Big East Key Questions: DePaul & Georgetown

Posted by Justin Kundrat on October 28th, 2019

DePaul: Will newcomers vault DePaul into a long overdue rebound?

Dave Leitao Wonders What’s Ahead for DePaul (USA Today Images)

Breaking news: DePaul is 77th in KenPom‘s preseason rankings, which, if the Blue Demons can maintain, would equate to the team’s best finish since 2007. In fact, last season was the school’s first year above .500 in over a decade and it was capped on a high note — as the runner-up team in the CBI tournament. So it would seem that DePaul’s upward trajectory would be poised to continue, if not for the fact that 60 percent of its scoring output has departed Chicago. The remaining roster is full of question marks, which is both concerning and exciting. The only known commodities are the return of Devin Gage, an inconsistent but explosive guard, and a steadying pair of 6’9″ inside forces in Paul Reed and Jaylen Butz — both of whom spearheaded the Blue Demons’ best strength last season: rebounding. The list of unknowns is long — too long to promote any promise of a successful season, but simultaneously long enough to make things interesting. Head coach Dave Leitao added Romeo Weems, a four-star forward who signed with DePaul over Michigan and Michigan State, and inked a transfer in Charlie Moore, a sparingly used guard at Kansas. These two will join Jalen Coleman-Lands, who averaged 10 PPG in five games prior to a season-ending injury, in rounding out a high upside but low floor scoring attack. On paper, if high school rankings and former schools count for anything, this team has a good degree of potential, maybe even enough to draw out some of its students. But it’s hard to put stock into potential alone, particularly as it relates to a long-suffering program such as this one.

Georgetown: Will there finally be enough defense to support the offense?

Patrick Ewing Needs to Prioritize His Defense (USA Today Images)

There’s no getting around it — for the last two seasons, Georgetown has finished second to last in the Big East in defensive efficiency. Entering his third season as head coach, Patrick Ewing is pushing the tempo at a moment’s notice, which has the effect of both easy baskets and countless turnovers. Behind a pair of electric freshman guards in James Akinjo and Mac McClung, the fun style led to numerous games where the Hoyas’ defense thwarted its offense. Ewing trotted out a starting lineup with three freshmen, so the natural fallback excuse is that its subpar defense was experience-driven, which brings us back to our key question: Will another year of experience result in a more consistent defense? Between versatile 6’7″ wings Josh LeBlanc and JaMorko Pickett and some strong-armed guards, Ewing has the personnel in place. His team’s uncertainty lies in the paint. Offensive-minded Jessie Govan (+0.07 PPP offense; -0.07 PPP defense, per HoopLens) graduated, only to be replaced by another defensively deficient center in NC State transfer Omer Yurtseven (+0.09 PPP offense; -0.09 PPP defense). Yurtseven has a slightly better shot-blocking and rebounding profile than his predecessor, but it’s unclear whether he can function as a ball-stopping center on defense. He is joined by a trio of 6’10” and 6’11” three-star freshmen, whose impact will be important but is still unknown. It wouldn’t take a great defense to put Georgetown into the NCAA Tournament picture this season, but a decent one is critical.

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Big East Key Questions: Butler & Creighton

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on October 22nd, 2019

Butler: Can the Bulldogs’ supporting cast take the necessary step forward to return to the NCAA Tournament?

Butler Seeks a Bounceback Year After a Disappointing 2018-19 Season (USA Today Images)

Despite finishing with a sub-.500 overall record and falling to a last place finish (tied) in the Big East standings, Butler was on the periphery of last year’s NCAA Tournament bubble until very late in the season. A mix of strong early wins, the tightly-clustered conference standings, and the star power of Kamar Baldwin kept them relevant, but the stark lack of a suitable supporting cast ultimately doomed Butler’s year.

The pressure will be on the supporting cast once again this season, as Paul Jorgenson, the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer and second-best shooter, has graduated. Jordan Tucker is poised to step into a secondary scoring role with his 6’7″ size and beautiful three-point stroke (37% on 50 makes) — despite averaging an impressive 9.7 PPG last year, the sophomore was too inconsistent, scoring six points or fewer in nearly 30 percent of his games. Tucker will need to diversify his offensive game and improve his finishing at the rim to realize his immense potential.

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Maybe the Big East Really is Just Villanova and Everyone Else

Posted by Justin Kundrat on April 9th, 2019

It’s a painful narrative stemming from another painful season in the Big East. The conference as a whole battled all season long, collecting a number of impressive non-conference wins, amassing both longstanding and fleeting appearances in the Top 25, and ultimately achieving four NCAA Tournament bids. And yet again, come March, all that hard work failed to materialize. The best conference achievements might have been Xavier‘s run from 3-8 team to bubble team, the out-performance of Seton Hall and Creighton (picked eighth and ninth in the preseason poll, respectively), or DePaul‘s first postseason appearance since 2007 (it finished as the runner-up). But at the end of the day, the league’s attention disappeared as quickly as its several teams did from contention.

The Villanova East?

Given the exodus of talent from last offseason, most teams expected to struggle to adjust this year. But what hasn’t changed — not this year, last year, or the year before — is that the Big East continues to underwhelm in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a frustrating habit for conference supporters and it fuels the narratives that the league is no longer a top-tier conference, isn’t worth watching, is overrated, etc… So what gives? How many years will the non-Villanova Big East continue to languish in postseason play? And why is it even happening? There are a few schools of thought:

The first and most prominent is the sample size conundrum. The single elimination format of the NCAA Tournament allows for a wide variance in outcomes whereby a hot or cold shooting night, a few missed calls or a poor game plan will have an outsized effect on public perception of a team. The perfect example is last season’s Virginia club, which at 31-2 and an overall #1 seed, had one bad game at an inopportune time and received a shocking amount of criticism. Was it justified? Certainly not; a 33-game sample size greatly outweighs the one-game sample size of the NCAA Tournament. The same could be said for the postseason as it pertains to the Big East: single-game losses to equal or better teams should not outweigh the regular season as a barometer of success. But justly or not, it does, and it will continue to do so because the perceived point of the tournament in the first place is to crown the best team. One season might be a blip, but it remains perplexing that the Big East, aside from Villanova and an unexpected run by Xavier one year, has struggled for years.

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Big East Burning Questions: NCAA Tournament Edition

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 20th, 2019

If a down year for the conference means four bids, then the conference certainly has nothing to complain about. All four Big East clubs were slotted roughly in line with expectations heading into Sunday and each has a winnable First Round game (or a play-in game for St. John‘s). Below are the burning questions facing each team as it prepares for the NCAA tournament:

Marquette: Will Markus Howard get back on track?

Marquette Will Go as Far As Markus Howard Can Take Them (USA Today Images)

As good of shooters as the Hauser brothers and Sacar Anim are, there’s no question the Marquette offense runs through Markus Howard. His red-hot shooting (40.8% 3FG) and ability to draw fouls (seventh-highest fouls drawn per 40 minutes) keep the Golden Eagles humming and give much needed spacing to his teammates. Tertiary scorers such as Joey Hauser and Anim are less efficient when Howard is not on the floor and the Marquette offense as a whole scores 10 fewer points per 100 possessions without him. That drops Marquette from an elite offense (23rd nationally) to a strikingly average one. In the team’s recent six-game stumble, Howard’s effective field goal percentage plummeted to 42.2 percent, compared with 53.5 percent in the games preceding it. So it’s no surprise then that some of the team’s worst performances correlate directly with an off night from their 5’11” star. Coupling these recent struggles with news of Howard’s hand injury is definitely cause for concern.

Villanova: How will the Wildcats perform on an off shooting night?

By this point, everyone knows that Villanova relies heavily on the three-pointer, having ranked among the top 40 nationally in three-point attempt rate for each of the last six seasons. This season, Jay Wright has taken that ambition to an extreme, with three-pointers accounting for 53.5 percent of Villanova’s shot attempts, good for third nationally. When they connect, defenses are forced to adjust, which opens up driving lanes and creates better spacing. But Villanova is decidedly average in its long-range accuracy this season, making the slumps feel that much longer when the shots continue to be fired. In the Big East Tournament, the Wildcats did a good job generating points at the line and around the basket during those inevitable cold spells, but it wasn’t always pretty and felt somewhat unsustainable. Wins are wins, but in the NCAA Tournament, the question will be whether Wright’s club can find offense when their shooting dries up. The rim-attacking abilities of Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels will be critical.

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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 74, Seton Hall 72

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 16th, 2019

RTC’s Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is providing on-site coverage of the Big East Tournament all week long.

Villanova Survived Seton Hall to Win Another Big East Championship (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. The Big East Tournament continues to be the best postseason conference event in the country. It is undoubtedly a down year for the Big East conference, but the last 24 hours featured three of the most entertaining games of the entire season. Between a Villanova comeback victory against Xavier, a technical foul and ejection-fest for Seton Hall and Marquette, and a two-point championship game, the event did not disappoint.
  2. Villanova’s balanced offense was on full display tonight. At its worst, the Wildcats over-relied on its senior duo of Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to generate offense. But tonight, Saddiq Bey tallied 16 points and Jermaine Samuels had 12 of his own, punishing the Pirates when they committed too many of their defensive resources to the Villanova stars. This balanced attack led to 18 points in the paint and 19 from the foul line, offsetting yet another sub-par three-point shooting performance. Having role players contributing offensively is the difference between Villanova losing in the First Round next week and making a run to the second weekend of the Tournament.
  3. Seton Hall’s tremendous run snaps back to reality, but the attention has now shifted to a bigger stage. One of the hottest teams in the country put on a show these last few weeks, but their accumulation of wins served a bigger purpose than just a point of pride — it put the Pirates in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year. Now, all eyes will be on whether they can carry some momentum into next week and earn a win or two. Willard has yet to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in his coaching career and doing so would mean turning a major corner for the program.

Star of the Game. Saddiq Bey didn’t win the Big East Tournament’s MVP award, but he was the biggest difference maker of all tonight. The freshman forward chipped in 16 points in numerous ways while leading his team in rebounds (10) while recording two blocks and two steals. On the biggest stage he has experienced to date, Bey put up the best two-way performance of his young career.

Quotable.

  • Jay Wright, on the difference his newcomers made tonight: “I think this really helped us. Swider coming back from six weeks off… Cremo gave us good minutes. Saddiq Bey, his first two or three shots were air balls and then he gave us great games.”
  • Wright on the importance of his seniors and their impact on the team: “In our program, the older you get, the more responsibility is put on you. And it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder… Josh Hart was here and he took great pride in these two [Phil and Eric] because he was the one teaching them.”
  • Kevin Willard on his expectations for his team this postseason:
    “I’ve learned a lot from last year… I have so much confidence in this group.”
  • Eric Paschall on he and Phil Booth being the first players to win three consecutive Big East championships: “Oh yeah, it’s pretty cool…”

Sights & Sounds. It’s getting hard to put into words just how electric MSG is during the Big East Tournament, particularly when local teams are competing. Part of what makes the venue such an ideal location is its proximity to most of the conference’s participants. So when Villanova and Seton Hall square off in the championship, there’s no doubt it will be a sell-out with back-and-forth chants throughout the contest.

What’s Next? Both Villanova and Seton Hall will say goodbye to New York, the former with a trophy and the latter with feelings of bitterness and disappointment. But both teams also have a big day ahead of them as they will learn of their respective NCAA Tournament seedings and locations for the coming week.

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Rushed Reactions: Seton Hall 81, Marquette 79

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 16th, 2019

RTC’s Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is providing on-site coverage of the Big East Tournament all week long.

Three Key Takeaways.

Seton Hall Continued Its Run at MSG Tonight (USA Today Images)
  1. It was a battle of attrition that featured more technical fouls than you can count on one hand. Just when things started getting interesting in the second half, Seton Hall forward Sandro Mamukelashvili was issued a technical foul. Just minutes later, we had a quick exchange that featured a hard foul on Myles Powell, some choice words, and a 10-second pushing match. What followed was a referee review period that lasted at least 10 minutes and featured the ejection of three players: Mamukelashvili, along with Marquette’s Theo John and Sacar Anim, with Powell heading to the locker room while under the impression that he had also been ejected. Suffice it to say, no fans were happy with the result given the tremendous amount of time that had been taken to come to a decision. When all was said and done, though, the excitement and tension remained…
  2. But wait, there’s more! With two minutes left, Quincy McKnight got a technical for a fairly mild reaction to a foul call. And with 42 seconds remaining, Jared Rhoden got another technical foul for hanging on the rim. These technicals don’t account for the four players that fouled out, excluding all of the aforementioned ejections. With a whistle seemingly every other possession, the total game spanned over three hours, with a combined 85 free throw attempts between both teams.
  3. In two weeks, Seton Hall has played its way from fringe tournament team to a #8 seed. The Pirates have had the best two-week stretch of any team in the country, beating Villanova, Georgetown and Marquette twice. Myles Powell has been terrific throughout, collecting 22 points tonight on some timely three-pointers, but the real story has been the growth of the Pirates’ role players. Mamukelashvili (pre-ejection) logged 10 points and 10 rebounds, while senior big man Michael Nzei posted 15 points and 14 rebounds on his own. It’s worth noting that neither of these players were significant offensive contributors throughout the season, so the incremental attention they draw goes a long way in easing Powell’s burden.

Star of the Game. Myles Powell (22 points, seven assists) hit countless step-back three-pointers and his signature move is basically unguardable. Marquette threw numerous defenders at him and couldn’t succeed in slowing him down. And if his scoring wasn’t enough, the seven assists were the second-most he had logged all season.

Quotable.

  • Steve Wojciechowski immediately addressed reporters with the following: “I’ve never been a part of a basketball game like that before. It’s unexplainable.”
  • And his frustration showed throughout:
  • Reporter: “Coach, with everything that’s happened in this game…” Wojo: “It’s hard for me to keep track of everything that’s happened, you’re going to have to be more specific.”
  • Myles Powell, on his thoughts and emotions following the ejection confusion: “Coach just said to come back out. It was crazy, I was wiping my tears.”

Sights & Sounds. Boos and whistles were the predominant sounds for most of the second half, but don’t be mistaken, the game was plenty exciting. Both teams’ fan bases showed well and most stuck it out until the very end, which was after midnight local time.

What’s Next? Seton Hall will try to get some sleep before tomorrow’s Big East championship game against Villanova. Marquette will pack its bags, or not. Maybe they’ll just leave everything behind and burn it.

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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 71, Xavier 67 [OT]

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 15th, 2019

RTC’s Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is providing on-site coverage of the Big East Tournament all week long.

Villanova and Xavier Played a Classic Friday Night in MSG (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Villanova’s resiliency comes through once again. Xavier was dominating the game for the first 35 minutes and had a seven-point lead with under five minutes left, but the Musketeers somehow let a trip to the Big East championship game slip through their fingers. Credit goes where credit is due, though, and that means Villanova deserves full recognition for its performance in tying the game before sealing it in overtime. Villanova has seldom been successful in overcoming poor shooting nights this season and it felt like a 9-of-29 three-point shooting performance would fit this narrative until Phil Booth started aggressively attacking the basket. As he steadily collected points around the rim, the defense’s attention shifted towards stopping him, which opened up the previously suffocating perimeter defense. So it is fitting that the biggest shot of the game came on a pick-and-roll set where the defense left Jermaine Samuels open for three to stop Booth’s drive.
  2. Xavier is a perfect example of how fickle the Big East Tournament can be. The Musketeers entered today as winners of eight of their last nine games, trending in the direction of earning an NCAA Tournament bid after what had previously been a lost season. But without a strong record or computer metrics, tonight’s game was rendered must-win, and Xavier lost in excruciating fashion. It’s hard to believe Travis Steele‘s club isn’t one of the best 35 or 40 teams in the country, and truth be told, it would probably beat most bubble teams. But the bottom line is that Xavier brought too little, too late, this season — an 18-15 overall record just won’t suffice.
  3. Friday night Big East semifinals at the Garden continue to be a must-watch event. It seems like every year, people complain about the quarterfinals not providing close games and then these complaints are quickly washed out within the next 24 hours. No matter the teams, the players or the coaches, the Big East semifinals are a mainstay for fans and locals alike.

Star of the Game. Phil Booth carried Villanova to a victory down the stretch, collecting 28 points and five assists while serving as the Wildcats’ only source of offense for most of the second half. When things stagnated or the team’s shooting went cold, Booth turned his aggression up a notch. It’s no surprise then that the senior led all players with six fouls drawn.

Quotable.[

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Thursday in NYC: Takeaways from the Big East Quarterfinals

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 15th, 2019

Hard to believe that the Big East tournament is already underway — it felt like just yesterday that Villanova was cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden. While the conference as a whole may be down this year, the tournament to date has offered no shortage of drama. Here are some of the major takeaways from Thursday’s quarterfinals action.

Myles Powell Dropped 31 Points in Leading Seton Hall Over Georgetown (USA Today Images)
  • Villanova’s offense sputtered its way to the finish line on Thursday afternoon, but the Wildcats ultimately got the result they needed. Based on its record and metrics, Providence, however, was perhaps written off a bit too quickly. The Friars’ offense was the worst in Ed Cooley‘s tenure, per KenPom, but the defense featured ample perimeter length that gave plenty of backcourt-oriented teams problems. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Villanova struggled to generate offense, amassing just 1.00 points per possession on 10-of-31 three-point shooting. The Wildcats will face a similarly constructed team in Xavier Friday night and the result could very well be different if Villanova fails to revitalize its dribble-drive offense.
  • Speaking of the Musketeers, they were flat out terrific on the defensive end today against Creighton. The 63-61 win effectively crushed Creighton’s NCAA Tournament hopes while keeping Xavier alive for same. The game featured a contrast in styles: a guard-heavy perimeter-oriented offense versus one that bullies opponents on the glass and around the basket. While the teams split the season series, it was won on the glass today by Zach Hankins. The 6’11” big man nearly set a season high with 22 points and nine rebounds, but more impressively, the defense was suffocating and good at getting back to prevent transition baskets. Throughout the second half, Xavier excelled in denying perimeter passes to eliminate any offensive fluidity, quickly closing out on shooters and letting Hankins disrupt any attempt to attack the rim. When it was all said and done, Xavier held Creighton to 0.91 points per possession, well below its average of 1.13 PPP.
  • Following a 32-point beat-down by Marquette, St. John’s may have just played its way out of the NCAA Tournament field. After bursting onto the scene with a 14-1 start and a short-lived Top 25 appearance, the Red Storm finished 10-10 against Quadrant One/Two teams. When all is said and done, they might end up with a NET somewhere in the 70s, which simply won’t be sufficient to result in an NCAA Tournament bid. If they don’t make the cut, the seat under Chris Mullin will get awfully warm…
  • It goes without saying then that Marquette looked unstoppable tonight, shooting 11-of-23 from deep and suppressing every run the Red Storm could throw at them. Big East player of the year Markus Howard continued his theatrics with 30 points — if you see Marquette on the TV guide, turn over the channel.
  • Amid a flurry of Georgetown turnovers, Seton Hall capitalized and easily took care of business in the nightcap. If there was any doubt about whether the Pirates would be again playing in the NCAA Tournament, a resounding 16-point victory over Georgetown erased those concerns. Winners of three straight, Kevin Willard‘s group is arguably playing their best basketball of the season, and will seek to further boost their seeding with a win over Marquette on Friday night. When their defense is fueling their offense like it is now, the Pirates will be a tough out.
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Big East Q&A: Conference Tournament Edition

Posted by Justin Kundrat and Brian Otskey on March 13th, 2019

Finally, conference tournament week is upon us. Big East microsite writers Justin Kundrat and Brian Otskey teamed up this week to break down several of the conference’s key questions heading into the Big East tournament.

BO: How concerned should we be by Marquette’s late season slide?

What’s Going On With Marquette? (USA Today Images)

JK: I said last week that we shouldn’t be concerned — that it was just a late season stumble. And while a home loss to Georgetown had me rethinking that, I’m going to stand by it. Marquette was hampered by woeful offense in its initial three-game stretch, and completely turned things around on that end against Georgetown (its 1.14 points per possession was in line with its season average). I understand the tendency to worry after a four-game skid, though — particularly this time of year — but nothing has fundamentally changed with this team. Its problem appears to be mental. With a much improved defense to weather the poor shooting nights, things should course correct this week in New York.

BO: Did Seton Hall truly turn a corner last week heading into the postseason or was its more focused play a result of desperation?

JK: This is a team I will never figure out. Just when I started to buy in earlier this season, the Pirates sputtered to a 3-5 start in conference play; and when I wrote them off at 7-9 a few weeks ago, they proceeded to collect consecutive wins against Marquette and Villanova. The crazy thing is that the two games followed completely different narratives. Against Marquette, Seton Hall was down by 13 points with 10 minutes left before Myles Powell poured in 17 points in that span. It was a good win, but supported the theory that Seton Hall relies too heavily on Powell and cannot compete if other players are forced to score. Yet against Villanova, it was in fact the Pirates’ role players that propelled them to their third most efficient scoring game of the season. At their best, Seton Hall looks like a Top 25 team that can hang with anyone in college basketball, but its consistency gives me pause. Let’s see how this week turns out before making a final ruling.

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Big East Q&A: Regular Season Finale Edition

Posted by Brad Cavallaro & Justin Kundrat on March 7th, 2019

Time is running out in conference play and there is still much to be decided. Big East microsite writers Justin Kundrat and Brad Cavallaro teamed up this week to break down several of the conference’s key questions heading into the final weekend of regular season action.

BC: We have this giant logjam in the middle of the conference. Which team, if any, do you think emerge from this group to make a Big East Tournament run?

Creighton Might be Poised to Make a Big East Tournament Run (USA Today Images)

JK: I think the logjam has two primary causes: a down year for the conference, and significant improvements from some of the recent bottom-dwellers (St. John’s, DePaul, Georgetown). That said, it has certainly made a mess of things when evaluating the bubble and projecting the Big East Tournament! Prior to Tuesday night, the easy answer for a dark horse team would have been Xavier, but the Musketeers’ 0.96 points per possession outing at Butler is an easy reminder of the team’s inconsistencies, particularly in shooting. Give me Creighton instead, a team with the second most efficient offense in the conference and currently riding a four-game winning streak. Things have really started clicking for Greg McDermott‘s group, and it’s good to see Martin Krampelj back to his old pre-injury self.

BC: St. John’s has been one of the most enigmatic teams in the country. Who is to blame for its inconsistency, their coach (Chris Mullin), their star (Shamorie Ponds), or their supporting cast?

JK: Blaming the coach usually feels like a cop-out to me, but it’s hard to blame the players when there is so much talent on paper along with maddening year-over-year inconsistency within the program. I know Mustapha Heron (15.1 PPG) has been battling tendinitis, but a disjointed offensive style of play has been in vogue with this team all season, with or without him. Ponds has been nothing short of fantastic, putting together arguably his most efficient season of his career, and some of the supporting cast has seen more time and production lately. In fact, the offense has been just fine — it is the defense that is holding this team back. More often than not, that’s a coaching and game-planning flaw.

BC: After Seton Hall’s upset victory over Marquette, are the Pirates locked into the NCAA Tournament field?

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