Big East Bubble Watch: Volume I

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 20th, 2019

With just about a month remaining until Selection Sunday, the race to secure an NCAA Tournament bid is on. The Big East as a whole is eating itself alive, so the next couple of games and the conference tournament will be critical in determining which teams are dancing come March. All figures below are from WarrenNolan.com.

Locks

Marquette is One of Only Two Big East Locks at This Point (USA Today Images)
  • Marquette: 21-4 (10-2); NET: 19; SOS: 318
  • Villanova: 20-6 (11-2); NET: 20; SOS: 16
  • Analysis: These two teams have been a mainstay in the national polls in recent weeks and very little could happen to knock them out of NCAA Tournament consideration. Marquette is currently 7-3 against Quadrant 1 opponents, while Villanova is 3-4, and neither team has a Quadrant 3 or 4 loss on its resume. Both teams will be fighting for favorable seeding, with a best case scenario being a #3/#4 seed on Selection Sunday, which a Big East Tournament championship should provide. A slide by either, though, could push one to the #6/#7 seed line.

Should Be In

  • St. John’s: 19-7 (7-6); NET: 46; SOS: 53. Analysis: The slope has been rather slippery for the Johnnies in recent weeks, but a pair of wins over Marquette kept them afloat before solidifying themselves by overcoming a 14-point deficit against Villanova this weekend. Now, St. John’s is 5-4 in its Quadrant 1 games and its neutral floor win over Atlantic 10 leader VCU has aged well. Chris Mullin‘s team has a fairly favorable schedule remaining and should be favored in all five games. Even if the Red Storm stumble, a 3-2 record in those games should be sufficient regardless of their Big East tournament performance. This team’s performance has highly match-up dependent this season, but the NCAA Tournament needs Shamorie Ponds
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This Isn’t Just Your Same Old Marquette Team

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 15th, 2019

Despite being ranked 10th in the national polls, Marquette is continuously overlooked and forgotten, a filler team of sorts between the elite teams and the dark horses. The Golden Eagles are lost in the shuffle — they stand behind the Dukes, Kentuckys and Virginias, places ahead of Michigan State, Purdue and Kansas, yet ranks last among all in recognition of a successful season. It’s easy to see why, too. Steve Wojciechowski‘s program has come to be known for elite offenses without any semblance of defensive ability, resulting in just one NCAA Tournament appearance in the last five seasons. So what’s different this year? It isn’t Markus Howard, despite the junior’s scintillating 43.8 percent three-point shooting and headline-grabbing 40+ point performances — rather, it’s the defense.

Markus Howard Has Led the Quiet Marquette Renaissance

Many have been quick to blame Wojo’s coaching for the team’s chronic under-performance on the defensive end of the floor, but now that the ship has seemingly righted itself, perhaps the blame should have gone to his personnel. The Golden Eagles of years past rolled out lineups that featured the 5’11” Howard and 5’10” Andrew Rowsey in the backcourt and a physically unimposing center tasked with anchoring the post. Per HoopLens, lineups featuring both Rowsey and Howard gave up a staggering 1.17 points per possession, compared to 1.02 PPP from any other lineup combination. It didn’t matter how much offensive firepower the duo provided because opponents shot an astonishing 67 percent against them at the rim (18th nationally).

With a new season came a new cast of characters as well as player development. Now, Howard finds himself surrounded by several long, multi-positional players. On the wing, junior Sacar Anim has quietly taken a massive leap forward in his on-ball defense and is playing smarter — his improved footwork has led to a drop from 4.1 fouls per 40 minutes to 2.4 F/40. While not evident in the box scores, Wojciechowski has tasked Anim with defending everyone from point guards to stretch forwards and rarely suffers from the painful lapses that allow easy baskets.

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Point Guard Woes Plague Providence This Season

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on February 14th, 2019

Providence’s offense this season is among the worst in high-major basketball. In fact, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Rutgers, Northwestern and Stanford are the only high-major teams that are worse, per KenPom. If you are a team with postseason aspirations, you do not want to be associated with this group.

Providence Has Struggled in the Backcourt This Year (USA Today Images)

Poor shooting plays a role in the Friars’ offensive ineffectiveness, as they rank dead last in Big East play in both three-point and two-point shooting, and ninth in free throw shooting. Providence has multiple capable shooters on the roster, but all too often, their open looks do not fall. Their best shooter, AJ Reeves, is still not fully acclimated from a mid-season foot injury. The bigger concern, however, is point guard play. The trio of Makai Ashton-Langford, David Duke and Maliek White have, quite simply, not gotten the job done. They have been largely ineffective at creating offense for themselves, but more importantly, have not been able to create for others either.

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Where Did the Top 25 St. John’s Team Go?

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 30th, 2019

It seems like just yesterday that the stars had finally aligned in Queens and St. John’s was staring at a long overdue appearance in the AP Top 25. The Chris Mullin era has been a roller coaster of volatility in his first four seasons, so this achievement — the Red Storm’s first ranking since the 2014-15 season — seemed significant. So it might now be surprising that, just a few short weeks later, St. John’s is so far removed from the rankings that it is no longer receiving any votes at all. How does a team that stormed out to an impressive 14-1 start now find itself 3-5 in Big East play? The answer lies not in team chemistry, injuries or key players going cold, but in roster depth.

The Johnnies are a curious case of a club that is not short on talent or offensive firepower, but one that simply struggles to close out individual games. In the early months of this season, St. John’s earned a reputation for struggling out of the gate before mounting furious second half runs to win (Georgia Tech, VCU, California), led by star guard Shamorie Ponds. The team’s second half efficiency, however, has fallen off a cliff recently.

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Big East Logjam is a Major NCAA Tournament Concern

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on January 25th, 2019

After Providence and Marquette earned a pair of wins on Wednesday night, many Big East observers noticed an interesting wrinkle in the conference standings: every team from third to 10th place had four losses. With over one third of conference play already in the books, this level of parity is both astonishing and extremely rare. A clearer hierarchy among those eight teams will likely develop over the next few weeks, but the corollary to the unusual situation is that such parity is extremely concerning for the Big East’s position in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Marquette is One of Two Big East Teams Riding High (USA Today Images)

Fan bases from those other eight programs optimistically claim that a single win could vault their teams to third place in the Big East. And while this is technically true, those pundits are also failing to recognize how insignificant conference standings are outside of seeding in the Big East Tournament. Their thinking is that teams that finish in the top half of the league always make the NCAA Tournament. This assumption, however, is tenuous given how much non-conference performance matters for teams that struggle in conference play.

At-large NCAA Tournament berths per conference significantly fluctuate from year to year. The Big Ten only received four berths last season, but appears likely to get nine or 10 this season. Nebraska finished with a 13-5 conference record a year ago and was still relegated to the NIT at the end of Selection Sunday. Conversely, the Pac-12 and Atlantic 10 might not receive a single at-large bid this season, which truly shows that performance matters.

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You’re Right, Villanova is Trending

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 16th, 2019

Villanova might not be the team that some of its fans originally hoped for, but months of incremental improvements have finally manifested in Jay Wright‘s club. The Wildcats’ rocky 8-4 start to this season featured a pair of head-scratching losses to Furman and Penn, along with a 27-point home court defeat to Michigan. So heading into Big East play, many had already written off Villanova as the league’s team to beat, opting to place the target on the back of Marquette or St. John’s. That has quickly been proven premature, as just two weeks into conference play, Villanova sits alone atop the conference standings at 4-0.

Jay Wright Isn’t Worried (USA Today Images)

As discussed ad nauseam, Villanova’s early struggles were attributed to the overwhelming burden placed on seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to generate offense while the team’s less experienced players became acclimated to high-level basketball. This led to a clear nosedive in the team’s efficiency during off nights, and it’s no surprise that the Wildcats’ four losses coincide with poor offensive performances from both players.

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Big East Stock Report: Risers and Fallers

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 8th, 2019

It’s so far been just one week of conference action, but the Big East’s cannibalization is already underway. With the exceptions of Villanova (2-0) and Providence (0-2), every league team has already notched at least one win and a loss (or two) to go with it. That includes both Georgetown and DePaul, each of which have already toppled potential NCAA Tournament teams. So which Big East teams are trending up or down and what’s the outlook for each?

Butler: Sell

Butler has some decent wins on the season (Ole Miss, Florida, Creighton, UC Irvine), but the Bulldogs haven’t quite looked the part with an offense that has sputtered in recent weeks. A 0.99 point per possession showing against Georgetown and 0.72 PPP against Florida revealed the floor for this team and it’s a steep drop.

LaVall Jordan‘s group might be on the bubble at this point, but buying this team is betting on it finding a reliable contributor outside of Kamar Baldwin, and that’s a risky gamble.

DePaul: Buy

The Blue Demons aren’t coming close to an NCAA Tournament bid this season, but they will almost certainly serve as the conference spoiler. DePaul’s offense has been rebuilt around a potent shooting backcourt of Eli Cain and Max Strus, along with what might be the best rebounding core in the conference.

Quite simply, sophomores Paul Reed and Jaylen Butz have been sensational on the glass, causing myriad problems for undersized opponents.

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Seton Hall’s Rebuild Has Yielded Great Optimism

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 21st, 2018

All signs pointed to a substantial down year at Seton Hall following the graduation of Kevin Willard‘s heralded recruiting class of 2014. Given that the three-headed monster of Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez carried the Pirates to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments and accounted for 60 percent of the team’s scoring last season, question marks outweighed the certainties. Eleven games into this season, however, Seton Hall has put together a polished 8-3 record highlighted by a neutral floor win over Kentucky and a missed shot away from defeating Louisville.

Kevin Willard’s Club Has Surprised This Season (USA Today Images)

Numerous factors have led to the team’s surprise performance this season, the biggest of which has been the infallible play of returnee Myles Powell. The junior guard was a key contributor on last season’s squad but was never asked to shoulder the scoring load, leading to concerns about his ability to do so consistently. And while some of the Pirates’ offensive sets are still a frustrating sight, he is averaging 22.7 PPG to date while improving his scoring efficiency at all three levels. Willard’s star is getting to the rim and drawing fouls at a higher rate than last season while maintaining the sharp-shooting (38.1% 3FG) that made him such a threat in the first place.

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The Six Most Surprising Players in the Big East So Far

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on December 12th, 2018

The Big East appears headed toward a down season after many conference teams lost valuable upperclassmen to graduation and the NBA Draft. Players like St. John’s Shamorie Ponds, Seton Hall’s Myles Powell and Providence’s Alpha Diallo have, as a result, taken their games to the next level to become this season’s stars. But their jumps were anticipated as they all have shown flashes of future greatness throughout their collegiate careers.

Ty-Shon Alexander is the Most Surprising Big East Player So Far (USA Today Images)

What about the players who have broken out this season? This article will instead analyze six players whose strong performances to date were not expected this season. The list is ordered from least surprising to most surprising.

6. Michael Nzei, PF, SR, Seton Hall – 10.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 73% FG

Nzei has been a valuable piece for Seton Hall throughout his career, averaging at least 13 minutes per game since his freshman season. He has mostly served as the first big man off the bench (behind Ish Sanogo or Angel Delgado), but he has emerged from the role of energetic rebounder to a legitimate offensive threat this season. This increased aggressiveness can be seen through a significant scoring increase (3.9 to 10.6 PPG) that is predicated on his quickness and ability to blow past opposing big men. Nzei’s hot start can also be attributed to Taurean Thompson’s disappointing play, as the former Syracuse power forward has clearly fallen behind Nzei on the depth chart.

5. LJ Figueroa, Wing, SO, St. John’s – 15.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 44% 3FG

Figueroa looked like he was set to become one of the best sixth men in college basketball, but Chris Mullin’s decision to go small thrust the sophomore wing into the starting lineup. Once Sedee Keita was sidelined with an injury, Figueroa has faced virtually no competition and has taken full advantage of his opportunity. The former JuCo transfer has seamlessly transitioned to the Big East by averaging 15.3 PPG and 7.7 RPG through the Red Storm’s 9-0 start. Figueroa is a good athlete who provides excellent floor spacing as a small-ball four, and he projects as a key component of St. John’s breakout season.

4. AJ Reeves, Wing, FR, Providence – 14.2 PPG, 45% 3FG, 50% FG

Reeves was a top 50 recruit so expectations for his performance were already high, but few observers could have expected such a strong start for the Providence freshman. His knockdown three-point shooting ability has been as good as advertised (45% 3FG), but he has also shown an ability to attack the basket and score on straight-line drives. Reeves has been extremely effective in transition too, where he can finish above the rim or use his soft touch to play through contact. Like most freshmen, however, Reeves’ defense is inconsistent (at best), but once he develops better fundamentals on that end of the floor, the sky is the limit for the young wing. Reeves is currently out of the lineup with a foot injury so hopefully he can maintain his early stellar play when he returns next month.

3. Damien Jefferson,Wing, SO, Creighton – 11.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 61% 3FG

The power forward position was Creighton’s biggest preseason concern after its previous starter, Ronnie Harrell, surprisingly transferred. Would the Bluejays decide to go small with Connor Cashaw or Mitch Ballock at the position; or would they go big and slide Martin Krampejl there? It turned out that New Mexico transfer Damien Jefferson not only had the perfect skill set for the position, but also the talent back it up. The sophomore only averaged 5.3 PPG as a freshman with the Lobos two seasons ago, but he has more than doubled his scoring output to date at his new school. Jefferson is a big athletic forward who can really defend and is off to a scorching hot start from three-point range (61% 3FG) this season.

2. Paul Jorgensen, SG, SR, Butler – 17.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 43% 3FG

Jorgensen was in and out of the Butler starting lineup last year but has become an offensive focal point for the Bulldogs this season. There were plenty of shots available after Kelan Martin graduated and the senior has taken complete advantage of that opportunity. Primarily playing the small forward slot next to Kamar Baldwin and Aaron Thompson, Jorgensen relies on his long-range jumper and ability to put the ball on the floor to create opportunities — allowing for a big improvement for someone who averaged only 10.2 PPG last season. Baldwin is likely to lead Butler in scoring by the end of the season, but the surprising Jorgensen should be a close second.

1. Ty-Shon Alexander, G, SO, Creighton- 18.3 PPG, 3.1 APG, 44% 3FG

Alexander has been the most surprising player in the Big East to date. He played a substantial role at the point guard slot for the Bluejays as a freshman, ,splitting the role with Davion Mintz. Now that Khyri Thomas is in the NBA and Marcus Foster has graduated, however, Alexander has flourished at his natural position off the ball. The sophomore still frequently operates with the ball in his hands, but he does so now as the primary scorer rather than someone balancing scoring and distributing. He is a shifty and explosive combo guard who can finish at the rim in addition to hitting perimeter jumpers, making him an extremely dynamic offensive force. His jump from 5.5 PPG a season ago to 18.3 PPG this year has been eye-opening.

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Big East Reset: Analyzing Some of the Key Storylines Thus Far

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 5th, 2018

With nearly a month of Big East basketball already in the books, there has been no shortage of action in a non-conference schedule full of surprising upsets and gut-wrenching defeats. For those who haven’t been following very closely, you may have been surprised to see preseason bottom dweller Creighton nearly toppling #1 Gonzaga or the defending national champs dropping a home game to Furman. So as we inch closer to the holidays and conference play, below are some of the key Big East takeaways from the last few weeks.

Furman Logged One of the Upsets of the Early Season at Villanova (USA Today Images)

  • There isn’t a bad team in the conference. DePaul has made its name over the last decade as the Big East’s doormat, finishing among the bottom three in the standings in every season back to 2008. While the Blue Demons are still far from conference contention, Dave Leitao‘s group has raced off to an early 5-1 start that includes an overtime win over a solid Penn State club. The offseason delivered the two things DePaul needed most: shooting and size in the forms of transfers Jalen Coleman-Lands (Illinois) and Femi Olujobi (North Carolina A&T). Now, with a balance of size, experience and backcourt play, the Blue Demons’ offense finally has some cohesiveness. Expect this team to easily surpass its 4-14 conference win total from last season.
  • Creighton’s offense didn’t regress as expected — rather, it might be just as good, if not better, than last season. This claim might seem far-fetched given that the Bluejays lost 60 percent of their scoring output, but they are right on pace at 1.16 points per possession eight games into the season. Interestingly, the blazing fast offense that attempted 29.4 percent of its shots in transition a season ago (seventh nationally) is now content to play in the half-court, with a middle-of-the-road tempo that ranks 155th in transition frequency. Neverthetheless, between sophomore guard Ty-Shon Alexander’s explosion onto the scene (the clear front-runner for the Big East’s most improved player) and the steady improvements of Damien Jefferson and Marcus Zegarowski, Greg McDermott’s team is the biggest surprise in the conference so far this season.

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