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 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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Rushed Reactions: #2 Purdue 76, #10 Butler 73

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 18th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is in Detroit this weekend. 

Three Key Takeaways.

Vincent Edwards came up big for the shorthanded Boilermakers. (Photo: Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports)

  1. Without Isaac Haas in the lineup, Vincent Edwards stepped up. Purdue suffered a devastating blow on Friday when 7’2″ center Isaac Haas, the team’s second-leading scorer (14.7 PPG) and premier post threat, fractured his elbow against Cal State Fullerton. First reports indicated that he would miss the entire NCAA Tournament; subsequent reports revealed he might see limited minutes. But after his arm brace failed to clear NCAA safety standards over the weekend, the Boilermakers were officially left having to fill the void. Vincent Edwards did exactly that. In just 27 minutes of action because of foul trouble, the senior forward scored 20 points on 6-of-8 shooting — including a couple of timely triples — and came up with a lead-preserving block on Butler’s Kamar Baldwin in the closing minutes. After a late-season ankle injury and two subpar performances in the Big Ten Tournament, Edwards stepped up in a big way for the shorthanded Boilermakers.
  2. Matt Haarms and Purdue’s frontcourt reserves exceeded expectations. No Haas in the lineup meant more minutes for freshman Matt Haarms and the rest of Purdue’s frontcourt reserves. And they made good on that extra playing time. Haarms, a 7’3″ Dutchman, was a defensive force in the paint, blocking a couple shots, drawing a charge and preventing easy Butler looks around the rim (especially in the first half). Junior Grady Eifert — who played sparingly during the regular season — tracked down five rebounds in 17 high-energy minutes. Forwards Nojel Eastern and Jacquil Taylor, who had played just four minutes total since January 20, also helped fill the void. “I’m proud of those other guys who had to increase their roles,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said afterwards.
  3. Kelan Martin did not get enough help. As he did against Arkansas, Kelan Martin — an all-Big East first teamer and Butler’s top offensive weapon — did his part (and then some) on Sunday, scoring 29 points on 9-of-18 shooting. During the second half especially, his ability to attack the rim at-will proved to be the Bulldogs’ best and most consistent form of offense. Painter called him “fantastic” afterwards, and he was. But unlike on Friday, he did not receive enough help from his teammates — most notably Kamar Baldwin. After putting on a show against Arkansas (24 points on 9-of-17 FG), the sophomore guard scored just 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting. And his teammates weren’t much better, considering no other Bulldog finished in double figures. In a game that was decided by a few key possessions, Butler needed someone other than Martin to step up offensively.

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Rushed Reactions: #10 Butler 79, #7 Arkansas 62

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 16th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is reporting from Detroit. 

Key Takeaways.

Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin came up big against Arkansas. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

  1. Butler’s two best players were at their best when it counted. All-Big East first teamer Kelan Martin scored 27 points, including several big shots to set the tone for Butler early in the second half. Sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin (24 points, nine rebounds, five assists) was even better, making a pair of and-ones, a huge corner three, and a game-sealing layup all within the game’s final eight minutes. Butler’s top two offensive weapons — both of whom averaged more than 15 points per game this season — stepped up when it mattered most. Some players would become tentative after squandering a 19-point first half lead, especially in the face of a relentless full-court press like Arkansas. Not these guys.
  2. The first half was chaos. Butler jumped out to a 21-2 lead to start the game, making mincemeat of Arkansas’ press. The Razorbacks then responded with a 27-6 run of their own. After briefly losing the lead, the Bulldogs counterpunched with an 8-2 run to end the half, taking a five-point lead into the locker room. All the while, bodies were hitting the floor, the ball was being deflected every which way, and neither fan base really knew what to do with themselves. “With our team, it’s a game of runs,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson noted afterwards, perhaps understating just how wild the first half was. The flow of the game settled when Butler took control in the second half, but not before one of the more wild opening stanzas in recent memory.
  3. Butler could be in position to make another unexpected run. Butler is no stranger to shocking the world in March. Brad Stevens took the program to Final Fours as a #5 seed and a #8 seed in 2010 and 2011. In 2003, the Bulldogs reached the Sweet Sixteen as a #12 seed. Now, in LaVall Jordan’s first season as the Bulldogs’ head coach, Butler is in great position to exceed March expectations once again. Not only does Jordan’s team rank #23 overall on KenPom — meaning it was vastly under-seeded based on advanced metrics — but the news of Isaac Haas’s season-ending elbow injury greatly increases the Butler’s chances of upsetting #2 Purdue. The 7’2″ center scored a ridiculous 15 points in 16 minutes in the Boilermakers’ runaway victory over the Bulldogs back in December. Without him, Sunday’s matchup may simply come down to guard play — where Butler has much friendlier matchups.

Star of the Game. Kamar Baldwin, Butler. Baldwin single-handedly put Arkansas away, scoring 11 of his 24 points over a five-minute stretch late in the second half. He also played a huge role in neutralizing Jaylen Barford (15 points) and Daryl Macon (12 points), the Razorbacks’ highly-touted guard duo.

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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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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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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 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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Ten Questions to Consider: Final Regular Season Weekend

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on March 2nd, 2018

Regular season finales and conference tournaments make this a must-watch weekend of college hoops. Here are 10 questions I have for the action this weekend.

The Lowest Seed in the Big Ten Tournament is Still Alive (USA Today Images)

  1. Will the Big Ten Tournament playing a week early ultimately be advantageous? While Big Ten teams were forced to played a compacted conference season, teams will have an extra week of rest leading up to the NCAA Tournament by finishing this week. Additionally, all the committee’s eyes can be focused on the games this weekend at Madison Square Garden, something that could be favorable to any remaining Big Ten bubble teams.
  2. Can either the Atlantic Sun or Big South Tournament champion win a game in the NCAA Tournament? Florida Gulf Coast possesses the best profile from the Atlantic Sun if it could cut down on turnovers (bottom 100 nationally). This weekend would also be a good time to get to know UNC Asheville and its sharp-shooting pair of MaCio Teague and Raekwon Miller. Before #DunkCity and UNC Asheville begin dreaming of victories over power conference teams in the NCAA Tournament, they must both cut down their conference nets this weekend.
  3. Who finishes ACC play on a two-game losing streak: Duke or North Carolina? Both the Blue Devils and Tar Heels suffered last-second losses earlier in the week and are now fighting for ACC Tournament seeding. The biggest change since these two rivals played in early February has been the reemergence of Grayson Allen. Allen is averaging 20.5 PPG over his last six games.
  4. Will San Diego State make a statement against Nevada? The Aztecs have now won five straight, including a key win against Mountain West second-place Boise State. After a mid-season stretch in which San Diego State allowed an opponent’s offensive efficiency of 100 or more in eight of nine games, the Aztecs have held each of their last four opponents under 93 points. Brian Dutcher‘s team is turning the corner at just the right time. Read the rest of this entry »
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