Big East Wrap-Up: Lasting Impressions and Early Rankings

Posted by Justin Kundrat on April 11th, 2018

All hail Donte DiVincenzo‘s flurry of baskets that left Michigan fans saying “who is this guy?”

Villanova Celebrates Its Second National Championship in the Last Three Years Last Week (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova has ascended into blue-blood territory. It’s a tired storyline at this point but it’s also probably the biggest one coming out of the NCAA Tournament. Winners of two championships in three years with largely a different set of players means that Jay Wright has officially assembled a dynasty. Villanova has the roster makeup that makes the rest of college basketball envious: dynamic guards that can score at multiple levels; floor-spacing big men who can shoot the three; and sufficient experience together to play cohesive team defense. The best part is that even with some expected early departures pending (Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson?), Villanova’s standing near the top of the national rankings isn’t likely to change, and that’s what makes this program a dynasty.
  • Goodbye, Chris Mack. Another year, another lost Big East coach to a bigger program budget and salary. Last year, it was Chris Holtmann departing Butler for Ohio State (where he excelled). This year it’s Chris Mack who packed his bags for Louisville after a nine-year tenure at Xavier that included five straight NCAA tournament appearances. In his stead is former assistant Travis Steele, promoted from a position he has held since 2008. Steele has already impressively gotten to work, quickly signing two graduate transfers in Zach Hankins (D-II National Player of the Year) and Kyle Castlin (Columbia) while being in the running for many others. On the heels of a massive graduating class in Cincinnati, Steele will have his work cut out for him next season.
  • Hello, Providence backcourt. What Ed Cooley has done with his guards during his tenure at Providence has been nothing short of amazing. From Bryce Cotton to Kris Dunn to Kyron Cartwright, there has never been a dearth of electric, play-making perimeter players on his roster. Now, though, with Cartwright graduating, the question of who is next for the Friars is bubbling up. Early signs pointed to rising sophomore Makai Ashton-Langford, but his limited end-of-season usage and errant decision-making have been confounding. Encouragingly, Cooley is also bringing in two heralded backcourt recruits in David Duke and AJ Reeves, and it’s a safe bet given recent history that at least one of the pair will emerge into the spotlight.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Villanova Wildcats

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2018

Now that the Final Four is set, our writers have put together a fact sheet on each of the four teams still remaining. Next up is #1 Villanova from the East Region.

How Villanova Got Here

Villanova is headed back in the Final Four. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

East Region Champions. In a March defined by massive upsets, close games, and wild finishes, Villanova cruised to San Antonio without too much trouble. On opening weekend, the Wildcats beat #16 Radford by 27 points before hammering #9 Alabama, 81-58, two days later. In its Sweet Sixteen tilt with West Virginia, Jay Wright’s group used a 22-6 second half run to overcome a two-possession deficit and beat the Mountaineers by 12 points. On Sunday, Villanova put forth one of its best defensive efforts of the season, limiting Texas Tech to 0.89 points per possession in another 12-point win. The Wildcats now head to their second Final Four in three seasons, this time as the odds-on favorites to win it all.

The Coach

Jay Wright. The sharply dressed 56-year-old is working his way on to the Mount Rushmore of active head basketball coaches, and its hard to argue otherwise. Wright became the winningest coach in school history earlier this month and is currently in the midst of his fourth-straight 30-win season, which gives him as many such campaigns (five) as Syracuse’s Jim Boehiem and one more than Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (four). In fact, he has gone a remarkable 163-21 over the past five seasons, never once losing more than five games during that span. Now with three Final Four appearances under his belt, Wright is tied with Kansas’ Bill Self and Mississippi State’s Ben Howland for sixth-most among active coaches, and has a chance to join Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina’s Roy Williams as the only active head coaches with multiple National Championships.

Style

Villanova runs a four-out, one-in motion offense that relies on floor spacing, crisp ball movement, dribble-penetration and great perimeter shooting. The Wildcats, in fact, take 47.1 percent of their shots from behind the arc, which is substantially more than even the three-point reliant Jayhawks (41.4%) or Wolverines (43.1%). And there’s nothing excessive about it. Since every player on the floor is capable of penetrating, all it takes is one help defender to free up an open man somewhere on the court. And considering how well Villanova moves the ball — perhaps no team makes the “extra pass” as often as the Wildcats — that open man often finds the ball in his hands. The result is college basketball’s most efficient offense since 2015. Defensively, Villanova mixes defenses, sometimes running a zone press that’s proved effective throughout Wright’s career. The Wildcats also guard the perimeter aggressively, one reason they rank 29th nationally in three-point defense (32.2% 3FG).

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Big East Conversation: Opening Weekend Takes

Posted by Brian Otskey & Justin Kundrat on March 20th, 2018

With NCAA six teams in action this past weekend, Big East fans have a lot to talk about this week. Big East microsite writers Justin Kundrat and Brian Otskey discuss what’s on their minds following a full slate of games.

Brian Otskey: Villanova is now the sole flag bearer remaining for the Big East. The Wildcats are the best team left in the field but their draw isn’t easy. How do you see them matching up with what is clearly the tougher side of the remaining bracket?

Villanova Looked Fantastic Last Weekend (USA Today Images)

Justin Kundrat: Villanova‘s path might have been the easiest when the bracket was announced, but now the Wildcats have one of the more difficult ones. Given how haphazardly this year’s bracket has shaken out, trying to predict future match-ups beyond this round seems futile. They are undoubtedly going to be the favorite in their region to make the Final Four, but each of the teams left in the draw is stylistically different. Against West Virginia, the key will not only be taking care of the ball (although the Wildcats rank 11th nationally in turnover rate), but in the effectiveness of big men Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman. The Mountaineers are an elite shot-blocking group behind 6’8″ Sagaba Konate, which definitely threatens the drive-and-kick nature of Villanova’s offense. That means Paschall and Spellman will have to knock down perimeter shots to drag Konate away from the rim. As for the Elite Eight, Villanova matches up better with a backcourt-dominant team like Texas Tech than it does with Purdue. The Boilermakers’ Matt Haarms was wildly effective against Butler and will be a handful should he face Villanova’s undersized frontcourt. All told, though, Villanova’s versatility and balance should be enough to get them to San Antonio.

BO: Did most people underestimate the impact of Martin Krampelj’s injury on Creighton? Aside from the Villanova win, the Bluejays struggled over the final two months of the regular season and did not play well against Kansas State.

JK: I’m not sure underestimate is the right word. Everyone knew that the impact was severe and there was no replacement for a player like him. At 6’9″, he was the team’s best post defender and rebounder, and he moved around the floor better than most guys his size. It’s no surprise that Greg McDermott loved using him in pick-and-roll sets because he could spread the floor or glide to the rim. The other two bigs on the roster are 6’10” Toby Hegner, who was basically a spot-up shooter, and 6’11” freshman Jacob Epperson, who had flashes of brilliance but couldn’t string together much consistency. So his loss turned what was already backcourt-dominant team into one that overrelied on one or two guards to generate offense.

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NCAA Regional Reset: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2018

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks. Today and tomorrow we reset each of the four regions. 

New Favorite: #1 Villanova (32-4). The Wildcats did nothing to put their ‘favorite’ status into question over the weekend. In fact, they may have actually established themselves as the new odds-on favorite to win the whole thing. After handling #16 seed Radford by 27 points in the First Round, Villanova put on a second half clinic against #9 Alabama in the Round of 32, outscoring the Crimson Tide 49-21 over the final 20 minutes and finishing the game with 17 made three-pointers. On the weekend, in fact, Villanova shot a combined 31-of-68 (46%) from long range, its spread offense looking more lethal than ever. Now ranked #1 by KenPom with the most efficient offense in America, the Wildcats roll into Boston looking Final Four ready — especially considering the season-ending injury to Purdue center Isaac Haas in the other half of this bracket.

Meet the new favorite, same as the old favorite. (Yahoo Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #5 West Virginia (26-10). We had to put someone here, right? In an overall bracket riddled with chaos, the East Region remained more uniform than most, leaving #5 West Virginia as the “dark horse” if there is one. Entering the NCAA Tournament, KenPom gave the Mountaineers only a 42.6 percent chance of reaching the Sweet Sixteen, odds that changed dramatically once Marshall upset #4 Wichita State on Friday. West Virginia now heads to Boston where it will be a clear underdog against #1 Villanova, which is probably just how Bob Huggins and his aggressive group likes it.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #13 Marshall (25-11). Hunter became the hunted in San Diego, where #4 Wichita State — usually the one busting brackets — fell victim to Marshall’s high-powered attack. Entering Friday, the Shockers had won at least one game as a lower-seeded team in five of the last six NCAA Tournaments, including a run to the Final Four as a #9 seed in 2013. Simply put, Wichita State feels comfortable wearing the underdog hat — even in games in which it is favored, like that 2014 classic against #8 seed Kentucky. But this time around, Gregg Marshall’s group felt like Goliath, and perhaps that unfamiliar pressure wore on the Shockers down the stretch. While Wichita State tightened in the second half, the Thundering Herd just kept on shooting. The result was an upset we did not see coming.

Completely Expected (First Weekend): #2 Purdue. We fully expected Purdue to reach the Sweet Sixteen. What we did not expect was how much uncertainty it would endure to get there. After pounding Cal State Fullerton in the First Round, the team announced that senior Isaac Haas — the Boilermakers’ second-leading scorer and premier post-threat — would miss the remainder of the NCAA Tournament with a fractured elbow. Subsequent reports revealed that he might see limited action. Finally, his arm brace failed to clear NCAA safety standards, meaning the Boilermakers would have to beat Butler without him. They did, thanks in large part to the brilliance of Vincent Edwards (20 points), but not before two days filled with doubt.

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Big East Conversation: NCAA Tournament Takes

Posted by Justin Kundrat & Brian Otskey on March 13th, 2018

With six of its 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament, Big East fans have a lot to talk about this week. Big East microsite writers Justin Kundrat and Brian Otskey discuss what’s on their minds heading into Thursday’s action.

Justin Kundrat: Of the six Big East teams, which first round match-up are you most looking forward to?

LaVall Jordan Has a Tough First Round Match-up Against Arkansas (USA Today Images)

Brian Otskey: I think the Butler-Arkansas game will be tremendous. Both teams are fairly experienced (especially the Razorbacks), undersized and have guys who can fill it up, which should make for an aesthetically pleasing up-and-down game. Mike Anderson’s chaotic style of play caused another Big East team (Seton Hall) to lose focus in last year’s First Round on its way to a loss. The good news with Butler is that the Bulldogs are much more likely to stay composed and protect the ball — which could be the deciding factor. LaVall Jordan will need Kamar Baldwin to play at a high level in order to give his team a second scoring threat alongside Kelan Martin. Arkansas will counter with Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, who average nearly 35.0 PPG combined. Also keep an eye on the match-up in the paint. Tyler Wideman isn’t the tallest center around, but he’s strong and thick. Arkansas’ center is 6’11” Daniel Gafford, but he’s thinner than Wideman. How that size difference shakes out will be important when determining the outcome of this game.

JK: Which team do you like the most to reach the Final Four?

BO: With Xavier considered the weakest of the top seeds and the rest of the conference on the #8, #9 or #10 seed line, I think the obvious pick is Villanova. The Wildcats won the National Championship only two years ago and have three players on the roster who went on that title run: Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth. Also, the Wildcats won’t have to travel far before the Final Four in San Antonio, playing the opening rounds in Pittsburgh and the regional in Boston. I actually think the biggest threat to Villanova will come in either the Second or Third round. Virginia Tech and Alabama are mercurial yet talented squads on the #8/#9 line, likely followed by West Virginia or Wichita State in the Sweet Sixteen. This Villanova team is incredible offensively and can turn up the defense when it wants to. I am a bit concerned about a cold shooting night derailing the Wildcats’ train, but play-makers like Brunson and Bridges should have enough to overcome that deficiency and lead this group back to the Final Four.

JK: Which team has the toughest First Round match-up?

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big East Teams

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 11th, 2018

Below is a review of how the selection process concluded for each Big East team and what they should expect in the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Villanova Will Be Looking For More Celebrations Like This (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova, #1 seed, East Region. Assuming the Wildcats knock off the #16 seed play-in-game winner between LIU and Radford, they will face the winner of Virginia Tech and Alabama in the Second Round. The Hokies are an extremely rim-focused offense (ranking fourth nationally in percentage of shots at the rim) so the onus would be on Villanova’s wings to contain the penetration of Justin Robinson and his teammates. Alabama is a similarly constructed, penetration-focused offense without the commensurate complement of shooters. They instead rely on a ball-hawking defense supported by long, athletic wings. Villanova would probably prefer Virginia Tech here.
  • Xavier, #1 seed, West Region. The Musketeers earned the committee’s respect with a #1 seed in the West Region, and barring catastrophe, will face the winner of Missouri and Florida State next weekend. Stylistically, those two teams couldn’t be more different. Florida State pushes the tempo at every opportunity, particularly off of defensive rebounds and blocked shots. Missouri plays a half-court focused offense that picks apart defenses with relentless three-point shooting. The Musketeers would be happy to play at a fast tempo against the Seminoles despite their athleticism on the perimeter. Xavier has struggled this season in preventing perimeter shooting (see: Villanova), so a Missouri team with Michael Porter getting back to full health might pose some problems.

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Big East Bubble Watch: Volume II

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 6th, 2018

With only five days remaining until Selection Sunday, things are finally starting to fall into place. The Big East as a whole has clearly exceeded preseason expectations and is on pace for six or seven bids despite its ongoing cannibalism. RPI and strength of schedule (SOS) figures are from RPIForecast.com and the NCAA Nitty Gritty Report. Projected average seed is from BracketMatrix.com.

Locks

Are Villanova and Xavier Poised to be #1 Seeds?(USA Today Images)

  • Villanova: 27-4 (14-4); RPI: 2; SOS: 13; Avg. Seed: 1.00
  • Xavier: 27-4 (15-3); RPI: 3; SOS: 11; Avg. Seed: 1.06
  • Seton Hall: 21-10 (10-8); RPI: 27; SOS: 25; Avg. Seed: 7.21
  • Creighton: 20-10 (10-8); RPI: 35; SOS: 51; Avg. Seed: 8.22
  • Butler: 19-12 (9-9); RPI: 45; SOS: 29; Avg. Seed: 9.60

Analysis: Villanova and Xavier are on pace to earn #1 seeds, while the others are comfortably in the field and likely in the #7 – #10 seed range. Seton Hall, Creighton and Butler all have strong RPIs with enough quality wins that a loss in this week’s Big East Tournament will not knock them off the bubble.

Should Be In

  • Providence: 19-12 (10-8); RPI: 43; SOS: 23; Avg. Seed: 10.72. Analysis: Things haven’t always been pretty for the Friars, but with three Quadrant 1 wins and a 5-1 record against Quadrant 2 teams, Ed Cooley‘s group has done enough to warrant a bid. Winning at Xavier last Wednesday night certainly would have secured the bid, but the key after that defeat was to avoid any further bad losses. Providence did just that on Saturday, knocking off a Shamorie Ponds-less St. John’s squad and notching yet another home win, where they are 13-4 on the season. At this point, signs are pointing towards a #11 seed or a spot in a play-in game, but the Friars would be best served by beating Creighton in the Big East Tournament on Thursday and securing another quality victory. Failure to do so might leave the door open for bid thieves from other conferences to encroach on their position. All told, Providence fans will be restless next weekend. The Friars’ offense has been woeful in recent weeks, lacking in consistent outside shooting and easy points around the rim. If they secure a bid, success will hinge on finding a team upon which it can impose its menacing tempo.

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Big East Bubble Watch: Volume I

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 13th, 2018

With about one month remaining until Selection Sunday, the race to secure an NCAA Tournament bid is on. The Big East as a whole has exceeded preseason expectations thus far and is on pace for six or seven bids despite its ongoing intra-league cannibalism. RPI and strength of schedule (SOS) figures are from RPIForecast.com and the NCAA Nitty Gritty Report.

Locks

Could Villanova and Xavier Both Receive #1 Seeds? (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova: 23-2 (10-2); RPI: 3; SOS: 31
  • Xavier: 23-3 (11-2); RPI: 2; SOS: 10

Analysis: These two teams have made things pretty easy for themselves — even losing out would not diminish their NCAA Tournament hopes. Villanova is at this point a near-lock for a #1 seed with a 23-2 overall record and the #3 RPI. On the other hand, Xavier has also climbed to the #1 seed line with Duke’s recent struggles and several losses for the other top teams.

Should Be In

  • Creighton: 18-7 (8-5); RPI: 23; SOS: 48. Analysis: Creighton narrowly avoided what would have been its first bad loss (Quadrant 3/4) of the season last Wednesday, riding a 29-point performance from Marcus Foster to a one-point victory at DePaul. Yes, surrendering 23 points to the Blue Demons’ Marin Maric poses questions about the Bluejays’ interior defense, especially following the season-ending injury to Martin Krampelj. But we have yet to see in what form Greg McDermott‘s team is going to take given an extremely limited frontcourt rotation. The alternative is that with Toby Hegner at the five, Creighton can have five legitimate outside shooting threats on the floor at one time. Despite narrowly missing out on a signature win over Xavier on Saturday, the Bluejays are 8-7 against Quadrant 1/2 teams and should have no problems earning a 10-8 or better conference record.

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Maturity, Resilience & Strong Start Has Seton Hall Poised for a Special Season

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 5th, 2017

Picture this: It is March 11, 2015, and Marquette, with a conference record of 4-14, has just laid a 22-point beatdown on Kevin Willard’s Seton Hall team in the #8 vs. #9 game of the Big East Tournament. Marquette would go on to lose to Villanova by 35 points the following afternoon and Seton Hall fans are not happy. Local media and message boards are calling for the head coach’s ouster after five seasons at the helm (without any NCAA Tournament appearances), and Willard even experienced some in-person heckling from Pirate fans the night before. After all, the fans have just witnessed a once promising season that began with a top 15 recruiting class and a 13-3 record crumble to bits in epic fashion as locker room tension destroyed a young and immature team. What would become of that dysfunctional group of freshmen that lost nine of their last 10 games to end the 2014-15 season?

Seton Hall Has Risen From the Ashes of 2015 (USA Today Images)

Exactly 1,000 days later (yes, really), Willard is in the midst of his eighth season in South Orange and those freshmen (minus Isaiah Whitehead, now plying his trade with the Brooklyn Nets) have blossomed into talented seniors. Three of those seniors — Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington — form the only active trio of 1,000-point scorers in college basketball. The Pirates are coming off two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and a 2016 Big East Tournament championship run (two feats not seen since the P.J. Carlesimo era of the early 1990s) that included consecutive wins over top-five opponents for the first time in the program’s 114-year history. Willard’s experienced Pirates stand at 7-1 and are ranked 19th nationally following a week in which they won at No. 17 Louisville and defeated No. 22 Texas Tech at the very arena where the program hit rock bottom nearly three years ago. The win at Louisville was Seton Hall’s second true road win against a ranked ACC team in program history, and to date this season, the Pirates are one of only two teams to have recorded four non-conference wins against power conference teams (with three of those coming away from the Prudential Center). The other team? That would be No. 1 Duke.

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Big East Key Offseason Questions

Posted by Justin Kundrat on April 26th, 2017

The long offseason days of transfers, NBA Draft declarations and coaching changes are now upon us. This time of year has a way of inspiring hope that next season will bring about improvement, that maybe this time things will be different. Below is a list of a few key questions that Big East teams will attempt to solve over the coming six months.

Patrick Ewing Takes Over the Proud Hoyas Program (USA Today Images)

  • How successful will Patrick Ewing be at Georgetown? The biggest Big East storyline this offseason has been Georgetown’s decision to part ways with 13-year head coach John Thompson III. In his wake arrives Patrick Ewing, the former Hoyas’ superstar who most recently spent time in the NBA as an assistant coach. Ewing is inexperienced in both collegiate recruiting and coaching but he is an intriguing hire on brand name alone. The premise that Georgetown is hoping for is that a well-known face on the sidelines will rejuvenate a lethargic fan base and attract a level of talent that Thompson had failed to corral during his last few seasons. Ewing will have his hands full in restoring a team that loses its two leading scorers in Rodney Pryor (18.0 PPG) and LJ Peak (16.3 PPG) as well as a de-commitment from prized recruit Tremont Waters. For now, unfair of not, Ewing will receive the Chris Mullin at St. John’s treatment: benefit of the doubt with heavy expectations setting in after a couple seasons.

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