Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Big East Bonanza: Non-conference review, stat leaders, power rankings

Welcome to the debut of Big East Bonanza, a weekly recap devoted to chronicling the action in and around the Big East Conference. Similar to our site's recurring MAAC Monday feature, Big East Bonanza will be presented in a similar format, with three segments every Wednesday for the remainder of the 2017-18 regular season, with four exceptions in which it will be posted on Tuesday: January 9, January 23, January 30, and March 6. The first segment will usually consist of an advanced stat lens to delve further into the world of the Big East, but in today's initial edition, the opening section will be a review of each team's non-conference season. Stat leaders across the conference will comprise the second segment, with a set of power rankings bringing down the curtain every week. Without further ado, allow us to wrap up each team's non-conference exploits, doing so in the order each Big East team was picked in the preseason coaches' poll revealed at media day this past October:

Villanova - What else can we say about the Wildcats other than calling their 12-0 start and No. 1 ranking, simply, glorious?

That's right, Villanova has captivated the Big East, and the nation at large, with their authoritative and systematic demolition of every opponent placed in their way thus far, and perhaps the best part of it is that the Wildcats have very rarely needed to dig deep through their first dozen contests, saving a great deal in the tank as they christen the Wintrust Arena for conference play tonight against DePaul. As expected, Jalen Brunson has given Jay Wright the customary lift from the point guard spot, but the headliner on the Main Line this season has been the exemplary play of Mikal Bridges. A two-way player like no other, "The Condor" has not only filled the stat sheet, but through just two months of the season, possibly thrust his teammate from his perch as Player of the Year favorite. Look no further than his commanding tour de force against Gonzaga earlier this month in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden as Exhibit A of potential that had gone untapped until this year. The return of Phil Booth to complement the top two, plus the maturation of Donte DiVincenzo, has only enhanced the latest incarnation of Wright's trademark four-quick attack, and Omari Spellman has more than lived up to his massive hype as a freshman. Fordham expatriate Eric Paschall may be among the best sixth men anywhere in the country, and his transition from mid-major superstar to high-major role player continues to be something to marvel at.

Seton Hall - At 11-2 and ranked 23rd in the nation heading into Thursday's Big East opener against Creighton, the Pirates have met their expectations even if some fans are still confounded by the losses to Rhode Island and Rutgers. Head coach Kevin Willard has done an excellent job of talking the naysayers off the ledge through the first several weeks of the year, insisting that he is satisfied with how his team has performed through an arduous non-conference slate highlighted by a win inside a hostile environment at Louisville, plus a major neutral-site score against Texas Tech in the Under Armour Reunion event at Madison Square Garden. Willard has overflowing and perpetual confidence in Khadeen Carrington as the senior has taken on the point guard role, and the Brooklyn native has rewarded him with both a steady hand and smooth ability to bounce back from games where the outcome has not gone his way on the scoreboard. Angel Delgado has remained the steady constant in the middle, but Desi Rodriguez has taken the next step into an elite player, billed as such by Willard more than once during the month of November en route to being the Pirates' leading scorer. In lockstep with Rodriguez and his evolution has been that of Myles Powell as he enjoys his first full season as a starter. The sophomore has outshined his upperclassman teammates in several spots already this season, and the best for the former Trenton Catholic standout truly is yet to come. Ismael Sanogo will likely be out for Thursday's contest against Creighton due to suspension, but Michael Nzei and a supporting cast led by the explosive upside of freshman Myles Cale has done a solid job of holding down the fort.

Xavier - Ranked sixth in the nation with their only loss coming at a neutral site against third-ranked Arizona State, the 12-1 Musketeers have picked up right where they left off during last year's latest run to a regional final, a march that was only remarkable because of Xavier's No. 11 seed and late-season swoon heading into the Big East tournament. In retrospect, such a deep drive into the postseason should have been viewed as textbook for the former mid-major darling turned elite basketball powerhouse, and Chris Mack's players have made sure to put any possible thought of a hangover to rest with their commanding prologue to what could be a true banner year in Cincinnati. For all that Trevon Bluiett has done over his four years, it still feels as if he is underrated in some aspects, which is hard to say given his 19.5 points per game and eye-popping 45 percent shooting from three-point range. As expected, J.P. Macura has been the consistent second option to Bluiett in the backcourt for the X-Men, while Tyrique Jones and Kaiser Gates clean up down low. Kerem Kanter, whose older brother, Enes, has blossomed for the New York Knicks this season, has turned heads in his own right at the collegiate level in his graduate transfer year, averaging a respectable nine points and five rebounds off a deep bench that has also received impressive contributions from freshman Naji Marshall and mainstay Sean O'Mara. Finally, Quentin Goodin's deceptively strong offense and sparkling 2.5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio might be the most integral piece to the puzzle for a team with scary depth and top-to-bottom versatility, qualities that scream Final Four contender for a team with a strong matchup right out of the gate in conference play, coming tonight at Marquette.

Providence - Heading into Thursday's conference opener at St. John's, the Friars are 9-4, but are coming off a stretch of play that has raised eyebrows about the team's long-term prospects. Kyron Cartwright, Ed Cooley's do-it-all point guard, has not been 100 percent, which can partially explain the losses to UMass and Houston; plus a close call against Stony Brook, but on the whole, Providence has had their usual above average non-conference season, which is usually followed by a ramped-up attitude in league play, something that has been a precursor to NCAA Tournament appearances in recent years. Having to go into a bandbox at Carnesecca Arena before then flying out to Omaha to face Creighton in perhaps the Big East's most imposing road environment Sunday is not the most ideal beginning to conference play, but the Friars can be expected to play the hand they have been dealt in veteran fashion, relying on the experience of Rodney Bullock and Alpha Diallo to carry them through rough patches. Freshmen Nate Watson and Makai Ashton-Langford have had commendable starts to their rookie campaigns, but the true X-factor on the roster in the Ocean State is that of Jalen Lindsey. When the swingman gets going from long range, where he shoots 49 percent on the year, the Friars can never be counted out of any contest.

Creighton - We admittedly don't get to see much of the Bluejays at our New York headquarters, which explains the shock value of reading between the lines of their 10-2 record and No. 25 ranking that they take into Thursday's visit to Seton Hall. Greg McDermott is one of the better architects in the Big East's cadre of coaches, which should; in theory, make Creighton's beginning no surprise to anyone. Winners of five consecutive games following a valiant showing at Gonzaga, the Bluejays have silenced their share of skeptics this season, riding a nine-man rotation that is both cognizant of one another's roles on the roster and efficient at the same time, combining to shoot a collective 52 percent from the floor. In fact, four players are shooting 52 percent or better, with two more averaging 49 percent from the field. Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas have been the expected catalysts, but the development of Martin Krampelj in a center spot where Justin Patton's departure to the NBA left a glaring void has been nothing short of phenomenal. The 6-foot-9 Slovenian has done Patton justice with his averages of 11.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, all the while shooting 67 percent from the floor, a marker that is in line with Patton's form through two months last season. Not to be ignored, Toby Hegner and Ronnie Harrell, Jr. have provided boosts for the Bluejays, as have Mitch Ballock and Ty-Shon Alexander in reserve capacities. Davion Mintz has been an apt point guard in the absence of Kaleb Joseph, and Fordham castoff Manny Suarez gives Creighton a lethal 6-foot-11 weapon at both ends of the floor, making Omaha not only somewhere in Middle America, but the home of a legitimate threat to the crown in the Big East.

St. John's - The Red Storm have progressed according to plan, and maybe even a year ahead of schedule in their rebuild following Steve Lavin's decision to part ways from the corner of Union and Utopia, a decision that forced Chris Mullin to scramble in his first season when it came to filling the roster and laying the blueprint for competitive basketball. A 10-2 start, with remarkable showings in both defeats, the latter a loss to Arizona State in which Marcus LoVett was not available, has gone a long way toward healing the scars from a 22-43 record in the past two years. Shamorie Ponds' transcendent scoring ability has helped narrow the chasm as well, and the Brooklyn native is well on his way to providing the same lasting impact D'Angelo Harrison afforded St. John's in his four years. With LoVett on the shelf for the past several games, Justin Simon has been given the latitude to prove his multifaceted ability has been no fluke, flirting with a triple-double multiple times in the non-conference season. In the interior heading into Thursday's league opener against Providence, Tariq Owens has become a truly lethal game-changer on both ends of the floor, the perfect complement to Bashir Ahmed and Marvin Clark II as Mullin goes for a slightly bigger and much more athletic lineup in LoVett's stead. Conditioning will be a factor until the redshirt sophomore returns, though, as Kassoum Yakwe and Bryan Trimble have had peaks and valleys through the first two months, with Amar Alibegovic unable to replicate his past magic thus far this year.

Marquette - Last season, the Golden Eagles were a somewhat unlikely NCAA Tournament team. This year, the former Warriors are back on the bubble at the moment, but as their 9-3 record going into a pivotal clash against sixth-ranked Xavier tonight indicates, Steve Wojciechowski's program has acquitted itself quite well. Marquette's perimeter attack has been the primary aggressor, with a team shooting percentage just over 40 from beyond the arc, anchored by Sam Hauser (15.2 PPG, 51% FG, 49% 3-pt FG) and second-leading scorer Andrew Rowsey, (20.7 PPG, 44.7% 3-pt FG) whose tendency to pump-fake from deep and launch his defender into the air while drawing a foul has taken on a life of its own among the Golden Eagle fan base (did we mention they get extra points for being some of our most ardent longtime supporters?) in his senior season:

Hauser's emergence and Rowsey doing his thing and #TheThing has done something few thought would be possible: Enable Markus Howard to fly somewhat under the radar in his sophomore season. The 18-year-old (he turns 19 in March) is leading the Big East in scoring at 21.8 points per game, with Rowsey a close second, but it feels like he hasn't gotten the attention he deserves. That should change come conference play, as should the rather quiet start for Sacar Anim and understated brilliance of Matt Heldt, who gets a boost now that Harry Froling has become eligible to spearhead a bench that also includes valuable role players in Jamal Cain and freshman forward Theo John.

Butler - At the helm of his alma mater after replacing Chris Holtmann in June, LaVall Jordan will match the amount of wins he accumulated in one year at Milwaukee with the Bulldogs' next victory, which could come as early as tonight in our nation's capital, where Butler is in town to face Georgetown. A former student-athlete in the program he now shepherds, Jordan has wasted little time in building on what Holtmann developed when he ascended to the reins in Indianapolis, keeping the Bulldogs fundamentally sound and competitive on a nightly basis, with their 10-3 record being a prime testimonial to that fact. Guards Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin, the latter of whom having built on a stellar All-Rookie foundation to average nearly 13 points per game as a sophomore, have been the main contributors, but George Washington transfer Paul Jorgensen and burgeoning big man Tyler Wideman have been more than adequate as ancillary options in Jordan's arsenal. Redshirt sophomore wing Sean McDermott has had the same effect in an increased role as his National Football League namesake has as head coach of the Buffalo Bills, that being a breath of fresh air and overall jolt to the productivity on and off the court. The efficiency of 6-foot-10 Nate Fowler (60.7% FG) and freshman point guard Aaron Thompson (nearly four assists per game and an assist-to-turnover ratio approaching 2:1) underscore the value of a team who entered the year as a sleeper, but could very well be a postseason team if they can navigate the waters with aplomb.

Georgetown - At 10-1 with their lone loss coming to former Big East rival Syracuse, the Hoyas have positioned themselves, at least from a record standpoint, very favorably heading into tonight's home game against Butler to tip off the league season. However, the quality of Georgetown's opponents has come under considerable fire, with Ken Pomeroy ranking the non-conference schedule on the Hilltop as the weakest of 351 teams in the nation playing at the Division I level. Regardless, the level of competition has not diminished what Patrick Ewing has attempted to do in his maiden voyage as the skipper at his alma mater; in fact, the former national champion and longtime New York Knicks center deserves a fair share of credit for turning Jessie Govan into a double-double machine through the first part of the year, with the former Wings Academy star averaging 19 points (sixth in the Big East) and a conference-leading 12 rebounds per game, eclipsing established standard Angel Delgado in the latter category. Marcus Derrickson and Kaleb Johnson have taken expected leaps that were predicted even before John Thompson III was dismissed in the offseason, with freshman Jamorko Pickett making an immediate impact in the starting lineup. Seven players averaging seven or more points per game have made the Hoyas a credible offensive threat, and in the eyes of some, an undefeated-in-regulation powerhouse beloved by Jeff Van Gundy.

DePaul - The road back to the upper echelon of the Big East has not come easy for the Blue Demons, who sit 7-5 while welcoming Villanova into Chicago for their Big East opener tonight. Head coach Dave Leitao's second stint in charge at DePaul has yet to yield the same results as his first go-round, but the emergence of Max Strus has given fans something to be hopeful for as Eli Cain has a helping hand in his junior season. Northern Illinois transfer Marin Maric, a 6-foot-11 graduate transfer, has been a godsend in the paint for Leitao, averaging over a dozen points and five rebounds per game through a non-conference season highlighted by games against nationally-ranked foes such as Notre Dame and Michigan State. Tre'Darius McCallum is among the list of unsung heroes whose contributions are far too often overlooked (11.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG) despite their high value. The keys for DePaul as conference season arrives will be simple: Take smart shots and stay in the moment.

Scoring Leaders
1) Markus Howard, Marquette (21.8 PPG)
2) Andrew Rowsey, Marquette (20.7)
3) Shamorie Ponds, St. John's (20.4)
4) Trevon Bluiett, Xavier (19.8)
5) Marcus Foster, Creighton (19.5)
6) Jessie Govan, Georgetown (19.0)
7) Jalen Brunson, Villanova (18.1)
T-8) Kelan Martin, Butler (17.9)
T-8) Desi Rodriguez, Seton Hall (17.9)
10) Mikal Bridges, Villanova (17.3)

Rebounding Leaders
1) Jessie Govan, Georgetown (12.1 RPG)
2) Angel Delgado, Seton Hall (11.3)
3) Justin Simon, St. John's (8.2)
4) Omari Spellman, Villanova (7.8)
5) Martin Krampelj, Creighton (7.6)
6) Ronnie Harrell, Jr., Creighton (7.4)
7) Kelan Martin, Butler (7.2)
8) Marcus Derrickson, Georgetown (7.1)
9) Rodney Bullock, Providence (6.7)
10) Shamorie Ponds, St. John's (6.3)

Assist Leaders
1) Quentin Goodin, Xavier (6.1 APG)
2) Kyron Cartwright, Providence (5.7)
3) Jalen Brunson, Villanova (5.0)
4) Shamorie Ponds, St. John's (4.8)
5) Jonathan Mulmore, Georgetown (4.5)
6) Andrew Rowsey, Marquette (4.5)
7) Justin Simon, St. John's (4.3)
T-8) Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall (3.9)
T-8) Aaron Thompson, Butler (3.9)
10) Eli Cain, DePaul (3.7)

Field Goal Percentage Leaders
1) Tyrique Jones, Xavier (.699)
2) Tyler Wideman, Butler (.686)
3) Martin Krampelj, Creighton (.674)
4) Jalen Brunson, Villanova (.609)
5) Kaleb Johnson, Georgetown (.603)
6) Jessie Govan, Georgetown (.585)
7) Toby Hegner, Creighton (.580)
8) Marcus Derrickson, Georgetown (.553)
9) Alpha Diallo, Providence (.543)
10) Marin Maric, DePaul (.539)

Free Throw Percentage Leaders
1) Markus Howard, Marquette (1.000)
2) Marcus Derrickson, Georgetown (.932)
3) Sean O'Mara, Xavier (.906)
4) Marin Maric, DePaul (.891)
5) Kelan Martin, Butler (.881)
6) Quentin Goodin, Xavier (.879)
7) Shamorie Ponds, St. John's (.873)
8) Andrew Rowsey, Marquette (.872)
9) Trevon Bluiett, Xavier (.871)
10) J.P. Macura, Xavier (.838)

Three-Point Field Goal Leaders
1) Jalen Brunson, Villanova (.531)
T-2) Marvin Clark II, St. John's (.500)
T-2) Omari Spellman, Villanova (.500)
4) Sam Hauser, Marquette (.494)
5) Jalen Lindsey, Providence (.492)
6) Kaleb Johnson, Georgetown (.481)
7) Mikal Bridges, Villanova (.460)
8) Kyron Cartwright, Providence (.452)
9) Trevon Bluiett, Xavier (.451)
10) Kaiser Gates, Xavier (.448)

Power Rankings
1) Villanova (12-0)
Last Game: Friday 12/22 vs. Hofstra (W 95-71)
Next Game: Wednesday 12/27 at DePaul, 7:30 p.m. EST (6:30 p.m. CT)

2) Xavier (12-1)
Last Game: Friday 12/22 at Northern Iowa (W 77-67)
Next Game: Wednesday 12/27 at Marquette, 8:30 p.m. EST (7:30 p.m. CT)

3) Seton Hall (11-2)
Last Game: Saturday 12/23 vs. Manhattan (W 74-62)
Next Game: Thursday 12/28 vs. Creighton, 6:30 p.m. EST (5:30 p.m. CT)

4) Creighton (10-2)
Last Game: Wednesday 12/20 vs. USC Upstate (W 116-62)
Next Game: Thursday 12/28 at Seton Hall, 5:30 p.m. CST (6:30 p.m. ET)

5) St. John's (10-2)
Last Game: Wednesday 12/20 vs. Saint Joseph's (W 77-73)
Next Game: Thursday 12/28 vs. Providence at Carnesecca Arena, 7 p.m.

6) Marquette (9-3)
Last Game: Thursday 12/21 vs. American (W 92-51)
Next Game: Wednesday 12/27 vs. Xavier, 7:30 p.m. CST (8:30 p.m. ET)

7) Providence (9-4)
Last Game: Wednesday 12/20 vs. Houston (L 70-59)
Next Game: Thursday 12/28 at St. John's at Carnesecca Arena, 7 p.m.

8) Butler (10-3)
Last Game: Thursday 12/21 vs. Western Illinois (W 107-46)
Next Game: Wednesday 12/27 at Georgetown, 6:30 p.m.

9) Georgetown (10-1)
Last Game: Saturday 12/23 vs. Alabama A&M (W 89-49)
Next Game: Wednesday 12/27 vs. Butler, 6:30 p.m.

10) DePaul (7-5)
Last Game: Thursday 12/21 vs. Miami University (W 83-66)
Next Game: Wednesday 12/27 vs. Villanova, 6:30 p.m. CST (7:30 p.m ET)

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