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2019-20 Big East Men’s Basketball: Where Are We Now?

League play starts on Monday, so let’s see what’s been going on and take stock of everyone in the conference.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Creighton
We have to start taking Marcus Zegarowski seriously as a POY contender.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

With the exception of four games this coming Saturday and two more games for Villanova after the new year, non-conference play has come to an end in the Big East for men’s basketball. Everyone has played roughly a dozen games, give or take, and thus we’ve started to get a picture of what all 10 teams in the league are this season. As such, with a bit of open space on the schedule thanks to Christmas, we’re going to wander through the league and check in to see what everyone has been up to in 2019-20 so far.

For each team, you’ll see their name and record, followed by a bit of an information download for them: AP poll rank where applicable, KenPom.com ranking, BartTorvik.com ranking aka T-Rank, and NET ranking as of Monday, December 23, along with leaders in the three primary offensive categories of points, rebounds, and assists. Each stat will be marked with the ranking in the Big East as needed. After that, it’s each team’s best win and worst loss according to KenPom, again as of Monday morning. I was planning on using the NET but again, as of Monday morning, the NCAA’s RPI Archive is broken and I can’t see the team sheets. I’m not waiting around to see it get fixed, so we have to go in a different direction.

We’ll talk about whatever’s important and relevant for each team after that, and much like Fight Club, discussions will go on as long as they have to. You may want to go get a beverage now, because this won’t be short.

Alrighty then, let’s dive in, going in alphabetical order...

Butler Bulldogs (11-1)

AP Poll Ranking: #12
KenPom Ranking: #7
T-Rank Ranking: #9
NET Ranking: #3
Points Leader: Kamar Baldwin, 14.8 ppg (#13)
Rebounds Leader: Bryce Nze, 6.8 rpg (#8)
Assists Leader: Aaron Thompson, 5.8 apg (#2)
Best Win: vs #13 Purdue on a neutral floor, 70-61
Only Loss: at #9 Baylor, 53-52

So, that 8th place projection in the preseason coaches’ poll probably isn’t going to come in as accurate, huh? Outside of a five minute stretch in the early going against Baylor, the Bulldogs have made the case to be the favorite to win the league this season as we head into conference play. They have three KenPom top 50 wins, and if you extend that to top 60, that number goes up to five, and three of them were away from the friendly confines of Hinkle Fieldhouse. They’re battle tested and road tested as well.

I’d say that the key to their success this season has been the development of Kamar Baldwin, who currently ranks as the 10th best player in the country according to KenPom..... but he isn’t really much different than he was last season. The biggest changes are he’s playing a little bit less, although only going five minutes in the opener against IUPUI may have a lot to do with that, and his assist rate is waaaaay up. I can’t tell you how much of that is Baldwin being a better distributor and how much is Butler being a better shooting team than they were a year ago, but I would have to presume both things are at least partially responsible.

The biggest team change from last year is defense, as they’ve gone from #123 in adjusted defensive efficiency a year ago to a top 20 team this year. That’s a huuuge jump, and they’ve played enough top end teams for that to be a very real thing. They’re a top 40 effective field goal percentage defense, and a lot of that seems to be the fact that teams are shooting under 29% from behind the arc against the Bulldogs. That’s a little bit interesting, as three-point shooting defense is not really something you can control very well. You can stop teams from shooting threes, or even stop particular players, but you can’t really consistently defend three-point shots very well. There are six top 60 offenses in the Big East this season that Butler will face, and three of them — Marquette, Creighton, and Georgetown — are top 50 three-point shooting teams. Butler is the favorite to win per KenPom right now, but they’re still projected to take six losses along the way. We’ll see what happens.

Creighton Bluejays (10-2)

KenPom Ranking: #47
T-Rank Ranking: #29
NET Ranking: #24
Points Leader: Marcus Zegarowski, 18.4 ppg (#3)
Rebounds Leader: Ty-Shon Alexander, 6.3 rpg (#9)
Assists Leader: Marcus Zegarowski, 4.7 apg (#5)
Best Win: vs #32 Texas Tech on a neutral floor, 83-76 in overtime
Worst Loss: vs #18 San Diego State on a neutral floor, 83-52

Hey, remember when we all wrote Creighton off for dead when Jacob Epperson broke his right leg in October? Yeah, well, all they’ve done since then is win every game on their schedule except for a road game against a Michigan team that’s better than anyone really expected and a neutral site game in Las Vegas against a San Diego State team that’s currently #1 in the country in the ol’ NET ratings.

Reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.

The wildest part about all of this is the fact that Marcus Zegarowski of all people has turned into one of the most dangerous scorers in the entire conference. Seriously! He’s trailing only Markus Howard and Myles Powell in scoring! That’s nuts! He’s shooting 65% on two-pointers! WHO DOES THAT AT JUST 6’2”?? That’s a “I turn and dunk it most of the time” kind of shooting percentage! That’s a “most of my misses are putbacks where you could argue that I’m being fouled at the time” kind of shooting percentage! Do you know who his best KenPom comparison is right now? Shabazz Napier from the year that UConn was banned from postseason play the year before they won the national championship!

With Epperson relegated to crutches and rehab for the time being, Christian Bishop, all 6’7” and 205 pounds of him, has apparently turned into their most reliable interior presence. Yes, it’s Ty-Shon Alexander that leads the team in rebounding, but Bishop is a top 80 offensive rebounder in terms of rate, and his #318 ranking on the defensive end is actually better than Alexander’s. He also ranks — and again, he’s 6’7” — #199 in the country in block rate, which means Bishop is somewhere between “perfectly acceptable” and “pretty good at this” in terms of being a rim protector.

At the end of the day, Greg McDermott’s brand of basketball is going to work a lot of wonders for an undersized roster. They’re going to hit the open man to shoot a bajillion threes, they’re going to make an awful lot of them, and they’re not going to turn the ball over much in the process. If they can play a lick of defense — currently #97 in efficiency per KenPom — to go with it, they’re probably going to be pretty good.

DePaul Blue Demons (12-1)

KenPom Ranking: #62
T-Rank Ranking: #72
NET Ranking: #35
Points Leader: Charlie Moore, 16.5 ppg (#5)
Rebounds Leader: Paul Reed, 10.9 rpg (#1)
Assists Leader: Charlie Moore, 6.7 apg (#1)
Best Win: at #20 Iowa, 93-78
Only Loss: vs #126 Buffalo, 74-69

DePaul is 4-0 away from Wintrust Arena this season, and they are 3-0 in top 140 KenPom road games, too. That’s a lot of evidence to suggest that they’re pretty good this season.

They also lost home to a reasonably good Buffalo team. That’s not really that bad. Giving up a 26-4 run that bridged halftime to fall behind 50-32 to that Buffalo team? That was bad. Doing that in a game where if they had won, they would have moved to 10-0 on the season and would have probably been ranked in the Associated Press poll the very next day? That is the absolute most DePaul thing ever.

So while they might be wildly improved from last year ...... and the previous 15 years, if we’re being honest about it, there’s still an awful lot of DePaul-ishness in the genetics here. That’s probably why, even though they’ve been one of the best stories in college basketball this season so far, that KenPom still projects them to go 7-11 in Big East play at this point. Honestly, going 7-11 would be a massive accomplishment for DePaul. The Blue Demons went 7-11 last year, and they have never won seven games in Big East play in consecutive seasons. The last time they did that was in 2004 and 2005, when they went 12-4 and 10-6 in the last two years in Conference USA when — drumroll please — Dave Leitao was the head coach.

Here’s the nicest thing that I’m willing to say about DePaul right now: If you are not prepared to put in the full effort and attention necessary when you play them, you are going to lose. They’re clearly a team with flaws, because even with all those good wins so far this year, they’re still not booming up the KenPom and T-Rank charts. But if you wander in and say “pfffft, whatever, it’s DePaul,” they’re going to get you.

Georgetown Hoyas (9-3)

KenPom Ranking: #38
T-Rank Ranking: #43
NET Ranking: #31
Points Leader: Omer Yurtseven, 18.3 ppg (#4)
Rebounds Leader: Omer Yurtseven, 10.3 rpg (#2)
Assists Leader: Terrell Allen, 3.7 apg (#8)
Best Win: at #43 Oklahoma State, 81-74
Worst Loss: vs #75 UNC Greensboro, 65-61

I am pretty certain that there is not a better pairing of Best Win and Worst Loss on this page, and it’s entirely possible that there is not a better pairing of Best Win and Worst Loss in the history of the Where Are We Now series on this website. The UNC Greensboro game is the last game that James Akinjo played in before he announced that he was transferring, as well as the last game before Georgetown kicked Josh LeBlanc off the team. In response to that entire disaster mess, Georgetown promptly went down to Stillwater and racked up their best win of the year. As an encore, they went down to Dallas three days later and racked up their fourth best win of the season by beating SMU, and then followed that up with their second best win of the season by knocking off Syracuse back at Capital One Arena.

This team officially makes zero sense.

As a result of the departures of Akinjo and LeBlanc, followed fairly rapidly by the departures of Galen Alexander and Myron Gardner, Georgetown is, by default, a wildly different team than they were for the first seven games of the season. There’s not really anything that we can say for certain about what the Hoyas are doing at this point in terms of style and so forth. We do know that Omar Yurtseven is averaging 22.2 points and 11.2 rebounds since everything got flipped upside down, and Mac McClung is averaging 22.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists while shooting 44% from behind the arc. They don’t have very many scholarship players available, but if they’re going to keep getting 44/14/4 from those two guys, that’s going to fix a lot of problems for head coach Patrick Ewing.

Marquette Golden Eagles (9-2)

KenPom Ranking: #30
T-Rank Ranking: #36
NET Ranking: #50
Points Leader: Markus Howard, 25.9 ppg (#1)
Rebounds Leader: Jamal Cain, 5.5 rpg (#16)
Assists Leader: Koby McEwen, 3.5 apg (#9)
Best Win: vs #13 Purdue, 65-55
Worst Loss: at #51 Wisconsin, 77-61

Okay, seriously, show of hands: Who had Jamal Cain as Marquette’s leading rebounder heading into Big East play? Anyone? Come on out and speak up now, because none of us here on the site mentioned it in the season preview and none of you voted “Other” in the poll.

There’s a lot that we could say about Marquette in this space, but it’s nothing that would be smarter or more informative than the mid-season progress report that Besay wrote the other day on the Golden Eagles. Go check it out.

Providence Friars (7-6)

KenPom Ranking: #78
T-Rank Ranking: #84
NET Ranking: #119
Points Leader: Alpha Diallo, 14.1 ppg (#16)
Rebounds Leader: Alpha Diallo, 9.2 rpg (#5)
Assists Leader: Luwane Pipkins, 4.7 apg (#4)
Best Win: vs #60 Texas, 70-48
Worst Loss: at-ish #292 Long Beach State, 66-65

Just when we finally have some answers on Providence this season, they change the questions. The Friars were in full on spiral mode this season through the first 12 games, including a road loss against a not-good Northwestern team, a home loss to a quality Penn team, but still, home loss, and then they followed that up with losses to Long Beach State and Charleston in the Wooden Legacy and barrrrrrrrely beat Pepperdine in the 7th place game. Then they lost at Rhode Island in the yearly rivalry game, never quite put Stony Brook away until the final horn, and got shelled by Florida.

Things were looking bad..... and then they absolutely mollywopped Texas on Saturday, cracking them in the face with a 14-2 run early and never looking back to win by 22. I mean, WHAT??

Look, they’re still projected by KenPom to finish at the bottom of the league with St. John’s right now, and if you go game by game, they’re only favored twice. They might still be really bad! But that Texas win has to at least make us say “hey, wait a minute.”

The big problem for Providence last season, at least relative to Ed Cooley’s other years, is that they never quite had that clear dominant point guard running the show. Luwane Pipkins maybe hasn’t quite turned out to be the guy that Friars fans hoped he would be in that role, but he’s carrying around a top 70 assist rate. That’s pretty good, and in terms of team assist rate, this is Cooley’s best team ever. However, that assist rate is being used on his worst team ever at PC in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency, so that probably tells us a lot about where this is going to end up by the end of the year.

St. John’s Red Storm (11-2)

KenPom Ranking: #84
T-Rank Ranking: #57
NET Ranking: #48
Points Leader: LJ Figeroa, 15.5 ppg (#9)
Rebounds Leader: Josh Roberts, 8.5 rpg (#6)
Assists Leader: Nick Rutherford, 3.2 apg (#14)
Best Win: vs #14 Arizona on a neutral floor, 70-67
Worst Loss: vs #88 Arizona State on a neutral floor, 80-67

Is Mike Anderson underrated? We all got our jokes in back in the spring when St. John’s lost all sorts of players for various reasons on top of their head coach. After that, the Johnnies went through an incredibly hilarious head coaching search that ended up with them hiring Anderson, a guy who has spent his entire head coaching career in the section of the United States that could generously be referred to as the southeast. It seemed like a bad fit for a half-assembled roster, and bad things were on the way.

It definitely seemed like that was the case when they lost at home to a good Vermont team in mid-November. A week later, they lost to a decent Arizona State squad on a neutral floor, which meant that they were 4-2 with no good wins. However, all they’ve done since the calendar flipped to December is beat a resurgent West Virginia team and go out to San Francisco and beat a ranked Arizona squad in their most recent game.

Look, they might still be bad relative to the rest of the league. Even after the Arizona win, St. John’s is still projected to finish 6-12 in Big East play, which has them tied for last place with Providence. There still might be problems with this team relative to everyone else that they’ll see over the next 18 games. That’s fine! We had written the whole season off back in May! They’ve already kind of proven that they’re better off than we thought they were, and if it’s a “well, that was incredibly unpleasant to play them” kind of last place finish as opposed to “LOL, they lost every game by 23 or more” kind of last place, then that’s probably good enough for the Red Storm this season.

Seton Hall Pirates (8-4)

KenPom Ranking: #21
T-Rank Ranking: #26
NET Ranking: #32
Points Leader: Myles Powell, 21.2 ppg (#2)
Rebounds Leader: Jared Rhoden, 6.3 rpg (#11)
Assists Leader: Quincy McKnight, 3.9 apg (#6)
Best Win: vs #8 Maryland, 52-48
Worst Loss: at #53 Rutgers, 68-48

Okay, cards on the table here: Seton Hall has a 2-4 record against Quadrant 1 opponents, and one of the wins is the horribly awful Maryland game that they won without Powell due to his concussion and without Sandro Mamukelashvili due to his broken wrist. The good news is also the bad news here, as that accounts for all four of their losses so far this season. They’re undefeated everywhere else, but their record against tippy top opponents is bad.

It gets worse. Seton Hall has just one Quadrant 2 game, and everything else is Quadrant 4. Still worse: Four of their games are between 230 and 300 in the NET.

Why am I focusing on Seton Hall’s postseason picture here? Because we know that Mamukelashvili is out until February and we still don’t know when Powell will return from his concussion. Quite honestly, as much as we can look at the stats and the metrics to figure out what Seton Hall has been so far this season, we have no idea what this team is really going to be until those two guys get back into the lineup. This is important because SHU’s profile is low key kind of actually terrible right now, and they’re probably going to have to try to figure out how to win Big East games without Powell, the preseason Big East Player of the Year, at least for a little while. They can’t really afford to let all of these Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 opportunities go sliding past them, but without their two injured stars, they’re clearly not the same team that was picked to win the Big East this season, Maryland win not withstanding. Powell has already missed two games, and if that turns into six or seven, then either Seton Hall is going to struggle to make the NCAA tournament or they’re going to be one of the biggest questions that the selection committee will have to answer.

I do honestly hope that Powell is able to get back on the court relatively quickly. It would be very terrible if his campaign for Big East Player of the Year gets derailed before it really gets started as a result of missing the first five, six, seven, whatever games of the league schedule. Relative to the questions about his absence from the court, it’s important to mention given the overall aim of this website that Marquette will visit Seton Hall on January 11th, which is four games from now and exactly a month after Powell suffered the concussion at the RAC.

Villanova Wildcats (9-2)

AP Poll Ranking: #10
KenPom Ranking: #19
T-Rank Ranking: #23
NET Ranking: #21
Points Leader: Saddiq Bey, 15.5 ppg (#11)
Rebounds Leader: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, 9.6 rpg (#4)
Assists Leader: Collin Gillespie, 4.9 apg (#3)
Best Win: vs #4 Kansas, 56-55
Worst Loss: vs #9 Baylor on a neutral floor, 87-78

Were you surprised to see Saddiq Bey leading the Wildcats in scoring to this point of the season? I was, as was the AE group chat when I tossed the question out to see if anyone knew off the top of their head. For what it’s worth, it’s a close race, as you probably guessed by the fact that Bey isn’t even in the top 10 in the conference. Collin Gillespie is at 14.2 per, and Justin Moore and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl are both north of 11 per game. Jermaine Samuels and Cole Swider are just south of 10 per game to round out the discussion of Villanova’s only reliable scoring outputs this season.

We should probably talk about the fact that Villanova is a sneaky bad defensive team this season. Ever since Jay Wright had his “wait, what’s happening” sub-.500 season in 2011-12, the Wildcats have been a top 30 defensive team in the country according to KenPom’s efficiency metric, and if you knock out 2012-13 from the story, VU compiled top 15 defenses for five straight years. Hyper efficient offense plus hyper efficient defense = conference domination and two national championships. Last year, Nova’s defense went drastically downwards, coming in at #81 in the country.

This year, so far? #83 in the country. Now, the good news for Wildcats fans is that the number itself is better than last year, going from 99.2 points per 100 possessions to 94.9 points per possession. Still, though, the Wildcats have the #217 ranked effective field goal percentage defense in the country, and that’s going to be a problem as Big East play gets started. Five of the top 100 eFG% offenses in the country are amongst Villanova’s nine conference opponents, including two — Butler and Creighton — in the top 30. That’s a very real problem! Seton Hall was favored to win the league in the preseason coaches’ poll, but they edged out Villanova by just one point. With the Pirates drastically hampered, the door is open for Villanova to seize control of the conference again this season, but doing that with what is right now the league’s third worst defense miiiiiiiight not be easy.

Xavier Musketeers (11-2)

KenPom Ranking: #28
T-Rank Ranking: #31
NET Ranking: #51
Points Leader: Naji Marshall, 16.2 ppg (T-#7)
Rebounds Leader: Tyrique Jones, 10.0 rpg (#3)
Assists Leader: Quentin Goodin, 4.0 apg (#7)
Best Win: vs #52 Missouri, 63-58 in overtime
Worst Loss: at #96 Wake Forest, 80-78

Here’s the question for Xavier: How worried should we be about that loss to Wake Forest? Their only other loss was to Florida on a neutral court in their third game in four days, including a double overtime contest two days earlier. That’s fine, particularly because it was a close loss. Against the Demon Deacons, though, Xavier had a week off after their home win over Cincinnati in the Crosstown Shootout. Wake took control of a game where Xavier was heavily favored, considering they were the road team and all, with a 9-0 run that bridged halftime, and then a 13-2 run in the middle of the second half. All due credit to the Musketeers for making it close late after trailing by 12, but they probably should not have been in that position against a Wake Forest team that’s probably going to get Danny Manning fired at the end of the year.

It was their worst defensive efficiency game of the season and their second worst effective field goal percentage defensive game of the season (trailing the Florida game), partially because the Demon Deacons shot 44% from behind the arc. It’s the only time this season that Xavier has allowed a team to shoot over 40% behind the arc, and even with that in the numbers, the Musketeers are still a top 50 three-point shooting defense team and a top 25 eFG% defense team. Is that just one of those days where a team got white hot because sometimes a defense can’t really control how well a team does or does not shoot threes against them? Or did Manning figure something out that no one else had figured out against the Musketeers? One-off weirdness or exploitable flaw?

There’s no clear runaway favorite in the Big East this season. Butler appears to be the team that’s much better than anyone expected, but if you look at BartTorvik.com’s Conference Efficiency Map, the top seven teams in the league are all in the same strata right now. Xavier seems to have just as good of a chance as anyone else to win the league right now if you think of anyone in the same strata as roughly equivalent. If the loss to Wake Forest is just one of those things that happens when you go on the road against a Major Seven opponent, then maybe they can pull off the title run. But if there is that flaw that the Jay Wrights of the world can exploit, then that defensive efficiency is going to slip as conference play goes on, and the Musketeers are going to dip into the next strata down. They’re right on the line right now, and it really wouldn’t take all that much to nudge them there.