Rushed Reactions: Seton Hall 78, Villanova 76

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 12th, 2016

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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

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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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2016 Big East Tournament Preview

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 9th, 2016

Here we are again. March is upon us, this time with 70 degree weather in New York City and 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 six-bid NCAA Tournament mark with five teams, all of which will be vying for better seeding this week. The other five teams are looking at a frenzied series of as many as four straight games, their only avenue to the Dance via what would be a surprising run to the Big East Championship. Often the most vulnerable teams are the most comfortable teams, so the target on Villanova’s back as the defending champ as well as this season’s regular season winner is bigger than ever.

BigEastbracket2016

Here’s a printable version of the bracket: 2016 Big East Tournament Bracket

And the Winner is: Villanova

It’s a boring pick, but given the Wildcats’ continuing success, it’s hard to build an argument against them winning this thing again. Villanova posted a 16-2 Big East record this season and has no shortage of experienced players on its roster. Junior Josh Hart played his way into the Big East Player of the Year discussion as one of the league’s best all-around players; Kris Jenkins has developed into a deadly sharpshooter; and seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu continue to provide their typical steady contributions. The team’s balanced, inside-out attack utilizes a heavy dose of screening that keeps opponents off-balance and sets up quality outside looks. But even on bad shooting days, Jay Wright’s club can grind out wins with tremendous team defense. Should the favorite somehow falter this week, Xavier and Seton Hall are the most likely candidates to supplant Villanova as the Big East Tournament champion. Read the rest of this entry »

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Josh Hart: Villanova’s Unheralded Star

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 15th, 2015

What makes for a good sixth man? Is it a guy who brings scoring punch off the bench; is it a senior leader who offers experience and mentorship? Or is it something that transcends the stat sheet in the form of hustle plays, position versatility and a willingness to do whatever the team needs in order to win? There may not be a singular definition that works in all cases, but the best sixth men tend to be players who can fill in and contribute in numerous ways. Through just two years into his college career, Villanova’s Josh Hart has become the prototypical ‘glue guy’, acting largely behind the scenes while Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono collect all the individual accolades.

Josh Hart Was the BIg East Tourney MVP Coming Off the Bench (USA Today Images)

Josh Hart Was the BIg East Tourney MOP Coming Off the Bench (USA Today Images)

Within two minutes of entering the lineup against Xavier yesterday, the Big East Sixth Man of the Year had registered four points, a rebound and a blocked shot. It didn’t take long for the 6’5″ sophomore to make an impact on the game, and his multifaceted presence over the last several is a large reason why Villanova left New York City as the Big East champs. He had a highly efficient set of games there, going 7-of-10 in the first two and scoring 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting in the championship win on Saturday. At a time when Hilliard, Arcidiacono and Dylan Ennis were all struggling to find a rhythm against Providence, his timely baskets kept Villanova safely in the lead down the stretch. “You know what. Honestly, he’s about halfway there to what he can be. He really can be great player… To do it in all these big games, it just shows you talent, character and also shows you how much better he can get,” Jay Wright said following Hart’s recognition as the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

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Five Takeaways from Championship Week Friday

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 14th, 2015

As we reach the pinnacle of Championship Week over the next few days, we’ll take a breath each morning to run down the top five storylines from the previous day’s action. There were 44 games spread across 18 conference tournaments on Friday — here’s the TL;DR version of what happened.

1. Which ACC Loss Was More Troubling: Duke or Virginia?

The story of Championship Week Friday is a complex one, but it has to open with what transpired in Greensboro last night. Top-seeded Virginia and second-seeded Duke were toppled in the ACC semifinals by North Carolina and Notre Dame, respectively; and both upsets, in their own ways, were startling. First, there’s Virginia, which in a 71-67 loss gave up more points than it had in any other contest in conference play. Despite a late Cavaliers’ charge, the Tar Heels led the game from wire to wire and made Tony Bennett’s team look frighteningly ordinary for about 35 minutes of action. In the nightcap, Notre Dame, a little over a month after being waxed by Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, got its revenge. The Fighting Irish held the high-powered Blue Devils to 0.97 points per possession in a 74-64 win.

Notre Dame All Smiles After Last Night's Big Win (USA Today Images)

Notre Dame All Smiles and Hugs After Last Night’s Big Win (USA Today Images)

So which loss is more worrying? I’d have to say Virginia’s. Duke was outplayed by the Irish but the primary reason the Blue Devils lost was a 3-of-17 shooting mark from beyond the arc. On the other hand, Virginia doesn’t look like the same team it was earlier this year. The Cavaliers have continued to dominate lesser teams on the defensive end, but when they are coming face to face with teams that can match up with them physically, they don’t look nearly as special. Furthermore, Justin Anderson’s return — zero points in 26 minutes over two games — is troubling. Virginia fans should be somewhat worried.

2. Can Iowa State and Oklahoma Play Every Week?

The Cyclones and Sooners played another barnburner in the second Big 12 semifinals Friday night. Both regular season clashes had been instant classics, and while Friday’s meeting was maybe a tad more sensible — as in there were no 20-point comebacks or 59-point halves — it was back and forth all game long. In the end, Iowa State who pulled out a 67-65 victory when Ryan Spangler missed a bunny at the rim that would have tied the game. The Cyclones get a rubber match with Kansas Saturday, which will be another episode of Big 12 must-watch television.

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Rushed Reactions: Xavier 65, Georgetown 63

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 14th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Another Disappointing March Moment for the Hoyas (USA Today Images)

Another Disappointing March Moment for the Hoyas (USA Today Images)

  1. Xavier is putting everything together at the right time. With a championship game against Villanova coming up and the NCAA Tournament on the horizon, Xavier has played as well as any team in the conference. The Musketeers’ post defense still continues to struggle with interior positioning but shifting to a zone has helped Chris Mack’s team better contest jump shots and get into the passing lanes. This tweak in defensive approach has kept Xavier competitive in their games against top-tier defensive clubs like Butler and Georgetown. Both Matt Stainbrook and sophomore big man Jalen Reynolds have been playing their best basketball of the season, forcing opposing defenses to collapse on the duo and leaving the shooters open.
  2. Xavier is a matchup nightmare for Georgetown. Xavier had an inconsistent Big East season, going 9-9 in conference play and sweeping just two of the nine teams it faced. And while the Musketeers lost games to DePaul, Creighton and Seton Hall, one of those two season sweeps was over Georgetown, which they defeated by an average of 15 points per game. In tonight’s third matchup of the year, the result was more of the same until a late Georgetown run closed the gap in the last eight minutes of play. Stainbrook and Reynolds in particular were a handful for Georgetown’s big men and the team’s rapid ball movement around the perimeter left the Hoyas out of position on numerous plays. For whatever reason, Georgetown failed to successfully attack Xavier’s zone for the first 30 minutes of the game and a 21-point deficit ultimately proved insurmountable.
  3. Georgetown’s Big East Tournament performance left something to be desired. The recent stretch for Georgetown hasn’t been pretty. After struggling to knock off Seton Hall last weekend, the Hoyas pieced together a scrappy win over Creighton in the final minute yesterday before falling way behind against Xavier. Yes, the Hoyas put on a late run when it found a number of good shots, but the overall trend isn’t encouraging. It’s a bad time to be faltering and there are numerous concerns about Georgetown on the offensive end of the floor. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera has had too many cold stretches; Joshua Smith picks up too many fouls; and the rising freshmen have a tendency to disappear. Is Georgetown facing another embarrassing opening round NCAA Tournament defeat next week?

Player of the Game. Matt Stainbrook, Xavier. The 6’10” senior had 14 points at halftime, including a buzzer-beatin tip-in, and finished the game with 20 points and nine rebounds. Few opposing big men have successfully conquered Georgetown in the post, but Stainbrook used his crafty hook shot to successfully score over Mikael Hopkins and Joshua Smith. Post presence has been a major contributor to Xavier’s success at MSG this week, routinely providing balance to the outside shooting of the Dee Davis, Remy Abell and JP Macura. After tallying a highly efficient 13 points and 10 rebounds against Butler, Stainbrook showed no sign of backing down against the bigger Hoyas and entered into all-out takeover mode for several key stretches of tonight’s game. There is no question that he will be a significant x-factor in the championship game against Villanova.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Villanova 63, Providence 61

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 13th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

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

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

  1. That was an old school Big East battle. Some people like to talk about how the “new” Big East just isn’t the same, but they fail to remember the Big East was a small nine-team league when it developed its reputation as one of the top conferences in the nation. Two of those nine teams battled it out in this game and the result was a throwback to classic Big East games of the past. This was as good as it gets. A tough, physical underdog going up against the conference goliath that is playing as well as any team in the nation. The Garden crowd was electric on this Friday night for a game that more than lived up to its billing.
  2. Providence dominated the boards and nearly overcame poor shooting. The Friars shot only 35 percent for the game but outrebounded Villanova 42-30, including a 19-9 advantage on the offensive boards. Freshman Ben Bentil in particular was great, pulling down six offensive boards and scoring 12 points mostly from second chances. Providence held a 19-6 edge in second chance points but just could not overcome a rough shooting night by most of its better players. LaDontae Henton, Kris Dunn and Tyler Harris were a combined 11-of-33 (33 percent) from the floor.
  3. This game was a great test for both teams as they head into the NCAA Tournament. There is no doubt that both Villanova and Providence will be participating in the Big Dance next week. Both coaches commented after that game about how much a tough, close, grinding game like this one gives them valuable experience heading into the NCAAs. NCAA Tournament games always seem to be played at a slower pace; although both of these teams are comfortable in transition, getting a hard-fought experience against a quality opponent like here can only help as they transition into next week’s action.

Player of the Game:  Daniel Ochefu, Villanova. Could reasonably have gone with Kris Dunn or Josh Hart in this spot, but Ochefu was dominant inside tonight, especially defensively. Providence was smothered most of the time when it tried to go in the paint and a lot of that credit goes to Ochefu. His five blocks tied a season high. On the offensive end, the Villanova big man totaled 15 points and 13 rebounds, his seventh double-double of the season. Ochefu plays an important role as a true big man on an otherwise undersized team. He will be a valuable piece as Villanova begins its quest for a national championship.

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Five Storylines from Championship Week Thursday

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 13th, 2015

As we reach the pinnacle of Championship Week over the next few days, we’ll take a breath each morning to run down the top five storylines from the previous day’s action. There were 60 games spread across 18 conference tournaments on Thursday — here’s the TL;DR version of what happened.

1. Who Wants to Make the NCAA Tournament? Anybody?

Monte Morris Lifted His Team to a Thrilling Comeback Win Over Texas (USA Today Images)

Monte Morris Lifted Iowa State to a Thrilling Comeback Win Over Texas (USA Today Images)

It was a big day for bubble teams all around the country, as many were facing possible “win-and-in” situations but a shocking number of them played like teams under suffocating pressure. Illinois looked downright disinterested in a blowout loss to Michigan. Texas got out to a big lead over Iowa State and had all but locked up a spot when it was up 10 points with under four minutes remaining, but the Longhorns crumbled late. Miami and NC State lost to better teams, but both came out flat. And two much-discussed SEC bubblers, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, found ways — for the Rebels, that way was fouling a desperation three-point shooter with a second left — to lose to Auburn and South Carolina, respectively. Even Iowa, though not really a bubble team, was awful in a Big Ten Tournament loss to Penn State. That makes wins for Indiana and UCLA (and off days for Purdue, LSU, and others) all the more important.

2. The Stage is Set in the ACC…

Upsets are fun. But really good basketball is even more fun, and that’s exactly what we’ll get in the ACC Tournament this evening. All four favorites held serve yesterday in Greensboro, giving us a regional-worthy treat between four top 20 teams. First we’ll get Virginia, which labored through its game yesterday with Florida State, taking on a North Carolina team that appears to be improving. The Tar Heels started slowly but were impressive for the final 25 minutes against Louisville on Thursday. The other semifinal pits Duke against Notre Dame, another fabulous matchup. Thursday wasn’t a memorable day at the ACC Tournament, but because of that outcome, Friday could be.

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Marquette’s Season Hinges on a Single Phrase: Why Not Us?

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 12th, 2015

The future remains bright for first-year Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski. Players, coaches and fans all knew this would be a rebuilding year for the Golden Eagles, with the staff focused on developing its younger players and instilling a defense-first mindset to eventually return the program to winning ways. Transfers Matt Carlino and Luke Fischer brought much needed offensive firepower to Milwaukee this season, but Marquette still finished 13-18 overall and just 4-14 in Big East play, competing in many close games that they were simply unable to close. Next season promises more: After receiving a commitment from consensus top-five recruit, Henry Ellenson, Wojo proceeded to add four additional four-star recruits across a range of positions, bolstering the team ahead of the departures of seniors Derrick Wilson, Juan Anderson and Carlino.

With little on the line, Mark Carlino and Marquette played about "as well as we could play" according to head coach Steve. (AP/Frank Franklin II)

With little on the line, Mark Carlino and Marquette played about “as well as we could play” according to head coach Steve Wojciechowski in the upset over Seton Hall. (AP/Frank Franklin II)

So with very little on the line this week, Wojciechowski instituted a new mindset for his team as it entered the Big East Tournament. “Why not us? Seeds don’t matter,” Wojciechowski said. “I’ve been in situations where I have been coaching on teams who have been the No. 1 seed and we got our butts kicked. Seeds don’t matter. [For] everybody it’s a fresh start.” Maybe the Golden Eagles don’t have the most talented or athletic group of players, and certainly the season hasn’t gone the way they had hoped, but the players seem largely unphased by it. “We’re huge underdogs, so we have nothing to lose and we’re going to play that way,” Carlino said. “Hopefully play aggressive and play to win.” Read the rest of this entry »

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