Big East Semifinals: Villanova 63, Providence 61; Xavier 65, Georgetown 63

The Big East semifinal was the closest Villanova has looked to pedestrian in weeks, at least since that Georgetown beat down in mid January.

When the Wildcats are on, they are a top seed in the NCAA tournament, a squad capable of making it to the first weekend of April. But when Nova is off, as they were against Providence, it might still be a number one ranked seed but it’s also a team with underlying question marks.

The first semifinal, between those Friars and Wildcats, was the much more entertaining of the two, a contest that ended in controversy and a 63-61 Nova victory. After PC’s Ben Bentil stole a VU baseline inbounds pass and fed Kris Dunn for the game-tying two, Ryan Arcidiacono drove the right lane, shifted his body into that of Bentil, and drew the debatable whistle.

Two free throws later and VU had escaped Madison Square Garden with a victory and their first trip to the conference’s finals in coach Jay Wright’s tenure.

The second semi appeared to be over when Georgetown scored just one basket in the initial eight minutes of the second half. The Hoyas were not only suffering from offensive ennui, their defense was being carved apart by Xavier’s relentless pick-and-roll and secondary cuts. Xavier’s lead ballooned to 20 points, but then the Hoyas rolled off a 15-1 in the final seven minutes, causing beads of sweat to form on Chris Mack’s forehead. Even though the Musketeers missed several free throws in the final 120 seconds of play, Xavier managed to hold of G’Town, 65-63, though, as Mack said during the post-game press conference, “I felt like if we played 3 more minutes, we might have lost by 17.”

Here are four thoughts from both games:

1. Villanova was vulnerable versus Providence’s aggressive 2-3 zone.
During last season’s Big East tournament final, Providence employed an aggressive, pseudo match-up 2-3 zone that held Creighton to 1.04 points per possession, one of the Bluejays’ lowest rates of 2014. The Friars used that zone often in 2015, and again unrolled it to the same effect against the Wildcats, limiting the Wildcats to just 1.03 ppp.

Ed Cooley’s zone runs counter to what most effective zones are supposed to resemble — it gave Nova the soft middle, sticking to the VU shooters and allowing JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu to catch the ball along the baseline or at the elbow. Neither have a consistent jump shot, and PC has the size to negate any rim drives which rendered Nova’s offense stagnant. The game’s biggest shot was that 15-footer by Darrun Hilliard, who flashed to the middle and challenged the zone — while that cut was simply a great basketball play, it was also Wright acknowledging Nova had to invert their offensive strategy to ensure the win.

By sticking one or two steps away to the shooters (a la pack-line), the Friars were able to challenge nearly every Nova shot (just 30.4% from deep). Villanova, of course, has such splendid ball movement and a quartet of guards that can create off the bounce, but Nova was perplexed of how to attack the zone.

According to Wright, “They lifted all four guys above the foul line, and said, ‘Put it on to Ochefu or put someone in the middle of the lane.’ … They made us do things we don’t normally do.” Xavier is well-versed in both the 2-3 and 1-3-1, and flummoxed Georgetown for much of the night with the Musketeers’ defensive ebb, and it could very well be a significant angle to the conference title.

2.Despite taking away Providence’s fast break, Kris Dunn was masterful.
PC thrives in transition. Per Hoop-Math.com, the Friars hover amongst the nation’s top 100 in both effective field goal percentage in transition and percentage of attempts in the open court. Of course, when a player like Kris Dunn is at a team’s disposal, that team has to run. Dunn’s vision is simply unparalleled in college basketball. Villanova implicitly understood this, and their gameplan was built to stop all leak-outs. “We wanted to play in transition as much as we can,” Ed Cooley said at the presser. “But [Villanova] sent three or four guys back, and they flooded the lane to stop Kris.”

The Friars only had five fast-break points, an unreal statistic considering Dunn hands out an assist on nearly half his possessions, and he never leaves the floor. He alone kept the Friars hanging around during the semi’s first half, willing PC with acrobatic dribble drives, defensive immobilizing jump shots, and pinpoint cross court passes.

Dunn’s use of the pick of roll, for example, is why the point guard is considered by many to be a legitimate first round selection, should he leave, in the upcoming draft. PC likes to have Carson Desrosiers set a pick for Dunn at the top of the key, and since it is so hard for defenses to blitz him, he turns the corner with three options: soft jump shot, drive-into-euro hop (which he did several times Friday night), or pitch the ball back to Desrosiers for a 17-footer (which the big can make). Dunn flirted with a triple-double, which would have been his second of the season and the first at the Big East tournament since 1998, posting a stat line of 22 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds.

“He is big time,” said Wright. “We are pretty good defensively, and we are good at pick and roll defense, but he is the toughest guy we have guarded in pick and roll defense.” At this point during the presser, Wright looked at Daniel Ochefu, seated next to him, for affirmation. “After coming out of that game, there hasn’t been another guy we played against that we had this much trouble.”

I hate that this will be the last season to watch Dunn in a college uniform. I am selfish, but I completely understand. I want to watch more of Dunn’s contortionist arms warp into impossible angles as he makes a difficult layup look quotidian. I want to watch Dunn streak down the side of the court and loft an improbable pass to a fellow Friar. I want to see Dunn come off a pick and calmly throw a pocket pass from 25 feet out to the rolling big. With Dunn’s health history, it makes sense to leave now if he is a top 20 pick. But, man, I am going to relish the next game (and hopefully at least one additional contest) that PC plays.

3. Isaac Copeland and Josh Hart will be fringe Big East Player of the Year candidates in 2016.
This prediction may be mocked, but I want to get it on the record now. If Hart continues to make the same strides he did between his freshman and sophomores campaigns, and Copeland undergoes the sophomore leap, Villanova and Georgetown will, respectfully, have two POY contenders.

Not only is Hart an outstanding defender — standing only 6’5″, he guarded PC’s 5s at points Friday night — but he has evolved into a scoring threat. He made 47% of his threes in 2015, and while that was no doubt due to VU’s wealth on the perimeter (someone has to get the hockey assist), he ranked second on the squad in two-point field goal percentage.

“We had Josh penciled in as a starter during preseason,” Wright explained, “and then Dylan had an amazing summer and fall, and he earned it … [Hart’s] parents didn’t complain. They told him, ‘You’re the 6th man, be the best sixth man.” Hart will move into the void created by Hilliard’s departure, and will see his usage rates and shooting percentages jump.

Copeland was the reason Georgetown surged late in the second half. He is the prototypical John Thompson III forward, knifing through the halfcourt but able to stretch the defense with his pinpoint perimeter accuracy. Depending on his offseason progression, Copeland could prove a frontcourt anchor to D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera’s backcourt scoring.

4. Xavier is a puzzle.
The Musketeers are nearly impossible to figure out. A team that had an efficiency margin of just plus-3 during Big East play, Xavier is poised to take down the Big East title. The Hoyas were perhaps the best opponent Mack could have asked for — Xavier had already beaten G’Town twice during league play — and Nova will be a much tougher task, but the versatility inherent in Xavier’s roster makes the team unique. Mack can either go big with Matt Stainbrook, Jalen Reynolds, or James Farr, or he can pair Trevon Bluiett at the 4 and slide either of those three bigs at the 5.

Bluiett’s freshman growth is instrumental to this maneuverability. He’s become less dependent on bombing from beyond the arc, has showcased the ability to move without the ball, and has become a serviceable defender.

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