The Big East conference kicks off in earnest today, and based on how the league performed during the first two months of the season, it’s quite clear that the Big East’s obituary was premature.
Everyone knew Villanova would be good, and the Wildcats have fulfilled that prediction, but non-conference wins against North Carolina (Butler), Stanford (DePaul), Minnesota (St. John’s), Miami (FL) (Providence), and Nebraska (Creighton) showcased a league that, while maybe not as strong as it was several years ago, is still a legitimate high-major conference.
This season was supposed to be down year for the Big East, the first in what would eventually become a death rattle, so what makes the league’s continued relevance – Ken Pomeroy has the Big East ranked as the third strongest conference in Division I – so satisfying is how the ten teams have dominated their non-conference slate. Four squads have defensive efficiency rates that rank within Pomeroy’s top 50, another two are within that same top 100, and only one – DePaul – has a Pythagorean rating outside the top 100 DI schools.
Now that conference play has begun, though, this is where teams begin to separate, so we’ll find out whether the conference’s middle of the pack will become a mud fight among .500 teams (as it was in 2014), or whether teams (other than Villanova) can separate and grab an at-large NCAA tournament bid.
What follows are a breakdown of each team, including what we learned during the initial third of the season, what we can expect over the course of the following eighteen games, and how the teams should finish by early March.
What we learned: Throughout Jay Wright’s Main Line tenure, his Villanova teams have been known for their perimeter prowess. His 2014 squad had a three-point field goal attempt rate that was seventh nationally, and his most successful teams use three-point shooting to spread the floor, which then allows for exploitation off the dribble. Wright has slightly tweaked his 2015 Wildcats — specifically, they have cut back on their attempts from deep, and are instead concentrating on their shooting inside the arc.
Nearly a third of their attempts are two-point field goals, up from 20% a year ago (per Hoop-Math.com), and while the majority of Nova’s possessions still result in a jump shot, a higher percentage of attempts are being taken from 19 feet or closer. This might not seem like a successful strategy — the least efficient shot available is a long two — but when squads convert the amount of twos as VU has so far (and has two players, Ryan Arcidiacono and Dylan Ennis, with assist rates over 20%), Wright will stick with this alteration. The Wildcat who has keyed this two-point barrage is Daniel Ochefu; not only has the junior continued to convert around the bucket, but he has made 57% of those jump shots (a significant increase from his sophomore percentage of 31%).
Question for Big East play: Can Ennis continue his torrid shooting? Ochefu’s scoring aside, the junior guard has been the conference’s surprise this season. While at Rice, Ennis provided an offensive boost, but was lost in Nova’s backcourt in 2014, so most observers thought Ennis would continue to fall deeper down Nova’s depth chart, supplanted by either Josh Hart or newcomer Phil Booth. Instead, Ennis has emerged as a player capable of stretching a halfcourt defense with his three-point shooting — other than Darrun Hilliard and Kris Jenkins, he seems to be the only Wildcat to have the green light — or creating in transition; Ennis scores the team’s second most points on the break.
What we learned: It was expected that both Matt Stainbrook would remain efficient — an offensive rating of 1.31 — and that Jalen Reynolds would remain criminally underrated — a force on both the offensive and defensive glass, he is converting 80% of his attempts at the rim — but what was unknown was how quickly Xavier’s six newcomers would adapt. It turns out, rather quickly, and the contributions of the five freshmen and one transfer are an underlying reason for XU’s sterling offensive start (an offensive rating of 1.12 PPP, 12th in DI).
Even though Trevon Bluiett is making 40% of his threes, the frosh has so far flown well under the radar, and wing Remy Abell, who probably should have seen more playing time at Indiana, is arguably the nation’s best at making the most of limited touches. A bowling ball who possesses the quickness of a duckpin ball, Abell has the lowest percentage of shots taken of all the starters, yet only Stainbrook has a higher effective field goal percentage.
Question for Big East play: Coach Chris Mack isn’t crazy about three-point shooting. His Xavier squads have never been stocked with multiple shooters. That hasn’t been the case in non-conference play: four Musketeers have taken 30 or more threes, and Abell (who has made 38% of his attempts) will cross that mark against Georgetown. The presence of so many shooters changed the make-up of XU’s out-of-conference halfcourt offense, and since Xavier’s offense has flourished, it’s likely this trend continues.
What we learned: Sir’Dominic Pointer is the key to whether St. John’s goes to their second NCAA tournament under Steve Lavin. The senior was reportedly offered the chance to redshirt this upcoming season, but after intense summer workouts in Los Angeles, the positionless Pointer decided to play this year and has been the team’s most precious contributor.
Pointer, who Lavin has compared to a Swiss army knife and Batman, has continued to play the same inspired defense that he has previously been known for, but has now become an offensive force. He is making 63% of his twos, and more importantly for the Johnnies, is grabbing nearly 20% of opponents’ misses, a crucial area for a team that lacks depth and size (Pointer is also one of the Big East’s best in transition, and the caroms he grabs jump-start SJU’s fast break). During the conference’s recent media teleconference, Lavin explained what clicked for Pointer, saying, “He has added better footwork this year, and while gathering his feet sounds simple, his ability to navigate the floor, use his body balance, and either shoot a higher percentage or kick to an open teammate are first rate.” Later in the call, Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard added, “[Pointer] causes nightmare mismatches.”
Question for Big East play: Following his team’s loss to SJU, St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett offered a prescient analysis of the Red Storm, “If you can keep them in the half court, I think you can guard them.” While opponents have allowed roughly the same amount of transition attempts as in 2014, SJU has converted more of them this season. If teams can stifle the Johnnies’ fast-break, though, and slow the Red Storm’s offense, that could be an issue that even the team’s stingy defense can’t overcome.
What we learned: During the Big East media day, most in attendance believed that Villanova’s Hilliard had been robbed of the preseason player of the year honor, which ended up going to D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. During non-conference play, though, it was clear that the Georgetown guard has significantly elevated his game to POY levels. Smith has managed to balance orchestrating the squad’s offense — he is assisting a quarter of the Hoyas’ field goals — and generating his own scoring.
He has also slightly altered how he finds offensive success on the court: not only is he finishing at the rim at a much higher clip this season, converting 62% of his attempts, he is better able to go iso and get to the paint unabated — just 7% of his rim attempts have been assisted.
Question for Big East play: Can Joshua Smith remain relevant? This is the question that first haunted Ben Howland, and now John Thompson III. The 6’10” big’s talent has never been questioned. His weight will always be an issue, but Smith’s conditioning hasn’t hampered his minutes in 2015. He is using 54% of G’Town’s available minutes, the most ever for the senior, and has cut down on his fouls. The more playing time Smith receives, the more efficient the Hoyas’ offense becomes, and this predicted finish — fourth — could change should Smith stay a factor in Big East play.
What we learned: Butler has long been known for its defensive tenacity. The transition from Brad Stevens to Brandon Miller didn’t dull Butler’s physically unsettling defense, and even as Chris Holtmann unexpectedly leads the Bulldogs, the squad has continued to force opponents into uncomfortable shots.
What is different in 2015, though, is Butler’s ability to force turnovers. Still the same man defense, still the same control of the defensive boards, but the Bulldogs are generating a turnover on nearly a quarter of their opponents’ possessions — the second-highest rate for Butler in the KenPom era. Leading the way is Alex Barlow, a senior guard who has Holtmann’s confidence to be as aggressive as possible, and Kameron Woods, who is back to playing a more natural position (at power forward) and is using his quickness and Gumby-like length to strip opposing bigs.
Question for Big East play: There is no denying Butler’s offense is better suited with Roosevelt Jones playing either the “1” or off the ball. As Barlow said during the conference media day, “Rose is bigger, stronger, and more explosive, and him getting to the rim will open up things for everyone else.” And the junior guard is getting to the rim — 77% of his attempts are around the bucket, which leads the team. What is still a question mark is the effectiveness of Butler’s offense even when Jones is on the court. The team is scoring just 1.02 PPP, and Butler’s effective field goal percentage ranks seventh in the Big East. They aren’t a great three-point shooting team, and if an opposing defense can handcuff Kellen Dunham for large portions of the game, Butler’s offense turns stale, so Jones’ return hasn’t successfully propelled the offense.
What we learned: Providence’s success is dependent on the effectiveness of their flex offense. Nearly all of the PC’s scoring comes at the free throw line or inside the arc, and so the flex, which is predicated on curls, screens, and interior motion, is supposed to free the Friars for high percentage attempts. According to Hoop-Math.com, nearly three-quarters of the team’s attempts have been at the rim or two-point jumpers.
Question for Big East play: Kris Dunn has been spectacular so far. There is arguably no other guard in DI that has the length, anticipation, and passing ability of the 6’3” Dunn. His assist rate ranks second nationally, and on a team with scant perimeter options, coach Ed Cooley will lean heavily on Dunn to continue showcasing the talents that buoyed his can’t miss recruiting profile.
What we learned: Brandon Mobley greatly benefited from his “come to Jesus meetings” last season. The senior wing had not one, but two, such meetings with coach Kevin Willard, and was bluntly told his play would dictate how well the Pirates would fare in 2015. “Coach Willard said if I played good, the team played good. I take that on my shoulders as a leader. Every night it won’t be a good night offensively, but defensively, every night should be a good night.” Mobley is in the midst of a fantastic final season — 51% from two, 41% from three — and Mobley’s success is more important to the Hall’s NCAA tournament hopes than the contributions of the squad’s highly touted freshman class.
Question for Big East play: Speaking of that frosh class, Isaiah Whitehead’s injury — the guard has suffered a stress fracture in his foot and will miss at least two weeks — is a blow not only to Hall’s depth but to their offense’s overall flow. Whitehead was SHU’s best playmaker. His assist total was second to only Sterling Gibbs, and his vision and skill reading opposing defenses is a large factor for Gibbs’ offensive outburst this year. On the macro level, losing Whitehead means more playing time for Khadeen Carrington, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the team’s halfcourt offense takes a significant hit — per Hoop-Math.com, no other Pirate has a higher percentage of assists at the rim.
What we learned: Steve Wojciechowski’s squad needs ex-Indiana big Luke Fischer. It’s hard to evaluate Marquette because Fischer was only eligible for the past four games, but it was clear during those contests that MU is a much different team with the 6’11” Fischer on the floor.
It’s also clear that those ballyhooed offseason shooting drills have paid immediate dividends: Buzz Williams’ offense is long gone, and these Golden Eagles can shoot. Juan Anderson has perhaps benefited the most from the new coaching staff’s instruction; Anderson, who nearly left Milwaukee in 2013, has become one of the squad’s most consistent scoring options. According to Wojciechowski on the recent teleconference, “Juan has improved in every area as an offensive player. He is taking good shots from the three-point range, and overall is making good decision as an offensive player.”
Question for Big East play: Despite the coaching shakeup, Steve Taylor continues his inconsistent play, and since Taylor and Fischer are the only MU players taller than 6’6”, Wojciechowski has had to rely on a smaller lineup this season. JaJuan Johnson has played well as the ‘4’, and since the team has shot well, it hasn’t mattered that both MU’s offensive and defensive rebounding percentages are nonexistent. However, if the team hits a drought, that lack of any legitimate interior scoring option could be an issue.
What we learned: Both Isaiah Zierden and Toby Hegner benefitted from their redshirts. The loss of Doug McDermott, Ethan Wragge, and Grant Gibbs meant a wealth of available minutes, and more importantly, field goal attempts, and both Zierden and Hegner have admirably tried to fill that void. Zierden’s freshman year was solid until a knee injury sidelined him for the Big East and NCAA tournaments, and the 6’2” guard, whose shoots with a slight hesitation and then follows through as if throwing a medicine ball at the basket, has developed into a consistent long-range threat. Hegner doesn’t have the Wragge’s accuracy, but the big follows a long line of Greg McDermott-coached stretch 4s, and made 35% of his threes in December.
Question for Big East play: The Bluejays have lost four games this season, and in each contest, the defense has been a bit off. That was fine last year when Creighton could score 50 points in the first half and it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Creighton doesn’t have that offensive luxury in 2015, and the squad will need to be stout defensively to climb the Big East rankings. For the first time ever, the team is actually generating turnovers — which, for a McDermott team, is significant — but Creighton’s halfcourt effective field goal percentage, according to Hoop-Math.com, was the Big East’s second highest during non-conference play.
What we learned: Defense continues to be a problem. When DePaul held Stanford to just under one point per possession, it appeared that Oliver Purnell’s team had finally figured out their defensive bugbears. Purnell was hired from Clemson to install his turnover-creating, panic-inducing defense in Chicago, but since taking the job in 2010, Purnell had led the Blue Demons to four straight sub-.500 records. But that would change following the Stanford victory, which was a tenure-defining win.
Not shockingly, DePaul spiraled: the squad is in the midst of a six-game losing streak, and each opponent has topped 1 PPP. Oregon State and Ohio both scored over 1.30 PPP in their wins. “Clearly inconsistency is a key now,” said Purnell during the recent teleconference. “You’re in the Big East, the competition level has stepped up, and we have to put 40 minute stretches together.”
Question for Big East play: DePaul has the offensive tools to be successful, but when the team is just woeful on the other side of the ball, is there any way the Blue Demons can compete? At a certain point, a breaking point is reached. Purnell has brought talent to the school, and there are clear signs of progression, from Tommy Hamilton IV to Myke Henry and Jamee Crockett, but DePaul needs to escape this five-year defensive quagmire.
Matt Giles covers the Big East conference, and other conferences, for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @HudsonGiles.