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The Big East is stratifying early

UConn is still probably the favorite, but there isn’t that much to separate at the top.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Xavier
What a pouty child. I mean, an absolute diaper baby.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

How much stock can you put in a four-game sample size? Realistically probably not much, but there’s no Big East basketball today, so let’s take a look at how the league is shaking out and see if we can make any sweeping generalizations on the information.

We’re leaning heavily on the league title odds provided by Bart Torvik, the league results projections given by both Torvik and Ken Pomeroy, and the numbers in league-only games provided by both those sites as well. If you don’t already frequent those sites, it’s worth it to make them part of your regular rotation if you’ve got the time and energy to devote to college hoops. If you don’t, don’t worry: we’ve got you.

The favorite (still): UConn

The Huskies bossed everything for a solid couple of months, ripping of a 14-0 start before falling to Xavier at home over the weekend. They’re still the clear favorites in both systems, with KenPom having them going 16-4 in the league and Bart Torvik giving them a 69% chance of a share of the title and a 51% chance at a solo crown.

There are cracks appearing though. They had to fight back from second-half deficits at home to both Georgetown and Villanova. Their coach has the emotional discipline of a toddler on a sugar binge. Their bench depth was a real asset in non-conference play, but key reserves Donovan Clingan, Joey Calcaterra, Naheim Alleyne, and Hassan Diarra have all seen their minutes percentages shrink in Big East play.

In conference games, they’re 6th according to TRank. That’s not 6th in the nation, it’s 6th in the Big East. The issues they could paper over home to Georgetown and Villanova came to fruition on the road to Xavier. They have a huge road test coming up against Providence this week; we’ll probably learn a lot about them on Wednesday.

The contenders: Xavier and Marquette

According to Bart Torvik, both of these teams have a 20-25% chance of taking a share of the title and just over 10% at winning the league alone. They’re a clear step behind UConn, but not dead and buried.

If you’re on this site, I probably don’t need to explain too much about Xavier to you. In brief, they can score on anybody and can’t really stop anybody. They gave up 89 (!) to Georgetown (!!) in a game they won handily because they scored 102. They gave up a point per possession to uninspiring Seton Hall and St. John’s offenses, also in wins. The best stretch of defense they’ve played all year was allowing 15 points in 12 minutes to close out the UConn game.

Of course, none of that matters because they can’t stop scoring. They shoot over 40% from deep but have a disciplined and experienced crew that forces the ball inside first. Despite going maybe 7 deep, they play at the second-highest pace in the league. If you like high-scoring games, Xavier’s about the best team to watch. The other contender is...

Marquette. Xavier is the #1 offense and #8 defense in Big East play. Marquette is #2 and #7, respectively. While Xavier runs and guns with a balanced attack, Marquette focuses relentlessly on two things: winning the turnover battle and attacking the paint. The Golden Eagles lead the league by shooting more than 58% from inside the arc, and they’re also #1 with a TO% of 13.3%. They’re second in defensive TO%... and that’s about where the good news ends on that side of the ball.

Shaka Smart’s crew is 10th in DReb% and defensive FT rate and 11th in 2P% against. They are a respectable 6th in defensive 3P%, but still 9th in overall defensive EFG%. Shaka has made his name as a defensive coach, but if Marquette doesn’t force a turnover this year, they’re not providing much resistance otherwise. It’s kind of been a mess, but, like Xavier, they’ve been scoring their way through it.

Dark horses: Providence and Creighton

Both of these teams have under a 6% chance of even grabbing a share of the title according to Torvik, but they could both play spoiler or - considering that we’re only 4 games in - pick up some momentum and put their names into serious contention.

Providence currently leads the league in TRank in Big East games and, with a 4-0 record, have a share of the league lead. They’re doing it with the league’s best defense, ranking second in defensive EFG% thanks to a smothering 23.1% 3P% allowed. They’re pretty middle of the pack in the other main components of defense, but it has been enough to put them in a good spot so far. They’re also 3rd in offensive efficiency in league games, thanks almost entirely to dominating the glass and getting to the line a ton.

The spanner in the works is that half of their games so far have been against Butler and DePaul. It’s hard to imagine a more favorable start to the season that doesn’t involve Georgetown. To their credit, they also beat a game Seton Hall team and held off Marquette and they’ve played 3 of 4 on the road. It looks like they’re playing above their heads, but there’s a lot of ball still in front of them.

Creighton is #2 in the league in defense. They don’t force turnovers, but they’re first in the league in EFG%, DReb%, and defensive FT rate. They’re locking down really well. Their offense has been the exact opposite. They’re 11th in TO rate and 10th in OReb%. They’re the #1 shooting team in the league by EFG%, but their inability to maximize their number of possessions is hamstringing their offense.

Ryan Kalkbrenner is a huge part of what Creighton does, and they don’t really have the depth to absorb the loss of him (or anyone else). He was out and then limited through illness; they may yet have another gear if he gets back to full strength.

Dead and buried: Seton Hall, Butler, Villanova, and St. John’s

Seton Hall leads this group with a .2% chance at a share of the league title. The have 4 wins and 11 losses between the 4 of them, with Nova being 1-2 and the rest 1-3. There’s a big hill to climb for any of these teams to get back in.

Villanova has probably the best chance, not least because they only have 2 losses. They have played the toughest conference schedule so far according to KenPom, beating St. John’s and falling to UConn and Marquette. They have the #5 offense and #4 defense in the league. Turnovers have been their Achilles heel, but they play a grinding tempo that at least mitigates that. I’m hesitant to call them dead until the body is entirely room temperature.

Seton Hall may be good enough to play spoiler, but they’ve dug themselves too deep a hole to challenge for anything more than that. I think they’re a tough team, but if they can’t dominate the glass, they’re not deep in other ways they can affect the game. They can’t shoot at all; they’re making just 28% of their threes in league play.

Butler is bad. They play okay defense and are legitimately hard to score on in the lane right now, but they have the worst offense in the league and cannot rebound at all. St. John’s is 9th in both offense and defense and have stopped forcing turnvoers. They play really fast but shoot really poorly.

DePaul tier: DePaul and Georgetown

I cannot emphasize strongly enough how bad DePaul is. They are 10th in the league in offense and defense. They cannot rebound, shoot, or defend, and they’re allowing opponents to shoot 46.7% from behind the arc. They lead the league in defensive turnover rate and are so abject in all other phases of the game that they haven’t been able to do anything with it at all. They’ve lost by 19, 15, and 15 in their conference losses. Their Bart Torvik pythag rating in conference games is .2987, which would be 267th in the country over the span of a full season. They are awful.

Georgetown lost to DePaul in a game in which they never had a win prob of even 50%.