You’re Right, Villanova is Trending

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 16th, 2019

Villanova might not be the team that some of its fans originally hoped for, but months of incremental improvements have finally manifested in Jay Wright‘s club. The Wildcats’ rocky 8-4 start to this season featured a pair of head-scratching losses to Furman and Penn, along with a 27-point home court defeat to Michigan. So heading into Big East play, many had already written off Villanova as the league’s team to beat, opting to place the target on the back of Marquette or St. John’s. That has quickly been proven premature, as just two weeks into conference play, Villanova sits alone atop the conference standings at 4-0.

Jay Wright Isn’t Worried (USA Today Images)

As discussed ad nauseam, Villanova’s early struggles were attributed to the overwhelming burden placed on seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to generate offense while the team’s less experienced players became acclimated to high-level basketball. This led to a clear nosedive in the team’s efficiency during off nights, and it’s no surprise that the Wildcats’ four losses coincide with poor offensive performances from both players.

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Big East Stock Report: Risers and Fallers

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 8th, 2019

It’s so far been just one week of conference action, but the Big East’s cannibalization is already underway. With the exceptions of Villanova (2-0) and Providence (0-2), every league team has already notched at least one win and a loss (or two) to go with it. That includes both Georgetown and DePaul, each of which have already toppled potential NCAA Tournament teams. So which Big East teams are trending up or down and what’s the outlook for each?

Butler: Sell

Butler has some decent wins on the season (Ole Miss, Florida, Creighton, UC Irvine), but the Bulldogs haven’t quite looked the part with an offense that has sputtered in recent weeks. A 0.99 point per possession showing against Georgetown and 0.72 PPP against Florida revealed the floor for this team and it’s a steep drop.

LaVall Jordan‘s group might be on the bubble at this point, but buying this team is betting on it finding a reliable contributor outside of Kamar Baldwin, and that’s a risky gamble.

DePaul: Buy

The Blue Demons aren’t coming close to an NCAA Tournament bid this season, but they will almost certainly serve as the conference spoiler. DePaul’s offense has been rebuilt around a potent shooting backcourt of Eli Cain and Max Strus, along with what might be the best rebounding core in the conference.

Quite simply, sophomores Paul Reed and Jaylen Butz have been sensational on the glass, causing myriad problems for undersized opponents.

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Seton Hall’s Rebuild Has Yielded Great Optimism

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 21st, 2018

All signs pointed to a substantial down year at Seton Hall following the graduation of Kevin Willard‘s heralded recruiting class of 2014. Given that the three-headed monster of Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez carried the Pirates to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments and accounted for 60 percent of the team’s scoring last season, question marks outweighed the certainties. Eleven games into this season, however, Seton Hall has put together a polished 8-3 record highlighted by a neutral floor win over Kentucky and a missed shot away from defeating Louisville.

Kevin Willard’s Club Has Surprised This Season (USA Today Images)

Numerous factors have led to the team’s surprise performance this season, the biggest of which has been the infallible play of returnee Myles Powell. The junior guard was a key contributor on last season’s squad but was never asked to shoulder the scoring load, leading to concerns about his ability to do so consistently. And while some of the Pirates’ offensive sets are still a frustrating sight, he is averaging 22.7 PPG to date while improving his scoring efficiency at all three levels. Willard’s star is getting to the rim and drawing fouls at a higher rate than last season while maintaining the sharp-shooting (38.1% 3FG) that made him such a threat in the first place.

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Big East Reset: Analyzing Some of the Key Storylines Thus Far

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 5th, 2018

With nearly a month of Big East basketball already in the books, there has been no shortage of action in a non-conference schedule full of surprising upsets and gut-wrenching defeats. For those who haven’t been following very closely, you may have been surprised to see preseason bottom dweller Creighton nearly toppling #1 Gonzaga or the defending national champs dropping a home game to Furman. So as we inch closer to the holidays and conference play, below are some of the key Big East takeaways from the last few weeks.

Furman Logged One of the Upsets of the Early Season at Villanova (USA Today Images)

  • There isn’t a bad team in the conference. DePaul has made its name over the last decade as the Big East’s doormat, finishing among the bottom three in the standings in every season back to 2008. While the Blue Demons are still far from conference contention, Dave Leitao‘s group has raced off to an early 5-1 start that includes an overtime win over a solid Penn State club. The offseason delivered the two things DePaul needed most: shooting and size in the forms of transfers Jalen Coleman-Lands (Illinois) and Femi Olujobi (North Carolina A&T). Now, with a balance of size, experience and backcourt play, the Blue Demons’ offense finally has some cohesiveness. Expect this team to easily surpass its 4-14 conference win total from last season.
  • Creighton’s offense didn’t regress as expected — rather, it might be just as good, if not better, than last season. This claim might seem far-fetched given that the Bluejays lost 60 percent of their scoring output, but they are right on pace at 1.16 points per possession eight games into the season. Interestingly, the blazing fast offense that attempted 29.4 percent of its shots in transition a season ago (seventh nationally) is now content to play in the half-court, with a middle-of-the-road tempo that ranks 155th in transition frequency. Neverthetheless, between sophomore guard Ty-Shon Alexander’s explosion onto the scene (the clear front-runner for the Big East’s most improved player) and the steady improvements of Damien Jefferson and Marcus Zegarowski, Greg McDermott’s team is the biggest surprise in the conference so far this season.

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St. John’s Shiny Record Belies Some of the Same Old Problems

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 30th, 2018

St. John’s may be 6-0 on the season but its undefeated record does not tell the whole story. Rather, the program seems to be carrying the heavy weight of expectations for a breakthrough season. With all the stars aligned, this was pegged to be the year: Future NBA draftee Shamorie Ponds passed up the league to return for his junior season; impact transfer Mustapha Heron was cleared to play; some promising new faces around campus brought needed depth; and head coach Chris Mullin, entering his fourth season, would be turning a corner as head coach. And with the program’s best start since 2010 already in the books, some observers may be lured into the false premise that things are going according to plan. But a closer look underneath the hood reveals many of the same issues from last season — issues that are likely to manifest against stiffer competition.

The Legends Classic Champions May Be a Paper Tiger (USA Today Images)

First is the simple over-reliance on Ponds to create offense and score. The junior ranked 18th nationally (32.0%) in usage rate last season, often forced into difficult shots because of the dearth of reliable secondary scorers on the roster. And while Heron’s 18.2 PPG have certainly eased his offensive burden, the fact that Ponds’ hero ball was required to salvage victories against VCU and California cannot be comforting. Clever and electric as he is, it’s hard to imagine that this is a good possession, particularly given how many Red Storm players are open once VCU’s defenders collapse into the paint:

In both of those Legends Classic games, the 6’1″ guard accounted for 40 percent of his team’s points. Although the ultimate result may have been what Mullin wanted, the underlying process of getting there was lacking. St. John’s showed minimal ball movement, poor defense and a street ball feel to the game. The last comment brings up the next point: A leaky perimeter defense, which plagued the Red Storm all of last season, is still a problem. Not only is St. John’s allowing countless open shots from the perimeter, but it is yet again fouling at an astronomical rate. While some of this may be driven by personnel, the below table shows a clear correlation between defensive foul rates and Mullin’s assumption of the head coaching position in 2015-16.

Unnecessary fouls are often the result of lackluster communication, bad spacing, or poor tendencies such as recklessly attempting a steal or block. While the Red Storm’s defense has been adept at forcing turnovers, the number of easy points they are giving up at the line will continue to haunt them. So while St. John’s enters December standing tall with an unblemished record, its near-losses to the likes of Bowling Green and California could have shaped an entirely different narrative. With a pool of talent on the floor in Ponds, Heron, sophomore LJ Figueroa and plenty of role players, it’s high time for this team to fully turn the corner and stop peaking around it.

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Diagnosing a Broken Villanova

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 19th, 2018

The loss of four key contributors meant that Villanova would be having a down year… by Villanova standards. And Villanova standards were a #9 ranking in the preseason AP Poll and a unanimous selection to win the Big East. Villanova fans had become spoiled, you could say, with the expectation that the program would be a perennial championship contender regardless of changes to personnel. So when Jay Wright‘s group posted a 27-point loss to Michigan in its highly-anticipated rematch of the National Championship game, there was a divergence in opinions. Some felt such a lopsided defeat was just a blip — that the freshmen and other newcomers just needed some time to gel. Others thought it was a signal of things to come. Now, with Saturday’s home overtime loss to Furman piling on, the needle has moved strongly towards the latter camp.

Furman Flexing on Villanova’s Home Court is a Signal (USA Today Images)

So what’s been the biggest driver of the Wildcats’ under-performance? Glad you asked:

  1. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall have to this point both embraced hero ball. It partly makes sense given that the pair are the only returning significant contributors from last season’s NCAA Tournament run. But at the same time, increased usage has driven their shot quality down to staggering levels. Booth’s effective field goal percentage has dropped from 55.3 to 47.5 percent and Paschall’s from 60.0 to 41.1 percent — both replete with forced drives into traffic and unnecessary three-point shots. It’s time for Wright to return to the success of a more balanced offense, even if that means involving less trusted, developing players.
  2. Villanova’s newcomers have underwhelmed. Joe Cremo, the heralded graduate transfer from Albany who averaged 17.8 PPG a season ago, was supposed to provide a big scoring punch but has yet to do so — his 6.7 PPG includes just two points on two shots against Michigan. Jahvon Quinerly, the McDonald’s All-American replacement for Jalen Brunson, has witnessed his minutes dwindle from 17 to 16 to eight to a DNP-Coach’s Decision against Furman. Whether he’s battling an injury or Wright simply feels he isn’t ready, his lack of contribution has been perplexing. Combining this with inconsistent showings from the likes of Jermaine Samuels and the rest of the freshmen class has diminished the Wildcats’ offensive output.
  3. Team shooting has been horrid. The absurdly efficient three-point shooting that defined Villanova teams of recent past has been nonexistent thus far this season. In fact, the Wildcats’ 32.0 percent clip is on pace to be the team’s worst outside shooting performance since 2012 (and everyone remembers that year), and the second worst in Wright’s head coaching history. We know there are plenty of potent shooters on this team, but their shot selection and floor spacing to date has left a lot to be desired.
  4. It’s November. It’s an annoying excuse but a valid one, particularly with the number of fresh faces on the floor this season. Wright has said that people need to give this team time and there’s a good chance this group looks entirely different come March.

It’s hard to watch Villanova and believe that it hasn’t been underwhelming, if not outright disappointing, so far this season. But it’s worth sticking around and watching Wright develop his talent because Villanova has shown time and time again what it is capable of when the pieces begin to align.

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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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