Conference Reset: A new boss leads in the new Big East

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

Villanova ranks among the biggest surprises nationally. (USATSI)
Villanova ranks among the biggest surprises nationally. (USATSI)

We're once again doing our mid-season catch-up on the 10 biggest leagues in college hoops. We're going to run these on the day leagues start intra-conference play -- or at least as close to them as possible. The Big East gets underway here on New Year's Eve, so let's see how this reformed union is stacking up so far.

Here's the Big East reset, and a look at how the Big East has compared to other major leagues this season can be found here.

Teams on track to make the Field of 68: Villanova, Creighton, Georgetown, Xavier.

Teams with work to do: Marquette, Butler, St. John's.

Teams already out, barring a miracle: Providence, Seton Hall, DePaul.

Most memorable moment to date: Villanova announces its legitimacy by beating Kansas in the Bahamas. It was the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals, and the Wildcats got some big shots from Ryan Arcidiacano late. The final was 63-59 back on Nov. 29, and it made everyone sit up and start paying attention to Jay Wright's team. The Cats got out to an 11-0 start, which finally culminated in a loss last weekend at Syracuse.

Storyline you were too busy to notice: Butler is still Butler (we think). No more Brad Stevens, which you knew, but new coach Brandon Miller has this team off to a 10-2 start -- about as good as anyone could have hoped for, given the roster turnover in addition to a post-Stevens era. The Bulldogs are still something of a mystery, but it's impossible to see how this year will be seen as a disappointment. Miller looks like a worthy successor.

Coach feeling the heat: Oliver Purnell has been coaching for nearly three decades without an NCAA tournament win, yet he's never been fired. Does he ever feel heat? Anyway, this is his fourth season with DePaul, and he's never won more than 12 games with the program. It looks like the worst team in the league, though Seton Hall could have something to say about that.

Player who needs to step up: At 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per, 6-11 Chris Otule needs to give more for Marquette in this his senior season. The Golden Eagles have played five teams worthy of NCAA tournament consideration -- and fallen to each one. Otule's not the sole reason for the drop for MU so far, but if he steps up, Buzz Williams' team will have a formidable front court that should give it a shot at finishing in the top three in the league.

Team better than its record: Marquette ... I hope? With five losses, it has the most in the conference, tied with DePaul. Buzz Williams has never had a team at Marquette not make the NCAAs/win less than 22 games. For the latter to happen, Marquette will need to go at least 11-7 in the league and win the conference tournament. That is possible, yes.

Team not as good as its record: I'm going with Butler. A 10-2 team, that's an .833 win percentage, and I don't think Butler will even be above .700 by the time Selection Sunday gets here. It's a fine team, but record and power numbers would indicate this is a top-40 club nationally, and I don't think that's the case.

Three must-see games:

  1. St. John's at Butler (Jan. 25)
  2. Villanova at Georgetown (Jan. 27)
  3. Creighton at Xavier (March 1)

Player of the Year favorite: Doug McDermott has now eclipsed 2,500 points for his career, and the Creighton senior is showing once again why he's one of the better all-around scorers in the sport over the past 15 years. Not a transcendent player, but college hoops purists will annoy their children with Doug McDermott references 20 years from now. I fear his ability will be forgotten after he's gone for how little his career's been on TV, but he's absolutely on track to be a First Team All-American for the third straight year -- and how many times has that ever happened in college hoops?

Freshman of the Year favorite: Villanova's Josh Hart is contributing 9.5 points (second among Big East freshmen) and 4.8 rebounds (tops among all league newbies). He's unquestionably been a glue guy to the max, an impact first-year player that's been part of the elixir in Villanova's surprise season so far.

Probable all-league team: Doug McDermott (Creighton); James Bell (Villanova); D'Angelo Harrison (St. John's); Bryce Cotton (Providence); Markel Starks (Georgetown).

Ranking the teams from first to worst:

1. Villanova: Part of why you have to love Villanova so far: It's played the toughest schedule of any Big East team. Its defense ranks No. 3 overall in adjusted points per 100 possessions (90.5), and they're outscoring opponents by nearly 16 points per game. The balance is there, and they have a big-shot-maker in Ryan Arcidiacono. Jayvaughn Pinkston on the block gets 15.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and is in fact the team's leading scorer in points per 40 minutes. They'll drop at least three games in the conference, but it's impossible to say this isn't the best team heading into Big East play.

2. Creighton: The Bluejay's weak SOS (251 on KenPom) means we're going to have to see some provin'. But as you'd expect, this group is awesome with the ball yet again. The 1.20 points per possession is tops in the league, and this is the best-shooting team Greg McDermott's ever coached. I really like this group and hope it reaches the second weekend of the NCAAs; dodging that No. 1 seed in the Round of 32 should be happening this time around. The group is No. 16 in terms of experience in all of college basketball, and the program's won 90 games since the start of the 2010-11 season.

3. Xavier: You know X won't be kept down for long. It was a lost season last year, but Semaj Christon isn't the only player contributing this time. Matt Stainbrook is a 6-10 reliability down low, and as a group the team as upped its defense prowess. It ranks top-25 in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.com. Traditional stats? X gives up just 63.5 per game.

4. Georgetown: Beaten VCU and Kansas State. Lost to Oregon in South Korea to start the year. Very good team from inside the arc, shooting nearly 57 percent on its 2. Markel Starks, D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Mikael Hopkins have made this team solid in wake of losing Otto Porter, who was as MVP-ish as any player in recent memory. Hoyas aren't outstanding, but they won't be beaten down. RPI likely to rise, and defense needs to get a tick or two better. It will, I think.

5. Marquette: Probably better on defense than people think. Has four games with 10 or more steals, including 17 against Ball State, one of the best swipe jobs in all of hoops this year. As of right now the offense is the "worst" it's ever been under Buzz, but Marquette is still scoring 1.06 points per possession. It's allowing 61.5 points per game, lowest in the conference. I thought this would be the Big East's best team. I thought wrong.

6. St. John's: Many still believe this group has the most natural basketball talent of any team in the Big East. It will win some games it shouldn't and lose some games it can't. But that's the way, I suppose. Fun, athletic and loves to run. Will be helped by its penchant not to foul. Probably the most disciplined team in the league in that respect.

7. Butler: Grabbing 56.7 percent of rebounds through 12 games has led to Butler being the best group on the boards in the Big East. Combine that with a turnover rate of just 14.7 (best in the conference), and I'm totally willing to admit I'm underrating BU right now. Rebounding and a lack of turnovers signals one thing: terrific coaching. Those are habits that don't dissolve midway through a season. The offense overall has me concerned; I wonder if Butler will have the gasoline to win 12 games in this league. But I do want to note that I think the biggest gap in this league falls between the 7 and 8 line.

8. Providence: The injuries will cost PC a chance at the NCAAs. Kris Dunn, who could've been First Team Big East, has a shoulder issue that's keeping him out. Bryce Cotton will probably put up heroic numbers in a sub-.500 campaign. Ed Cooley is a terrific motivator with a lot of patience, but it's unlikely Providence can be a 10-win Big East team. It's been a good 10-3 start, but tough times ahead, methinks.

9. Seton Hall: The worst per-possession defense (tied with DePaul, .975 PPP) and worst strength of schedule in the league (in the 330s). Best win is Kent State, ranked 175 in KenPom and 159 in RPI. Fuquan Edwin is a terrific on-ball defender, and Sterling Gibbs is a whir with the ball at times, but they are bright spots that dont' shine often enough. Also lost a guy to foreign military duty.

10. DePaul: Scoring 1.03 points and allowing .98 per possession, worst in the conference on both ends. It also turns the ball over 19.1 percent of the time, so nearly once every five times it has a possession. Also worst in the Big East. Cleveland Melvin is now a senior, a very solid player, and were DePaul even as good as No. 7 on this list, he'd have a dark horse chance at making First Team for the league. He's one of the more talented guys in that program in the past decade, and it's a shame he's been so good while cloaked in four years of mediocrity.

 
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