Xavier Looks Ahead After Squandering Golden Opportunity Last Week

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on November 27th, 2018

Despite losing its three leading scorers from last season, Xavier was expected to remain relevant in the Big East race. Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura and Kerem Kanter all averaged double-figure points for the Musketeers last season, but returnees like Naji Marshall and Quentin Goodin were anticipated to fill the void. No one thought Xavier was set to replicate last season’s #1 seed level of success, but a sixth straight NCAA Tournament bid seemed completely attainable. With a 1-2 trip to the Maui Invitational now in the rear view, however, the Musketeers have squandered a golden opportunity to build their non-conference resume.

Xavier’s 1-2 Trip to Maui Puts a Significant Strain on Its NCAA At-Large Resume (USA Today Images)

For most of last week’s first round game against Auburn, it looked like Xavier had hit the jackpot. Ultimately, however, the Tigers prevailed in overtime with dynamic guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combining for 51 points in an overtime victory. Xavier was fortunate enough to have another opportunity for a quality win in the consolation round, though, as San Diego State should remain in the season-long discussion for a bid out of the Mountain West. The Musketeers built a substantial lead in the early portion of the first half of that game, but the Aztecs stormed back late and earned a five-point win. That loss meant Xavier was relegated to the seventh place game where they stopped the bleeding by defeating a struggling Illinois team. Given that the Fighting Illini will likely finish in the bottom three of the Big Ten this season, the win didn’t have much long-term at-large value. Xavier shot the ball extremely well in that game, but they were sloppy with the ball far too often.

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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: Villanova & Xavier

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 1st, 2018

The NBA season tipped off last week, which makes it the perfect time to roll out some new Big East content to drown out the monotony of early-season professional basketball. 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) Villanova and Xavier.

Villanova: Is there enough firepower left to defend its throne?

Eric Paschall is Ready to Lead Villanova (USA Today Images)

The loss of four key contributors from last season’s National Champions is a mountain to overcome, even for a head coach as proficient as Jay Wright. Yes, the Wildcats bring in another heralded recruiting class and a nice transfer in Albany’s Joe Cremo, but it’s not exactly a reassuring thought that only a handful of Villanova’s rotation players are back. The program’s success in recent years has been predicated on numerous scoring options to attack the rim and space the floor, as evidenced by the fact that a robust six different players averaged double-figure scoring last season. This year’s roster features a number of capable shooters and multi-positional defenders, but offensive coordination and defensive cohesiveness don’t just happen overnight. So the question becomes a matter of how quickly Wright’s plethora of sparingly used returnees and newcomers can contribute alongside alpha dog veterans Eric Paschall and Phil Booth. Freshman Jahvon Quinerly will be the next man up in the program’s revolving door of elite point guards and the chatter around campus is that he’ll be ready to take the reins from day one. Besides, it seems silly to count this program out of the running for another title, particularly on the heels of Booth recently dropping 41 points on North Carolina in a secret scrimmage.

Xavier: Is Travis Steele ready for the Travis Steele era?

Travis Steele Takes the Helm at Xavier (USA Today Images)

So long, Chris Mack. Louisville offered the longtime Xavier head coach a handful of pretty pennies ($4 million per year for seven years), which he is presumably using to throw parties at his new $3.1 million mansion. That allowed Xavier the opportunity to promote assistant coach Travis Steele in much the same way Mack had gotten the job after Sean Miller’s departure to Arizona nearly a decade ago. Steele certainly has some big shoes to fill in following Mack’s 215-97 record that included eight NCAA Tournament appearances and four trips to the second weekend. Moreover, the Musketeers lost three scorers who accounted for more than 50 percent of their scoring output a season ago. On the bright side, Steele secured three experienced graduate transfers and can work with a promising set of sophomores in Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall, which is a better hand than most new head coaches are dealt. Both wings showed promise in spurts last season and will now have to do it with consistency this season. The 2018-19 season may shape up as something of a rare transition year for the program, but if Steele can come close to replicating Mack’s typical performance, Xavier will find itself making travel arrangements yet again on Selection Sunday.

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Big East Wrap-Up: Lasting Impressions and Early Rankings

Posted by Justin Kundrat on April 11th, 2018

All hail Donte DiVincenzo‘s flurry of baskets that left Michigan fans saying “who is this guy?”

Villanova Celebrates Its Second National Championship in the Last Three Years Last Week (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova has ascended into blue-blood territory. It’s a tired storyline at this point but it’s also probably the biggest one coming out of the NCAA Tournament. Winners of two championships in three years with largely a different set of players means that Jay Wright has officially assembled a dynasty. Villanova has the roster makeup that makes the rest of college basketball envious: dynamic guards that can score at multiple levels; floor-spacing big men who can shoot the three; and sufficient experience together to play cohesive team defense. The best part is that even with some expected early departures pending (Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson?), Villanova’s standing near the top of the national rankings isn’t likely to change, and that’s what makes this program a dynasty.
  • Goodbye, Chris Mack. Another year, another lost Big East coach to a bigger program budget and salary. Last year, it was Chris Holtmann departing Butler for Ohio State (where he excelled). This year it’s Chris Mack who packed his bags for Louisville after a nine-year tenure at Xavier that included five straight NCAA tournament appearances. In his stead is former assistant Travis Steele, promoted from a position he has held since 2008. Steele has already impressively gotten to work, quickly signing two graduate transfers in Zach Hankins (D-II National Player of the Year) and Kyle Castlin (Columbia) while being in the running for many others. On the heels of a massive graduating class in Cincinnati, Steele will have his work cut out for him next season.
  • Hello, Providence backcourt. What Ed Cooley has done with his guards during his tenure at Providence has been nothing short of amazing. From Bryce Cotton to Kris Dunn to Kyron Cartwright, there has never been a dearth of electric, play-making perimeter players on his roster. Now, though, with Cartwright graduating, the question of who is next for the Friars is bubbling up. Early signs pointed to rising sophomore Makai Ashton-Langford, but his limited end-of-season usage and errant decision-making have been confounding. Encouragingly, Cooley is also bringing in two heralded backcourt recruits in David Duke and AJ Reeves, and it’s a safe bet given recent history that at least one of the pair will emerge into the spotlight.

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Big East Conversation: Opening Weekend Takes

Posted by Brian Otskey & Justin Kundrat on March 20th, 2018

With NCAA six teams in action this past weekend, Big East fans have a lot to talk about this week. Big East microsite writers Justin Kundrat and Brian Otskey discuss what’s on their minds following a full slate of games.

Brian Otskey: Villanova is now the sole flag bearer remaining for the Big East. The Wildcats are the best team left in the field but their draw isn’t easy. How do you see them matching up with what is clearly the tougher side of the remaining bracket?

Villanova Looked Fantastic Last Weekend (USA Today Images)

Justin Kundrat: Villanova‘s path might have been the easiest when the bracket was announced, but now the Wildcats have one of the more difficult ones. Given how haphazardly this year’s bracket has shaken out, trying to predict future match-ups beyond this round seems futile. They are undoubtedly going to be the favorite in their region to make the Final Four, but each of the teams left in the draw is stylistically different. Against West Virginia, the key will not only be taking care of the ball (although the Wildcats rank 11th nationally in turnover rate), but in the effectiveness of big men Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman. The Mountaineers are an elite shot-blocking group behind 6’8″ Sagaba Konate, which definitely threatens the drive-and-kick nature of Villanova’s offense. That means Paschall and Spellman will have to knock down perimeter shots to drag Konate away from the rim. As for the Elite Eight, Villanova matches up better with a backcourt-dominant team like Texas Tech than it does with Purdue. The Boilermakers’ Matt Haarms was wildly effective against Butler and will be a handful should he face Villanova’s undersized frontcourt. All told, though, Villanova’s versatility and balance should be enough to get them to San Antonio.

BO: Did most people underestimate the impact of Martin Krampelj’s injury on Creighton? Aside from the Villanova win, the Bluejays struggled over the final two months of the regular season and did not play well against Kansas State.

JK: I’m not sure underestimate is the right word. Everyone knew that the impact was severe and there was no replacement for a player like him. At 6’9″, he was the team’s best post defender and rebounder, and he moved around the floor better than most guys his size. It’s no surprise that Greg McDermott loved using him in pick-and-roll sets because he could spread the floor or glide to the rim. The other two bigs on the roster are 6’10” Toby Hegner, who was basically a spot-up shooter, and 6’11” freshman Jacob Epperson, who had flashes of brilliance but couldn’t string together much consistency. So his loss turned what was already backcourt-dominant team into one that overrelied on one or two guards to generate offense.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Xavier 102, #16 Texas Southern 83

Posted by David Changas on March 16th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. David Changas (@dchangas) is in Nashville this weekend. 

 Three Key Takeaways.

J.P. Macura was on fire with his game, and his mouth, on Friday night. (Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports)

  1. A gritty effort by an outmanned Texas Southern team was not enough. As with seemingly every #1 vs. #16 matchup in the history of this event, this game was a complete physical mismatch. But that did not stop Mike Davis’ Texas Southern squad from doing everything it could to make this one close. The Tigers easily could have been blown out early, as they fell behind 13-4 just four and a half minutes into the game. But they fought back to go on an improbable 16-0 run to take a 20-13 lead at the 12:13 mark of the half. Unfortunately for them, Xavier answered with a 36-11 run before the Tigers scored the final six points of the half to trail by 12 at the break. In the second half, the Tigers melted down a bit, and were called for three technical fouls over the span of about two minutes midway through. Perhaps one of these days, the upset will finally happen, but it was never a possibility in this one.
  2. J.P. Macura was on fire, and he let everyone know it. Macura is the guy who is easy for everyone who plays him to hate. The 6’5″ senior came out on fire, as he went 7-of-9 from the field in the first half, including 4-of-5 from three-point range in scoring 18 points in the frame. In fact, he scored all 18 during a 10-minute stretch in the middle of the half, and that spurt was the difference in the ballgame, as the Tigers were never able to really get back in the game. Macura also spent most of the half jawing at Texas Southern players and hamming it up for the Xavier fans seated across from the Musketeers’ bench. No one can say that he doesn’t have fun playing the game, and Friday’s first half performance was among the best of his successful career. He finished with a career-high 29 points on 5-of-6 shooting from behind the arc.
  3. Trevon Bluett and Kerem Kanter weren’t bad, either. Macura was the show in the first half, but all-American Trevon Bluiett had a nice game as well, as did senior center Kerem Kanter. Bluiett ended the night with a “quiet” 26 points, while Kanter added 24. Along with Macura, the three accounted for nearly 80 percent of the Musketeers’ offense. For the night, Xavier shot 55 percent, and went 11-of-24 from three-point range. Granted, it came against an outmanned Texas Southern team, but for Xavier to go deep in this Tournament, it will need more performances like this from its big three going forward.

Player of the Game. J.P. Macura, Xavier. The first half run was all the Musketeers needed to make a Texas Southern upset an impossibility and Macura was the catalyst for that surge. Read the rest of this entry »

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RTC Bracket Prep: West Region

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 12th, 2018

Today and tomorrow we will be rolling out our region-by-region analysis for the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Here, Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) breaks down the West Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC West Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates over the next two weeks (@RTCWestRegion).

WEST REGION

Favorite: North Carolina, #2, 25-10. At first glance, this is a wide open region with no dominant team. The Tar Heels are the highest rated KenPom team in this group at #7, but they are just one of six teams in the region that fall between #7 and #17 in that metric. In other words, this region is anybody’s ballgame. What sets Roy Williams‘ squad apart from the rest of the contenders fighting to come out of the Staples Center is the level and quality of the experience on this team. All five players who average double figures in scoring (Luke Maye, Joel Berry, Cameron Johnson, Kenny Williams and Theo Pinson) are upperclassmen, and three of the four saw significant action in last year’s National Championship run. In March, offense wins championships, and this Tar Heels team is an elite offensive squad with the experience and savvy to make a return trip to the sport’s final weekend.

Roy Williams’ Team is the Favorite Here, Whether He Likes It or Not (USA Today Images)

Should They Falter: Michigan, #3, 28-7. If you’re looking for a hot hand to ride, look no further than the Wolverines. Since an ugly road loss to Northwestern in early February, John Beilein‘s squad has reeled off nine straight wins, including an impressive one-two punch in the last two games of the Big Ten Tournament to earn the automatic bid. Balanced scoring and an uncharacteristically stingy defense are the hallmarks of this group, but Michigan is highlighted by veterans who take care of the ball, can knock down the three and do all the little things on defense. However, beware of the team’s week-plus layoff after an early Big Ten Tournament along with a slow pace which could allow lesser teams to stick around deep into the game.

Grossly Overseeded: Xavier, #1, 28-5. Sorry Musketeers fans. It’s bad enough that we made it through those first two bullet points without mentioning the #1 seed in this region, but to have them show up here must seem like adding insult to injury. Nothing against Chris Mack‘s clearly talented and accomplished club, but some team has to go in this spot and Xavier doesn’t possess the traditional metrics of a top seed. For instance, try digging through KenPom‘s historical rankings to find another #1 seed ranked as low as Xavier defensively (59th) and you’ll find that Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy in 2005 were the most recent distinction — and that tourney didn’t exactly end well for Washington (lost to Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen). That’s not to disparage this squad. Trevon Blueitt is among the best players in the nation. J.P. Macura is an elite college basketball villain (depending on who you root for). And Mack has lined up his next wave of program leaders with the likes of Quentin Goodin and Naji Marshall. But no one would be surprised to see the Musketeers suffer an early exit either.

Criminally Underseeded: Houston, #6, 26-7. It’s hard to get too worked up about a seven-loss AAC team only getting a #6 seed with blemishes like Drexel, Tulane and Memphis on its resume. But Kelvin Sampson‘s Cougars are a tough, balanced and veteran team. They feature five upperclassmen in their rotation, defend like crazy and have a fearless trio of guards – Armoni Brooks, Corey Davis and Rob Gray – who can get hot from three at any moment — each player has hit at least five threes in a game on multiple occasions this season. A #6 seed is probably an appropriate seed for Houston, but you can bet Michigan isn’t in love with seeing the Cougars as a potential first-weekend opponent.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big East Teams

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 11th, 2018

Below is a review of how the selection process concluded for each Big East team and what they should expect in the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Villanova Will Be Looking For More Celebrations Like This (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova, #1 seed, East Region. Assuming the Wildcats knock off the #16 seed play-in-game winner between LIU and Radford, they will face the winner of Virginia Tech and Alabama in the Second Round. The Hokies are an extremely rim-focused offense (ranking fourth nationally in percentage of shots at the rim) so the onus would be on Villanova’s wings to contain the penetration of Justin Robinson and his teammates. Alabama is a similarly constructed, penetration-focused offense without the commensurate complement of shooters. They instead rely on a ball-hawking defense supported by long, athletic wings. Villanova would probably prefer Virginia Tech here.
  • Xavier, #1 seed, West Region. The Musketeers earned the committee’s respect with a #1 seed in the West Region, and barring catastrophe, will face the winner of Missouri and Florida State next weekend. Stylistically, those two teams couldn’t be more different. Florida State pushes the tempo at every opportunity, particularly off of defensive rebounds and blocked shots. Missouri plays a half-court focused offense that picks apart defenses with relentless three-point shooting. The Musketeers would be happy to play at a fast tempo against the Seminoles despite their athleticism on the perimeter. Xavier has struggled this season in preventing perimeter shooting (see: Villanova), so a Missouri team with Michael Porter getting back to full health might pose some problems.

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Rushed Reactions: Providence 75, Xavier 72 [OT]

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 9th, 2018

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

Three Key Takeaways.

Ed Cooley Is Hard to Not Root For (USA Today Images)

  1. Ed Cooley is a tremendously underrated coach. It’s not that anybody is calling for his job in Providence after yet another 20-win season, but few seem to have appreciate what Cooley extracts from his team seemingly every March. The first half of tonight’s game featured a dominant first half performance from Xavier, one in which the Musketeers exploited slow switching and poor closeouts to the tune of 1.23 points per possession. And with a 14-point halftime lead, an otherwise unremarkable Friars’ loss seemed inevitable. But Cooley made some critical adjustments down the stretch, the first and most impactful of which was awarding 28 minutes to freshman center Nate Watson, who routinely took advantage of Xavier’s poor post defense for nine second half points. The second was inserting freshman Makai Ashton-Langford into the lineup, which immediately provided star point guard Kyron Cartwright with more room to operate. Lastly, the Friars eventually clamped down on the defensive end, clogging the paint and contesting every cut the Musketeers made to the basket. Xavier followed up a 43-point first half performance with just 25 second-half points and four in overtime.
  2. Tonight was an anomaly: Xavier is one of the few teams in the country that can match Villanova’s offensive firepower. The entire college basketball world knows what Trevon Bluiett (19.7 PPG) and JP Macura (12.3 PPG) are capable of, but virtually every other player Xavier puts on the floor can also notch double figures on any given night. Against Providence, freshman guard Paul Scruggs totaled 13 first-half points despite averaging just 4.5 PPG on the season. Not only do the Musketeers have a plethora of outside shooters and slashers akin to Villanova, but they also boast true low post scoring threats that can exploit mismatches, an area that they utilized against Providence. Slowing down this offense requires a lineup of players of all positions and sizes.
  3. Providence may have improved their NCAA Tournament outlook more than any team in the country this week. The Friars were a bubble team heading into Thursday’s games, probably secured an NCAA Tournament bid with an overtime win over Creighton last night, and now is playing its way towards a #9 or #10 seed by with an upset win over Xavier. Playing with this level of confidence will make for a scary First/Second round opponent next weekend.

Star of the GameKyron Cartwright logged 15 points and six assists in the semifinal victory, including numerous isolation baskets when Providence needed it most. The defining play of the game was a pull-up jumper to put his team ahead by three points with 50 seconds remaining.

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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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