Conference Primer: Big East

Photo: AP | Tom Gannam

What better way to close the door on 2013 and turn forward to 2014 than have three of the nation’s premier college basketball conferences begin league play. Today, the Big East, Big Ten, and American Athletic Conference tip off their conference seasons.

The Big East games runs all day on Fox Sports 1, beginning with Xavier hosting St. John’s at 12 p.m. ET. The rest of Tuesday’s slate is as follows: Seton Hall @ Providence, 2:30 p.m ET; DePaul @ Georgetown, 5 p.m. ET; Villanova @ Butler, 7:30 p.m. ET; Marquette @ Creighton, 10 p.m. ET.

Here is a look at how each Big East team performed in non-conference play, and how they project to finish in Big East play.

Photo: Michael Conroy | AP
Photo: Michael Conroy | AP
Butler (10-2)

With a new head coach and star forward Roosevelt Jones out for the season, this was supposed to be a down year for Butler.  Though the Bulldogs are still a NCAA Tournament bubble team right now, they were not supposed to even be in the conversation.

In November, the Bulldogs finished a mediocre fourth at the Old Spice Classic, but their standing does not represent their performance well. Butler defeated Washington State, then took Oklahoma State and LSU to the wire in close losses. Since then, the Bulldogs have won five games in a row, including a win against Purdue on a neutral site.

Kellen Dunham has been a dynamite shooter and scorer while Khyle Marshall and Kameron Woods form a great starting frontcourt.

Dunham, a sophomore, has not only improved as a great three-point shooter at 44.7%, but he has also become a better overall scorer. Averaging 18.1 points per game to lead the Bulldogs, half of Dunham’s field-goals have come from two-point range compared to 41% last year.

Marshall is unsurprisingly having the best year of his career as a senior with career-highs in points (17 ppg), rebounds (6.7 rpg), and field-goal percentage (58.2%).

Woods’ playing time has increased nearly two-fold, and his production has followed a similar pattern. This season, he is averaging 9.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, and 1.3 steals.

Projected finish: 6th

 

Photo: AP | Tom Gannam
Photo: AP | Tom Gannam
Creighton (10-2)

Creighton lost twice at the Wooden Legacy early in non-conference play to San Diego State and George Washington, but since then the Bluejays have won five games in a row with solid wins against Nebraska and California.

The Bluejays have the talent to compete for the Big East title, but everyone is still waiting to see how this team performs when it consistently goes up against top-notch competition.

Senior forward Doug McDermott is once again one of the nation’s top scorers, though greatness from has become expected and almost ordinary. The coach’s son is averaging 24.8 points while shooting 49% from the field and 42.3% on triples, and he also leads the team with 7.3 boards per game.

The return of Grant Gibbs, who averages 5.9 points and 4.3 assists, as a sixth-year senior has really helped the Bluejays, but they have another highly capable point guard in junior Austin Chatman. Chatman is having the best season of his career with 7.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game.

Fifth-year senior Ethan Wragge has also been a crucial piece for Creighton, averaging 12.4 points per game. The 6’7″ forward has been lights-out from beyond the arc at 50.5%.

The Bluejays definitely have the talent to compete with these higher echelon teams in the Big East, but it will be a new experience after being a longtime member of the Missouri Valley Conference.

Projected finish: 3rd

 

DePaul (8-5)

In all three of Oliver Purnell’s seasons as DePaul’s head coach, DePaul has finished last in the Big East. Maybe the Blue Demons can finished ninth this season, but appears to be their ceiling, considering their best non-conference wins were Northwestern, Oregon State, and Wright State. They also lost to Illinois State and needed overtime to beat Chicago State.

The Blue Demons rank last in the Big East at No. 135 on Kenpom, and Seton Hall is the only other team outside the top 70.

The Blue Demons will need major production from seniors Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young and freshman Billy Garrett Jr. to steal a few wins and climb ahead of the Pirates for ninth place.

Garrett, a local product out of Chicago, is the future of DePaul’s basketball program. He was a top-100 recruit out of high school, and he is averaging 10.6 points and 3.6 assists this season.

Projected finish: 10th

 

Georgetown (8-3)

Georgetown fell out of the national talk after being upset by Northeastern at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, and the Hoyas failed to work their way back in with a 22-point loss to Kansas on Dec. 21. Though the Hoyas’ only noteworthy wins are against Virginia Commonwealth and Kansas State, they will get one more chance for a high-quality, non-conference win against Michigan State on Feb. 1.

Georgetown has a great pair of guards in their backcourt with senior Markel Starks and sophomore D’Vanutes Smith-Rivera.

Starks is the team’s senior leader, averaging 15.9 points and a team-high 4.5 assists.

Smith-Rivera has emerged as the team’s top scorer with 16.3 points and their leader in steals with 1.5 per game.

Georgetown does not have a single, dominant member in its frontcourt, but UCLA transfer Joshua Smith and senior Nate Lubick are efficient as a collective. Though Smith struggles offensively, he averages 12.7 points and shoots close to 70% from the field.

Lubick is a versatile forward who averages 6.1 points and 6.2 rebounds.

Though the Hoyas have no eye-opening wins to speak of, they rank No. 29 on Kenpom and should not be counted out of the Big East title race.

Projected finish: 2nd

 

Davante Gardner will be a leader in Marquette's frontcourt this season. (Win McNamee/Getty Images North America)
Davante Gardner will be a leader in Marquette’s frontcourt this season. (Win McNamee/Getty Images North America)
Marquette (8-5)

Marquette was a tough team to figure out in non-conference play. The Golden Eagles were considered a preseason Top 25 team, but against basically every formidable opponent they lost. Their only good win is against George Washington, and they have losses to Arizona State, San Diego State, and New Mexico.

Marquette has a veteran frontcourt with Davante Gardner and Jamil Wilson, and they are the team’s two best players.

Gardner, though averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists, has had his shooting percentages dip, especially at the foul line. The big man was an 83.5% foul shooter last season, and this year he is way down to 64.5%. His field-goal percentage has also dropped from 58.5% to 54.9%.

Wilson, an athletic 6’7″ forward, is also averaging a career high in points, but his free-throw percentage as also dipped dangerously low. Last year, he was a 74.4% shooter and now he is at 58.1%.

Though junior Derrick Wilson had not seen much floor time in his first two seasons, he has stepped up this year as the Golden Eagles’ starting point guard. He has produced averaging 5.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game.

Projected finish: 4th

 

Providence (10-3)

Providence had the potential to be a NCAA Tournament team at the start of the season, but its roster has been depleted. Point guard Kris Dunn is out for the season with an injury, and last week freshmen Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock were suspended for the remainder of the season.

But the Friars still have the pieces to be competitive on a nightly basis and avoid a finish in 9th or 10th place.

Senior guard Bryce Cotton had always been a pure scorer, but this season he has stepped into the distributor’s role in Dunn’s absence. In non-conference play, Cotton averaged 19.5 points and 5.6 assists. His assist rate has nearly doubled to 34% from 18.1% last season.

He has been getting most of his scoring help from the frontcourt of Tyler HarrisKadeem Batts, and LaDontae Henton.

Harris, a North Carolina State transfer, is second on the team with 13.8 points per game while Batts and Henton are close behind, each with more than 12 points per contest.

Batts and Henton are also the teams two best rebounders, combining for nearly 15 rebounds per game.

Projected finish: 8th

 

Seton Hall (9-4)

Seton Hall had a miserable non-conference performance with losses to Mercer, Fairleigh Dickinson, and St. Peter’s. The Pirates’ most noteworthy win was against Rutgers on Dec. 8.

Though head coach Kevin Willard has a good recruiting class coming in next season, this year will once again be a struggle in the Big East. The Pirates have a pair of high-quality players in Sterling Gibbs and Fuquan Edwin, but that will likely not be enough to even get them into the NIT.

The Pirates have a quality forward in Gene Teague, who is averaging 10.8 points and 9.4 rebounds, but Teague suffered a painful concussion against Lafayette on Friday and there is no timetable for his return.

Lastly, Seton Hall is dealing with a freshman point guard. Though talented, Jaren Sina is still learning the ropes. So far, Sina has struggled to produce against high-quality teams like the ones in the Big East.

Projected finish: 9th

 

St. John’s (9-3)

St. John’s has the individual pieces to earn a NCAA Tournament bid this March, but the it is still struggling to put the pieces together. Steve Lavin’s Red Storm have not picked up a bad loss, but their only noteworthy non-conference win was against Georgia Tech. Also, they nearly lost to Columbia on Saturday.

The Red Storm have a natural scorer in D’Angelo Harrison and a deep frontcourt with Sir’Dominic Pointer, Jakarr Sampson, Chris Obekpa, and Orlando Sanchez.

Harrison is one of the Big East’s top scorers with 19.5 points per game, and Sampson leads St. John’s’ big men with 12.7 points.

Obekpa is one of the nation’s best shot blockers with 4.4 rejections per game and a 20.9% block rate, and Pointer has proved to be as a do-it-all type of player, averaging 6.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.4 assists.

If Lavin can get all of this talent gelling, the Red Storm can be a dangerous team. But until then, they are a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big East that will likely wind up in the NIT.

Projected finish: 7th

 

Villanova (11-1)

Villanova has emerged as the clear favorite in the Big East this season. The Wildcats are the conference’s only nationally ranked team, and they have the best resume with wins against Kansas and Iowa and their only loss at Syracuse.

What’s most impressive is the Wildcats have become a top-15 team with sophomore guard Ryan Arcidiacono not producing to the extent many experts thought he would in the preseason. Arcidiacono looked like the future of Villanova basketball last season, and, though he has an assist-turnover ratio better than 2:1, he is averaging only 9.0 points on 35.4% shooting.

The main scoring forces for Villanova in non-conference play were James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston, and Darrun Hilliard.

Bell leads the team with 16.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.5 three-pointers per game.

Pinkston has produced well out of the Wildcats’ frontcourt with 15.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest, and Hilliard is averaging 13.6 points and a team-best 3.3 assists.

Freshman guard Josh Hart has also excelled in 21.8 minutes of playing time per game with 9.5 points and 4.8 boards. The rookie ranks No. 34 in offensive rating.

Projected finish: 1st

 

Xavier (10-3)

Xavier struggled in November with a last-place finish at the Battle 4 Atlantis, but it enters its New Year’s Eve matchup with St. John’s undefeated in December. Not only have the Musketeers not lost this month, but they have solid wins against Cincinnati, Alabama, and Wake Forest. With a finish in the top half of the Big East, they will have a chance at a NCAA Tournament bid.

Sophomore guard Semaj Christon is having another great season, and the improved play from Dee Davis has taken some of the pressure off him. Christon enters Big East competition averaging 14.7 points and 3.9 assists, while Davis has recorded 6.5 points and 4.3 dimes per game.

Western Michigan transfer Matt Stainbrook and sophomore forward James Farr, who has been great for the Musketeers now that he has a legitimate role, form a solid foundation in the frontcourt. Stainbrook’s production has carried over from the MAC to the Big East, as he is averaging 11.2 points and ranking No. 58 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.

Farr, who averaged only 3.2 minutes last season, is posting 8.5 points and 6.1 boards per game while shooting 61.6% from the field. His emergence along with the veteran play of forwards Isaiah Philmore and Justin Martin make Xavier’s frontcourt among the Big East’s best.

Sophomore guard Myles Davis, who was ineligible last season, has become a valuable threat from deep, making 2.2 three-pointers per contest at a 45.2% clip.

Projected finish: 5th

 

All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.

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