Welcome to the end of December, or, if you prefer to think of it this way, the beginning of Big East men’s basketball conference play!
This will be our yearly run through the league to see what everyone has been up to so far this season, and I do have to make a disclaimer at this time. Because of scheduling conflicts beyond the control of Anonymous Eagle or SB Nation, non-conference play in the Big East has not concluded at this time, or at least not at the point at which I’m writing this. However, due to said scheduling conflicts, it would be impossible to publish this article in the window between non-conference and conference play. Why? Well, the scheduling conflicts aren’t on my part, they’re on the Big East’s part. On Saturday morning, Georgetown hosts Howard at 11am Central. Big East play starts with Xavier and DePaul at 1pm Central. Now, with both of those games set for FS1, I’m not going to hurry and jam this thing up on the website in the 10 minutes between the two games. That would be dumb and irresponsible, and if you’re a regular reader of this website, the fact that I’m actually saying it would be dumb and irresponsible lets you know exactly how dumb and irresponsible it would be.
So, you’re getting this now, before Creighton and UMKC restart action in the conference after Christmas. Hooray.
As we go through the rundown in alphabetical order here, you’ll see an info dump for each team. KenPom.com rank, KenPom tempo rank, NET rank, stats leaders, and then the best win and worst loss for each team as determined by the KenPom rankings. Well, technically only a worst loss for nine of the 10 teams. Thanks for nothing, St. John’s, and I absolutely mean “nothing.” We’ll get into that. The tempo rank is in there because it’s almost assuredly going to come up one way or another in a lot of these because slow basketball is the worrrrrrrrrst, so we may as well get to it right at the top.
We’re using the KenPom rankings from first thing Christmas Eve morning, so if there’s some mild changes between then and when you read this, there’s your explanation. It’s not like the numbers will jump around by 10 or 15 spots since there are only five games between now and December 29th and that includes the Creighton game on the 28th, so whatever ranks we have recorded here are fairly representative (and Fairleigh Dickinson) of the teams and their wins or losses. Same thing goes for the NET, as we’re using the calculations through the end of all games on December 23rd.
Below the info dump is a brief or maybe sometimes not so brief discussion of each team and their trials and tribulations through the first dozen or so games of the season. Some of them will be longer than others, and I will almost guarantee that the Marquette one will be the shortest one of them all. This is a Marquette blog and I’m writing for a Marquette fan audience. If you want lots of discussion of the Golden Eagles, you’re literally staring at an archive of information, so knock yourself out as needed.
Enough preamble. That’s enough words for a blog post all by itself and we’ve got 10 teams to get through.
Butler Bulldogs (9-3)
KenPom Rank: #29
KenPom Tempo Rank: #320
NET Rank: #39
Points Leader: Kamar Baldwin, 16.2 ppg
Rebounds Leader: Kamar Baldwin, 5.3 rpg
Assists Leader: Aaron Thompson, 4.8 apg
Best Win: vs #27 Florida on a neutral floor, 61-54
Worst Loss: at #94 Saint Louis, 64-52
Year Two of the LaVall Jordan Era is underway and so far, the Bulldogs have mostly weathered the loss of Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman. They had a couple of stumbles to Dayton and Saint Louis, both teams expected to contend in the Atlantic 10 this season and both away from home, as well as a Crossroads Classic loss to Indiana. That one was only by three points, and we’re not going to make fun of anyone for losing to Indiana by three, are we, Marquette fans?
Kamar Baldwin is carrying a fairly heavy load for this team, as Aaron Thompson is just barely beating him out for that assists lead right now. They’re very efficient on both sides of the ball, which is something you’re going to have to do if you’re going to play as slowly as Jordan has them going. Playing slowly is something that does apply to The Butler Way, so perhaps that’s just something we will have to expect from them over the years.
Keep your eyes on Butler as Big East play gets started. Marquette doesn’t play them until January 30th at Hinkle Fieldhouse, and the Bulldogs appear to have established themselves as a contender for the conference title this year next to MU and Villanova.
Creighton Bluejays (8-4)
KenPom Rank: #39
KenPom Tempo Rank: #69
NET Rank: #53
Points Leader: Ty-Shon Alexander, 17.1 ppg
Rebounds Leader: Damien Jefferson, 5.8 rpg
Assists Leader: Mitch Ballock, 3.4 apg
Best Win: vs #37 Clemson on a neutral floor, 87-82
Worst Loss: at #25 Oklahoma, 83-70
With Marcus Foster, Khyri Thomas, and Toby Hegner out the door after the end of last season, I don’t think anyone expected a particularly great season out of Creighton this year. And yet... they’re 8-4 with four completely understandable losses and a neutral court win over a quality Clemson squad. It’s not setting the world on fire, and maybe they’re not perfectly aimed at an NCAA tournament berth, but it’s clear that they’re going to cause some problems for people. If that wasn’t obvious to you, look no further than their home date against Gonzaga where the Jays had a 73-72 lead with 11 minutes and change to play. If they can run with the Zags, they can run with anyone.
Perhaps the oddest thing about how they’re doing what they’re doing is the fact that it’s happening without Jacob Epperson. The 6’11” Aussie burned his redshirt 10 games into Big East play last season and ended up averaging six points and three rebounds in still limited action, but he looked like he could be a major player if given more of a run. That hasn’t happened this year as he’s rarely cracked 10 minutes a game when he does play and has missed CU’s last two games. Martin Krampelj has been used somewhat sparingly as well as he works his way back from a knee injury that ended last season for him, and Samson Froling hasn’t seen much action over the last six games either, not counting the glorified exhibition against Coe the other day. In the past, we’ve seen Greg McDermott get a lot of milage out of big dudes who can shoot it from anywhere, but so far this season, there’s somewhat of a vacancy in terms of big guys on the floor for him. It’s a different look for the Jays, and we’ll see if it works for them in league play.
DePaul Blue Demons (8-3)
KenPom Rank: #108
KenPom Tempo Rank: #109
NET Rank: #108
Points Leader: Max Strus, 19.7 ppg
Rebounds Leader: Max Strus, 8.1 rpg
Assists Leader: Eli Cain, 4.7 apg
Best Win: vs #46 Penn State, 72-70 (OT)
Worst Loss: vs #92 Boston College, 65-62
I tell you what, kids: I have had it straight up to my eyeballs with Max Strus. Hooray for him for leading DePaul in points and rebounds, particularly on the points. He’s shooting a robust 35% from three-point land this year after being barely passable at 33% a year ago. Oh, what’s that you say? In the three games against what KenPom.com considers top 100 opponents, he’s shooting just 20% and in two top 50 games it’s all the way down to 16%?
I hope whatever Big East coach and/or coaches voted him onto the preseason all-league team feel very bad about themselves right now.
Anyway, DePaul looked like they might not be very DePaul this season when they pulled out a 72-70 home game against Penn State in the Gavitt Games. And then they followed that up with getting absolutely smashed by a not particularly great Notre Dame team. They also lost to a middling Northwestern squad and they wrapped up non-conference action by blowing a 60-57 lead with 1:50 to go and a 60-59 lead with 45 seconds to go against a Boston College team that’s expected to finish at the bottom of the ACC this season. At home. After leading by 12 late in the first half.
That is peak DePaul, just in time for them to get kicked around by the Big East.
Georgetown Hoyas (9-3)
KenPom Rank: #113
KenPom Tempo Rank: #15
NET Rank: #130
Points Leader: Jessie Govan, 17.9 ppg
Rebounds Leader: Josh LeBlanc, 7.8 rpg
Assists Leader: James Akinjo, 4.7 apg
Best Win: at #105 Illinois, 88-80
Worst Loss: vs #123 Loyola Marymount on a neutral floor, 65-52
Well. What to say about how Year Two for Patrick Ewing has gone so far?
Okay, let’s start here: Ewing seems to have set himself up for future success pretty well given the play of his freshman class of James Akinjo, Mac McClung, and Josh LeBlanc. All three are playing significant minutes for the Hoyas, and they’re the three next best scorers on the team following Jessie Govan. LeBlanc is leading the team in rebounding (just barely over Govan) and he’s only playing about 54% of the time and has only started once this season. That’s an incredible workrate, and good for the 6’7” Louisiana native.
As you can see from Georgetown’s best win and worst loss, maaaaaaaybe things aren’t going as well as that 9-3 record indicates. They’ve lost their two best games this season in a road trip to Syracuse and a home date against SMU, and they barely escaped from a road date against a shorthanded bad Illinois team with a win. That’s without even getting into the fact that they got flat out clonked in the head by Loyola Marymount out in Jamaica. You’d think that the team that would struggle with playing a game out in the Caribbean would be the team from California, but nope! The Hoyas shot 16% from long range and couldn’t grab a rebound to save their lives while blowing a 26-21 halftime lead against a middle of the pack WCC team.
Last year Georgetown came into Big East play with a 10-1 record against a nothing schedule and went 5-13. This year? 9-3 against a barely better schedule with one more non-con game coming on Saturday. Their KenPom projection? Fighting with DePaul for last place in the league. We’ll see what happens.
Marquette Golden Eagles (10-2)
KenPom Rank: #30
KenPom Tempo Rank: #119
NET Rank: #13
Points Leader: Markus Howard, 25.0 ppg
Rebounds Leader: Sam Hauser, 6.7 rpg
Assists Leader: Markus Howard, 4.5 apg
Best Win: vs #12 Wisconsin, 74-69 (OT)
Worst Loss: at #22 Indiana, 96-73
What if I told you that KenPom’s game-by-game prediction for Marquette in league play is 15-3? What if I told you that Markus Howard is #8 in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings? What if I told you that one of Howard’s junior year comps is Jimmer Fredette? What if I told you that Theo John is #16 in the country in block rate?
What if I told you that Marquette should probably be considered the favorite to win the Big East regular season title right now?
Providence Friars (10-3)
KenPom Rank: #60
KenPom Tempo Rank: #221
NET Rank: #69
Points Leader: Alpha Diallo, 17.4 ppg
Rebounds Leader: Alpha Diallo, 8.5 rpg
Assists Leader: Alpha Diallo, 3.4 apg
Best Win: at #36 Texas, 71-65
Worst Loss: vs #143 Massachusetts, 79-78
I’m never paying very close attention to things as the season goes along. I’m aware of big wins and losses for teams, but not so much the fine details. I’m explaining this as a way of telling you that I was shocked to find out that Alpha Diallo is leading the Friars in all three stat categories that we listed in the info dump.
Now, just to be clear, it’s just barely. He’s way ahead on points and rebounds, but the assists mark is followed quickly behind by David Duke (3.2) and Maliek White (3.0). But the shock involved is because the big aspect of Ed Cooley’s program is the constant stream of high quality point guard play.... and instead it’s the 6’7” forward slinging the ball around the court the most. Kyron Cartwright led the way with 5.8 helpers per game last year, and I presumed that Makai Ashton-Langford would be the heir apparent.
Instead, MAL spent the first six games of the year and nine of the first 10 not playing more than 12 minutes per game. Now, that has changed over the past three games, with Ashton-Langford playing 19 or more minutes and tallying 11 assists in those contests. While that’s great, the reason why he’s suddenly getting the PT is bad. That’s the injury to freshman phenom AJ Reeves, who will be out until late January.
This is all a lot of words to say that Providence is kind of all over the map this year in terms of 1) what we expect from an Ed Cooley team and 2) what we expected from the roster that he assembled for this season. Their losses to Wichita State and UMass aren’t good at all, but the road win over Texas in their last non-conference game of the year is going to be big for them all the way through March. Can they add to that? Can they match that kind of play the rest of the year? Can they keep doing that kind of thing after Reeves comes back?
St. John’s Red Storm (12-0)
KenPom Rank: #51
KenPom Tempo Rank: #36
NET Rank: #27
Points Leader: Shamorie Ponds, 19.6 ppg
Rebounds Leader: LJ Figueroa, 7.0 rpg
Assists Leader: Shamorie Ponds, 6.0 apg
Best Win: vs #74 VCU at Barclays Center, 87-86 (OT)
Hey, look, the world’s least interesting undefeated team.
I’m not just saying that to slander the Johnnies. Zip on over to KenPom and click on the L in W-L to sort by total number of losses. You get #2 Virginia, #4 Michigan, #8 Nevada, #35 Houston........ and #51 St. John’s. FIFTY-ONE. The Red Storm started the year at #40 heading into their game against Loyola-Maryland, and they dipped allllllllll the way down to #56 before bouncing back over their last two games. They have beaten no one this season, needing overtime in what was essentially a home game at Barclays Center for their best win of the season, and that is the only top 100 team that St. John’s has played all year. Yay.
Not only are they not playing anyone of note, they’re not playing well. That’s how you end up dropping like a stone in the KenPom rankings. You can win, but play inefficiently while getting that win, and that’s exactly what the Johnnies are doing. 84-80 against a Bowling Green team that figures to go under .500 in the MAC. 82-79 against an atrocious California team that’s projected to win just five games in a terrible Pac-12 this year. 76-73 against a Georgia Tech team ticketed to the bottom of the ACC. Yeah, they’re all wins. They’re useless wins when it comes to a postseason resume goes, and they’re not inspiring confidence in anyone.
One final note that makes all of this look like a Jenga tower that’s about 25 turns in. Four Red Storm players are averaging more than 30 minutes per game. Five average more than 28. Seven average more than 14. No one else has appeared in every game, and thus their minutes per game stats are suspect. Chris Mullin is heeeeeaaaaaaavily relying on seven guys to carry all of the water here, and it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens as the season continues to grind on and the games get much much much more difficult.
Seton Hall Pirates (9-3)
KenPom Rank: #55
KenPom Tempo Rank: #144
NET Rank: #59
Points Leader: Myles Powell, 23.1 ppg
Rebounds Leader: Sandro Mamukelashvili, 7.8 rpg
Assists Leader: Quincy McKnight, 3.0 apg
Best Win: vs #15 Kentucky on a neutral floor, 84-83 (OT)
Worst Loss: vs #94 Saint Louis, 66-64
It almost feels unfair to put that OT tag on the Pirates’ best win, as it took a prayer from Keldon Johnson to force the extra session in that game. But the prayer was answered, and to a certain extent, it actually makes the win more impressive since they had to absorb that gutpunch and still go win the game.
I said repeatedly last year that Kevin Willard may want to consider bouncing to a new job following the season. I figured that with the loss of the four seniors on the roster that it was going to be a long way back to the level of Seton Hall’s first appearance in the second round of the NCAA tournament since 2004. If you looked at the Pirates on the morning of November 18th, that thought was particularly valid. SHU was coming off a 66-64 home loss to Saint Louis, and while the Billikens might be a contender in the Atlantic 10, you’d think that a team like Seton Hall should still be able to beat them in their own barn. Didn’t happen, and that was just three days after getting cracked in the head by 23 by Nebraska in Lincoln.
But now.... wow. After suffering a home loss to Louisville, Seton Hall built on their Wooden Legacy championship by beating Kentucky at The Garden, taking care of business in a rivalry game against Rutgers, and then going to Maryland and taking down the Terrapins as they were on the verge of being ranked. I think Kevin Willard has a real team here that could knock off a team or two in the Big East if they don’t come in completely prepared for the Pirates and/or if Myles Powell gets crazy hot.
The wildest part about all of this for me is that Taurean Thompson is essentially a non-factor with 5.7 points and 2.0 rebounds in 13 minutes per game. He was a top 100 prospect when he headed to Syracuse and started every ACC game for the Orange in 2016-17. If you were talking to someone who was feeling positive about the Pirates in the summer, one of the reasons would have been because of Thompson becoming eligible to play. Even after a redshirt year on the bench, Willard isn’t doing much with him right now, but it’s working.
Villanova Wildcats (9-4)
KenPom Rank: #18
KenPom Tempo Rank: #345
NET Rank: #34
Points Leader: Phil Booth, 17.0 ppg
Rebounds Leader: Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, 7.6 rpg
Assists Leader: Phil Booth, 3.2 apg
Best Win: vs #16 Florida State on a neutral floor, 66-60
Worst Loss: vs #103 Furman, 76-68 (OT)
A minute ago, we spent some time talking about how Chris Mullin is deploying his roster rotation to this point of the season. It’s resulting in wins, so it’s hard to question him, but in Jay Wright’s case, it is not, and thus we have questions.
One of the reasons why people thought Villanova wouldn’t take a step back after losing four guys from a national championship team to the NBA Draft was because of the freshman class that Wright was bringing in. Except..... Jahvon Quinerly, Brandon Slater, and Cole Swider are all averaging fewer than 11 minutes per game, and Quinerly and Slater have only played in nine and seven of VU’s 13 games respectively. These very talented gentlemen can’t get on the floor for one reason or another, and it means that the Wildcats are having to rely heavily on guys who excelled as role players on last year’s title team.
Maybe Jay Wright gets it steered back in a good direction by the time March kicks around, but for right now, the Wildcats are a team that has losses to Furman and Penn sitting on their resume making us all wonder what they’re going to look like this season. Are they still the Big East favorite by predictive measures as is the case on KenPom? Or are they more like the team that ranks #3 in the Big East in terms of NET ranking right now? Or worse?
Xavier Musketeers (8-5)
KenPom Rank: #71
KenPom Tempo Rank: #254
NET Rank: #80
Points Leader: Quentin Goodin, 14.3 ppg
Rebounds Leader: Tyrique Jones, 7.8 rpg
Assists Leader: Quentin Goodin, 5.5 apg
Best Win: vs #105 Illinois on a neutral floor, 83-74
Worst Loss: vs #96 San Diego State on a neutral floor, 79-74
You can make the argument that Chris Mack is the most successful coach in Xavier history. All they did was hit all new heights under his guidance while moving from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East. Things were probably going to take a step backwards under the guidance of Travis Steele, even if Sean Miller was the one who actually hired Steele as an assistant.
So to a certain extent, what the Musketeers are currently experiencing was expected. To be clear, I don’t think that they are anything even resembling a bad team. However, you can’t ignore the fact that they’ve yet to beat a top 100 team this season, and if you dip past that trip-saving win over Illinois in Maui, they haven’t beaten any other top 150 teams. That’s most likely going to be a problem in the Big East, where Georgetown currently sits at #113 in KenPom. They have guys who know what it takes to compete in the Big East, and both Zach Hankins and Ryan Welage seem to be filling their one year transfer roles well so far.
One thing to keep an eye on as league play starts: Both Naji Marshall and Tyrique Jones missed their final non-conference game due to injury. It was a home date against an overmatched Detroit team and the X-Men handled that with ease even without the combined 23 points and 15 rebounds on average from Marshall and Jones. Xavier is already not favored to beat DePaul on Saturday, and KenPom projects XU to go 8-10 in Big East action. If Marshall and Jones are going to miss more time, then things could fall out from underneath Steele and his team pretty quickly.