Midway through January, the Big East conference appears handily within Villanova’s grasp. The Wildcats’ efficiency margin is approaching +.20, and no other team — at the moment — has been able to slow Jay Wright’s shooters who, strangely, aren’t torching the nets like past Wright-coached squads.
The team is only making 32 percent of their threes in Big East play, but are much more adept spreading the defense in the halfcourt and finishing not only at the rim – per Hoop-Math.com, both Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono have considerably upped both their percentage of attempts around the basket and makes — and late in the shot clock. Only four other Big East teams post a better effective field goal percentage 25 seconds into the shot clock than VU.
Here are a few thoughts on other, non-Nova teams entering this week of Big East action.
Providence’s slump. Ben Simmons might not be the only one-time player of the year and preseason All-American candidate to play in the NCAA tournament this season. Despite a top 25 AP ranking and Kris Dunn spending just a few minutes per game on the bench, Providence is in the midst of an offensive freefall.
During the Friars’ loss to Seton Hall over the weekend, Ed Cooley’s squad endured several scoring droughts, including one that lasted nearly four minutes late in the second half while Dunn languished on the bench after picking up a fourth foul. The last three games have not been kind to PC’s Big East offensive efficiency, which was an abysmal 0.88 PPP through the stretch (after which Providence fell to 3-2 in conference play).
There are a few issues dogging the squad. One is an inability to get to the free throw line — the team’s free throw rate was just 36%, and opponents have been able to better key on Dunn and Ben Bentil, as the other Friars struggle to convert Dunn’s passes.
Coupled with the team’s sudden lack of perimeter shooting — 19% from beyond the arc in this same three-game stretch — and defenses are packing the interior with the forethought that unless PC finishes through a myriad of arms at the rim, there is little damage the squad can do from deep. Cooley has attempted to play Dunn off the ball to start PC’s possessions, perhaps as a way to encourage ball movement or spring a Friar free when the defense’s attention keys on the junior point guard, but PC will need to fix its offense before the Big East slate gets too deep.
The cold-heartedness of Xavier’s zone. The Musketeers don’t run much zone defense — the team is still predominantly man, and less than a third of their defensive possessions are zone — but the squad has increasingly begun to utilize on a 1-3-1 zone that can completely take opponents out of their offensive flow.
Consider Marquette this past Saturday. Following a made three-point by Henry Ellenson that extended Marquette’s lead to nine (15-6), the Musketeers unleashed the 1-3-1, which is adept at forcing turnovers while also rebounding out of it (Mack bucks the grain and uses either James Farr or Jalen Reynolds along the baseline, which helps ease the burden on the boards).
Over the course of Marquette’s next 26 possessions to finish the first half, the Golden Eagles scored a dismal 0.50 PPP. Mack was asked about Xavier’s success with the zone defense during Thursday’s Big East conference call, and attributed its disruptive capabilities to the defense’s fly-by-the-seat attitude, “I told them that I don’t have all the answers and don’t look at me when something happens every time down the floor. I’ll give you the answers in man-to-man but I’m not always going to give it to you in zone. And so they’ve played with their hair on fire, and I think because of that, it’s been pretty successful.”
Underwhelming Georgetown. After recruiting success the last two classes, and the return of D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, it is only natural to expect the Hoyas atop the Big East and potentially ranked. But that isn’t the case. The team scored a meager 0.83 PPP in a loss to Villanova, and even with a 4-2 Big East record, Georgetown still feels saddled with mediocrity.
Is that fair, though? John Thompson III has guided the team to five of the last six NCAA tournaments, but with this much talent returning, and the outlook for a sixth NCAA tournament further out of sight, one would expect the Hoyas to be much further along.