Rushed Reactions: Villanova 76, Providence 66 [OT]

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2018

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

Three Key Takeaways.

Villanova Adds Some More Big East Hardware to Its Trophy Case (USA Today Images)

  1. With Mikal Bridges playing his A game, Villanova is nearly impossible to beatJalen Brunson may have accumulated all the National Player of the Year accolades, but it was Bridges who made the key plays in overtime tonight. The 6’7″ swingman knocked down two critical three-pointers in the extra period to maintain Villanova’s tenuous lead over the Friars before making the game-winning play — with 25 seconds remaining and Providence then down six, he notched a block that the Wildcats were able to corral and correspondingly ice the game. Brunson is unquestionably the leader of this team, but Bridges’ play, when aggressive, is nearly impossible to contain. His release point is too high to contest from the perimeter; his long arms are too difficult to manage around the basket; and his oft-discussed defense is simply menacing.
  2. Providence is playing its best basketball of the season. When watching the Friars as recently as two weeks ago, a run like this was unforeseeable. Providence had dropped three of its last five games and had skirted by St. John’s and Georgetown on the coattails of its defense. Given the Friars’ length and interchangeable parts, though, their defense, particularly in crowding the lanes, has been solid for most of the season. But the starters’ offensive contributions were too inconsistent to give hope for a deep NCAA Tournament run, much less a bid. So this week, between Ed Cooley‘s masterful game-planning and the outbursts of point guard Kyron Cartwright, the scale has tipped in the opposite direction.  As a likely #8 or #9 seed, Providence will be a tough out if it can control the game’s tempo.
  3. The Big East Tournament never fails to disappoint. If there was ever a question about the institution of the Big East Tournament, it no longer exists. Providence amazingly played three consecutive overtime games, in addition to a number of other nail-biters here at Madison Square Garden. It seems like there’s a tweetstorm during the event’s semifinals and championship games demanding that everyone tune in because of the atmosphere combined with quality of play. Undoubtedly the whole country was watching tonight as a fury-laden, fire-breathing Providence squad took what might be the best team in the country down to the wire. It doesn’t seem to matter which teams are playing or who graduates from season to season, the Big East Tournament remains must-watch TV.

Star of the GameMikal Bridges (25 points) has always been the Villanova player with the highest ceiling and tonight it showed in spades. He was disruptive with his on-ball defense of Cartwright and his off-ball help defense when contesting shots. He also won the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.

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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 87, Butler 68

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 9th, 2018

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

Three Key Takeaways.

The Maestro of the Villanova Juggernaut (USA Today Images)

  1. Villanova’s offense is back to textbook form. The skids were widely observed this season and gave pundits some momentary pause, but if there was ever any doubt, the Wildcats are officially back on track. They followed up a 94-point, 1.43 points per possession domination of Marquette last night with a 19-point rout of Butler in the semifinals. The shocking part was that the Bulldogs didn’t even play badly, they were just never in the game — literally, falling behind 19-0 from the opening horn. With 12 steals leading to open transition baskets and a 14-of-34 perimeter display from the Wildcats, there was no shot at slowing their offense. This kind of domination of quality teams feels like 2016 all over again…
  2. Perhaps more importantly, Villanova is finally playing like a cohesive unit on the defensive end. The passing lane gambles have been better timed, offensive rebounding opportunities are shored up and close-outs on perimeter shooters were noticeably less frenetic. Jay Wright‘s group held Marquette’s high octane offense to 70 points, just the sixth time this season they have failed to eclipse that mark. Then they followed that up tonight by holding Butler to 68 points and just 0.99 points per possession, its seventh lowest of the season. Freshman center Omari Spellman has greatly improved in taking up space in the paint and is no longer routinely exposed in the pick-and-roll.
  3. Butler remains overly match-up dependent. The Bulldogs’ offensive output is highly correlated to the performances of Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin, who account for 46 percent of their scoring. When they’re able to exploit opposing guards (like against Seton Hall last night), ball movement is fluid and players are quick to attack the rim. But when matched up with longer defenders, it stagnates. Baldwin dealt with the 7’0″ wingspan of Mikal Bridges for most of the night and struggled to get into the lane and find open looks. Similarly, Martin faced ball denial defense all night and notched just 13 points as a result.

Star of the Game. Villanova’s entire starting lineup. When each starter totals between 12 and 17 points, it’s hard to identify just one who contributed most to the team’s success. Instead it was a collective team effort with each Wildcat starter knocking down at least two three-pointers.

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Rushed Reactions: Providence 75, Xavier 72 [OT]

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 9th, 2018

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

Three Key Takeaways.

Ed Cooley Is Hard to Not Root For (USA Today Images)

  1. Ed Cooley is a tremendously underrated coach. It’s not that anybody is calling for his job in Providence after yet another 20-win season, but few seem to have appreciate what Cooley extracts from his team seemingly every March. The first half of tonight’s game featured a dominant first half performance from Xavier, one in which the Musketeers exploited slow switching and poor closeouts to the tune of 1.23 points per possession. And with a 14-point halftime lead, an otherwise unremarkable Friars’ loss seemed inevitable. But Cooley made some critical adjustments down the stretch, the first and most impactful of which was awarding 28 minutes to freshman center Nate Watson, who routinely took advantage of Xavier’s poor post defense for nine second half points. The second was inserting freshman Makai Ashton-Langford into the lineup, which immediately provided star point guard Kyron Cartwright with more room to operate. Lastly, the Friars eventually clamped down on the defensive end, clogging the paint and contesting every cut the Musketeers made to the basket. Xavier followed up a 43-point first half performance with just 25 second-half points and four in overtime.
  2. Tonight was an anomaly: Xavier is one of the few teams in the country that can match Villanova’s offensive firepower. The entire college basketball world knows what Trevon Bluiett (19.7 PPG) and JP Macura (12.3 PPG) are capable of, but virtually every other player Xavier puts on the floor can also notch double figures on any given night. Against Providence, freshman guard Paul Scruggs totaled 13 first-half points despite averaging just 4.5 PPG on the season. Not only do the Musketeers have a plethora of outside shooters and slashers akin to Villanova, but they also boast true low post scoring threats that can exploit mismatches, an area that they utilized against Providence. Slowing down this offense requires a lineup of players of all positions and sizes.
  3. Providence may have improved their NCAA Tournament outlook more than any team in the country this week. The Friars were a bubble team heading into Thursday’s games, probably secured an NCAA Tournament bid with an overtime win over Creighton last night, and now is playing its way towards a #9 or #10 seed by with an upset win over Xavier. Playing with this level of confidence will make for a scary First/Second round opponent next weekend.

Star of the GameKyron Cartwright logged 15 points and six assists in the semifinal victory, including numerous isolation baskets when Providence needed it most. The defining play of the game was a pull-up jumper to put his team ahead by three points with 50 seconds remaining.

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Big East Notebook: Recapping Thursday’s Quarterfinals

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 9th, 2018

Two days of Big East Tournament action are already in the books with two more days of marquee match-ups still come. The most likely outcome will ultimately be a third showdown between Villanova and Xavier, with championship hardware as well as potential #1 seed placements on the line. Here are several key takeaways from Thursday’s quarterfinals from Madison Square Garden.

Just Another Night in the Big East Tournament (USA Today Images)

  • St. John’s spoiler attempt fell short. It’s always a lot to ask from a team to win four games in four days, but Chris Mullin‘s group assumed the role of Cinderella in this tournament after a late season push coupled with a healthy home crowd. Nonetheless, a 12:00 pm ET tip time just 15 hours after knocking off Georgetown did the Red Storm no favors, particularly with only six, maybe seven, true rotation players on the roster. With three seasons at the helm now characterized by a failure to eclipse even a .500 record, questions about Mullin’s tenure will continue to loom — particularly since this was the year many observers expected St. John’s to turn the corner.
  • Providence locks up an NCAA Tournament bid. It wasn’t a must-win game for the Friars, per se, but their win over Creighton in overtime last night tips the scale and sets them up for a great opportunity to improve their seeding. Notably, Ed Cooley went small against the Bluejays, opting to slot 6’8″ Rodney Bullock into the center position to more effectively space the floor with his shooting and slashing abilities. The likes of Alpha Diallo (19 points) and Kyron Cartwright (13 points) were then able to attack the basket and draw fouls or generate offensive rebounding opportunities. Sixteen Providence offensive rebounds helped offset a 5-of-22 three-point shooting performance and kept Creighton out of transition.

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Big East Tournament Preview

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 7th, 2018

Villanova was finally dethroned from its string of four consecutive Big East regular season titles. With a 15-3 conference record, Xavier now stands in its place. But per KenPom and Las Vegas, the Wildcats remain a prohibitive favorite to capture the tournament crown this week. Let’s break down what to expect during this week’s action at Madison Square Garden.

Who will win: Villanova. Yes, the Wildcats have had their fair share of stumbles that included several head-scratching perimeter shooting performances: 8-of-33 in a loss to St. John’s; 3-of-20 in a loss to Providence; 8-of-36 against Seton Hall. Per barttorvik.com though, that recent trend looks like an anomaly.

The above chart details Villanova’s per-game three-point shooting over the course of the season. The gray dotted line is a five-game moving average, which drops off significantly over the last 10 games and is now reverting to the team’s historical mean. Perhaps Big East opponents became more conscious of chasing the Wildcats off the perimeter during that stretch, or maybe players simply became too content in standing around and letting it fly. Whatever the case, it appears to be correcting itself. Jay Wright‘s group derives a healthy 38.8 percent of its points from the perimeter (29th nationally) and very much depends on those looks to space the floor. On the defensive end, Villanova continues to mix its full court press and zone, and the return of Phil Booth from injury has helped close down the driving lanes. The Wildcats will be the outright favorite in each game this week and, should the potential #1 seeds eventually meet, their exceptional ball movement has picked Xavier apart time and time again.

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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 55, Seton Hall 53

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2017

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

Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado Expressed His Agony After the Buzzer (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Villanova’s defensive versatility once again saved the day. Even though the team’s 1-2-2 full court press hasn’t been as effective as last season, Wright still successfully employed it interchangeably with a 2-3 zone and its patented switching man-to-man tonight. Throwing out different looks not only forces opponents to re-adjust their offensive sets, but it also takes valuable time off the shot clock. Despite a lack of height and Eric Paschall’s lingering foul trouble, the Wildcats’ defense challenged Seton Hall’s paint-dominant and relentless style of play, holding the Pirates to just 0.90 points per possession and ultimately curtailing Angel Delgado‘s 13-game double-double streak.
  2. Seton Hall’s half-court offense has come a long way since November. Much has been said about the post-Isaiah Whitehead adjustment period, but over the last few weeks this team looks radically different in its half-court execution. Even though forward Desi Rodriguez is still struggling with his outside shot, his dribble-drive threat remains the team’s most reliable source of scoring opportunities. Being able to attack the rim with his 215-pound frame also provides the benefit of room and rebounding chances for Delgado, the nation’s leading rebounder. Seton Hall’s lack of a true passing point guard is unquestionably overcome by its penchant for attacking the rim in one-on-one situations.
  3.  At the end of the day, playmaking abilities won out. At the risk of sounding too cliché, this could not have proven truer on Friday night. In a game between two down-tempo, physical teams, the total score barely eclipsed the century mark. The 59-possession affair put a premium on making the most of limited opportunities in the closing minutes; supported by both Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson, Villanova simply had the better playmakers.

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Previewing the 2017 Big East Tournament

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 8th, 2017

Here we are again: four straight days of Big East basketball in the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. The conference is likely to follow up last season’s five-bid NCAA Tournament mark with seven teams this year, all of which will be vying for better seeding this week in New York. The other three teams are looking at a frenzied series of as many as four straight games, their only avenue to the Dance in what would be a surprising run to the Big East Championship.

Here’s a printable version of the bracket: 2017 Big East Tournament Bracket

And the Winner is: Villanova

The obvious but boring pick. Even amid a slew of injuries and an undersized but shockingly effective lineup, the Wildcats have again found their way to the top of the Big East totem pole. Few teams have been able to slow down an offense churning out 1.23 points per possession — as a matter of fact, games at Butler (0.99) and at St. John’s (0.99) were Villanova’s only two instances under 1.0 PPP. Sophomore star Jalen Brunson is arguably the most underrated point guard in the country, embracing an old-school style of play that lulls defenders to sleep before blowing by them. Every rotation player with the exception of one is a capable three-point shooter, and the incessant ball screen switching on the defensive end has remained effective because entry passes are such a persistent headache. There are some chinks in the armor, however, as Butler has demonstrated. Crowding the paint on drives and staying down on ball fakes can slow the offense, occasionally causing this team to lose its mojo.

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Rushed Reactions: Seton Hall 78, Villanova 76

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 12th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways.

Seton Hall Shocked the World With Its Run to the Big East Title (USA Today Images)

Seton Hall Shocked the World With Its Run to the Big East Title (USA Today Images)

  1. Isaiah Whitehead proved he is the most talented player in the Big East. There isn’t a better player around when it comes to hitting clutch shots and making things happen offensively. Time and time again, head coach Kevin Willard put the ball in Whitehead’s hands and let him create something. And create he did. Tonight’s 26-point effort was the result of an endless stream of floaters in the lane, savvy moves to create space for shots, and a game-winning play down the stretch where he drew contact and finished an old-fashioned three-point play. It’s his uncanny ability to score combined with a penchant for putting his teammates in good position that makes Whitehead the best all-around player in the conference. The 6’4 sophomore has always had talent but his decision-making has caught up with his skill set. Gone are the forced passes and ill-advised shots; what remains is a heady player who now makes the right plays at the right times. Seton Hall is the clear beneficiary.
  2. Daniel Ochefu‘s injury takes away the best part of Villanova’s offenseThe 6’11” center has played in limited minutes this week due to an ongoing ankle injury, which he re-aggravated against Seton Hall tonight. Backup Darryl Reynolds was more than sufficient on the defensive end and held his own on the glass, but problems arose when it came to offense. Reynolds isn’t nearly the passer that Ochefu is, thereby eliminating the inside-out game that allows Villanova to generate open three-point shots. Instead, Seton Hall rarely doubled down on him and were quick to close out on Villanova’s shooters and force them to drive into traffic. Jay Wright will absolutely need Ochefu healthy should the Wildcats hope to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
  3. Seton Hall will no longer surprise teams in the NCAA TournamentIn back-to-back games, Kevin Willard’s group knocked off the #5 and #3 teams in the country and now have the full attention of every media outlet and head coach from coast to coast. These statement wins have given Seton Hall its first Big East championship in 23 years but have also correspondingly put a giant target on its back. After being continuously overlooked for much of this season, this team often succeeded by playing with a chip on its shoulder, but that will change as Seton Hall will no longer catch anybody by surprise.

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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 76, Providence 68

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 11th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways.

Villanova Continues to Drive to Another Championship (USA Today Images)

Villanova Continues to Drive to Another Championship (USA Today Images)

  1. Kris Jenkins’ role on this team continues to be downplayed. The junior marksman struggled with his shot earlier this season, but he has caught fire just when his team needed it most (21 points tonight, including two three-pointers). His shooting has forced defenders to actually play him on the perimeter; last year he might have deferred and swung the ball back around. This new and improved Jenkins uses his pump fake to get past his man and attack the rim. Additionally, the forward has developed a crafty post-up game against smaller players. Jenkins’ obvious growth this season has given Villanova yet another option in its diverse offensive attack.
  2. Villanova’s resiliency proved again why this team is primed for a deep run. Despite a 29-4 record, the doubts around this team’s ability to do significant damage in the NCAA Tournament linger. Given recent results, that’s certainly understandable, but each year’s painful loss is also another notch in the belt for the players. The Wildcats have played plenty of close games this season and have shown an incredible ability to prevail by taking care of the basketball and hitting big shots. Just one day after a shaky 30-minute stretch against Georgetown, Villanova battled until the very finish in putting away Providence. These are exactly the kind of games that Jay Wright’s team needs, serving to erase any of the remaining jitters that surround the big-stage environment.
  3. The key to solving Providence is solving Ben Bentil. Few teams have successfully limited Bentil’s production this season, but doing so completely takes the Friars out of their rhythm. After exploding for 38 points against Butler yesterday, the 6’9 sophomore was held to just three points on 1-of-5 shooting, all the while amassing several careless fouls. Needless to say, Providence is a well-below average offensive team without him, lacking both shooters and an inside presence. With Bentil sidelined, Villanova controlled the glass and continuously worked the ball inside for a number of easy scoring chances. It was a concerning and undoubtedly frustrating sight for Friars fans.

Star of the Game: Kris Jenkins. When Providence closed the gap to just two points in the closing minutes, the junior forward made all the big plays to answer. He drew an and-one on a post-up and also threw a perfectly on-point entry pass to Daniel Ochefu into the post for an easy layup. Jenkins finished with 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting, going 7-of-8 from inside the arc. With Ochefu bothered by an injury and both Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson battling foul trouble, Jenkins was the steadying force for the Wildcats down the stretch.

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One Game at a Time: Georgetown’s Season Continues

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2016

It’s probably too little, too late, but don’t tell that to Georgetown. For a team that was projected to finish second in the Big East, this season has not gone according to plan. The Hoyas’ record certainly isn’t good (15-17 overall; 8-11 Big East), but the decidedly downward trajectory of the program is even more alarming for Georgetown fans. Its season-opening loss to Radford was quickly forgotten following a pair of near-wins against Maryland and Duke, and things appeared to be back on track after handling Wisconsin and Syracuse. Those victories turned out to represent false hope, though, as the undoubtedly talented Hoyas’ lineup never got control of things in conference play. The team limped to the finish line by losing nine of its last 10 games, so suffice it to say that the bar was set very low for John Thompson III‘s squad entering this year’s Big East Tournament.

D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera And The Rest Of The Hoyas Extended Their Season Wednesday Night (Photo: Getty)

D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and the Rest of the Hoyas Extended Their Season Wednesday Night (Photo: Getty)

A portion of those late season woes can be attributed to an injury to senior center Bradley Hayes. The seven-footer provided a presence on the glass and served as an underrated passer in the team’s Princeton offense, a role that freshman center Jessie Govan is still working to master. Hayes’ return to the starting lineup in Georgetown’s tournament opener versus DePaul on Wednesday night made the Hoyas feel like an entirely different group. Within minutes, Hayes had established himself as a threat on the low block, scoring off hook shots and playing physical interior defense. With the post foundation established, Georgetown’s offense began to flow more naturally than it had in weeks, maybe even months. “It was a huge difference [having Bradley back],” Thompson acknowledged afterward. “It goes above and beyond what shows up on the stat-sheet. He gives his teammates confidence and they feel safe when he’s on the court.”

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