The Big East has made one of the biggest conference turnarounds so far early into this season, as our Jamal Murphy predicted. Last season, in its first as the “New Big East” the conference was dominated by Villanova, who were joined on the dance floor by only Creighton and Providence. But there will definitely be more than just three teams dancing this year. At this point in the season, all ten teams are above .500 with only Marquette having more than three losses.
Like last year, Nova is out to an incredible start. The Wildcats are a perfect 10-0 heading into a tango with struggling Syracuse this weekend. Villanova has big wins over VCU, Michigan (when they were still relevant), and Illinois. This year’s team is probably better than the team that was a two-seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, which lost to the eventual champs Connecticut. They have one of the more balanced scoring attacks in the country with seven players scoring at least seven points per game, led by junior guard Dylan Ennis’s 12.3. Ennis shoots 48.9 percent from the floor and 45.7 percent from behind the arc. He is also a great distributer of the rock with 3.1 assists per game. The ‘Cats powerful backcourt of Ennis,
Darrun Hilliard, Josh Hart, and Ryan Arcidiacono make them one of the deepest teams in terms of guard play. Arcidiacono isn’t shooting the ball nearly as well as he did last year at only 21.2 percent from deep (34.5 last season), but his 3.3 assists to only 1.2 turnovers per game keep his minutes elevated. Hart, who is just a sophomore, has been one of the biggest improvements of any player in the conference. His points are up from 7.8 to 10.1, rebounds are up from 4.4 to 5.7 and assists from 0.9 to 2.0. He has become a much better scorer from all spots of the floor, shooting 59.3 and 40.0 percent from the floor and deep respectively. Hilliard averages two steals per game, leading the defense that is 22nd in the country with 9.3 steals per game.
The front court for Nova isn’t too shabby either with Daniel Ochefu and JayVaughn Pinkston averaging a combined 18.5 points and 13 rebounds. They haven’t needed to do much more than that as Villanova controls the shot clock and works the ball around as good as anyone in the conference. The Wildcats only lost two regular season conference games last year and they were both to Creighton. This season they’ll be tested a lot more in the greatly improved Big East. But for now, Nova is on their own “top-level” shelf in the conference.
After Jay Wright’s squad come four teams that are on an “upper-level” in the conference. Steve Lavin’s St. John’s missed the NCAA Tournament a year ago due in large part to a rough 0-5 start in conference play. This year’s Johnnies team is off to a nice 8-1 start with wins over Syracuse and Minnesota. They have one of the highest scoring backcourts in the country with four guards scoring over 10 points per game. This impressive group is lead by D’Angelo Harrison’s 19.7 points, which is 24th in the nation. Harrison along with Rysheed Jordan, Phil Greene IV, and Sir’Dominic Pointer combine for 57 of the Johnnies’ 73 points per game. Harrison and Pointer both average at least seven rebounds per game and for a team that starts four guards, St. John’s is 28th in the country with over 40 rebounds per game. Lavin has an explosive and exciting team this year that will cause damage in Big East and probably matches up better to Villanova better than anyone else in the conference. Circle March 7th on the your calendars, that is when they travel to Nova for the last game of Big East play.
The Biggest Improvement in the conference, maybe the entire country, is that of Butler (8-2). The #23 Bulldogs have already almost matched their win total from a year ago of 14, when they went just 4-14 in conference play. This year’s squad has already beaten #5 North Carolina, Georgetown (did not count towards conference record – Battle 4 Atlantis), and Northwestern. They are led by junior guard Kellen Dunham who is scoring 16.3 points per game while shooting 46 percent from three and 87 percent from the charity stripe. But my favorite player on the team is Comeback player of the year candidate, Roosevelt Jones, who missed the entire last season with a broken wrist. He is averaging 10.6 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game. Jones, who is listed as a 6’4″ forward, was key in the win over North Carolina with 12 points, eight rebounds, and six assists. The Bulldogs have also gotten great play from big man Kameron Woods who leads the team with nine rebounds per game, while scoring nearly eight. Butler has a tough matchup this weekend with Indiana and then open up their Big East schedule with a doozy at Nova.
Another team that is new to the spotlight is Seton Hall (8-1). The Sterling Gibbs led Pirates are just cruising through their schedule, which includes a nice 58-54 win over George Washington already on their resume. They put up a solid fight at Wichita State in a nine point loss earlier in the month. Gibbs has been incredibly consistent scoring in double-figures in every game this season, including a 40 point game against Illinois State, which he shot 7-9 from three and 13-13 from the line. The local guard might just be the purest shooter in the country, he is fifth in the country from deep at better than 56 percent. Alongside of Gibbs is one of the streakiest freshman in the country, Isaiah Whitehead. Whitehead shined brightly in his 23 point effort at Wichita State, a game that was part of a five game, double-figure stretch during which he shot the ball incredibly well at 51.6 percent. But in the Pirates other four games he has shot a combined 8-41 (19.5 percent). If he finds some consistency, this is a very dangerous backcourt. The Pirates do have a very consistent freshman and that is forward Angel Delgado. Delgado is scoring 8 points per game while hauling in 10 boards. Seton Hall is good, but I haven’t seen enough out of them just yet. For me to really hop on their bandwagon, they will need to win three of their first five conference games which are SJU, Nova, Xavier, Creighton, and Butler.
The last team that belongs on the level of Seton Hall, Butler, and St. John’s is Georgetown (6-3). The Hoyas three losses came in close games to Wisconsin (68-65), Butler (again not a conference loss), and Kansas. They have beaten Florida and a bunch of bad teams, but make the top half of the list because of the quality of their losses, there is still a long way for the Hoyas to go before they are on the Villanova level. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is a very versatile guard and he nearly single handedly beat Wisconsin with his 29 points. He averages four rebounds and four assists to go with his 13.4 point per game. The other big piece, emphasis on big (6’10”, 350), is senior center Josh Smith. Smith, the former UCLA Bruin now in his second season with Georgetown, is a force inside the paint, scoring 13 points on 65 percent shooting. Georgetown should be able to take care of business against the teams on the “upper-level” shelf.
Xavier (8-2) is the first team below those top five teams. Although they do have nice wins against Alabama, Missouri, and Stephen F. Austin, they have an ugly loss to Long Beach State, a team that they had beaten earlier in the year by 23 (the rare two games against a non-conference opponent in the same season). The Muskateers are led by Uber driver, Matt Stainbrook, who is one of the best big men in the conference and apparently likes driving people around. Stainbrook scores 13.4 points while shooting an NCAA second-best, 70 percent. He also grabs seven rebounds per game and is impossible to score around. Senior guard Dee Davis is one of the best distributors in the conference with six assists per game and he loves to feed the big guy.Freshman Trevon Bluiett is the team’s leading scorer with 14 points per game on 54 percent shooting, but he is also slightly inconsistent. Xavier is a lot like Seton Hall and will need to show us more in conference play to be considered an upper-level team.
Creighton (8-3) has performed better than most people would have expected in life after Dougy McBuckets. They shut down naysayers pretty quickly with a tough win over #18 Oklahoma in their third game of the season, one of the craziest games the season so far. The Blue Jays trailed the Sooners by 18 early in the second half before going on a 24-4 run. Senior Austin Chatman has been the most important player on this Creighton team, doing it all with 13.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. He scored a team-high 17 in the Oklahoma win. Creighton doesn’t have any horrendous losses, but they did lose to Tulsa by 13. Their other two losses both came at home to Saint Mary’s and Ole Miss, again not bad losses, but teams that an “upper-level” team would have beaten at home.
Best of the Rest: Providence, Marquette, and DePaul in that order. Providence is a very solid team with a nice win over Notre Dame, but a bad loss to Brown. Marquette has four losses, but three of them came to Ohio State, Michigan Sate, and Wisconsin. The fourth loss was ugly to Omaha. DePaul was relevant for a while with their 6-1 start, but have lost two straight to George Washington and Illinois State after having early success including the 15-point win over Stanford. Notice there is nobody else left to discuss, Nobody under a “disappointment” category. DePaul will probably finish in last place, but as of now with a 6-3 record, it is hard to say anything bad about them.
Best Win: Creighton over Oklahoma – Can’t Emphasize enough how important it was for them to beat their first ranked opponent after McDermott left AND they were down by 18 in the second half.
Worst Loss: Marquette to Omaha. If Wojo’s team wins that game, they are 6-3 instead of 5-4 and are up there with Georgetown in the “3 quality loss, 1 quality win category.”
Best Freshman: Trevon Bluiett of Xavier. He is taking advantage of Dee Davis’s assists and the attention opponents give to Stainbrook. He started really hot, but has struggled in the last few weeks. All in all, this is a very experienced conference.
MVP: Sterling Gibbs. Again, he is the best pure shooter in the conference and has been unstoppable. He is the kind of the player that COULD allow Seton Hall to beat Villanova. In second place is a tie between D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Kellen Dunham, and Dylan Ennis.