Five Questions: Big East Tourney Preview Edition

Posted by Justin Kundrat & Brad Cavallaro on March 11th, 2020

We made it, everyone. From Feast Week to December’s lull to conference tip-off and a February with no shortage of complete mayhem, we’ve somehow arrived at March in one piece. The Big East Tournament starts this evening at MSG with no clear favorite and a whole host of questions in tow. Microsite writers Justin Kundrat and Brad Cavallaro are here to break it down.

Q: With Marcus Zegarowski’s status in flux, where does that leave Creighton? Can the Bluejays win the Big East Tournament and/or advance in the NCAA Tournament without their star point guard at full strength?

How Will Creighton Respond Without Marcus Zegarowski (USA Today Images)

JK: It’s not that Creighton isn’t still a contender for the Big East crown, but I am seriously reconsidering their status as the top dog. The Bluejays excel offensively with dribble penetration and floor spacing to enable kick-out threes, and Zegarowski is a key cog in breaking his man down. His sophomore campaign has resulted in 16.1 PPG and 5.0 APG, and he’s shooting an absurd 45.6 percent from deep in conference play. Not only that, but this team isn’t deep, ranking only 343rd nationally in bench minutes. Outside of Ty-Shon Alexander, there’s nobody else to run this offense! For a team that relies so heavily on crisp offensive execution, I’m worried about their performance this week without him. Let’s see how his status trends, but it might be safe to hold him out until next week.

Q: Providence is one of the hottest teams in the country after rattling off six straight wins. Do you see this hot streak extending into the postseason?

JK: I think so, but I’ll caveat that by saying I’ve been slow getting on the Friars’ recent bandwagon. Their defense has been tremendous and ranks second in efficiency, per Barttorvik, since February 1. Providence is a long team that possesses an uncanny ability to force teams into shots they don’t want to take, and that’s enough to give plenty of opponents a problem. Where they struggle: 1) a propensity to foul; and 2) efficient scoring. Luwane Pipkins has been great and Alpha Diallo is finally showing some maturity, but outside of that duo, the Friars’ offensive output has been unpredictable. If this team runs into a similarly lengthy team (which they won’t face in the conference except maybe against Villanova) that can stifle its robust offensive rebounding, what happens? The impending run will come down to match-ups, in my opinion.

Q: Who is your pick to win the Big East championship and why?

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Big East Bubble Watch: Volume III

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2020

There’s only one week to go, which means no more fringe teams. Georgetown has played its way out of the discussion following a pair of losses, while Providence has solidified its place in the NCAA Tournament by cleaning up its home games. We’re oh so close to Selection Sunday, so let’s do one more round of bubble watch before the Big East Tournament kicks off tomorrow. Below is Rush the Court’s second bubble evaluation of the Big East. All figures below are from WarrenNolan.com.

Locks

Two of the Best Big East Teams are NCAA Locks (USA Today Images)

Creighton: 23-7 (13-5); NET: 11; SOS: 18.
Villanova: 24-7 (13-5); NET: 13; SOS: 3.
Seton Hall: 21-9 (13-5); NET: 15; SOS: 4.
Butler: 22-9 (10-8); NET: 19; SOS: 45.
Providence: 19-12 (12-6); NET: 36; SOS: 8.

  • Analysis: Hello, Providence. While the first four teams on this list secured their place weeks ago, the Friars extended a four-game winning streak to six, thereby eliminating the potential for a bad loss. Ed Cooley’s group now stands at 19-12 overall with a 12-6 record in conference play, which includes seven Quad 1 wins and a NET rating that has climbed to 36th over the last week. What a run it’s been. With a match-up against Butler pending in the quarterfinals, a loss won’t be damaging enough to derail the Friars’ train.

Should Be In

Marquette: 18-12 (8-10); NET: 26; SOS: 6.

  • Analysis: Marquette did nothing to help its case in the last week and has, as a result, cast serious doubts over its Tournament status. Realistically, the Golden Eagles needed just one win to secure a spot, but instead further damaged their resume by adding a pair of losses at St. John’s and DePaul. The worst part? Those losses were by a combined three points. Neither is more than a Quad 2 loss, but now we have a team that’s lost six of its last seven games and is clearly spiraling. Their metrics (NET 26, SOS 6) are propping them up, but it’s hard to make the case that this team is playing like a tournament team. For better or for worse, Steve Wojciechowski’s group draws Seton Hall in the Big East quarterfinals, avoiding yet another potentially bad loss while giving it an opportunity to put all concerns to rest with a win. Would a loss against the Pirates cost them a bid? Unlikely, but the possibility is there.
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Inside the ACC Numbers: Final Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins on March 10th, 2020

Here is the final edition of our weekly view at the current ACC standings with a focus on which teams are playing better or worse than their conference records may indicate. We will also delve into some advanced metrics to share a few interesting notes on teams, statistics, and trends around the conference. With the regular season in the books, this week we will compare how each ACC squad performed in the second half of league play, with an eye on the teams that might excel in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro. Finally, we will examine the ACC standings and project what it may mean for teams’ ultimate postseason aspirations.

Note: All numbers are current for games played through Saturday, March 8.

Current Standings

Congrats to Tony Bennett’s crew for posting the ACC’s best defense for the fourth year in a row, and for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. On the other end of the floor, Duke had the most effective offense for the first time since 2015, ending up with the best overall point per possession margin (PPM) in ACC play. That was primarily accomplished by a league record five conference wins by more than 30 points, and the fact that Duke faced the ACC’s easiest slate of league games. Virginia was able to match the Blue Devils in the win column with an incredible 8-2 mark in games decided by three points or fewer (or overtime). While there may be some luck involved in such a performance, there’s also the fact that Virginia simply executed better during endgame situations than did its opponents. That’s a trait that will give the Cavaliers confidence in the postseason. At the other end of the spectrum we find North Carolina, whose PPM performance would suggest a record close to .500, but the Tar Heels were done in by an unfortunate 0-6 mark in one-possession outcomes. But the biggest story of the regular season is Florida State. Hats off to Leonard Hamilton for leading the Seminoles to their first-ever ACC regular season title.

Advanced Statistic of the Week: Who’s Hot and Who’s Not?

Heading into this week’s ACC Tournament, it’s a good time to compare recent team performance to how schools were playing earlier in the year. Below we break down the ACC season into two fairly even timeframes to see which squads have improved and which have regressed.

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Big East Bubble Watch: Volume II

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 3rd, 2020

With only about a week remaining until the Big East Tournament, things only continue to get more interesting (looking at you, Providence). There’s still plenty of bubble movement to monitor, but the upper-tier teams are all but locked in. Below is Rush the Court’s second bubble evaluation of the Big East. All figures below are from WarrenNolan.com.

Locks

Seton Hall: 21-7 (13-3); NET: 12; SOS: 10.
Creighton: 21-7 (11-5); NET: 13; SOS: 17.
Villanova: 22-7 (11-5); NET: 17; SOS: 3.
Butler: 20-9 (8-8); NET: 20; SOS: 35.

  • Analysis: Lock city with this group. At this point, it’s difficult to see any of these four teams missing the NCAA Tournament. Villanova, Seton Hall and Creighton are shaping up to be somewhere in the #2-#4 seed range, while Butler is a #5 or #6 seed in most brackets. Sure a loss here or there will hurt seeding, but there isn’t a scenario whereby any would miss the Tournament at this point. You can thank the strength of the Big East for providing so few opportunities for Q2/Q3 losses.

Should Be In

Markus Howard Likely Has His Team Dancing Again (USA Today Images)

Marquette: 18-10 (8-8); NET: 25; SOS: 4.

  • Analysis: A late season stumble hasn’t helped Steve Wojciechowski’s group secure a spot in the Tournament, but it would take a drastic collapse at this point for the Golden Eagles to miss out. However, with two road games at DePaul and St. John’s remaining, an opportunity exists for two more damaging losses and a first round Big East Tournament exit. Even if those losses are in the Q1 or Q2 category, the damage is more in the name and signalling (see Creighton’s loss at St. John’s). One more win would put this team into lock territory and ensure a 9-9 conference record without much NET slippage. Consider me shocked if they miss the Dance.
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Inside the ACC Numbers: Volume VII

Posted by Brad Jenkins on February 28th, 2020

Here is this week’s edition of our weekly view at the current ACC standings with a focus on which teams are playing better or worse than their conference records may indicate. We will also delve into some advanced metrics to share a few interesting notes on teams, statistics and trends around the conference. This week, we examine how transfers from low/mid-major programs are adjusting to life in the ACC. Finally, we will forecast how the final ACC standings may look given current efficiency margins, and what that may mean for teams’ ultimate postseason aspirations.

Note: All numbers are current for games played through Wednesday, February 26.

Current Standings

Duke’s lead in points per possession margin is almost entirely built upon its play at home. The Blue Devils are outscoring visiting ACC squads in Durham by 0.294 points per possession, yet they only have a 0.049 PPP edge on the road. That gap (.245) is by far the largest in the ACC. The only two league teams that have performed better on the road than at home are Georgia Tech and Syracuse. The Orange have a 0.06 PPM advantage when they are travelling – fueled by the conference’s best road offense that scores 1.07 points per possession.

Advanced Statistic of the Week: Out of Their League?

We see it every spring now. Many graduate transfers and undergraduate waiver transfers from lower level programs make the leap to major conference schools that are looking for immediate help. In that situation, it’s difficult to predict how the jump in competition will affect production for these players. In the current season, the ACC has nine transfers that played at low/mid-major schools last year. Let’s see how they have adjusted to life in a power conference.

The chart above shows some key statistics for the nine transfers that made the jump to the ACC this season, after playing for a non-Power Six school a year ago. Across the board, offensive production is way down for this group, including an offensive rating decline of 8.5 points. The only two players on the list who are performing close to last season’s level are Curran Scott (Clemson) and Eric Hamilton (Pittsburgh). Among the five double-digit scorers from last year, they are collectively scoring 12 fewer points per game. Much of North Carolina’s nightmare season can be blamed on the many injuries that Roy Williams’ squad has endured, but it certainly hasn’t helped that the Tar Heels’ two graduate transfers – Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce – have failed to meet expectations. Perhaps this is just a bad year for transfers in the ACC, but we should keep these numbers in mind when the next batch of graduate transfers try to prove they belong with the big boys. Most probably don’t.

Future Forecast

The above table shows predicted order of finish with final regular season records based on KenPom’s current win probabilities for each team. Also included are a few comparative rankings that are mentioned frequently when evaluating NCAA Tournament potential, as well as projections from two bracketology experts — ESPN‘s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports‘ Jerry Palm. Note that while they project the field as if it was to be named tomorrow, we make our projections based on the final KenPom projected records. In a normal season, a team like Notre Dame — projected to finish above .500 in the ACC with 20 overall wins — would be an NCAA Tournament lock. But that is not currently the case and here’s why. The Irish are sitting on a 3-9 record against combined Quadrant 1/2 opponents, which includes an unimpressive 1-6 mark in Quad 1 opportunities. But there’s still a glimmer of hope for Mike Brey‘s team, some within their control and some that is not. The first order of business is obviously to win games and the Irish could pick up some quality wins between now and Selection Sunday — they host Florida State next week and the ACC Tournament after that. Notre Dame could also get some help if Indiana (NET #52), Clemson (#76) and Georgia Tech (#77) do enough to improve their final NET rankings. If all three can, suddenly the Irish would get credit for three more Quad 1 victories, since Notre Dame beat Indiana on a neutral floor and claimed road victories against the Tigers and the Yellow Jackets. It’s a long shot, but the NCAA door is still slightly open for the Fighting Irish.

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Five Questions: February in the Big East

Posted by Justin Kundrat & Brad Cavallaro on February 25th, 2020

We’re oh so close to March, the Big East Tournament and everything good that follows. With each slate of conference games under wrap comes more certainty but also more urgency. The Big East has had its fair share of risers and fallers in recent weeks, and below, microsite writers Justin Kundrat and Brad Cavallaro attempt to tackle the big themes happening now.

1. Creighton has seemingly taken the conference by storm these last few weeks, winning nine of its last 10 games. Is it safe to say the Bluejays are the team to beat at the upcoming Big East Tournament?

Creighton has Been on Fire All February (USA Today Images)

JK: As much as I want to say they’re being overrated, it’s hard to overlook what Creighton has accomplished in recent weeks. At 11-4 in Big East play, they are still a game back from Seton Hall but have been playing unconsciously on the offensive end. I could write for days about their 38.6 percent three-point shooting (fourth nationally) supported by three guys hitting at greater than 40 percent, and the ball movement that accompanies their small ball style. But the key difference has been: 1. Ty-Shon Alexander’s function as a defensive ball stopper, and 2. Denzel Mahoney’s ability to score at multiple levels. Alexander has shut down just about everyone from Kamar Baldwin to Markus Howard to Myles Powell, while Mahoney, a 6’5″ transfer from Southeastern Missouri has shot 34 percent from deep while showing an ability to out-muscle his defenders on drives. I’m a buyer of this team and think they’re the conference favorite.

BC: I agree, Creighton looks the best team at this point. Their dynamic offense quickly disposed of Butler in a blink of an eye and it will be extremely difficult for any other Big East team to slow them down. The Zegarowski/Alexander/Ballock trio is so scary because all three have extremely deep range and an ability to put the ball on the floor and become playmakers. While Villanova may have the highest ceiling and Seton Hall has an elite scorer and rim protector, Creighton’s scorching shooting makes them the late February favorite.

2. With just a few games remaining, are you worried about the late season slides for Butler and Marquette?

BC: I am certainly more worried for Butler than Marquette. Butler was projected as an NIT team in the preseason and their talent level is certainly closer to that level than that of an elite team. Butler will certainly make the NCAA Tournament — probably as a #6 or #7 seed — and has a fairly favorable closing schedule, but their deteriorating defense is the biggest concern. As for Marquette, I think we were getting ahead of ourselves in ranking them as a top 20 club. Expect a 10-8 conference record and a #6 or #7 seed for the Golden Eagles as well, but they have a much better chance of advancing behind an improved defense and the unreal scoring wizardry of Markus Howard.

JK: It seems like we’re writing about late season slides for Marquette every season as Howard runs out of gas or the defense fails to materialize or their secondary scorers disappear. It’s a problem, and I’m not sure why guys like Sacar Anim, Brendan Bailey and Koby McEwen can’t consistently generate offense when Howard receives so much attention. But the last game’s box score against Providence tells you all you need to know: Howard: 38 points, rest of team: 34. I love Howard, but I think you need an offense with multiple options, or a defense that can string together enough stops to offset any scoring droughts. So I’m a little worried, but not as worried as I am about Butler… a team that has battled more injuries than I can keep track of and recently saw Kamar Baldwin go out as well. This is already a short rotation team but the guys simply look gassed and don’t have the same cohesiveness defensively that we saw earlier in the season. Here’s a shocking stat: in conference play, Butler is dead last in defensive efficiency, allowing teams to score 1.08 PPP. This seems like a difficult problem to fix when you’re already short-handed.

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Inside the ACC Numbers: Volume VI

Posted by Brad Jenkins on February 21st, 2020

Here is this week’s edition of our weekly view at the current ACC standings with a focus on which teams are playing better or worse than their conference records may indicate. We will also delve into some advanced metrics to share a few interesting notes on teams, statistics and trends around the conference. This week, we will take our annual peak at how league teams are performing in close games and examine how that has impacted the conference standings. Finally, we will forecast how the final ACC standings may look given current efficiency margins, and what that may mean for teams’ ultimate postseason aspirations.

Note: All numbers are current for games played through Wednesday, February 19.

Current Standings

Even though the middle of the ACC continues to be highly congested, we are seeing some teams trending in opposite directions. Three schools have capitalized on improved health to suddenly get hot in mid-February. Georgia Tech and Clemson each went 2-0 for the week, with home victories over league leader Louisville. Similarly, Miami has won three in a row now that Chris Lykes and Kameron McGusty have rejoined Jim Larranaga’s lineup. On the flip side, Syracuse and Pittsburgh have each dropped three games in a row, while Virginia Tech continues to struggle, having lost six of its last seven contests.

Advanced Statistic of the Week: Close Games in the ACC

With so much parity in the ACC after the top four teams, it’s no surprise that many of the league’s contests are being decided by slim margins. Through 115 conference games this season, 25.2 percent of those match-ups have concluded as one-possession affairs. Obviously, performance in those nail-biters has had a big impact on the league standings.

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Inside the ACC Numbers: Volume V

Posted by Brad Jenkins on February 14th, 2020

Here is this week’s edition of our weekly view at the current ACC standings with a focus on which teams are playing better or worse than their conference records may indicate. We will also delve into some advanced metrics to share a few interesting notes on teams, statistics and trends around the conference. This week, we look at the best 3-point shooting teams (offensively and defensively) and see how they compare to recent ACC leaders in those categories. Finally, we will forecast how the final ACC standings may look given current efficiency margins, and what that may mean for teams’ ultimate postseason aspirations.

Note: All numbers are current for games played through Wednesday, February 12.

Current Standings

At this point in the season, team rankings in point per possession margin (PPM) line up well with overall league standings, but there are a couple of outliers. Based on PPM alone, one would expect North Carolina and Boston College to be flip-flopped in the standings — to explain why this is not the case, performance in close games tells the tale. The Eagles are an impressive 4-1 in games decided by two possessions or fewer, while the Tar Heels are 0-5 in similar situations. Among the teams in the upper middle of the ACC, Virginia and Notre Dame may have an advantage in short-term schedule difficulty. The Cavaliers will face four straight sub-.500 ACC squads in the next two weeks, while the Irish have a toughie at Duke on Saturday, but next comes four games in a row versus ACC schools with losing league marks. Meanwhile, Syracuse must play five of its next seven contests on the road, and NC State is looking at a three-game stretch that features a roadie at Boston College followed by challenging home tilts with Duke and Florida State.

Advanced Statistic of the Week: Elite Three-Point Offense and Defense

Success from behind the arc has been very important to determining the outcome of ACC games this season – the team with a higher 3-point shooting percentage in a given game has tasted victory 78 percent of the time. The top two schools in the standings are excelling in this crucial statistic in historic fashion, but in very different ways.

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Big East Bubble Watch: Volume I

Posted by Justin Kundrat & Brad Cavallaro on February 10th, 2020

We’re finally working our way into the heart of February. College football is over, the Super Bowl is over, and as these other attention-grabbing sports fade into the rear-view, college basketball embraces its time in the spotlight. We still have a solid five weeks of play before the NCAA Tournament tips off on March 17, but the bracket is already taking form. Below is Rush the Court’s first evaluation of the Big East. All figures below are from WarrenNolan.com.

Locks

Seton Hall is Back, Baby (USA Today Images)

Seton Hall: 18-5 (10-1); NET: 12; SOS: 20
Villanova: 17-6 (7-4); NET: 18; SOS: 2

  • Analysis: Some other sites have been cautious to call these two teams locks, but I can’t conceive a scenario where neither makes it. Both are shaping up to be seeded in the #3-#5 range, with incremental wins at this point serving to move the dial upward and ideally provide a favorable location draw. In spite of Villanova’s recent three-game skid, the Wildcats still boast a NET ranking of #18 with five Q1 wins. The concern for Jay Wright is less about seeding and more so fixing its short rotation and ailing post defense. Seton Hall meanwhile has seen a number of its secondary players emerge at just the right time. Romaro Gill‘s offensive play has stalled, but the likes of Sandro Mamukelashvili and Jared Rhoden are helping to soften a recent Myles Powell shooting slump.

Should Be In

Butler: 18-6 (6-5); NET: 10; SOS: 46.

  • Analysis: Butler is closer to “Lock” status than “Not Quite There,” but after a sizzling 15-1 start, the Bulldogs have only won just three of their last eight games. In those eight contests, the defense has given up 1.12 points per possession, as opponents are scoring both at the rim and around the perimeter. This is a concern for a team with a methodical approach that, in the beginning half of the season, used defensive stops to power its offense. Still, none of the trio of losses are necessarily bad — Butler is still 12-6 in Q1/Q2 games and has no losses in the Q3/Q4 territory. Consider this team safe, in general.

Creighton: 17-6 (7-4); NET: 22; SOS: 31.

Creighton Has Been Sneaky Good All Season (USA Today Images)
  • Analysis: The bracket aggregation site BracketMatrix lists Creighton’s average seed as a 5.08. With a 6-6 record in Q1 games and unblemished beyond that, the Bluejays look every part a Tournament team. Their defense, given a lack of size and inability to win the rebounding battle, is concerning, but a 7-4 conference record is propelled by a remarkably efficient offense (7th nationally). The remaining schedule offers more opportunities for quality wins, which can further improve their seeding, but the other benefit is that there are not many opportunities for bad losses either. Consider Creighton close — maybe a week or two away from being a lock.

Marquette: 17-6 (7-4); NET: 24; SOS: 10.

  • Analysis: Marquette has an eerily similar profile to Creighton in many ways. The Golden Eagles also have six Q1 wins, no bad losses, and a 7-4 Big East record. The notable part about this group is their much improved defense, with a range of long wing players and an improving front line in tow. They are currently slotted as a #6/#7 seed in most brackets, which should further improve once adjusted for Sunday’s home win over Butler. There is some margin for error here, so a few bad losses won’t put them out of the picture, but it’s too early to say definitively. Like Creighton, this team is almost to the point of playing for seeding.
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Inside the ACC Numbers: Volume IV

Posted by Brad Jenkins on February 7th, 2020

Here is this week’s edition of our weekly view at the current ACC standings with a focus on which teams are playing better or worse than their conference records may indicate. We will also delve into some advanced metrics to share a few interesting notes on teams, statistics and trends around the conference. In this edition, we look at how high usage rate correlates to offensive efficiency for the players that are eating up the most possessions in league play. Finally, we will forecast how the final ACC standings may look given current efficiency margins, and what that may mean for teams’ ultimate postseason aspirations.

Note: All numbers are current for games played through Wednesday, February 5.

Current Standings

Last week we suggested that North Carolina and Notre Dame may be ready to make a surge in the standings based on how they were performing on a per possession basis. Well, we were half right. Even with star Cole Anthony back in the lineup, the Tar Heels dropped two in a row after showing signs of life the week before. But the Fighting Irish have indeed been on an upward trend, thanks to the performance of the second-best offense in the league. In winning its last three outings, Notre Dame has averaged a sizzling 1.22 points per possession. Its upcoming schedule will make it hard to keep up this momentum -– three consecutive road trips (Clemson, Virginia and Duke) are next for Mike Brey’s group.

Advanced Statistic of the Week: Usage versus Efficiency

Since his return to game action (and even before), Cole Anthony has come under scrutiny for the high volume of shots that he launches for North Carolina. That criticism seems valid, considering how infrequently his attempts go in the basket (35.1% FG). In his four ACC games to date, Anthony has the highest usage rate (34.3% Poss) in the league but has an offensive rating of just 94.5. Let’s see how that compares to the other high-possession players in the conference.

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