Is This Finally the Year for Villanova?

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 3rd, 2015

Save for one or two uncharacteristically poor seasons, Villanova has been on the college basketball map nearly every year in the last decade. And being on the map doesn’t mean an above average team that wiggles its way into the NCAA Tournament every year; rather, the Wildcats have finished with 20 or more wins in 10 of their last 11 seasons. Still, for reasons unknown to most everyone around the program, Jay Wright‘s team has fallen short of expectations in every season since its magical 2009 Final Four run. One year the issue was a lack of team chemistry in the backcourt; the next year it was supposedly a lack of size. For one reason or another, Villanova has simply been unable to progress past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Is this finally the year for Jay Wright and Villanova? (Getty)

Is this finally the year for Jay Wright’s Villanova Squad? (Getty)

Many initially questioned whether Villanova would be adequately challenged in the new Big East. While the league has had a great season and is likely to place six teams in the NCAA Tournament, the concerns remain. Just how good is Villanova? As of Tuesday morning, Jay Wright’s team is 27-2 and just three wins away from tying the school record for single-season wins. The Wildcats are 10-1 against the RPI top 50, 6-1 against the RPI top 25, and have just two road losses to top 100 teams. According to KenPom, Villanova ranks third in the country in offensive efficiency and is one of five teams to rank among the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (17th). With Wisconsin and Gonzaga’s losses over the weekend, the team ranks 4th in the AP poll and is firmly on the cusp of landing a No. 1 seed for the first time since the 2005-06 season. And yet, many have failed to take notice. Is public dismissal of the team based on its general lack of NBA-caliber players? Or the falsely-held notion that the Big East is not as good as it once was? Read the rest of this entry »

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In Beating Georgetown, St. John’s Well-Positioned For an NCAA Bid

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 1st, 2015

Sitting at 14-8 overall and 3-6 in the Big East after a blowout loss at Butler on February 3, the NCAA Tournament was the last thing on the mind of the players at St. John’s. The pressure was mounting on Steve Lavin and his senior-laden team, a group that had not earned a ticket to the Big Dance in their collegiate careers. Fast forward to the end of February and this same Red Storm team is sitting pretty at 20-9 and 9-7 in the Big East after a convincing victory over Georgetown in front of more than 13,000 lively supporters at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. This victory was Lavin’s 25th win in the month of February as the head coach of the Johnnies, and the February rise has almost become an annual tradition for St. John’s under his leadership. In 2011, the Red Storm won seven of eight games in February to lock up an NCAA bid. Just last season, St. John’s put together a six-game winning streak to get itself onto the bubble, only to eventually fall a game or two short of dancing. Lavin’s team has again appeared to turn the corner, going 6-2 in the second calendar month of the year to put itself in prime position for a trip to the NCAAs.

Steve Lavin's Group (USA Today Images)

Steve Lavin’s Group Has Used the February Rise to Get Back Into the NCAA’s Good Graces (USA Today Images)

“Our upside is the most intriguing part of our team,” Lavin said afterward. “I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet.” If he is right, the rest of the Big East should be put on notice. Playing on its home floor in just over a week, St. John’s should enter the Big East Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the league and a dark horse threat to take home the title. The seniors on this team are playing at a high level, starting with Sir’Dominic Pointer. Including his 24-point performance against the Hoyas, Pointer has averaged a robust 20.0 PPG over his last six games, fueling the team’s late season surge. Pointer was all over the floor on both ends, utilizing his energy, quickness and athleticism to flummox Georgetown all game long. Hoyas center Joshua Smith fouled out in only eight minutes of action, unable to keep himself in front of Pointer. With Smith constantly out of position, St. John’s repeatedly got to the rim, especially in transition. As a result, that opened up the perimeter where fellow senior Phil Greene IV could take advantage. The Chicago product poured in 26 points and made six of his seven three-point attempts on the night. “You have to limit them. You have to make them score in the half-court,” said Georgetown head coach John Thompson III. “We had too many breakdowns defensively when we needed to get stops.”

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Weekly Big East Postseason Outlook

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 27th, 2015

With just a little over a week remaining in conference play, most Big East teams have started rounding into postseason form. For Villanova, that means pushing toward an NCAA Tournament #1 seed. For others like St. John’s and Xavier, it means staying on the right side of the bubble. As we approach March, we’ll run down the status of each Big East team’s postseason prospects in this weekly look. The league appears to have six solid NCAA candidates as of today, with the remainder still clinging to the discussion for NIT bids.

Villanova (26-2, 13-2)

Jay Wright's crew is deep, balanced, experienced and poised for a long overdue tournament run. (Getty)

Jay Wright’s crew is deep, balanced, experienced and poised for a long overdue tournament run. (Getty)

  • Up Next: Saturday at Xavier
    RPI: 4 SOS: 41
  • On Track For: NCAA, No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Villanova continued its march of dominance, clinching the Big East title and running over its opponents in the process. The Wildcats have now won their last nine games and are in decent position for a top seed if any of the other contenders falter. This team is deep, balanced, experienced and poised for a long overdue NCAA Tournament run.

Butler (20-8, 10-5)

  • Up Next: Saturday at DePaul
    RPI: 25 SOS: 34
  • On Track For: NCAA, No. 4 or No. 5 seed. Just when Butler looked like it was entering a slump following its scramble at Creighton and blowout loss at Xavier, the Bulldogs snapped back into form on Wednesday night. The loss of Andrew Chrabascz (4-6 weeks) has left open holes in areas where Butler has been strong: rebounding, interior defense and inside scoring. Expect the Bulldogs to fall a few spots in seeding before Chrabascz returns, hopefully in time for the bulk of the postseason.

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Battered and Bruised, D’Angelo Harrison Makes a Case for Big East POY

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 23rd, 2015

Senior guard D’Angelo Harrison stepped off the floor of Carnesecca Arena for the last time in his career on Saturday, and a long round of applause followed by chants of “D-Lo” ensued. It would be hard for St. John’s fans to fail to appreciate everything Harrison, along with fellow seniors Sir’Dominic Pointer, Phil Greene IV and Jamal Branch, have brought to this program in spite of countless transfers, early departures and other off-court issues. Although this season too has had its ups and downs, St. John’s, at 18-9 overall and 7-7 in Big East play, is knocking at the door of the NCAA Tournament. Harrison claims he wants nothing more than to get there for the first time in his four years on campus, and he has assured Red Storm fans that it will occur. A player of his magnitude — currently averaging 18.3 PPG and sitting at third all-time in St. John’s scoring history behind only Chris Mullin and Malik Sealy — would be hard pressed to let that claim fall short.

D'Angelo Harrison (USA Today Images)

D’Angelo Harrison Has His Eyes on the NCAA Tournament (USA Today Images)

Earlier this month, Harrison broke the 2,000-point mark without even knowing it. “I didn’t know until Phil and Dom told me when I got into the locker room. I don’t like to know stuff like that. I like looking at stuff like that after the season.” He is the quintessential team leader, the face of the franchise, and perhaps the strongest candidate league-wide for the Big East Player of the Year award. The race for the Big East’s top honor has been a hotly contested one this season. Georgetown junior D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera appeared likely to run away with it in the early going. When his shooting suffered, the consensus soon shifted to Seton Hall’s Sterling Gibbs, whom the Pirates had rallied around in their surprising march to the Top 25. Following his team’s dramatic collapse and ensuing elbow incident, the front-runner with two weeks left in conference play is not so clear. Some are pointing to either of Providence’s Kris Dunn or LaDontae Henton, both of whom have shared the leadership responsibilities for the Friars’ 19-8 season. Others believe that one of Villanova’s stars — perhaps Darrun Hilliard or Daniel Ochefu — should get the nod if the Wildcats run away with the league title. But if the Red Storm can make a push down the stretch, it could be Harrison who has the best case of any.

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Seton Hall’s Problems Start at the Very Top

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 19th, 2015

Ask most people and they will tell you that strong leadership is a prerequisite to success in nearly every organization. There are countless examples of human beings responding positively to great leadership, especially in the sports world. It is simply human nature. People want to believe they are part of something greater than themselves. It is a big reason why coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari have such a fantastic ability to get the most from their players. They command respect and require that personal agendas and egos are set aside for the good of the organization. If you do not want to commit to the process and live up to their necessary standards, you are shown the door. Duke junior Rasheed Sulaimon found that out the hard way last month. It is understandable, however, that not every team will have such strong leadership. Exceptional leaders like Krzyzewski and Calipari are rare. But when a complete void in leadership exists, problems can quickly spiral out of control.

Kevin Willard (USA Today Images)

Kevin Willard is Feeling the Heat as This Season Gets Away From Him (USA Today Images)

A little over five weeks ago, the Seton Hall men’s basketball team was riding high after Sterling Gibbs swished a three in the final seconds that allowed his team to come out on top of a pesky Creighton squad that had outplayed the Pirates for most of the game. The win moved the team to 13-3 overall and 3-1 in Big East play, enabling it to stay in the Top 25 after entering at No. 19 the previous Monday. Barring a complete collapse, an NCAA Tournament berth appeared inevitable; after all, Seton Hall’s hot start had also included a résumé-building win over previously unbeaten Villanova, the undisputed king of the new Big East.

Fast forward to the present and Seton Hall is in the midst of a monumental collapse where it appears the only way to gain entry into the NCAA Tournament would be to win the Big East Tournament next month. Once projected as high as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed by reputable bracketologists at CBS and ESPN, the Hall has lost eight of its last 10 games (including five straight) to fall to 5-9 in Big East play with no end to the death spiral in sight. The ugliest moment came on Monday night in a loss to that same Villanova team. The Wildcats blew out the Pirates by a score of 80-54 and Gibbs was ejected after punching a defenseless Ryan Arcidiacono — who was on the floor going after a loose ball at the time — square in the forehead. Swift consequences came quickly for Gibbs, who was suspended for two games by Seton Hall on Tuesday afternoon. Once a candidate for Big East Player of the Year, the junior guard will sit out games at St. John’s this Saturday and home versus Creighton the next weekend. Monday night’s antics were just another symptom of the deeper problem at Seton Hall, which brings us back to leadership.

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Weekly Big East Postseason Outlook

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 16th, 2015

With just three weeks remaining in conference play, most Big East teams have started rounding into postseason form. For some units like Butler and Providence, this means steady improvement with an eye on seeding and positioning. For others like Seton Hall and St. John’s, it means clinging to NCAA Tournament hopes that seemed much more secure a month ago. As we approach March, we’ll run down the status of each Big East team’s postseason prospects in this weekly look. As of today, the league appears to have six solid NCAA teams, with the remainder in the discussion for NIT bids.

Villanova (23-2, 10-2)
Up Next: Monday vs. Seton Hall, Saturday at Marquette
RPI: 4 SOS: 28

Darrun Hillard (USA Today Images)

Darrun Hillard Kept Villanova in Contention for an NCAA #1 Seed Saturday (USA Today Images)

On Track For: NCAA, No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Villanova boasts one of the strongest resumes of any team in the country: 5-1 vs RPI Top 25; 9-1 vs RPI Top 50; and its two losses were on the road to Georgetown (#21) and Seton Hall (#70). Even accounting for another loss the rest of the way, Villanova should still find itself locked in as a No. 2 seed this season, with an outside chance at a No. 1 seed if it can win out. Regardless, this team’s numbers classifies it as an elite team that is poised to run away with the Big East regular season crown. Yet some of the same knocks will be made as last season: Who is Villanova’s go-to guy; can it compete against more athletic opponents; and has it been tested enough? Only time will tell, but Jay Wright’s team looks like its on the right track.

Butler (18-7, 8-4)
Up Next: Monday at Creighton, Saturday at Xavier
RPI: 24 SOS: 20

On Track For: NCAA, No. 4 or No. 5 seed. Perhaps the biggest surprise this season has been the play of Butler under interim-turned-head coach Chris Holtmann. Junior Kellen Dunham has provided consistent scoring while a number of other players — Alex Barlow, Kelan Martin and Andrew Chrabascz — have given the Bulldogs better offensive versatility and defensive tenacity. Butler’s November win over North Carolina is still impressive, and while the Bulldogs are just 7-7 vs. the RPI Top 100 and 2-5 vs. the RPI Top 25, their lone loss outside of the top 30 was at Tennessee (#80). The Bulldogs have played a challenging schedule and have won nearly every game they were supposed to have won.

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Providence’s Kris Dunn is Criminally Underrated

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 10th, 2015

Providence hasn’t received much national media attention this season despite a 17-7 overall (7-4 Big East) record with a neutral floor win over Notre Dame on its resume. And until a recent 27-point outburst, sophomore point guard Kris Dunn worked in relative obscurity while LaDontae Henton — the Big East’s leading scorer at 20.4 PPG — received much of the credit for the team’s success. Henton accounts for a whopping 31.7 percent of Providence’s shots and 29.1 percent of its points this season, and while the senior has been a steady offensive contributor for the Friars, the primary driver behind the team’s season performance has been the play of Dunn.

Kris Dunn (USA Today Images)

Kris Dunn Drives the Providence Bus and Deserves More Credit For It (USA Today Images)

Dunn was the second-best point guard in the Class of 2012 and ultimately chose Providence over the likes of Georgetown, Louisville and UConn. There was a tremendous amount of hype surrounding his delayed arrival — he played in 25 games starting in mid-December of his freshman year — followed by disappointment upon his season-ending shoulder injury just a few games into last season. At 6’3″, Dunn has proven he can get by and shoot over his defenders, but despite a solid average of 15.0 points per game this season, he isn’t drawing attention because of his scoring ability. The redshirt sophomore instead brings tremendous value with his unheralded court vision, enabling him to dish no-look passes to open teammates or throw lead passes 40 feet down the court for easy lay-ups. His stellar passing ability is highlighted by his 7.5 assists per game, which ranks third-best in the country, and his assist rate of 50.9 percent, where he is easily first.

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Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. X

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 3rd, 2015

The Big East Weekend Wrap covers news and notes from the previous weekend’s games.

At this point, the Big East is a mess. The conference still ranks second overall to the Big 12 in relative strength, but its individual members continue to pull each other down from each other’s ascent in the conference standings. Villanova and Georgetown are “technically” in first place, but being in that slot in the Big East standings means very little; Providence and Butler are both just a half-game back of them, with four more teams separated from them by two losses or fewer. Below is a list of three key takeaways from the past weekend of chaotic Big East play.

St. John's (USA Today Images)

St. John’s Showed Some Grit in Beating Providence Last Weekend (USA Today Images)

  1. St. John’s rallies to defeat Providence, but is it too late? The Johnnies have been sliding since the start of Big East play, unable to find their footing despite having the most experienced roster in the conference. But on Saturday, the team completed its season sweep of Providence in an impressive fashion. St. John’s held the conference’s leading scorer, LaDontae Henton, to just 13 points on 2-of-9 shooting, seven points below his season average. Additionally, the Red Storm’s attack exhibited even shot and point distribution among their players. It was an encouraging performance for Steve Lavin’s group, but at 14-7 (3-5 Big East) most fans have already written off this team’s legitimate postseason hopes. A failure to close games has haunted them — not only did they cough up a late lead to Duke two weekends ago, but their porous perimeter defense surrendered countless open three-pointers to Creighton in a subsequent three-point road loss. While D’Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan have been prolific scorers, their lack of composure on the defensive end has put the team in a precarious situation in February. St. John’s needs to win, and it needs to start now. Read the rest of this entry »
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Frontcourt Stability Keying Villanova’s Success

Posted by Eric Clark on February 2nd, 2015

Villanova hasn’t advanced past the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament since 2009, the year Jay Wright’s club lost to eventual champion North Carolina in the Final Four. Since that pinnacle season, the Wildcats have endured their worst campaign in the Wright era (13-19 in 2011-12) and have won only two more NCAA Tournament games. But since the start of last season, Villanova has returned to form thanks to the durability and improvement of its two frontcourt cornerstones, senior JayVaughn Pinkston and junior Daniel Ochefu.

JayVaughn Pinkston was 10-10 from the free throw line in Saturday's win over DePaul. (Credit AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

JayVaughn Pinkston was 10-of-10 from the free throw line in Saturday’s win over DePaul. (Credit AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Pinkston has played meaningful minutes since his freshman season and has steadily improved many facets of his game along the way — his free throw, defensive rebounding and block percentages have improved with each passing year. As a senior, he’s completely abandoned what was an inefficient three-point game in favor of working the paint, but that tradeoff hasn’t resulted in greater overall efficiency (his offensive rating has taken a hit, from 116.0 last season to 102.3 this year). Recognizing his importance to the team’s long-term goals, Wright recently said that he would like to get his senior going offensively, which he did in Saturday’s comeback victory over DePaul. Pinkston was aggressive throughout, powering frequently into the lane and finishing with 14 points and five rebounds (including a 10-of-10 mark at the free throw line).

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Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. IX

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 27th, 2015

The Big East Weekend Wrap covers news and notes from the previous weekend’s games.

The Big East now finds itself squarely in second place of KenPom’s rankings, and the reason lies in the sheer depth of the conference. Eight teams are ranked among the top 100 and seven can be found in the top 50. With DePaul (5-2) pulling its own weight this season and both Creighton and Marquette playing increasingly competitive basketball, there have been only a handful of games in conference play that were blowouts. Of the 37 conference games played to date, 13 (35%) have either gone to overtime or been decided by four points or fewer, ranking the Big East first overall for competitiveness. Given that fact, every weekend’s action features close, down-to-the-wire finishes. Below are three key takeaways from the past weekend of Big East action.

Butler (USA Today Images)

Butler Easily Dispatched the Hall Over the Weekend (USA Today Images)

  1. Seton Hall continues its stumble, posting a 20-point blowout loss to Butler. After racing off to a hot start in Big East play, the Pirates have come crashing down in a manner similar to St. John’s, dropping three straight games and four of their last five. If it wasn’t for a Sterling Gibbs game-winner at Creighton, the Pirates would be on a brutal five-game losing streak following their monumental home court win over Villanova. There are a number of reasons for the Hall’s recent struggles, the biggest being the absence of freshman Isaiah Whitehead, whose playmaking ability is sorely missing when Gibbs struggles to find his shot. Additionally, Jaren Sina and Brandon Mobley have provided inconsistent scoring, putting the onus on the freshmen to step up. Seton Hall was once a top 10 team nationally in three-point shooting, but in conference play they are now a Big East-worst 27.2 percent. The good news is that the season is far from over and Kevin Willard has repeatedly stated that Whitehead is on pace for a full recovery. Read the rest of this entry »
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St. John’s Bent But Not Broken With Duke Looming

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 22nd, 2015

St. John’s fans expected a regular NCAA Tournament team by now. When head coach Steve Lavin was brought in five years ago to revive the Red Storm program from the woeful Norm Roberts era, there were high expectations based on his recruiting connections and player development abilities. Playing with a senior-laden roster in his first season at the helm, the Red Storm went on to make the NCAA Tournament before bowing out in the first round. Since then, however, Lavin’s teams have fallen well short, either striking out completely or wavering on the bubble (50-48 from 2012-14). Despite having a talented core of players ranging from the Big East’s second-leading scorer, D’Angelo Harrison (20.0 PPG), to the nation’s third-leading shot blocker, Chris Obekpa (3.5 BPG), depth, largely driven by recruiting misses, has been a problem. Highly-acclaimed recruits Adonis DeLaRosa and Keith Thomas, for example, have yet to see playing time after failing to meet academic standards, and Rysheed Jordan, the third-ranked point guard of his class, has not meshed well into the system, frequently cited for attitude problems both on and off the court. Needless to say, the fans are getting restless, and understandably so. After starting this season off strong and making its way back into the Top 25 (at one point as high as #15), St. John’s has fallen off in dramatic fashion. An 11-1 team with good wins over Minnesota and at Syracuse came into Wednesday night’s game versus Marquette having dropped four of its last five games and looking to get back on track.

Steve Lavin (USA Today Images)

Steve Lavin Needs to Turn Things Around Quickly (USA Today Images)

For such an important game, it was remarkably sluggish. Harrison shot a dismal 3-of-18 from the field; Phil Greene and Rysheed Jordan struggled to navigate Marquette’s zone defenses; and Obekpa, while strong on the shot-blocking front, contributed little in the way of scoring. Yet the Red Storm’s defense was sufficient and vital in keeping the team afloat, grabbing 10 steals and holding Marquette to 33.9 percent shooting on the evening. The bottom line is that it was a necessary win for Steve Lavin’s squad, although an unconvincing one. “When you have a stretch where you feel snake-bitten, it’s good to have a win and get some momentum,” he said after the game. With Harrison unable to find the basket, concerns have arisen and postseason expectations have warped. “It’s clear his injury is bothering him… it’s rare for him to have back-to-back games like that,” Lavin added. A usually reliable scoring threat, there is no question Harrison will eventually find his rhythm. But the when needs to be now, as the team gears up for a huge game against Duke on Sunday. One game at a time should be this group’s mantra with its biggest test of the season just a few days away. “The Duke game presents a big opportunity for us on our home court against a very talented team. We’ve got a couple of days to prepare here and get ready. To beat Duke it’s going to be a collective effort,” Lavin said.

For a St. John’s team that appears wobbly and shaken, a midseason non-conference tilt against Duke offers the greatest of opportunities to refocus some of the negative energy that has once again started to creep into this program’s psyche.

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After a Long Climb, Georgetown Once Again Atop the Big East

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on January 22nd, 2015

Monday night was it, “it” being the capstone moment of Georgetown’s slow rise to the Big East mountain top that began when the Florida Gulf Coast debacle happened and was followed by Otto Porter’s subsequent departure to the NBA. What made that night so special? The Hoyas hosted #4 Villanova – an original Big East member, longtime conference rival, and the unquestioned dominant team in the league – with first place in the conference standings at stake. Just two days before, Georgetown had fended off pesky Butler from giving the Hoyas their second home loss of the season (the first was to Kansas), avenging an earlier loss to the Bulldogs in the Battle 4 Atlantis. In Monday night’s dominant 20-point win over the Wildcats, Georgetown notched the program’s best victory in over three years and showed once and for all that Hoyas basketball is indeed back.

Students celebrate after Georgetown routed Villanova for first place in the Big East.

Students celebrate after Georgetown routed Villanova for first place in the Big East (USATSI).

After a successful 2012-13 regular season when Georgetown won a share of the Big East regular season title, head coach John Thompson III had to regroup with Porter leaving to become a lottery pick and it becoming clear that Greg Whittington would not remain a part of the program. To kickstart the rebuilding process, Thompson convinced Joshua Smith to transfer from UCLA and also inked a top-15 recruiting class full of talented players who are likely to stay within the program for several years. What’s been the result two years hence is that four of the five players among that group of freshmen play significant minutes for a team that is now evenly dependent on veterans and young players. Thompson has done a laudable job in meshing the roles between the two and has his team improving with each passing game.

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