Conference Catchups: Villanova rules again in the Big East

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College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Doug McDermott, Creighton

This isn’t a hard decision to make. The two-time first-team All-American is having yet another All-American caliber season. Through the first two months of the season, McDermott is averaging 24.8 points (a career-high) to go along with 7.5 boards. He’s still got room to improve as well, as McDermott is shooting a career-low 40.5% from three.

All-Big East First Team:

  • Bryce Cotton, Providence
  • James Bell, Villanova
  • Kellen Dunham, Butler
  • JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova
  • Doug McDermott, Creighton

Midseason Coach of the Year: Jay Wright, Villanova

In retrospect, we probably should have seen this coming with the Wildcats. Jay Wright has gotten back to his roots, recruiting a team full of tough, talented guards and undersized big men with a chip on their shoulder. Wright has rebuilt this Villanova program in the mold of his best teams, the ones that starred the likes of Randy Foye and Allan Ray and Scottie Reynolds, and it’s fun to watch.

Favorite: Villanova Wildcats

source:  Villanova is kind of the favorite by default here, as the Big East has been one of the country’s most disappointing conferences this season. They really are the only team that looks capable of winning a couple games in the NCAA tournament right now. That said, Villanova is legit. They defend as well as anyone in the country — No. 2 in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom — and they are difficult to matchup with defensively. If James Bell and Ryan Arcidiacono can get more consistent shooting the three, this will be a very, very dangerous team.

And three more contenders:

  • As long as Creighton has Doug McDermott on the roster, they will be a contender. They’ve been better defensively this season. They don’t force turnover or block shots, but they’re forcing tough shots and getting defensive rebounds.
  • You’d be foolish to count out a Buzz Williams team regardless of how many chances they whiffed on in non-conference play. Marquette has the league’s best front line and will only get better as Duane Wilson and JaJuan Johnson get more reps.
  • I’m still on the Georgetown bandwagon, but they’ll need to find a way to survive despite Josh Smith’s defensive issues. Having a third perimeter scoring option emerge would be beneficial as well.

Most Surprising Team: Butler Bulldogs

Villanova is the league’s most surprising team, but I’m going with Butler here because I can only talk about Villanova so many times. Kellen Dunham and Khyle Marshall have been just terrific this season. I’m not sure that Butler has enough to win the league, but they’ve looked good enough to make a push to finish in the top four and, potentially, play their way into an NCAA tournament bid.

Most Disappointing Team: St. John’s Red Storm

How many teams have more talent, top-to-bottom, than the Johnnies? I’ll give you a hint: none of them. But the Johnnies have looked like anything-but a title contender this season. With the amount of athleticism on this roster, it would be nice to see them become a pressing team, but until they have to rely less on D’angelo Harrison for scoring in the half-court, they’ll struggle.

Most Important Player (in league play): JaJuan Johnson and Duane Wilson, Marquette

The Golden Eagles have one of the best front lines in the country. Davante Gardner, Jamil Wilson and Chris Otule are as good as anyone. But Marquette needs to find consistency on the perimeter. They need shooters and scorers and people that can break down a defense. Johnson and Wilson, who is still working his way back from a leg injury, can do that.

Who will slide?: Georgetown Hoyas

I’m not ready to write-off Georgetown just yet because I think that Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera make up one of the league’s best back courts. Any team with that back court and Josh Smith in the paint will be able to compete. But defensive issues and a lack of a supporting cast could eventually do the Hoyas in.

Who is the sleeper?: Xavier Musketeers

A lot of people wrote off the Muskies after a disastrous, 0-3 performance at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. But this isn’t a bad Xavier team. They’ve smacked city rival Cincinnati and won at Alabama in their last two games, and they just so happen to have an All-American caliber point guard in Semaj Christon.

New Power Rankings:

1. Villanova
2. Marquette
3. Creighton
4. Georgetown
5. Xavier
6. Butler
7. St. John’s
8. Providence
9. DePaul
10. Seton Hall

Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight

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BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.

Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.

And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.

This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

It’s fitting, really.

On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that their defense allows them to remain in games without playing their best basketball.

If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.

More on this game to come …

No. 2 Duke goes inside to defeat No. 11 Syracuse

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OMAHA, Neb. — Second-seeded Duke made just 5 of its 26 3-point attempts against No. 11 Syracuse on Friday in the two ACC programs’ Sweet 16 matchup.

So the Blue Devils just went inside.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendel Carter, Jr. both had big games to help the Blue Devils outlast the Orange, 69-65, to put themselves in the Elite Eight on Sunday against top-seeded Kansas.

While Duke couldn’t beat the zone that took Syracuse from the First Four to the second weekend with its outside shooting, its two big underclassmen provided plenty of production. Bagley had 22 points and eight rebounds while Carter added 14 points and 12 boards.

Tyus Battle had 19 points to lead the Orange.

Syracuse shot 53.8 percent from the floor in the second half while Duke shot 36.4 percent, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Orange’s 16 turnovers or Duke’s 17 second-chance points.

Grayson Allen had 15 points and eight assists for Duke. The Blue Devils had 32 points in the paint.


VIDEO: Allen-to-Bagley oop beats the Syracuse zone

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Usually, you’ve got to shoot a team out of a zone.

Duke might be able to dunk Syracuse out of it.

Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley connected for a beautiful alley-oop Friday in the second half of the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 contest against the Orange.

That will work as a zone-buster.

VIDEO: Duke slaps the floor on defense…while playing zone

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Slapping the floor on defense has its advocates and its detractors.

Some applaud the old-school, hard-nosed nature of putting hand to floor. For others, its a bit corny.

What everyone agrees on is that you don’t drop a floor slap if you’re playing zone.

Unless you’re Duke, apparently.

Presumably, the whole point of slapping the floor is to psyche yourself and intimidate your opponent with aggressive man-to-man defense. Not sit-back-and-guard-this-spot-whether-there’s-a-guy-there-or-not defense.

C’mon, Duke. You’re making it too easy for your haters.


Late run sparks Villanova past West Virginia, into Elite Eight

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BOSTON — It is always just a matter of time before the avalanche comes.

And when it does, you better hope that lead you have is big enough to withstand what’s coming.

For No. 5-seed West Virginia, it was not. With 11 minutes left on Friday night in Boston’s TD Garden, the Mountaineers led 60-54 and had seemingly wrestled control of the game from the No. 1-seed in the East Region. Less than five minutes later, after the Wildcats hit four of their next five threes, Villanova had taken a 76-66 lead by going on a 22-6 run, and West Virginia was never able to recover.

Jalen Brunson led the way for the top-seeded Wildcats with 27 points and four assists while Omari Spellman finished with 18 points, eight boards and three blocks and Mikal Bridges chipped in with 16 points despite playing relatively poorly — by his standards — on Friday.

With a 90-78 win, Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight and a date with the winner of tonight’s game No. 2 Purdue-No. 3 Texas Tech.

That’s the way that it works with this Villanova team. Armed with the most potent, high-volume three-point shooting attack in college basketball — maybe in the history of college basketball — fans of their opponents are just waiting for the inevitable.

On Friday night, Villanova shot 13-for-24 from three, which is damned-impressive and exactly what we expect at the same time.

But what changed the game was that 22-6 run that eventually turned into a 29-11 surge.

And it all started with a free throw.

Brunson drew a foul on Lamont West — a common theme for the Wildcats in the second half — and got to the foul line with 10:58 left on the clock. After he missed the second free throw, Spellman knocked the rebound out of bounds off of Esa Ahmad. Brunson against drew a foul, this time earning an and-one. A missed jumper from Beetle Bolden led to two Eric Paschall free throws before Jalen Brunson someone managed to find Mikal Bridges for a three that gave the Wildcats the lead and led to what might have been the most important sequence of the game.

Spellman spiked a Bolden shot straight down into the floor and then corralled the loose ball. He found Phil Booth with an outlet, and after a missed layup, Spellman beat everyone else down the floor for a massive tip-dunk that set off the Villanova-favored crowd:

“We expect that of him,” Brunson said of Spellman. “He’s supposed to play at a high level every game.”

After that stretch, Villanova threw it into cruise control. That West Virginia defense that had bothered them so much for the first 30 minutes of the game seemed to be nothing more than a mild annoyance, a little brother batting at the ball as the Wildcats pulled away. First it was Donte Divincenzo — who was flat-out bad, the player that was most-victimized by West Virginia’s pressure — hitting a three to push the lead to six. Then after two West Virginia free throws, Brunson dribbled Jevon Carter into the post before kicking the ball out to Spellman for a three. Paschall would dunk on Sagaba Konate the next time the Wildcats had the ball before Brunson capped the run by drilling a step-back three in the face of Carter.

Once that happened, everyone knew the end result was inevitable.

“We got used to the physicality, we got used to the aggressiveness, and we were executing better,” head coach Jay Wright said. “We thought that was going to be the case. You just can’t simulate that, you know. You got to just get in that game and feel it.”

“I have so much respect for the way West Virginia plays, how physical, how relentless they play, how mentally tough they are. Really, you’ve got guys, they don’t talk any junk. A little with Konate and Omari got into it a little bit, no biggie, but the whole game, they don’t say anything. They just come at you physically, aggressively, and mentally tough. So if you’re not better in those areas, they’re going to get you. And to see our guys come out, more to be able to compete with them physically and mentally, it was really impressive to me.”

Me, too.