Creighton’s Success Has Come from Unexpected Sources

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 16th, 2018

Despite losing four of its top six scorers from last season’s 25-10 team, Creighton has found itself flirting with the Top 25 and comfortably above the mid-January NCAA Tournament bubble discussions. As the story was expected to go this year, backcourt mates Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas have paced the offense, accounting for 37 percent of the team’s scoring production and 40 percent of its shot attempts. And while Foster has historically been an inefficient scorer and Thomas a better defender than playmaker, the two have formed a tenacious offensive tandem this season, showcasing their abilities to score in virtually any scenario. Some observers assumed that the Bluejays’ offense would sputter or devolve into more isolation sets without the services of point guard Mo Watson or superstar big man Justin Patton, but head coach Greg McDermott has ensured that isn’t the case. The biggest offensive concern heading into this season was how the lost interior production of Patton would be replaced, but Creighton is on pace for its best offensive season since Doug McDermott was still on campus in 2014, and that unlikely success has come from an unexpected source.

Creighton’s Martin Krampelj Has Been a Huge Surprise This Season (USA Today Images)

While Foster and Thomas receive most of the offensive credit, it is actually Martin Krampelj, who averaged under six minutes per game last season, who holds the crown as the team’s most efficient player. In fact, Krampelj owns the highest effective field goal percentage of anyone in the Big East with a greater than 50 percent minute share. His 69.6 percent conversion rate is largely a product of three-quarters of his shot attempts coming right at the rim, but nevertheless, finishing those attempts at an 83 percent clip is astonishing. Krampelj’s role is important for two reasons. First, he is far and away the team’s best and only consistent source of offensive rebounds. McDermott’s system typically does not prioritize offensive rebounding (only 3.9 percent of his team’s shot attempts arise from putbacks), but they remain a highly efficient origin of points. Second, Krampelj’s inside scoring and ability to draw fouls there add offensive diversity to the team’s perimeter-oriented style of play. The 6’9″ forward accounts for nearly a quarter of his team’s shot attempts at the rim and is a huge reason why the Bluejays are having their best success there in years (see below table).

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Big East Notebook: Early Conference Turmoil

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 9th, 2018

Unsurprisingly, cannibalism within the Big East has proven itself very real again this season. With every team having now played a minimum of three conference games, only Seton Hall remains unbeaten, and even the Pirates have narrowly escaped in all three of their victories. The conference boasts four of its teams in the current AP Top 25 and as many as seven NCAA Tournament bids by March is a realistic possibility. Below are three key takeaways from Big East action over the last two weeks.

Raise Your Hands if You Had Seton Hall as the Last Big East Unbeaten Team (USA Today Images)

  • Providence has rebounded sharply. Even at full strength, Ed Cooley‘s group scraped by in home games against Rider, Brown and Stony Brook. The Friars’ backcourt was then significantly hobbled leading into conference play but the root causes — poor shooting to inconsistent defensive rebounding — seem to have corrected themselves over the last few weeks. Having a healthy Kyron Cartwright back in action has helped as the Friars score 1.11 points per possession (PPP) with him versus 0.99 PPP without. But the most important factor to the team’s success has been the emergence of wing Alpha Diallo as a legitimate offensive threat. In addition to his excellent defense, the sophomore has averaged 13.3 PPG in Big East play by using his mid-range jump shot as a reliable weapon. His outside shooting (21.4% 3FG) leaves something to be desired but, judging by his form, is certainly fixable. On the other end of the floor, his play was a big reason the Xavier duo of Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura combined for just 21 points (10.5 below their season average) in a loss to Providence over the weekend.

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Kamar Baldwin’s Point Guard Play is Driving Butler’s Resurgence

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 4th, 2018

Just one short week ago with Big East play very near on the horizon, LaVall Jordan‘s Butler squad was sitting on a 10-3 non-conference record that was noticeably lacking in signature wins. Other than a victory over a likely bubble team in Ohio State, the Bulldogs had failed to enhance their resume over any of the other three likely NCAA tournament squads (Maryland, Texas and Purdue). Needless to say, given Butler’s ongoing shooting slump and iffy ball movement, there was cause for concern in Indianapolis around the Bulldogs’ postseason hopes.

And Then This Happened (USA Today Images)

But on the heels of a thrashing comeback win over Georgetown and a words-won’t-do-it-justice shooting performance over then top-ranked Villanova, the Bulldogs have quickly gotten right back on track. The notable turnaround can be attributed to a number of things: senior leader Kelan Martin’s consistency; Paul Jorgensen’s streaky 41.9 percent outside shooting; and, the return of stretch forward Sean McDermott. But most of all, Kamar Baldwin’s over-thinking tendencies at the point guard position have seemed to evaporate, resulting in quicker ball movement and less hesitation in shooting or driving. It’s worth noting that the sophomore guard played the vast majority of last season off the ball, generally delegating point guard duties to one of the team’s two senior guards. But given their departures and freshman Aaron Thompson‘s unfamiliarity with the system, Baldwin has slowly assumed the role this year. While Butler started the season in a time-sharing situation at the position, the below table shows that Baldwin’s minutes without Thompson on the floor have slowly ticked up.

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Big East Notebook: Recapping Non-Conference Play

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 20th, 2017

Conference play in the Big East is a mere week away, which means most teams are quietly wrapping up the non-conference portion of their schedules and looking ahead to the good stuff. Currently ranked third by KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metrics, the conference as a whole has fared in line with expectations thus far. But not every team in the Big East can proclaim a strong start; there has certainly been a reshuffling of the pecking order in the middle of the standings. Here is a recap of several key conference takeaways from over the last few weeks.

Villanova Has Looked Great Through the Non-Conference Season (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova has looked every bit the part of a national title contender. Not only have juniors Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson made a case for being the best one-two combination in college basketball this season, but redshirt freshman Omari Spellman has erased any doubts over about a long adjustment period after his 27-point, eight-rebound outburst against Temple last week. Any of the Wildcats’ six rotation players are capable of scoring in double figures and Wright has gotten encouraging play from of his trio of freshmen. An entire essay could be written about the many things that Villanova does well. If there any areas for future improvement, it would have to be focused on the team’s inside scoring — the Wildcats rank 132nd nationally in shots taken at the rim and 90th in field goal percentage there.
  • Providence has underwhelmed so far, but full judgment isn’t yet justified. The Friars’ 8-3 record is a bit deceiving in that it includes marginal two-possession or fewer wins over Rider, Brown and Stony Brook. Those close victories are largely because Providence’s offense has struggled mightily over the team’s last four games, posting a mere 0.92 points per possession after a 1.17 PPP mark to start the season. A major contributing factor to that decline has been injuries to three key rotation players: Kyron CartwrightAlpha Diallo, and Maliek White. The lingering injury to Cartwright is particularly damaging on the offensive end as he serves as the primarily facilitator and secondary scoring option. Meanwhile, the injured Diallo provides a great degree of defensive versatility while having come into his own as a tertiary scoring option (11.4 PPG more than doubles his scoring from last season). These injuries coupled with a season-ending injury to presumptive starting forward Emmitt Holt have been noticeable setbacks for Ed Cooley’s squad.

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Xavier’s Revamped Offense Starts in the Paint

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 6th, 2017

Anyone who is familiar with Xavier teams of recent years knows that Chris Mack‘s most frequently employed lineup features four perimeter players running a drive-and-dish philosophy that emphasizes excellent spacing. Given that the Musketeers typically have several shooters on the floor at any given time, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Musketeers are connecting on 39.1 percent of their perimeter shots (53rd nationally) this season. But the driver of the nation’s third most efficient offense isn’t the offensive rebounding acumen that has buoyed Mack’s last few groups; rather, this year’s team has taken a remarkable leap in its interior scoring. For the purposes of this article and particularly when applying it to Xavier’s four-out offense, interior scoring refers to shots at the rim in the half-court offense in addition to shots in the paint and transition-generated inside scoring. For a team that many figured would seek to replicate last year’s offensive scheme, there have been quite a few notable changes driving this season’s jump in efficiency.

Two. As in more than one way to win for Chris Mack and Xavier. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

For one, the introduction of graduate transfer Kerem Kanter has given the Musketeers a legitimate low post scoring threat, something that was often lacking a year ago. While the 6’10” forward might sometimes be a defensive liability, he is connecting on a whopping 85 percent of his shots at the rim and is drawing the most per-minute fouls on the team. Read the rest of this entry »

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Maturity, Resilience & Strong Start Has Seton Hall Poised for a Special Season

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 5th, 2017

Picture this: It is March 11, 2015, and Marquette, with a conference record of 4-14, has just laid a 22-point beatdown on Kevin Willard’s Seton Hall team in the #8 vs. #9 game of the Big East Tournament. Marquette would go on to lose to Villanova by 35 points the following afternoon and Seton Hall fans are not happy. Local media and message boards are calling for the head coach’s ouster after five seasons at the helm (without any NCAA Tournament appearances), and Willard even experienced some in-person heckling from Pirate fans the night before. After all, the fans have just witnessed a once promising season that began with a top 15 recruiting class and a 13-3 record crumble to bits in epic fashion as locker room tension destroyed a young and immature team. What would become of that dysfunctional group of freshmen that lost nine of their last 10 games to end the 2014-15 season?

Seton Hall Has Risen From the Ashes of 2015 (USA Today Images)

Exactly 1,000 days later (yes, really), Willard is in the midst of his eighth season in South Orange and those freshmen (minus Isaiah Whitehead, now plying his trade with the Brooklyn Nets) have blossomed into talented seniors. Three of those seniors — Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington — form the only active trio of 1,000-point scorers in college basketball. The Pirates are coming off two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and a 2016 Big East Tournament championship run (two feats not seen since the P.J. Carlesimo era of the early 1990s) that included consecutive wins over top-five opponents for the first time in the program’s 114-year history. Willard’s experienced Pirates stand at 7-1 and are ranked 19th nationally following a week in which they won at No. 17 Louisville and defeated No. 22 Texas Tech at the very arena where the program hit rock bottom nearly three years ago. The win at Louisville was Seton Hall’s second true road win against a ranked ACC team in program history, and to date this season, the Pirates are one of only two teams to have recorded four non-conference wins against power conference teams (with three of those coming away from the Prudential Center). The other team? That would be No. 1 Duke.

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Big East Notebook: Recapping Feast Week

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 28th, 2017

With a seemingly infinite number of early season tournaments this year in college basketball, Thanksgiving week becomes one of the sport’s busiest of the year. So in case you missed some of the action while you were busy with family and friends, here is a recap of several of the Big East’s key Feast Week storylines.

Villanova Celebrates Its Battle 4 Atlantis Win (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova hasn’t skipped a beat. This may never have been a real concern but any team that loses three starters will face some degree of uncertainty. That said, while both Purdue and Arizona were busy laying massive eggs in the Bahamas over the weekend, the Wildcats steamrolled its resulting competition to win the Battle 4 Atlantis. One reason for that is that junior Mikal Bridges continues to develop his offensive repertoire. The 6’7″ swingman, known as a highly effective defender whose limited usage masks highly efficient shooting, now takes the most shots on the team. More impressively, his effective field goal percentage is a whopping 70.6 percent this season — connecting on 50 percent of his three-point shots and demonstrating better body control when attacking the rim (66.7% 2FG). Conversely, Omari Spellman‘s freshman campaign is underway and the results to this point have been underwhelming. He is shooting just 38.5 percent at the rim and 23.1 percent from deep while accumulating a total of three points in his last two games. That shouldn’t necessarily be surprising given his relative lack of experience, but it’s worth monitoring as the team prepares for conference play.

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Rodney Bullock’s Inconsistencies Continue to Impact Providence

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 17th, 2017

Given how impressive Providence has been these last few seasons, it’s hard to criticize the program. Ed Cooley has done a terrific job at taking what often appears to be an underwhelming lineup and transforming them into NCAA Tournament caliber players by the end of the season. Last year Big East coaches picked the Friars to finish ninth in the conference standings, and yet they earned a #11 seed and nearly toppled USC in the First Round. In fact, Providence has outperformed its preseason ranking in each of the last four seasons. For that to happen this season, particularly if it involves a longer stay than one game in March, Cooley desperately needs a go-to scorer to emerge.

Rodney Bullock’s Variability is an Issue for the Friars (USA Today Images)

Point guard Kyron Cartwright is a tremendous passer (6.7 APG last season) and one of the best point guards in the country, but he’s better as a playmaker and not a primary scorer. Otherwise, the team is littered with tertiary players who can either shoot or finish inside, but lack in a “give it to this guy with time running out” sort of way. But what about Rodney Bullock, the 6’8″ senior forward who led the team in scoring last season with 15.7 PPG? He’s the obvious option for Cooley, and yet, despite having logged over 70 games, he continues to prove inconsistent. Against #14 Minnesota on Monday, Bullock tallied just 10 points and didn’t provide the aggressiveness necessary for the team to overcome a mounting deficit in the second half. And yet, on Thursday night against Washington, his 17 points and 10 rebounds led the team in both categories.

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Big East Preseason Player Awards

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 10th, 2017

The season is finally upon us, with eight Big East teams taking the floor tonight. Here is the Big East microsite’s preseason Honor Roll.

  • Player of the Year: Trevon Bluiett, Xavier. This award could end up with a number of players depending on how the season turns out, but it’s hard to argue that any single Big East player has as much of an impact on his team as Bluiett. The 6’6″ senior was unstoppable last March, averaging 25.0 PPG in the NCAA Tournament before the Musketeers finally fell to Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. He’s arguably the conference’s best scorer and the Musketeers averaged eight more points per 100 possessions with the versatile wing on the floor. The Xavier offense will be increasingly reliant on his ability to draw the attention of opposing defenses, particularly without the services of Edmond Sumner this year. Provided Bluiett finishes the season as advertised, it’s difficult to imagine many conference players posting punchier stat lines.

Jay Wright will be happy to have Omari Spellman playing this season (Mark Konezny/USA TODAY Sports)

  • Newcomer of the Year: Omari Spellman, Villanova. Before being ruled ineligible, Spellman garnered plenty of attention last offseason as one of Villanova’s highest-rated recruits of the last decade. Now that he has been cleared to play in his second year with the program, the 6’9″ freshman is one of the team’s lone legitimate post presences. Barring foul trouble, Spellman should receive plenty of playing time, making his role as a scorer and low-post defender critical for a team that lacks depth in those areas. There will be plenty of freshmen in the Big East who will make an impact come March, and perhaps several who earn starting roles along the way, but the spotlight will naturally follow the conference’s front-runner, Villanova.

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Big East Preview Part V: Key Questions for Seton Hall & Villanova

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 7th, 2017

With the season just days away, Rush the Court’s Big East preview will tip off its coverage by posing season-defining key questions for each team. Today we tackle Seton Hall and Villanova.

#2 Seton Hall – Can Khadeen Carrington step into the lead guard role?

Khadeen Carrington steps back into the lead role this year for the Pirates. (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

Senior guard Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall’s leading scorer last year at 17.1 PPG, handled the point guard position only when Madison Jones was on the bench. He instead primarily played alongside Jones, with his offensive production compensating for a pass-first guard who offered more utility on the defensive end. With Jones having graduated last spring, the responsibilities of distributing the ball will now fall to Carrington. It’s worth noting right away that Seton Hall’s offense does not typically rely on heavy ball movement and crisp passing — the Pirates ranked 307th nationally in team assist rate last season. Instead, Willard tends to utilize isolation sets in mismatches while asking his elite rebounding forwards to generate additional scoring chances inside. And from purely a scoring standpoint, Carrington’s shift to the point guard position should be beneficial in that it allows for sharpshooting sophomore Myles Powell to start while leaving the frontcourt nucleus featuring Desi Rodriguez (15.7 PPG) and Angel Delgado (15.2 PPG) intact. From a ball security standpoint, however, there are question marks. Carrington’s assist-to-turnover ratio, while somewhat improved last season, is just 1.2 through a three-year collegiate career. Moreover, the Pirates posted an abysmal 19.5 percent turnover rate last season (245th nationally) that quite frankly cost them an NCAA Tournament victory against Arkansas. Seton Hall is a very interesting team this year, and it’ll be worth tracking both the performance of Carrington at the point and the ongoing development of freshman Jordan Walker, who has been generating some buzz as a suitable backup. Read the rest of this entry »

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