Tempo-Free Big East: Week Five

There is finally a bit of separation between the conference’s ten teams now that we have entered the second half of Big East play.
Creighton and Villanova have emerged as the two most likely, barring a complete February breakdown, to dance in March, and the following several games should provide some clarity to whether St. John’s is making good on their preseason promise, if Providence’s depth will undermine their promising start, and might Xavier continue a defense-related freefall.

As we dip into February, which always seems like the longest month of each season’s slate, here are a few takeaways from week five of Big East play.

Creighton 8-1 1.24 0.99
Villanova 8-1 1.18 1.03
Providence 6-4 1.07 1.06
Xavier 5-4 1.12 1.11
Seton Hall 4-5 1.05 1.06
St. John’s 4-6 1.03 1.04
Marquette 5-5 0.99 1.02
Georgetown 4-6 0.98 1.01
Butler 2-8 0.97 1.08
DePaul 2-8 0.99 1.13

A healthy Fuquan Edwin is fueling Seton Hall. Seton Hall may be 3-2 since mid-January, but as the Pirates were beset by injuries to start Big East play, we predicted the Pirates would be a team to watch when Gene Teague and Fuquan Edwin finally returned full-time to the lineup. While Teague’s play has been somewhat inconsistent (which is understandable, considering the extent of his injury), the player who is truly fulfilling his preseason promise is Edwin. The wing was severely hobbled by a sprained ankle, and when on the floor, he didn’t have the same explosiveness that has defined his SHU career, but over the course of the past five games, Edwin has been offensively dominant. Posting an offensive rating over 100 in each of the contests, he is converting 55% of his twos and 50% of his threes, and Edwin has helped deflect the defense’s glare from Sterling Gibbs. Perhaps the most crucial by-product of Edwin’s availability, though, is his lock-down on-ball defense. During this five-game stretch, Edwin’s steal rate is a stingy 6.4%, and even though his fouls are up a slight tick, the wing (who, as Brendan Prunty of the Newark Star-Ledger reported earlier this season, altered his defensive approach in accordance with the new rule changes) has continued to harass opponents.

The emergence of James Bell. A highly decorated recruit, James Bell seemed destined to finish his Villanova career as a consummate role player: a starter who was a good third or fourth option in coach Jay Wright’s offense. The Wildcats were balanced last season — Bell’s junior year — and the guard only posted a shots attempted percentage of 19.7%. While Bell isn’t playing more minutes this season, he has quickly become the frontrunner for the ‘I did not expect this type of play from him‘ award. Bell’s offensive rating (114.9) is one of the squad’s best, and he has paced a Nova team that is dependent on perimeter shooting to boost their offense. More than 45% of the team’s field goal attempts are from beyond the three-point line, and Bell, who is making 39% of his long-range shots, has been the most consistent contributor to the team’s barrage. What is most interesting about Bell’s final season, though, is how he is finally taking advantage of using his shooting as a decoy: per Hoop-Math.com, 26% of his attempts are at the rim, a significant uptick from 2013, and he has learned to shot-fake defenders and then finish strongly within the paint (he is drawing more than four fouls per 40 minutes).

Has Marquette found their next undersized but highly efficient “big”? When the eligibilities of both Chris Otule and Davante Gardner expire after this season, Buzz Williams will face an interesting quandary: other than incoming frosh Satchel Pierce, who is 7′, there will not be a Golden Eagle taller than 6’7″ in 2014-15. However, this is nothing new to Williams: his Marquette squads have never been ranked amongst the trees in Ken Pomeroy’s effective height statistic, and the 2014 iteration is the tallest team Williams has ever fielded in Milwaukee. MU drew buzz thanks to the play of Lazar Hayward and Jae Crowder (among others), undersized bigs — players who possess versatility rather than height, and rising freshman Deonte Burton fits this profile. The 6’4″ Burton did not draw much hype as an incoming freshman, but has seen the most minutes thanks to the different options he presents Williams. Burton is only playing 13.3 minutes per game but is using a whopping 31.1% of the team’s attempts. In Marquette’s past three games, Burton is converting 45% of his twos, and has been an above-average defensive presence, posting block and steal rates of more than 5%. Burton’s perimeter game is still non-existent, which is probably to the benefit of Williams’ sanity: Burton is the most efficient Golden Eagle when he gets to the rim, connecting on 63% of his shots within a few feet of the bucket.

Two notes about Creighton. Tweeted by Creighton SID Rob Anderson and researched by ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan, Doug McDermott will become the first player since 1992-93 to make more than 1,000 field goals when the Bluejays play DePaul on Friday. The last two DI players to accomplish this feat? Calbert Cheaney and the late, offensively prolific Alphonso Ford. If McDermott keeps pace with the points total he reached during the past two seasons, he should eclipse the 3,000-point mark, a level reached by only seven individuals.

When I spoke to Creighton coach Greg McDermott at the beginning of the season, he was worried about how his frontcourt would react to the Big East. According to McDermott, the Bluejays’ success depended on “…how well we play on the backboards. If we go with a small lineup, we are going to have to be skilled rebounding the basketball on the defensive side of the ball.” McDermott’s concerns have so far been unfounded: the team is allowing opponents to grab just 26% of their misses, a near low for a McDermott-led Bluejay squad, and CU’s defensive rebounding percentage leads the Big East. This dominance on the glass has enabled Creighton to operate with more freely and often in transition. Creighton loves to run this season — the team is using nearly 66 possessions per game, and 23% of their attempts have come in transition, an uptick from last season — so when a Bluejay grabs a board, the team is off, with at least two players filling the wings and Ethan Wragge comfortably trailing. By consistently controlling the glass, Creighton has used the break to boost their offensive efficiency rating: per Hoop-Math.com, Creighton either finishes at the bucket or beyond the arc the first ten seconds of a possession, and converts 61% and 44%, respectively. Since four Bluejays are making more than 40% of their threes, it is almost guaranteed that a capable three-point shooter will be open.

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