Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. VII

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 13th, 2015

The Big East Weekend Wrap covers news and notes from the previous weekend’s games.

The Big East marched along last week, continuing its ascent up the rankings of the power conferences. It reached the #1 ranking for overall conference RPI for a bit before bowing to the Big 12 (only slightly), and the conference now stands at second overall with a sizable gap between itself and the rest. Even more impressively, the Big East has the highest average RPI among its conference members thanks to DePaul’s 3-0 start. As of this writing, the league lists nine of its 10 members among the top 100. Below is a list of four key takeaways from the last weekend’s action.

LaDontae Henton

LaDontae Henton’s Team Has a Legitimate Case to Rank Among the League’s Top Three Teams

Providence makes its push for the top of the standings. As I wrote in an earlier article, Providence has a legitimate case as a top three team in the Big East even though the Friars had largely fallen off the radar in non-conference play. They made a strong push last week, picking up a road win at Butler and then defeating Georgetown in overtime. Neither result was necessarily pretty — the Friars won both by a combined seven points — but the pair of wins catapulted Providence to the top of the league standings with a 3-1 record. Kris Dunn and LaDontae Henton continue to carry the load on the offensive end, with Dunn doing a much better job of staying out of foul trouble and remaining on the floor. The duo lead the conference in assists and points per game, respectively.

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Steve Wojciechowski Quietly Rebuilding Marquette With Young Talent

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 7th, 2015

The path to a head coaching position at a high major university is not a beaten one; many of today’s coaches ascended different ladders to get to their current positions. Some coaches got there by taking little-known schools to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament; others took an open position at the same school when their boss moved on; while still others first served as high-profile assistants to established coaches in more prestigious programs. Marquette’s first-year head coach, Steve Wojciechowski, falls into the latter category with a pedigree few others can boast. After a successful four-year playing career at Duke, he spent 15 years apprenticing for one of the best to ever coach the sport, Mike Krzyzewski. But despite the unimpeachable regard everyone holds for his former coach and mentor, success at the highest levels has not been guaranteed for Krzyzewski’s acolytes. Now that Wojciechowski is the leader of one of the most tradition-rich programs in the country, he’s hoping to start a tradition of his own in Milwaukee. On Tuesday night in Washington, DC, he came very close to getting the first truly big win of his young career when Marquette battled the Hoyas to a tight six-point loss.

Steve Wojciechowski's first job as a head coach is to rebuild a proud Marquette program.

Steve Wojciechowski’s first job as a head coach is to rebuild a proud Marquette program (Gary Porter).

When the 38-year old accepted the Marquette job last spring, the program was not in the same shape as it had been when it made eight straight NCAA Tournaments from 2006-13. After a disappointing 17-15 season, former head coach Buzz Williams downgraded to Virginia Tech because of the uncertainty of the athletic director’s position (currently being filled by interim AD, Bill Cords), and a general concern about the new Big East’s visibility in moving from ESPN to Fox Sports 1 as its primary television carrier. Another factor in his departure may have been the stark realization that his current roster simply was not all that competitive. After Shaka Smart and Cuonzo Martin passed on the Marquette job, this opened the door for Wojciechowski to become a first-time head coach at a respected basketball program with an opportunity to rebuild it in his own image.

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Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. VI

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 6th, 2015

The Big East Weekend Wrap covers news and notes from the previous weekend’s games.

The opening week of Big East play featured some crazy results: the home teams went 9-1; the favored teams went 5-5; every ranked team lost at least once; and DePaul is 2-0. If nothing else, these results show the level of parity in the Big East this season. Talent aside, teams succeeded in defending their home floor as the only two unbeaten teams in conference play are the ones that have yet to play on the road. Below are five key takeaways from the Big East’s opening weekend:

  1. Seton Hall has been nothing short of impressive. Not only did the Pirates win two conference games without Isaiah Whitehead, but they did so against what was believed to be the league’s top two teams. After trouncing St. John’s behind 10-of-23 shooting from three, Kevin Willard’s group took it to Villanova, jumping out to an early 17-3 lead before relinquishing it all and then ultimately winning in overtime. It goes without saying that junior guard Sterling Gibbs, who led the team with a combined 45 points, has made his way into all-Big East first team discussions. Stripped of his backcourt mate and second leading scorer, Gibbs took the scoring and passing duties into his own hands, easily creating his own shot off the dribble and putting teammates in scoring situations. Alongside Gibbs, three freshmen — Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguz and Angel Delgado – stepped up at different times to propel the Pirates.

    Sterling Gibbs has played his way into Big East first-team discussions. (Getty)

    Sterling Gibbs has played his way into Big East first-team discussions. (Getty)

  2. DePaul has done its best to counter every prediction about a last place finish. Following a string of six straight brutal losses — including defeats to the likes of Ohio and Loyola Marymount —  DePaul appeared to be right on track for its annual January plunge into the Big East abyss. Yet this time, Billy Garrett Jr. decided he’d rather not. In front of their usual half empty arena, the Blue Demons dashed the hopes of both Marquette and Xavier, handing three-point losses to both. By slowing each game down to a crawl (64 possessions each), it didn’t matter that Oliver Purnell’s team is playing defense that ranks among the worst 50 teams in the country or that both of their opponents ranked in the top 40 in two-point field goal percentage. DePaul won by forcing turnovers (30 over the two games) and with Garrett breaking out of his shooting slump — the 6’6″ sophomore played under control, shooting 12-of-16 from the field over both games and matching his career high 10 assists against Xavier. Read the rest of this entry »
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Is Seton Hall Better Without Isaiah Whitehead?

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 5th, 2015

Before being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot, Isaiah Whitehead was Seton Hall’s second-leading scorer and team assist-leader. As a result, many pundits thought that the team, now lacking its most dynamic all-around playmaker, would flounder in its upcoming Big East tests. Instead, the exact opposite occurred. Without Whitehead available last week, Sterling Gibbs stepped up to put on two electrifying performances against St. John’s and Villanova, contributing a combined 45 points, 12 assists and just three turnovers in a pair of wins. Moreover, the team’s best offensive performance of the year (points per possession) came against St. John’s, and its defense held Villanova to its worst of the season. To be clear, nobody is doubting Whitehead’s talent or his ability to play at the next level, but with the team’s recent string of rather unexpected Big East victories, the question needs to be asked: Does Whitehead’s presence on the floor do more harm than good?

Seton Hall is Playing Better Without Its Star Freshman (USA Today Images)

Seton Hall is Playing Better Without Its Star Freshman (USA Today Images)

Against St. Johns, the Pirates notched 18 assists on 23 made baskets for a whopping 78.3 percent assist rate — both season highs. Freshman Angel Delgado, a force on the offensive glass, logged 13 points and 12 rebounds, with Gibbs adding 25 points and eight assists of his own. Sophomore Jaren Sina also gave his best performance of the season, shooting 4-of-8 from deep en route to 14 points. The Seton Hall offense looked incredibly fluid throughout — both in transition and in the half-court — with Gibbs and Sina knocking down outside shots in rhythm. This was in stark contrast to the team’s performances against Georgia and Wichita State, when the offense often fell stagnant and became overly reliant on Whitehead’s demonstrated ability to get to the rim.

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Unsung Hero: Villanova’s Rise Driven by Daniel Ochefu

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 2nd, 2015

Think back to the last time Villanova had a true post player. No, not face-up players like Dante Cunningham, Will Sheridan or Mouph Yarou. Rather, a true banger in the paint with a repertoire of post moves and a defensive presence felt by all five opposing players. Junior center Daniel Ochefu brings to Villanova what players of successful teams past have not: size and intimidation. And at 13-0 — the program’s best start since the 1937-38 season — the Wildcats have certainly looked the part, beating seven teams in Kenpom’s top 100 along the way.

Daniel Ochefu

Daniel Ochefu May be Villanova’s Most Key Contributor This Season (USA Today Images)

Coming into the season, many believed that it would be the Wildcats’ pair of seniors, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston, who would assert themselves in order to compensate for the loss of last year’s leading scorer, James Bell. Their play, coupled with junior Ryan Arcidiacono and emerging guard Dylan Ennis, has come at an opportune time, providing Villanova with a remarkably balanced scoring attack. Yet while many fans have focused their attention and concern on the team’s dynamic offense, the play of sophomore wing Josh Hart and center Ochefu are a significant reason why Villanova remains undefeated into January.

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Will the Big East Have Six NCAA Teams? A Mid-Season Review

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 31st, 2014

With the arrival of conference play comes a critical juncture for teams looking to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Those that have overperformed against their preseason expectations — teams like St. John’s and Seton Hall — will seek to establish an early footprint in the increasingly competitive Big East, whereas the likes of Marquette, Xavier and Creighton look to re-emerge after a handful of non-conference woes. Today we will examine the top Big East overperformers and underperformers to this point, followed by an early look at the NCAA Tournament bubble as it relates to each team. But before discussing team performance, my preseason Big East rankings were as follows:

Villanova Has Lived Up to Its Expectations This Season (USA Today Images)

Villanova Has Lived Up to Its Expectations This Season (USA Today Images)

  1. Villanova
  2. Georgetown
  3. Xavier
  4. St. John’s
  5. Providence
  6. Seton Hall
  7. Butler
  8. Marquette
  9. Creighton
  10. DePaul

Biggest Overperformers

  • St. John’s (11-1) has made a serious case as the second best team in the Big East. Sporting a defense that ranks fourth nationally in defensive efficiency and third in block percentage, the Red Storm have received a great deal of attention following wins at Syracuse and versus Minnesota. Sure, they were fourth in my preseason rankings, but the envisioned gap between the Johnnies and Xavier/Georgetown was large and has proven so far to be completely off base. Ranked #15 in the latest AP Poll, Steve Lavin has built a team featuring an incredibly talented group of quick, athletic guards with senior D’Angelo Harrison (19.0 PPG) shouldering the offensive load while do-it-all forward Sir’Dominic Pointer and shot-blocker Chris Obekpa wreak defensive havoc. At this point, St. John’s has looked superior to every other Big East team outside of Villanova, and although its inconsistent outside shooting (266th nationally) and offensive execution in the half-court leave much to be desired, the Red Storm have been the single biggest conference surprise this season.

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Providence: The Big East’s Darkhorse

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 23rd, 2014

With Villanova grabbing national headlines, St. John’s maintaining a Top 25 ranking, and both Butler and Georgetown wavering in and out of the polls, much of the focus on the Big East this season has naturally shifted towards them. Meanwhile, Ed Cooley has quietly pieced together a 10-3 season with five Top 100 wins, most notably against Notre Dame and Miami. While Providence found themselves in the Top 25 earlier this season, an unsurprising 20-point loss at Kentucky knocked them out, and a shocking home loss to Brown has kept them out. But college basketball, and the tournament selection process, are about a team’s body of work. Led by LaDontae Henton, the Big East’s leading scorer with 20 points per game, the Friars deserve more respect than they are getting.

With Henton Leading Them, Providence Is A Contender In The Big East

A quick review of Providence’s schedule shows the team has apparently gone through a number of phases. The first was the Henton-dominated early season schedule, where the Friars knocked off Florida State, Notre Dame, and Yale in just one week and Henton scored a combined 91 points in those games. Then came a down phase in which Henton scored just 28 points combined in the next three contests, all of which the team lost. Now, following a win over the previously-ranked Miami, the Friars appear to be back on the upswing. It’s a dangerous recipe, relying on one player to shoulder the scoring load, but the Bryce Cotton-led tournament team from last year would beg to differ. Henton is a dynamic player with an array of post moves and outside shooting as well as a lethal combination of strength and quickness makes him a mismatch on the perimeter and in the post. This versatility causes a tough match-up for any team, and his cold shooting nights this season appear to be more a function of his own doing and less one of getting flustered by defenses.

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Despite Conference Realignment, Syracuse vs. Villanova Here to Stay

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on December 23rd, 2014

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.

It’s Northeast basketball. It used to be what the Big East was, but it’s still Northeast basketball. It’s a great rivalry. The fans know each other… — Jay Wright, Villanova head coach, 12/20/2014.

Forget about conferences, it's always fun when these two coaches go to battle.

Forget about conferences, it’s always fun when these two coaches go to battle.

Syracuse has played basketball since 1899, but did not join a conference (the Big East) until 1979. Among the colleges and universities across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and the six New England states, stable conferences like the Ivy League (1902-present) were, before the late 1970s, the exception rather than the rule. Schools either remained stubbornly independent (Boston College, Duquesne, Holy Cross, Penn State, Providence, St. Bonaventure, and Villanova, for example) or, like Fordham — which belonged to the Metro NY Conference (1933-34, 1936-39, 1942-43, 1946-63), the NJNY7 (1977-79), the East Coast Athletic Metro Conference (1980-81), the MAAC (1982-90), and the Patriot (1991-95) before finally settling into the Atlantic 10 (1996-present) — flirted with conference affiliations like Taylor Swift dangles musicians and actors. Too many of these conferences — the Eastern Intercollegiate Conference (1933-39), the Middle Three Conference (1949-52), the Little Three Conference (1947-58) and the New Jersey-New York 7 Conference (1977-79) — modeled on Philadelphia’s Big 5 series and little more than commitments to schedule round-robin play — had little in the way of longevity. The NCAA, which began its postseason invitational tournament to crown a champion in 1939, paid little attention to the region’s conference comings and goings. The influence of Marquette’s Al McGuire and CBS Sports changed all of that. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. V

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 22nd, 2014

The Big East Weekend Wrap will cover news and notes from the weekend’s games.

What is basketball, or any sport for that matter, except for a continuous stream of results and changing expectations? We only know as much about a team as their body of work, and with that, we attempt to make judgments about their future performances and outcomes. With more data comes more information and hopefully, more informed opinions. The Big East got off to an incredibly hot start in its first six weeks, but the last few days of action have brought most of its teams back down to earth. Whether they recover remains to be seen.

The Good

  • Villanova posted an impressive rally. The Wildcats struggled to penetrate the Syracuse zone for the first 25 minutes of action and trailed for nearly the entire game before rallying to send it to overtime in the final 17 seconds. The offensive balance that propelled the team in past victories was gone, as three players scored over 20 and nobody else on the team scored more than six points. However ugly, Villanova found a way to win. It exemplified the team’s resiliency and also demonstrated a sense of senior leadership that was missing earlier this season. Darrun Hilliard posted 23 points, five rebounds and four steals while JayVaughn Pinkston scored 25 and added 10 rebounds of his own. With the Wildcats’ perimeter shooting nowhere to be found, both seniors found ways to score down the stretch by attacking the rim and creating for themselves. The gap between Villanova and the rest of the pack appears to be widening; the target on their back has never been bigger.
Despite some early struggles, Jay Wright's crew eventually cracked the Orange's zone and found a way to eek out an impressive victory. (Getty)

Despite some early struggles, Jay Wright’s crew eventually cracked the Orange’s zone and found a way to eek out an impressive victory. (Getty)

Other Big East teams were not so fortunate…

  • Butler went 0-for-2 in resume-building games. The Bulldogs have fallen in the past week about as quickly as they rose in November. Chris Holtmann’s squad had two good chances to build on their 8-1 start: the first was at Tennessee, a game in which they broke down in the final 10 minutes as discussed here. The second was Saturday on a neutral floor against a similarly athletic team in Indiana. Here, Butler again played well in the first half before crumbling, scoring just 12 points in the final 8:38. The game was close the entire way, but the Hoosiers’ second half adjustments worked to slow Kellen Dunham and no other Bulldog was able to put together an efficient shooting performance. The defense was effective (held leading scorer James Blackmon – 19.2 PPG prior – to 5 points), yet to the surprise of many, the rebounding was not. The Hoosiers grabbed 15 offensive rebounds and only gave up 11 turnovers, preventing the run outs that kick start Butler’s offense. The offensive struggles remain: Roosevelt Jones and Alex Barlow are defensive-minded players that have not proven to be consistent scorers, and the Bulldogs are in desperate need of one to complement Dunham. The hope is that freshman Kelan Martin will eventually emerge.

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Defense Provides St. John’s With an Identity

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 20th, 2014

For the Red Storm, it was never a question of talent. D’Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan were All-Big East team nominees and Chris Obekpa has been one of the most intimidating shot blockers in the country. But despite being picked to finish third in the Big East this season, there was a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the team chemistry and the collective focus on the defensive end of the floor heading into the season. It was a problem that plagued talented teams of the past, and without a leader, it would continue to do so.

St. John's Defense (USA Today Images)

St. John’s Defense Gives the Red Storm an Identity (USA Today Images)

D’Angelo Harrison changed that. With 5:29 remaining in the game, the senior motioned his teammates into a huddle, drawing them away from an increasingly confrontational game against St. Mary’s. Frequently cited for attitude problems in the past, it showed signs of the team’s long-awaited maturation; a coming of age, displayed in just a matter of moments. From there, the Red Storm rallied, together as a team, to capture another home court win. However, that’s not to say the win came easily. In the first half, the Johnnies looked completely out of rhythm, reverting to their old, all too familiar “take ‘em” strategy. Like a bad habit, the problem for is one that becomes self-reinforcing over time: shoot first, think second. When it works, the perimeter tandem of Harrison, Jordan, and Phil Greene looks unstoppable, especially when Obekpa and Sir’Dominic Pointer are on the floor to grab offensive rebounds. But when it doesn’t? The team looks desperate and confused.

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Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. IV

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 16th, 2014

The Big East Weekend Wrap will cover news and notes from the weekend’s games.

With only two weeks left before conference play gets under way, eight Big East teams remain squarely in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid. While it might be too early to draw any definitive conclusions, it’s something to monitor as the season progresses. Currently both Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm project six Big East teams into their fields, with two others — Creighton and Providence — on the outside of the bubble. Coming off a light weekend of Big East action, below are three key takeaways.

Butler Failed to Close Things Out at Tennessee Over the Weekend (USA Today Sports)

Butler Failed to Close Things Out at Tennessee Over the Weekend (USA Today Sports)

  1. Butler and DePaul both lost their edge in the closing minutes. It was a tough Sunday for two teams in drastically different situations. Butler brought its #15 ranking into Knoxville – a difficult environment for any visiting team – while DePaul tried to prove that its 6-3 start was for real. Butler showcased its defensive stinginess in the first half versus the Vols, only to give away a 12-point lead and crumble in the final minutes. Roosevelt Jones and Alex Barlow struggled as perimeter defenders against Tennessee’s longer, more athletic guards, allowing them access into the lane time and time again. But if Tennessee’s 59.3 percent second half shooting wasn’t enough of an issue, Kellen Dunham’s tendency for poor decision-making made matters worse. The junior took 11 of his 14 field goal attempts from beyond the arc and then proceeded to use the second half to pass up open looks and dribble into traffic. If the Bulldogs can’t generate consistent stops, they turn into a much less effective team too dependent on getting Dunham open looks. On another note, it might be in Chris Holtmann’s interest to give rising freshman Kelan Martin more playing time; the 6’6″ wing is averaging just as many points as Jones (10.8 PPG) but in half the time (16.1 MPG). Meanwhile, DePaul managed to commit enough turnovers in the closing minutes of its game on Sunday to blow a solid lead against Illinois State. To be honest, the Blue Demons’ starting lineup is remarkably competent on the offensive end; Myke Henry has emerged as a true leader, with Jamee Crockett and Tommy Hamilton IV adding wing and inside dimensions. But as with prior years, many of the same issues remain: turnovers and defense. Oliver Purnell will have to find a way to fix at least one of those weaknesses before the program takes another step forward. Read the rest of this entry »
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Has Villanova Outgrown the Big 5?

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on December 15th, 2014

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.

“…a loveless marriage… [that] began out of a desire that was neither pure nor innocent. They were just trying to make a buck”

— Rich Hofmann (The Big 5-0)

Has Villanova outgrown the Big 5? Like the question about the health of a terminally ill relative, it goes unasked after another big Villanova win over the weekend, but it was always the question behind the question. After Villanova beat his Hawks 74-46 (which followed the 93-63 beating the Wildcats delivered in 2013), Saint Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli couched his answer as a “talent gap” problem. After his Explorers lost 73-52 to Villanova (they were beaten again this season, 84-70) La Salle head coach Dr. John Gianinni challenged his players with (to paraphrase), “Villanova won the game in June, not on the court but in the training room.” It was, he contended, a “dedication gap” problem.

Jay Wright and the Wildcats should be excited about their chances

So far this season, it’s business as usual for Jay Wright and crew. (Getty)

After losing 85-63 on Sunday, that universal question, “Why’d you lose?” was posed to Temple‘s senior guard, Will Cummings. He replied, “[Villanova’s] got a lot of weapons. So we really have to be conscious of every player on the court. You can’t leave somebody or they’re going to step up and make a play. That really tested our defense. We had some lapses and that was the tale.” When Temple head coach Fran Dunphy was handed the “talent/dedication/effort” question, he gave a nod to his players’ sense of responsibility but did not take the bait, “Well, [Villanova] has a very talented team. And I thought they played hard, We can play harder, we can do a better job. I appreciate those guys (Will Cummings and Obi Enechionyia) saying that [they lacked effort]. Maybe it was a loose ball here and there that we needed to get to. We didn’t. They did. They are a talented group, a really good basketball team.” That far and no further. Talent, effort or commitment gaps aside, the evidence suggests something is going on in the Big 5. In the 13 seasons Jay Wright has coached on the Main Line, Villanova has shared (two) or won outright (five) the Big 5 title seven times. Historically, Villanova has won or shared 22 Big 5 titles, second only to Temple (28) and gaining fast. Read the rest of this entry »

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