Ten Questions: Teams Looking to Overcome Trends

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on December 20th, 2019

As the non-conference slate begins to reach its final days, the trends around college basketball are starting to become more clear. This is a weekend where I have questions on teams who are looking to break or reinforce the trends that have formed over the first month and a half of the season.

  1. Will Villanova have enough defense to stop Kansas? (Kansas @ Villanova, Saturday, Noon EST, Fox) Jay Wright’s Villanova squad comes into this weekend’s action ranked 86th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, the worst ranking of any of his Wildcat teams. This group also has the worst-ranked effective field-goal percentage defense and opponent two-point field-goal percentage ranking of any Villanova team of the past 10 years.
  2. What impact might the absence of Matt Haarms have on Purdue (Butler @ Purdue, Saturday, 2:30 PM EST, Big Ten Network) The Boilermakers got by Ohio without Haarms in the lineup, but have a much tougher test looming this weekend against Butler. Haarms, second on the team in points per game and rebounds per game, is also a defensive anchor, ranking among the nation’s top 10 in block rate. Butler’s highly efficient offense will test Purdue.
  3. Is it time to panic in Lexington? (Ohio State vs. Kentucky, Saturday, 5:15 PM EST, CBS) The Wildcats were outplayed for much of their recent game against Utah, even if a late rally gave Kentucky a chance to overcome the Utes. This Kentucky squad has the worst team three-point percentage (27.5%) of any Big Blue team of the past 20 years. If they can’t figure things out against Ohio State, they’ll take a two-game losing streak into next weekend’s huge match-up with Louisville.
  4. Who wins the battle at the rim? (Colorado vs. Dayton, Saturday, 6:30 PM EST, CBS Sports Network) Defensively, Colorado’s defense is strongest on the interior, where according to Hoop-Math, the Buffaloes own the nation’s 12th-best defensive field-goal percentage at the rim. Dayton star Obi Toppin gets more than half of his field goal attempts at the bucket, where he shoots a staggering 83.9 percent.
  5. Will Utah State pick up another win over an SEC opponent? (Utah State @ Florida, Saturday, 2:30 PM EST, Fox Sports 1) The Aggies were victorious over LSU earlier this season and now will get a shot at Florida. The Gators are a team that have struggled when unable to create turnovers from their opponents, which could prove a challenge against a Utah State squad that is ranked among the worst 50 teams nationally in turnover rate.
  6. How will Arizona State react to its midweek thrashing? (Creighton @ Arizona State, Saturday, 8:30 PM EST, Pac-12 Networks) Arizona State’s 40-point loss to Saint Mary’s on Wednesday was the Sun Devils’ worst loss since a Kentucky beatdown in 2016. In Wednesday’s defeat, only three Sun Devils scored, with 43 of the team’s 56 points coming from Alonzo Verge off the bench.
  7. Experience vs. Inexperience: Which backcourt shines brightest? (VCU @ Wichita State, Saturday, Noon EST, ESPN2) VCU starts a pair of senior guards in Marcus Evans and De’Riante Jenkins. Wichita State’s backcourt is made up of freshmen Grant Sheffield, Tyson Etienne and sophomore’s Jamarius Burton and Erik Stevenson. This VCU squad is forcing turnovers at a clip over nine percent better than the national average. How will the young Wichita State guards hold up against the pressure?
  8. Will San Diego State’s three-point defense keep them undefeated? (San Diego State vs. Utah, Saturday, 6:30 PM EST, Pac-12 Network) The Aztecs have a three-point defense that ranks among the top 20 in the nation, six percent better at 26.9 percent than last year’s mark that ranked 93rd nationally. Brian Dutcher’s team will be tested by a Utah team that made 8-of-15 from deep in its recent win over Kentucky.
  9. Can a St. John’s team looking to push the pace survive against a Nico Mannion led Arizona team? (Arizona vs. St. John’s, Saturday, 10 PM EST, ESPN2) St. John’s adjusted tempo of 75.4 possessions per game is the highest of any Mike Anderson coached team in the KenPom era. While the Red Storm have an effective field-goal percentage of 53.6 percent in transition, it falls short of Arizona’s even-better 59.4 percent field-goal percentage in transition.
  10. Will Markus Howard make Marquette history? (North Dakota State @ Marquette, Friday, 9 PM EST, Fox Sports 1) After making 6-of-10 from deep against Grambling State, Markus Howard has now made 349 three-pointers at Marquette. With just five more makes, Howard will tie Steve Novak for the most triples in Marquette history. North Dakota State has allowed an average of just five made three-pointers over its last five games.

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Maybe the Big East Really is Just Villanova and Everyone Else

Posted by Justin Kundrat on April 9th, 2019

It’s a painful narrative stemming from another painful season in the Big East. The conference as a whole battled all season long, collecting a number of impressive non-conference wins, amassing both longstanding and fleeting appearances in the Top 25, and ultimately achieving four NCAA Tournament bids. And yet again, come March, all that hard work failed to materialize. The best conference achievements might have been Xavier‘s run from 3-8 team to bubble team, the out-performance of Seton Hall and Creighton (picked eighth and ninth in the preseason poll, respectively), or DePaul‘s first postseason appearance since 2007 (it finished as the runner-up). But at the end of the day, the league’s attention disappeared as quickly as its several teams did from contention.

The Villanova East?

Given the exodus of talent from last offseason, most teams expected to struggle to adjust this year. But what hasn’t changed — not this year, last year, or the year before — is that the Big East continues to underwhelm in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a frustrating habit for conference supporters and it fuels the narratives that the league is no longer a top-tier conference, isn’t worth watching, is overrated, etc… So what gives? How many years will the non-Villanova Big East continue to languish in postseason play? And why is it even happening? There are a few schools of thought:

The first and most prominent is the sample size conundrum. The single elimination format of the NCAA Tournament allows for a wide variance in outcomes whereby a hot or cold shooting night, a few missed calls or a poor game plan will have an outsized effect on public perception of a team. The perfect example is last season’s Virginia club, which at 31-2 and an overall #1 seed, had one bad game at an inopportune time and received a shocking amount of criticism. Was it justified? Certainly not; a 33-game sample size greatly outweighs the one-game sample size of the NCAA Tournament. The same could be said for the postseason as it pertains to the Big East: single-game losses to equal or better teams should not outweigh the regular season as a barometer of success. But justly or not, it does, and it will continue to do so because the perceived point of the tournament in the first place is to crown the best team. One season might be a blip, but it remains perplexing that the Big East, aside from Villanova and an unexpected run by Xavier one year, has struggled for years.

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16 Questions About Thursday’s First Round Games

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on March 20th, 2019

With tip-off of the First Round of the NCAA Tournament just around the corner, here are 16 questions to get you ready for all the action on Thursday.

Here We Go… (USA Today Images)
  • 1) Gonzaga vs. 16) Fairleigh Dickinson: Will Gonzaga spring back to life after its surprising loss to Saint Mary’s? The Zags shot 2-of-17 from beyond the arc in the WCC championship game, but a deep Tournament run will require better shooting from the likes of Zach Norvell, Josh Perkins, and Corey Kispert (collectively, 37.3 percent on the season).
  • 2) Kentucky vs. 15) Abilene Christian: When Kentucky misses shots, will Abilene Christian be able to keep the Wildcats off of the glass? Abilene Christian’s leading rebounder is 6’6″ Jaren Lewis, who averaged 6.2 boards per game. Kentucky’s duo of PJ Washington and Reid Travis could be in line for huge games on the interior for the Wildcats.
  • 2) Michigan vs. 15) Montana: Will Michigan’s size dominate this game? Even without leading scorer Jamar Akoh down the stretch, Montana went 10-2 behind a balanced attack which includes three other players who average at least 13 points per game. For the Grizzlies to win, though, the size of Ignas Brazdiekis and Jon Teske will be a lot to overcome.
  • 2) Michigan State vs. 15) Bradley: Will Michigan State avoid the early exit it took the last time it was a #2 Seed? Bradley managed to beat a Big Ten team (Penn State) earlier this year, but the Braves are going to have their hands full with Michigan State’s Nick Ward in the post.
  • 3) LSU vs. 14) Yale: How focused will LSU be with all the distractions surrounding the Will Wade situation? The Tigers will be without head coach Will Wade as they begin their NCAA Tournament run against a Yale team that likes to get up and down the floor. Each squad has four players who average double-figure points per game.
  • 3) Purdue vs. 14 Old Dominion: Which Carsen Edwards shows up for the Boilermakers? While Edwards shot 33.5 percent from behind the arc on the season, he’s shooting just 22.5 percent in Purdue’s last 11 games. Another shaky performance from the Boilermakers’ star guard could send Purdue home early.
  • 4) Kansas vs. 13) Northeastern: While Northeastern’s Vasa Pusica is grabbing the buzz, is Shawn Occeus the Huskies’ most important player? Occeus was the CAA Defensive Player of the Year in 2018, so if he can lock down the Jayhawks’ perimeter options tomorrow, a lot of pressure will fall on to the shoulders of Dedric Lawson.
  • 4) Florida State vs. 13) Vermont: In a one-game setting, does depth and size win over star power? The Seminoles leading scorer is the 6’10” Mfiondu Kabengele, who puts in 12.9 points per game. In addition, Leonard Hamilton’s team has seven other players who average six or more points per game. Vermont is led by the 21.4 points per game of unanimous America East Player of the Year, Anthony Lamb. The Catamounts only have three other players who average six or more points and just one player in the rotation who stands 6’7″ or taller.
  • 5) Auburn vs. 12) New Mexico State: Which strength brings the bigger advantage? Auburn’s defense leads the nation in turnover rate, while New Mexico State is among the nation’s best in grabbing offensive rebounds. This game could come down to which side is able to get the most out of those two areas.
  • 5) Marquette vs. 12) Murray State: Will Marquette’s sometimes porous transition defense be a deciding factor? The Golden Eagles’ defense sits in the bottom 20 percent in college basketball when it comes to the percentage of shots an opponent takes in transition. The Racers are one of the nation’s best at getting and finishing in transition, led by none other than All-American Ja Morant.
  • 6) Maryland vs. 11) Belmont: Can Belmont’s duo of Nick Muszynski and Dylan Windler hold up against the Maryland frontcourt of Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith? While Windler struggled against Temple offensively, he was a force on the glass. Muszynski returned to the court after missing the OVC championship game and chipped in 16 points. They will be tested against the large Terrapins’ tandem that can wreak havoc on opponents.
  • 6) Villanova vs. 11) Saint Mary’s: Who wins the battle of the three-point line: Villanova’s offense or Saint Mary’s defense? Only three teams took three-point attempts at a higher rate than Villanova this season, while the Gaels sat in the top 10 nationally in terms of running teams off of the three-point line.
  • 7) Louisville vs. 10) Minnesota: Can Minnesota find enough points to get the Pitino family revenge against Louisville? The Golden Gophers averaged 14.3 fewer points per game on the road than they did at home this year. Minnesota’s offense could find it difficult to score against the highly-efficient Louisville defense.
  • 7) Nevada vs. 10) Florida: Which senior will make the biggest impact? In a sport dominated by freshmen, this game will include a plethora of seniors on both sides including the likes of Nevada’s Caleb Martin, Jordan Caroline and Florida’s Ke’Vaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson.
  • 7) Wofford vs. 10) Seton Hall: Will this game come down to which star has a better game? If Ja Morant vs. Markus Howard is must-see matchup #1A, this game’s battle of Fletcher Magee and Myles Powell is must-see match-up #1B. Both players average more than 20 points per game and have taken nearly 500 field goal attempts on the season.
  • 8) Syracuse vs. 9) Baylor: Will the “Boeheim zone” reign supreme again? The Syracuse zone once again led to plenty of three-point attempts for opponents, so Baylor will need a better showing than the 34 percent it shot from distance on the year. Syracuse must also find ways to slow a Bears’ team that finished the year with the second best offensive rebounding rate in college basketball.
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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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What’s Trending: Conference Tournament Weekend

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on March 18th, 2019

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Matthew Eisenberg (@matteise) is your weekly host.

The second week of conference tournaments began with many questions, the biggest of which focused on a certain 6’7″, 285-pound freshman in Durham, North Carolina. For the past few weeks, questions about Zion Williamson and whether he would — or should — return to play for Duke have been thrown around by nearly everyone. It took the superstar forward all of two minutes of game time to show everyone that he is indeed back…

https://twitter.com/si_ncaabb/status/1106368814206324736

The storylines involving Zion continued in Duke’s ACC Tournament quarterfinal match-up against Syracuse. In the past, it was Duke — paging Grayson Allen — as the centerpiece of any tripping story. This time, however, it was Syracuse’s Frank Howard taking his turn to extend his leg a little further than necessary…

“I love playing with Duke, I love my teammates.”

The Zion experience carried into the ACC Tournament semifinal match-up against North Carolina. The Tar Heels had dominated the first two Zion-less games, but after scoring 29 points and grabbing 10 rebounds through the first 39 minutes, it was Zion’s final two points and rebound that made the biggest difference…

https://twitter.com/espn/status/1106760367533780992

Scoring, rebounds, steals… oh, Zion can pass the ball pretty well too…

In the non-Zion Williamson category of the ACC Tournament, the basketball world was gifted a dancing Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams

…a frantic possession and game-winning basket by Florida State’s Terance Mann…

…and everyone’s favorite, allegations of NCAA violations…

On the topic of NCAA violations, the SEC Tournament included LSU’s Will Wade releasing a statement where he made a plea to get back on the sideline. LSU General Counsel Tom Skinner fired back with, “as a university and employer, we need to hear our employee say, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong,’ or explain the circumstances or admit he did not do something wrong. We’ve been unable to get to that point. We have no choice, in terms of institutional control, to not suspend someone.”

On the court, Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield began the Volunteers’ SEC Tournament action with a poster over Mississippi State…

https://twitter.com/SportsCenter/status/1106755627366391809

LSU’s Skylar Mays came up with a dunk that had LSU fans jumping for joy…

…but it was ultimately Florida’s Andrew Nembhard who allowed Florida to move on and send LSU home.

Florida’s run through the SEC Tournament came to an end on Saturday, literally at the hands of Auburn….

https://twitter.com/br_CBB/status/1106998122658582533

In the other semifinal, the SEC Tournament delivered a gem between Tennessee and Kentucky…

During Wednesday’s opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, Nebraska’s Tim Miles had the spotlight on him after his Huskers toppled Rutgers…

…after beating Maryland on Thursday, Miles got his shot at redemption…

After the second win in as many days, Big Ten Twitter was quick to point out this fact that fans in Bloomington, Indiana, were not happy to read…

The Big East Tournament will be remembered for this sequence in Seton Hall’s semifinal win over Marquette

https://twitter.com/CBBonFOX/status/1106760477718138881

Meanwhile, at the end of the tournament it was once again Villanova that walked away as the champion… AGAIN.

Tournament week in Las Vegas began with the West Coast Conference Tournament where St. Mary’s earned an automatic bid by getting the best of Gonzaga.

…and it continued with the Pac-12 Tournament where all eyes were on Bill Walton doing Bill Walton things…

…and it ended with Oregon winning the Pac-12 Tournament to steal a bid from a team on the bubble.

As players play for an opportunity to keep their season going, these tournaments bring up stories that need to be shared. The emotion in the face of Old Dominion headcoach Jeff Jones makes the Monarchs an easy team to root for…

While there is so much to love and appreciate with college basketball, there was one thing that continues to outshine the product on the floor. Officiating throughout tournaments leaves fans wondering…

And as painful as questionable calls can be, the monitor review process will almost assuredly come up time and time again next week. Getting the correct call is important, but too often these reviews kill any flow to a game. Add in the fact that they act as de facto timeouts for teams that often do not have any to call and you have a situation that creates more problems than it solves.

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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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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 74, Seton Hall 72

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 16th, 2019

RTC’s Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is providing on-site coverage of the Big East Tournament all week long.

Villanova Survived Seton Hall to Win Another Big East Championship (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. The Big East Tournament continues to be the best postseason conference event in the country. It is undoubtedly a down year for the Big East conference, but the last 24 hours featured three of the most entertaining games of the entire season. Between a Villanova comeback victory against Xavier, a technical foul and ejection-fest for Seton Hall and Marquette, and a two-point championship game, the event did not disappoint.
  2. Villanova’s balanced offense was on full display tonight. At its worst, the Wildcats over-relied on its senior duo of Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to generate offense. But tonight, Saddiq Bey tallied 16 points and Jermaine Samuels had 12 of his own, punishing the Pirates when they committed too many of their defensive resources to the Villanova stars. This balanced attack led to 18 points in the paint and 19 from the foul line, offsetting yet another sub-par three-point shooting performance. Having role players contributing offensively is the difference between Villanova losing in the First Round next week and making a run to the second weekend of the Tournament.
  3. Seton Hall’s tremendous run snaps back to reality, but the attention has now shifted to a bigger stage. One of the hottest teams in the country put on a show these last few weeks, but their accumulation of wins served a bigger purpose than just a point of pride — it put the Pirates in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year. Now, all eyes will be on whether they can carry some momentum into next week and earn a win or two. Willard has yet to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in his coaching career and doing so would mean turning a major corner for the program.

Star of the Game. Saddiq Bey didn’t win the Big East Tournament’s MVP award, but he was the biggest difference maker of all tonight. The freshman forward chipped in 16 points in numerous ways while leading his team in rebounds (10) while recording two blocks and two steals. On the biggest stage he has experienced to date, Bey put up the best two-way performance of his young career.

Quotable.

  • Jay Wright, on the difference his newcomers made tonight: “I think this really helped us. Swider coming back from six weeks off… Cremo gave us good minutes. Saddiq Bey, his first two or three shots were air balls and then he gave us great games.”
  • Wright on the importance of his seniors and their impact on the team: “In our program, the older you get, the more responsibility is put on you. And it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder… Josh Hart was here and he took great pride in these two [Phil and Eric] because he was the one teaching them.”
  • Kevin Willard on his expectations for his team this postseason:
    “I’ve learned a lot from last year… I have so much confidence in this group.”
  • Eric Paschall on he and Phil Booth being the first players to win three consecutive Big East championships: “Oh yeah, it’s pretty cool…”

Sights & Sounds. It’s getting hard to put into words just how electric MSG is during the Big East Tournament, particularly when local teams are competing. Part of what makes the venue such an ideal location is its proximity to most of the conference’s participants. So when Villanova and Seton Hall square off in the championship, there’s no doubt it will be a sell-out with back-and-forth chants throughout the contest.

What’s Next? Both Villanova and Seton Hall will say goodbye to New York, the former with a trophy and the latter with feelings of bitterness and disappointment. But both teams also have a big day ahead of them as they will learn of their respective NCAA Tournament seedings and locations for the coming week.

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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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Big East Q&A: Unpacking The Conference’s Key Questions Heading Into the Home Stretch

Posted by Justin Kundrat & Brad Cavallaro on February 26th, 2019

Time is running out in conference play and there is still much to be decided. Big East microsite writers Justin Kundrat and Brad Cavallaro teamed up this week to break down several of the conference’s key questions heading into the last couple weeks of regular season action.

JK: The biggest storyline in recent weeks has been the drastic fall of Villanova – is this simply the case of a team being gassed or is there a bigger underlying issue here?

Villanova’s Latest Loss Left Xavier Celebrating (USA Today Images)

BC: It has to be a little of both. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are clearly tired at the end of games and the difficult contested shots that they typically hit in the first half are not falling in the second. However, the biggest underlying issue is that Villanova does not have enough offensive creators this season. If they still had Donte DiVincenzo in the lineup, they would have had plenty of firepower, but Collin Gillespie is not getting the job done. He is a good player and has played well for the most part, but he has been thrust into a major role prematurely. Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels, and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree are solid role players and have bright futures ahead, but they cannot create shots for themselves. Some of these young players will need to step up immediately or Villanova could be in for a quick postseason.

JK: Much has been said about the conference’s cannibalism this season when it comes to NCAA Tournament at-large prospects. What are your thoughts on the conference’s two bubble straddlers: Seton Hall and Butler?

BC: The Big East has not done itself any favors with cannibalization this season. While Marquette, Villanova, and St. John’s all sit in good position, Seton Hall and Butler are clinging to tenuous positions. The Pirates have two amazing non-conference wins away from home (Kentucky and Maryland), which will give them a leg up on comparable bubble teams. Butler has a couple nice wins on its resume as well, but their lack of statement wins is worrisome. The Pirates should not be in position to miss the NCAA Tournament unless they lose the rest of their games, but the Bulldogs needs to accumulate more wins or else a bid thief from a smaller conference will take their spot.

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Ten Questions to Consider: Conference Races Heating Up

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on February 8th, 2019

Football season is now completely in the rear view mirror and the casual fan is welcomed to a weekend of college basketball highlighted by the #1 vs. #2 Duke/Virginia rematch along with numerous other heavyweight contests. Here are 10 questions I have for this weekend’s loaded slate of action.

It’s Part Two of Potentially Four Duke-Virginia Match-ups This Season (USA Today Images)
  1. Which elite team’s defense improves upon a lackluster performance in the first match-up? (Duke @ Virginia, Saturday 6 PM EST, ESPN) In Duke’s 72-70 win over Virginia last month, the two teams combined to shoot 67.1 percent from inside the arc. R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson, in particular, made 20 of their 28 two-point attempts that night. If interior defenses improve in round two, which team wins the three-point contest after the two teams combined for 5-of-31 shooting? This is without question the game of the weekend, and quite possibly the entire regular season.
  2. Can LSU protect its home court against a surging Auburn team? (Auburn @ LSU, Saturday 2 PM EST, ESPN2) Since losing three straight games in mid-January, Auburn has rallied back with three consecutive double-figure wins. In SEC play, no team has gotten to the free throw line at a better rate than LSU, while no team has put the opponent at the line at a worse rate than Auburn. Which matters more?
  3. Will Mississippi State’s offense show up against Kentucky? (Kentucky @ Mississippi State, Saturday 1 PM EST, CBS) The last match-up between these two teams was very one-sided as Kentucky held the Bulldogs to a season low 0.79 points per possession. Mississippi State could not buy much success either inside the arc (16-of-41) or outside it (3-of-20).
  4. Which Steven Enoch does Louisville get against Florida State? (Louisville @ Florida State, Saturday 4 PM, ESPN2) Since an early January decision to bring Steven Enoch off its bench, Louisville has gone 7-2. The big man transfer has scored 10 or more points in six of those games. On the season, Enoch averages 10.5 points per game in Cardinal wins and just 5.8 points per game in Louisville’s six defeats.
  5. Can Marquette make the Big East title race interesting? (Villanova @ Marquette, Saturday 2:30 PM EST, Fox) Marquette sits two games behind Villanova in the Big East standings heading into Saturday’s match-up. The Golden Eagles are undefeated (14-0) when holding opponents to an offensive efficiency of 100.0 or worse, but just 5-4 when opponents pass that threshold. Last season, Villanova torched the nets against Marquette, posting offensive efficiency totals of 122.2, 132.2, and 142.7 in three games.
  6. Will Ethan Happ be a dominant force against Michigan again? (Wisconsin @ Michigan, Saturday Noon, Fox) Ethan Happ scored 26 points on 12-of-22 shooting, dished out seven assists and grabbed 10 rebounds in Wisconsin’s first win over Michigan. Going back to his sophomore season, Happ is averaging 20.5 points per game on 45-of-87 shooting against the Wolverines.
  7. As bad as the Pac-12 might be, is it time to start taking Washington seriously? (Washington @ Arizona State, Saturday 10 PM EST, ESPN) After starting the season 7-4, Washington has now reeled off 11 straight victories, eight of which have been by 10 or more points. Three of the Huskies’ early season losses were at the hands of top-15 KenPom teams. If the Huskies can get through their desert trip unscathed, it might be time to consider them a dangerous, if not legitimate, Pac-12 team.
  8. What can be made of Nebraska moving forward? (Nebraska @ Purdue, 8:30 PM EST, Big Ten Network) Just a few weeks back Nebraska sat at 13-4 overall and 3-3 in conference play. Since then, the Huskers have dropped six straight games, four of which came at home. Tim Miles’ squad still sits in the top 40 in both NET and KenPom, so a win at Purdue would go a long way toward saving Nebraska’s free-falling NCAA Tournament chances.
  9. Can Houston take advantage of Cincinnati’s lackluster three-point defense? (Cincinnati @ Houston, Sunday 4 PM EST, ESPN) On the season, Mick Cronin’s Bearcats are ranked among the bottom 100 nationally in three-point defense. Their lack of success guarding the line has continued as American opponents are shooting 40.4 percent from distance against them. Houston’s Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks are both shooting better than 37 percent from downtown in conference play.
  10. Can Princeton stay in control of the Ivy League regular season race? (Princeton @ Yale, Friday 7 PM EST, ESPN+) While Yale has the Ivy League’s best NET Ranking, it is Princeton that is currently the only unbeaten team in conference play. Over its last six games, Princeton’s opponents have shot just 20.5 percent from beyond the three-point line.
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