Conference play has, for at least the last 15 years, meant a chance for Xavier to hang another banner and add some more titles to an already impressive resume. Even last year, in the midst of what now passes for a bad season, Xavier contended for the conference crown into the last month of play. A team that staggered in at 17-11 was, at one point, 9-3 in conference play and looking good for a tournament bye.
That won't happen this year. Xavier plays 18 conference games, but the timbre could hardly be more different. Now members of the Big East, the Musketeers face trips to Marquette, Georgetown, and Villanova. Guaranteed late January cake walks over Fordham and Rhode Island have been replaced with Creighton, Butler, and St. John's.
That means that some of the familiarity has been stripped away from the schedule from now on. Preseason breakdowns serve their purpose but now, with the conference slate upon us, this primer contains the very latest on the new Big East. (All teams presented with tempo adjusted offensive and defensive rankings as well as any other salient stats).
The Upper Crust:
These teams will be in the big tournament come March. As this is the Big East, a couple more teams will sneak in to join them, but these guys are the cream of this year's crop.
Team: Villanova Wildcats
Numbers: 11-1, #8 KenPom, #12 BPI, #11 ESPN, #14 AP
More numbers: 112.1 offense (39th), 90.3 defense (3rd), 22.7% turnovers forced rate (18th).
Breakdown: Josh Hart, a 6-5 freshman guard, ranks 34th nationally in offensive efficiency, turns the ball over on less that 10% of his possessions, shoots 40% from deep, and rebounds like a big. Hart also is only fourth on this loaded team in scoring. James Bell (16.2ppg) leads the line, but he, JayVaughn Pinkston (15.3ppg) and Darrun Hilliard all post ORtg between 111-114. The Wildcats are deep at the top offensively.
Defensively, the Wildcats are the best in the Big East, and that's saying something. In a conference with seven teams in the top 50 in tempo adjust defense, Villanova is still a cut above. They attack the ball, contest every shot (41.6% 2PT allowed good for 14th), and are only even average in three point percentage allowed. This team is good and has backed that up by playing a good schedule (27th BPI, 73rd KenPom). They're a class squad.
Xavier is: @Villanova Feb 3rd, vs. Villanova March 6th
Team: Creighton Blue Jays
Numbers: 10-2, #14 KenPom, #24 BPI,
More numbers: 118.6 offense (2nd), 98 defense (63rd), 59.2% Effective FG% (2nd), 43.9% 3PT (3rd)
Breakdown: From incredible defense to incredible offense, Creighton currently sits just behind Villanova in the Big East. The Blue Jays have cracked 100 once and only scored under 80 three times. Of course, Doug McDermott (24.8/7.3/1.2) and his 122 ORtg have a lot to do with that, but this entire team can shoot the ball and the numbers above show that. Of note is Ethan Wragge, a sharpshooter who has already launched 91 threes and made 50.5% of them.
Defensively the Jays aren't as soft as you might think. They don't force turnovers (16.7%) but they hold opponents to 46% effective fg% and get on the defensive glass very well (26.1%). Take those numbers with a grain of salt though, because Creighton's schedule hasn't been one of the most challenging in the conference. Tough games against Arizona St. and San Diego St. are more than offset by the likes of bottom 30 teams Arkansas Pine Bluff and Alcorn St.
Xavier is: @Creighton Jan 12, vs. Creighton March 1st.
Team: Georgetown Hoyas
Numbers: 8-3, #29 KenPom, #48 BPI
More numbers: 112.5 offense (34th), 96.3 defense (44th), 56.8% 2PT% (5th), 13% block rate (60th)
Breakdown: When I was young I liked to pretend to be both Gary Lumpkin and Alonzo Mourning (I wasn't a normal kid), so I've got a soft spot for the Hoyas. Plus, who can forget that great Dunk City team they had last year? That was them, right? Anyway, the Hoyas aren't quite spectacular on either end, but they are solid on both. Their length (+2.2 effective height) makes them tough on defense even though they, paradoxically, don't rebound all that well outside of Mikael Hopkins, who is a beast (top 120 in rate on both ends) on the glass.
Offensively, D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera has become everything Musketeer fans hoped he would, just for a different program. DSR is pouring in 16.3 per game with a shooting line of .474/.444/.839. That is, for the uninitiated, really good. Markel Starks isn't shooting well (41%), but he has a 2.2 A/TO and 14.4% TORate, so he's hardly hurting his team. Nate Lubick, Josh Smith, and Aaron Bowen push the team to a 34.5% offensive rebound rate. That's not tops in the nation, but it's top 100 for a team that doesn't miss all that often.
Xavier is: vs. Georgetown Jan 15th, @ Georgetown Feb 22nd.
These teams could all very easily land in the NCAAs with just a couple of decent breaks or just a good year for the bubble. We're past the teams that are mostly flawless, but these squads are still very, very good. And, yes, this is where you'd find Xavier.
Team: Marquette Golden Eagles
Numbers: 8-5, #43 KenPom, #78 BPI
More numbers: 108.5 offense (78th), 94.9 defense (29th), 41.9% 2PT allowed (20th) 37.2% OReb rate
Breakdown: If Marquette didn't crush the offensive glass, they wouldn't score. That's an oversimplification, but their shooting numbers (.456/.660/.311) are grim enough to make you wonder where they would be if they weren't above average in shots at the rim and percentage made at the rim. They are though, and it's keeping them afloat. Look in the top 320 players in the nation in offensive rebound rate and you'll find Davante Garnder (10.2%), Juan Anderson (12.3%), and Chris Otule (12.5%). Some consideration must given for the loss of Duane Wilson, but that's probably cold comfort to Buzz.
Defensively, the Golden Eagles eat people. In the Big East, only Villanova and Xavier can boast defenses better than Marquette's 29th. They are suffocating inside the arc, the steal the ball on over 10% of possessions, they block shots on another 10%, and they make teams try to beat them from deep, where the defense still extends. Marquette may have lost five games, but New Mexico (47th) is the worst of those losses.
Xavier is: vs. Marquette Jan 9th, @Marquette Feb 15th.
Team: Butler Bulldogs
Numbers: 10-2, #51 KenPom, #52 BPI
More numbers: 107.3 offense (103rd), 95.1 defense (31st), 24.8% offensive rebounds allowed (11th)
Breakdown: Brad Stevens, and with him the only likable part of Butler basketball, is gone. Excepting his rebuilding year of 2012, this offense is the worst Butler has had since tempo free stats were recorded. Kellen Dunham is getting 18.1ppg and loads of adulation based mostly on the fact he's never met a shot he won't take. While his 44.7% from deep is impressive, it comes at the cost of his only taking 18% of his shots at the rim. Butler does maximize chances by only turning the ball over on 15% of their possessions. More looks for the excellent Khyle (not a typo) Marshall and his 119.3 ORtg would go a long way to improving their offense.
Defensively the Bulldogs crush on the glass, attack shooters (only allowing 30% on shots from deep) and cede the middle a bit. As part of their commitment to rebounding they don't block many shots at all, but they make up for that by grabbing steals on more than 10% of opponents possessions. Butler has lost their two toughest games, and hasn't beaten anyone better than Princeton (72nd). The Big East could prove a bridge too far this year.
Xavier is: vs. Butler Jan 4th, @ Butler (and in a barn) Feb 11th.
Team: St. John's Red Storm
Numbers: 9-3 #54 KenPom, #41 BPI
More numbers: 107.5 offense (95th), 96.1 defense (39th), 24.6% block rate (1st)
Breakdown: Steve Lavin's squad is very interested in two things: blocking shots, and shooting quickly. The 16.1 seconds the Red Storm have the ball per possession is 40th fastest in the nation, the nearly 25% of opponents shots they block is both first and nearly five percent more than anyone else in the nation. The +2.8 of effective height is part of that, but Chris Obepka's 20.9% mark on his own is also a contributing factor. Orlando Sanchez (6.7%), Sir'Dominic Pointer (4.9%, 4.2% steals), and JaKarr Sampson also shore up the defense. Even with all that blocking, the Red Storm get to a respectable 70% of defensive rebounds.
Offensively, things aren't quite as rosy. D'Angelo Harrison (19.5ppg) shoots on nearly a third of possessions and only makes 42.4% of those shots. His 118.2 ORtg is bolstered by the fact he rarely turns the ball over (49th in the nation in TORate) and makes 82.6% of his free throws. Sampson (12.7ppg, 50%) and Phil Greene IV (9.3ppg) also add some points, but this team isn't playing offense all that well right now. Of the four games the Storm have played against teams ranked above 100, they've lost three.
Xavier is: vs. St. John's today at noon, @ St. John's Feb 25th.
In with a chance:
If things break right, this team lands on the bubble and maybe wins a couple of Big East tournament games to sneak into the NCAA field. It's going to take quite of bit of doing, though.
Team: Providence Friars
Numbers: 10-3, #67 KenPom, #82 BPI
More numbers: 106.7 offense (120th), 96.9 defense (50th), 81.3% FT
Breakdown: I'm on record as saying that I think Providence is on the right track, and this year is evidence of that. If Derrick Gordon hadn't beaten them at the buzzer in a hotly contested UMass game, they might be up a level. He did though, so they aren't. This offense, as bloodless as it is at the line, simply cannot shoot. The Friars are tossing up an effective field goal percentage of 46.2%, good (bad?) for 274th in the nation. Kris Dunn was going to help stir the drink, but he's hurt and teams are content to let Bryce Cotton get his 19.5 points on 39% from the floor. Kadeem Betts (12.6ppg) and LaDontae Henton (12.4ppg, 115.9 ORtg) are trying, but Providence is shooting 41% as a team. That's awful and it cancels out a decent defense.
Xavier is: @Providence Jan 25th, vs. Providence Feb 8th.
The Atlantic 10 line:
The two teams that land below this line are still better than the bottom three or four in the A10, but they fall far behind the rest of the Big East. Keep in mind as well, that eight Atlantic 10 teams would be behind Providence.
Team: Seton Hall Pirates
Numbers: 9-4, #121 KenPom, #105 BPI
More numbers: 105.6 offense (141st), 101.8 defense (142nd), 55.3% FTA/FGA (14th) 74.6% FT
Breakdown: Get to the line and convert is the Pirates' offensive gameplan, and it works for them. Unfortunately, they get blocked more than all but 40 other teams in the nation, and they jack threes for 40% of their field goals. When Brian Oliver (42%) is taking those deep shots, it's a good thing. No other player on the team shoots even 35%. Sterling Gibbs (15.9ppg, 122.8 ORtg) and Fuquan Edwin (13ppg, 102 ORtg) score a lot, but all the three point shooting and a reluctance to feed big man Gene Teague (62% effective FG) hamstring this offense.
What hamstrings the defense is, bizarrely, just about the same thing. Opponents shoot 38.2% from deep against the Pirates. Seton Hall doesn't allow teams to take may threes (only 34% of their shots) but the ones that do get taken tend to go down. Beyond that, this defense is actually pretty solid, only allowing 44.6% of 2PT attempts to go down, and grabbing nearly 72% of opponent misses.
Xavier is: vs. Seton Hall Feb 1st, @ Seton Hall March 3rd.
Team: DePaul Blue Demons
Numbers: 8-5, #135 KenPom, #132 BPI
More numbers: 106.4 offense (123rd), 103.9 defense (173rd), 20.5% turnovers forced (66th)
Breakdown: DePaul likes to get other teams to shoot quickly and turn the ball over. They do that relatively well, forcing a lot of turnovers and getting teams to shoot within 16.8 seconds. Unfortunately, a lot of those shots go in, and the Blue Demons themselves turn the ball just as much (20.1%). The Blue Demons attack the offensive glass when they do get a shot up, grabbing 37.7% of their misses, 39th in the nation. There are a lot of those misses though, because the Demons effective field goal percent is only 48.9% and they don't even break even on two point attempts 47.5%. Even the best conferences have bad teams and DePaul is the Big East's by a long shot.
Xavier is: @ DePaul Jan 20th, vs. DePaul Feb 19th.
And so that is it. Xavier enters the Big East fray for the first time later today. Keep an eye on this space, as predictions and more facts about each team will go up later in the week.