There have been plenty of changes at Quinnipiac over the past four months: new players, a new court, and of course a new coach. As Baker Dunleavy has settled into his new role taking over for Tom Moore as lead man in Hamden, his Villanova background has steadily taken root with the Bobcats. Continue reading
Hopes for an historic upset never got out of the starting gate, as Villanova throttled St. John’s 108-67 Thursday afternoon in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden. Continue reading
Hofstra has an opportunity to fulfill preseason expectations and win their first Colonial Athletic Association regular season crown. Continue reading
The Big East semifinal was the closest Villanova has looked to pedestrian in weeks, at least since that Georgetown beat down in mid January. Continue reading
We are entering the month of February, the heart of conference play, where it’ll be easier to discern which teams are pretenders and which have a chance to make a dent in the postseason. Continue reading
It felt like déjà vu in the St. John’s locker room. Continue reading
It has been a weird 2014 Big East season. Exciting and sensational, yes — Creighton and Villanova offensively assaulting their opponents, Doug McDermott’s ascension through the NCAA’s record book, St. John’s 10-3 streak after starting the season 0-5 — but the central theme of the revised conference play has been the inability of any team other than Creighton or Villanova to separate themselves. Continue reading
We have frequently written about St. John’s this season, but if it isn’t clear from reading our most frequent tempo-free posts, the Red Storm is arguably the nation’s hottest team. Following Tuesday’s second half beat-down (and win) against Butler, the Johnnies are now 8-6 in Big East play — an astounding record considering they started 0-5 — and have won seven out of their last eight games. As we explained in an earlier tempo-free post, an underlying theme of SJU’s rise is their stingy defense, an ability to defend without fouling while also consistently generating steals, but as we will detail below, the Johnnies might have solved their offensive issues within the arc.
A few takeaways from this past week’s games:
Davante Gardner isn’t the best Golden Eagle this season. In an early February loss to St. John’s, Jamil Wilson had the worst game in all three of his Marquette seasons. The senior forward scored just one point on five field goal attempts, and based on how lethargic and simply tentative Wilson looked while on the court, coach Buzz Williams sat Wilson during the entire second half. Since that contest, though, the 6’7″ forward has been on an offensive tear, converting 47% of his twos and 52% of his long-range attempts. It’s no secret the transition of full-time point guard duties to Derrick Wilson has not been smooth, and a casualty of this change is Davante Gardner’s touches; Williams wants at least one paint touch per possession, but Wilson and Golden Eagles’ backcourt have struggled to find Gardner on the block. His usage rate is up (but not by as much as one would’ve expected) this season, and the big hasn’t attempted ten or more shots since the end of January. In their most recent loss, to Creighton, Garnder took only three two-point field goal attempts; since Marquette’s perimeter game is again lacking — for the second straight season, Marquette is taking few threes and isn’t converting that small sample size (less than 30% from deep in Big East play) — so defenses are able sag a bit, packing the paint and force Gardner to catch the ball farther from the bucket than desired. Gardner’s inability to get a touch is why Wilson’s play is crucial if Marquette make a final five-game push. He is the only Eagle capable of creating his own offense – just 47% of his attempted twos are assisted — and he can score from both long and mid-range. Wilson is currently the catalyst for MU’s offense, and if he can continue to create halfcourt spacing and defensive imbalance, it’ll only benefit Gardner and the team’s offensive efficiency.
A simplistic reason for St. John’s rise. We will delve into the team’s surge in a post prior to this weekend’s Villanova game, but one can spot the moment Steve Lavin’s squad turned this season’s corner. Against Seton Hall in late January, the Johnnies made 26 of their 45 two-point attempts, and since then, the team has converted 50 or more percent of their twos in each Big East game and is scoring 1.10 PPP. Through the first five conference contests, St. John’s made an anemic 40% of their shots within the arc, a percentage which has dramatically shifted to 53% during their streak. Even in their first matchup with Creighton, a road loss, SJU made 50% of their twos. John outlined several weeks ago that JaKarr Sampson was the key to solving the team’s then-offensive malaise, and his piece proved prophetic. During the last nine games, Sampson is making 50% of his twos (up from 27.5% at the start of Big East play) and is using a blend of uber-athleticism and refined shooting touch to both get to the basket and convert from mid-range (typically the short corner).
Can opponents take away the 3, and still beat, Creighton? Jay Wright had to alter his defensive strategy when his squad traveled to Omaha this past weekend. The first time the teams met, in mid-January, the Bluejays made 21 threes, and blitzed Nova in the first half. In their second match-up, Wright decided to defend the three-point line, limit CU’s long-range attempts, and force Greg McDermott’s team to beat Nova within the arc, but this altered strategy didn’t work either: Creighton connected on 66% of their twos, and scored 1.46 PPP. Is it possible, then, to take away the three-ball from Creighton and still win? One Big East team has been successful with this gameplan — St. John’s — and it is interesting to see how Lavin’s team stymied CU. Chris Obekpa and Orlando Sanchez typically guarded, and never left the side of, Ethan Wragge; the two never helped, or hedged on screens, and shadowed the big. St. John’s also made a decision to go under screens set for Austin Chatman, Grant Gibbs, and Jahenns Manigat, figuring the team’s first option is to get Doug McDermott a touch and would be less likely to hoist a three — rather than fighting over the screens, SJU defenders were better able to guard the drive. The other key to preventing a Creighton scoring deluge is to pressure the ball. Creighton doesn’t turn the ball over often — only 15.1% of their possessions result in a giveaway — is paramount — in three of the four CU losses, the team has committed double-digit turnovers.
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.