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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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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RTC Bracket Prep: Midwest Region

Posted by Walker Carey on March 13th, 2018

Yesterday and today we will be rolling out our region-by-region analysis for the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Here, Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) breaks down the Midwest Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC Midwest Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCMWRegion).

Favorite: #2 Duke (26-7, 13-5 ACC). While Kansas is the top seed in the region, Duke’s overall talent makes the Blue Devils the favorite. According to KenPom, Duke ranks third in the country in offensive efficiency and seventh in defensive efficiency. The Blue Devils are led by senior guard Grayson Allen (15.7 PPG, 4.5 APG) and freshman phenom Marvin Bagley III (21.1 PPG, 11.5 RPG), which gives it a decided talent advantage on both the perimeter and inside nearly every time they take the floor. Neither Rhode Island nor Oklahoma possesses the offensive firepower to knock off Duke in the Round of 32, while a potential Sweet Sixteen match-up with Michigan State represents a rematch of a Champions Classic showdown where Allen scored a career-high 37 points in leading his team to victory. Considering #1 Kansas’ general inconsistency and questions surrounding the health of big man Udoka Azuibuike, the Blue Devils’ path to another Final Four appears clear.

Grayson Allen’s Last Hurrah Starts in the Midwest Region (USA Today Images)

Should They Falter: #1 Kansas (27-7, 13-5 Big 12). For a team that earned its 14th consecutive regular season Big 12 title this season, Kansas certainly experienced plenty of national doubt. There have been legitimate questions about the Jayhawks’ overall depth and interior play all season — and those discussion points were not helped by Azuibuike suffering a knee injury prior the to the Big 12 Tournament. That said, Kansas was able to win three games in three days at the Big 12 Tournament to take home the title and the Jayhawks appear to be playing their best basketball of the season. With senior guards Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk leading the charge, coupled with the emergence of sophomore guard Malik Newman, Kansas has enough offensive prowess to keep up with anyone in the field.

Grossly Overseeded: #10 Oklahoma (18-13, 8-10 Big 12). The Sooners were one of the best stories of the early portion of this season. Freshman guard Trae Young was drawing favorable comparisons to Stephen Curry for his outstanding perimeter game, and it appeared Lon Kruger‘s group was equipped to rise from the ashes of last season’s debacle to ascend to the program’s second Final Four in the last three years. That all came to a screeching halt when the calendar turned to 2018. Since Big 12 play began, Oklahoma has gone just 8-12 and has not won a game away from Norman. While Young looked fresh and explosive in the early season, he has looked tired and lethargic since (an astronomical nation-leading usage rate of 38.6 percent surely contributes). The committee has repeatedly acknowledged that it values early season play just as much as it does the late season, so you can certainly understand why the Sooners were selected to the Field of 68. The surprising part is how firmly they were in — getting a #10 seed and avoiding the First Four is a generous draw for a team that has struggled so much.

Criminally Underseeded: #14 Bucknell (25-9, 16-2 Patriot League). Following a loss to Boston University on January 2, Bucknell was saddled with a mediocre 7-8 record and was looking for answers. The Bison finished the year, however, by winning 18 of their last 19 games and dominating the Patriot League Tournament — winning their semifinal and championship games by 31 and 29 points, respectively. It seems like everything is humming along nicely for Nathan Davis‘ group as the NCAA Tournament commences this week. That is why it was surprising to see the Bison earn only a #14 seed and a rather intimidating match-up with a very talented Michigan State squad in Detroit. Advancing past the First Round will be a tough ask of Bucknell.

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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 Notebook: Recapping Thursday’s Quarterfinals

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 9th, 2018

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

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

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

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Big East Tournament Preview

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 7th, 2018

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

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

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

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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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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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Ten Questions to Consider: Super Bowl Weekend (College Hoops Version)

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on February 2nd, 2018

While college basketball will take a backseat to the Super Bowl Sunday afternoon, there is plenty of action on the hardwood before then. Here are ten questions I have for this weekend.

Rhode Island is Quietly Rising, But How Good Are the Rams? (USA Today Images)

  1. Is Rhode Island THAT GOOD or is the Atlantic 10 THAT BAD? Rhode Island sits at 10-0 in conference play with a three-game lead over VCU, Davidson and Richmond. With its next three games against that trio, Rhode Island could have the regular season crown wrapped up by mid-February. Only three Atlantic 10 teams own a KenPom top 100 ranking this season, a far cry from the past five seasons when the conference has averaged 7.4 teams among the top 100.
  2. Will Texas Tech stay within reach of Kansas? Only one game behind Kansas in the Big 12 standings, Texas Tech faces a crucial road test at TCU on Saturday. In two of its three conference losses, Texas Tech has been unable to force turnovers at its season rate of 23.7 percent, which ranks among the top 10 nationally. The Red Raiders will match up against a TCU offense that has the lowest turnover rate in conference play.
  3. Which Los Angeles team steps up in the crosstown battle?  While USC has its eyes on the Pac-12 title (one game behind Arizona), UCLA is looking to make its seat on the bubble a little more comfortable. An area to watch in this game is the three-point line, where over its last five games UCLA is shooting 33-of-111 (29.7%) and allowing its opponents to shoot 41-of-87 (47.1.%). Read the rest of this entry »
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