For the third time this season, St. John’s could not manage pull the upset against a highly-ranked opponent, losing to Creighton on a Doug McDermott last second three. True to form, St. John’s again competed for nearly 40 minutes before a stretch of questionable decision-making — why was Chris Obekpa sagging so far off McDermott? — doomed a SJU victory. A few Big East teams have a break from conference play heading into week four’s weekend — Georgetown plays Michigan State, and Villanova ventures into Big Five play — but there are some interesting tempo-free takeaways as we reach the halfway point of conference action.
Villanova’s luck or will February doom the Cats? Judging by the overall conference efficiency percentages posted by Jay Wright’s squad, one might assume Villanova is the cream of the Big East. However, after taking a deeper look, it appears the Wildcats have been exceedingly fortunate during the past few games. Discounting the two games against DePaul and Creighton, which were both romps from the onset, Nova has struggled to effectively run their offense: against St. John’s, Marquette, and Georgetown, VU scored just 1.08 PPP, which is pedestrian when compared to their overall Big East offensive efficiency percentage (1.18). Nova’s defense hasn’t fared well during those three games either, rising slightly to 1.07, but despite this narrow efficiency margin (+.01), Nova’s record during this stretch is a very lucky 3-1 (it might be worth noting that the margin of victory in each of the three wins was in the single digits).
One explanation for Nova’s offensive slide is their struggles from beyond the arc. The Wildcats heavily depend on threes — per Ken Pomeroy, about a third of their points come from the perimeter — but during those four games, Nova converted only 34% of their long-range attempts. Villanova doesn’t often finish at the rim — 36% of their shots come at the rim (below the DI average, according to Hoop-Math.com) and when the squad does grab an offensive board, they don’t typically finish (.91 points per play) — and a dependence on made threes fuels the team’s offense; when those shots aren’t dropping, the Wildcats’ defense, which simply isn’t as stingy as it was a year ago, can’t carry this increasingly anemic offense.
Bryce Cotton’s conditioning. Only one other player this season has used a higher percentage of his team’s minutes than Providence’s Bryce Cotton. The diminutive guard has played every minute during PC’s last five games, and on last week’s conference call, coach Ed Cooley was asked how the coaching staff treated Cotton’s conditioning on non-game days: “We have to be very cautious of how we physically practice … truly we’ve been in this situation since I’ve been the coach at Providence. If you look at Bryce’s minute distribution since we’ve been here, his routine has been in place, [and] we know what we are doing with him.” There are two areas of Cotton’s game that have evolved in his senior season and has allowed Cotton some rest while on the court; while Cotton is still nationally known as a lethal from beyond the arc, the guard has ably transformed into a true combo guard.
His assist rate has skyrocketed from 2013 (18.1% to 35.1%), and since he really never leaves the court, his assists per 40 minutes is virtually the same as his assist average this season (6 per game), so while Cotton was accustomed to continuously running all over the court in past seasons, he has been able to conserve a bit of energy by acting as a facilitator.
The other alteration has been PC’s use of the flex offense at times; in recent games, Cooley’s squad has used cross and back screens to free Cotton and the other Friars for uncontested shots within the arc. Cotton has been a prime beneficiary of this offensive switch — the constant movement frees Cotton for mid-range jumpers and helps keep his legs fresh.
Matt Stainbrook undervalued? There is a reason Cooley, during the same conference call, unequivocally praised the Western Michigan transfer as one of the nation’s most underrate bigs. Stainbrook has been somewhat of a surprise star for Xavier this season. While his potential — a 6’10” big with soft hands and great court vision — was talked about with much enthusiasm in Cincinnati, it was unclear entering this season whether Stainbrook would be in shape to keep up with his fast-paced backcourt and how he would handle the physicality of Xavier’s new conference. So far, though, Stainbrook has been arguably the Big East’s most underrated player — only Dee Davis and Semaj Christon have a higher assist rate than Stainbrook, and a greater percentages of Xavier’s possessions are resulting in a post touch. Stainbrook may not be as athletically gifted as other Big East frontcourt players, but the junior has been skilled using his body and touch around the basket to convert 52% of his twos.