Big East Bubble Watch: Volume I

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 23rd, 2017

Selection Sunday is fast approaching and remaining schedules provide dwindling opportunities to make the cut line for the NCAA Tournament. Given how wide open the Big East has been this season (thanks in large part to a number of injuries affecting Xavier and Creighton), there is an unusually large number of conference teams still with a fighting chance. Here is where those teams stand as we head into one of the final weekends of the regular season. RPI and strength of schedule (SOS) figures are from RPIForecast.com.

Locks

Villanova and Butler are Two of the Big East’s Mortal Locks (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova: 26-3 (13-3); RPI: 2; SOS: 29
  • Butler: 22-6 (11-5); RPI: 11; SOS: 12
  • Creighton: 22-6 (11-7); RPI: 26; SOS: 48

Analysis: These three teams have made things pretty easy for themselves — even losing out would not be enough to diminish their NCAA Tournament hopes. Villanova is a near-lock for a #1 seed even after last night’s home loss to Butler, while the Bulldogs and Bluejays should find themselves on the #4 or #5 seed lines.

Should Be In

  • Xavier: 18-10 (8-7); RPI: 22; SOS: 8

Analysis: Even accounting for the season-ending injury to Edmond Sumner, Xavier shouldn’t have needed to worry about which tournament it would take part in at the end of the regular season. But an ankle injury to leading scorer Trevon Bluiett has changed that perspective. Bluiett was back in action on Wednesday night, but the Musketeers regardless dropped their fourth consecutive game in ugly fashion at Seton Hall, and their upcoming schedule isn’t favorable. Still, three more losses would put Chris Mack‘s team at 18-13 with an RPI of ~38, which likely means squarely in the field. On the plus side, Xavier has been getting much better contributions from its post players, especially RaShid Gaston, which was a major concern earlier this season.

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St. John’s Bashir Ahmed Represents a Tradeoff Between Efficiency and Intangibles

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 15th, 2017

St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin has the luxury of being able to construct a wide variety of lineups, but a curious dilemma arises when one of his most important players is also his least efficient. His roster has lightning-quick, penetrating guards, floor-stretching shooters and a handful of ultra-athletic big men who can defend the post and rebound, but he only has one Bashir Ahmed. Most of his other players, no matter how talented, are limited to specific positions. Guards Marcus LoVett, Jr. and Shamorie Ponds stand at 6’0″ and 6’1″, respectively. Swingman Malik Ellison is a defensive specialist. And shot blocker Tariq Owens is tremendous in his role protecting the paint, but he is generally confined to putbacks on the offensive end of the floor. That leaves Ahmed, a 6’7″ JuCo transfer who possesses great talent combined with a penchant for iffy decision-making.

Bashir Ahmed is the Only True Wing Threat St. John’s Has (USA Today Images)

Ahmed is aggressive in attacking the basket, savvy enough to draw contact in the lane, and athletic enough to challenge most defenders — all highly desirable attributes in a small forward. But when combined with an ingrained habit of unabashedly exerting his will against good defenses, the result is too many turnovers and missed shots. As the below table shows, Ahmed lags behind the other Red Storm rotation players in just about every shooting category.

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Marquette and the Defensive Perils of Playing Small

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 10th, 2017

The small ball era has been discussed ad nauseam with case studies such as Golden State in the NBA and Villanova in college acting as manifestations of its success. But for all the talk about how effective shooter-stocked lineups are, the most under-appreciated element of the strategy is player interchangeability on defense. Villanova’s small lineups work because its wing players can effectively guard multiple positions and Jay Wright’s emphasis on help defense shores up any size deficiencies. Marquette‘s small ball approach, on the other hand, has so far come up short. Before diving into the issues surrounding the Golden Eagles’ strategy, though, it’s important to illustrate why Steve Wojciechowski has resorted to it in the first place. On its face, his decision to add undersized shooters to his lineup appears to favor offense over defense.

Height 3PT FG%
Andrew Rowsey 5’10 47.2%
Markus Howard 5’11 51.9%
Sam Hauser 6’6 45.3%

 

The maneuver has turned what was a decent offense into the program’s best since Tom Crean and Dwyane Wade were still on campus back in 2003. The ninth-most efficient offense in college basketball features the nation’s best three-point shooting arsenal at 42.4 percent, serving as a primary source of the offense and ostensibly justifying Wojciechowski’s decision to recruit for a motion-heavy, perimeter-based attack. The glaring trade-off on defense, while somewhat apparent at the time, was not expected to be this drastic. While Marquette’s offense has clearly surged, its mid-major defense (165th nationally) represents a problem of positional versatility. Most undersized teams have at least one or two guys who are capable of “sizing up” and defending bigger players on switches. Wings JaJuan Johnson and Haanif Cheatham both possess good athleticism, but neither has shown an ability to effectively front his man on the block and contest shots around the rim. Meanwhile, the pair of stretch fours that Wojciechowski employs, Sam Hauser and Katin Reinhardt, are offensive specialists who are not quick enough to defend the perimeter. Watch Hauser in the clip below as he is caught off balance and never regains his composure.

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Angel Delgado is Keeping Seton Hall Afloat

Posted by Mike Knapp on February 9th, 2017

Despite winning its last two games in overtime to keep its postseason hopes alive, Seton Hall’s season has not gone quite the way it had hoped. Coming off a campaign that included a Big East Tournament championship and a top-20 final ranking, the Pirates were probably expecting something slightly better than a 15-8 (5-6 Big East) record heading into the home stretch. The team has without question missed the play-making brilliance of all-Big East guard Isaiah Whitehead — who bolted South Orange for the NBA — but four upperclassman starters returned, including a player in junior center Angel Delgado who has emerged as one of the best big men in the country.

Angel Delgado is Responsible For Seton Hall’s Recent Surge (USA Today Images)

After earning all-Big East honorable mention last season while averaging a near-double-double (9.9 PPG; 9.3 RPG), Delgado came into this year in better shape and as determined as ever. And although the junior averaged a very healthy 14.3 points and 11.4 rebounds per game in non-conference play, his uptick in production during Big East play has been outstanding. In 11 conference games, Delgado is averaging 15.7 points and an astonishing 14.7 rebounds per game – 5.0 of which come on the offensive end. That translates to a superb 28.9 percent defensive rebounding rate, far and away the best in the Big East, and also a stellar offensive rebounding percentage of 14.5 percent – fifth in the league.

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What is Xavier’s Ceiling Without Myles Davis?

Posted by Mike Knapp on January 29th, 2017

Xavier, loser of four of its last five games, finds itself reeling after its Crosstown Shootout defeat to Cincinnati on Thursday night. The Musketeers now stand at 14-6 (4-3, fifth in the Big East) and have already lost as many games as all of last year. In a lot of ways, Xavier’s shaky play is not surprising. Having lost their two best big men from last season (Jalen Reynolds and James Farr), a certain level of drop-off was reasonable. What Chris Mack did not plan for, however, was the major hit his backcourt took when senior guard Myles Davis announced he would be stepping away from the program. After a two-month suspension to start the season, Davis only played three games before announcing his abrupt departure. It is clear that the Musketeers are still clearly missing their primary playmaker.

Myles Davis (USA Today Images)

As a junior, Davis was one of the more under-appreciated distributors in college basketball. He boasted a solid 24.6 percent assist rate and was great at keeping the ball moving in an offense that relied heavily on precision passing on the perimeter to find open shooters. Davis also led the Musketeers in assists – averaging more than four per game – but he was so valuable because of his ability to see one pass ahead in the hockey-assist style (the pass leading to the assist). Per Hoop Lens, Xavier averaged a robust 1.13 points per possession with Davis on the floor last season, best on the team. When he was off the court, Xavier’s resulting drop of 0.18 points per possession was noticeable. More data: The Musketeers’ effective field goal percentage was almost seven points higher with its top play-maker on the court, as much as a result of his scoring in addition to his passing — Davis ranked second on the team in both three-point percentage and threes made last season.

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Replacing Maurice Watson Hasn’t Come Easy For Creighton

Posted by Chris Stone on January 26th, 2017

As if the college basketball world needed yet another reminder, this week has emphasized just how difficult it is to win on the road. On Tuesday night, Kansas, Kentucky and Villanova all came up short in away conference battles, followed up last night with Georgia Tech blowing out Florida State and USC outlasting UCLA, both on the road. Perhaps the most concerning loss of the week — because replacing talent is more difficult than adjusting tactics — may have taken place in the nation’s capital where Creighton suffered its second straight defeat, 71-51 to Georgetown, without injured point guard Maurice Watson, Jr. The senior’s absence is being felt across the board. “He made the game easier for coach [Greg McDermott], me and all my other teammates,” freshman center Justin Patton said after the game.

Creighton is still working out how to play without Maurice Watson Jr. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Watson’s injury created a large offensive void for the Bluejays — in addition to using 24.5 percent of the team’s possessions, he also assisted on 43.0 percent of its made baskets while contributing 17.3 points per 40 minutes. As his head coach noted, that translates to a massive statistical impact. “We’ve lost a big part of our offense,” McDermott said, while also noting that many of his players will need to step into roles they may have never played before. In some ways, that may not prove too difficult. Creighton — one of the fastest per-possession teams in college basketball — continued to push the pace against the Hoyas last night, often throwing a pass ahead to whichever guard was available. Those players need to improve their decision-making in those quick-hit scenarios, but that will come with time and repetition. There are other areas, however, where it’s simply not clear if the Bluejays can replace Watson. Read the rest of this entry »

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It’s Time to Modernize Georgetown’s Offense

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 25th, 2017

On the heels of a 15-18 season in 2015-16 and currently in the midst of a 10-10 campaign featuring a 1-6 record in conference play, the criticisms of Georgetown‘s offense far outweigh the viable solutions. Yes, the Hoyas do not have a true point guard, but their assist to field goal ratio (60.7%) ranks among the top 30 in college basketball. Sure, Georgetown is lacking in high volume shooters, but its three-point field goal percentage of 36.9 percent ranks in the top 100. John Thompson III‘s team might not be a very good defensive rebounding team this year, but the 28th-tallest team nationally did not simply forget how to rebound (the Hoyas were much better at cleaning the defensive glass last season). Is the Princeton offense broken? No, but without player buy-in, understanding, cohesiveness or whatever you want to call it, the pieces at Georgetown will not fit into the greater puzzle. Without good team chemistry and trust in the process, all those backcourt cuts that require a heavy reliance on spacing and timing will become a turnover-fueled hodgepodge. So, what are the Hoyas to do?

One of Thompson’s first initiatives in the offseason was to instill a faster offense — as a result, the Hoyas’ average length of possession this season has fallen from a middling 17.3 to a top-quintile 16.0 seconds. But this strategic shift hasn’t made Georgetown’s offense more efficient — it’s actually worse — and its transition rate of scoring is only marginally higher. In effect, the “faster pace” scheme can be distilled to “taking shots earlier in the shot clock,” which, if anything, runs against the overarching theory of finding the best shot. There’s nothing wrong with the way Georgetown’s lineup is constructed. It generates plenty of firepower from the backcourt, has floor-stretching, big wings, and experienced big men. The attack instead needs to be focused on improved shot selection and methods of scoring. Currently, as the above table shows, an outsized proportion of Hoyas’ offense comes from the free throw line (14th nationally). It’s a plausible strategy in theory, but it is also one that relies heavily on the whimsy of officiating. Read the rest of this entry »

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Projecting the Effect of Maurice Watson’s Injury on Creighton’s Offense

Posted by Eugene Rapay on January 19th, 2017

After suffering an apparent knee injury in Creighton’s Monday afternoon game against Xavier, Maurice Watson, Jr. has been dealt a crushing blow. An MRI later revealed that the senior point guard has a torn left ACL, preemptively ending both his season and career in one cruel swoop. Creighton is not even halfway through Big East play, but now the Bluejays will have to figure out a solution for moving on without Watson’s on-court leadership and skill set. These are big shoes to fill. According to KenPomcollege basketball’s assist leader (8.5 APG) paced the team in minutes and was used in over 28 percent of his team’s possessions. Greg McDermott‘s team isn’t completely doomed without him, but he was one of the primary catalysts in helping the program reach its highest-ever ranking in the national polls.

With Maurice Watson Jr. now out with an ACL injury, the Bluejays have turned to Isaiah Zierden to run the point. (Chris Machian/The World-Herald)

The good news in Omaha is that Creighton has other weapons. Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster (18.1 PPG, 49.3% FG) has completely reinvented himself as a scoring threat in his first year in the Big East, posting career-high numbers in shooting (55.6% eFG) and taking care of the ball (11.5% TO rate). Then there’s Justin Patton (13.8 PPG, 72.7 FG%), the freshman center who has already exceeded everyone’s expectations with his astronomical conversion rate and corresponding ability around the basket. While Creighton still has its top two offensive weapons, the new facilitator working in place of Watson will make the Bluejays’ offense look very different. Read the rest of this entry »

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Future of St. John’s Basketball Resides In Its Freshman Backcourt

Posted by Mike Knapp on January 18th, 2017

For a lot of schools, a record of 9-11 that includes two losing streaks of four or more games might sound disastrous. And while St. John’s certainly isn’t happy with its record to this point of the season, the Red Storm have already matched their win total from a year ago and must be pleased with the glimpses of potential the fourth-youngest roster in college basketball has shown. Fortunately for head coach Chris Mullin, two of his talented underclassmen in particular are showing signs of leading a future Big East juggernaut. St. John’s freshman backcourt of Marcus LoVett and Shamorie Ponds have made the Red Storm one of the more promising, and entertaining, nine-win teams in college basketball.

Marcus LoVett has St. John’s future looking up. (St. John’s Athletics)

LoVett’s strengths lie in his brilliance with the ball in his hands, while Ponds is an elite scorer and athlete. But what makes the freshmen pair so difficult to defend is how interchangeable they are. LoVett may technically be the starting point guard — he logs 81 percent of the total minutes at the position — but Ponds regularly slides over to that role, even with LoVett on the floor, to give the opposing defense a different look. And while Ponds may play off the ball more often — he takes 66 percent of the shooting guard minutes — LoVett regularly assumes this role as well. Even better, they do so with excellent efficiency — both have effective field goal percentages over 55 percent and assist rates over 20 percent. With apologies to De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk at Kentucky, no other freshman backcourt in America boasts such impressive numbers, making the Red Storm a tricky match-up for perimeter defenses.

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Are Villanova’s Smallest Lineups Its Most Effective?

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 11th, 2017

Much has already been written about Omari Spellman’s ineligibility ruling at the beginning of the season, leaving Villanova light in the frontcourt with 6’9″ center Darryl Reynolds acting as the lone interior player. The prevailing concern at the time was that Jay Wright‘s team would struggle to both defend in the post and get abused on the glass, but that line of thinking has proven incorrect. Instead, Villanova’s offense has flourished, and the key to unlocking its full potential might just be re-calibrating the lineup to completely embrace small-ball. For all the discussion over the Wildcats’ elite offense last season, it’s hard to believe that this year’s team is almost two points per 100 possessions better. If Villanova finishes the season at this level of offensive efficiency, its 1.232 points per possession would rank as the fourth-highest of any college basketball team in the last five years. More remarkably, though, is what happens Wright removes Reynolds from the lineup. Take a close look a the table below.

The table shows a Wildcats’ lineup that includes Jalen BrunsonJosh HartKris Jenkins, Eric Paschall and either of Donte DiVicenzo or Mikal Bridges — in other words, a lineup that features no player taller than the 6’7″ Paschall, who was a wing at Fordham and has deftly assumed the role of an undersized center at Villanova. In this even smaller-ball lineup, offensive efficiency spikes further (1.28 PPP) and, given that all five players are comfortable handling the ball, turnovers correspondingly drop (-4.3%). Paschall is a better passer and more viable scoring threat than Reynolds (averaging 15.9 PPG at Fordham) with a demonstrated ability to hit perimeter shots. Moreover, he is dangerous in pick-and-roll situations and Wright can also choose to park him on the three-point line if he wants to open up the lane.

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