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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St. John’s Shiny Record Belies Some of the Same Old Problems

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 30th, 2018

St. John’s may be 6-0 on the season but its undefeated record does not tell the whole story. Rather, the program seems to be carrying the heavy weight of expectations for a breakthrough season. With all the stars aligned, this was pegged to be the year: Future NBA draftee Shamorie Ponds passed up the league to return for his junior season; impact transfer Mustapha Heron was cleared to play; some promising new faces around campus brought needed depth; and head coach Chris Mullin, entering his fourth season, would be turning a corner as head coach. And with the program’s best start since 2010 already in the books, some observers may be lured into the false premise that things are going according to plan. But a closer look underneath the hood reveals many of the same issues from last season — issues that are likely to manifest against stiffer competition.

The Legends Classic Champions May Be a Paper Tiger (USA Today Images)

First is the simple over-reliance on Ponds to create offense and score. The junior ranked 18th nationally (32.0%) in usage rate last season, often forced into difficult shots because of the dearth of reliable secondary scorers on the roster. And while Heron’s 18.2 PPG have certainly eased his offensive burden, the fact that Ponds’ hero ball was required to salvage victories against VCU and California cannot be comforting. Clever and electric as he is, it’s hard to imagine that this is a good possession, particularly given how many Red Storm players are open once VCU’s defenders collapse into the paint:

In both of those Legends Classic games, the 6’1″ guard accounted for 40 percent of his team’s points. Although the ultimate result may have been what Mullin wanted, the underlying process of getting there was lacking. St. John’s showed minimal ball movement, poor defense and a street ball feel to the game. The last comment brings up the next point: A leaky perimeter defense, which plagued the Red Storm all of last season, is still a problem. Not only is St. John’s allowing countless open shots from the perimeter, but it is yet again fouling at an astronomical rate. While some of this may be driven by personnel, the below table shows a clear correlation between defensive foul rates and Mullin’s assumption of the head coaching position in 2015-16.

Unnecessary fouls are often the result of lackluster communication, bad spacing, or poor tendencies such as recklessly attempting a steal or block. While the Red Storm’s defense has been adept at forcing turnovers, the number of easy points they are giving up at the line will continue to haunt them. So while St. John’s enters December standing tall with an unblemished record, its near-losses to the likes of Bowling Green and California could have shaped an entirely different narrative. With a pool of talent on the floor in Ponds, Heron, sophomore LJ Figueroa and plenty of role players, it’s high time for this team to fully turn the corner and stop peaking around it.

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Ten Questions: Mid-November Intrigue

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on November 16th, 2018

While this weekend’s schedule is a little light as teams prepare for the nonstop action of Feast Week, here are 10 questions to consider as the season settles in.

Is Michigan Due For a Letdown? (USA Today Images)

  1. How will St. John’s fare in its only road non-conference game? (St. John’s at Rutgers, Friday 7 PM EST, BTN) St. John’s only road non-conference game takes place just down the road in New Jersey against local rival Rutgers. In Mustapha Heron‘s  first two games as a member of the Red Storm, he is averaging over 20 points per game.
  2. Will Arizona State avoid an upset in a potential trap game? (ed. note: this game was canceled last night because of smoke issues related to wildfires) (Arizona State @ San Francisco, Friday 10 PM EST, Pac-12 Network) Before Arizona State heads to Las Vegas to take on a ranked Mississippi State team, they will take on the Dons in San Francisco. After falling behind by 15 points early, San Francisco was only outscored by three points in the final 30 minutes of last season’s match-up in the desert.
  3. Has Stanford found Reid Travis 2.0 in KZ Okpala? (Wofford at Stanford, Friday 10 PM EST, Pac-12 Network) When Reid Travis decided to transfer to Kentucky, Stanford had to fill a large gap in its offense. Sophomore KZ Okpala has seen his scoring average explode from 10.0 as a freshman to 22.7 PPG through the first three games of the season.
  4. Will early season turnover woes be the deciding factor? (South Carolina vs. Providence, Saturday 2:30 PM EST, ESPN 3) Through three games South Carolina has committed 44 turnovers while Providence has committed 46 turnovers. Both the Gamecocks and Friars are forcing turnovers at a rate better than the national average, so winning the turnover battle will be crucial in this game.
  5. Can Charleston stay perfect with a win in Stillwater? (Charleston @ Oklahoma State, Sunday 4 PM EST) Coming off a 26-8 record last season, Charleston was picked second in the preseason CAA media poll. The Cougars feature two of the conference’s best players in Jarrell Brantley and Grant Riller. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State is struggling, having lost to #299 Charlotte already this season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big East Weekly Takeaways: Vol. I

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 13th, 2018

Week one is already in the books and there’s more than enough to talk about around the Big East. This is the first introduction of a weekly takeaways post that discusses and analyzes all of the conference’s happenings.

Eric Paschall at the Five Presents All Kinds of Problems for Opponents (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova may not have the same degree of firepower as it has had over the last few seasons, but the Wildcats’ superb offensive dynamic has remained unchanged. First, the Wildcats are currently posting 1.17 points per possession (fourth nationally), with six players averaging more than 9.0 PPG. Second, with do-it-all forward Eric Paschall at the five position, head coach Jay Wright can again roll out a lineup of shooters at every position. Third, there are a plethora of interchangeable Wildcat wings to help with the needs of any rotation, whether those are attacking in transition, rebounding or spacing the floor. Lastly, with four rock solid guards on the roster, Wright has no shortage of ball-handlers available to keep his offense humming. There is still a good degree of rawness on Villanova’s bench, but it’s fun to watch the team now if only to have a frame of reference for its progress come March. The one under-reported surprise thus far has been 6’8″ freshman Saddiq Bey, who poured in 16 points in his debut by scoring in a variety of ways. Bey has been an ideal additional scoring threat on the wing while filling the “Mikal Bridges” role on the defensive end of the floor.
  • This season might turn out to be a down year for the conference, but it is already projecting as one of the best in recent years for talented big men. Villanova’s Eric Paschall has been uncontainable both on the perimeter and around the basket, averaging 18.5 PPG and 7.5 RPG through two games. Georgetown’s Jessie Govan has continued his sharp upward trajectory since Patrick Ewing took over the head coaching role at his alma mater. The 6’10” senior is getting to the line more and posting career high statistics in blocks and field goal percentage. Tyrique Jones at Xavier has had a somewhat unexpected junior breakout season thus far, currently posting averages of 18.0 PPG and 13.0 RPG that includes a 20-rebound (!) effort against Evansville over the weekend. Jones looks springier around the basket while maintaining his patented “draw contact at all costs” style of play. Butler’s Joey Brunk debuted this season with a career-high 17 points and six rebounds on 7-of-7 shooting. Even Marquette, which seemingly hasn’t had a threatening low post option in years (Davante Gardner in 2014?) has witnessed growth in sophomore bowling ball Theo John (9.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG). These clashes in the low post will be exciting come conference play.

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Some Final Big East Predictions

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 6th, 2018

We made it, everyone — the season is finally upon us. Who cares about blustery cold weather, 5:00 PM sunsets and the dread of holiday travel? The return of college basketball cures everything, right? Heading into a packed evening of hoops that includes no fewer than eight Big East games, here are some final conference preview thoughts and predictions.

Will Another Big East Team be in Position to Celebrate Like Villanova Next April? (USA Today Images)

  • Conference winner: Villanova. Yawn. Even suffering the loss of four key contributors, it’s hard to hand the Big East crown to any other team at this point. The Wildcats may have taken a step back in the offseason, but so did most every other club in the conference and the gap is still too wide for another team to catch up. Senior Eric Paschall is primed for a breakout season and may become must-see TV if he can brush up on his outside shooting. The onslaught of new arrivals should also be fun to watch as Jay Wright tests his rotations before tightening things up come conference play.
  • Biggest out-performer: Xavier. Being picked by Big East coaches to finish sixth in the conference standings isn’t necessarily a slight given the Musketeers’ extensive offseason roster and coaching turnover. That said, it’s hard to foresee a team that has two breakout sophomores and an excess of experienced transfers finish among the bottom half of the league. Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs were overshadowed by Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura last season, but expect new head coach Travis Steele to unshackle the duo and put them in the open floor where they can best succeed.
  • Biggest under-performer: St. John’s. As a New York resident, I would like to see a St. John’s basketball resurgence more than anyone, but it’s difficult to bet against a string of disappointing seasons regardless of how much talent fills its roster. Guard Shamorie Ponds is electric with the ball in his hands, and the transfer additions of Mustapha Heron and Sedee Keita will add some much-needed depth, but all told, there is too much concern about size and rebounding to pronounce the Red Storm as legitimate Big East contenders. Chris Mullin‘s group finished among the bottom 60 teams nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding last season and will have only one true big man on the roster this season (Keita). Small-ball has proven to work for plenty of teams, but the St. John’s guards are going to need to chip in on the glass.

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Big East Burning Questions: Seton Hall & St. John’s

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on October 29th, 2018

Over the coming weeks, the Big East microsite will be previewing all the teams, players and key storylines to watch as we approach season 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) Seton Hall and St. John’s

Seton Hall: Can Seton Hall’s pair of transfers fill the gigantic void left by its departed senior class?

Raise Your Hands if Seton Hall Will Miss These Guys (USA Today Images)

Seton Hall has enjoyed a recent period of success in large part because of its stellar 2014 recruiting class. The group of Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Ish Sanogo (and Isaiah Whitehead for two years) have transformed the team’s national perception in leading the Pirates to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Unfortunately for head coach Kevin Willard, these key players have exhausted their eligibility, leaving holdover Myles Powell as the team’s only returning starter. The junior guard appears poised to take a significant step forward this season, ready to become Seton Hall’s locker room leader and one of the best players in the Big East. In support of Powell, sophomore wing Myles Cale is an obvious candidate to put together a breakout season after his strong finish a season ago — 7.0 PPG in his last seven games — but Seton Hall’s season will ultimately come down to the performance of their two incoming transfers, Taurean Thompson and Quincy McKnight.

Thompson started as a freshman at Syracuse and put up solid offensive numbers there (9.2 PPG on 55% FG shooting), but he often drew the ire of fans with his defensive indifference and tendency to settle for contested mid-range jumpers. Scoring seems a strong suit, but will his defense, rebounding and overall floor game satisfy Willard? McKnight did it all for a terrible Sacred Heart team in averaging 18.9 PPG two seasons ago, but his assist-to-turnover ratio was putrid (0.65 ATO). He will need to upgrade his decision-making with the ball to stay on the floor against Big East competition, but hopefully last year spent practicing with a very talented team has allowed him to shore up that weakness.

Analyst rankings of Seton Hall this preseason seem to correlate with views on Thompson and McKnight. Those who think that both will become outstanding Big East players have Seton Hall returning to the Big Dance; those who have lukewarm feelings on the pair place the Pirates in the NIT; and those who are down on the duo have Willard’s club missing the postseason entirely. I have some optimism that Thompson and McKnight will become capable starters for this squad, but not necessarily good enough to push Seton Hall back into the NCAA Tournament. Expect a mid-level season for the Pirates.

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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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Predicting a Breakout Star From Each Power Conference

Posted by Ryan O'Neil on October 19th, 2018

In every Power 6 conference, there’s an established hierarchy in which the league’s most notable teams comfortably reside. In the ACC, there’s Duke, UNC, and Virginia. The Big East championship has in recent years gone through the Villanova Wildcats. In the Big Ten, Michigan State, Michigan, and Purdue have controlled the conference since former Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan’s retirement a few years back. Kansas has won the Big 12 regular season championship 14 years in a row. Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA have had a relative stranglehold on the Pac-12 for seemingly decades. In the SEC, Kentucky has been without question the league’s best team since John Calipari arrived in Lexington. But with the new season comes the possibility that the traditional powers may be toppled.  In this article, I’m going to identify one player from every power conference league who has the ability to lead his team to a surprise finish in the standings.  There’s just one rule — he can’t be a freshman.

ACC

Ky Bowman (USA Today Images)

  • Ky Bowman, Boston College. Boston College’s junior point guard often looked like the Eagles’ best player last season, even though he played in the same backcourt as eventual lottery pick Jerome Robinson. Bowman, an under-recruited prospect from North Carolina, is a great athlete whose best game last year included 30 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists against Duke. He’s dynamic in the pick and roll, and he has the ability to score at all three levels of the floor. An athlete that makes NBA scouts salivate, Bowman is especially nasty in transition. If he can become more consistent in his approach this season, Boston College is going to surprise some teams in the ACC.

Big East

  • Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s. Ponds was a first-team Big East performer last season for St. John’s after dropping at least 30 points on six separate occasions. Possibly no game better demonstrated his scoring ability than when he put up a whopping 44 points on a 16-of-23 shooting performance against Marquette. The arrival of Mustapha Heron from Auburn this season should take some of the offensive pressure off of Ponds by allowing him more space to operate. The Red Storm were a thorn in the side of several ranked teams last season, a trait that should become only more prominent with a more mature Ponds and Heron in the backcourt.

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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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