Dancing with the Conferences: Big East Edition

By: ANDREW HORN

It may not be the Big East that ruled college basketball a couple of years ago, but the new Big East is back to playing good basketball. The conference went through a major realignment after the 2013 athletic season, with only seven members staying behind. It appears it only took the Big East two seasons to find its form as one of the premier basketball conferences. With three teams currently ranked in the top 25 and three others that have spent time in the rankings at some point, the Big East is quickly becoming a nightmare for coaches in the NCAA tournament.

Villanova had the conference wrapped up by the beginning of February, only losing two games the entire season. The rest of the conference have been playing “hot potato” for the second spot, with Georgetown currently holding that spot heading into the conference tournament. With six teams sitting pretty securely in the tournament, the Big East is now fighting for seeding rather than seeds. Big East teams are dangerous come March, with 15 combined Final Four appearances. These six teams are looking to add at least one more number to that total.

#4 Villanova:

  • Record: 29-2
  • RPI: 4
  • BPI: 6
  • Strength of Schedule: 48
  • Last Appearance: 2014, 2-seed, Second Round loss to eventual champion UConn
  • Projection: Elite Eight
Courtesy of Eric Hartline / USA TODAY Sports
Courtesy of Eric Hartline / USA TODAY Sports

This Villanova team is the best team Jay Wright has assembled since the days of Scottie Reynolds. Like all the Villanova teams of recent memory, this team lacks any sort of size inside and relies on the 3-point shot in order to win games. This normally leads to a team being very streaky, especially around March. What makes Villanova special is their ability to make shots. As simple as it sounds, making shots is the easiest way to win a basketball game. The Wildcats shoot the ball at just under 47 percent on the season, ranking them top-50 in the nation. If a team is making shots, they will be hard to beat come March.

Villanova’s biggest weakness is without a doubt their size. With the style of basketball that Jay Wright plays, the Wildcats don’t need a Kentucky-sized frontline. The problem arises when Villanova will inevitably play an opponent who has more than one player taller than 6’9”. The Wildcats have adjusted to this during the season; however the new Big East doesn’t show the kind of inside players like it did before the realignment. Villanova may be good for the first few rounds, but once the real competitors step up, Villanova could find itself in a real battle.

#23 Georgetown:

  • Record: 20-9
  • RPI: 21
  • BPI: 21
  • Strength of Schedule: 5
  • Last Appearance: 2013, 2-seed, First Round Loss to 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast
  • Projection: First Round
Courtesy of Alex Brandon/AP Photo
Courtesy of Alex Brandon/AP Photo

Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Roy Hibbert are all centers who have led the Hoyas to tournament success. Can UCLA transfer Josh Smith do the same? He is going to have to if the Hoyas want any shot of getting out of the first round.

The Hoyas entered conference play with a respectable 8-3 mark, including a win over Indiana. Georgetown then went 12-6 in the conference. Josh Smith is the biggest body that Georgetown has on the roster. He is capable of scoring against top level schools, like when Smith scored 20 against Kansas in a five-point loss. Smith is also capable of putting up dud performances and getting into foul trouble. In the February 7 loss to Villanova, Smith scored just seven points and had 2 rebounds. His success on the inside is half of Georgetown’s equation for success. The Hoyas rely on guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera to score on the outside. Smith-Rivera leads the Hoyas at 16 points a game, but is still a very streaky shooter. In games where Smith-Rivera has taken at least 10 shots, he has ranged anywhere from 27 percent shooting to 61 percent shooting.

Coach John Thompson III has talent on the roster and has had success in the past, but the Hoyas have failed to reach the Sweet Sixteen in the last five NCAA tournaments. Looking to break get into the second round should be Georgetown’s first step to redemption.

#22 Butler

  • Record: 22-9
  • RPI: 22
  • BPI: 23
  • Strength of Schedule:25
  • Last Appearance: 2013 (as a member of the Horizon League), 6-seed, Second Round Loss to 3-seed Marquette
  • Projection: Sweet Sixteen
Courtesy of Michael Hickey/Getty Images
Courtesy of Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Remember back to when Butler was in back-to-back championship games. See Gordon Hayward’s shot just rim out from behind half court. Don’t forget the game against UConn in 2011 where the teams shot a combined 26 percent from the floor. This is a school that lives for March. In the last six tournaments that Butler has been a part of, the Bulldogs have 14 wins. This is why Butler has the possibility of finding themselves in the Sweet Sixteen.

Many of those players and coaches from the “glory days” have since departed, but the spirit of the Bulldogs persists. Butler, like Villanova, lacks size inside to play a real inside game. Unlike Villanova, Butler does not rely as heavily on the 3-pointer. Butler has attempted over 200 fewer 3-pointers than Villanova. So how does Butler score? When you only allow 61 points per game, scoring clearly isn’t the first priority. Guard Kellen Dunham leads the team at 16.6 points per game, with Roosevelt Jones adding 13 per game. Butler will be without one of their bigger players, Andrew Chrabascz for a little longer due to a broken hand. Even without players in the rotation, Butler always seems to find a way to survive and advance. Ask the ’83 NC State team how that mentality worked.

Providence

  • Record: 21-10
  • RPI: 23
  • BPI: 38
  • Strength of Schedule: 8
  • Last Appearance: 2014, 11-seed, First Round loss to 6-seed North Carolina
  • Projection: Sweet Sixteen
Courtesy of  Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY Sports
Courtesy of Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY Sports

One of the surprises of the 2015 tournament will be the advancement of Providence. Coach Ed Cooley has had this team player exceptionally well since mid-December, even spending a couple of different weeks ranked in the top-25. While the Friars aren’t ready to sustain a top-25 ranking, the Friars are ready to shake up the landscape of college basketball.

Providence has a tremendous mix of young and experienced players, as well as dynamic guards with solid inside players. The guards, LaDontae Henton and Kris Dunn are the leading scorer and assist man in the Big East respectively. Henton, who averages 20 points per game, is the team’s volume shooter, averaging more than 15 shots per game. Taking 15 shots a game is usually a great way to get a player sitting next to the coach, unless that person is like Denton and makes nearly 46 percent of his shots. Henton’s counterpart, Kris Dunn, averages more than seven assists per game, leading the conference by more than one per game. The two guards are also minute eaters for Coach Cooley. Providence does have more depth than Henton and Dunn.

On the inside, the Friars have Carson Desrosiers and Paschal Chukwu. Desrosiers and Chukwu are the Friars’ primary rim protectors. Desrosiers is second in the conference in blocks, averaging 2.5 per game. Chukwu is second on the Friars team in blocked shots. The ability to protect the rim at one end and drive to the rim at the other will be Providence’s key to success.

St. John’s:

  • Record: 21-10
  • RPI: 31
  • BPI: 44
  • Strength of Schedule:28
  • Last Appearance: 2011, 6-seed, First Round loss to 11-seed Gonzaga
  • Projection: Second Round
Courtesy of USA Today
Courtesy of USA Today

 

St. John’s has come storming back into the NCAA picture after an abysmal 3-6 start to the conference season. Led by D’Angelo Harrison’s 17.8 points per game, St. John’s won seven of its last nine games, taking the team from the Big Apple to the Big Dance. Harrison is not the only reason St John’s was able to turn its season around. The Red Storm has three other players that average in double figure scoring, including Big East Defensive Player of the Year Sir’Dominic Pointer. The 6’6” senior guard averages 13.7 points per game, along with 2.5 blocks, two steals and shoots 52.6 percent from the field. The Red Storm has also relied on Chris Obekpa to anchor the frontcourt defense. With three blocks a game, Obekpa has become one of the most feared rim protectors in the country.

St John’s will only go as far as D’Angelo Harrison will take them. In the last four losses, Harrison has fouled out of two games and shot 4-15 against Creighton. Coach Lavin will have his hands full in the first round. St. John’s is projected to be an 8-seed. Even if the Red Storm wins its first round game, a 1-seed will await them in the second round.

Xavier:

  • Record: 19-12
  • RPI: 36
  • BPI: 30
  • Strength of Schedule: 22
  • Last Appearance: 2014, 12-seed, Lost play-in game to NC State
  • Projection: First Round
Courtesy of Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America
Courtesy of Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America

 

Every conference has one team that puzzles you how they do what they do. The Big East has Xavier. The Musketeers team is 30th in the nation with 74.7 points per game. Despite the high ranking, Xavier has no player that averages more than 12 points per game. Guard Dee Davis leads the team in assists, averaging six per game. The Musketeers are sixth in the nation with 17 assists per game. This is a team that can pass from all five positions on the floor, which is a huge advantage for a team that can shoot from behind the arc. The only problem is that Xavier only shoots 35 percent as a team behind the 3-point line. For how successful Xavier is, there is very little conventional about the way the Musketeers operate. This can be a big problem for other teams come March. The team that gets the unfortunate pleasure of playing Xavier in the first round will have to be able to make adjustments during the game, something Xavier also has to do in order to be successful.

*Note: All numbers used in this article were as of 3/10/2015