The Six Most Surprising Players in the Big East So Far

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on December 12th, 2018

The Big East appears headed toward a down season after many conference teams lost valuable upperclassmen to graduation and the NBA Draft. Players like St. John’s Shamorie Ponds, Seton Hall’s Myles Powell and Providence’s Alpha Diallo have, as a result, taken their games to the next level to become this season’s stars. But their jumps were anticipated as they all have shown flashes of future greatness throughout their collegiate careers.

Ty-Shon Alexander is the Most Surprising Big East Player So Far (USA Today Images)

What about the players who have broken out this season? This article will instead analyze six players whose strong performances to date were not expected this season. The list is ordered from least surprising to most surprising.

6. Michael Nzei, PF, SR, Seton Hall – 10.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 73% FG

Nzei has been a valuable piece for Seton Hall throughout his career, averaging at least 13 minutes per game since his freshman season. He has mostly served as the first big man off the bench (behind Ish Sanogo or Angel Delgado), but he has emerged from the role of energetic rebounder to a legitimate offensive threat this season. This increased aggressiveness can be seen through a significant scoring increase (3.9 to 10.6 PPG) that is predicated on his quickness and ability to blow past opposing big men. Nzei’s hot start can also be attributed to Taurean Thompson’s disappointing play, as the former Syracuse power forward has clearly fallen behind Nzei on the depth chart.

5. LJ Figueroa, Wing, SO, St. John’s – 15.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 44% 3FG

Figueroa looked like he was set to become one of the best sixth men in college basketball, but Chris Mullin’s decision to go small thrust the sophomore wing into the starting lineup. Once Sedee Keita was sidelined with an injury, Figueroa has faced virtually no competition and has taken full advantage of his opportunity. The former JuCo transfer has seamlessly transitioned to the Big East by averaging 15.3 PPG and 7.7 RPG through the Red Storm’s 9-0 start. Figueroa is a good athlete who provides excellent floor spacing as a small-ball four, and he projects as a key component of St. John’s breakout season.

4. AJ Reeves, Wing, FR, Providence – 14.2 PPG, 45% 3FG, 50% FG

Reeves was a top 50 recruit so expectations for his performance were already high, but few observers could have expected such a strong start for the Providence freshman. His knockdown three-point shooting ability has been as good as advertised (45% 3FG), but he has also shown an ability to attack the basket and score on straight-line drives. Reeves has been extremely effective in transition too, where he can finish above the rim or use his soft touch to play through contact. Like most freshmen, however, Reeves’ defense is inconsistent (at best), but once he develops better fundamentals on that end of the floor, the sky is the limit for the young wing. Reeves is currently out of the lineup with a foot injury so hopefully he can maintain his early stellar play when he returns next month.

3. Damien Jefferson,Wing, SO, Creighton – 11.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 61% 3FG

The power forward position was Creighton’s biggest preseason concern after its previous starter, Ronnie Harrell, surprisingly transferred. Would the Bluejays decide to go small with Connor Cashaw or Mitch Ballock at the position; or would they go big and slide Martin Krampejl there? It turned out that New Mexico transfer Damien Jefferson not only had the perfect skill set for the position, but also the talent back it up. The sophomore only averaged 5.3 PPG as a freshman with the Lobos two seasons ago, but he has more than doubled his scoring output to date at his new school. Jefferson is a big athletic forward who can really defend and is off to a scorching hot start from three-point range (61% 3FG) this season.

2. Paul Jorgensen, SG, SR, Butler – 17.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 43% 3FG

Jorgensen was in and out of the Butler starting lineup last year but has become an offensive focal point for the Bulldogs this season. There were plenty of shots available after Kelan Martin graduated and the senior has taken complete advantage of that opportunity. Primarily playing the small forward slot next to Kamar Baldwin and Aaron Thompson, Jorgensen relies on his long-range jumper and ability to put the ball on the floor to create opportunities — allowing for a big improvement for someone who averaged only 10.2 PPG last season. Baldwin is likely to lead Butler in scoring by the end of the season, but the surprising Jorgensen should be a close second.

1. Ty-Shon Alexander, G, SO, Creighton- 18.3 PPG, 3.1 APG, 44% 3FG

Alexander has been the most surprising player in the Big East to date. He played a substantial role at the point guard slot for the Bluejays as a freshman, ,splitting the role with Davion Mintz. Now that Khyri Thomas is in the NBA and Marcus Foster has graduated, however, Alexander has flourished at his natural position off the ball. The sophomore still frequently operates with the ball in his hands, but he does so now as the primary scorer rather than someone balancing scoring and distributing. He is a shifty and explosive combo guard who can finish at the rim in addition to hitting perimeter jumpers, making him an extremely dynamic offensive force. His jump from 5.5 PPG a season ago to 18.3 PPG this year has been eye-opening.

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Big East Reset: Analyzing Some of the Key Storylines Thus Far

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 5th, 2018

With nearly a month of Big East basketball already in the books, there has been no shortage of action in a non-conference schedule full of surprising upsets and gut-wrenching defeats. For those who haven’t been following very closely, you may have been surprised to see preseason bottom dweller Creighton nearly toppling #1 Gonzaga or the defending national champs dropping a home game to Furman. So as we inch closer to the holidays and conference play, below are some of the key Big East takeaways from the last few weeks.

Furman Logged One of the Upsets of the Early Season at Villanova (USA Today Images)

  • There isn’t a bad team in the conference. DePaul has made its name over the last decade as the Big East’s doormat, finishing among the bottom three in the standings in every season back to 2008. While the Blue Demons are still far from conference contention, Dave Leitao‘s group has raced off to an early 5-1 start that includes an overtime win over a solid Penn State club. The offseason delivered the two things DePaul needed most: shooting and size in the forms of transfers Jalen Coleman-Lands (Illinois) and Femi Olujobi (North Carolina A&T). Now, with a balance of size, experience and backcourt play, the Blue Demons’ offense finally has some cohesiveness. Expect this team to easily surpass its 4-14 conference win total from last season.
  • Creighton’s offense didn’t regress as expected — rather, it might be just as good, if not better, than last season. This claim might seem far-fetched given that the Bluejays lost 60 percent of their scoring output, but they are right on pace at 1.16 points per possession eight games into the season. Interestingly, the blazing fast offense that attempted 29.4 percent of its shots in transition a season ago (seventh nationally) is now content to play in the half-court, with a middle-of-the-road tempo that ranks 155th in transition frequency. Neverthetheless, between sophomore guard Ty-Shon Alexander’s explosion onto the scene (the clear front-runner for the Big East’s most improved player) and the steady improvements of Damien Jefferson and Marcus Zegarowski, Greg McDermott’s team is the biggest surprise in the conference so far this season.

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Xavier Looks Ahead After Squandering Golden Opportunity Last Week

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on November 27th, 2018

Despite losing its three leading scorers from last season, Xavier was expected to remain relevant in the Big East race. Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura and Kerem Kanter all averaged double-figure points for the Musketeers last season, but returnees like Naji Marshall and Quentin Goodin were anticipated to fill the void. No one thought Xavier was set to replicate last season’s #1 seed level of success, but a sixth straight NCAA Tournament bid seemed completely attainable. With a 1-2 trip to the Maui Invitational now in the rear view, however, the Musketeers have squandered a golden opportunity to build their non-conference resume.

Xavier’s 1-2 Trip to Maui Puts a Significant Strain on Its NCAA At-Large Resume (USA Today Images)

For most of last week’s first round game against Auburn, it looked like Xavier had hit the jackpot. Ultimately, however, the Tigers prevailed in overtime with dynamic guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combining for 51 points in an overtime victory. Xavier was fortunate enough to have another opportunity for a quality win in the consolation round, though, as San Diego State should remain in the season-long discussion for a bid out of the Mountain West. The Musketeers built a substantial lead in the early portion of the first half of that game, but the Aztecs stormed back late and earned a five-point win. That loss meant Xavier was relegated to the seventh place game where they stopped the bleeding by defeating a struggling Illinois team. Given that the Fighting Illini will likely finish in the bottom three of the Big Ten this season, the win didn’t have much long-term at-large value. Xavier shot the ball extremely well in that game, but they were sloppy with the ball far too often.

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Let’s Not Panic About the Big East Just Yet

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on November 16th, 2018

After splitting the Gavitt Games in the first three years of its existence, the Big Ten has dominated in year four. The pair of teams projected at the top of the Big East this season — Villanova and Marquette — provided little resistance against Michigan and Indiana earlier this week. Meanwhile, Xavier and Creighton dropped home games to Wisconsin and Ohio State while Seton Hall proved to be no match for Nebraska. As it turns out, Georgetown and DePaul are the only Big East teams to win thus far, knocking off Illinois and Penn State (but both were without one of their top two players).

Steve Wojchiechowski is in the midst of a rebuild at Marquette. (Mark Hoffman/The Journal Sentinel)

On paper, these match-ups looked fairly even, but the Big Ten has proved to be the superior conference at this early point. Normally, these conference challenges need to be taken with a grain of salt as they are only one benchmark to compare conference strength. However, after the Big Ten’s beat-down of the Big East this week, not many reasonable people would think the Big East is the superior league. If St. John’s falls to Rutgers on Friday evening, it will cap off an embarrassing week for the conference.

Even though this has been a horrible start, it is still not time to panic. Even if the Big Ten is the better league, that does not mean the Big East won’t improve. Earning 28 NCAA Tournament berths in the last five years gives it the benefit of the doubt. Villanova has won two National Championships in the last three seasons; Xavier has an Elite Eight appearance under its belt: Providence has made five straight NCAA Tournaments; and Butler has consistently advanced in the postseason. These are great basketball programs that have proven resilient time and time again.

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Ranking the Top 50 Big East Players, Part II: #34-#17

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on November 5th, 2018

This article will continue ranking the top 50 Big East players with today’s reveal of #33 through #17. Part I, which ranks players #50 to #34 and published last week, can be found here.

Martin Krampelj Returns to Lead Creighton (USA Today Images)

  • 33. Tyrique Jones, Xavier, JR, Center. Jones is a physical bruising center who has been shuffled in and out of the Musketeers’ starting lineup over the past two years. He is limited offensively, but his defense and rebounding are extremely valuable. The junior averaged 7.0 PPG and 4.5 RPG as a sophomore, but should only see a slight uptick in minutes as he will likely split playing time with Zach Hankins.
  • 32. Joe Chartouny, Marquette, SR, PG. Chartouny is a perfect fit alongside Markus Howard in the Marquette backcourt as he is an excellent defender and distributor. Howard is an undersized scorer so having the 6’3’’ Chartouny around is enormously beneficial for Marquette on both ends of the floor. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, Chartouny will be a crucial piece for the Golden Eagles.
  • 31. Myles Cale, Seton Hall, SO, Wing. Cale is one of the most likely breakout players in the Big East this season because he should see a major increase in playing time as a result of the departure of Desi Rodriguez. The 6’6’’ wing averaged 4.3 PPG as a freshman last year, but he increased his scoring to 7.0 PPG over his last seven games.
  • 30. Jahvon Blair, Georgetown, SO, Guard. Blair was thrust into a major role as a freshman and his efficiency understandably suffered. The 6’3’’ sophomore averaged a solid 9.0 PPG, but he only shot 32 percent from the field. It will be interesting to see if Blair is more comfortable in year two as a Hoya and whether he can emerge as one of the top shooters in the Big East.
  • 29. Paul Jorgenson, Butler, SR, Guard. Jorgenson was in the starting lineup for a majority of last season before getting replaced by Sean McDermott for the final eight games. He will likely return to a starting role this year to  provide some scoring punch in an effort to replace some of Kelan Martin’s lost production. The 6’2’’ guard will be at a size disadvantage in defending opposing wings, but Butler actually performed better last season when the Bulldogs utilized a three-guard lineup. Jorgenson averaged 10.2 PPG and shot 35 percent from three-point range as a junior.
  • 28. Ryan Welage, Xavier, SR, PF. Welage is another graduate transfer who fills an important role for his new team. With Trevon Blueitt and Kaiser Gates out of the program, the Musketeers desperately needed a stretch four in their lineup. That is where Welage comes in, as he averaged 18.1 PPG and shot 43 percent from three-point range at San Jose State last year. The 6’9’’ PF will likely start and provide immediate experience and spacing for Xavier.

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Where 2018-19 Happens: Reason #9 We Love College Basketball

Posted by rtmsf on October 29th, 2018

As RTC heads into its 12th season covering college hoops, it’s time to begin releasing our annual compendium of YouTube clips that we like to call Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball. These 30 snippets from last season’s action are completely guaranteed to make you wish the games were starting tonight rather than 30 days from now. Over the next month you’ll get one reason per day until we reach the new season on Tuesday, November 6. You can find all of this year’s released posts here.

#9 – Where Johnnies Uprising Happens.

We also encourage you to re-visit the entire archive of this feature from the 2008-092009-10, 2010-112011-122012-132013-142014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17  and 2017-18 preseasons.

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Where 2018-19 Happens: Reason #13 We Love College Basketball

Posted by rtmsf on October 25th, 2018

As RTC heads into its 12th season covering college hoops, it’s time to begin releasing our annual compendium of YouTube clips that we like to call Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball. These 30 snippets from last season’s action are completely guaranteed to make you wish the games were starting tonight rather than 30 days from now. Over the next month you’ll get one reason per day until we reach the new season on Tuesday, November 6. You can find all of this year’s released posts here.

#13 – Where Big East Record Happens.

We also encourage you to re-visit the entire archive of this feature from the 2008-092009-10, 2010-112011-122012-132013-142014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17  and 2017-18 preseasons.

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Big East Burning Questions: Butler & Creighton

Posted by Justin Kundrat on October 18th, 2018

The NBA season tipped off earlier this week, which makes it the perfect time to roll out some new Big East content to drown out the monotony of early-season professional basketball. Over the coming weeks, the Big East microsite will be previewing all the teams, players and key storylines to watch as we approach tip-off. Be sure to follow @RTCBigEast and its contributors Justin Kundrat and Brad Cavallaro to get your fix.

In the spotlight today will be (alphabetically) Butler and Creighton.

Butler: Can Kamar Baldwin take on the role of alpha dog?

Can Kamar Baldwin Shoulder Butler’s Offensive Load? (USA Today Images)

A number of publications and season previews have penciled in the 6’1″ junior as the Big East Player of the Year given his expected role on the contending Bulldogs and demonstrated play-making abilities on both sides of the ball. What’s being overlooked in that analysis, though, is the inefficient and inconsistent method in which he played offensively last season. The Butler offense was actually 0.05 PPP better without Baldwin on the floor, and his 104.1 KenPom Offensive Rating was the second worst among the Bulldogs’ rotation players. He fared well as a distributor and two-level scorer, but often struggled with his shooting (33.1% from deep) and witnessed his efficiency succumb to higher volume and more defensive attention. With Kelan Martin’s 21.2 PPG now off the roster, the spotlight will inevitably turn to Baldwin to buoy the offense alongside a flurry of outside shooters – Paul Jorgensen (10.2 PPG), Sean McDermott (43.1% 3FG) and Duke transfer Jordan Tucker. If he can put up enough points while maintaining his notorious defensive tenacity, LaVall Jordan‘s group should have no problem finishing in the top three of this league, but there’s an if.

Creighton: How quickly will its sophomores grow up?

Greg McDermott Has a Lot to Replace This Season (USA Today Images)

Creighton joins Seton Hall, Xavier, Villanova and just about every other Big East team in losing the majority of its scoring output from last season. In addition to Marcus Foster (19.8 PPG) and Toby Hegner (8.4 PPG), what really stings is the early departure of junior Khyri Thomas to the NBA. All told, Greg McDermott lost north of 60 percent of last season’s scoring and is now attempting to replace it with a mix of freshmen, sophomores, redshirts and transfers. Will his team end up in the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive year? Doubtful, but it should be fun to watch this eclectic group of players slowly form a cohesive unit over the season. Leading the way are a trio of sophomores — Mitch Ballock (7.3 PPG), Ty-Shon Alexander (5.5 PPG) and Jacob Epperson (6.3 PPG) — each of whom showed well in spurts last season. Ballock is the biggest breakout candidate of the bunch (and my pick for most improved): After spending most of last season under the radar, he posted a team-leading 16 points and eight rebounds in the Bluejays’ NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas State. It will take time for each of these players to adjust to a heightened role, but when that happens and versatile forward Martin Krampelj returns from injury, the March version of this team will look nothing like November’s.

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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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