Tempo-Free Big East: Jan. 22 Edition

Is parity good for the Big East?

This is a question being raised across the conference following Georgetown’s beat-down of Villanova Monday night. Three teams have two losses, and six squads – the glut of the league – have efficiency margins separated by .04 points per possession. Just like last year, the inability to provide any separation within the standings could prove a detriment to the Big East.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsSome will counter the league’s depth, combined with a strong RPI and a robust non-conference schedule, will ensure multiple teams entry to the NCAA tournament, but for Creighton, St. John’s, Xavier, and Marquette — a.k.a. the teams that lost to DePaul — parity could be the difference between crossing the bubble’s border or settling for an NIT appearance. Here are several thoughts from the Big East’s third week of play: The evolution of Georgetown’s offense. Before scoring 1.19 points per possession in their twenty-point victory over Villanova, Georgetown’s two worst offensive performances came against teams that are heavily dependent on a 2-3 zone. The Hoyas scored 1.06 and .86 PPP against Marquette and Providence, respectively, and to the rest of the league, using a 2-3 appeared to be the easiest way to sputter John Thompson III’s offense. The problem when Hoyas face a zone this season is two-fold: the team lacks athleticism, and doesn’t have many players skilled enough to force a defensive reaction with dribble-drives. There are two Hoyas who possess both qualities – L.J. Peak and Jabril Trawick – and while both use the third and fourth highest percentage of shot attempts, they need more shots. JTIII got the message, because against Butler and Nova, the duo attempted roughly a quarter of their shots at the rim. And when Peak and Trawick didn’t convert at the bucket, those interior drives created perimeter openings for D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and other Hoyas. Trawick has finally figured out that he must be more than an uber-athlete for Georgetown to contend for the Big East title, and while his three-point shooting will likely regress as the season continues, his offense is now a fine-tuned mix of in-control drives and outside shots. Peak needs to stop taking threes – he is making 7% of those attempts in Big East play – and concentrate on refining his skill-set, which is already perfectly suited to get past his man or break through a closing zone and then either finish or make the correct pass. Those two wins were among Georgetown’s best shooting performances this season, and if Peak and Trawick continue to be aggressive in their halfcourt offense, the Hoyas become a much more balanced team. This offensive spurt has also coincided with Isaac Copeland’s emergence. A freshman making a later-than-expected-but-wholly-appreciated impact, Copeland is the epitome of a JTIII forward – at 6’9”, Copeland is a triple threat player who is just as comfortable beyond the arc as he is creating offense from the elbow or the paint. He possesses more offensive versatility than Mikael Hopkins – he is making 66% of his twos and can stretch the floor with his perimeter shooting — and he’s shown that he can scrap for defensive boards, grabbing nine defensive rebounds per 40 minutes in Georgetown’s past three games. These offensive improvements will be tested on Saturday, when the Hoyas play Marquette, a team that plays to all the Hoyas’ weaknesses (turnovers, foul shooting). Roosevelt Jones has the Big East’s most unique shot selection. Butler junior Roosevelt Jones has the country’s most unique game. The guard’s body would appear to better suited to football or club rugby, but on the basketball court, that same body type underscores the speed and agility Jones consistently uses to get past defenders. But he just can’t shoot. It’s not that he won’t, preferring to assist a Kellen Dunham three – his game is nonexistent out of the paint. Jones has taken three jump shots this season. Let that sink in: three attempts where his left hand cradles the ball before – as if getting a cookie from that jar – flicking the right hand. Rather, Jones is converting 45% of his twos through a myriad of push shots, floaters, and other manipulations that combine body speed, arm strength, and wrist suppleness, all of which occur in the paint or at the rim. Although opponents know what Jones will do the moment he crosses the half court, he is nearly impossible to guard, and he is an underlying reason for Butler’s offensive efficiency in conference play. St. John’s and Marquette, a contrast of zones. St. John’s defeated Marquette Wednesday night, and the game provided an interesting case study in zone defense. SJU’s defensive efficiency improved over the course of the past week – 1.21 PPP to 1.11 – but the Johnnies are still mired in a defensive malaise. SJU’s zone defense isn’t effective, but coach Steve Lavin has to use the match-up 2-3 zone because of the team’s lack of depth, which is further undercut by the squad’s hacking tendencies (defensive free throw rate of 40%, second to last in the Big East). The Red Storm have used a zone for more than a quarter of their defensive possessions, and the team has been skewered by gaps and late rotations, particularly on the perimeter – Villanova and DePaul, who rank first and third, respectively, in three-point field goal attempts percentage, made nearly a combined 40% of those long-range shots in their wins over SJU. Marquette is similarly required to use zone – only Butler and the Red Storm use their bench less than the Golden Eagles – but in his first season as head coach, Steve Wojciechowski has crafted one of the nation’s stingiest zone defenses. Only four other high-major teams, including Syracuse and Louisville, use zone more than Marquette and have a lower defensive efficiency rate. Wojciechowski blends a 2-3 with a 1-3-1 to create pandemonium, whether through generating turnovers (21.8%) or forcing teams to take a high number of inefficient and harried twos (37.5%, per Hoop-Math.com). Despite having just one Golden Eagle taller than 6’8” (Luke Fischer), Marquette’s defensive efficiency rate leads the conference. Creighton might be unlucky, but their defense hasn’t helped. Creighton is the Big East’s unluckiest team. Of Creighton’s seven Big East losses, four have been within single digits, and two – Seton Hall and Marquette – were the result of game-winners. But before the Bluejays’ luck changes, the defense needs to improve.

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During their most recent loss, to Butler, transfer Ricky Kreklow had a Gordon Haywardd-esque look at a long three that would have tied the game, but the ball bounced softly off the backboard and then rim. Again, a game in which Creighton faltered.

Further complicating what has been a frustrating season, redshirt sophomore Isaiah Zierden missed most of Wednesday’s game with a right knee injury, and while he will be re-evaluated, coach Greg McDermott’s somber update on Zierden’s status wasn’t promising. Zierden isn’t a defensive stopper — his asset is being a consistent, knock-down three-point threat — but he is still a Bluejay who has been through up to three years of practice and game experience with McDermott and is well-versed in his defensive role.

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In prior seasons under McDermott, Creighton would offset their lack of forcing turnovers by crashing the defensive glass and limiting opponents’ additional possessions. They aren’t this year – the team is grabbing less than a third of teams’ misses, sixth in the Big East – and opposing squads are feasting on those high efficiency shots.

Adding to their defensive woes is their tempo. Creighton is using roughly 61 possessions a game, and when a team plays that deliberately, that squad needs to completely control the any and all missed shots.

Matt Giles covers the Big East and other conferences for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Matt on Twitter @HudsonGiles.

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