was Chris Holtmann departing Butler for Ohio State (where he excelled). This year it’s Chris Mack who packed his bags for Louisville after a nine-year tenure at Xavier that included five straight NCAA tournament appearances. In his stead is former assistant Travis Steele, promoted from a position he has held since 2008. Steele has already impressively gotten to work, quickly signing two graduate transfers in Zach Hankins (D-II National Player of the Year) and Kyle Castlin (Columbia) while being in the running for many others. On the heels of a massive graduating class in Cincinnati, Steele will have his work cut out for him next season.
  • Hello, Providence backcourt. What Ed Cooley has done with his guards during his tenure at Providence has been nothing short of amazing. From Bryce Cotton to Kris Dunn to Kyron Cartwright, there has never been a dearth of electric, play-making perimeter players on his roster. Now, though, with Cartwright graduating, the question of who is next for the Friars is bubbling up. Early signs pointed to rising sophomore Makai Ashton-Langford, but his limited end-of-season usage and errant decision-making have been confounding. Encouragingly, Cooley is also bringing in two heralded backcourt recruits in David Duke and AJ Reeves, and it’s a safe bet given recent history that at least one of the pair will emerge into the spotlight.

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Big East Conversation: Opening Weekend Takes

Posted by Brian Otskey & Justin Kundrat on March 20th, 2018

With NCAA six teams in action this past weekend, Big East fans have a lot to talk about this week. Big East microsite writers Justin Kundrat and Brian Otskey discuss what’s on their minds following a full slate of games.

Brian Otskey: Villanova is now the sole flag bearer remaining for the Big East. The Wildcats are the best team left in the field but their draw isn’t easy. How do you see them matching up with what is clearly the tougher side of the remaining bracket?

Villanova Looked Fantastic Last Weekend (USA Today Images)

Justin Kundrat: Villanova‘s path might have been the easiest when the bracket was announced, but now the Wildcats have one of the more difficult ones. Given how haphazardly this year’s bracket has shaken out, trying to predict future match-ups beyond this round seems futile. They are undoubtedly going to be the favorite in their region to make the Final Four, but each of the teams left in the draw is stylistically different. Against West Virginia, the key will not only be taking care of the ball (although the Wildcats rank 11th nationally in turnover rate), but in the effectiveness of big men Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman. The Mountaineers are an elite shot-blocking group behind 6’8″ Sagaba Konate, which definitely threatens the drive-and-kick nature of Villanova’s offense. That means Paschall and Spellman will have to knock down perimeter shots to drag Konate away from the rim. As for the Elite Eight, Villanova matches up better with a backcourt-dominant team like Texas Tech than it does with Purdue. The Boilermakers’ Matt Haarms was wildly effective against Butler and will be a handful should he face Villanova’s undersized frontcourt. All told, though, Villanova’s versatility and balance should be enough to get them to San Antonio.

BO: Did most people underestimate the impact of Martin Krampelj’s injury on Creighton? Aside from the Villanova win, the Bluejays struggled over the final two months of the regular season and did not play well against Kansas State.

JK: I’m not sure underestimate is the right word. Everyone knew that the impact was severe and there was no replacement for a player like him. At 6’9″, he was the team’s best post defender and rebounder, and he moved around the floor better than most guys his size. It’s no surprise that Greg McDermott loved using him in pick-and-roll sets because he could spread the floor or glide to the rim. The other two bigs on the roster are 6’10” Toby Hegner, who was basically a spot-up shooter, and 6’11” freshman Jacob Epperson, who had flashes of brilliance but couldn’t string together much consistency. So his loss turned what was already backcourt-dominant team into one that overrelied on one or two guards to generate offense.

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Big East Conversation: NCAA Tournament Takes

Posted by Justin Kundrat & Brian Otskey on March 13th, 2018

With six of its 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament, Big East fans have a lot to talk about this week. Big East microsite writers Justin Kundrat and Brian Otskey discuss what’s on their minds heading into Thursday’s action.

Justin Kundrat: Of the six Big East teams, which first round match-up are you most looking forward to?

LaVall Jordan Has a Tough First Round Match-up Against Arkansas (USA Today Images)

Brian Otskey: I think the Butler-Arkansas game will be tremendous. Both teams are fairly experienced (especially the Razorbacks), undersized and have guys who can fill it up, which should make for an aesthetically pleasing up-and-down game. Mike Anderson’s chaotic style of play caused another Big East team (Seton Hall) to lose focus in last year’s First Round on its way to a loss. The good news with Butler is that the Bulldogs are much more likely to stay composed and protect the ball — which could be the deciding factor. LaVall Jordan will need Kamar Baldwin to play at a high level in order to give his team a second scoring threat alongside Kelan Martin. Arkansas will counter with Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, who average nearly 35.0 PPG combined. Also keep an eye on the match-up in the paint. Tyler Wideman isn’t the tallest center around, but he’s strong and thick. Arkansas’ center is 6’11” Daniel Gafford, but he’s thinner than Wideman. How that size difference shakes out will be important when determining the outcome of this game.

JK: Which team do you like the most to reach the Final Four?

BO: With Xavier considered the weakest of the top seeds and the rest of the conference on the #8, #9 or #10 seed line, I think the obvious pick is Villanova. The Wildcats won the National Championship only two years ago and have three players on the roster who went on that title run: Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth. Also, the Wildcats won’t have to travel far before the Final Four in San Antonio, playing the opening rounds in Pittsburgh and the regional in Boston. I actually think the biggest threat to Villanova will come in either the Second or Third round. Virginia Tech and Alabama are mercurial yet talented squads on the #8/#9 line, likely followed by West Virginia or Wichita State in the Sweet Sixteen. This Villanova team is incredible offensively and can turn up the defense when it wants to. I am a bit concerned about a cold shooting night derailing the Wildcats’ train, but play-makers like Brunson and Bridges should have enough to overcome that deficiency and lead this group back to the Final Four.

JK: Which team has the toughest First Round match-up?

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big East Teams

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 11th, 2018

Below is a review of how the selection process concluded for each Big East team and what they should expect in the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Villanova Will Be Looking For More Celebrations Like This (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova, #1 seed, East Region. Assuming the Wildcats knock off the #16 seed play-in-game winner between LIU and Radford, they will face the winner of Virginia Tech and Alabama in the Second Round. The Hokies are an extremely rim-focused offense (ranking fourth nationally in percentage of shots at the rim) so the onus would be on Villanova’s wings to contain the penetration of Justin Robinson and his teammates. Alabama is a similarly constructed, penetration-focused offense without the commensurate complement of shooters. They instead rely on a ball-hawking defense supported by long, athletic wings. Villanova would probably prefer Virginia Tech here.
  • Xavier, #1 seed, West Region. The Musketeers earned the committee’s respect with a #1 seed in the West Region, and barring catastrophe, will face the winner of Missouri and Florida State next weekend. Stylistically, those two teams couldn’t be more different. Florida State pushes the tempo at every opportunity, particularly off of defensive rebounds and blocked shots. Missouri plays a half-court focused offense that picks apart defenses with relentless three-point shooting. The Musketeers would be happy to play at a fast tempo against the Seminoles despite their athleticism on the perimeter. Xavier has struggled this season in preventing perimeter shooting (see: Villanova), so a Missouri team with Michael Porter getting back to full health might pose some problems.

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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 76, Providence 66 [OT]

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2018

RTC’s Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is providing on-site coverage of the Big East Tournament all week long.

Three Key Takeaways.

Villanova Adds Some More Big East Hardware to Its Trophy Case (USA Today Images)

  1. With Mikal Bridges playing his A game, Villanova is nearly impossible to beatJalen Brunson may have accumulated all the National Player of the Year accolades, but it was Bridges who made the key plays in overtime tonight. The 6’7″ swingman knocked down two critical three-pointers in the extra period to maintain Villanova’s tenuous lead over the Friars before making the game-winning play — with 25 seconds remaining and Providence then down six, he notched a block that the Wildcats were able to corral and correspondingly ice the game. Brunson is unquestionably the leader of this team, but Bridges’ play, when aggressive, is nearly impossible to contain. His release point is too high to contest from the perimeter; his long arms are too difficult to manage around the basket; and his oft-discussed defense is simply menacing.
  2. Providence is playing its best basketball of the season. When watching the Friars as recently as two weeks ago, a run like this was unforeseeable. Providence had dropped three of its last five games and had skirted by St. John’s and Georgetown on the coattails of its defense. Given the Friars’ length and interchangeable parts, though, their defense, particularly in crowding the lanes, has been solid for most of the season. But the starters’ offensive contributions were too inconsistent to give hope for a deep NCAA Tournament run, much less a bid. So this week, between Ed Cooley‘s masterful game-planning and the outbursts of point guard Kyron Cartwright, the scale has tipped in the opposite direction.  As a likely #8 or #9 seed, Providence will be a tough out if it can control the game’s tempo.
  3. The Big East Tournament never fails to disappoint. If there was ever a question about the institution of the Big East Tournament, it no longer exists. Providence amazingly played three consecutive overtime games, in addition to a number of other nail-biters here at Madison Square Garden. It seems like there’s a tweetstorm during the event’s semifinals and championship games demanding that everyone tune in because of the atmosphere combined with quality of play. Undoubtedly the whole country was watching tonight as a fury-laden, fire-breathing Providence squad took what might be the best team in the country down to the wire. It doesn’t seem to matter which teams are playing or who graduates from season to season, the Big East Tournament remains must-watch TV.

Star of the GameMikal Bridges (25 points) has always been the Villanova player with the highest ceiling and tonight it showed in spades. He was disruptive with his on-ball defense of Cartwright and his off-ball help defense when contesting shots. He also won the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.

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