Derrick Gordon Has Turned Seton Hall Into A Defensive Force

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 8th, 2016

Over the course of three months, Kevin Willard has deftly collected the pieces from last season’s disaster and assembled a tournament-caliber team. It started with the transformation of Isaiah Whitehead into team leader, as the sophomore began to channel his talents in new ways – namely creating opportunities for his teammates. Then came the development of Desi Rodriguezs versatile playmaking abilities, giving Seton Hall a legitimate scorer on the wings. Finally, over the last two weeks, 6’9 forward Angel Delgado has broken out of a slump and re-emerged as the physical rebounding presence and interior scorer that many fans remembered from last season. But behind all of it, lurking in the shadows, is graduate transfer Derrick Gordon, a 6’3″ guard whose contributions far outpace what shows up in the box score.

Derrick Gordon Draws the Task of Slowing Down Opponents' Leading Scorers (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Derrick Gordon Draws the Task of Slowing Down Opponents’ Leading Scorers (Photo: USA Today Sports)

The reasons for the lack of recognition for Gordon aren’t difficult to deduce. Being a newcomer has made Gordon a relatively unknown quantity, and given that his eligibility expires after this season, fewer observers have considered his overall impact. He also comes off the bench and doesn’t need the ball in his hands to make an impact, making his efforts less obvious to the casual fan. What Gordon has provided are the intangibles that keep the often disorganized and young (five sophomores make up the starting lineup) Pirates together. Gordon is not only the team’s lone senior, but he’s also the only player on the roster who has been to the NCAA Tournament – once with Western Kentucky his freshman year and again with UMass as a sophomore. When the team was facing disciplinary issues, it was Gordon who called a players-only meeting to sift through and sort out the concerns. “Me being a veteran, I’ve got to make sure we stay together and don’t put our heads down,” Gordon said. “I wasn’t here last year, but I’ve heard what happened last year. I’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

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On Andrew Chrabascz and Butler’s Surprising Fall

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 2nd, 2016

Back around Christmas, we talked about how drastically Butler’s offense had transformed this season, in large part due to faster pace and an improved individual efficiency for some key players. This offense was predicated on a balanced attack that featured reliable shooters and a handful of players who could score in the paint. As his team headed into Big East play, it appeared that Butler head coach Chris Holtmann had everything figured out. His Bulldogs had collected wins over Cincinnati and Purdue and were a weekly member of the Top 25. The offense that was propelling the Bulldogs was ranked among the nation’s top five in terms of points per game and averaging a whopping 123 points per 100 possessions. The most impressive part wasn’t the above-average rebounding rates for an undersized team or Butler’s remarkable ability to take care of the ball; what separated this year’s Bulldogs from past editions was its ability to score inside. Through its non-conference slate, Butler was shooting over 57 percent from two-point range, its best mark in 15 years. Curiously though, all of it – truly, all of it – has come undone in the last few weeks.

Andrew Chrabascz's shooting woes have plagued Butler in Big East play. (USA Today Sports)

Andrew Chrabascz’s shooting woes have plagued Butler in Big East play. (USA Today Sports)

Many are pointing fingers at Butler’s stark lack of depth across essentially every position on the roster, and while it’s true that the bench lacks the ability to consistently contribute, the starting lineup still provides plenty of firepower. Senior Kellen Dunham has been remarkably consistent this season, shedding the up-and-down shooting woes of his former self. Roosevelt Jones has shown no signs of slowing down when it comes to attacking the rim. Budding sophomore Kelan Martin has established himself as a do-it-all scorer and one of the team’s most efficient shooters. None of these three have suffered any slowdown in conference play and none are the reason why Butler has been unable to win close league games. Instead, the tragic downturn has coincided with both an injury to point guard Tyler Lewis, and more importantly, the disappearance of 6’7″ post man Andrew Chrabascz, a player who has struggled mightily with his shooting touch. The Bulldogs do not need 20 points per game out of Chrabascz, but any reasonable consistency from him will open up the floor. When he shoots the ball well, defenders are forced to respect his outside shooting as he rolls off screens, a nice addition to the help defense he normally draws in the low post. Butler excels when it uses Chrabascz to set ball screens to free Dunham or Jones and set up a two-on-one situation with Chrabascz either rolling to the rim or floating out for an open jump shot. His shooting ability forces post players to leave the paint in order to contest his shots, which is part of the reason Jones and Martin have had so many lanes on their drives to the basket.

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Marquette’s Troubles Begin With Its Pace

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 29th, 2016

Marquette may have already matched last season’s win total, but conference success has been hard to come by. A once-dominant, perennial contender in the Big East has fallen by the wayside following the departure of Buzz Williams. And while expectations have been tempered for first-time head coach Steve Wojciechowski, the frustration is already evident. On its face, the Golden Eagles’ frontcourt pairing of Indiana transfer Luke Fischer – an experienced junior with a plethora of post moves – and highly touted freshman Henry Ellenson forms the core of the best offensive frontcourt in the conference. Unsurprisingly, the team is sporting both its best two-point field goal percentage offense and defense of the last 15 years. Marquette has thrived when working through the post, a reality made even more evident when the Golden Eagles shot 54.8 percent inside the arc against Villanova, a team that usually holds opponents to 41.9 percent two-point shooting (16th nationally).

Yet for a team that plays so well in the paint (Fischer and Ellenson shoot a combined 70% at the rim), the team’s offense has been undermined by an odd plan of attack. Entry passes or pick-and-roll plays that have commonly resulted in easy Golden Eagles points are scarcely used; instead, Wojciechowski’s team is playing at an unsustainably quick pace, averaging just 15.7 seconds per possession on offense. The team’s average offensive possession length has decreased from 18.6 seconds (198th nationally) to 15.7 (34th nationally) over the course of one season. This figure is undoubtedly distorted by a high turnover rate and low rebounding rate, but those two issues also plagued last year’s team, and to a similar extent. Perhaps as a result of the relative inexperience of its backcourt players, the quickened pace has Marquette turning the ball over on 20.5 percent of all its possessions, which puts them 296th nationally in the category.

Marquette's Henry Ellenson Plays a Perimeter-Oriented Game (USA Today Images)

Marquette’s Henry Ellenson Plays a Perimeter-Oriented Game (USA Today Images)

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Edmond Sumner’s Emergence As Xavier’s MVP

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 20th, 2016

There has been no shortage of discussion around the success of Xavier so far this season. Even after a loss to Georgetown on Tuesday night, the Musketeers are a top five team with a 16-2 record and five wins over the RPI top 50. It’s put Xavier on track to potentially post the best season in program history. Xavier has earned a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament twice in its history (2003 and 2008), but has never advanced to the Final Four. Now, in building upon a dark horse Sweet Sixteen run last season, Chris Mack’s team is pounding on the ceiling. Some bracketology predictions show Mack’s team on the one seed line, and talk of legitimate Final Four potential is ramping up. A balanced offense (six players score 9 PPG or more) has combined with a stifling zone defense to pave the way to the team’s hot start. So too has the intimidating inside punch of Jalen Reynolds and James Farr, whose combined 15.6 RPG is a major reason why Xavier is one of the best rebounding teams in the country. But the true impact player for the X-men has been redshirt freshman Edmond Sumner, a wiry 6’6 point guard who drastically alters the rhythm of the game on both ends of the floor.

His assist figures may not directly reflect it, but Sumner has deftly assumed point guard duties left behind by departed senior Dee Davis, who had been a critical facilitator on last year’s team. One of the big offseason questions for Chris Mack was whether any player could fill his shoes. Sumner has done that, and more. He is averaging 5.4 assists per 40 minutes, while his scoring ability has drawn enough respect from defenders that they are forced to slide into help position and surrender an open man. His long frame and quick feet enable him to easily evade defenders in both the halfcourt and transition, frequently putting him in a position to score or make an easy pass. Here, are two perfect examples of the aforementioned optionality that Sumner provides his team.

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Villanova’s Josh Hart Is Becoming An All-American Candidate

Posted by Chris Stone on January 18th, 2016

With 17 seconds remaining in Villanova’s 55-50 victory over Georgetown on Saturday, the Wildcats’ Josh Hart delivered the proverbial dagger. In basketball parlance, daggers are typically big shots that put games out of reach, but on Saturday, Hart’s dagger came in the form of a timeout. Sprawled on the floor as Villanova held a a 51-46 lead, Hart signaled to the baseline official for the timeout as Hoyas began to pile on top of him. Moments earlier, the Villanova swingman had skied high for a rebound, his 12th of the game, off a Reggie Cameron missed three-pointer that would have closed the deficit to two. “You can’t teach the guts to just lay your body out and go get the ball like that,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright told the media after the win. “You see that and you just say, ‘Thank God he’s on our team.'”

Josh Hart is becoming more than Villanova's sixth man. (Associated Press)

Josh Hart is becoming more than just Villanova’s sixth man. (Associated Press)

Hart, a 6’5″ junior, is the leading scorer and second-leading rebounder on KenPom’s #1 ranked team, but you won’t find his name on many mid-season All-American lists. The omission is a bit perplexing given that Hart wasn’t exactly an unknown heading into the year. He was the Big East’s Sixth Man of the Year a season ago, a year in which he also became the first non-starter to win the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. Now, Hart is averaging 15.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game for the surging Wildcats. His 15-point, 12-rebound performance against Georgetown is just the latest in a long line of impressive outings this season.

The transition from sixth man to starter hasn’t necessarily been a smooth one, however. “It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster,” Hart said of the switch. According to him, the biggest adjustment has been making sure that he starts the game well. “Last year, I could watch everything going on and then get into it. Now, I have to jump start the team,” he said after Saturday’s victory. While Hart finished with 12 rebounds against Georgetown, just one of those came in the first half. Luckily for the Wildcats, slow starts don’t seem to bother Hart. At halftime, he said he told himself that “If I’m not going to score, I’m going to rebound, I’m going to help this team.”

That team-first mentality is also a reflection of Hart’s evolution as a leader. The upperclassman has a healthy respect for the Wildcats who have come before him. “I’m a junior now. Now, I don’t have the James Bells, the Darrun Hilliards, the [JayVaughn Pinkstons], the Tony Chennaults,” Hart said in reference to seniors who have graduated during his tenure. “I don’t have those guys to kind of lean on, now I’m going into that leadership role.”

As Hart becomes more comfortable with his role as a starter and leader, he’s also been working hard to improve himself as an individual player. He works with associate head coach Baker Dunleavy “every day” on various aspects of his game. There has been obvious growth in a number of areas of Hart’s skill set since he arrived at Villanova from Sidwell Friends School three years ago, but the talent that he’s improved most is his jump shot. “I think everyone saw my shot freshman year. It was probably one of the ugliest things—had a crazy hitch. It was just atrocious,” he said after Saturday’s win as teammate Ryan Arcidiacono flashed a big smile. Since shooting 31.3 percent from three-point range his freshman season, Hart is an impressive 79-for-190 from deep (41.6%).

Hart opened Saturday's contest with a steal and a dunk. (USA Today Sports)

Hart opened Saturday’s contest with a steal and dunk. (USA Today Sports)

This rollercoaster ride isn’t an accident. Villanova has created an environment for Hart to grow from role player to sixth man to star. He frequently credits his coaches and his teammates with helping him grow the confidence necessary for the improvement. According to Hart, the next step in his personal development is to improve his decision-making when he gets into the lane. “You just have to get the work in,” he said.

While timeouts are rarely remembered as game-changing, Hart’s rebound and call for time against Georgetown was the critical moment of the Wildcat win. It also provided a solid reflection of the ethos of both team and star — Hart and the group he leads have proven quite committed to doing everything possible to help the Wildcats win. Those type of players typically find their way onto “glue guy” lists, but Josh Hart is much more than that. Don’t be surprised if the name of Villanova’s newest leader shows up on All-American lists at the end of the season.

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Otskey’s Big East Observations: 01.15.16 Edition

Posted by Brian Otskey on January 15th, 2016

Early conference results can sometimes be deceiving. While the Big East is one of only two major conferences with a true round-robin format, the start to conference play for Butler and Georgetown has been quite different. These teams currently sit at 1-3 and 4-1, respectively, even though the Bulldogs are widely regarded to be the better team. While Georgetown was handed a soft opening stretch to conference play, one that included two games with DePaul, one with St. John’s and a home tilt against Marquette, Butler has had to play the likes of Xavier, Providence and Villanova right off the bat. Everything will even out eventually, but sometimes a tough start to league play can take away momentum created in the non-conference, something Butler (11-1 non-conference record) did quite well. But should there be concern now that the Bulldogs are heading in the wrong direction? Absolutely. Chris Holtmann’s team ranks a dismal No. 157 in adjusted defensive efficiency for the season and dead last in the 10-team Big East when considering conference games only. Butler has struggled all season with adjusting to life without Kameron Woods, who was a dominant rebounder last season. The Bulldogs are undersized in the frontcourt and need to figure out a way to rebound and defend if they are going to bounce back from a rough start to league play.

Chris Holtmann and Butler were dealt no favors by the Big East schedule makers. (AP)

Chris Holtmann and Butler were dealt no favors by the Big East schedule makers. (AP)

We will find out a lot more about Georgetown in the coming weeks. The Hoyas now begin a stretch of six straight games against KenPom top 50 teams after their soft open to the Big East schedule. Turnovers, rebounding and perimeter defense remain issues for this team, and the loss of Paul White for the rest of this season hurts its depth. Georgetown showed glimpses of strong play in the non-conference, but when you remember the good with the bad — head-scratching losses to some legitimately bad teams — it is difficult to make a confident judgement on the team. One thing that is a safe bet: The Hoyas will go as far as D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera can take them.

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What Lies Beneath: Isaiah Whitehead’s Passing Has Reinvigorated the Hall

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 9th, 2016

Isaiah Whitehead has undergone a radical transformation over the last three weeks. The 6’4″ Brooklyn native arrived at Seton Hall as a shooting guard stuck in a point guard’s body, and it showed his freshman year. His talent was undeniable, but the fit felt unnatural alongside Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina, both of whom preferred to have the ball in their hands. As a result, last season’s guard-laden backcourt eventually collapsed amid locker room disputes and a struggle for roles. When all was said and done, Gibbs and Sina departed, leaving the team in the hands of the rising sophomore Whitehead.

The emergence of a special Isaiah Whitehead has Seton Hall right in the mix. ( Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY Sports)

The emergence of a special Isaiah Whitehead has Seton Hall right in the mix. (Jim O’Connor/USA TODAY Sports)

The start to the newly-minted Whitehead era was a rocky one, as an early loss to Long Beach State was sandwiched between narrow victories over Wagner and Bradley. Now, just weeks later, the team has collected wins over Georgia, Wichita State and Marquette. Don’t look now, but the Pirates appear to be playing their way into the NCAA tournament. The development of the team’s sophomores is a big reason for the improved outlook, but the biggest transformation of all belongs to Whitehead, who has found the right balance within the scorer/distributor framework of a point guard. “After Rutgers he started playing at a good level. He’s letting the game come to him, he’s getting good shots. He knows when to be aggressive and when to pass the ball more now,” coach Kevin Willard said following his team’s win over DePaul. Make no mistake, too: This shift has not been gradual. It has been sudden and dramatic. Whitehead’s assist figures have exploded, and so too has the effectiveness of the team’s offense. Read the rest of this entry »

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Marquette Slowly Rebuilding But Hope is on the Horizon

Posted by Chris Stone on January 5th, 2016

Under former coaches Tom Crean and Buzz Williams, Marquette made the NCAA Tournament in eight straight seasons from 2006-13. Despite all of that success, a tumultuous period in program history began just one season removed from a 2013 trip to the Elite Eight. It begin with a sour relationship between Williams and former athletic director Larry Williams (no relation). The latter Williams resigned in December 2013 amid a cloud of uncertainty. The former Williams, for his part, surprisingly left the program for Virginia Tech at the end of the 2013-14 season. In retrospect, the decision was calculated. Williams decided that Marquette, a school with no football program and mired in the thick of a shaky Big East realignment, was not well-poised for future success. The Golden Eagles’ 17-15 record that season certainly wasn’t reassuring.

Steve Wojchiechowski is in the midst of a rebuild at Marquette. (Mark Hoffman/The Journal Sentinel)

Steve Wojchiechowski is in the midst of a rebuild at Marquette. (Mark Hoffman/The Journal Sentinel)

Steve Wojciechowski, the associate head coach at Duke at the time, saw Marquette differently than Williams. He saw a school where, similar to his alma mater in Durham, the men’s basketball program is an integral part of the university. He also recognized that the program has a proud and passionate fan base that will not accept mediocrity. In his first season, Marquette finished 13-19 and once again missed the NCAA Tournament, but a top-10 recruiting class that included highly-touted freshman Henry Ellenson brought a rejuvenated sense of hope. Those expectations were tempered very quickly at the start of the season. In the span of a single November week, the Golden Eagles lost their home opener to Belmont, needed overtime to get past IUPUI, and was walloped by Iowa. They bounced back with neutral court victories over LSU and Arizona State in Brooklyn en route to a 10-2 record that also included a surprising victory over Wisconsin in Madison. The beginning of Big East play, however, brought forth some new adversity. After a disappointing home loss by 20 points to Seton Hall, Marquette hit 0-2 in league play after an 80-70 loss to Georgetown on Saturday. Read the rest of this entry »

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Villanova’s Success Predicated on Slowing Down Its Offense

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 5th, 2016

To a casual fan, Villanova’s woes appear painfully obvious: The Wildcats are shooting — and missing — too many threes. But approach the issue at the next level and shooting isn’t the problem as much as the quick tempo it produces. Jay Wright’s most successful teams have thrived by forcing turnovers and attacking with a well-balanced offense. In recent years, however, its healthy ratio between points in the paint and from three has faltered, with the Wildcats becoming increasingly dependent on perimeter shooting. The numbers show that Villanova has shot over 40 percent of its field goal attempts from long range over the last three seasons and that share has gotten frighteningly close to half of all of its shots (48.3%) this year. As a result, the team’s overall accuracy (32%) has experienced a sharp dip (from 39 percent a year ago to 32 percent this season). We should expect Villanova’s outside shooting to revert to the mean somewhat, but all signs so far suggest that this year’s squad performs best in a low-possession game in which its offense finds greater balance beyond such voluminous use of the three-point shot.

Jay Wright Has His Team Dancing Once Again, But For How Long? (H. Rumph Jr./AP)

In somewhat of a surprise, Jay Wright’s crew has been more efficient when they have limited their possessions per game. (H. Rumph Jr./AP)

On one hand, Villanova currently leads the country in two-point shooting percentage at 63.1 percent. This is largely a testament to the skill sets of its personnel: Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart are excellent at getting to the rim; Ryan Arcidiacono and Kris Jenkins are strong mid-range shooters. Despite the team’s relative struggles from beyond the arc this season, opponents still have to respect its shooting pedigree and volume, which opens their driving lanes. As a result, Villanova has proven capable of getting into the lane and scoring. Still, the Wildcats haven’t taken enough of those high-percentage shots, instead often passing it back out to the perimeter in search of an extra point. Despite Villanova’s exceptional 72.1 percent shooting at the rim (ninth nationally), these looks represent fewer than a third (32.4%) of the team’s total shot attempts (273rd in the nation). This aversion to attacking the rim is also revealed by the team’s free throw rate, in which Villanova ranks 314th this season after finishing among the top 100 in each of the last seven years. Needless to say, this squad’s large number of three-point attempts is hurting its offensive efficiency in a number of ways, some more notable than others. Read the rest of this entry »

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Risen From the Dead: The Big East is Back!

Posted by Shane McNichol on December 30th, 2015

As we sit on the precipice of celebrating the New Year, two conferences have landed four teams in the top 16 of the AP Poll. One is, of course, the ACC, monstrous in both size and basketball dominance. A league that stretches from Miami to South Bend to Boston, with a whopping 15 members located in that absurd triangle. The other is the Big East. Yes, that Big East. The star of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Requiem for the Big East”. The conference with a Wikipedia page declaring that it ended three years ago. The same Big East who inspired headlines like “The Big East is dead (or at least dying). Long live the Big East” and “How the Big East died and was dead all along.” A Google search of “Big East is dead” fetches over 68 million results. SIXTY-EIGHT MILLION!

Jay Wright's crew leads an incredibly deep Big East conference this season. (Getty)

Jay Wright’s crew leads an incredibly deep Big East conference this season. (Getty)

And yet, the current iteration would certainly beg to differ. After the “Catholic Seven” refused to let their conference go by the wayside, they’ve done more than exist or tread water. Last season, six Big East clubs reached the Big Dance. That’s more than football powers like the SEC and the Pac-12 and just as many as the giant ACC. Having a swath of teams reach the tournament says one thing about a conference. Having four teams reach the turn of the calendar highly ranked with non-delusional plans of reaching the Final Four says something more. Whether through a stroke of luck or genius, the Big East schedule opens Thursday with two nationally televised games pitting these four teams against one another. #16 Villanova hosts #6 Xavier at noon, followed by #10 Providence traveling to play at #9 Butler. Butler then turns right around and heads to Xavier on Saturday.

Consider this long holiday weekend the first foray into what is sure to be a season long battle for the conference crown between four teams all capable of deep runs in March.

Villanova

Villanova, the most familiar with tournament success among the group of four, came into the season with heavy expectations. Ryan Arcidiancono returned for his senior season, along with experienced talent in Josh Hart, Daniel Ochefu, and Phil Booth. Big name freshman recruit Jaylen Brunson joined the fold, expected to make all of his now teammates lives much easier. Thus far they’ve nearly lived up to the hype, save for losses to two highly ranked foes, Oklahoma (on a neutral court) and Virginia (on the road). The Cats’ biggest issue has been a frigid start from long range, shooting merely 31 percent on the year. The cold start has been led by Booth (49% last year) shooting 27 percent and Kris Jenkins (37% in the two prior years) firing an ugly 29 percent on nearly seven attempts per game. In Jay Wright’s dribble-drive offense, led by playmaking by Arcidiacono and Brunson, shooting on the perimeter will not only increase scoring, but will open space for slashers or Ochefu operating on the post. Read the rest of this entry »

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Butler’s Christmas Gift: The Impact of Roosevelt Jones

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 24th, 2015

Butler has historically been a defensive-minded program. The best teams of the Brad Stevens era rarely had the biggest or most offensively talented group of players, but what won games for the Bulldogs was toughness and intelligence, a methodical pace and aggressive man-to-man defense. With Chris Holtmann at the helm, now in his second season, the switch has been flipped. This year’s team is playing at a tempo that far outpaces any Butler team in the 14-year KenPom era, and the results of the uptick have so far been tremendous. The Bulldogs are averaging the second most points per game in the nation (89.7) and are unquestionably the highest scoring team in the history of the program (the next highest is the 2011 team that averaged 71.2 PPG and lost to Connecticut in the National Championship game).

The impending battle down low between Roosevelt Jones and will be must see TV. (ZJB photograpy)

Roosevelt Jones finally has it going for Butler. (ZJB photograpy)

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. The team’s ridiculously high scoring rates have not been facilitated by a full-blown run-and-gun offense, as Butler has been shooting, rebounding and taking care of the ball at unprecedented rates. There are a multitude of explanations for its newfound efficiency: senior Kellen Dunham‘s improved shot selection; point guard Tyler Lewis‘ preference for faster basketball (particularly when compared to his predecessor, Alex Barlow), and the emergence of Kelan Martin as a legitimate scorer. But above all, it’s been the steadying force of guard Roosevelt Jones that has pushed Butler into overdrive. Despite playing fewer minutes this season, the senior has elevated his game and improved his production in nearly every statistical category.

In short, Jones has gotten more involved in every facet of the offense. He is shooting a career best 50.0 percent from the field and has increased his per-game averages in rebounding from 5.2 RPG to 7.8 RPT and assists from 3.7 APG to 5.4 APG. Moreover, he has logged only one KenPom offensive rating below 100.0 this season (it was over 100.0 in just 15 of 34 contests last season). But to explain Jones’ game in purely numbers would hardly be doing it justice; he has had a monumental impact within one of the nation’s most efficient offenses. While under greater pressure to score last season, his overall shooting percentage dropped from 48.6 percent to 42.1 percent. Now, with Lewis and Martin emerging as legitimate scoring threats as well, the lane has opened up and allowed Jones to thrive.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Seton Hall Defense Driving Early Success

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on December 21st, 2015

Wichita State’s self-described “Redemption Tour” broke up Saturday afternoon in Newark as the Shockers fell to Seton Hall in overtime. It did not, however, start out quite that way for the Pirates. Through the game’s first 13 minutes, the Shockers scored 33 points on 22 field goal attempts, going 5-of-7 from beyond the arc and 9-of-15 from closer, scoring 14 points on turnovers and runouts. “Actually, it was my fault,” said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard after the game. “I had too much time to watch film and I tried to be creative. I was trying to confuse them [Wichita State, with a zone defense], but I ended up confusing our guys. We got back to being real simple.” Real simple for the Pirates meant a physical man-to-man defense that shut down the lane and planted taller defenders on wings Ron Baker and Evan Wessel. Wichita State shot 12-of-42 for the rest of the game, and the defense that shut down the Shockers should put perimeter-oriented teams like Creighton and Villanova on notice — the Pirates are developing answers.

Desi Rodriguez scored a team-high in the Pirates' big win over the Shockers. (Saed Hindash/NJ Advance Media)

Desi Rodriguez scored a team-high in the Pirates’ big win over the Shockers. (Saed Hindash/NJ Advance Media)

Physical defense has been a trademark of Willard’s last two squads, especially with the additions of center Angel Delgado and forward Desi Rodriguez in the 2014 recruiting class. But this season is different given the progress of fellow sophomore Ismeal Sanogo and redshirt freshman Michael Nzei Willard providing options at the two forward spots. Willard’s move of Rodriguez to the small forward spot, where he used his size and athleticism to limit Wichita State senior Zach Brown (who fouled out the first time this season) to three points on 1-of-3 shooting, was a very good strategy. Having Nzei and Sanogo inside adds a physical dimension to the Pirates’ defense. “Since I’ve been here we have had very skilled four men — Patrik (Auda), Brandon (Mobley) — Ismael and Mike are the complete opposite of Brandon and Patrik, much more junk yard dogs, athletic,” Willard explained after the win. “Ismael uses his athleticism really well. He can get above the rim and rebound. They have been — I keep saying this — the two of them have been the best surprise, and they worked hard, they are the best surprise by far this season.” Read the rest of this entry »

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