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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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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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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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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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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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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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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