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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Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. VIII

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 20th, 2015

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

Big East parity continues, as Villanova’s attempts to separate itself from the field have failed while teams like Providence, Georgetown, Butler and Seton Hall are all pushing the Wildcats. With eight of 10 league teams now carrying two or three conference losses, the next six weeks of action should be a bloodbath for those positions in the standings. Below are three key takeaways from the weekend’s (including Monday!) Big East action.

It Was That Kind of Night at Georgetown Monday (USA Today Images)

It Was an RTC Kind of Monday Night at Georgetown (USA Today Images)

  1. Marquette and Creighton remain shockingly competitive in “rebuilding seasons.” Marquette struggled defensively in the early part of the season, but the Golden Eagles seem to have figured things out since transfer Luke Fischer entered the lineup in mid-December. Steve Wojciechowski as a result has his team playing lockdown defense, mixing zone with man-to-man looks in a fashion that has confused Big East opponents. The offense, overly reliant on Matt Carlino, has still sputtered at times, but Duane Wilson and Fischer have made good progress and will serve as core contributors next season. While Marquette currently stands at 2-3 in the conference standings, their average margin of defeat in those three games has been just 4.3 points per game. At Creighton, even though the Bluejays sit at the bottom of the standings with an 0-6 record, they continue to sell out the CenturyLink center and have been competitive in every one of its league home games. They also suffered a one-point loss at Xavier, lost by two to Seton Hall and recently pushed Providence to the very end before falling. While Greg McDermott will lose a number of key seniors again after this season, the play of his youngsters such as Isaiah Zierden, Zach Hansen, James Milliken and Toby Hegner has been promising. Creighton fans are hoping that redshirt freshman sniper Ronnie Harrell, along with incoming center Justin Patton, will turn things around next season. Read the rest of this entry »
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The Evolution of Sterling Gibbs From Shooter to Leader

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 20th, 2015

Rick Barnes made a mistake. When a certain 6’1″, 180-pound guard from Scotch Plains, New Jersey, arrived on his Texas campus in 2011, so too did a plethora of other highly-rated recruits, all vying for valuable playing time. Sterling Gibbs joined four other ESPN100 recruits in Austin, two of whom – Myck Kabongo and Julien Lewis – were in direct competition with Gibbs for playing time at the point guard position. While those two logged 30 and 25 minutes per game, respectively, and returning leading scorer J’Covan Brown started in the Longhorns’ backcourt, Gibbs was relegated as the odd man out on the bench. The New Jersey all-stater was used sparingly by Barnes that year, playing just 7.5 minutes and averaging 2.6 points per game. A lack of playing time should come as no surprise with the backcourt depth at Texas that season, but with his classmates playing well and the program bringing in yet another point guard (Javan Felix) in the following year’s recruiting class, the writing was on the wall for Gibbs.

Sterling Gibbs (USA Today Images)

Sterling Gibbs’ Leadership is a Big Reason Why Seton Hall is Competitive in the Big East This Season (USA Today Images) 

His natural destination was home, as he said at the time: “If my decision had to do with basketball only, I would not be leaving Texas. But my decision is family-related and involves more than basketball.” After a transfer year, Gibbs’ first season at Seton Hall allowed him to play 30 minutes per game, gave him a starting role, and revealed an opportunity for leadership upon the impending graduation of Fuquan Edwin. The redshirt sophomore flourished, scoring 13.2 points per game while dishing out 4.2 assists per game and boasting an impressive 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. While inconsistent in his scoring, Gibbs showed he was not afraid to shoot the ball, finishing the season second on the team in field goal attempts, first in free throw attempts, and demonstrating an uncanny desire to take clutch shots in the moment. Against Villanova in the 2014 Big East Tournament, it was Gibbs who took and made the game-winner off a step-back jumper, despite shooting just 3-of-9 from the field up to that point. “In the end, it was supposed to get in my hands,” Gibbs said of his clutch buzzer-beater. “I was supposed to create a shot for my teammates or create a shot for myself, and I just stepped back and hit the jumper.”

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Butler Regains Its Old Identity in the New Big East

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 14th, 2015

After years of sustained success under head coach Brad Stevens, the Bulldogs joined the revamped Big East in 2013 and immediately plummeted. New head coach Brandon Miller inherited a group that returned rising star Kellen Dunham, but despite a 27-9 record in the program’s only Atlantic 10 season, Butler struggled with the adjustment. First, junior guard Roosevelt Jones suffered a broken wrist that forced him to miss the entire season, and then the offense bottomed out at the start of Big East play. This resulted in the team losing 15 of its last 19 games to finish the season at 14-17 and a ninth-place Big East finish, just one game ahead of DePaul. Some questioned whether Butler had flown too close to the sun — whether the program could rediscover its identity in a conference where it would never be the biggest name on the marquee. But under the tutelage of interim-turned-head coach Chris Holtmann this season, Butler is back to its old ways — the Butler way — sporting a mix of hard-nosed, physical defense and a tempo designed to emphasize efficiency over pace.

Butler's Chris Holtmann Has Gotten the Butler Way Back in Action (USA Today Images)

Butler’s Chris Holtmann Has Gotten the Butler Way Back in Action (USA Today Images)

After a road win at Seton Hall on Tuesday night, Butler is off to a 13-5 record (3-2 Big East). That record includes wins over North Carolina, Georgetown, St. John’s and Xavier, earned behind a defense that ranks 29th nationally in defensive efficiency. I did a poor job with them getting them ready to play with the aggressiveness that Butler played [with], North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said at the time. Very aggressive, and I’m not insinuating anything other than very aggressive – I didn’t say anything at all about being dirty – but it was very aggressive play. They outhustled us.

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Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. VII

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 13th, 2015

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

The Big East marched along last week, continuing its ascent up the rankings of the power conferences. It reached the #1 ranking for overall conference RPI for a bit before bowing to the Big 12 (only slightly), and the conference now stands at second overall with a sizable gap between itself and the rest. Even more impressively, the Big East has the highest average RPI among its conference members thanks to DePaul’s 3-0 start. As of this writing, the league lists nine of its 10 members among the top 100. Below is a list of four key takeaways from the last weekend’s action.

LaDontae Henton

LaDontae Henton’s Team Has a Legitimate Case to Rank Among the League’s Top Three Teams

Providence makes its push for the top of the standings. As I wrote in an earlier article, Providence has a legitimate case as a top three team in the Big East even though the Friars had largely fallen off the radar in non-conference play. They made a strong push last week, picking up a road win at Butler and then defeating Georgetown in overtime. Neither result was necessarily pretty — the Friars won both by a combined seven points — but the pair of wins catapulted Providence to the top of the league standings with a 3-1 record. Kris Dunn and LaDontae Henton continue to carry the load on the offensive end, with Dunn doing a much better job of staying out of foul trouble and remaining on the floor. The duo lead the conference in assists and points per game, respectively.

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Steve Wojciechowski Quietly Rebuilding Marquette With Young Talent

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 7th, 2015

The path to a head coaching position at a high major university is not a beaten one; many of today’s coaches ascended different ladders to get to their current positions. Some coaches got there by taking little-known schools to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament; others took an open position at the same school when their boss moved on; while still others first served as high-profile assistants to established coaches in more prestigious programs. Marquette’s first-year head coach, Steve Wojciechowski, falls into the latter category with a pedigree few others can boast. After a successful four-year playing career at Duke, he spent 15 years apprenticing for one of the best to ever coach the sport, Mike Krzyzewski. But despite the unimpeachable regard everyone holds for his former coach and mentor, success at the highest levels has not been guaranteed for Krzyzewski’s acolytes. Now that Wojciechowski is the leader of one of the most tradition-rich programs in the country, he’s hoping to start a tradition of his own in Milwaukee. On Tuesday night in Washington, DC, he came very close to getting the first truly big win of his young career when Marquette battled the Hoyas to a tight six-point loss.

Steve Wojciechowski's first job as a head coach is to rebuild a proud Marquette program.

Steve Wojciechowski’s first job as a head coach is to rebuild a proud Marquette program (Gary Porter).

When the 38-year old accepted the Marquette job last spring, the program was not in the same shape as it had been when it made eight straight NCAA Tournaments from 2006-13. After a disappointing 17-15 season, former head coach Buzz Williams downgraded to Virginia Tech because of the uncertainty of the athletic director’s position (currently being filled by interim AD, Bill Cords), and a general concern about the new Big East’s visibility in moving from ESPN to Fox Sports 1 as its primary television carrier. Another factor in his departure may have been the stark realization that his current roster simply was not all that competitive. After Shaka Smart and Cuonzo Martin passed on the Marquette job, this opened the door for Wojciechowski to become a first-time head coach at a respected basketball program with an opportunity to rebuild it in his own image.

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Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. VI

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 6th, 2015

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

The opening week of Big East play featured some crazy results: the home teams went 9-1; the favored teams went 5-5; every ranked team lost at least once; and DePaul is 2-0. If nothing else, these results show the level of parity in the Big East this season. Talent aside, teams succeeded in defending their home floor as the only two unbeaten teams in conference play are the ones that have yet to play on the road. Below are five key takeaways from the Big East’s opening weekend:

  1. Seton Hall has been nothing short of impressive. Not only did the Pirates win two conference games without Isaiah Whitehead, but they did so against what was believed to be the league’s top two teams. After trouncing St. John’s behind 10-of-23 shooting from three, Kevin Willard’s group took it to Villanova, jumping out to an early 17-3 lead before relinquishing it all and then ultimately winning in overtime. It goes without saying that junior guard Sterling Gibbs, who led the team with a combined 45 points, has made his way into all-Big East first team discussions. Stripped of his backcourt mate and second leading scorer, Gibbs took the scoring and passing duties into his own hands, easily creating his own shot off the dribble and putting teammates in scoring situations. Alongside Gibbs, three freshmen — Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguz and Angel Delgado – stepped up at different times to propel the Pirates.

    Sterling Gibbs has played his way into Big East first-team discussions. (Getty)

    Sterling Gibbs has played his way into Big East first-team discussions. (Getty)

  2. DePaul has done its best to counter every prediction about a last place finish. Following a string of six straight brutal losses — including defeats to the likes of Ohio and Loyola Marymount —  DePaul appeared to be right on track for its annual January plunge into the Big East abyss. Yet this time, Billy Garrett Jr. decided he’d rather not. In front of their usual half empty arena, the Blue Demons dashed the hopes of both Marquette and Xavier, handing three-point losses to both. By slowing each game down to a crawl (64 possessions each), it didn’t matter that Oliver Purnell’s team is playing defense that ranks among the worst 50 teams in the country or that both of their opponents ranked in the top 40 in two-point field goal percentage. DePaul won by forcing turnovers (30 over the two games) and with Garrett breaking out of his shooting slump — the 6’6″ sophomore played under control, shooting 12-of-16 from the field over both games and matching his career high 10 assists against Xavier. Read the rest of this entry »
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Is Seton Hall Better Without Isaiah Whitehead?

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 5th, 2015

Before being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot, Isaiah Whitehead was Seton Hall’s second-leading scorer and team assist-leader. As a result, many pundits thought that the team, now lacking its most dynamic all-around playmaker, would flounder in its upcoming Big East tests. Instead, the exact opposite occurred. Without Whitehead available last week, Sterling Gibbs stepped up to put on two electrifying performances against St. John’s and Villanova, contributing a combined 45 points, 12 assists and just three turnovers in a pair of wins. Moreover, the team’s best offensive performance of the year (points per possession) came against St. John’s, and its defense held Villanova to its worst of the season. To be clear, nobody is doubting Whitehead’s talent or his ability to play at the next level, but with the team’s recent string of rather unexpected Big East victories, the question needs to be asked: Does Whitehead’s presence on the floor do more harm than good?

Seton Hall is Playing Better Without Its Star Freshman (USA Today Images)

Seton Hall is Playing Better Without Its Star Freshman (USA Today Images)

Against St. Johns, the Pirates notched 18 assists on 23 made baskets for a whopping 78.3 percent assist rate — both season highs. Freshman Angel Delgado, a force on the offensive glass, logged 13 points and 12 rebounds, with Gibbs adding 25 points and eight assists of his own. Sophomore Jaren Sina also gave his best performance of the season, shooting 4-of-8 from deep en route to 14 points. The Seton Hall offense looked incredibly fluid throughout — both in transition and in the half-court — with Gibbs and Sina knocking down outside shots in rhythm. This was in stark contrast to the team’s performances against Georgia and Wichita State, when the offense often fell stagnant and became overly reliant on Whitehead’s demonstrated ability to get to the rim.

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Unsung Hero: Villanova’s Rise Driven by Daniel Ochefu

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 2nd, 2015

Think back to the last time Villanova had a true post player. No, not face-up players like Dante Cunningham, Will Sheridan or Mouph Yarou. Rather, a true banger in the paint with a repertoire of post moves and a defensive presence felt by all five opposing players. Junior center Daniel Ochefu brings to Villanova what players of successful teams past have not: size and intimidation. And at 13-0 — the program’s best start since the 1937-38 season — the Wildcats have certainly looked the part, beating seven teams in Kenpom’s top 100 along the way.

Daniel Ochefu

Daniel Ochefu May be Villanova’s Most Key Contributor This Season (USA Today Images)

Coming into the season, many believed that it would be the Wildcats’ pair of seniors, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston, who would assert themselves in order to compensate for the loss of last year’s leading scorer, James Bell. Their play, coupled with junior Ryan Arcidiacono and emerging guard Dylan Ennis, has come at an opportune time, providing Villanova with a remarkably balanced scoring attack. Yet while many fans have focused their attention and concern on the team’s dynamic offense, the play of sophomore wing Josh Hart and center Ochefu are a significant reason why Villanova remains undefeated into January.

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Will the Big East Have Six NCAA Teams? A Mid-Season Review

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 31st, 2014

With the arrival of conference play comes a critical juncture for teams looking to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Those that have overperformed against their preseason expectations — teams like St. John’s and Seton Hall — will seek to establish an early footprint in the increasingly competitive Big East, whereas the likes of Marquette, Xavier and Creighton look to re-emerge after a handful of non-conference woes. Today we will examine the top Big East overperformers and underperformers to this point, followed by an early look at the NCAA Tournament bubble as it relates to each team. But before discussing team performance, my preseason Big East rankings were as follows:

Villanova Has Lived Up to Its Expectations This Season (USA Today Images)

Villanova Has Lived Up to Its Expectations This Season (USA Today Images)

  1. Villanova
  2. Georgetown
  3. Xavier
  4. St. John’s
  5. Providence
  6. Seton Hall
  7. Butler
  8. Marquette
  9. Creighton
  10. DePaul

Biggest Overperformers

  • St. John’s (11-1) has made a serious case as the second best team in the Big East. Sporting a defense that ranks fourth nationally in defensive efficiency and third in block percentage, the Red Storm have received a great deal of attention following wins at Syracuse and versus Minnesota. Sure, they were fourth in my preseason rankings, but the envisioned gap between the Johnnies and Xavier/Georgetown was large and has proven so far to be completely off base. Ranked #15 in the latest AP Poll, Steve Lavin has built a team featuring an incredibly talented group of quick, athletic guards with senior D’Angelo Harrison (19.0 PPG) shouldering the offensive load while do-it-all forward Sir’Dominic Pointer and shot-blocker Chris Obekpa wreak defensive havoc. At this point, St. John’s has looked superior to every other Big East team outside of Villanova, and although its inconsistent outside shooting (266th nationally) and offensive execution in the half-court leave much to be desired, the Red Storm have been the single biggest conference surprise this season.

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