Big East’s Burning Questions: NCAA Tournament Edition

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 16th, 2016

With five NCAA Tournament teams seeded anywhere from #2 to a #9, the expectations for the Big East this season are all over the map. Let’s take a look at the single biggest question surrounding the postseason success of each program heading into the first weekend.

Is this the year Jay Wright and company finally make their long awaited run to the Final Four? (Getty)

Is this the year Jay Wright’s group finally makes another run? (Getty)

VillanovaCan the Wildcats finally break through to the Sweet Sixteen? This narrative has seemingly lasted forever. After a number of exits in the Second Round, many pundits are writing off Jay Wright‘s squad. The reasons are all over the place: a lack of true NBA-level talent; a lack of interior depth; limited athleticism; over-reliance on the three-pointer. But what the narrative fails to capture is that the team’s dynamic continues to evolve with each passing year — players gain experience, develop new skill sets and build cohesion. People desperately wanted to craft the three-point shooting storyline around this year’s team but it simply hasn’t held up. Yes, Villanova shoots threes, but they are rarely contested. They are simply a manifestation of an offense where the primary options are to use Josh Hart in the lane or Daniel Ochefu on the low block. Iowa isn’t the type of team to give Villanova problems, nor is an undersized and poor-shooting Temple team. Expect the narrative to finally unwind this March.

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Bracket Prep: Midwest Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 15th, 2016

bracketprep22

On Monday and Tuesday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: Monday (East and West); Tuesday (South and Midwest). Here, Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) 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).

Midwest Region

Favorite: #2 Michigan State (30-5, 13-5 Big Ten). They aren’t the top seed in the region (more on that later), but the Spartans are as hot as any team in the nation entering the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State’s only blemish over its last 13 games is a one-point loss in overtime at Purdue, a surge that may not have earned them appropriate respect in the RPI (#11) but has done so in advanced rating systems (KenPom #3, Sagarin #2). Any Tom Izzo team is scary in March, but one led by a potential National Player of the Year (Denzel Valentine) evolves into an even more frightening tier of “opponent no team wants to face.” Oh, and their most likely challenger for the title of Midwest favorite knows this reality all too well – top-seeded Virginia has been bounced from each of the last two Tournaments by the Spartans. Michigan State is #2 in seed only in this Midwest Region.

Fresh off a Big Ten tournament title, Michigan State is as hot as any team in the field of 68. (Photo: AP)

Fresh off a Big Ten tournament title, Michigan State is as hot as any team in the field of 68. (Photo: AP)

Should They Falter: #1 Virginia (26-7, 13-5 ACC). Michigan State’s anointment as region favorite has little to do with any deficiencies exhibited by Virginia. Aside from a two-week stretch in early January in which the Cavaliers lost three of four, Tony Bennett’s team has been stellar from November to March. Like the Spartans, they too are in the top four in both the Sagarin and Pomeroy rating systems; unlike the Spartans, they have repeatedly proven capable of beating some of the nation’s best teams: Virginia owns five victories over teams that earned a #3 seed or better – four more than the Spartans. Making the Final Four could well require an exorcism of recent March demons by defeating Michigan State in the Elite Eight, but ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes, and Anthony Gill form a leading trio capable of guiding the Cavaliers past any team in the field. Believe it.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big East

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 13th, 2016

In terms of the bubble, there was little surprise about the five Big East teams that were going to make the Big Dance. Rather, the biggest outstanding question was how their draws would play out. For a number of the middle-seeded teams, first weekend matchups mean nearly everything for postseason success. Below is a review of how the selection process concluded for each Big East team and what they should expect for the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Villanova, #2 seed, South Region. A surprising and frustrating choice for many Villanova fans. Few expected to receive a #1 seed after losing to Seton Hall last night, but many expected the opportunity to play in the Philadelphia regional rather than being shipped to the South region. Nevertheless, Villanova’s opening pod is a favorable one. The Wildcats handily beat Temple on its own floor a few weeks ago and Iowa has struggled mightily over its last 10 games. The Hawkeyes should beat the Owls, but their guard play is weak and the team has no dominant interior presence. A matchup against Villanova would be a battle of wings against a team that isn’t particularly strong at defending the paint. On paper, Villanova should handle it well.

Villanova's Big East Title Game Loss May Have Cost Them A #1 Seed (USA Today Sports)

Villanova’s Big East Title Game Loss May Have Cost Them A #1 Seed (USA Today Sports)

Xavier, #2 seed, East Region. Xavier should be happy with this placement. Weber State won lot of games but succeeded only once over a team in KenPom‘s top 150. Looking forward, Pittsburgh and Wisconsin are the Musketeers’ possible second round opponents — both are big, physical teams that play a slower-paced game. Neither is particularly adept at forcing turnovers, a point of weakness for the Musketeers, but Wisconsin is probably the more dangerous team. Given the Badgers’ impressive recent stretch (winners of 10 of its last 13 games) and ability to control tempo, Xavier will need to bring its best game. It says here, however, that Wisconsin will struggle to shoot well enough to challenge Chris Mack’s team.

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Ismael Sanogo is the Key to Seton Hall’s Success

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 13th, 2016

When Ismael Sanogo committed to Seton Hall in July 2013, few outside of those within the program took notice. Here was a player who chose a struggling Seton Hall team four months removed from a 3-15 Big East season (its worst in 28 years) over the likes of recent Final Four participant VCU, George Mason, Saint Joseph’s and Pennsylvania. At that moment, any of those schools could have looked like better options to a 17-year-old Sanogo. He could have seen more playing time as a freshman in a conference like the Atlantic 10 or pursue an elite education from an Ivy League school. Instead, the local kid from Newark decided to stay home and commit to Kevin Willard’s struggling Big East program.

USA TODAY Sports

Ismael Sanogo has developed into a major contributor as a sophomore for surging Seton Hall. (Credit: Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports)

The initial scoop on Sanogo was a wiry defense-first tweener who needed time to develop his body and offensive game. At 6’6″ and 185 pounds, Sanogo needed to bulk up in order to contribute at the college level. Fast forward to his 2014-15 freshman season and “Ish” would not find himself getting off of Willard’s bench very often. Sanogo received an average of only 5.3 minutes per game in just 18 of Seton Hall’s 31 games as the Pirates lost nine of their last 10 games after beginning with a 15-6 record. It was an ugly end to a once-promising season as outside distractions and chemistry issues sunk the Pirates’ ship.

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Rushed Reactions: Seton Hall 78, Villanova 76

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 12th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways.

Seton Hall Shocked the World With Its Run to the Big East Title (USA Today Images)

Seton Hall Shocked the World With Its Run to the Big East Title (USA Today Images)

  1. Isaiah Whitehead proved he is the most talented player in the Big East. There isn’t a better player around when it comes to hitting clutch shots and making things happen offensively. Time and time again, head coach Kevin Willard put the ball in Whitehead’s hands and let him create something. And create he did. Tonight’s 26-point effort was the result of an endless stream of floaters in the lane, savvy moves to create space for shots, and a game-winning play down the stretch where he drew contact and finished an old-fashioned three-point play. It’s his uncanny ability to score combined with a penchant for putting his teammates in good position that makes Whitehead the best all-around player in the conference. The 6’4 sophomore has always had talent but his decision-making has caught up with his skill set. Gone are the forced passes and ill-advised shots; what remains is a heady player who now makes the right plays at the right times. Seton Hall is the clear beneficiary.
  2. Daniel Ochefu‘s injury takes away the best part of Villanova’s offenseThe 6’11” center has played in limited minutes this week due to an ongoing ankle injury, which he re-aggravated against Seton Hall tonight. Backup Darryl Reynolds was more than sufficient on the defensive end and held his own on the glass, but problems arose when it came to offense. Reynolds isn’t nearly the passer that Ochefu is, thereby eliminating the inside-out game that allows Villanova to generate open three-point shots. Instead, Seton Hall rarely doubled down on him and were quick to close out on Villanova’s shooters and force them to drive into traffic. Jay Wright will absolutely need Ochefu healthy should the Wildcats hope to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
  3. Seton Hall will no longer surprise teams in the NCAA TournamentIn back-to-back games, Kevin Willard’s group knocked off the #5 and #3 teams in the country and now have the full attention of every media outlet and head coach from coast to coast. These statement wins have given Seton Hall its first Big East championship in 23 years but have also correspondingly put a giant target on its back. After being continuously overlooked for much of this season, this team often succeeded by playing with a chip on its shoulder, but that will change as Seton Hall will no longer catch anybody by surprise.

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Rushed Reactions: Seton Hall 87, Xavier 83

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 12th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways:

Khadeen Carrington starred in another Seton Hall victory. (Credit: (USA Today Sports Images)

  1. Derrick Gordon changed the tide in the first half. Seton Hall’s lone senior created havoc on the defensive end with his deflections and hustle plays all over the floor. He was everywhere and set the tone for the Pirates, who used a 24-12 first half run to take control of the game. Gordon was one of the most important acquisitions on the transfer market this offseason and has provided Seton Hall with the leadership it desperately needed after last season’s collapse. His hustle and will to win were on display again tonight and made a huge difference in the outcome. His experience and selfless play is invaluable to a talented but still quite young group of Pirates.
  2. Seton Hall matched Xavier’s toughness and physicality. The Musketeers are known for their relentless, hard-nosed brand of basketball. Tonight they encountered an opponent more than willing to play just as tough and just as physical, and Xavier didn’t react well to that. In particular, the Pirates got under the skin of J.P. Macura and Jalen Reynolds; both players picked up technical fouls and eventually fouled out. The physicality of the game played right into Seton Hall’s hands as it turned up the defense and held Xavier to 34.9 percent shooting for the game. It was an impressive display by a young team that doesn’t seem have fear of any opponent.
  3. Seton Hall is a dangerous NCAA Tournament team. The Pirates are clicking on all cylinders right now. Their defense has been strong all year and ranks among the top 15 nationally in adjusted efficiency, but the difference maker has been an improved offense. Seton Hall struggled earlier in the year with stagnancy, but their chemistry and ball movement has improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the last five weeks. That’s due in large part to Isaiah Whitehead‘s stellar play, but also a result of increased contributions from complementary players like Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington. Seton Hall will win games with its defense and rebounding, but the added offensive punch makes them a legitimate threat to make the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend.

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Big East Tournament Takeaways: Thursday Evening Edition

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 11th, 2016

A great day at Madison Square Garden ended in exciting fashion with Seton Hall’s gutty victory over Creighton in the nightcap. A long day of basketball yesterday sets up two terrific semifinal matchups tonight when No. 1 Villanova faces No. 4 Providence and No. 2 Xavier meets No. 3 Seton Hall.

Marquette (20-13): The result of Marquette’s game with Xavier was clear after the first few minutes, as the Golden Eagles looked out of gas after a grueling game on Wednesday night and never matched the Musketeers’ intensity. Marquette has been a work in progress all year with so many young players to integrate into the program, and that remains true heading toward what may become a NIT bid. Any extra games this year will be good for a group lacking in any sort of postseason experience.

Xavier's Intensity Far Outpaced Marquette (Photo: USAT Sports)

Xavier’s Intensity Far Outpaced Marquette (Photo: USAT Sports)

Xavier (27-4):  Chris Mack’s team was fired up from the start last night and never relented. It was an impressive offensive display from a Xavier team that has been well-balanced all season. Trevon Bluiett (24 points on 14 shots) led the way offensively, but the most important takeaway here may be the energy Xavier stored for use in the rest of the tournament. The Musketeers didn’t have to use nearly as much effort as its next opponent, Seton Hall, or even possible championship game opponents Villanova and Providence. When you’re playing the same number of games as days in the event, conservation of energy is important. Xavier may reap the benefits of yesterday’s easy victory in providing a stockpile for the next two nights.

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Otskey’s Big East Observations: Scouting Big East Tournament Teams

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 9th, 2016

With the NCAA Tournament only one week away, let’s take a look at the five Big East teams likely to earn a bid from a scouting perspective. Matchups play a major part in whether a strong team makes an early exit or an average team makes a deep March run. This is magnified more than ever in the pressure cooker that is the NCAA Tournament as teams encounter opponents and styles of play they are largely unfamiliar with. Conversely, some of these teams may flourish once they’re free of the grinder that is the regular season in the Big East.

Villanova

Josh Hart and Villanova were the class of the Big East again this season. (USA Today Sports)

Josh Hart and Villanova were the class of the Big East once again this season. (USA TODAY Sports)

  • Why the Wildcats can go deep: Jay Wright’s team is incredibly balanced and cohesive on both sides of the ball. An elite defensive squad, Villanova leads the Big East in allowing only 63.3 PPG. That alone will keep this group in games against any team in the nation. They are known for their defense, but the Wildcats don’t seem to get enough credit nationally for their offensive prowess. They feature an experienced floor general in Ryan Arcidiacono, a versatile wing in Josh Hart and a savvy big man in the middle in Daniel Ochefu. Another thing Villanova does incredibly well that should come in handy in the NCAA Tournament is free throw shooting. It leads the nation with a 77.9 percent mark from the charity stripe. Mounting a comeback against the Wildcats in the final minute is often a futile endeavor.

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Handing Out the Big East Player Awards

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 8th, 2016

Perhaps the best thing about the Big East is its player continuity. With the lone exception of St. John’s, every conference team returned a significant portion of its key contributors from last season, tremendously benefiting the quality of the league as a whole. Moreover, retention allows fans an opportunity to track player growth and development through the years. As an example, four of last season’s six All-Big East first teamers returned to campus this season. Giving an award to one player over several other qualified players is always difficult, but after having watched or attended nearly every Big East game this season, this is one pundit’s take on the Big East’s superlatives.

Player of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall

Isaiah Whitehead Led Seton Hall to Its Best Season in a Long While (USA Today Images)

Isaiah Whitehead Led Seton Hall to Its Best Season in a Long While (USA Today Images)

Choosing a Big East Player of the Year is always a tough decision, and this year was no different. The award usually goes to the best player on the best team, but as a player of the year award, that means it should go to whomever has the biggest impact on his team. You might say that it is synonymous with most irreplaceable player. Josh Hart is undoubtedly the most important player on the best team in the conference, but Villanova has numerous quality offensive pieces and could find a way to survive in his absence. Kris Dunn completely changes the game on both ends of the floor, but his performance has tapered off in the last few weeks (to an extent because of illness). The toughest decision was to eliminate Ben Bentil, who quite simply played out of his mind while his teammate Dunn was struggling. The final distinction came down to this: Seton Hall drastically outperformed expectations this season and Isaiah Whitehead has been the primary reason why. Without the contributions of Whitehead, the Pirates would be an average team only capable of average things. In concert with Seton Hall’s rise, the sophomore guard has been virtually unstoppable in the last month of play, scoring more than 20 points eight times in his last 10 games. He has also recorded more blocked shots than any other guard in the conference, ranks third in fouls drawn and fourth in assist rate. His biggest development this season has been to exhibit an ability to make his teammates better. The improvement of Whitehead and the simultaneous emergence of Seton Hall as a Big East contender and certain NCAA Tournament team is no coincidence.

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Big East Bubble Watch: Volume IV

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 4th, 2016

With the Big East Tournament just around the corner, things are looking pretty good. Every conference bubble team that needed to win did so, giving us a much higher degree of certainty that the conference will earn five NCAA Tournament bids this season. Part of the reason for that is welcome to lock territory, Seton Hall. The Pirates picked up a signature win at home on Sunday against Xavier and would finish the regular season with a worst-case RPI of #44 should the Pirates lose this weekend at DePaul. At a macro level, the conference appears primed for postseason success: two highly-seeded teams and two or three mid-seeded teams makes for a good combination of quality and quantity in representation. Now it comes down to a final regular season game and the conference tournament to determine seeding for those five teams. Here’s the latest installment of the Big East Bubble Watch. RPI and SOS figures are from RPIForecast.com.

Locks

Jay Wright and Villanova have been on point. (Getty)

Jay Wright and Villanova have been on point. (Getty)

  • Villanova: 26-4 (15-2); RPI: 2; SOS: 12
  • Xavier: 25-4 (13-4); RPI: 7; SOS: 30
  • Seton Hall: 21-8 (11-6); RPI: 33; SOS: 52

Analysis: Once again, no justification is needed for Villanova and Xavier here, as both are reasonable contenders for the #1 seed line. Xavier dropped a road game at Seton Hall that may have diminished the Musketeers’ chances for a top seed, but the corresponding effect is that it moved the Pirates into the lock category. For a team that was picked to finish seventh in the preseason, Seton Hall and its wiser, calmer sophomore leader Isaiah Whitehead have come a long way. The Pirates have one remaining game at DePaul, but even a loss there would not push their RPI nearly low enough (#44) to fall out of consideration. While possibly out of reach, the goal is to push for a #6 seed, thereby avoiding the potential pitfall of facing a #1 or #2 seed in the Second Round. Time to celebrate, Seton Hall fans, it appears that your 10-year NCAA Tournament drought is finally over. Read the rest of this entry »

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Otskey’s Big East Observations: 03.01.16 Edition

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 1st, 2016

As the regular season comes to a close, a pair of Big East teams are fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives. For Butler and Providence, nothing will come easy over the next two weeks. The Bulldogs in particular sit squarely on the bubble as the Big East conference tournament looms. A huge chance awaits Butler tomorrow night when they host a surging Seton Hall team. Chris Holtmann’s group has matched up quite well with the Pirates over the last few seasons, and is the only team to beat them since January 23. A middling RPI, poor non-conference strength of schedule and a 5-8 record versus the RPI top 100 are all resume items conspiring against Butler at this moment. Given those deficiencies, you have to think a wins on Wednesday and Saturday (Marquette) to close the regular season are necessary for Butler to stay in the Tournament mix. Butler passes the so-called “eye test,” but its resume needs an immediate boost to prevent a trip to the NIT.

Andrew Chrabascz and Butler need a strong finish. (USA Today Sports)

It is crunch time for Andrew Chrabascz and Butler. (USA TODAY Sports)

After picking up a massive road victory at Villanova on January 24, Providence stood at 17-3 overall and looked like a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team. Who could have thought that Georgetown would be the only team the Friars would defeat in the month that followed? Providence swept the Hoyas but went 0-6 against every other team it played between January 26 and February 25. While the resume is good enough to merit a bid at this point, a loss to either Creighton or St. John’s would severely damage the Friars’ chances of holding on to an at-large bid. Star point guard Kris Dunn has been fighting an illness over the last week but head coach Ed Cooley said on Monday that the team is now healthy. As they did Saturday in dispatching DePaul, the Friars need to take care of business this week. No excuses if they fail to get the job done. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big East Bubble Watch: Volume III

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 26th, 2016

Another week, another Big East team falls by the wayside. Last week, we watched Georgetown fail to seize wins in two must-needed opportunities. This week, the team exiting the bubble fray is Creighton. Given such low preseason expectations, a 17-11 (8-7 Big East) record is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s a tally inflated by a relatively sub-par schedule. On Wednesday, Greg McDermott’s squad dropped a home game against Marquette, one it simply couldn’t afford to lose. Even the best case end of the regular season scenario (3-0 with wins over St. John’s, Providence and Xavier) would be likely to leave the Jays’ RPI in the 60s or 70s heading into the Big East Tournament. So for now, we bid you adieu, Creighton. For the Big East teams still on this list, NCAA Tournament dreams are very much alive. Here’s the latest installment of the Big East Bubble Watch. RPI and SOS figures are from RPIForecast.com.

Locks

  • Villanova: 24-4 (13-2); RPI: 2; SOS: 9
  • Xavier: 25-3 (13-3); RPI: 3; SOS: 32

Analysis: Once again, no justification needed here. And after Xavier’s mettle-testing mid-week victory over the Wildcats, a sometimes-maligned Big East may now be in line for two #1 seeds. Even if that scenario fails to manifest itself, one thing has been clear for quite awhile: these two teams have put together remarkable seasons.

J.P. Macura And Xavier Are Rolling (Photo: AP)

J.P. Macura And Xavier Are Rolling (Photo: AP)

Should Be In

Seton Hall: 20-7 (10-5); RPI: 37; SOS: 70

Analysis: Fueled by the ever-improving play of sophomore Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall has continued to build momentum. There was a major scare in a near loss at St. John’s on Sunday, but the Pirates prevailed and then backed it up with a convincing home win over Providence on Thursday, adding a 3rd top 50 win to its resume. This win should all but punch the Hall’s ticket, but with three games on the schedule, it feels a tad too soon to declare them a lock. There’s an upcoming home game against Xavier that should present more as opportunity than test — it’s essentially a no-lose situation. For a team that was picked to finish 7th in the conference, the Pirates and their wiser, calmer sophomore leader have come a long ways. Outside of Kris Dunn, Whitehead might be the most exciting player to watch in this conference. Keep an eye on him this March.

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