Big East Tournament Takeaways: Thursday Evening Edition

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 11th, 2016

A great day at Madison Square Garden ended in exciting fashion with Seton Hall’s gutty victory over Creighton in the nightcap. A long day of basketball yesterday sets up two terrific semifinal matchups tonight when No. 1 Villanova faces No. 4 Providence and No. 2 Xavier meets No. 3 Seton Hall.

Marquette (20-13): The result of Marquette’s game with Xavier was clear after the first few minutes, as the Golden Eagles looked out of gas after a grueling game on Wednesday night and never matched the Musketeers’ intensity. Marquette has been a work in progress all year with so many young players to integrate into the program, and that remains true heading toward what may become a NIT bid. Any extra games this year will be good for a group lacking in any sort of postseason experience.

Xavier's Intensity Far Outpaced Marquette (Photo: USAT Sports)

Xavier’s Intensity Far Outpaced Marquette (Photo: USAT Sports)

Xavier (27-4):  Chris Mack’s team was fired up from the start last night and never relented. It was an impressive offensive display from a Xavier team that has been well-balanced all season. Trevon Bluiett (24 points on 14 shots) led the way offensively, but the most important takeaway here may be the energy Xavier stored for use in the rest of the tournament. The Musketeers didn’t have to use nearly as much effort as its next opponent, Seton Hall, or even possible championship game opponents Villanova and Providence. When you’re playing the same number of games as days in the event, conservation of energy is important. Xavier may reap the benefits of yesterday’s easy victory in providing a stockpile for the next two nights.

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Big East Tournament Takeaways: Thursday Afternoon

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 10th, 2016

Day two of the Big East Tournament tipped off Thursday afternoon with quarterfinal action. Villanova received more than it asked for from Georgetown before pulling away from the Hoyas in the final 10 minutes to win, 81-67. In the second game, a surging Providence team dominated a Butler squad that had been playing very well coming into the postseason. The Friars and Wildcats will meet in Friday night’s semifinals for the second straight season; it will be Providence’s third consecutive trip since the Big East was reconfigured prior to the 2013-14 season.

Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn combined for 53 points in Providence's victory over Butler. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn combined for 53 points in Providence’s victory over Butler. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Georgetown (15-18): It was a strong effort from the Hoyas for the better part of 30 minutes but in the end Georgetown just didn’t have enough to deal with Villanova’s toughness and cohesiveness. Bradley Hayes made an immediate impact in the paint, a performance that kept Georgetown in the game and especially important with Villanova center Daniel Ochefu limited to 13 minutes by a nagging injury. L.J. Peak continued his quality play with 18 points but a lack of scoring production from senior D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera was an important factor in Georgetown fading down the stretch.

Villanova (28-4): The Wildcats broke open a close game with a 14-1 run midway through the second half that was keyed by a number of hustle plays leading to transition opportunities. Josh Hart had an outstanding game with 25 points, scoring from all over the floor and especially lethal in transition. After the game, head coach Jay Wright called Hart one of the nation’s best players running the floor and it’s easy to see why after today’s performance. Ryan Arcidiacono was his usual self, diving into the MSG crowd for two lost balls and igniting his team in transition. Two pull-up threes when he didn’t have numbers were gutsy shots that allowed Villanova to create some separation.

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One Game at a Time: Georgetown’s Season Continues

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2016

It’s probably too little, too late, but don’t tell that to Georgetown. For a team that was projected to finish second in the Big East, this season has not gone according to plan. The Hoyas’ record certainly isn’t good (15-17 overall; 8-11 Big East), but the decidedly downward trajectory of the program is even more alarming for Georgetown fans. Its season-opening loss to Radford was quickly forgotten following a pair of near-wins against Maryland and Duke, and things appeared to be back on track after handling Wisconsin and Syracuse. Those victories turned out to represent false hope, though, as the undoubtedly talented Hoyas’ lineup never got control of things in conference play. The team limped to the finish line by losing nine of its last 10 games, so suffice it to say that the bar was set very low for John Thompson III‘s squad entering this year’s Big East Tournament.

D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera And The Rest Of The Hoyas Extended Their Season Wednesday Night (Photo: Getty)

D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and the Rest of the Hoyas Extended Their Season Wednesday Night (Photo: Getty)

A portion of those late season woes can be attributed to an injury to senior center Bradley Hayes. The seven-footer provided a presence on the glass and served as an underrated passer in the team’s Princeton offense, a role that freshman center Jessie Govan is still working to master. Hayes’ return to the starting lineup in Georgetown’s tournament opener versus DePaul on Wednesday night made the Hoyas feel like an entirely different group. Within minutes, Hayes had established himself as a threat on the low block, scoring off hook shots and playing physical interior defense. With the post foundation established, Georgetown’s offense began to flow more naturally than it had in weeks, maybe even months. “It was a huge difference [having Bradley back],” Thompson acknowledged afterward. “It goes above and beyond what shows up on the stat-sheet. He gives his teammates confidence and they feel safe when he’s on the court.”

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Big East Tournament Takeaways: Wednesday Evening

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2016

The Big East Tournament officially tipped off on Wednesday night with two opening round games in New York City. The first game between Georgetown and DePaul was a tight battle until the second half, when the Hoyas used their 50 percent shooting to pull away for a 70-53 win. The second game featured a wild swing of events, with Marquette relinquishing a 17-point lead over St. John’s before escaping with a win. Here are some quick takeaways for each of the Big East Tourney’s opening day participants.

Georgetown Lives to Fight Another Day (USA Today Images)

Georgetown Lives to Fight Another Day (USA Today Images)

Georgetown (15-17): Senior center Bradley Hayes was back in action after missing six games and the impact was felt almost instantly. Last night’s win was only Georgetown’s second in its last 11 games, but after suffering a number of close losses this season, the Hoyas’ record doesn’t do the team much justice. The key takeaway last night was that, with Hayes back in the lineup and the team facing a season-ending loss, Georgetown finally played with a sense of urgency. The Hoyas’ defense was rock-solid, holding DePaul to just 0.79 points per possession, and D’Vauntes-Smith Rivera put together one of his most efficient games of the season. Things might not be too rosy for Georgetown in its upcoming test against Villanova, but at least John Thompson, III’s squad will head into that game with some confidence.

DePaul (9-22): A disappointing end to a disappointing season is the only way to put it for DePaul. The Blue Demons struggled mightily in conference play, collecting just three wins and proving uncompetitive in a number of its losses. The plus-side is that the team loses just one key contributor, with Billy Garrett Jr. presumably returning for his senior season alongside promising freshman guard Eli Cain. If there’s one key takeaway from this season, it’s the unwavering confidence that Cain demonstrated, attacking the basket at will and serving as one of DePaul’s most reliable shooters. First year head coach Dave Leitao will have plenty to do this summer as he takes a long-term view with his program.

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2016 Big East Tournament Preview

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 9th, 2016

Here we are again. March is upon us, this time with 70 degree weather in New York City and four straight days of Big East basketball in the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. The conference is likely to follow up last season’s six-bid NCAA Tournament mark with five teams, all of which will be vying for better seeding this week. The other five teams are looking at a frenzied series of as many as four straight games, their only avenue to the Dance via what would be a surprising run to the Big East Championship. Often the most vulnerable teams are the most comfortable teams, so the target on Villanova’s back as the defending champ as well as this season’s regular season winner is bigger than ever.

BigEastbracket2016

Here’s a printable version of the bracket: 2016 Big East Tournament Bracket

And the Winner is: Villanova

It’s a boring pick, but given the Wildcats’ continuing success, it’s hard to build an argument against them winning this thing again. Villanova posted a 16-2 Big East record this season and has no shortage of experienced players on its roster. Junior Josh Hart played his way into the Big East Player of the Year discussion as one of the league’s best all-around players; Kris Jenkins has developed into a deadly sharpshooter; and seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu continue to provide their typical steady contributions. The team’s balanced, inside-out attack utilizes a heavy dose of screening that keeps opponents off-balance and sets up quality outside looks. But even on bad shooting days, Jay Wright’s club can grind out wins with tremendous team defense. Should the favorite somehow falter this week, Xavier and Seton Hall are the most likely candidates to supplant Villanova as the Big East Tournament champion. Read the rest of this entry »

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Otskey’s Big East Observations: Scouting Big East Tournament Teams

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 9th, 2016

With the NCAA Tournament only one week away, let’s take a look at the five Big East teams likely to earn a bid from a scouting perspective. Matchups play a major part in whether a strong team makes an early exit or an average team makes a deep March run. This is magnified more than ever in the pressure cooker that is the NCAA Tournament as teams encounter opponents and styles of play they are largely unfamiliar with. Conversely, some of these teams may flourish once they’re free of the grinder that is the regular season in the Big East.

Villanova

Josh Hart and Villanova were the class of the Big East again this season. (USA Today Sports)

Josh Hart and Villanova were the class of the Big East once again this season. (USA TODAY Sports)

  • Why the Wildcats can go deep: Jay Wright’s team is incredibly balanced and cohesive on both sides of the ball. An elite defensive squad, Villanova leads the Big East in allowing only 63.3 PPG. That alone will keep this group in games against any team in the nation. They are known for their defense, but the Wildcats don’t seem to get enough credit nationally for their offensive prowess. They feature an experienced floor general in Ryan Arcidiacono, a versatile wing in Josh Hart and a savvy big man in the middle in Daniel Ochefu. Another thing Villanova does incredibly well that should come in handy in the NCAA Tournament is free throw shooting. It leads the nation with a 77.9 percent mark from the charity stripe. Mounting a comeback against the Wildcats in the final minute is often a futile endeavor.

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Handing Out the Big East Player Awards

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 8th, 2016

Perhaps the best thing about the Big East is its player continuity. With the lone exception of St. John’s, every conference team returned a significant portion of its key contributors from last season, tremendously benefiting the quality of the league as a whole. Moreover, retention allows fans an opportunity to track player growth and development through the years. As an example, four of last season’s six All-Big East first teamers returned to campus this season. Giving an award to one player over several other qualified players is always difficult, but after having watched or attended nearly every Big East game this season, this is one pundit’s take on the Big East’s superlatives.

Player of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall

Isaiah Whitehead Led Seton Hall to Its Best Season in a Long While (USA Today Images)

Isaiah Whitehead Led Seton Hall to Its Best Season in a Long While (USA Today Images)

Choosing a Big East Player of the Year is always a tough decision, and this year was no different. The award usually goes to the best player on the best team, but as a player of the year award, that means it should go to whomever has the biggest impact on his team. You might say that it is synonymous with most irreplaceable player. Josh Hart is undoubtedly the most important player on the best team in the conference, but Villanova has numerous quality offensive pieces and could find a way to survive in his absence. Kris Dunn completely changes the game on both ends of the floor, but his performance has tapered off in the last few weeks (to an extent because of illness). The toughest decision was to eliminate Ben Bentil, who quite simply played out of his mind while his teammate Dunn was struggling. The final distinction came down to this: Seton Hall drastically outperformed expectations this season and Isaiah Whitehead has been the primary reason why. Without the contributions of Whitehead, the Pirates would be an average team only capable of average things. In concert with Seton Hall’s rise, the sophomore guard has been virtually unstoppable in the last month of play, scoring more than 20 points eight times in his last 10 games. He has also recorded more blocked shots than any other guard in the conference, ranks third in fouls drawn and fourth in assist rate. His biggest development this season has been to exhibit an ability to make his teammates better. The improvement of Whitehead and the simultaneous emergence of Seton Hall as a Big East contender and certain NCAA Tournament team is no coincidence.

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Big East Bubble Watch: Volume IV

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 4th, 2016

With the Big East Tournament just around the corner, things are looking pretty good. Every conference bubble team that needed to win did so, giving us a much higher degree of certainty that the conference will earn five NCAA Tournament bids this season. Part of the reason for that is welcome to lock territory, Seton Hall. The Pirates picked up a signature win at home on Sunday against Xavier and would finish the regular season with a worst-case RPI of #44 should the Pirates lose this weekend at DePaul. At a macro level, the conference appears primed for postseason success: two highly-seeded teams and two or three mid-seeded teams makes for a good combination of quality and quantity in representation. Now it comes down to a final regular season game and the conference tournament to determine seeding for those five teams. Here’s the latest installment of the Big East Bubble Watch. RPI and SOS figures are from RPIForecast.com.

Locks

Jay Wright and Villanova have been on point. (Getty)

Jay Wright and Villanova have been on point. (Getty)

  • Villanova: 26-4 (15-2); RPI: 2; SOS: 12
  • Xavier: 25-4 (13-4); RPI: 7; SOS: 30
  • Seton Hall: 21-8 (11-6); RPI: 33; SOS: 52

Analysis: Once again, no justification is needed for Villanova and Xavier here, as both are reasonable contenders for the #1 seed line. Xavier dropped a road game at Seton Hall that may have diminished the Musketeers’ chances for a top seed, but the corresponding effect is that it moved the Pirates into the lock category. For a team that was picked to finish seventh in the preseason, Seton Hall and its wiser, calmer sophomore leader Isaiah Whitehead have come a long way. The Pirates have one remaining game at DePaul, but even a loss there would not push their RPI nearly low enough (#44) to fall out of consideration. While possibly out of reach, the goal is to push for a #6 seed, thereby avoiding the potential pitfall of facing a #1 or #2 seed in the Second Round. Time to celebrate, Seton Hall fans, it appears that your 10-year NCAA Tournament drought is finally over. Read the rest of this entry »

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Xavier’s Weakness Becomes Apparent

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 1st, 2016

Media pundits are always quick to jump on bandwagons and it happened again on Wednesday night. The chatter around Xavier’s perceived ceiling has been around all season, but it picked up considerably following the team’s win over #1 Villanova. Those claiming Xavier has Final Four potential aren’t wrong by any means; Chris Mack’s team is deep, athletic and extremely tough on the boards — a combination that usually makes for a tough out. Moreover, a 7-2 record against the RPI top 50 has erased any doubts about its ability to compete against Tournament-level teams. Below the surface, however, lurk some unpleasant memories, remnants of what are unquestionably ugly losses. A 31-point blowout at Villanova, a pair of brutally inefficient losses to Georgetown and Creighton, and most recently, a clunker at Seton Hall. The losses themselves aren’t the least bit concerning — Xavier’s four total losses is the second fewest of any team in the country — it’s the way they’ve lost.

Chris Mack is Safe For Now But Shouldn't 'Get too Comfortable (Getty)

Chris Mack and Xavier are legit contenders, but do have some things to work out. (Getty)

The Musketeers have a number of options — Trevon Bluiett, Myles Davis and JP Macura prime among them — when it comes to perimeter scoring, but these players aren’t relied upon for lights-out shooting as much as they are pure spacing. With a lightning-quick point guard in Edmond Sumner, Xavier can usually penetrate to get high quality looks around the rim because teams are forced to respect the array of shooters around Sumner. It doesn’t necessarily matter who is making shots, so long as they connect on a high enough percentage to keep defenses honest. The Xavier wings are also adept at making entry passes to the low post, a place where the Musketeers are converting at a high rate, as the presence of numerous shooters and slashers helps stop opponents from doubling on the interior. Xavier post options Jalen Reynolds and James Farr also both rank in the top 100 in offensive rebounding, helping the X-men corral 35.7 percent of its missed shots. Partially as a result of the attack of the offensive glass, Xavier attempts 40.3 percent of its shots at the rim and gets to the free throw line at an exceedingly high rate (29th nationally). Read the rest of this entry »

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Otskey’s Big East Observations: 03.01.16 Edition

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 1st, 2016

As the regular season comes to a close, a pair of Big East teams are fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives. For Butler and Providence, nothing will come easy over the next two weeks. The Bulldogs in particular sit squarely on the bubble as the Big East conference tournament looms. A huge chance awaits Butler tomorrow night when they host a surging Seton Hall team. Chris Holtmann’s group has matched up quite well with the Pirates over the last few seasons, and is the only team to beat them since January 23. A middling RPI, poor non-conference strength of schedule and a 5-8 record versus the RPI top 100 are all resume items conspiring against Butler at this moment. Given those deficiencies, you have to think a wins on Wednesday and Saturday (Marquette) to close the regular season are necessary for Butler to stay in the Tournament mix. Butler passes the so-called “eye test,” but its resume needs an immediate boost to prevent a trip to the NIT.

Andrew Chrabascz and Butler need a strong finish. (USA Today Sports)

It is crunch time for Andrew Chrabascz and Butler. (USA TODAY Sports)

After picking up a massive road victory at Villanova on January 24, Providence stood at 17-3 overall and looked like a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team. Who could have thought that Georgetown would be the only team the Friars would defeat in the month that followed? Providence swept the Hoyas but went 0-6 against every other team it played between January 26 and February 25. While the resume is good enough to merit a bid at this point, a loss to either Creighton or St. John’s would severely damage the Friars’ chances of holding on to an at-large bid. Star point guard Kris Dunn has been fighting an illness over the last week but head coach Ed Cooley said on Monday that the team is now healthy. As they did Saturday in dispatching DePaul, the Friars need to take care of business this week. No excuses if they fail to get the job done. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big East Bubble Watch: Volume III

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 26th, 2016

Another week, another Big East team falls by the wayside. Last week, we watched Georgetown fail to seize wins in two must-needed opportunities. This week, the team exiting the bubble fray is Creighton. Given such low preseason expectations, a 17-11 (8-7 Big East) record is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s a tally inflated by a relatively sub-par schedule. On Wednesday, Greg McDermott’s squad dropped a home game against Marquette, one it simply couldn’t afford to lose. Even the best case end of the regular season scenario (3-0 with wins over St. John’s, Providence and Xavier) would be likely to leave the Jays’ RPI in the 60s or 70s heading into the Big East Tournament. So for now, we bid you adieu, Creighton. For the Big East teams still on this list, NCAA Tournament dreams are very much alive. Here’s the latest installment of the Big East Bubble Watch. RPI and SOS figures are from RPIForecast.com.

Locks

  • Villanova: 24-4 (13-2); RPI: 2; SOS: 9
  • Xavier: 25-3 (13-3); RPI: 3; SOS: 32

Analysis: Once again, no justification needed here. And after Xavier’s mettle-testing mid-week victory over the Wildcats, a sometimes-maligned Big East may now be in line for two #1 seeds. Even if that scenario fails to manifest itself, one thing has been clear for quite awhile: these two teams have put together remarkable seasons.

J.P. Macura And Xavier Are Rolling (Photo: AP)

J.P. Macura And Xavier Are Rolling (Photo: AP)

Should Be In

Seton Hall: 20-7 (10-5); RPI: 37; SOS: 70

Analysis: Fueled by the ever-improving play of sophomore Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall has continued to build momentum. There was a major scare in a near loss at St. John’s on Sunday, but the Pirates prevailed and then backed it up with a convincing home win over Providence on Thursday, adding a 3rd top 50 win to its resume. This win should all but punch the Hall’s ticket, but with three games on the schedule, it feels a tad too soon to declare them a lock. There’s an upcoming home game against Xavier that should present more as opportunity than test — it’s essentially a no-lose situation. For a team that was picked to finish 7th in the conference, the Pirates and their wiser, calmer sophomore leader have come a long ways. Outside of Kris Dunn, Whitehead might be the most exciting player to watch in this conference. Keep an eye on him this March.

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St. John’s Future Bright Behind Kassoum Yakwe

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 23rd, 2016

Nobody, not even St. John’s fans, has watched the Johnnies play this season while possessing expectations of a season that would end in a postseason tournament appearance for them. Given those modest hopes, few are now looking at first-year head coach Chris Mullin or the performance of his youth-laden squad assembled last summer with any sort of disappointment. Instead, there is a common sense of understanding. Everybody around the program knows the results of this season are meaningless from a win-loss standpoint. The greater significance lies in the development of its core group of players, almost all of whom are freshmen enduring their first season of Big East basketball.

Chris Mullin Has St. John's Heading In The Right Direction (Photo: Steven Ryan, Newsday)

Chris Mullin Has St. John’s Heading In The Right Direction (Photo: Steven Ryan, Newsday)

Freshmen rarely, if ever, excel in conference play. So with present expectations having long ago been traded away for future dreams, it was both surprising and encouraging that the Red Storm played Villanova on its home floor as closely as any Big East team has (St. John’s ended up losing by ten), and more recently, were an untimely foul call away from derailing Seton Hall’s NCAA tournament plans.

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