Big East Burning Questions: NCAA Tournament Edition

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 20th, 2019

If a down year for the conference means four bids, then the conference certainly has nothing to complain about. All four Big East clubs were slotted roughly in line with expectations heading into Sunday and each has a winnable First Round game (or a play-in game for St. John‘s). Below are the burning questions facing each team as it prepares for the NCAA tournament:

Marquette: Will Markus Howard get back on track?

Marquette Will Go as Far As Markus Howard Can Take Them (USA Today Images)

As good of shooters as the Hauser brothers and Sacar Anim are, there’s no question the Marquette offense runs through Markus Howard. His red-hot shooting (40.8% 3FG) and ability to draw fouls (seventh-highest fouls drawn per 40 minutes) keep the Golden Eagles humming and give much needed spacing to his teammates. Tertiary scorers such as Joey Hauser and Anim are less efficient when Howard is not on the floor and the Marquette offense as a whole scores 10 fewer points per 100 possessions without him. That drops Marquette from an elite offense (23rd nationally) to a strikingly average one. In the team’s recent six-game stumble, Howard’s effective field goal percentage plummeted to 42.2 percent, compared with 53.5 percent in the games preceding it. So it’s no surprise then that some of the team’s worst performances correlate directly with an off night from their 5’11” star. Coupling these recent struggles with news of Howard’s hand injury is definitely cause for concern.

Villanova: How will the Wildcats perform on an off shooting night?

By this point, everyone knows that Villanova relies heavily on the three-pointer, having ranked among the top 40 nationally in three-point attempt rate for each of the last six seasons. This season, Jay Wright has taken that ambition to an extreme, with three-pointers accounting for 53.5 percent of Villanova’s shot attempts, good for third nationally. When they connect, defenses are forced to adjust, which opens up driving lanes and creates better spacing. But Villanova is decidedly average in its long-range accuracy this season, making the slumps feel that much longer when the shots continue to be fired. In the Big East Tournament, the Wildcats did a good job generating points at the line and around the basket during those inevitable cold spells, but it wasn’t always pretty and felt somewhat unsustainable. Wins are wins, but in the NCAA Tournament, the question will be whether Wright’s club can find offense when their shooting dries up. The rim-attacking abilities of Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels will be critical.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big East Edition

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on March 17th, 2019

Here are some early reactions to each of the four Big East teams’ draws in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Marquette Received the Highest Big East Seed in the NCAA Tournament (USA Today Images)

#5 Marquette. Marquette is slotted in the dreaded #5/#12 match-up and will face media darling Murray State as a result. The Racers are led by a future NBA lottery pick in point guard Ja Morant, an exceptional athlete, ambidextrous finisher, and elite passer. The backcourt match-up between he and Markus Howard will be worth the price of admission, but also look out for Shaq Buchanan and his 13.0 PPG on the wing. The Golden Eagles have limped to the finish, losing five of six games, but Steve Wojciechowski‘s bevy of impressive shooters should keep them in the game.

#6 Villanova. Villanova has received high seeds since the formation of the new Big East six years ago, but this year will be a different situation for the Wildcats. Matched up against WCC automatic qualifier St. Mary’s, the Gaels have relatively strong metrics despite their #11 seed. They are an intriguing team — they lost to every decent opponent on their schedule with one exception — last week’s dominant performance against #1 Gonzaga. Villanova’s supporting cast will be key to how much longer Marchc continues for Jay Wright‘s club. Seniors Eric Paschall and Phil Booth are the known commodities, but the recent strong play of Jermaine Samuels and Saddiq Bey must continue for Villanova to advance very far in the NCAA Tournament.

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Big East Bubble Watch: Volume II

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 5th, 2019

We’re now closing in on two weeks remaining until Selection Sunday, and the Big East as a whole continues to completely cannibalize itself. All of the remaining games at this point are virtually must-watch TV and will be critical in determining which teams are dancing come March. All figures below are from WarrenNolan.com.

Only Two Big East Teams are NCAA Locks (USA Today Images)

Locks

Villanova: 22-8 (13-4); NET: 25; SOS: 14

Marquette: 23-6 (12-4); NET: 26; SOS: 38

  • Analysis: These two teams have been a mainstay in the national polls and very little could happen to knock them out of NCAA Tournament consideration over the next two weeks. Marquette is currently 9-4 against Quadrant 1 opponents, while Villanova is 4-6, and neither team has a Quadrant 3 or 4 loss on its resume. Both teams will be fighting for favorable seeding down the stretch, with a best case scenario being a #3 seed for Marquette and a #5 seed for Villanova. Despite some hiccups, a Big East championship crown should grant the above to one of these two teams.

Should Be In

St. John’s: 20-10 (8-9); NET: 61; SOS: 65.

  • Analysis: St. John’s has done everything in its power to knock itself out of NCAA Tournament contention over the last couple weeks. Since Volume I of the bubble watch, the Red Storm have gone 1-3, accumulating losses to Providence (by 19), Xavier (by 11) and DePaul (by 9). That’s certainly not the kind of performance one would expect from an NCAA-quality team, and their defensive efficiency metrics in the last two games are far and away the worst on the season. That said, St. John’s still owns six Quadrant 1 wins and a gaudy enough record to keep them above the cut line. It is imperative to win at Xavier this Saturday, or things could get interesting.
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Where Did the Top 25 St. John’s Team Go?

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 30th, 2019

It seems like just yesterday that the stars had finally aligned in Queens and St. John’s was staring at a long overdue appearance in the AP Top 25. The Chris Mullin era has been a roller coaster of volatility in his first four seasons, so this achievement — the Red Storm’s first ranking since the 2014-15 season — seemed significant. So it might now be surprising that, just a few short weeks later, St. John’s is so far removed from the rankings that it is no longer receiving any votes at all. How does a team that stormed out to an impressive 14-1 start now find itself 3-5 in Big East play? The answer lies not in team chemistry, injuries or key players going cold, but in roster depth.

The Johnnies are a curious case of a club that is not short on talent or offensive firepower, but one that simply struggles to close out individual games. In the early months of this season, St. John’s earned a reputation for struggling out of the gate before mounting furious second half runs to win (Georgia Tech, VCU, California), led by star guard Shamorie Ponds. The team’s second half efficiency, however, has fallen off a cliff recently.

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Ten Questions To Consider: Mid-season Questions as Non-Conference Play Comes to a Close

Posted by Matthew Eisenberg on December 29th, 2018

Sandwiched between the holidays and the New Year is a weekend slate of games that includes a bitter rivalry, several rematches of early season games, and individual matchups that fans and scouts will want to see. Here are ten questions to consider while enjoying games over the next few days.

  1. Can Chris Mack beat Kentucky in his first matchup against the Wildcats as Louisville coach? (Kentucky @ Louisville, Saturday 2 PM EST, ESPN2) In their first game against Kentucky as head coach of Louisville, both David Padgett and Rick Pitino lost by 20 or more points. Chris Mack’s Lousville team is led by Jordan Nwora who comes into this game having made 16-of-28 three-pointers over the last five games.
  2. Will Florida’s defense be able to create turnovers at a higher rate against Butler this go around? (Butler @ Florida, Saturday 4 PM EST, ESPNU) This is a rematch of the Battle 4 Atlantis fifth-place game in which Butler beat Florida 61-54. In that game, Florida’s defense forced turnovers at a season worst rate of just 17.4%. On the season, the Gators force turnovers at a rate of 24.7%, which ranks among the top ten in the nation.
  3. Will one of the easiest non-conference schedules in the country have St. John’s ready for its Big East opener? (St. John’s @ Seton Hall, Saturday 8:30 PM EST, Fox Sports Net) St. John’s has played one of the ten easiest non-conference schedules in the country according to KenPom rankings. The Red Storm begin Big East play against a Seton Hall team that has won five straight.
  4. Will Oregon avoid disaster in a trap-game at Boise State? (Oregon @ Boise State, Saturday 7:30 PM EST, CBS Sports Network) Oregon beat Boise State by 12 points just two weeks ago at Matthew Knight Arena. The Broncos led the Ducks at halftime of that game. This game is sandwiched between a loss at Baylor and Oregon’s conference-opener next week against in-state rival Oregon State.
  5. Does Purdue have a bad matchup on its hands with Belmont coming to West Lafayette? (Belmont @ Purdue, Saturday 4:30 PM EST, Fox Sports 1) Opponents have shot 38% from beyond the arc against Purdue on the season, which puts Purdue’s three-point defensive ranking outside of the top 300. Belmont enters this game as a team that shoots 36.4% from distance and has six players who have made double-digit threes while shooting at least 33% for the season.
  6. Will North Carolina continue its recent trend of following a loss with a dominating performance? (Davidson @ North Carolina, Saturday Noon EST, ESPN2) North Carolina has lost consecutive non-conference games just once (November 2010) with Roy Williams as coach. Following loses to Texas and Michigan earlier in the season, the Tar Heels came out and won the next games by 16 and 28 points.
  7. What will Markus Howard do next? (Southern @ Marquette, Friday 8 PM EST, Fox Sports 1) Marquette’s leading scorer Markus Howard is one of five players in the nation who is averaging 25 or more points per game. Howard is averaging 32.8 points this month and is coming off of his second 45 point game of December. Southern’s defensive efficiency ranks among the bottom five in the nation.
  8. Is beating Lipscomb a must for the sake of Clemson’s resume? (Lipscomb @ Clemson, Sunday 3:00 PM EST, ESPN3) Clemson is 0-3 against KenPom top 100 teams on the season. The Tigers get one more opportunity at a top 100 non-conference win with Lipscomb. If Brad Brownell’s squad does not get the win, early conference games against Duke and Virginia could turn into must-win games.
  9. Which big-man will shine brighter between Ethan Happ and Charles Bassey? (Wisconsin @ Western Kentucky, Saturday 5:30 PM EST, CBS Sports Network) Western Kentucky’s five-star freshman big man Charles Bassey will be put to the test against Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ. Both Bassey and Happ do a tremendous job of drawing fouls. With WIsconsin’s offense running through Happ, Bassey’s ability to stay out of foul trouble will be key in this game.
  10. Just how good is the MAC’s second best team? (Penn @ Toledo, Saturday 2 PM EST, ESPN+) While Buffalo has rightfully been a team that has been in the spotlight, Toledo continues to also perform at a high level. The Rockets are 11-1 with a NET ranking in the top 70. Tod Kowalczyk’s squad’s next three games are all against KenPom top 100 teams, including a January 8th matchup with Buffalo.

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

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 5th, 2018

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

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

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

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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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