Big East Tempo-Free Metrics: Second-to-Last Edition

Which Big East teams will earn an NCAA tournament bid this season? Certainly Creighton and Villanova are in the field — even an opening round loss in the Big East tournament wouldn’t keep those two squads from dancing. The rest of the conference’s postseason hopes, however, are murky. John and I have discussed the conference’s fate, but I simply believe only one other Big East team will make the NCAAs. The middle of the conference — St. John’s, Xavier, Providence, Marquette, and Georgetown — didn’t do enough during the non-conference slate to earn the kindness of the selection committee, and the five squads are continually feasting on each other, failing to separate themselves in the slightest. The team with the most potential to break out of the muck is Xavier. A win over Cincinnati outweighs a bad loss to USC, and should the Musketeers defeat either Nova or Creighton — both looming games — XU should land an at-large bid (a Big East tournament win wouldn’t hurt either). Unless one of the four (not including Xavier) goes on a tear at Madison Square Garden, though, it could be a tough Selection Sunday.

February 27
Creighton 13-2 1.21 1.03
Villanova 13-2 1.16 1.02
Xavier 9-6 1.11 1.08
St. John’s 8-8 1.03 1.00
Providence 8-7 1.09 1.07
Marquette 8-6 1.05 1.06
Georgetown 7-8 1.04 1.06
Seton Hall 5-10 1.05 1.08
Butler 2-14 0.98 1.12
DePaul 3-13 1.00 1.16

A few notes and observations from the past week:

A drought in Queens. It has been a rough week for St. John’s coach Steve Lavin. Before this past weekend, the Johnnies looked like an at-large team, one that needed a slight push, but a squad that would certainly make a postseason appearance. Now, though, that bid might be for the NIT, not the NCAA tournament: SJU dropped games to both Villanova and Xavier, threatening their status on the bubble — St. John’s now has to win out their remaining slate (DePaul and Marquette) and then likely make the Big East tournament semifinals to breathe easy on March 16. What is interesting about the Johnnies’ slide is that the team is still just as solid defensively as they were while on their six-game winning streak: their two opponents scored just .95 points per possession and committed a turnover on nearly a quarter of their possessions. SJU’s offense, though, is sputtering, and the team scored just .82 PPP combined in their last two losses, both anemic showings that underscored how vital it is for the team to attack the basket. For whatever reason, and Lavin has always been at a loss to explain this tendency, St. John’s loves to take mid-range jump shots. Open, guarded, off-balanced, in perfect rhythm — it doesn’t matter. From Phil Greene IV to JaKarr Sampson and Jamal Branch, the Johnnies would rather pull up from 16 feet than get to the bucket. During the weeks when they made their Big East run, the team somehow sublimated this urge and converted 53% of their twos, but their collective conscience apparently got the better of them, and SJU has reverted to its prior offense at the worst time. Per, only 20% of SJU’s attempts came at the rim, while a whopping 61% were within the arc (of that percentage, the team connected on 28% of their shots); this strategy was consistent in the Xavier loss — a quarter of their shots at the time while nearly 50% from mid-range. For St. John’s to be successful and make their first NCAA tournament appearance since Lavin’s inaugural year at the helm, the team needs to stick to their basics: early shot clock attempts that are near or at the bucket. This squad just can’t compete, and doesn’t have the offensive rebounding ability, if they are shooting long twos.

Xavier’s most improved players. Earlier this week, ESPN’s Paul Biancardi released a list (subscription required) of the nation’s five most improved players. When compiling a list that culls just five from Division I’s 351 teams, some names will be left off, which is unfortunate for a team like Xavier, which features two such players. One is Justin Martin; the junior wing is using the same amount of minutes as in 2013, but has become more proficient from long-range. Roughly 45% of Martin’s attempts are from three, and he is now connecting on 39% of those shots (up from 29% a year ago). We have already established that a Chris Mack-coached Xavier team doesn’t take many threes, but Martin is one of the few Musketeers with a green light — only he and Myles Davis will surpass 100 threes — and his perimeter touch allows more space for Matt Stainbrook and Semaj Christon, the team’s other most improved player, to operate. Christon was expected to make the sophomore leap, and while his game was a bit stagnant during non-conference play, the guard has been electric running XU’s Big East offense. Christon took a high number of mid-range shots last season; he wasn’t a poor shooter from within the arc (39%) but his game should be predicated on getting to the rim and drawing fouls, a point that must have been continually stressed by Mack and his staff since nearly 60% of his attempts are now around the bucket (up from 42% in 2013) and he is drawing about a foul more per 40 minutes (Christon will easily surpass 200 free throw attempts this year).

Alex Barlow deserves some credit. Butler is staggering through their first losing season since 2004-05, but Barlow, the Bulldogs, junior guard, deserves a bit of recognition. Hardly a focal point in the offense, Barlow is the consummate point guard. His assist rate leads the team, and as the squad’s best defender, he continuously draws the game’s most difficult match-up. In a recent loss to Creighton, Barlow guarded Doug McDermott at times, and though he yielded nine inches to the forward, Barlow’s physicality made it difficult for McDermott to catch the ball with ease in the post.

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