Since the Big East season is now two weeks old, it felt right to unveil this season’s first tempo-free analysis of the nation’s third-toughest conference.
Plus, there is a much larger sample size to breakdown and sift through.
Similarly to the 2014 season, there is one team – Villanova – well ahead of the other nine teams, who so far are muddled in a field of disappointing defenses. Only two squads – ‘Nova and Marquette – are holding opponents under one point per Big East possession, and those efficiency margins of the remaining eight teams are skewed: while they possess efficient offenses, they just can’t stop the other teams from scoring.
A few teams have the potential, and time, to right those struggling defenses. Butler has shown the ability to lock down an opponent’s perimeter, as evidenced by its second half versus Seton Hall, and coach Chris Holtmann has mentioned defensive rebounding percentage was a priority in 2015, saying in this week’s conference call, “We finished eighth in defensive rebounding percentage last year, and we felt for us to be a decent to good defensive team, that was a number that had to be corrected, so it was our major focus this offseason.”
St. John’s rode their turnover-reaping zone to a top 25 ranking, but before Wednesday’s win against Providence, the Johnnies were being eviscerated to the tune of 1.26 points per possession, generating a turnover on a scant 16% of their defensive possessions. However, SJU is the conference’s most experienced squad, so there is a fair possibility the Red Storm rekindles their spark.
Here are several other takeaways from the first two weeks of Big East play:
1. Daniel Ochefu is the key to Villanova’s offense.
We’ve mentioned previously that Ochefu, the 6’11” junior, is the Big East’s most improved player, but the big’s enhanced offensive role has helped fuel ‘Nova’s impressive efficiency rate. Ochefu has roughly the same assist rate as his sophomore season, but he is doing a much better job finding Wildcats in prime position to take advantage of that pass and score. VU was scoring just 0.88 points per post-up pass in 2014, a rate that has risen to 1.14 this season.
One aspect that has improved is Ochefu’s improved ability to make the cross-court pass from the block, which not creates an open perimeter look, it shifts the defensive for a Wildcat to slash to the rim, or cut and then pass back for a three.
It helps that Ochefu has become a more aggressive scorer in the halfcourt – he is taking nearly 20% of the team’s attempts – and is converting 65% of his twos, and it is because Ochefu has improved his post offense that defenses are so susceptible to his pinpoint looks.
2. Don’t forget about Phil Greene IV.
Much of the attention lavished on St. John’s this season has focused on either D’Angelo Harrison or Sir’Dominic Pointer (or negatively on Rysheed Jordan). But Greene, a fellow senior guard, is in the midst of a standout final season. His shooting percentages may be down from his junior year, but the 6’2” Greene catapulted the Red Storm to victories over Syracuse (18 points) and, most recently, versus Providence – Greene took over the game in the final four minutes, converting two crucial open court layups when the Friars made a last-ditch run.
Greene also made five of his eight three-point field goals, proving that for at least one game, the Johnnies’ lack of depth was overrated.
St. John’s offense is ranked second most efficient in league play, and when SJU makes roughly 60% of their threes (as they did in the PC win), it will boost that rate, but as we previously mentioned, it remains to be seen whether that defense can revert back to non-conference form.
3. Concerns surfacing at Seton Hall.
For the first week of Big East action, Seton Hall was the league’s darling. However, drops of doubt regarding the Pirates’ play are beginning to expand into puddles.
There isn’t a team using fewer possessions than Seton Hall in 2015 – including overtime, the Hall is using roughly 63 possessions, but take away that extra ten minutes and those possessions drop to 60. The squad doesn’t technically grind out their offensive sets – Kevin Willard wants his team to run, and therein lies their dilemma. Though SHU has scored more than a point per possession during the last three games, all of those opposing defenses – Xavier, Creighton, and Butler – were focused on stopping both the Hall’s transition opportunities and, specifically, its three-point shooting on the break.
For the season, SHU is converting 38% of its transition threes, per Hoop-Math.com, but in those three games, a stretch where SHU went 1-2, the team made just 30% of those attempts. Since Sterling Gibbs and Khadeen Carrington are arguably the only two Pirates capable of consistently creating their own shots, this inability to connect on quick threes has a domino effect on the rest of the Pirates’ offensive efficiency.
4. Trevon Bluiett picked the wrong time to slump.
According to Pomeroy, only seven other teams have a better offensive efficiency rating nationally than Xavier. While the team is still scoring at an impressive clip, second in the Big East, the team’s offense is noticeably off.
First is Trevon Bluiett’s slump. The freshman was electrifying during non-conference play, showcasing an accurate touch from long-range, one that was complemented by an aggressiveness within the arc. However, during the initial five Big East games, Bluiett is making just 22% of his threes. He hasn’t let this stumble affect his overall play – his is still attacking the basket and has made 46% of his twos, but Bluiett’s ability to stretch the defense created more interior gaps for Xavier’s frontcourt-dominated offense.
Speaking of XU’s interior production, Matt Stainbrook receded from the team’s production at the same time of Bluiett’s slump. The big took just 11 shots in games against Georgetown, DePaul, and Seton Hall, preferring to facilitate the team’s offense several feet from the block. Possibly due to some imploring from Chris Mack, Stainbrook has reverted back to the team’s top offensive option, attempting 20 shots the past two games and connecting on 75% of his twos.
5. Is DePaul for real?
It’s impossible to judge this DePaul squad. The same team that defeated Stanford and Xavier allowed a combined 1.24 ppp in losses to Villanova and Georgetown.
Oliver Purnell has decided to employ a five-out offensive strategy, one that emphasizes the team’s enhanced three-point shooting and augmented perimeter mismatches, and it worked until the Blue Demons faced the superior offenses of Georgetown and specifically Villanova. Then the team’s defensive weaknesses went from semi-hidden to full-on glaring, and DePaul wasn’t able to force turnovers as easily as it had during those three victories – their turnover rate dropped from 20% to 16% and the squad’s defensive free throw rate skyrocketed (49%).
DePaul’s schedule is particularly difficult in mid-to-late January. The team faces St. John’s on home and then takes to the road for three straight games, creating a distinct feeling of unease about this squad that will likely continue throughout the rest of Big East play.
Matt Giles covers the Big East, and other conferences, for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Matt on Twitter at @HudsonGiles.